Mississippi John Hurt
By: Jacob Mikanowski | Categories: HiLo Heroes

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“Avalon, my home town, always on my mind. Pretty mama’s in Avalon, want me there all the time.” If it weren’t for these words, sung on a rare 1928 record from the Okeh Label, MISSISSIPPI JOHN HURT (1892 [maybe]–1966), the great master of the Delta and country blues, might never have been rediscovered. The Avalon in the song is a Mississippi hamlet so obscure that, by 1963 — the year folkie Tom Hoskins went looking for Hurt — it wasn’t even on the map. When Hoskins, who’d heard Hurt’s songs included on the 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music collection, knocked on his cabin door, Hurt — who’d worked as a sharecropper until the late 1920s, when he recorded a few modestly successful records, then returned to obscurity during the Depression — assumed it was government agents looking to arrest him for moonshining. Hurt’s career thus recapitulated the mystery of the blues in miniature: How could such a tough, urbane, modern art come out of a place as far out of the way as the Delta? How could someone so far on the fringes of even the Delta create such a singular style? When Hurt plays the guitar each note is clear and bright. His blues sound so easy, like children’s melodies, but they’re all but impossible to duplicate. Such a sweet sound, such a gentle voice… and, if you listen to the words, so much delicate menace.

“You Got to Walk That Lonesome Valley”

“Make Me a Pallet on the Floor”

“Stagger Lee”

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On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Leslie Fiedler, Jonathan Williams, Richard Fariña.

READ MORE about members of the Modernist Generation (1884–93).

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Jacob Mikanowski is a writer and historian based in Chicago. He writes about movies, books, and Europe east of the Rhine.