Some influences don’t go away. They stay with you – to guide you, push you and pull you into shape, sometimes gently, sometimes with a bang. I first heard of Missisippi John Hurt through listening to Mike Raven’s ‘Rhythm and Blues’ show on the radio. There was a simplicity about his music that appealed. The alternating bass patterns were slightly hypnotic with the melody picked out on the treble strings of his guitar. The whole effect had a syncopated ragtime feel that beautifully complemented John Hurt’s gentle voice and resonant delivery. As an aspiring guitarist alongside many others at the time I seized upon this appealing music and using Stefan Grossman’s instructional tabulature books began to learn how to play it on my trusty Harmony Sovereign guitar. And then I learnt more about the man behind the music. Born into poverty as one of ten children he worked as a sharecropper developing his own style of playing that became popular at local dances (because of its swinging qualities). In 1928 John recorded an album for Okeh records and then disappeared into obscurity until the mid-sixties when he was re-discovered as part of the American folk blues revival. He then had a successful career making a number of excellent albums for Vanguard records and touring the college/festival scene extensively until his death in 1966. He was, and continues to be widely respected not only for his music but because he always remained a mild-mannered, courteous, humorous and engaging man despite being propelled into the dizzy heights of near-legendary status. His influence on my music was considerable. You can hear that alternating bass and melody picking on ‘Gladrag’ a track from my first album ‘Echoes of A Day’.
There is a brilliant website and Foundation celebrating John Hurt’s life and music that’s worth a visit. Check him out if you are at all into roots music.
Finally – here’s a quick sketch in memory of the magical Mississippi John Hurt.