Graded on a Curve:
Mississippi John Hurt,
Last Sessions

This week we’re taking a look at a few select reissues slated for Record Store Day 2012. —Ed.

Mississippi John Hurt is one of the few bluesmen whose talents endured undiminished over the often cruel span of time. He never made an album that was less than superb and his Last Sessions, freshly reissued for Record Store Day, presents the possibility that recording technology captured only a portion of his relaxed and always approachable style.

Simply put, Mississippi John Hurt is a treasure of the blues. His absolutely mandatory 1928 recordings for the OKeh label not only provide an ample survey of an assured artist captured in the music industry’s wild early days, but their enduring brilliance additionally served as the impetus for his ‘60s rediscovery, where he held court like a benevolent giant. Those OKeh sides present a musician initially dealt a bum hand by the circumstances of history; if record companies of the era would record just about anything in hopes of a hit, they also weren’t very invested in artist development. If his first release was successful enough to get him to New York City on OKeh’s dime for another session, his subsequent five 78s didn’t capture the public’s interest in a manner acceptable to the label, and no more recordings were made.

Hurt might’ve easily found another company willing to issue his music, but as a farmer he essentially looked upon the blues as a sideline. Unlike many of his notable contemporaries, Hurt wasn’t a restless soul easily adaptable to the rough and tumble lifestyle of the transient musician. Instead, as the quiet, unperturbed nature of his work attests, he desired little more than to make an honest living in the comfortable environment of the town where he was born. And if his unconflicted personality greatly reduced the likelihood for further recording opportunities, the harsh realities of the Great Depression essentially put the kibosh on them outright. Any record company not driven out of the business was suddenly much more cautious over what they released, and since the blues theoretically appealed to poor people its frequency on disc was greatly diminished. If Hurt hadn’t uttered the line “Avalon my hometown, always on my mind” in his “Avalon Blues,” it’s very likely his rediscovery would’ve never happened.

But folk musicologist Tom Hoskins used that clue to track him down, in the process setting in motion what’s probably the most fruitful of all the ‘60s folk era rediscoveries, his only real rival being fellow Mississippian Skip James. The reasons for this are multifaceted. To begin, the particulars of Hurt’s art lacked the complexities and intensities that would’ve surely been diminished by age and the effects of lifelong toil. If the reappearance of Son House, Bukka White, Furry Lewis and others was quite welcome, their latter day recordings also cast little doubt upon the superiority of their earlier musical activities, though some who prefer the cleaner sound afforded by advanced technology might disagree. And in the case of performers like Robert Pete Williams, Mance Lipscomb, and John Jackson the point is moot since none of these worthy names had been presented with the opportunity to record in their younger days.

But Hurt’s ability actually seemed to ripen with age, mainly due to his music’s non-reliance on emotional desperation and stylistic extremes. If James was still an able musician, he was a significantly less accessible one than Hurt, who was tailor made for the folk festival circuit; his material was a veritable call to walk right in and sit right down, and his presence left audiences feeling good. This isn’t to imply that Hurt’s playing was inferior to that of James, though it’s clear that James felt this way; the notoriously difficult figure just didn’t consider Hurt to be a serious blues artist. But if Hurt’s fingerpicking style gave off an easygoing surface veneer, it was actually quite deep in conception, and in fact it sits at the core of the American Primitive guitar movement as led by John Fahey, Leo Kottke, and Peter Lang. The leadoff track of Fahey’s superb 1968 LP Requia is titled “Requiem for John Hurt,” and through this direct association the influence of the by now mythic artist born in 1892 can be heard in a contemporary player like Glenn Jones.

After being located by Hoskins, Hurt’s musical activities recommenced with vigor. He relocated to Washington, DC where in addition to extensive recording for The Library of Congress under the auspices of music scholar Dick Spottswood, he completed a pair of albums for the Piedmont label that were later reissued by Rounder under the titles Worried Blues and Avalon Blues. Hurt then entered into a relationship with the prominent ‘60s folk label Vanguard, and that’s where his reputation as a rediscovery justly rests. The four records issued through Vanguard found him nimble fingered and in strong voice, and in addition to becoming a hot property on the folk scene he even appeared on national TV via The Tonight Show. If listeners understandably migrate to his first two studio efforts Today! or The Immortal Mississippi John Hurt it’s largely because they radiate with the same energy and warmth that’s in evidence on his numerous live recordings, of which the misleadingly titled Vanguard double-LP The Best of Mississippi John Hurt is arguably the finest example.

But Hurt was far more than just a crowd pleaser. He was also a serious player, and that’s what makes the often neglected Last Sessions so valuable. Upon initial casual listening, the contents of his final studio album (not released until 1972, six years after his death) essentially register as just one more example of what Hurt did with stately aplomb. But there are differences, at first subtle and gradually becoming more pronounced, that mark it as a work by a man disinterested in resting on his laurels. While his repertoire had always been peppered with songs of traditional origin, Last Sessions opens with a cover of Bukka White’s “Poor Boy, Long Ways From Home.” If Hurt immediately remakes the song in his own image, that’s no matter; his inclination to interpret the work of his peers is highly indicative of this album’s lasting importance.

For instance, on “Boys, You’re Welcome” his voice attains a loose assertiveness that while still within the range of gentleness that defines his stature as a blues singer, still feels distinct from the body of work that led up to it. Certainly adding to this is the extremely close production technique utilized by Patrick Sky (who also served as occasional second guitarist); not only is Hurt heard with unusually sharp clarity, but his occasionally audible breathing and whispering greatly increases an already high level of intimacy. And on “Joe Turner Blues” that closeness combines with his typically fleet playing and a not so typical exploration of dark themes (“policeman, you better not let him ‘round/If you do I’m sure gonna shoot him down”) to greatly accentuate that Last Sessions is a document of a musician that fired on all creative cylinders to the very end of his life.

And yes, you read that above parenthetical correctly. Last Sessions indeed features additional guitar. Perhaps this aspect has caused some blues fans to regard this album with a measure of detachment. If so, that’s a big mistake. Sky’s accompaniment blends seamlessly into the record’s grooves, and it’s readily apparent that the choice for added string work was in no way due to any faltering skills on the part of Hurt. Rather it’s quite clear that Hurt and Sky (who in addition to producing the entire run of Hurt’s Vanguard studio stuff had his own extensive career as a NYC folkie; he’s a worthy but essentially forgotten name) established a strong working relationship that was entering into a new phase with Last Sessions.

It’s a record that’s simply an unbroken string of highlights. And as testament to its thoughtful symmetry, the album closes with a second cover, Leadbelly’s warhorse “Goodnight Irene.” This is a resonant selection, for John Hurt and Huddie Ledbetter were two of the most successful blues artists to cross over into the folk music sphere. “Goodnight Irene” is given a fine reading, but it’s the tune “Funky Butt” that really points to the breadth of what Hurt brings to the table on Last Sessions. The song, which many jazz buffs will instantly recognize as “Buddy Bolden’s Blues,” is openly and unashamedly in the tradition of the bawdy (“you see that girl with the red dress on/she got the funky butt, the stinky butt sure as you’re born/’cause I don’t like it no how”). While Hurt had recorded the song previously for the Library of Congress, it was quite the new wrinkle for him to present this aspect of his work in a commercial context. Maybe it was Sky’s suggestion, or possibly Hurt just felt the time was right. Either way, “Funky Butt” isn’t a study in risqué double-entendres, but instead is very direct in its subject matter. The unaffected delivery really serves to amplify that Hurt was a full man easily in touch with the entire range of human experience.

And Last Sessions richly details the assuredness with which Hurt expressed that range. Whether it was regal blues or heartfelt gospel, songs of his own origin or wisely chosen cover material, rich crowd-pleasers or statements of a more personal quality, Hurt’s music shined with vitality on any record that bears his name. I’m pleased as pickles to see this album get a fresh vinyl pressing for Record Store Day. It’s a superb closing chapter to one of the great sagas of 20th Century American music.

Graded on a Curve: A

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