Sunday, March 04, 2012

The Re-Discovery Recordings of Mississippi John Hurt

The year 2011 brought a number of new biographies of blues legends including Phillip R. Radcliffe’s Mississippi John Hurt: His Life, His Times, His Blues (University Press of Mississippi). Hurt made some recordings for Okeh Records in 1928, some of which were reissued on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. Tom Hoskins, a member of Washington DC area record collectors, headed towards Avalon, Mississippi, 35 years later on the hunch that Avalon, Mississippi” which Hurt sang about in Avalon Blues, might be Hurt’s home. Hoskins’ journey to the Delta proved fruitful as Hoskins located the legendary recording artist which led to his relocation for several year to the North and what would be three years of celebrity and fame as one of the great rediscovered blues artists.

Hoskins recorded and interviewed Hurt at the time of the discover on March 3, 1963. These recordings have just been issued on a fascinating new release on Spring Fed Records, Discovery: The Rebirth of Mississippi John Hurt. Wonderfully remastered the CD has 19 tracks including a previously unissued and lengthy interview where Hurt and his wife talks about his early life and recordings, and life after those recordings. It opens with Hoskins introducing Hurt who plays a deft instrumental, presumably as a test, which he names after he finishes Cow Hookin’ Blues.

Many of the songs will be familiar to Hurt’s many fans including Stack’O’Lee, Coffee Blues (known also as A Spoonful Blues), Richland Woman Blues, Candy Man, Spike Driver Blues, and Louis Collins. His playing is facile although the field tape recording make sound a little bit muffled (especially his vocals as Hoskins seems to have miked the guitar better) and the guitar has a slightly harsh tone. Also one can hear folks shuffling in the background as well as hear livestock, such as a rooster crowing in the background of Let The Mermaids Flirt With Me, whose melody is taken from one of Jimmy Rogers’ blue yodels.

The limitations of the field recording though are minor and when folks like Dick Spottswood and Mike Stewart heard Hoskins’ tape, one can imagine the excitement the renditions of Nobody’s Business, and Casey Jones, engendered. Recording limitations aside, the renditions of Stack-O-Lee and Richland Woman Blues are superb. As noted on the back cover, he re-recorded some of his Okeh recordings as well as other songs that would become staples of his performances and be recorded by various labels) over the next three years. Also there were some religious songs like Do Lord, Remember Me, which his wife Jessie, joined by another woman, sings backed by Hurt’s guitar. Waiting For You, is a charming duet between Jessie and John.

Hurt biographer Radcliffe along with Bruce Nemerov wrote the very informative accompanying booklet that detail this recording and include some of the photographs Hoskins took of Hurt and his home community as well as from performances and old 78s. Radcliffe, Nemorov and Evan Hatch produced this marvelous and historically important release, that despite the unavoidable audio flaws, contains some marvelous music. This is not an essential recording, but those interested in Mississippi John Hurt will want to at least hear this and likely will be buying it.

I purchased this.

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