Mississippi John Hurt: A journey through blues and folk revival

Mississippi John Hurt could have become a totally obscure figure, but the folk and blues revival movement helped assure we could hear his tunes and read his name today.
Mississippi John Hurt  and Brownie Mcghee At Newport Folk Festival
Mississippi John Hurt and Brownie Mcghee At Newport Folk Festival / John Byrne Cooke Estate/GettyImages

Mississippi John Hurt, an American musician, was known for his contributions as a country blues singer and guitarist. Born on July 3, 1892, in Teoc, Mississippi, and died on November 2, 1966, Hurt is one of those musicians who gained success later on in life, though he did have an interesting career shortly after emerging from relative obscurity.

To indicate what era he started in, the liner notes to the album Avalon Blues: The Complete 1928 Okeh Recordings say Mr. Hurt had been asked to tour with a "medicine show," where fake doctors would try to sell people phony "miracle cures" for ailments, often joined by entertainers (musicians, ventriloquists, "freak show" performers, flea circuses, etc.). As with folk musician Clarence Ashley (who actually had performed at medicine shows), Hurt's music career gained recognition during the folk music revival of the 1960s.

He was rediscovered by folk music enthusiasts Dick Spottswood and Tom Hoskins, in the early 1960s, decades after his initial recording career in the 1920s. They even persuaded him to move to Washington, D.C., where he was recorded by the Library of Congress in 1964. Mississippi John Hurt's style was characterized by his fingerpicking guitar technique and a gentle, melodic voice. Hurt explained his approach simply: “I taught myself to play the guitar the way I thought the guitar should sound.”

Missisippi John Hurt songs

Some of his well-known recorded songs include “C.C. Rider,” (sometimes called "See See Rider" or "Easy Rider"), the innuendo-coated "Candy Man Blues," "Stack O' Lee Blues" (or "Stagger Lee"), and "Frankie."

Hurt's music had a significant impact on the folk and blues scenes, and he became an influential figure during the folk revival era. He had even appeared on Johnny Carson’s "Tonight Show" (though I could not find any footage of his appearance online). His songs have been covered by numerous artists, contributing to the enduring legacy of his work in American music. Those artists include Bob Dylan, Dave Van Ronk, Jerry Garcia, Beck, Doc Watson, John McCutcheon, Taj Mahal, and many others.

More quick facts about Mississippi John Hurt

  • He died in 1966, aged 73, shortly after his rediscovery.
  • Bill Morrissey's 1999 album, Songs of Mississippi John Hurt, was nominated for a Grammy for "Best Traditional Folk Album."
  • For greatest hits albums, you might want to go with The Best of Mississippi John Hurt, a live recording from Oberlin College, April 15, 1965 (Vanguard Records), or American Epic: The Best of Mississippi John Hurt, from 2017 (released by Sony Legacy to coincide with the "American Epic" documentary series).

More music news and analysis