“Mississippi” John Smith Hurt (ca. 1892-1966)

"Mississippi" John Smith Hurt
Image courtesy Mary Hurt-Wright and Mississippi Hurt Museum/Foundation

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Born in Teoc, Mississippi in 1892 but raised in Avalon, Mississippi, “Mississippi” John Hurt spent the majority of his life employed as a farm hand. Though he briefly recorded in the 1920s, it was not until the 1960s that his music was widely distributed and recognized. Hurt was known for his humble nature and his unique, soft style of blues.

After picking up a guitar in 1903, Hurt began casually playing ragtime music at parties as an aside to his life of manual labor. In 1923, Hurt joined Willie Narmour, a white fiddle player, and acted as rhythm keeper for square dances. He was subsequently recommended to Tommy Rockwell of the OKeh Record Company by Narmour and in 1928, 13 songs by Hurt were released in “The Complete 1928 OKeh Recordings.” “Mississippi” was added to John Hurt’s name as a marketing gimmick.

After recording for OKeh, Hurt returned to Avalon. He worked for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the 1930s and continued farming until the 1960s. In the early 1950s, Folkways Records re-released two of Hurt’s 78 songs as part of its American Folk Music series. Though most fans who head these re-released recordings believed Hurt to be dead, the folklorist Tom Hoskins took a clue from Hurt’s song “Avalon Blues” and tracked John Hurt to Avalon, a town so small that it no longer appeared on contemporary maps in a 19th century atlas.

In 1963, Hurt performed at the Newport Folk Festival and the Philadelphia Folk Festival, where he was received as a living legend. Standing in sharp contrast to the rough and tumble blues musicians also ‘rediscovered’ during the Folk Revival of the 1950s and 1960s, such as Son House and Skip James, Hurt was known for his gentle nature and his soft, articulate songs. He was particularly well known for “Frankie,” “Avalon Blues,” “Candy Man Blues” and “Stack O’ Lee Blues.” Hurt recorded a number of studio and live albums from 1963 to 1966, though he died before he saw the release of his final sessions in the studio. The album was released posthumously in 1972 and titled, “Last Sessions.”

John Hurt died in his sleep in Grenada, Mississippi on November 2, 1966. He was 74 years old.