John Smith Hurt (March 3, 1892 - November 2, 1966), better known as Mississippi John Hurt, was an American country blues singer and guitarist.
Born in Teoc, Mississippi and raised in Avalon, Mississippi, he taught himself to play guitar at the age of nine, stealthily playing the guitar of a friend of his mother's, who often stayed at the Hurt home while courting a woman who lived nearby.
As a youth he played old-time music for friends and at dances. He worked as a farmhand and sharecropper into the 1920s. His fast, highly syncopated style of playing was meant for dancing.
On occasion, a medicine show would come through the area. Hurt recalled that one wanted to hire him: "One of them wanted me, but I said no because I just never wanted to get away from home."
In 1923, he played with the fiddle player Willie Narmour as a substitute for Narmour's regular partner, Shell Smith. When Narmour got a chance to record for Okeh Records as a prize for winning first place in a 1928 fiddle contest, he recommended Hurt to Okeh producer Tommy Rockwell.
After auditioning "Monday Morning Blues" at his home, Hurt took part in two recording sessions, in Memphis and New York City. While in Memphis, he recalled seeing "many, many blues singers ... Lonnie Johnson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Bessie Smith, and lots, lots more."
Hurt described his first recording session as follows: “... a great big hall with only the three of us in it: me, the man [Rockwell], and the engineer. It was really something. I sat on a chair, and they pushed the microphone right up to my mouth and told me that I couldn't move after they had found the right position. I had to keep my head absolutely still. Oh, I was nervous, and my neck was sore for days after.”
Hurt attempted further negotiations with Okeh to record again, but his records were commercial failures. Okeh went out of business during the Great Depression, and Hurt returned to Avalon and obscurity, working as a sharecropper and playing at local parties and dances.
Hurt's renditions of "Frankie" and "Spike Driver Blues" were included in The Anthology of American Folk Music in 1952 which generated considerable interest in locating him.
When a copy of "Avalon Blues" was discovered in 1963, it led musicologist Dick Spottswood to locate Avalon, Mississippi in an atlas, and ask Tom Hoskins, who was traveling that way, to inquire after Hurt. When Hoskins arrived in Avalon the first person he asked directed him to Hurt's cabin.
Hoskins persuaded an apprehensive Hurt to perform several songs for him, to ensure that he was genuine. Hoskins was convinced and, seeing that Hurt's guitar playing skills were still intact, encouraged him to move to Washington, D.C., and perform for a broader audience.
Much of his repertoire was also recorded for the Library of Congress. His fans particularly liked the ragtime songs "Salty Dog" and "Candy Man" and the blues ballads "Spike Driver Blues" (a variant of "John Henry") and "Frankie."
Hurt died on November 2, 1966, of a heart attack, in hospital at Grenada, Mississippi. Mississippi John Hurt’s grave is somewhat difficult to find. It is located in an abandoned, overgrown cemetery on the side of a poorly marked dirt road.
Note: Avalon is an unincorporated community in Carroll County, Mississippi. It is a former settlement on Mississippi Highway 7, about 12 miles north of Greenwood. By the early 1960s, it was largely abandoned and no longer marked on maps. A church, a former store, and a few houses survive. Mississippi John Hurt, an African-American blues musician, was raised and lived here most of his life. His shotgun house is preserved as a museum to honor him. It occasionally hosts blues and gospel festivals on the adjacent land. Carroll County has placed a highway marker at Avalon to commemorate Hurt and his music. It is part of the Mississippi Blues Trail.