Listen to this track by Bentonia, Mississippi guitarist, pianist, and all-around legendary bluesman Skip James. It’s “Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues”, a sepia-toned treasure from the age of delta country blues that would be featured on James’ 1966 album Today!
The song would be sourced from his repertoire that appeared many years before in 1931 with his initial recordings on the Paramount label. During that era, Skip James’ career as a full-time musician and songwriter would be scuppered by the Great Depression. When most of your audience doesn’t have a job, it’s hard for them to buy records. So, after recording his Paramount sides, he slipped back into obscurity. This economic reality had impact on many, including Mississippi John Hurt and Son House, among others.
But, like those two other musicians, Skip James would enjoy a second wind in the 1960s, thanks to a bona fide hero’s quest to find the grail of true American culture. Read more
Here’s a clipof once-lost bluesman and acoustic guitar slinger Mississippi John Hurt with his double-entendre laden song “Candy Man Blues”, as featured on his Avalon Blues album. The record was cut in 1963 soon after he was ‘rediscovered’, actively sought out by blues archivists after 30 years of having quit music.
John Hurt was a native of Avalon Mississippi, working as a farm hand during the day and playing what is now considered ‘old time’ music in his spare time. In 1928, aged 36, he got a chance to record with legendary early jazz and blues label Okeh records. He recorded two sessions that year, in Memphis and in New York City, with the label adding the ‘Mississippi’ in front of his name for authenticity. He made eight recordings. One of the songs he recorded, was this one, “Candy Man Blues”, with plenty of sauciness added into the lyrics before records by African-American musicians became mainstream. He was paid $240 for the Memphis sessions, which he then spent to go to New York for more.
The twin problems of poor sales, and then the failing of the label itself during the Great Depression later on curtailed Hurt’s lasting career as a full-time musician. He returned to Avalon and picked up where he left off, with farm work during the day, with the odd non-professional gig at parties and other community gatherings at night. He was otherwise lost to history, at least for the time being.
Fastfoward to 1963: archivist and blues enthusiast Tom Hoskins having heard Hurt’s 1928 recordings was determined to go to Avalon to see if the voice behind the music was still around. Hoskins found the bluesman still living modestly, convinced him that he had an audience, and returned with him to Washington DC at the height of the 1960s folk-boom. Old time music and rural blues had been given an injection of life, with a new audience of students looking to hear original American folk players like Hurt, suspicious of the lack of depth and perceived dishonesty in modern pop music at the time.
In making public appearances, Hurt began the second phase of his career as a professional musician, recording his material in the studio for a new generation. An appearance at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival the same festival which featured a young Bob Dylan, solidified Hurt’s status as a true original, his skills as a guitarist remaining undiminished. He was a star at 72 years old, enjoying another two years of fame before his death in November, 1966.
Hurt’s sound would continue to have an impact on musicians long after his death, including Bruce Cockburn, Beck, Lucinda Williams, Gillian Welch, and others. These artists, among others, contributed tracks to the Avalon Blues: A Tribute to the Music of Mississippi John Hurtalbum in 2001, produced by songwriter Peter Case who is a lifelong fan himself.
The thing I love about this story is that something which had been the victim of bad timing (the Great Depression) eventually benefited from very good timing (the Folk-boom on American college campuses in the early 60s). And I think its great when cultural treasures are discovered and given their due, which is an ongoing trend in blues in particular, a tradition which knows enough to value its own history.
For more about Mississippi John Hurt, check out his MySpace page.
To contribute to the Mississippi John Hurt Foundation, a charity set up to aid disadvantaged youth, visit the official site for more information.