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Mississippi John Hurt’s fingerpicking style made the blues all his own

As quickly as Hurt came onto the scene, he was gone, because his later records didn’t sell as well as “Frankie.”
Courtesy Blues IMages, a division of Tefteller’s World’s Rarest Records

Courtesy Blues IMages, a division of Tefteller’s World’s Rarest Records

By Susan Sliwicki

If the meaning behind the adage ‘Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned’ ever gets a little fuzzy for you, be sure to give Mississippi John Hurt’s “Frankie” a listen.

Just don’t let Hurt’s lilting guitar style throw you off guard. While his accompaniment is almost lighthearted, the gun-toting Frankie described in the lyrics is no lady to be trifled with.

While there are literally hundreds of takes on Frankie’s sad story of love and loss in tunes like “Frankie and Johnny” by nearly as many artists, Hurt’s low-key fingerpicking guitar style puts his version head and shoulders above the rest, said John Tefteller, owner of Tefteller’s World’s Rarest Records.

“If people reading this story have not heard him, he deserves a chance to be heard,” Tefteller said. “It’s almost like folk blues. I don’t even know if that’s the right word for it. It’s this timeless form of blues that doesn’t even really sound like blues. It sounds like great storytelling with great fingerpicking.”
“Frankie” was the first of several songs that Hurt recorded for Okeh, and it sold fairly well for the label, Tefteller said.

“He got to be recorded, because he would play guitar, and his neighbors not too far away were a couple of white country musicians named Narmour & Smith, and they had made a recording session for Okeh Records,” Tefteller said. “When the talent scout came back to record them again, they recommended the scout listen to John Hurt and record him.”

As quickly as Hurt came onto the scene, he was gone, because his later records didn’t sell as well as “Frankie.”

“He just went back to Avalon and went back to farming,” Tefteller said. “Years later, in the late ’50s and early ’60s, new blues aficionados who had copies of some of the records and were taken by them were desperate to find out was this guy alive, where he was, and did he still exist.”

One of Hurt’s songs talked about Avalon, so the blues hunters took an educated guess, drove down to Avalon, Miss., and found Hurt.

“He was still on the same farm he’d been on in the ’20s, and they asked him if he could still play guitar, and he could,” Tefteller said.

Hurt joined the blues revival circuit in the 1960s, where his great songs, laid-back guitar work and powerful, yet subdued, performances resonated with audiences. And to think: The world might have missed out on Mississippi John Hurt if he had just minded his mama.

When Hurt appeared on Pete Seeger’s show in 1966, he shared a story of how a musician with a guitar used to come and stay at his family’s house, and how his mother always told him not to touch the musician’s guitar. Of course, Hurt was attracted to the guitar, so late at night, when everyone had gone to bed, he’d take the guitar to his room and play it in the dark.

“He had to play soft and quiet; he couldn’t bang on it. He didn’t want to wake anybody in the house,” Tefteller said. “He said that one day, he just went over and picked up the guitar and played for the guy and his mother, and the guy said, ‘How did you learn to do this?’”

Hurt is at the top of Tefteller’s list of favorite blues artists, in part because of his lasting skill.

“He’s one of the lucky ones that got to come back later,” Tefteller said. “If you listen to the recordings of him as an old man, to me, in a way, they’re better than the 1927, ’28 recordings. He’s had that many more years to practice and sing … Not to take away from the old ones, but there’s something about the ones from the last years of his life. They’re very interesting and powerful in a way the earlier ones are not.”

Today, Tefteller has all of Hurt’s 78s, but it took him an especially long to acquire his copy of “Frankie.” He finally got a really nice copy last year.

Depending on condition, a copy of Mississippi John Hurt’s “Frankie” on Okeh can run from $2,500 up to $6,000 or $7,000, Tefteller said. Frankie is the most common of Hurt’s records, so it pops up more often. The hardest ones to find are “Avalon” and “Louis Collins,” Tefteller said.

Born: John Smith Hurt on July 3, 1893, in Teoc, Miss.
Died: Nov. 2, 1966, in Grenada, Miss.
Career: Hurt began playing guitar in 1903 and was performing at parties shortly after. In 1916, he went to work for the railroad. He was discovered by an Okeh Records scout in 1927. Hurt was rediscovered in the 1960s.
Notable Songs: “Avalon Blues,” “Frankie,” “Stack O’ Lee,” “Louis Collins,” “Candy Man Blues,” “Big Leg Blues”

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For related items that you may enjoy in our Goldmine store:
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• Check out an informative read in "The Everything® Rock & Blues Piano Book with CD, Master riffs, licks, and blues styles from New Orleans to New York City"