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Feature Review: Mississippi John Hurt, Discovery: The Rebirth of John Hurt, March 3, 1963

Mississippi John Hurt
Discovery: The Rebirth of John Hurt, March 3, 1963
[Spring Fed Records (2011)]

Discovery: The Rebirth of John Hurt, March 3, 1963 is an extraordinary album that tells its own story but also has a fascinating history, and it’s one of the most extraordinary folk or blues releases of the year.

There’s not room or need here to repeat the entire story told in the extensive liner notes, but, briefly, in 1963, Tom Hoskins, a young fan of the blues from Washington, DC followed the biographical clues in Mississippi John Hurt‘s lyrics (“Avalon Blues”) and on a strong hunch drove down to Avalon, Mississippi. Finding Hurt was surprisingly easy once he arrived in town, and set up a reel to reel in Hurt’s living room and handed the old blues man a guitar. Hoskins was principally responsible for bringing convincing Hurt to come back to the east coast afterward.

What’s amazing is not just that Hurt was able to play the guitar with most of his old skill despite not holding one for many years, or even that the 15-minute interview after the first song contains important biographical information told in Hurt’s own voice, but that the tapes reveal details of Hurt’s home life and indeed everything about that March day in 1963: The tape rolls, and there’s no attempt to edit out anything: people come and go; Hurt’s cold gets the best of him and he’s unable to sing by the last several songs; his family, including Hurt’s first wife Gertrude, joins in (which, later, created no small number of copyright issues, the reason the recording is only now being released). It’s nevertheless pristine for a field recording, with Hurt’s vocals balanced well with the guitar.

Too many details on the individual songs would spoil the listener’s own discovery experience, but it’s enough to say that many of Hurt’s important songs are here: “Nobody’s Business,” “Stack O’Lee,” “Candy Man” (an uncommon version of this song), and more. Notably, “Avalon Blues,” the song that led Hoskins to Hurt’s door, is not included here. The recording comes to an end when Hurt has to go feed the cows.

Anyone with even a passing interest in Mississippi John Hurt, folk blues, or field recordings is sure to find much to love about this historical record.

—Jack Hunter

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