Tuesday 9 June 2009

Killer Opening Songs (Mississipi John Hurt)

OK, let the game start. Killer Opening Songs calls and you respond. You see? It's a simple game. He shouts out:

- Blues!

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:

K.O.S.: Blues!
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)

Copyright 2009


  1. Smoooooth! It looks as though Mississippi's guitar had only 3 strings... is that so? Very enjoyable, thanks for the post...and isn't it terrific that we have YouTube so this type of thing can be shared worldwide!
    Hola from Texas... Lizzy

  2. (((Sonny Boy Williamson!))) I shouted it out from WM, but I don't think you could hear me.
    Another terrific KOS pick, Mr. Cuban.

  3. Oh, and PS, I love the Burger artwork.

  4. Hey London, as soon as I saw this I had to call my boyfriend: he is a BIG fan of early blues. He says this album (image) is maybe one of his three favorite albums af all times. His big hero, though, is Mance Lipscomb.

    I am surprised you know about them. I didn't even heard about them when I came to live here. Only BBKing (I saw him here, amazing) and some other famous bluesmen. I saw Taj Mahal in Havana and I loved him, but he seems to be just a student of the masters.

    Your have a surprinsingly varied and wonderful taste in music. Thanks for sharing.

    Greetings from the Panhandle!

  5. En esos blues se esconde una fuerza que no nos puede pasar inadvertida... si en algo se parece la conga al blues es en 'eso' en la suerte de katarsis que uno vive al escucharlas.
    nos pillamos, bro'

  6. Man, both your writing and your music were on fire this time. Whatever you were eating today (yesterday), CiL, give me the recipe. Your enthusiasm caught up with me before I heard the music. Then, I settled down to listen, and mellowed out. Yes. This is the history of music, as well as music itself. Music and poetry transcend all, and when both are joined. Yes.

    I am half-smiling from feeling good and half-laughing from gauging a bit better what is important in life. Play it again, CiL.

  7. There's a lot of stuff here that's quite new to me, but I shall have a dig ot two. Another fascinating post.

  8. Great choice, KOS! I almost feel the atmosphear warming up and as you know it's a very miserable day here in London. Thanks

  9. Many thanks to you all for your kind comments. Over lunch I was watching this fantastic video of the song 'Stand By Me' covered by various musicians around the globe. I'll see if there's a copy on youtube.

    Polly, yes, it's rainy here in our beloved adopted city, but today in the morning when I was coming to work I had Nina Simone on my CD player and my day suddenly brightened up even though it was raining cats and dogs. And the sun is breaking through now.

    Fram, you're so right, that's why to me he is that link between the griot and the blues musician from the Deep South He is a chronicler, a story-teller, a poet, a historian.

    Lizzy, youtube is the evidence, if evidence was needed, that we arrived at communism and nobody noticed it HAHA :-D!

    Greetings from London.

  10. The Blues takes its time, doesn't it? As a musical form, it's so organic, like a flower unfolding. Wow. Just what I needed to see/read about/listen to this morning. Bravo! And thanks.

  11. Cool! I love that you are mining history for some old gems – archaeology? Hurt’s music is timeless and your commentary very interesting. He’s a real character and an amazing player. So different from an MTV clip, isn’t it? One of your best posts on music.

    As for your comment on my blog – I’d recommend 10th Circle of Jodi Picoult’s books. Good one for the plane.

  12. Wow, you know so much.

    I love the writing.


  13. Yes sir !!
    bravo and mille mercis for this discovery for me and my chico who loves blues...
    these days, we're listening a lot to Eric Bibb, Joe Louis Walker...
    blues all the way...yeah man...

    sorry to hear it's rainy in London...if it can console it was really chilly on the coast

    un abrazo desde Andalucia

  14. Oh I LOVE THIS!!!!!!!!!!!!

  15. Many thanks to you all for your kind comments.

    Sorry, liset, I didn't reply to your lovely comment. No, I don't know Mance Lipscomb but there's so much blues out there that I have no idea it exists that I'm not surprised.

    How did I come across John Hurt? By chance. I read an article on his song 'Stack O' Lee Blues' and that picked my curiosity. In the summer of 2003 I received my copy of the 1928 sessions, the cover that opens this post. I can't recommend his music enough. In this album you can actually hear the scratchy sound of the needle. Brilliant.

    Greetings from London.

  16. you're right. I should be careful when I use 'utopia'. I means a whole lot of different things to a whole lot of different people.

    Perhaps I should've used 'heaven' instead

  17. Nice one!!! I LIKE!!! Yes, I do!

    Cubano, a ver si te visito mas a menudo... estas semanas han sido de locura pero espero tener mas tiempo a partir de ahora!

  18. I started reading your post the other day and got side tracked with life....got back to it this morning...laughed at the beginning and then got into the music. Thanks for the intro.

  19. Super nice!!!

  20. Can't help myself..shout out for Muddy!!!! That John Hurt has some kind of face, history of the blues!!

  21. London, si hablas del Stand by Me de Playing for Change, si, esta en youtube y tambien en el sitio de ellos. Si ves en mi blog, a la derecha, tengo puesto un gadget que ellos ofrecen en su sitio donde sale el ultimo video que hacen y se actualiza solo.

    a mi me resulta un poco dificil compartir la fascinacion que mi novio siente por estos "early blues". entiendo que es algo especial, claro, pero no como el. imagino pase algo asi como cuando yo me muero por Santiago Feliu y, aunque a el le gusta, no lo siente igual.

    es bonito ver como la gente se apasiona por cosas que a nosotros nos han sido tan ajenas durante tantos annos, cada cual con sus vivencias en este mundo nuestro...


  22. Thanks a lot for your kind comments. By the way, I mentioned that medley by the Zep. I was listening to it the other night whilst out jogging and boy, it made my knees go a couple of inches higher. Plant and Page really rip into 'Mess out of Blues' and 'Boogie Chillun'.

    Liset, de cierta forma nuestra Vieja/Nueva Trova fue un fenomeno parecido. O ya no te acuerdas de aquellas descargas en el malecon en plena madrugada? Era lo mismo en los 20 en el sur estadounidense.

    Greetings from London.

  23. Oh this is the real truth! You went real, realy, country blues. I totally agree, blues singers were the direct link to griots. Sorry I wasn't hear to hear this on Tuesday!

  24. Oh, yes, fly girl, K.O.S. went back to the beginning.

    Greetings from London.

  25. great pickin! John's and Yours. . . :-)



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