And you answer:
- Sonny Boy Williamson!
Right, that's not what our Regular Section of Introductory Songs with Homicidal Tendencies had in mind. Let's try again, shall we:
You: Buddy Guy! Important figure in the Chicago scene.
K.O.S.: (frowning) Blues!
You: Muddy Waters! 'Hoochie Coochie Man' and 'Got my Mojo Working'. Anything else?
K.O.S.: (getting more and more exasperated) Blues!
You: Robert Johnson! The blues Faust. Made a pact with the devil: 'I went to the crossroads, fell down on my knees/I went to the crossroads, fell down on my knees/I asked the Lord above, have mercy, save poor Bob if you please/Uumb, standing at the crossroads I tried to flag a ride/Standing at the crossroads I tried to flag a ride/Ain’t nobody seem to know me, everybody pass me by.'
K.O.S.: (almost screaming at the top of his lungs) Bluuuuuues!
You: (calm and composed): Howlin' 'six-foot-six almost three hundred pounds size seventeen shoes raging-chainsaw voice' Wolf, Elmore 'King of the Slide Guitar' James and John Lee 'I lent my "Boogie Chillun" to Led Zeppelin for their special BBC session "Whole Lotta Love" blues medley' Hooker.
K.O.S.: (Face red like a ripe tomato resembling one of Noel Coward's Englishmen) Right, you Mr/Miss/Mrs/Ms Wise, this is for you: Mississippi John Hurt.
You: What? Who? Where? When? Why?
K.O.S.: (smiling like a Cheshire cat) Yes, you heard me right. Mississippi John Hurt.
You: What the f...?
K.O.S.: Oi! Mind your language! No swearing on this blog, right? You don't know, do you? Sit down, dear and enjoy the ride.
In order to offer readers, fellow bloggers and followers a tasty three-course musical meal tonight Killer Opening Songs had to travel to the hill country town of Avalon, Mississippi. This, at the time K.O.S. visited it in the early 1920s, was a region without much importance beyond its own natural boundaries. The only note of interest was the railway going north towards Grenada. It was there that K.O.S. first came across Mississippi John Hurt's music, the artist featured tonight in our regular section. In a town whose inhabitants barely reached the hundred Hurt was the equivalent of a radio, or the as-yet-to-be-invented television.
There is a remarkable element in this musician's oeuvre. And it is the fact that he has always been classified as a folk singer. Now, there's nothing wrong with that label, as long as it is not detrimental and limiting to the artist, which, sadly, in John Hurt's case, is. This guitarist represented one of the rare examples of household music, that is, music performed by an amateur with no interest in financial gain. His art, as you will see from the clip shown below was non-conventional in that it employed no gimmicks and was not manipulative. John Hurt's music was as distant from self-pity or sexual innuendo as today most mainstream pop artists are from making good, challenging and meaningful music.
Although Mississippi worked the dance circuit, his music was not designed for public performance in the same way a Muddy Waters or Howlin' Wolf's song was. His was music to be listened to whilst chilling out and shooting the breeze, preferably whilst lying down on a hammock and downing a cold beer (you, not K.O.S., he is teetotal, so, maybe a cold lemonade would be better).
Mississippi John Hurt was born on 3rd July 1893. His dignity, humor, peculiar guitar style and tender, expressive voice made him the most popular artist of traditional country blues. Unfortunately he had to wait until the sixties to be 're-discovered'. Although John Hurt never pursued success he did land a recording session in New York in 1928 after an Okeh scout came to Avalon searching for new talents for Narmour and Smith. The depression in 1930s USA led to a reduction on the pressing of records and as a consequence Mississippi's promising start stalled. He went back to his farm where he lived quietly with his wife Jessie and their fourteen children. Then a few decades later the unexpected happened. Having heard and been impressed by 'Avalon, My Home Town', the folklorist Tom Hoskins decided to go and meet John Hurt in 1963. The result of that meeting was a revival of the forgotten musician's catalogue and public performances at the Newport Festival, college campuses and folk clubs in Washington D.C. followed.
Mississippi John Hurt died on 2nd November 1966, Grenada. He was probably one of the strongest and possibly the last link, in K.O.S.'s opinion, between the griot, the bard commonly found in West Africa and the nascent blues story-teller in the American South who had developed between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the twentieth. His amateurish yet very skillful approach to guitar-playing, his lack of a signature song and his emphasis on the guitar as an accompanying instrument were all elements that contributed to Mississippi's rich and smooth music.
So, why is 'Spike Driver Blues' a Killer Opening Song? Because in the absence of a real album or actual discography K.O.S. gets to choose which melody would have made it to the top of the trackslist had John Hurt had the opportunity to put his compositions in a formal record. Although, saying that, when it came to choosing tonight's offering, this particular tune had fierce competition from "Stack O' Lee Blues"; that's another very good outing by this much underrated troubadour. In the meantime, though, sit back and enjoy this musical gem.
Next Post: 'Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music, Ad Infinitum' to be published on Thursday 11th June at 11:59pm (GMT)