Album Review

Mississippi John Hurt - Rediscovered

Mississippi John Hurt - Rediscovered

In Peter Guralnick's Feel Like Going Home, Dick Waterman, onetime manager of Skip James and John Hurt, recalled James' dismissal of Hurt's music: "It was play-party, ball-less, pleasant music...but not to be taken seriously as great blues." Similarly, critics struggling to place Hurt within the blues tradition often fall back upon descriptive terms such as "gentle," "sweet," "passive," "non-threatening." In a word, Hurt is soft -- a label as damning in latter-day blues as it is in modern-day hip-hop. What few remember is that Hurt was 34 at the time of his first Okeh session, markedly older than most recorded country-blues performers of the '20s. As Ed Ward argues in his liner notes to Rediscovered, Hurt's music is best described as pre-blues, owing as much to ragtime and the "songster" tradition as to his Delta-area contemporaries. In fact, his guitar style -- marked by complex fingerings, gentle syncopation, melodic lift and a rolling tone -- seems all but unique; Hurt acknowledged few influences, instead demurring, "I just make it sound the way I think it ought to." This unassuming originality extends into his songwriting and choice of standards. Rediscovered cherry-picks from Hurt's Vanguard catalog, beginning with "Coffee Blues", a tribute to the beneficent powers of Maxwell House coffee, and closing with as loving and tender a "Goodnight Irene" as you're likely to hear. Throughout, the material reflects a sense of abiding, the easy confidence of a life lived contentedly within limits. Further highlights include "Avalon, My Home Town", a homesick ballad written while Hurt was recording in New York, and his cautionary take on "Stagolee", devoid of the number's usual trickster mythopoeia. Recent reissues of Hurt's Okeh sessions on Avalon Blues and Harry Smith's Anthology have refocused attention on the artist's earliest recordings. But Hurt's strengths -- delicacy, restraint, a playful warmth and rhythmic assurance -- merely deepened and matured over a lifetime of obscurity. Recorded more than 30 years after his artistic debut, Hurt's Vanguard sides represent his creative peak; and though I've long cherished his Last Sessions, this set, with its 20-bit mastering and choice material, is near essential as music -- if not blues.