Mississippi John Hurt
His Life, His Times, His Blues
The first biography of the blues revival's most influential and authentic musician
Winner, Best History, 2012 Association for Recorded Sound Collections Award for Excellence in Historical Recorded Sound Research
When Mississippi John Hurt (1892-1966) was "rediscovered" by blues revivalists in 1963, his musicianship and recordings transformed popular notions of prewar country blues. At seventy-one he moved to Washington, D. C., from Avalon, Mississippi, and became a live-wire connection to a powerful, authentic past. His intricate and lively style made him the most sought after musician among the many talents the revival brought to light.
Mississippi John Hurt provides this legendary creator's life story for the first time. Biographer Philip Ratcliffe traces Hurt's roots to the moment his mother Mary Jane McCain and his father Isom Hurt were freed from slavery. Anecdotes from Hurt's childhood and teenage years include the destiny-making moment when his mother purchased his first guitar for $1. 50 when he was only nine years old. Stories from his neighbors and friends, from both of his wives, and from his extended family round out the community picture of Avalon. US census records, Hurt's first marriage record in 1916, images of his first autographed LP record, and excerpts from personal letters written in his own hand provide treasures for fans. Ratcliffe details Hurt's musical influences and the origins of his style and repertoire. The author also relates numerous stories from the time of his success, drawing on published sources and many hours of interviews with people who knew Hurt well, including the late Jerry Ricks, Pat Sky, Stefan Grossman and Max Ochs, Dick Spottswood, and the late Mike Stewart. In addition, some of the last photographs taken of the legendary musician are featured for the first time in Mississippi John Hurt.
There is no question as to the exceptional quality of this biography of a major African American songster. Mississippi John Hurt has been memorialized in the conversion of his Avalon house to a museum, in the memorial tablet marking his Mississippi grave, and in the publication of Philip Ratcliffe's invaluable study.- Paul Oliver, author of numerous books on the blues, most recently Yonder Come the Blues: The Evolution of a Genre; Barrelhouse Blues: Location Recording and the Early Traditions of the Blues; and Broadcasting the Blues: Black Blues in the Segregation Era
What a wonderful book! Phil has been working on this biography for years. He has been busy digging up new and lost information as well as traveling the States to interview John Hurt's students, family, and friends. Mississippi John Hurt's 1928 recordings excited folk and blues aficionados. He then brightened the 1960s folk and blues world with his rediscovery. He was still the master guitar player and storyteller, but he showed us with his music and words his great wisdom and warmth. Phil has captured this spirit and how it has impacted on generations of guitar players and music lovers.- Stefan Grossman, author, musician, producer, and founder of Stefan Grossman's Guitar Workshop and Vestapol Productions
Phil Ratcliffe's account of a humble black Mississippian, who just happened to be a supremely gifted musician, is stunning in its detail. The author's meticulous research reveals the particulars of John Hurt's life, on stage and off.- Bruce Nemerov, Grammy Award-winning writer and musician
Using a blend of archival work and field-collected interviews, Ratcliffe's meticulously researched biography presents an excellent overview of John Hurt's life and art as a Mississippi string band songster and as a central character in the folk revival. His reliance on interviews allows the participants in John Hurt's story to tell their own version of the artist's impact on their lives. These combined voices provide an intriguing portrait of one of America's best-loved musicians and storytellers--part songster, part saint. Along the way, Ratcliffe deals with the complex maneuvering and economic complexities of the folk revival with coherence and an even hand. This is a keen and lively biography that manages to be both a history of the times and a highly personal portrait of an uncommon and significant artist.- Barry Lee Pearson, author of Sounds So Good to Me: The Bluesman's Story; Virginia Piedmont Blues: The Lives of Two Virginia Bluesmen; Jook Right On: Blues Stories and Blues Storytellers; and, with Bill McCulloch, Robert Johnson: Lost and Found