Mississippi John Hurt

By: Jacob Mikanowski
March 8, 2014


“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”


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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HiLo Heroes, Music