John Hurt: Last Chord Diminished

What the writer of this smart alek article seems to be unaware of is that those other electric bands rode to fame on the likes of John Hurt's back. He trivializes the social networks that collected the 78s, searched for the singers, brought them to light--and to some money--in the cloistered little bubble of an 'inner' folk world, and made them an enduring symbol of passive resistance against oppression, without ever having to mention the word. He's right about the stoicism. Some of his statements are factually incorrect."

--- Andrew Cohen

John Hurt: Last Chord Diminished 
By John Lombardi - Louisville Courier-Post - June 4, 1967

Mississippi John Hurt is dead. And this is a delayed-reaction post modem. Which is okay because a lot of things that happened to the 72-year-old blues singer were "delayed."

Like his success.

A folklore enthusiast and writer, Tom Hoskins, found him cleaning out a livery stable near his home town of Avalon, Miss., back in 1960. He persuaded John to journey up to the Newport Folk Festival that year and perform for the then-burgeoning crowd of "authentic" blues and country music purists who were beginning to create the market that has boomed and died since.

"Electrified Critics"

John went up, with a borrowed guitar, and didn't exactly electrify the audience. He "electrified" a small nucleus of critics, writers who were influential later in folk music publications like "Sing Out" and "The Little Sandy Review," and who "interpreted" John's worth for the new record buyers.

He caught on slowly but surely, until it was suddenly very "in" to dig his intricate finger-picking and gentle blues vocals. That was in 1963-65.

Then he began to subside, like unamplified folk music generally, and to give way to post-hip electric-rock and acid-rock blues groups like the Paul Butterfield Band, the Blues Project, and later the Mothers of Invention and the Lovin' Spoonful.

"Albums Sold Well"

By 1966 when most of the "new" folk clubs around the country were regularly booking rock, John was still appearing but not really "drawing."

But his four albums had sold well, and his appearances guaranteed him an income for the rest of his life.

John had cut records earlier, back in the 20s and early 30s for old labels like Caedmon and Bluebird, and he'd been praised then as a "natural virtuoso," but with the Depression, money to buy such luxuries as records dried up. Especially among rural and urban Negro audiences.

"Success Fades"

(Real collectors, with the money to spend, were able to go on buying blues records and tapes, but they didn't constitute a large enough public to sustain too many careers.)

So after a brief period of comparative success, John faded back into rural Avalon.

One groovy thing about him was an ability to ride-with-it. He had a kind of easy-going stoicism, an ability to bend without breaking—and bend pretty far. He smiled it at you—you couldn't miss it.



"Just Make 'Em Up"

And John didn't consider him-self any guitar virtuoso. He made up a lot of the chords he played, and his chord progressions could get rather obviously repetitious, even to an inexperienced blues listener.

"I just make 'em up (chords) and fit 'em in where they sound right," he told an interviewer last year.

He always liked to tell it like it was.

One night at the 2nd Fret in Philadelphia, during the height of his popularity, he looked down from the tiny wooden stage at a ringside couple and smiled; "I seen trouble all my days." Then he sang "I Love My Baby By the Lovin' Spoonful," and you knew he wasn't jiving.

"Like the Janitor"

He'd come in a short time before, a little early, to catch the end of Jesse Colin Young's act. Jesse, at the time, was a rising young folk star and, for my money, the best of the white blues singers.

John had on a wrinkled old see-through white shirt, baggy, street-colored pants and his ever-present, turned-down, flop-felt hat. He looked like the janitor.

He came sidling in, slowly, along the wall, then worked himself as unobtrusively as possible past some ringside customers and settled in a corner.

"Encounter Angers Patron"
Courier Post, Jan 14, 1967.


Before getting to his seat though. John stepped on a man's foot. The guy was with his wife, and they were both in their late 20s with lank, pale hair and blue eyes and just in from Narberth or Bryn Mawr or St. David's to see the great John Hurt.

The man winced and kind of drew back, then exchanged a look with his wife that might have meant nothing more than "my foot hurts," but looked more like "who is that damned black janitor anyway?"

John didn't say "excuse me" or anything, and the man went on looking outraged and kept casting furious glances at him for the rest of the act, until some people sitting behind him noticed who it was and began whispering: "That's Mississippi John Hurt, John Hurt, Hurt, Hurt, Hurt . . ." just like Tom Wolfe says they always do.

Got a Light?

The outraged guy was shocked.

John stood up, still smiling from Jesse's fine blues, and fished a cigarette out of his shirt pocket. Then he began fumbling for a match.

He wasn't fast enough.

The guy from Narberth or Bryn Mawr stuck a lighter in his face and offered, with bounteous good-fellowship and the-proper-amount-of-respect-for-such-a-really-great-artist: "Here John, I've got your light."

Hurt was grinning as he accepted.

Popular Posts