Discovery – The Rebirth of Mississippi John Hurt

Title: Discovery – The Rebirth of Mississippi John Hurt, March 3, 1963

Artist: Mississippi John Hurt

Label: Spring Fed Records

Catalog No.: SFR-108

Format: CD

Release Date: October 4, 2011

Discovery–The Rebirth of Mississippi John Hurt is an incredible audio documentary, captured by a portable Ampex consumer-grade reel to reel recorder as white blues enthusiast Tom Hoskins  “rediscovers” the bluesman on March 3, 1963―35 years after Hurt’s last commercial recording.  Hurt subsequently became a darling of the college campus and coffeehouse “folk blues” circuit in the mid-60s. He died in November, 1966.

As the well-written and illustrated booklet tells the story, Hoskins and his fellow Washington D.C. blues fans and collectors were especially fond of Hurt’s 1928 recordings (a total of 12 sides) made for the Okeh label.  Hoskins came to realize that Hurt’s last recording, “Avalon Blues,” was an homage to his hometown in Mississippi.  Hoskins, an adventurous 22-year-old, tossed his tape recorder into a borrowed Volkswagon Beetle and headed south. He later rolled up to Stinson’s store in Avalon and politely asked where he might find Hurt.  To his surprise, he was given directions right to the man’s house.

As night fell on Saturday, March 2, 1963, Hoskins knocked on the door of a 3-room shack in a field. Hurt opened the door, identified himself, and his career as a professional musician began again.  Hoskins came back the next day and recorded Hurt playing music and answering questions for 2 hours.  Hurt’s wife, Jessie, contributed answers during interviews and prompted Hurt for memories and stories. Their humorous interplay adds to the interview’s value.

Unfortunately, Hurt suffered from a cold, so this is not his finest musical moment, but he plays and sings quite well if one hears this as a field recording, a documentary of a very special day. The sound quality is remarkable considering the primitive recorder and the age of the tapes.  Hurt sounds very comfortable, surrounded by his family and in his home, which happened to have electricity and was therefore a suitable recording venue. As the day wore on, Hurt was joined by more family and friends and the impromptu sing-along and story-telling kicked up another notch. Hurt, his wife, his ex-wife and her sister also sing some spirituals (it was, after all, Sunday when these recordings were made).

Aside from being a worthy historical document, this CD is charming and entertaining. Hurt and his music always resonated well with white audiences, some say because his mellow and humorous personality was non-threatening.  Captured here in his element, with Hoskins the only white person in the room, we hear that this was his natural demeanor―he really was relaxed, gentle and prone to laughter. Hurt’s musical prowess is undeniable, and his songs seem ageless. Highly recommended.

This clip shows both the excellent playing and Hurt’s quiet and humorous personality:

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Here’s another one, showing how he went more folk-centric for the white audiences:

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Reviewed by Tom Fine