Friday, June 16, 2017

The Afterlife of John Hurt - 1976

c. Gary Tennant

David Brown
Greenwood Commonwealth 1976

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Hurt recorded two songs in Memphis in February, 1928, the day before Willie Narmour and Shell Smith made their first recordings. Hurt's two were -Frankie" and "Nobody's Dirty Business," and they were the only ones Okeh would release. He was paid about $20 per song which, according to a researcher at the Library of Congress's Archive of Folk Song, was not a bad fee for untested musical talent at that time. John Hurt's records, however, sold in the hundreds, not in the thousands, according to a person who has traced his career. And a man who once helped manage him after his rediscovery commented simply, "they had no effect on his life. He was never a professional and it never occurred to him to be a professional." Hurt continued to play his music—almost every Saturday night, his wife remembers—in Avalon, Carrollton and Greenwood, never far from home. He was paid $5 per party, sometimes more. In about 1945, he moved onto property owned by A. R. Perkins, a teacher of vocational agriculture at the consolidated school in the Valley community. He farmed and tended cows on the place, living in a small house which still stands about a hundred yards off the road.

c. Gary Tennant
JOHN HURT WAS HEARD by a mass audience for the first time when two of his original recordings, "Frankie" and a variation on the John Henry story called "Spike Driver Blues," were released in 1952 as part of Folkways Record's American Folk Music anthology. From those two songs he acquired a circle of admirers who listened for the secret of the marvelous finger picking of a man they thought was dead. Sometime in either 1962 or 1963, the publisher of a magazine called Bluegrass Unlimited played a tape of the original Okeh recordings for a young folk music enthusiast named Richard Spottswood, who was then working the library at American University in Washington. They heard "Avalon Blues." The singer was Mississippi John Hurt, and Spottswood remembers that "I said, let's look at an atlas and see if we can see if there's a place called Avalon, Mississippi. And if we hadn't found it, there's no way in the world he would ever have been seen by people other than the ones who lived around him.- Spottswood had a friend named Tom Hoskins, a guitarist in his early 20s who had heard the Folkways cuts but not the tape, who was heading for Mardi Gras in a few weeks. He mentioned the Avalon connection to him. Spottswood remembers: "It was an interesting conjecture, it was not a discovery at this time. As far as I was concerned it was too good to be true. So many things could have happened, he could be dead, he could have moved away, just about anything. It was a long time after the fact to go down and find him sitting on his front porch waiting for someone to come by and pick up on him. And even if he was still there, there was no guarantee he could still be able to play." Hoskins gave it a try, making his way to Stinson & Co. at the foot of the Delta where he asked for Mississippi John Hurt. He was directed up the hill. Hoskins returned to Washington with a tape, a veritable Tutankamen of a tape, the singing of a legend. It was a tape, and a secret, worth its weight in gold.

HURT'S ASSET'S WERE NOT JUST his music, though, with the folk music boom well underway, there is no doubt the music alone could have made him, or someone else, a lot of money. His was a story which would become a classic in the business. Spottswood explains: "Hurt wasn't just a good musician, he had something which was very important in the 1960s. He had old record credentials and he had been a legend for years. The myth was accessible instantly and he had the music to back it up. In fact, it was impossible to lose"—and then he adds—"but everybody did.- But if everybody lost, neither Spottswood nor Hoskins could have predicted it when they drove back to Mississippi from Washington several weeks after the discovery. There secret was still a secret, and on March 15. 1963, John Hurt signed an a five-year contract with Music Research, Inc., a corporation they had formed March 11 to promote his music. The company would have exclusive rights to make recordings of his music or contract with other companies to make them, and exclusive rights to manage his performances. The company would get 50 per cent of "all gross compensation received by Artist from all sources as a result of Artist's professional activities." If he made more than $500 in the first five years of the contract, it would automatically be extended for another five years under the same terms.

A lawyer and folk enthusiast in Philadelphia who later functioned as Hurt's lawyer, and still watches over Jessie Hurt's royalty income for free, explained that the 50 per cent clause of the contract was the going rate for "unknown, unproved talent." It was a category which the legendary singer technically fit into, though his potential to draw crowds, sell records and make money was certainly far greater than your average "unknown talent." He didn't need any public relations. Time, Newsweek and the New York Times carried stories about him, as did folk music magazines. The line was predictable: out of the bowels of Mississippi a genius had been recovered, and they were complete with inaccurate comparisons of the pay he made in his semi-retirement here and the weekly check he got for performing in Washington coffee houses. A broad smile under a brown hat he had bought years before became his trademark. He made intermittent trips back to Avalon, but after giving the most spectacular performance in the history of the Newport Folk Festival that summer, he, his wife and two grandchildren moved to Washington. They lived on Rhode Island Avenue NW. Music Research put out several records in those first few years. At some point, however, a disagreement arose between Spottswood and Hoskins. There was a lawsuit between them, Spottswood separated from the company and Hoskins was left as the sole manager.

FOR ALL THE POTENTIAL, things were not going well, and so Hoskins was receptive when Vanguard Recording Society suggested in November, 1965, that he might do better if he shared Hurt's talent with another company. Vanguard had a reputation for producing high quality recordings of extremely talented folk singers. With its prestige and resources pushing a couple of good studio pressings, Hoskins figured he could make money through the back door, following them up with records produced by his own company. According to his account, he told a company official he would consider letting Vanguard make no more than two John Hurt records. On Nov. 30, however, Vanguard signed a contract with Hurt to produce at least two long-playing sides, and more at its option. The contract was to last a little over two years. It included a clause saying he agreed not to perform for the purpose of making records for any other company during the time of the contract and the five years that followed it. "You acknowledge that your services are unique and extraordinary," the paragraph ended. 

In a court document filed later, Hoskins said he did not know of the contract. He said he expected to get one from Vanguard sometime that month but got nothing, not even notification that Hurt had formally signed with the company. But because he was not going to get any money out of the arrangement he had informally agreed to, Hoskins did not protest when the record "Mississippi John Hurt Today" came out on the Vanguard label in 1966. As a skirmish between promoters began to take shape, people who knew and loved Hurt as a peaceable and self-effacing man complained in hushed tones to each other that he was being managed poorly and treated badly. One person who knew him from soon after his discovery until his death felt the original contract with Music Research was "unconscionable," considering the obvious market for his music the moment he was found to still be alive. Others felt he was either being worked too hard for a man in his mid-70s or managed inefficiently. One man recalls that Hurt himself told him once that he was unsatisfied, and toward the end of his life a friend unconnected with either Vanguard or Music Research even booked a few performances for him. Hurt was a heavy smoker with a history of heart trouble, and in cuts made in July, 1966 he can be heard breathing with difficulty. Soon afterward, he and his family moved back to Mississippi, settling in Grenada, not Avalon. He died there on Nov. 2, 1966. Vanguard put out a second record the year after his death. With the release of a third in 1971 and a fourth in 1972, Hoskins declared war. He claimed the contract was illegal, that it made his tapes and plans to make records from them worthless, and that Vanguard had been so deceptive as to record, without Hurt's knowledge, a live performance at Oberlin College and release it under the tile "The Best of Mississippi John Hurt." Music Research and the company which agreed to make its records filed suit against Vanguard and the man who helped set up original agreement. The plaintiffs demanded $500,000 in actual and punitive damages from each defendant. Several months ago a New York court awarded Hoskins's company $275,000 in damages. The case is on appeal. 

JESSE LEE HURT, arthritic and barely able to walk, still lives with her two grandchildren in an apartment in Grenada. Sales of her husband's records have fallen off in recent years. Her royalties for half of 1972 were about $2,500, compared to $500 for half of last year. She has his hat and one of his old guitars. Two of his other instruments, including one the Guild company custom-built and gave to him, are owned by musicians in the North and West. Several years ago her only copy of one of the original Okeh records was stolen. The intentional or accidental exploitation of folk musicians, especially black ones, is a classic if not particularly well documented story of the 20th Century. At times it even seems inevitable—the dark by-product of the isolation and ingenuousness which bred the music and has kept it alive. Today, popular musicians survive on press agentry, the skill of their recording companies and the advice of lawyers and investment counselors as much as they survive on their native talents. Rock groups threaten to smash their guitars or walk out the back door if they don't have their $100,000 check before the house lights go down. Anyone who even passed John Hurt on the street and said good morning to him could see that he was born of another era.

Whether he was a victim of some manner of exploitation is, of course, a matter of opinion, differing opinion, to be precise. Even if he was, the source of a certain amount of it was in the circumstances. "In retrospect, he never should have left Mississippi. He was too old to make that transition, and too vulnerable," Spottswood said recently. Jessie Hurt's explanation was simpler: "By rights, you know, John went into this when he ought've been coming out." Undeniably, a large number of people, who ranged from having much to nothing to gain from his success, showed him the kindness and trust which was one of his characteristics.They adjusted their lives to accommodate him, as he had adjusted his own. John Hurt died happy. The rancor which grew up around his musical career never included him and luckily did not blossom until after his death. He is buried in Carroll County, "right across over there in the woods a couple of miles. You couldn't find it with a helicopter," A. R. Perkins said, pointing north from his house. And, indeed, he was right—it took me three trips, the last with a guide, to find the grave. John Hurt used to have a saying—"I don't like no confusion." You can hear it in his music, you could sense it in his life and you can feel it in the place where he chose to rest.

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