Mississippi John Hurt

The last few days I’ve been listening to the music of Mississippi John Hurt. It’s so rhythmic, so understated, it has an almost hypnotic effect, like voodoo drums. It’s good time music, and I go away elated, feeling better. There’s a lot more about it than first meets the ear. The more you listen, the more you hear.

John Hurt (1893-1966) was a labourer who spent his life working on farms at Avalon, Carroll County Mississippi USA, a town with a population of less than 100 people. As a child he taught himself to play guitar, played for his own enjoyment and that of his neighbours, in the 20s went to the city to make some shellac 78 rpm discs which went nowhere, acquired the sobriquet ‘Mississippi’ which was a very good idea, and was discovered in 1963, three years before his death, in one of the peaks of interest in folk music, and hailed as one of the world’s greatest guitarists. He made half a dozen recordings before his death, toured extensively, and has been venerated ever since as a master.

Hurt had an unusual playing style for his time, playing rhythm on the bass strings of the guitar with his thumb and forefinger while picking out the melody on the treble strings with his other three fingers. It’s a bit like a stride piano style applied to guitar. While I don’t believe the story about Andres Segovia, when the Spanish master, born in the same year, also self taught but much more famous, was said to have asked a friend who played one of Hurt’s records for him who the other guitarist on the record was, it’s a good story and bears repetition. I don’t believe it simply because Segovia, who could play flamenco guitar, was capable of the same dexterity himself. It was, however, unusual at one time for an untutored Negro musician playing blues music. Not any longer of course, as a lot of players have listened to Hurt’s recordings and he has become one of the most influential of all guitarists.

The music he played was for ‘socials’, which might have been a gathering of gossips on the porch of Avalon’s general store, or a party on Saturday night. Hurt played what the people wanted to hear. Like a lot of folk musicians he played his own versions of songs, ones he’d learned from records or other singers and added verses he thought were good, or where he couldn’t remember the original words. The songs shouldn’t be categorised as blues. As soon as you listen to any of the famous bluesmen you find they played blues and a lot of other material as well. I have a CD of Big Bill Broonzy singing Bill Bailey Won’t You Please Come Home. Hurt played You Are My Sunshine, Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight, Shortnin’ Bread and Ledbelly’s Irene Goodnight, but also ‘spirituals’ like Nearer My God To Thee and Since I Laid My Burden Down. He is at his best in narrative ‘ballads’ like Stagger Lee or Casey Jones. Perhaps it’s best to see the music as popular music from another age, from as far away as the turn of the twentieth century. Even when Hurt played the blues it was funky goodtime music. The blues makes you feel better when you feel down, but Hurt just loved the music, you can hear it in his voice, and he wanted to share that feeling.
He was the most unpretentious of musicians, seeing nothing remarkable in his achievement, willing to please the rather solemn folklorists who were first interested in his music as generously as he had played requested songs at dances all his life. The celebrity circuit of his last few years, the plaudits and renown, didn’t seem to touch him. Perhaps by the time you turn 70 you realise it doesn’t mean as much as giving the people a good time. I really like the voice, sonorous, clear and on the note, the accent adding a bit of colour. It’s a kind voice, as his face is a kind face. He’s my idea of what an angel might be like.

Thanks again John. One of those who gave more than they got.

Here’s Mississippi John Hurt playing for you.
Walk That Lonesome Valley http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v-GN-BP_Qlk
Spike Driving song http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BvRxA8gR7bw
Staggerlee http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T8S-Pu6T0Q0
Staggerlee http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4scedJs6hC8
I’m Satisfied http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_5Emb0bi0n4

Let’s hear it for Wilbert Harrison. His version of Staggerlee led the way for Lloyd Price, the Isley Brothers, Wilson Pickett. Before you know it we have soul music.


Not forgetting Taj Mahal’s tribute to the Mississippi John Hurt version. Elvis, the Grateful Dead… Here’s a man who’s inspired almost everyone.

©2010 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


( Spoken:) Stagger Lee was a desperator; and  you know, Stagger Lee, him and his partners arrived, robbed the coal mine one time. Get me right. Alright, they goes down in the coal mine. The boys had got paid off and havin’ a little game. Money all over the flo. Stagger Lee and his partner got himself placed. He says  Hey, boys. They said, Yeah? Said What if ole Stagger Lee and them was to walk in here? One guy, Billy DeLyon had stoled his Stetson hat and he thought everything was alright. Didn’t make any difference if it was Billy DeLyon. He picked up a 44. He says, Ahhh.  Says, His gun  won’t, Stagger Lee’s gun won’t shoot a bit harder than this! ‘Bout that time, Stagger Lee’s partner knocked his hat off with a bullet. He got his nerve and he dropped his gun. This guy, he had a wife and two children. He commenced beggin’. “Please don’t take my life. I got two little babes and a darlin’ lovin’ wife” Oh yeah? Another guy went to take it up, you see? See what I mean? He reached for his gun, bullet centered him right between the eyes. Alright, that settled him! When they got the money and was going on, Stag’s partner was cryin’. He says, Oh, you got weak. He says, Naw, I’m not weak. Yes, you are, says, You cryin’ cause you killed that man! He says, Naw. He say, I’m not cryin’ cause I killed that man. He says, Yes you are! Say , well what’re you cryin’ ‘bout? He said, I missed my shot! He hit him between the eyes, he intended to hit him right in that right eye!



Police and officer, how can it be

G                                  D

You arrest everybody but cruel Stagger Lee

A                  D

That bad man, Oh cruel Stagger Lee

Stagger Lee, please don’t take my life

Says I got two little babes

And a darlin’ lovin’ wife

That bad man, Oh cruel Stagger Lee

What I care ‘bout your two little babes

Darlin’ lovin’ wife?

Says, you done stole my Stetson hat

I’m bound to take your life

He’s a bad man, Oh cruel Stagger Lee

Boom Boom Boom Boom with a forty-four

Bullets fired, poor Billy DeLyon

He’s lyin’ down in the flo’

That bad man, Oh cruel Stagger Lee

Gentlemen of the jury, what you think of that?

Says Stagger Lee killed Billy DeLyon

‘Bout a five dollar Stetson hat

He’s a bad man, Oh cruel Stagger Lee

Standin’ on the gallows Stagger Lee did cuss

The judge says, “Let’s kill him

Before he kills some of us!”

He’s a bad man, Oh cruel Stagger Lee

Standin’ on the gallows , head way up high

At twelve o’clock they killed him

They’s all glad to see him die

He’s a bad man, Oh cruel Stagger Lee


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