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Mississippi John HurtHis Life, His Times, His Blues$

Philip R. Ratcliffe

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9781617030086

Published to University Press of Mississippi: March 2014

DOI: 10.14325/mississippi/9781617030086.001.0001

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. Rediscovery and Sweet Success

. Rediscovery and Sweet Success

(p.120) 3. Rediscovery and Sweet Success
Mississippi John Hurt

Philip R. Ratcliffe

University Press of Mississippi

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter describes the rediscovery of Mississippi John Hurt by aspiring young guitar player Tom Hoskins. It covers Hoskins' search for Mississippi John Hurt; the contract drawn up between Hurt and Music Research Incorporated, covering management and recording, and signed on March 15, 1963; Hurt and his wife's move to Washington D.C.; and Hurt's increased popularity during the winter of 1963–64.

Keywords:   African American musicians, black musicians, Mississippi John Hurt, Tom Hoskins, recording contract, Music Research Incorporated

As 1962 came to an end, John Hurt probably anticipated a new year much like the last one and much like those of the three or so decades before. He was 70 years old, looking after Perkins’s cattle, and keeping a few hogs and chickens to help sustain his wife Jessie and grandchildren Ella Mae and Andrew Lee. Jessie helped out in the Perkins’s house. They were poor but appeared contented. Meanwhile, the world outside Avalon was jumping.

The civil rights movement was gathering strength. Young whites from the North and East were taking a personal interest in the status and treatment of blacks in Mississippi and other southern states. Older generations were becoming jaundiced about the alleged threat of communism, and the focus on race relations was intensifying. Black students and their white supporters were raising their hopes on the back of the increasing popularity of Martin Luther King Jr. and the young president from Massachusetts.

Back east, white folkies had been aware of Mississippi John Hurt, largely through the Harry Smith Anthology in the 1950s, and Hurt’s music became an obsession with a few of them. In particular, around Washington, D.C., and Annapolis, Maryland, Mike Stewart (a.k.a. Backward Sam Firk), Max Ochs, and Tom Hoskins (Fang) spent a lot of time trying to re-create Hurt’s music, with a high degree of success. Around Greenwich Village in New York, Dave Van Ronk, John Sebastian, a young Stefan Grossman (Kid Future), an even younger Rory Block (Sunshine Kate), and others were doing the same thing. Mark Greenberg remembers hearing Mike Seeger playing “Frankie” and Tom Paley playing “Stackolee,” with both attributing the songs to Mississippi John Hurt.

None of them really considered what had happened to Hurt until, in late 1962 or early 1963, Dick Spottswood acquired some tape recordings (p.121) of some of Hurt’s other 1928 OKeh records from Peter Kuykendall, who in turn got them from John Edwards, an Australian record collector.1 The tapes included “Avalon Blues.”

Thomas B. Hoskins

From here on, this story needs to follow the twin tracks of Mississippi John Hurt and Tom Hoskins, the man who rediscovered him. Hoskins was a likable hippie with no permanent job, and a fondness for girls, alcohol, and drugs in no particular order. He and his friends indulged in the hippie lifestyle and some of them spent a considerable time polishing their skills on the guitar. Hoskins was passionately interested in the rural blues.

His sister Suzanne speaks fondly of her little brother Tommy as a warm, friendly, and loving brother, but even she got frustrated with him. She recalled the rehearsal for her wedding at which Tommy was to be an usher. Tommy was a motorcycle courier around D.C. at the time and had left things late to travel down to Charlottesville, Virginia. With the rehearsal dinner in full swing, Tommy walked in wearing his motorcycle clothes. “I was mad as hell with him, but I just ran up and hugged him and started to cry.” Suzanne’s husband Joe, a military medical doctor, was hardly Tommy’s type, but always enjoyed his company and always looked forward to seeing him. On one occasion when Tommy stayed with them at the officers’ quarters of the army barracks in Germany, they returned to their apartment to find that Tommy had hung his wash out of the apartment window to dry, much to the consternation of their neighbors!

Tommy’s close friend Denise Tapp provides what I think is a fairly accurate description of the man:

By now, you probably understand that Tom Hoskins suffered from some form of arrested development, which was not helped by his massive consumption of drugs and alcohol. He could be a real pain in the ass and was kicked out of just about every place he attempted to visit for any length. The constant pranks and disruptions got to everyone. I myself made a number of death threats to him and I absolutely swore never to take him to a restaurant again after the first try. But, still he was lovable and friends always forgave him. He could see and hear things that others couldn’t and he pointed out thousands of little treasures that we had overlooked. It will be difficult to capture that kind of personality in print.

(p.122) Louisa Spottswood stated: “He was a very ingratiating young man with southern country manners. We became aware as time went on that he was very unreliable, often being late for appointments, etc., but he had a certain charm and I always had a soft spot in my heart for him. I didn’t get as mad at him as Dick. He was led astray by others.”

Max Ochs liked Tom but, after being let down on a couple of occasions, stopped trusting him. He likened him to the confidence tricksters the Duke and the Dauphine from Huckleberry Finn. In Max’s words: “He burned his way through everybody. He was a carpetbagger. He had a million little scams and schemes. He was a consummate actor and could talk his way into and out of anything.”

Dick Spottswood commented in 1964:

Tom is a rather good left-handed guitar player whose origins are Southern. He was born and reared in Charlottesville, Virginia. He played guitar for a number of years and he started out as a rock ’n’ roller. He played in a number of bands down there before he moved to Washington a couple of years ago. He started listening to the old blues, but his relationship was between the old Negro country blues and rock ’n’ roll. Tom began to listen to the old records and he became interested in the old blues artists themselves.2

Tom described himself as “an aspiring young guitar player in the early 1960s” who was, “interested in early country, blues and gospel music. My main source of material was 78 rpm records of the 1920s and 1930s, which could only be found in junk shops and by canvassing door to door in neighborhoods throughout the southern states.”3 Philadelphia Jerry Ricks reckoned “for a white kid, he could play black with remarkable ease” and rated him as the best of the white kid guitar players in those days, saying that his music had black soul and emotion. Hoskins took his nickname Fang from the record by Nervous Norvus (Jimmy Drake), “The Fang.”4

The Search for Mississippi John Hurt

It was Tom Hoskins’s fascination with the old musicians that led to him finding Mississippi John Hurt. He wrote:

My friends and I often wondered, who were these marvelous musicians whose mysterious and colorful sounding names appeared on the worn (p.123) record labels: names like Peg Leg Howell, Little Hat Jones, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Cripple Clarence Lofton, Sleepy John Estes and the Masked Marvel. Once while listening to the often badly scratched and cracked discs, trying to understand the words of “another voice from another time,” or trying to figure out how a particular passage was played on the guitar, a friend remarked, “It’s too bad we don’t have these guys here to show us how it’s done. I wonder where they are?” I began to wonder too, especially about the singer with the gentle sounding voice and the unique complex, finger style guitar style, who was known only by the name on a couple of rare, old, battered 78s, “Mississippi John Hurt.” Of all those old musicians he had impressed me the most so, when a friend [Dick Spottswood] got a tape, from Australia of all places, that included a previously unheard cut by John Hurt, I hurried over to listen.5

Following the acquisition of these tapes, Tom Hoskins and Dick Spottswood developed a nagging and increasing obsession to find out what happened to Mississippi John Hurt. Apart from the Mississippi tag there had been no clues. But now they had more recordings from the 1928 sessions. Among these was the recording of “Avalon Blues” made in New York City in which John sounded homesick, referring to Avalon as “my home town.” Hoskins remarked, “The words in the opening verse set off flashing lights in my head, ‘Avalon’s my hometown, always on my mind.’ I thought, ‘He’s telling me where he lives!’”6 Searching maps of the southern states they could only find an Avalon in Georgia, which seemed an unlikely home for someone with a Mississippi prefix! However, Tommy did travel to Avalon, Georgia, looking in vain for Mississippi John Hurt.7

Sometime later, in Leland Talbot’s house in Sherwood Forest outside Annapolis, Maryland,8 Hoskins was looking through an old Rand McNally atlas of Mississippi, and there between Grenada and Greenwood was the small railway stop of Avalon, Mississippi. Could this be the place that Mississippi John Hurt called home?9

There are three distinctly different accounts of what happened next and who actually traveled to Avalon on that first memorable trip. In addition, there are many variations of these three main themes.

The first account comes from handwritten corrections by Tom Hoskins to an article called “Avalon to Eternity,” published in 1976 and found among Hoskins’s possessions in 2005, and a letter written by Hoskins to Alex Haley on February 12, 1982.10 With encouragement from Spottswood and Stewart, Hoskins headed south with a tape recorder and some cautious optimism. (p.124)

Several days later, I had borrowed a car and $200, and was on my way to Mississippi, where on a chilly March Friday evening, in the Mississippi hills overlooking the infamous flatlands of the Delta country, I was to knock on the door of a three room country shack and ask, “Is this where Mississippi John Hurt lives?”

It was and he did, simple as that, and late Sunday evening, after spending the day with John, his wife Jessie and several friends, I was driving north again through the Mississippi darkness with a two hour tape recording of a living, breathing, treasure of a young old gentleman of about 70 years, who until that day had been only a shadowy figure from an unknown past and presumed dead.

These tapes have recently come to light. They are labeled “Recorded in Avalon, Mississippi by Thomas Hoskins, 3/3/63.”11 This firmly documents the date of John’s rediscovery. On the journey home Hoskins recalls: “I kept touching the tape box to make sure it was real, and that I still had it, knowing that I would not be believed without it. The dizzying excitement that I felt that night is difficult to describe.”

This word-for-word account of the event by Hoskins himself was written in 1982, nineteen years after the event, but he recounted various other versions to his friends both before and later. These close friends swear that their accounts are correct, and maybe they are, but the facts remain that most of them were not actually around at the time and that Hoskins himself did purvey several versions of the event.

The second and perhaps most familiar version is that in February 1963 Tom Hoskins was at a party at American University in D.C., where he met an attractive young woman named Janet Rodd.12 Undoubtedly under the influence of at least one social drug of the time, Fang invited her to accompany him on a trip to the New Orleans Mardi Gras. Whether he mentioned to her his intention to call in at Avalon in an effort to trace Mississippi John Hurt is not known, but that was his intention.13 The young woman contributed the news that she had a new Dodge with a slant-6 engine that they could use, which really clinched the deal, and they set off for New Orleans.

In a slightly different account of events, Dick Spottswood recalled: “Tom Hoskins left Washington late in February when he went south to attend the New Orleans Mardi Gras. When Tom was in Mississippi, he happened to get a state map and discovered Avalon, Mississippi. He drove over 200 miles out of his way to get to this little town”—suggesting that Hoskins had not decided on the quest to find Hurt before going to the Mardi Gras.14 This account is unlikely, as the information that Hoskins set (p.125) out to find Hurt, having found Avalon in an Atlas in Washington, D.C., appears to be reliable.

Having crossed the Virginia state line on the first day of their trip, the couple pulled into a motel and booked a room for the night. They settled in and Hoskins, intending to cash in on all his good fortune, came on to Miss Rodd upon which she rapidly decided that maybe this trip was not such a great idea. She rebuffed his advances, announcing that she was a virgin and not ready to sacrifice her maiden status to the Fang, and added, “by the way I am only 15 years old and this is my daddy’s car!” Being a good-natured hippie, he was able to control the testosterone coursing through his veins and recall the behavior of the southern gentleman that was omnipresent behind the often bizarre behavior and sometimes criminal events that he indulged in. He calmed the girl down and slept on the floor.15

However, this was the least of his worries. He had crossed a state line with an underage girl. This amounted to statutory rape under the Mann Act, which makes it illegal to transport females across state lines for immoral purposes and provides for enhanced penalties for transporting minors. Chuck Berry was imprisoned in 1959 under this act after bringing a fourteen-year-old girl from Mexico to his nightclub in St Louis.16

Next morning things had calmed down and, in spite of police across several states issuing APBs, the couple, oblivious to the furor they had caused, got to New Orleans and enjoyed the Mardi Gras, which was held on February 26 that year. After four or five days in New Orleans they headed north through Jackson to Greenwood and onto Highway 7 to Avalon.

In a third account of events, the late Mike Stewart, who certainly was around at the time, recalled: “Fang called me up and says, ‘Hey, we found Avalon, Mississippi and I’m gonna go and find Mississippi John Hurt. Do you want to come along?’” Unhesitatingly, Mike was up for this adventure and he and Fang set out for Mississippi. According to Stewart, the car they used for this trip was possibly Fang’s old Volkswagen Beetle, Firk’s Borgward, or a friend’s (Hugh Claudy) Volvo or Peugeot.17

A number of Hoskins’s friends, including Joe Lee and Denise Tapp, have argued that Fang and the girl went to Avalon that first time18 and that Mike Stewart went on a subsequent trip, but they did not meet up with Hoskins until much later and could have been influenced by more recent accounts from Hoskins and by repeated written accounts. However, it is virtually certain that Stewart was not there on the first trip to Avalon, but that he did go down there later.

(p.126) The sequence of events in Avalon is more or less undisputed. At Avalon, he/they pulled into the gas station at the Stinson Store on Highway 7 and enquired as to the whereabouts of Mississippi John Hurt. Unhesitatingly the attendant replied, “Take the dirt road opposite, third mailbox up the hill is John’s place.” Mike Stewart told me that he clearly remembered asking for directions, persuading me that he may have been present on this first visit. They drove up the hill past the Valley Store to find John’s shotgun house. Mike recalls that the door was open but John was not around. They met Jessie, who was very suspicious of the strangers and their interest in John, and the two grandchildren. They decided to wait. Mike remembers up on the wall in the living room was a calendar advertising Black Draught, a cure for constipation and various other ills. Later, a small black man wearing a fedora showed up. They asked if he was Mississippi John Hurt. He answered, “Sure, that’s me.”

A photograph, dated March 1963, (see Fig. 3.1) of a Volkswagen outside the Valley Store, suggests that this was not the trip that the Fang was accompanied by the girl with the Dodge, and there is no photographic evidence of a white girl being present, nor is there any indication on the recordings made on that day of a second visitor being present. The conversation on the tape that Hoskins recorded in John’s house provides the kind of breakthrough that all historical researchers dream of. Tom Hoskins says to John, “I just wish a friend of mine, Backward Sam Firk [Mike Stewart] were here to listen to you. He sure does like you. To which John answers questioningly, “He does?” Hoskins continued: “He can’t get your records but he has got a couple of tapes he made of your records. He just sits and listens to them hour after hour.” Thus, Mike Stewart did not accompany Hoskins on that first trip to Avalon.19

Ed Ward’s account tells of Hoskins and Stewart finding Hurt driving a tractor in a field close to his house,20 but as far as I am aware John never learned to drive a tractor or anything else. In the second version, Hoskins left the girl in the car, knocked on the door, and John answered it. Mike Stewart remembers Hoskins making the trip to New Orleans with the girl but reckons that this was on a different occasion and not connected with John Hurt’s rediscovery.

Mike Stewart recalled to me his memory of traveling back through Tennessee with Hoskins driving and John Hurt in the middle seat asleep with Hurt’s head on his shoulder, in awe of the fact that he was sitting “with Mississippi John Hurt’s head on my shoulder.” The facts that John did not return to D.C. on the occasion of his rediscovery and that a VW Beetle would not seat three people across the front seats suggest that this was not the first visit, adding support for the absence of Stewart on (p.127) the first trip. The fact that Dick Spottswood recalls going down there to collect John, and that John remembered traveling back via Birmingham, Alabama, suggests that this was a third or subsequent visit when perhaps both Hoskins and Stewart went to collect John and bring him to Washington.

John himself told his own story of how it all happened, some of the detail obviously obtained from some of the locals and from Hoskins.

Well, Mr. Hoskins goes to a little store right in the center of town. Dick Switzel owns the store. He asked Mr. Switzel, “Does Mississippi John Hurt live around here?” Mr. Switzel answered, “Why, yes! He lives probably five miles east. You go right across that road until you hit that gravel road and you go east. You go right up that hill until you come to a little country store on the right. Just on the other side of that store, on the left, is Mississippi John’s employer’s house. You keep on going and the next house on the left, sitting out there in the pasture, is where Mississippi John Hurt lives.21

These instructions are accurate and remain easy to follow to this day. The store that Hoskins first called at on Highway 7 was always known, and is still referred to today, as the Stinson’s Store, though it no longer exists. The “little country store” is the Valley Store (see Figs. 3.1, 3.4, 3.5); this building is still there and there are plans by its current owner, Larry Smith, to restore it. John’s employer Perkins’s house is still there, but is no longer owned by the Perkins family. A historic marker was placed along-side the Valley Store in 2008 that identifies the site as being frequented by Mississippi John Hurt. The site of John’s house can easily be found today, but the house has been moved from its original site to another site close by where it now houses the Mississippi John Hurt Museum (see ch. 5).

John continues:

About nine o’clock that night, Mr. Hoskins knocked on my door. I asked, “Who is that?” He said, “Is this where Mississippi John Hurt lives?” I thought it was someone nearby so I said, “Yeah,” and I opened the door and he walked in. He looks at me and said, “John, have you got a guitar?” I told him I didn’t have one and he said, “No sweat.” He walked right out to his car and came back with a guitar and he said, “John, I want you to play this.”

I thought the man was a sheriff or the FBI and I was thinking to myself, “What have I done?” I hadn’t done anything mean and I knew he was after the wrong man and he wasn’t looking for me. Then he said, (p.128) “John, we have been lookin’ for you for a long time. I want you to come to Washington with me and make some records. Will you go?” I said, “Yeah, I’ll go. But, first I’d like to talk to my employer a little bit.” He told me okay. The next day Mr. Hoskins came back with his recorder and I did some tunes.

John had not played a guitar for about two years, but when handed Hoskins’s Gibson J-45 (customized with stars and moons in mother-of-pearl inlay by Bill Tydings) it soon was obvious that, although a little rusty, this was indeed the famous man himself. This account by John also suggests that Hoskins was alone and fits in with information from the Avalon recordings.

Yet another variation on the story also came from John when he attended a workshop at the University of Cincinnati in 1966. When asked by Dick Waterman to talk about the blues, John replied, “I will let my music speak for itself tonight.” Waterman, wondering how to proceed, asked John to tell people about his rediscovery in 1963. John described Tom Hoskins approaching a guy at the Stinson Store and asking where he could find John Hurt’s burial site. The man answered, “If he ain’t died since, he went that way with two sacks of groceries at eleven o’clock this morning.” The rest of his story was more or less according to that described earlier.

Photographs (see Figs. 3.13.6), including some previously unpublished, discovered among Tom Hoskins’s possessions in 2006, record elements of that first trip to Avalon (the photos were developed in March 1963). They show an unidentified white person (possibly Hoskins) standing alongside a Volkswagen Beetle outside the Valley Store. Bill Tydings, a auto repairman and close friend of Tom Hoskins who was around at the time, recalls, “Fang went down there in a 1957 Volkswagen.” There was no sign of a girl or a new Dodge car. Other photos show a group of John’s friends outside the Valley Store and John with some of his friends. Again, this suggests that Hoskins was alone, although it is unknown who took the pictures in which Hoskins appears.

Tom Hoskins recorded two consecutive one-hour tapes on that Sunday afternoon of March 3, 1963. It is likely that as well as John and Jessie and the grandchildren, Ella Mae and Andrew, Gertrude, John’s first wife and her elder sister Jennie Simms were also present. They all appear together on the photograph taken outside John’s house that same day (see Fig. 3.6), and the recording certainly indicates a party mood with several participants. (p.129)

. Rediscovery and Sweet Success

Figure 3.1. The Valley Store with (probably) Tom Hoskins and his car in 1963 with Tom Hoskins’s handwritten caption. Printed March 1963.

(Tom Hoskins, March 1963, Tom Hoskins Archive.)

That these tapes have survived is incredible. They represent a most valuable and important part of the history of Mississippi John Hurt, and they record the details of his rediscovery. The tape begins with John playing “Cow Hooking Blues” and Jessie adding, “John, you make the most of this.” This is followed by a conversation in which Tom Hoskins asks about John’s childhood and his 1928 recordings. Jessie helps John with his answers. John goes on to play “Nobody’s Dirty Business” and “Stack O’Lee Blues,” and in spite of some people reporting that John was rather rusty immediately following his rediscovery, this version of “Stack O’Lee Blues” is superb. Later, John launches into a great performance of “Candy Man,” but partway through gets a little lost and the guitar break merges into “Salty Dog”—fabulous material and a great insight into how John sounded at that time, having not owned a guitar for a considerable time and being relatively unpracticed.

The whole event becomes a regular hootenanny, and the second tape begins with a bright version of “Frankie.” John is suffering from a cold and has some difficulty singing, and there is some discussion about his condition. Next, John is accompanied by Jessie (and others?) on “Waiting for You.” They forget some of the words, but are clearly enjoying themselves (p.130)

. Rediscovery and Sweet Success

Figure 3.2. John’s house photographed in 1963 with handwritten caption by Tom Hoskins. Printed March 1963.

(Tom Hoskins, March 1963, Tom Hoskins Archive.)

and the recording represents an absolute gem of a regular Mississippi family singalong, albeit with an exceptionally talented guitarist. There is a real party atmosphere with children calling out and roosters crowing outside, and as the tape is coming to an end, John announces that, “It’s getting close to feedin’ time. Mr. Perkins’s cows get fed around three or three-thirty.”

As the events surrounding his rediscovery are such an important part of John Hurt’s story, I have presented all of the facts as far as I have been able to collect them, and readers are invited to interpret them as they wish. What follows is my deduction of what probably happened. Tom Hoskins drove alone to Avalon directly from Washington, D.C., in his Volkswagen, inquired at the Stinson’s Store, and was directed to John’s house. He arrived there at around nine in the evening of March 2, 1963, six days before John’s seventy-first birthday. After introducing himself to John and Jessie, Tom left his guitar with John and drove to Grenada where he stayed overnight (he mentions this on the recording).

He returned next day around midday, took some photos at the Valley Store and at John’s house, and began recording the conversations and music that followed over the next two hours. The available recording tape ran out around three o’clock, when it was about time for John to go and (p.131)

. Rediscovery and Sweet Success

Figure 3.3. Mississippi John Hurt on his front porch in 1963.

(Tom Hoskins, March 1963, Tom Hoskins Archive.)

feed Perkins’s cows. He packed his guitar, tape recorder, and tapes into his car, said his farewells, and headed back to Washington.

Mike Stewart almost certainly did visit Avalon with Tom Hoskins on a subsequent visit to collect John. Fang certainly drove with Janet Rodd in her father’s car to the New Orleans Mardi Gras and perhaps they visited John and Jessie in Avalon on the way home.22

Mississippi John Hurt Visits Washington, D.C.

Tom Hoskins returned to the Spottswoods’ home in Arlington, Virginia, where John would be given the use of their spare room. Dick Spottswood takes up the story.23 “When we heard the tape we were almost hysterical with joy but we didn’t want the news to leak out. We knew as soon as someone in New York heard about it there would be a plane with someone going down there and beating us to it. We had no signed contract. So we waited about a week and we started back to Mississippi in my car. The three of us returned to Washington in early March.” John recalled to (p.132)

. Rediscovery and Sweet Success

Figure 3.4. Locals outside the Valley Store in March 1963. Later identified by Mary Frances Hurt Wright as

(left to right) three Isaac brothers, Lawrence Pickett, Shack Pryor, unknown, and Rosetta Magic. (Tom Hoskins, March 1963, Tom Hoskins Archive.)

Pete Seeger that they traveled back via Birmingham, Alabama, and that was the first time that John had ever been there.24

Before John left Avalon, some of his friends warned him, “You ain’t going to get nothin’ out of it.” John replied, “I’m going to get the trip.” This attitude of not having high expectations and taking things as they come was built on his earlier experience with OKeh in 1928 and epitomized the gentle man who was about to take the folk world by storm.25

Max Ochs was awakened by the telephone one morning in his New York City apartment. “Max, we’ve found Mississippi John Hurt,” the voice said. Max could hardly contain himself. He dressed quickly and caught the train to D.C. In Spottswood’s living room he saw a circle of young white folk, some with guitars. Partially hidden in the center of the ring was a little black man wearing a fedora. It was Mississippi John Hurt. Waves of emotion engulfed Max. One surprise was that the artist’s impression of John Hurt that Max had previously drawn of a tall white guy with a straw in his mouth was so far from the reality. Why had Max assumed this music to be the work of a white man? Well, white and black musicians were both playing some of this music in the 1920s, as opposed to the Delta blues, which was exclusively produced by blacks, and Max would have been unaware of John’s musical sources. John had drawn from many white musicians such as Jimmie Rodgers and of course he had played with Willie Narmour and Shell Smith, two white musicians from Avalon. Harry Smith refused to identify performers by race on his Anthology recordings (assuming that he was aware of their race), and Max’s mistaken impression served to reinforce the fact that these folk were interested in the music and not the racial origins of the artists. (p.133)

. Rediscovery and Sweet Success

Figure 3.5. John with friends on the front porch of the Valley Store in March 1963. Later identified by Annie Cook as (left to right) Hilman Moreland, John’s brother Hennis, and Mac House.

(Tom Hoskins, March 1963, Tom Hoskins Archive.)

Max picks up the story of what he observed that day in Dick Spottswood’s house.

In the living room sat a little man on a chair. Around him, in a circle, were all these disciples, including probably the best white blues guitar player alive, Mike “Backward Sam Firk” Stewart. Firk said to John, “Why don’t you play something?” I think John played “Nobody’s Dirty Business,” but he was rusty—in those 35 years he had lost some of his sharpness. Firk interjected, ‘Wait a minute John, on the record you made in 1928 didn’t you play it like this?’ and he began to play. John’s eyebrows lifted and his eyes were wide. He realized that Wow! These guys mean business. John must have been surprised to see and hear a young white man playing his style and sensed adoration from these disciples. He soon picked up where he had left off and over the course of the next few months became better than he had ever been.

Although Max’s account summarizes the events that took place, the detail that John’s guitar playing may have been rusty seems suspect, because his rendition of “Nobody’s Dirty Business” and other songs that he played on the day of his rediscovery in Avalon was typical Hurt-style intricate finger picking.26

In spite of an imposing and magnetic stage presence that would become familiar to his followers, John was a small man, around 5’ feet 4” (p.134)

. Rediscovery and Sweet Success

Figure 3.6. Outside the Hurt family home 1963. Left to right: Jessie, Gertrude Conley Hurt

(John’s first wife), Jennie Simms (Gertrude’s older sister), John, and grandchildren Ella Mae and Andrew Lee. This grouping of John and Jessie along with first wife Gertrude and her sister Jennie Simms is important as it provides evidence that, in spite of contrary views, Gertrude remained close to John and his new family. Mary Frances and other grandchildren who have many fond memories of Mama Dear (Gertrude) at various family gatherings support this view, which was to become important after John’s death when inheritances were questioned (see ch. 5). (Tom Hoskins, March 1963, Tom Hoskins Archive.)

and weighing about 130 pounds. With age he had become a little stooped, but he carried himself erectly and with dignity. A long lifetime of hard work and country living had given him a heavily muscled neck, biceps, and chest. Bill Givens reckoned that he was an ideal subject for a bronze sculpture.27

Bill Tydings was a non-playing member of the group. He remembers when Hoskins arrived back in Maryland with John Hurt. “John thought he was under arrest when Fang found him—he had never known a white man that didn’t lie to him.” Soon after he arrived a group of them were sitting having a meal together when John said to Bill, “I never sat down to a meal with white people or slept in a white man’s bed before.” “He had never dreamed that this would be possible. But he came into a group of people that were different,” said Tydings.

Holly Ann Ehrich Ochs MacNamee Henderson was married to Max Ochs during the early 1960s. She spent time with John during his rediscovery years. She recalls John adding to the story of his rediscovery, saying that he did not initially believe that people from Washington, D.C., (p.135) were interested in his music. He did however, know where D.C. was: it was the seat of government, and for some reason he figured he was in trouble with the government. He assumed, therefore, that if he resisted he would be forced to go. He did not want to go. But, he knew he had done nothing wrong and he knew that God would protect him. And so, this good man, bordering on elderly, who had been out of the Deep South only once, got into the car and went with them. In common with just about everyone who ever met John Hurt, Holly was deeply moved in his presence: “The depth and quality of that faith was so powerful that it would touch thousands of people in the few remaining years of his life. I was one of them.”

The Contract with Music Research Incorporated

Hastily a contract was drawn up between Mississippi John Hurt and Music Research Incorporated (MRI). The contract covered management and recording and was signed on March 15, 1963, in attorney B. J. Powell’s (an old friend and guardian of Hoskins during his teens) office in Washington. MRI manufactured Piedmont Records. The contract was signed by John S. Hurt as artist, Richard K. Spottswood as manager and president, Thos. B. Hoskins as manager and vice president, and Louisa C. H. Spottswood as secretary (see Fig. 3.7). Interestingly, on a number of duplicates of this same contract, Hoskins’s name has been erased from the copies.

The contract is printed in full in Appendix 2. It was intended to promote the professional welfare and career of the artist to the mutual profit of both manager and artist. It gave MRI sole and exclusive rights worldwide to represent the artist and covered all types of performances and recordings. The artist agreed to refer to the manager all requests for appearances and services and agreed not to engage any other persons to act in the capacity of manager, representative, or advisor.

The contract stipulates: “As compensation for Manager’s services here-in, Artist agrees to pay Manager a sum equal to Fifty percent (50%) of all gross compensation received by artist from all sources as the result of Artist’s professional activities …” It continues: “Artist hereby further agrees to reimburse Manager with respect to any and all expenses Manager may incur on Artist’s behalf, but only to the extent of royalties received by Artist.” Record sales were to provide $0.15 per record sold to the artist, with the Manager bearing all expenses of the production of records. The contract covered a five-year period from the date of signing (p.136) with an automatic extension for a further five years, if, at the end of the first term, “the Artist shall have earned a gross aggregate sum in excess of five hundred Dollars, ($500.00)” during the first term. This contract appears to reflect similar terms and conditions to those employed generally in the music industry at that time. However, it was to be seriously questioned in subsequent years.

Attorney B. J. Powell and Tom Hoskins on separate occasions told Denise Tapp that John Hurt had insisted on the fifty-fifty arrangement because he would never have seen any extra money without Tom’s help, and all of Tom’s friends at that time are adamant that Tom spent most of his share of the proceeds helping John and his family. Tommy also told his sister Suzanne that he had originally suggested that John receive 90 percent while Tommy took 10 percent, but that John insisted on a fifty-fifty split.28 Stefan Grossman told me that Tom Hoskins really loved John and that he was therefore surprised to see the conditions of the contract. Dick Spottswood said that the terms of the contract were never applied.

An important development in addition to the signing of the MRI contract was the agreement established with Pete Kuykendall of Wynwood Records. Hoskins later testified: “It was an arrangement whereby we could use Wynwood’s recording facilities free of charge in exchange for giving the publishing rights of John Hurt’s music to Wynwood.” The agreement gave publishing rights to Wynwood and provided for 50 percent of publishing royalties to go to MRI.29 This meant that John would receive only 25 percent of the money made from the sale of his compositions.

The First Piedmont Recordings

With some urgency a recording session was planned, and a long series of tapes were recorded. These tapes were recorded at Sandy Fisher’s house in Annapolis by Peter Silitch, Peter Kuykendall, and Sandy Fisher on March 24, 26, 29, and April 2, 1963. Peter remembers John applying kerosene to his fingers because they were sore, having not played guitar for a time. Because of John’s nervousness, the tapes were left running during long periods of playing and conversation. Selections from these masters were used for the first Piedmont album, Folk Songs and Blues (PLP 13157).30 On this first visit he also played at the Showboat and the Brick Cellar, two clubs in D.C.

Dick Spottswood described John’s reaction to lodging with the Spottswoods in a “lily-white” section of Arlington, Virginia. “He felt quite frightened when he first came here. John was the only Negro for several (p.137)

. Rediscovery and Sweet Success

Figure 3.7. Final page of contract between Mississippi John Hurt and Music Research Incorporated, dated 15 March 1963, showing signatures.

(Tom Hoskins Archive.)

blocks, but it worked out pleasantly. No one bothered him, so he gradually became accustomed to his new surroundings. He was afraid at first to be seen with Louisa in public places, because down there there’s a strict code against that. In Mississippi, the most horrible thing they can imagine is a Negro man and a white woman.” Dick went on to describe how John loved parties and how he would play for hours at the drop of a hat.31

On March 27, 1963, just over three weeks after Tom Hoskins had re-discovered Mississippi John Hurt in Avalon, and during the period he was recording his first Piedmont tracks, a civil rights march in Greenwood began as a response to the burning down of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) voter registration office and a shooting at the home of George Greene, a SNCC worker. On the march to the county courthouse several African Americans were arrested. As the protesters approached the courthouse, police appeared wearing yellow helmets, carrying riot sticks, and leading police dogs. Some protesters were attacked and bitten by the dogs.32

Around this time John was encouraged to write down a summary of his life story, which details some of the events documented in earlier chapters. The document was labeled “Life Record Letter” in John’s handwriting (see Fig. 3.8). There is no date or address. It reads as follows, with all writing errors preserved: (p.138)

. Rediscovery and Sweet Success

Figure 3.8. Final page of Life Record Letter written by Mississippi John Hurt in early 1966.

(Tom Hoskins Archive.)

I was born and raised in the state of Mississippi Born at teoc Miss My mother moved 5 miles north off teoc when I was a 2 or three month old baby still this is in the carroll county Mississippi there is where i grew up to man hood. When I become school age my mother send me to saint James school. Later William H. Carson stardid coating my teacher. he was a guitar picker he would spend the week in night at my mothers home I wasent Alowed to bother with his guitar. I would wait untill he go to sleep. Then I would slip his guitar into my room try to play it.

there I learn to play Guitar at the age of 9 year old. a week after that My Mother Bought Me a second hand Guitar at the price off. $1.50cts. No Guitar has No Moore Buteifuler sound. at the age off 14 I went to playing for Country Dances. Also private homes. at this time I was working very hard on a farm near Avalon Miss. In the years off 28. and 29. I recorded for the OkeH. Recording Company at Memphis tenn. in 28. New York in 29—after that i came back to my home in Mississippi worked hard on a farm. for my licking [?] work on the River with the U.S. Ingnurs [Engineers?]

also work some on the I C Railroad. and on. WPA. project. Now i am on the road again with the piedmont record company

Hoping to make a success.

Mississippi John S. Hurt

The late Jerry Ricks, an African American musician who was very close to John, questioned the validity of this letter, feeling that a black farmer from Mississippi would not use this type of language. While this may (p.139) be true, it is clear that the letter is in John’s own handwriting; perhaps it was dictated or drafted for him? However, from what I have learned about John, I think that this is just what he himself would have written. John says that he is now “on the road again with the Piedmont Record Company” and ends on an incredible note of modesty: “Hoping to make a success”!

John stayed around D.C. for about three weeks. After he finished the tapes Hugh Claudy drove him back to Avalon, probably during the first weeks of April. He was certainly back there by April 22, 1963, when John wrote to Tom Hoskins.

Carrollton Miss. R2 box 60

April the 22th 1963

Dear Mr Hoskins i recieve your kind and welcome letter was glad very glad to hear from you it found me ok. hope this will find you the same. Mr Spottswood. Miss Louisa Miss Mariann. Also i hope all is well. Hugh Claudy was a good traveling companion to travell with he was just like a brother. he put me right to my Door. before he left me he was a realy a nice man. I miss you all. i am hoping to be back with you all as soon as i can. Everything is going pretty smooth so far. good to no that the people in Washington likes my music thanks for the compliments Jessie says Hellow to you all. tell bill Hellow Hellow may god be with us all till we meat again.

By. Sincerely


Mississippi John S. Hurt33

He offers his good wishes to Spottswood, Louisa (Dick’s wife at that time), and Marianne (probably Marianne Chandler, who was Fang’s girl-friend at the time and who worked for the Spottswoods). She may have become the wife of Phil Lynch, the emcee of the Ontario Place coffee-house in the Adams Morgan section of Washington where John was to become the resident artist.34 When John asked Tom to “tell Bill Hellow [sic],” he was probably referring to Bill Tydings, whom he had met on his visit to D.C.

In an undated recorded interview, Hoskins recalls a visit to Mississippi when he had given John a lift into Greenwood. John rode in the front seat with Tom and was dropped off in town. Tom told John that he would collect him later. As he was about to drive away, a grey car pulled over. “A typical redneck got out and says, ‘What do you think your doin’ down here drivin’ about with a goddamn nigger in the front seat of your car?’ (p.140) I thought Uh! Uh! I drove off, but they followed me around the town.” The four men in the car pursued him. At some traffic lights they tried to get out of the car, but the lights changed and Hoskins again drove off with the men in pursuit. “I thought there’s no way I’m gonna handle these four guys.” He pulled up at the police station and ran inside, running past the sergeant’s desk and into a courtroom. “I went into the courtroom, over benches and chairs, these guys right behind me. They cornered me; all four were right in front of me. They’s [sic] all slinging punches and I’m getting hit. If this is what’s gonna happen, I’m gonna get mine; I saw this one guy’s face and Pow! Blood and teeth were flyin.’ About that time, the cops came in.” The police separated them and sent the four assailants away. The police chief said to Hoskins, “We don’t want no trouble.” “He lectured me a bit and said, ‘You can’t go around here doin’ this stuff,’ and then let me outta the side door.” Hoskins drove to where he had left John. “John was waiting. I said, ‘get in the car John.’ They drove out of town and up the first dirt road they came to. They drove around for a while to make sure no one was following. John knew what was happening.”35

Mike Stewart recalled that on record-collecting trips with Hoskins they were frequently harassed by the police, on one occasion being told, “Well, Stewart, we don’t like your kind around here and if I see you around here again I’m gonna put you in jail and throw away the key.” Conversely, black folks were always friendly and Hoskins recalls many incidents of warmth and hospitality offered to him and Mike Stewart in Greenwood when canvassing for old 78 records. They were offered iced tea or lemonade and often stayed awhile chatting. Folks would say, “You boys come in, Ya’ll be hungry.”36

At the time of the intense activity to get John settled into the Washington scene, civil rights events continued to escalate. In Birmingham, Alabama, Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) were confronting segregation through peaceful demonstrations, rallies, boycotts, and appeals to justice aimed at attracting national attention and encouraging public sympathy. Civil rights leaders anticipated a violent response from Birmingham Police Commissioner Bull Connor to suppress the demonstrations.

They were correct in their assumptions. Police dogs and fire hoses were used to disperse the demonstrators. Martin Luther King was arrested by Birmingham police on Good Friday, April 12, 1963, and thrown into jail. During his stay, white ministers of Birmingham churches urged King to call off the demonstrations and boycotts. This provoked King to write his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” among his best-known writings. On May 3 Birmingham police used dogs and fire hoses on student protesters (p.141) organized by the SCLC; and 250 were arrested. Within five days 2,500 had been arrested and Birmingham, Alabama, was on the world stage again. The initiative for the Civil Rights Bill emerged from a very worried presidential administration.37

On May 4, 1963, John wrote again to Tom Hoskins addressing his letter to Mr. Hoskins and Miss Marianne.

Carrolton Miss Rt2 box60

May the 4th 1963.

Hellow Mr Hoskins and Miss Marianne hope you all is ok. i am ok Jessie is ok. i am trying to get fix every day to see you all soon as I can I miss you Mr Spottswood Miss Louisa. and Miss Marianne. hope to be back with you all in Washington soon Jessie says she will be willing to live there but wants me to make one moore trip and get everything fix for living there. i would like to live as clost to you all as i could i very glad to no that the Brickskellar and Showboat. wants me back for return engagements. so Kinder look out for me a good place as clost to you all as possible hope to hear from you soon by from yours sincere

John. S. Hurt38

P.S. havent latch on to a guitar yet but have had the boys Guitar everyday since I got back home

Give my love to all

On his visits to Washington during 1963, John stayed with the Spottswoods, and they have many happy memories of the time John spent with them. Louisa recalls teaching John how to use the telephone and how both he and Jessie took to it; when they moved back to Mississippi in 1966, they had two phones installed in their house in Grenada.

On May 27 John wrote again:

Carrollton Miss. May the. 27th. 1963.

Dear Mr Hoskins I recieve your kind and welcome letter was glad very glad to hear from you and Mr Spottswood. i was overwhelome with joy glad off the invitation. to the folk festivals so I will try to be redy so send for me the 15th if I live I will try and be redy so when you send be right there to meat me. Everybody here, both white and black wants some of my records asks me everyday when will they be able to get some of them. i was very glad to hear about the guitars i was just fixing to try to get one from the music house on installment i got a letter from Mr Claudy a few days ago ask me when was i going back to Washington tell all i say Hellow Miss Marrianne Mr Spottswood Miss Louisa. i got (p.142) my glasses the next week after i got home they are nice but hevent heard how my chest EXray. Mr tommie please send me your forn No. Might want to call you sometime before i get off to Washington Jessie sends Hellow to all.

Yours sincere. JohnS Hurt PS tell bill Hellow.

John mentions that he is pleased with his new glasses but he has not heard about his chest X-ray. I know of no photographs of, or reference to, John wearing glasses. His reference to the folk festivals was a response to his invitation to the Newport and Philadelphia folk festivals in 1963. The reference to guitars followed being told that the organizers of the Newport festival had decided to buy him a guitar.

Dick Spottswood recalled: “John returned in June [his second trip to D.C. and presumably rather late in June] and we scheduled him into the Ontario Place as the folk musician in residence. We had to have some means of guaranteeing John some sort of steady income in Washington where living costs are much higher.”39 It was probably this trip about which Mike Stewart recalls borrowing Hugh Claudy’s large Peugeot car to go and collect John in, and in which John traveled back and slept with his head on Firk’s shoulder. Mike recalls that it was a large comfortable car with reclining seats.

The Ontario Place was one of many coffeehouses that had become the in-places to relax, meet girls, listen to music, and presumably drink coffee. The Spottswoods knew Phil Lynch, the emcee there, which presumably provided the opportunity to get John some work. Coffeehouses had provided meeting places for liberals and intellectuals since Café Society opened at 2 Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village, New York, on December 28, 1938. Café Society was a nightclub rather than a coffeehouse; its companion club, Café Society Uptown opened on East 58th Street in October 1940.40 The proprietor, Barney Joseph, loved jazz and was disgusted by the racism that occurred at nightclubs in 1930s New York City. Café Society was one of the first public places to break down the color barrier.41

John Meets Archie Edwards

Archie Edwards, an African American from Virginia, grew up in a musical family and had listened to Mississippi John Hurt records in the 1930s. Archie enlisted in the army in 1941, just prior to the United States’ involvement in World War II. He learned to play the guitar in his teens; his (p.143) father played guitar and had records of various blues singers, including Mississippi John Hurt. Archie recalled that at that time in the thirties, Blind Boy Fuller was really big on the East Coast, and that he would also listen to Mississippi John Hurt records.42

Around 1943–44 Archie was stationed at Camp Van Dorn in the Homochitto National Forest near Centreville, Mississippi, on the border of Wilkinson and Amite Counties just north of the Louisiana state line. While there he enquired about Mississippi John Hurt. “In the back of my mind, I knew I would meet Mississippi John Hurt, so I kept picking the guitar.” He asked a lot of local people if they knew Mississippi John Hurt, but they didn’t know where he was. “Well, some of the old-timers around there knew him, but they didn’t know where he was. He has kinda faded out. So I stayed in Mississippi about two, three years, and didn’t find John Hurt. I didn’t find John Hurt but, I always had it in my mind that I would meet him.”43 It seems unlikely that any of the locals in and around Centreville actually knew John. Possibly they knew of him from his records.

Archie relocated to Washington in the 1950s and bought a barbershop on Bunker Hill Road in northeast D.C. In 1963, having bought a Sunday paper, unread until the following Thursday, Archie saw a picture of a man with a guitar and an article saying that Mississippi John Hurt was playing nightly at the Ontario Place. Archie could not believe that this really was the Mississippi John Hurt and called the Ontario Place to ask if it was true. “Well I didn’t find him in Mississippi, but I found him in Washington.”44

Archie told his wife the news and two days later, Archie, who was suffering from laryngitis at the time, went down to the Ontario Place and met John. They hit it off really well and John said, “Well brother Arch, I’ll tell you what, we’ll get together sometime and when you get so you can talk, we’ll play and sing some.” Archie and John became great friends and had some good times together. Archie would collect John and bring him to his barbershop. John would sit around and play the guitar while Archie cut a few heads of hair. They played together a lot: “we didn’t have to practice together. Anything he could play I could back him on. And whatever I could play, he could back me up on. So we just made a good team.”45

John frequently offered Archie advice. He told him: “Always keep your hat on. You know back in those days there was quite a lot of jealous guys in the audience and sometimes you have to run. But, if you got your hat on your head and you have to run, you know you left the house with it.” Judging by all the photographs and film clips of John, he always stuck by that. Once when Archie had told John that he had an electric guitar and (p.144) played some rock ’n’ roll, John had said, “Brother Archie, rock-and-roll players are gonna be ten cents a dozen pretty soon, so you stay where you are.”46

Archie Edwards told Barry Lee Pearson that he reckoned Mississippi John Hurt was responsible for much of the folk boom in the sixties. “You could see people coming out of music stores with guitars. You’d say, Uh! Uh! John has done spread an epidemic, you know.” Archie suggested that John brought a lot of people out. “John brought out John Jackson, Elizabeth Cotten, Flora Molton, and Ester Mae Scott.”47 Later John was to ask Archie to keep his music alive: “Brother Arch, whatever you do, teach my music to other people.” He said, “Don’t make no difference what color they are, teach it to them. Because I don’t want to die and you don’t want to die. Teach them my music and teach them your music.”48 After John’s death Archie committed himself to do John’s will; his barber-shop became a regular hangout for musicians, and it remains so to this day. Archie Edwards passed away in June 1998.

John appeared at the Berkeley Folk Festival in June 1963, along with Joan Baez, the New Lost City Ramblers, Doc Watson, and Almeda Riddle.49 ED Denson (he uses double capitals in his first name), co-founder of Kicking Mule Records with Stefan Grossman, was a friend of Hoskins and later helped road manage John Hurt. He wrote to Holly Ochs about a phone call he received from Tom Hoskins. The voice said, “Hello ED this is the Fang.” ED continues: “so i drive mississippi john and fang to sacramento that afternoon, top down and hot brown hills, furnace, back killing me and offwego [sic] spent week with fang and mjh at the folk festival, really dig john hurt.”

At this or a subsequent Berkeley festival, Stefan Grossman, who was living in California at the time, remembers driving John down to Los Angeles with Steve Katz to play the Ashgrove. At one Berkeley festival, John was introduced to Lightnin’ Hopkins at ED Denson’s house. Lightnin’ was dressed in a red jacket, yellow pants, and black and white shoes. After they had politely addressed each other as Mr. Hurt and Mr. Hopkins, Lightnin’ told John that there was a Mr. Daniels would like to meet him, opening his jacket to reveal a pint bottle of Jack Daniels whiskey. John said that he would be pleased to meet Mr. Daniels and the two of them walked off into the garden and were not seen again for several hours.50

While John was getting accustomed to life as a professional musician and establishing himself with his mostly white audiences, racial unrest gathered momentum. On June 11, 1963, John F. Kennedy submitted his civil rights bill to Congress; the next day Medgar Evers, field secretary for (p.145) the NAACP, was shot in Jackson, Mississippi.51 John Hurt and thousands like him kept their heads down, having no interest in getting personally involved in the national challenge to white supremacy.

In mid-July, Pete Seeger and a number of other musicians visited Greenwood, Mississippi, supporting the registration of black voters. While in Mississippi they sang at a Baptist church, an NAACP meeting in Jackson, and a large festival outside Greenwood (close to Avalon) at which Bob Dylan and Theodore Bikel appeared.52 This was an enormously dangerous and courageous activity.

On July 15 and 23, 1963, John recorded the bulk of his entire repertoire for the Library of Congress at Coolidge Auditorium. Most tunes were released and are now available on the double CD, D.C. Blues.53 A few tunes were left out, such as “Lazy Blues,” “Nobody Cares for Me,” and “I’ve been Cryin’ Since You Been Gone,” but these were recorded on the second Piedmont LP, Worried Blues,54 in March 1964. At that time John had not yet learned “Goodnight Irene” from Leadbelly’s recording, nor had he written “Boys You’re Welcome.” Dick Spottswood had commented, “My thought at the time was, Look, this guy could keel over tomorrow. And if he does, it will be a sad and tragic thing. But, it will be a lot less sad and tragic if we have definitive recordings of these songs in place. I was thinking preservation.”55

Being a shy man, John was always reluctant to sing bawdy material to people he did not know, especially ladies. This is demonstrated at the end of the recording of “Funky Butt.” John performs the song, leaving out many of the risqué lyrics and allowing his guitar to fill in the tune. At the end Joe Hickerson, head of the Library’s Archive of Folk Song, comments, “I don’t think you were singing the whole thing there, John,” to which John agrees, with a knowing chuckle.56 There was another take of the tune in which John did fill in many of the words. When asked to perform Jimmie Rodgers’s “Waiting for a Train” John again responds with a chuckle, saying “But I can’t yodel,” before he plays the tune.57 He was clearly enjoying the experience.

After a spell at the Ontario Place’s Café Gallerie, John appeared at the Newport Folk Festival (July 26–28, 1963) held at Freebody Park in Newport, Rhode Island. Dick Spottswood tells the story. “We stayed in Newport for three days. The funny part of the whole thing was that none of the directors at Newport, aside from Bill Clifton, had ever heard of John Hurt. The critics and writers gave John tremendously favorable reviews at his Newport engagement. When it was all over and we were leaving, Bill Clifton said to John, ‘You know, you were the jack-in-the-box of this whole affair.’”58

(p.146) That third Newport Festival was the biggest so far, with reports variously suggesting between 37,000 and 46,000 people attended the four concerts and twenty workshops. Mississippi John Hurt was in good company, sharing the bill with Peter, Paul and Mary, Pete Seeger, Jean Ritchie, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Joan Baez, and the young newcomer Bob Dylan. Bill Monroe, Doc Watson, Clarence Ashley, the Georgia Sea Island Singers, John Lee Hooker, and Dave Van Ronk also appeared. John’s young grandnephew Fred Bolden went along to one of the workshops in the Newport Casino with his Uncle John and Tom Hoskins. “Uncle John played ‘Spike Driver Blues’ and Joan Baez came over and BAM!!! I fell in love with her right on the spot. Man, the way I looked at her would have gotten me lynched had we been in the South.”

John’s performances at the 1963 Newport festival were recorded, with agreement, by Vanguard,59 but not before some wrangling. Maynard Solomon of Vanguard Records had prepared a contract (see Appendix 3), which John signed, agreeing to pay John $50.00 or the going rate of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) union scale, whichever was greater, for each solo performance released. The contract gave Vanguard exclusive rights to record and sell recordings of all John’s performances at Newport 1963 and includes a statement that, “I [Mississippi John Hurt] am free to give you this right and that no prior agreement or performance interfere therewith.” A copy of the contract, signed by Maynard Solomon and Mississippi John Hurt, is annotated with notes by Tom Hoskins suggesting that the contract contradicts earlier statements made by Music Research Inc. and that it (wrongly) indicates that John is free to make deals on his own (i.e., without prior agreement with MRI).

John’s recorded performances of “See, See Rider,” “Stagolee,” “Spike Driver Blues,” and “Coffee Blues” appear on the Newport album. “Candy Man,” “Trouble, I’ve Had It All My Days,” and “Frankie” were also released on the Blues at Newport album in 1964.60

A host of country blues enthusiasts were at Newport 1963, including Phil Spiro and Eric von Schmidt. John’s rediscovery and his appearance at Newport generated a huge wave of interest and excitement. Blues enthusiasts started to seek out more of the old bluesmen. John Fahey and ED Denson sought out and found Bukka White. Fahey, Bill Barth, and Henry Vestine (later of the group Canned Heat) located Skip James. In July 1964, Nick Perls, Phil Spiro, and Dick Waterman located Son House.61

These enthusiasts, who would become known as the Blues Mafia, were almost entirely young hippie types, but Stephen Calt cynically claims that they became driven by monetary gain, to some degree based on the (p.147) knowledge that Mississippi John Hurt was making $200 a week. Calt goes on to recount that Skip James became “enmeshed in business transactions that were quite shameful, thanks to the shamelessness of his assorted sponsors.” He refers to John Fahey and other discoverers as mentors “disguised by an aura of pious altruism,” criticizing Fahey for calling himself an ethnomusicologist.62

The late Philadelphia Jerry Ricks remembered first meeting John at Newport. “Tommy Hoskins introduced us, Tommy was really cool and left us alone talking a while. An audience of over 15,000 people was waiting to hear this new discovery from Mississippi. John walked onstage and said, ‘Hi, how ya doin’.’ There was a 40 second silence and then a roar. It was like he was saying welcome to my gig.” The recording provides the detailed facts of that event. Pete Seeger introduced John, who walked on stage saying, “Good evening people, glad to be with y’all. First little number I’m gonna do ya is ‘See, See Rider.’” After the applause died down, John did “See, See Rider” and then introduced “Stagolee”: “Do you a little number now, Stagolee, desperado.” “Spike Driver Blues” followed, and he finished his set with “Coffee Blues,” introducing it with his usual “Maxwell House, good to the last drop.” By this time the audience were eating out of his hand and the applause was huge.63

John played a vintage Emory twelve-fret guitar with a slotted peg head that was built around 1900. Tom Hoskins initially acquired this guitar from Mike Stewart. Tom then loaned it to John for his Newport appearance. This guitar stayed with Tom for the rest of his life, and he always valued it highly.

It was around the time of the 1963 Newport Festival that the festival directors took John to Marc Silber’s store Fretted Instruments adjacent to Israel (Izzy) Young’s Folklore Center in New York, to buy him a guitar. Marc Silber, and others including Tom Hoskins and Stefan Grossman, encouraged John to choose an expensive, high-quality instrument and suggested a Martin OM-45. John quietly declined and chose a sunburst Guild F-30 NT. John provided Gene Bush with an interesting account of the time he was offered the new guitar from the Newport festival committee. The Guild was priced at $180 and the Martin at $200; John told Gene that he chose the Guild because he was getting it free and did not want to take advantage.64

Sometime between the end of July and August 29, John returned to Mississippi. On August 28 an historic march on Washington occurred. Over 250,000 people participated in the peaceful demonstration aimed at pressuring the Federal government to advance the civil rights agenda. The demonstration culminated in the famous “I Have a Dream” speech (p.148) by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.65 Tens of millions watched on television.

On August 29, the day after the march on Washington, John wrote again to Tom Hoskins.

Carrollton Miss. Rt. 2 box 60

August the 29th 1963

Mr Thomas B. Hoskins. Hellow My friend how are you ok i hope. This leaves me and family all well hope you and family is well and enjoying life. i receive your welcome letter was glad to hear from you but sorrie to hear business aint so good but just as you said in your letter Less stick with it. i haven’t told the man that i am fixing to move yet but i will tell him sunday morning. I am making redy every day to get moved. So if i don’t get up there I am moving just the same. but i am still looking forward to get up there

O yes should I still be looking to meat my invertation to the folk festival in Philadelphia pa the 678th of September. let me no by anser soon. yours truly

Mississippi John Hurt

P.S. i got a package here was sent to Backyard sam firk they sent it to MD. in his name. then mail it on to me in my care i tore it open by it being my mail before i noticed his name on it so please get him word for me so i will no what to do about it its 2 oil filter bran new

The P.S. regarding the delivery of an oil filter to Avalon addressed to Backward Sam Firk c/o John Hurt, reinforces the fact that Mike Stewart had in fact been down there. Why the oil filter was forwarded from Maryland to Avalon is a mystery that even Mike himself could not solve!

Perhaps Stewart and Hoskins went down to collect John? Perhaps this was the trip when Mike Stewart recalls the story of John falling asleep with his head on Mike’s shoulder? Whatever happened, John was back to perform at the Philadelphia Folk Festival on September 6–8. He shared the bill with Elizabeth Cotten, Dave Van Ronk, and the Jim Kweskin Jug Band.

The next time Jerry Ricks met John was at this Philadelphia festival. He spotted John and Tommy and thought he would go and say hello. He walked over ready to introduce himself and say that they had met earlier in the year at Newport, when John’s eyes lit up and he shouted over, “Hey man, remember me,” completely turning the tables. Of course, Jerry Ricks and Archie Edwards were probably the only African American musicians around in John’s new circle of friends. (p.149)

. Rediscovery and Sweet Success

Figure 3.9. Brochure advertising Mississippi John Hurt at the 1966 Philadelphia Folk Festival.

(Tom Hoskins Archive.)

Musician John Miller recalls seeing John Hurt perform in the Saturday evening concert at the Philadelphia Folk Festival. The concert starred Mike Seeger, Elizabeth Cotten, Hobart Smith, Dave Van Ronk, and Jimmy Martin and the Sunny Mountain Boys, as well as Mississippi John Hurt. John went on to play at the 1964, 1965, and 1966 Philadelphia festivals. In 1965 Jerry Ricks joined John on stage and played several numbers with him. John Miller recalled how much John had improved during that year.

John, Jessie, Ella Mae, and Andrew Move to Washington D.C.

By September 1963 John and Jessie had agreed to move permanently to Washington. In his letter of May 4 John had said that he and Jessie were willing to move and that he hoped to live as close to Tom and the Spottswoods as possible, and in his letter of August 29 said that he was “making redy evry day to get moved.” Dick was unwell at the time and it was decided that his wife Louisa would drive down to Mississippi to collect Jessie, the family, and their belongings. The Spottswoods’ home (p.150) help, an African American lady named Rosalee Coles, expressed a desire to accompany Louisa “to see some history” and they set off together on September 13, 1963. Rosalee had her hair done for the occasion and they sat side by side in Louisa’s mother’s Chevrolet, pulling a U-Haul trailer in which to transport the Hurts’ possessions.

They took the southern route through Virginia, Atlanta and Birmingham, and along U.S. 82 through Columbus and Winona to Greenwood, Mississippi. They were acutely aware of the attention that their companionship might provoke, so during the drive down through Virginia, they ate together in some public places, mainly in Howard Johnson’s restaurants, which had recently integrated, but in Alabama and Mississippi they did not go into any public places together. They ordered their food to carry out in some places. Louisa recalled to me the feeling of tension and anxiety while traveling in Alabama.

In Birmingham their anxiety was justified when a local person told them that the folks in these parts did not approve of black and white women traveling in the same car together and warned them of “bad repercussions.” Louisa asked, “You mean they would harm women in broad day-light?” He replied in the affirmative, saying, “the women in Alabama are with us on this,” or some similar threatening statement. Surprisingly, on crossing into Mississippi, Louisa noted a calmer, friendlier atmosphere.

Following directions furnished by Dick and Tom Hoskins, they arrived at the Hurts’ house beyond the Valley Store at around sunset on September 14, 1963. Perkins, the landowner and boss of John and Jessie, appeared. Louisa spoke with Perkins while Jessie and friends loaded the trailer with the Hurts’ belongings including Jessie’s treadle sewing machine.

Perkins handed Louisa a bill for $89 and some cents saying that the Hurts owed him this money and that he had been to a magistrate who had confirmed that this was a valid debt and that the Hurts could not leave the area until the bill was paid. The bill was for sundry items, but included a $10 payment on a refrigerator, which he had paid when John was sick. The bill included interest charges at 6 percent since the loan had been given. Louisa observed that Perkins actually had a bright red neck, contrary to her previous understanding that this was simply a metaphor for such a person!

Louisa had around $120 in cash and immediately paid the owed amount to Perkins, who looked astonished. She interpreted this gesture as disbelief on his part that anyone could think that John Hurt or his family were worth $89! Louisa had a distinct sense that she was buying them off the land: “Mr. Perkins, I believe viewed it that way as he said that he (p.151) would never have collected the debt if the Hurts had stayed.” Rosalee later told Louisa that Jessie had been so enraged that Perkins confronted Louisa with the bill that she had picked up a shotgun with intent to kill Perkins. Fortunately, Rosalee had disarmed her! John was also enraged when he heard that Perkins had demanded payment of the debt and told Dick Spottswood that Mississippi is “the asshole of the world!”

John had sent gifts of autographed copies of his first Piedmont LP (see Fig. 3.10) for Perkins and Watkins, who worked at the Stinsons’ Store. Louisa passed on the gifts. Watkins accepted his, but Perkins would not accept it as a gift and insisted on paying $5 for it. Louisa observed that Perkins did not appear to be angry or hostile, but he seemed determined not to be in debt to the Hurts. He may also have been disappointed in losing reliable workers in John and Jessie. He had been getting John’s services for $1 a day as a herdsman and Jessie’s for $4.50 per three-day week. The Hurts were also getting $40 per month each from Social Security. That night, Rosalee stayed with a friend of Jessie’s while Louisa stayed in a motel in a nearby town, probably Greenwood.

Next morning, Sunday, September 15, 1963, Louisa arose early, break-fasted around 6:00 a.m., and was in Avalon at 7:00 a.m. She arrived to find Rosalee pacing back and forward in front of the little cabin. Rosalee began to laugh when she saw Louisa arriving. She had been told that she would not see Louisa again, but not to worry as they could get Rosalee out of Mississippi! This may have been because Louisa had given a lift to a black teenage boy who wanted to go into town. The youth sat in the back seat and did not speak to Louisa on the journey. It was after dark and no one saw them. Louisa, Rosalee, Jessie, and the two grandchildren were quickly on their way. They drove north toward Memphis, wanting to avoid Alabama on the return journey.

That same day, in Birmingham four young African American girls, Addie May Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, and Denise McNair were getting ready to attend the Sixteenth Street Baptist church. The girls were dressed in their Sunday best and were preparing to attend Sunday school and appear at the 11:00 a.m. adult service. At 10:22 a.m. that morning, as Louisa and Rosalee with Jessie, Ella Mae, and Andrew traveled east through Tennessee, a bomb blew apart the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church killing the four black children and injuring another twenty people.66 Since 1911, this church had served as the center of life for Birmingham’s African American community. The bomb attack was the work of the Ku Klux Klan. By the end of the day, riots and fires had broken out in Birmingham and another two teenagers were dead. These events shocked the nation and strengthened the civil rights movement. (p.152)

. Rediscovery and Sweet Success

Figure 3.10. Autographed cover of the first Piedmont album as sent to Mr. Perkins by John and delivered by Louisa Spottswood when she visited Avalon to collect Jessie and grandchildren Ella Mae and Andrew in September 1963. Cover photo is of John playing Tom Hoskins’s Gibson J-45.

(Author’s collection.)

Louisa called home and arranged to have some money forwarded to Knoxville, Tennessee, and Dick informed her of a hotel in Knoxville that accepted black and white groups. The group stayed there that night and was informed that the money was awaiting them at the Western Union office. They collected the money next morning and continued on their way to Washington. Louisa’s mother’s old Chevrolet struggled through the mountains of east Tennessee and they had to stop every fifty miles or so to put water in the leaking radiator.

Jessie was a little nervous as they drove through the mountains of east Tennessee and Virginia. Neither she nor John had previously traveled out of their home patch in Mississippi (apart from John’s recording trips (p.153) to Memphis and New York in 1928). Rosalee chatted to Jessie, Ella Mae, and Andrew to comfort them on the long journey, as Louisa concentrated on keeping the car going and getting them all to D.C. safely. The party arrived in Washington without further incident. John was quickly reunited with Jessie, Ella Mae, and Andrew (a.k.a. Brother), and within a few days the Hurts moved into an apartment at 30 Rhode Island Avenue NE. The Spottswoods had looked around for a while for somewhere for them to stay before the Hurts selected this one. Dick Spottswood commented: “It was a little run down, but it was clean, roomy, and the lights and plumbing worked. I don’t remember how much the rent was, but I recall that it was reasonable.” Mike Stewart helped them move in and while moving some furniture into the apartment some of the movers stole some items. Fang retorted, “We’ll go after the sons-of-bitches,” but John just said, “Well its alright, some folks is just like that.”

Fred Bolden’s account of the move suggests a lack of concern about the family’s welfare.

Moving into that derelict dwelling was a culture shock for him. That neighborhood was infested with murder, robberies, rapes, drugs—you name it. Aunt Jessie gave me a clearer description during the summer of ’65, but we had heard Uncle John complain long before that. Personally, I feel better accommodations could have been made. It’s true that Uncle John never felt at home with white folks, but if this was someone’s idea of placing him among his own kind so as to make him more comfortable, well, it only brought the opposite effect. Already, they were pining again for Mississippi.

Tom Hoskins later said that Dick Spottswood had moved John and his family into this “crime-ridden inner city neighborhood in Washington, D.C.” Hoskins had wanted them to live in Takoma Park, Maryland, an integrated, bohemian suburb. “He was miserable being stuck there,” said Hoskins, and this added to the rift that was to develop later between Spottswood and Hoskins.67 In his letter to Hoskins of May 4, 1963, John had asked Hoskins to try to find them a house close to him and the Spottswoods.68

Back in Avalon, John’s new Piedmont LP was being sold at Stinson’s Store. Mississippi Magazine reporter Sean Ambrose reported: “A man at the Stinson and Company Store in Avalon had this to say about Mississippi John’s long-play album, ‘We didn’t have any trouble selling them, but I’ve been listening to him holler for twenty years now, and the $5 looks better to me in my pocket.’”69

(p.154) The family settled into their new home in Washington and maintained a friendship with Tom Hoskins and the Spottswoods. John would sit and talk with Louisa and had mentioned to her that he had been previously married, but little mention appears to have been made of the other side of the family prior to John’s death in 1966. The Spottswoods were keen to provide John with a reasonable quality of life and offered to help him attend to his teeth, of which he had very few. They helped him contact a competent black dentist in order to get some dentures fitted. After several visits, the dentist made up drawings and prepared to attend to John. But, eventually John declined to have the work done and Louisa was astonished to hear from John that “the D.C. dentists don’t understand that you will bleed to death if you have the work done in the wrong phase of the moon. In Mississippi, such work is done when the blood is in the feet.” John never did have his teeth attended to or have dentures fitted.

When interviewed about his past life in Mississippi, John often talked of cutting crossties for the railroad.70 After he moved to D.C. he became anxious to locate the long-handled axe that had been his longtime companion in the venture. Eventually, after much persuasion, Tom Hoskins called someone in Avalon to find John’s axe and ship it to Washington. This they did, and thereafter that axe occupied a prominent position in John’s house, presumably reminding him of days gone by.71

Civil rights pressures continued. On November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Lyndon B. Johnson, the vice president, assumed office and ensured the passage of the Civil Rights Act on July 2, 1964. This legislation decisively provided an end to any legal support for segregation. By the close of 1963, southern whites were so touchy that any white stranger, especially if carrying a guitar, was suspected of being involved in civil rights activity or at least being pro-black. When John Phillips, later to become leader and songwriter of the Mamas and the Papas,” led a Hootenanny Tour into Alabama, he mentioned Josh White and the audience erupted with shouts of “nigger.” The tour continued through Mississippi and was associated with riots and violence for much of the time.72

Increasing Popularity

During the winter of 1963–64 John’s popularity increased enormously, and he was kept busy playing a host of venues including New York’s Columbia University, Hunter College, the Gaslight Café in Greenwich (p.155) Village, the Second Fret in Philadelphia, Boston’s Café Yana, and the Ontario Place in D.C.73 Artist John Gerakis owned the Ontario Place until it closed temporarily in early 1964, and it was the main focus of John’s activities while he lived in Washington. The club reopened later in the year under the management of Bill Givens, founder of the Origin Jazz Library. John continued to perform there for at least one long weekend each month. Eric Park summed up the situation in Washington:

From the moment John was brought to Washington he had been appreciatively taken up by the entire extensive membership of the District of Columbia Folk Song Society who turned out en masse wherever John performed in the area and to whose sponsorship and generous financial support both John Hurt and the Ontario Place management were considerably indebted. John established a close rapport and intimacy with the Ontario Place and its staff and regulars and it was common to see John surrounded by a group of admirers chatting well into the early morning hours.74

Ed Ward was at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and heard of a Mississippi John Hurt concert being held a couple of hundred miles away. He and a bunch of his folky pals piled into a car to go and see the show. Ward reports:

We were rewarded by a typically spellbinding show. During the intermission I saw him sitting over to one side, alone, so I walked over to him to tell him how happy I was to have seen him. I guess I startled him: a silver flask was half way to his lips. But he heard me out, and grinned in a way that still warms me when I remember it. Taking the shot glass-shaped cap off the flask, he poured some whiskey into it. “Now, I know you’re not old enough,” he told me with a wink. “But don’t you tell nobody. I’m too old to be getting into trouble.” The whiskey burned its way down my throat but I knew better than to refuse. It wasn’t an old man giving alcohol to a teenager, it was a communion. And I’ve kept my promise to him until now. Somehow, I don’t think he’d mind.75

In February 1964 Dick Waterman, having met John briefly at the previous year’s Newport festival, booked him for a week at the Café Yana in Boston. John packed the place for six consecutive nights.76 Alan Wilson, later to become an important figure in the blues-rock band Canned Heat, (p.156) was born and raised in Boston and occasionally accompanied John on harmonica at his Boston gigs.77 Fred Bolden remembers the two of them jamming in his living room in Boston in February 1964, after John had completed a five-day engagement at the Café Yana.78

The Second Fret in Philadelphia was well known and booked many famous people in the acoustic blues genre including Mike Seeger, Libba Cotten, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Jessie Fuller, Josh White, and Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry. The late Philadelphia Jerry Ricks booked many of the acts for the Second Fret and recalled that when Brownie McGhee introduced “Backwater Blues,” he would always say, “this is a great song about the Mississippi flood.79 A lot of great things came out of that flood including the great musician, Mississippi John Hurt.”

One of the people influenced by John was Dave Van Ronk, who first met John after watching his performance at the Café Yana. After the show they all went back to where John was staying with his relatives at Roxbury (probably grandnephew Fred Bolden’s family home) to attend a party aimed at celebrating Uncle John’s birthday (probably March 1965). Van Ronk takes up the story. “The family was anxious to make sure Uncle John was shown a good time. I had a good time myself, and much of the evening is a blur, but the last thing I remember is a snowball fight in a graveyard. John was seventy that year [he was actually seventy-two], but he had a high, hard pitch that you would not believe—I think I still have the lump on my head.”80

Like almost everyone who ever met John, Van Ronk saw John as

The sweetest, gentlest man that ever came down the pike. To get an idea of his personality, you just have to listen to his records, because that is exactly the kind of man he was. In life as in music, he was an understater and a minimalist. Most blues artists deal in intensity, but he dealt in subtlety and nuance. The beat was always there, rock solid, but there was also a lyricism and deftness, and he was very, very easy on the nerves.

John spent a lot of time around the village and seemed to genuinely enjoy hanging out with us. I remember one time somebody was passing around a joint, and it came to John. He looked at it for a moment, and said, “Oh Yeah, I remember this. We used to call it poor man’s whiskey.” And he just passed it on. He was a delight. One of the odd things about him was that he did not like beds; he preferred a good comfortable armchair. He was the easiest man to put up overnight: “Here John we have a couch.” “Oh, I don’t need a couch. Say that looks like a great chair …”81

(p.157) Maybe John’s preference for an armchair gave him some relief from the bronchial condition from which he suffered, probably brought on by a lifetime of smoking.

Dick Spottswood recalled that rediscovered Mississippi bluesman Skip James was an unusual and at times very bitter man and, unlike most people, was contemptuous about John and many other musicians. Much of this contempt was probably because he was much less popular than John. He expressed his views to Stephen Calt: “Guys like John Hurt, and Son [House], you know, they’re just shaky. A white could tell ’em, ‘Go ahead and put your head in that hole nigger.’” James certainly didn’t care for most whites, although he believed them to be more honest than blacks. Like John, he had little interest in the civil rights movement or voting.82 John seldom showed much interest in politics or bothered to read a newspaper, but Jessie would talk about things. Fred Bolden remembers Jessie talking about Emmett Till’s murder, saying that it had happened close to where they lived.

Grandnephew Fred Bolden is the son of Everlene Hurt, the daughter of John’s brother Cleveland and his wife at the time, Fannie. Everlene grew up with her aunt Ella and Ned Moore after Cleveland and Fannie parted. Fred was in his early teens in 1963 and his mother had often talked of Uncle John from Mississippi. Everlene had moved from Mississippi to Boston in 1939. John’s first visit to Boston following his rediscovery was a time for celebration, a family reunion, and Fred remembers this and many subsequent visits to their home:

“It was in 1963 and Tom Hoskins called us from the Hotel Statler where they were staying. Tom didn’t know how to get to our house, so my dad went and picked them up. I’ll never forget that moment when he walked through our door. At that point my mom and dad hadn’t seen him since 1948 when they had gone down to Mississippi for a weeklong visit. Anyway, I think he must have picked that guitar until around midnight that first night.” Fred also remembered his uncle John playing the harp. “He would lounge around our home, he’d take out the harp and blow ‘Liza Jane.’ Those other harp numbers escape my memory. He used a D harmonica. The thing was very small.”

John enjoyed female company and was a huge flirt. Fred Bolden remembers him flirting with Jessie Martin, a friend of Fred’s mother. And of course, there are David Gahr’s photographs of John clearly flirting with Elizabeth Cotten at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964. Jerry Ricks re-called that Libba enjoyed John’s company.

Fred would give up his bed for Uncle John when he stayed and John would teach Fred chords and finger picking techniques on the guitar. (p.158) Fred remembers the first songs that his Uncle John taught him were “Chicago Bound” and “Oh Mary Don’t You Weep.” John played many songs that he did not record, such as “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” “Milky White Way,” and “Midnight Special.” For breakfast John loved eggs and thick bacon. He enjoyed southern food such as pork, chitlins, and cornbread.

Tom Hoskins brought John to Boston that first time and many times after that, but Jessie never came. “Tom was a nice guy—the family liked him,” Fred declared. Later, Dick Waterman also visited their home at the time that he was booking appearances for John Hurt and Skip James. Although Fred’s mother knew Gertrude and her side of the family, Fred does not recall her talking about them. His mother Everlene’s stepsister Lorenzo (who later married Skip James) and cousin I. T. lived close by, also having moved from Mississippi in the late 1940s.83 Lorenzo was Cleveland’s daughter and I. T. was Hennis’s daughter from their marriages to Lillie. Both had grown up with Hennis and Lillie. They would have known all the Hurts living around Avalon.

Apparently John did not often visit Avalon after moving to Washington and was happy with his new lifestyle. His brother Hennis reported in 1964: “Brother John stays gone now, he don’t ever be at home…. Brother John likes it fine now, he’ll never come home again ‘cept to visit. He likes it both ways, you know; there’s difference in the money and the treatment.”84

On December 13, 1963, Mississippi John Hurt headlined with Dock Boggs at the Friends of Old Time Music (FOTM) concert held at the NYU School of Medicine Alumni Hall at First Avenue and 32nd Street in New York. Ralph Rinzler, John Cohen, and “Izzy” Young organized and directed the FOTM with much support from Mike Seeger, Alan Lomax, Jean Ritchie, and Sam Charters. FOTM had a major effect in bringing traditional music to a wider audience through the concerts. FOTM organized fourteen concerts of traditional music, including bluegrass, old time and religious music, in New York. These concerts provided exposure for older traditional musicians such as Clarence Ashley, Doc Watson, Maybelle Carter, Fred McDowell, Jesse Fuller, Roscoe Holcomb, and Dock Boggs as well as Mississippi John Hurt.85

Stefan Grossman remembers attending this concert. It was the first time that he saw Mississippi John Hurt. “Dock [Boggs] was a tall straight white man—he performed first. John played his set and then Dock came on again. John did ‘Funky Butt’ and they looked great together—a tall white man and a little black man, both from the South.” Stefan was a friend of Tom Hoskins and they (with Rory Block and Marc Silber) went (p.159) backstage to meet John. “I was playing for them and they were cordial and very friendly. It was a magic concert.” Peter Siegel writes:

The concert by Dock Boggs and John Hurt was an extraordinary event. Mike Seeger, who had recently rediscovered Dock Boggs in Norton, Virginia, hosted the show and accompanied Dock gracefully on guitar. The evening highlighted some striking parallels and contrasts in the careers of Boggs and Hurt. Each had visited New York once before, Boggs to record for Brunswick in 1927, Hurt to record for OKeh in 1928. Each of them was back in New York for the first time in over three decades. When John walked onstage he announced, “So I’m back with y’all once again. And the reason why I say that [is that] in ’28 and ’29, I recorded for the OKeh Company. And I haven’t had the chance of being back to New York until tonight. And I feel kind of like I’m at home.” He followed by playing “My Creole Belle.”86

Interestingly, John frequently referred to recording his OKeh tunes in 1928 and 1929 when they actually were all made in 1928, February in Memphis and December in New York.

Hurt was a black musician influenced by white country artists such as Jimmie Rodgers. Boggs was a white musician influenced by blues artists. Decades earlier, both men had been contacted by W. E. Myer, a Richlands, Virginia, businessman and songwriter who sent song poems to each (see ch. 2). Myer eventually signed Boggs to his The Lonesome Ace record label. Boggs recorded for The Lonesome Ace in Chicago in 1929. The final tune of the evening saw Boggs and Hurt collaborating on “Banjo Clog,” in which Dock played banjo and John danced!87

The huge importance of the Harry Smith Anthology and the enormous influence of Mississippi John Hurt prior to his rediscovery comes over strongly as Dave Van Ronk reminisces about the time that he played “Spike Driver’s Blues” to John.

I had been playing John’s “Spike Driver’s Blues” ever since the mid 1950s, and it wasn’t until I met him that I realized I had got the basses backward. John and I were sitting around with a guitar one evening down at the Gaslight, and I was playing my version for him, and this puzzled look came over his face. He started watching my right hand, and he said, “You’ve got those basses backward.” And he played me a few measures of the way he did it. It was just like on the record and by god he was right. I said, “Oh, shit, back to the old drawing board.” And (p.160) he says, “No, no, no. You really ought to keep it that way. I like that.” That’s the folk process for you: some people call it creativity, but them who knows calls it mistakes.88

The other Hurt track from the Anthology was “Frankie,” and similarly, enthusiasts were keen to play it. It was fast and difficult. Van Ronk tells of their efforts to learn it.

It was incredibly fast, though, and after a week or two I dropped by the wayside. A few persisted, and my friend Barry Kornfield, for one, disappeared into his chambers and emerged six weeks later, blinking like a mole, and he had it. Note for note, just as clean and fast as on the record. When I first saw John at the Café Yana, there he was playing “Frankie’s Blues.” However, I noticed that it was a lot slower than on the record. Of course, he was a good deal older, but it struck me that it sounded better at that tempo. I wanted to ask him about it, but I wanted to be as diplomatic as possible—I didn’t just want to say, “So, Pops, can’t cut it any more, eh?” Apparently, I was not the first person to have asked, because John intervened and saved me from further embarrassment. He just smiled and said, “Oh, you want to know why it’s so much slower than on the record.” I said, “Yeah …” He said, “Well, you know, that song was so long that they had to speed it up to get it all on one side of a 78.” All I could think of was Barry, sidelined with acute carpal tunnel syndrome.89

Mike Stewart reckoned that the tune actually speeds up due to a mechanical problem during the recording.

New York Times music reviewer Robert Shelton provided glowing accounts of John’s performances at the Gaslight and elsewhere and undoubtedly contributed to John’s success, ensuring packed venues wherever he appeared.90 Musician Happy Traum recalled seeing John perform at the Gaslight.

After each set (there was usually three a night), a few of us would venture back to the room that was euphemistically called “backstage” but was really a corner of the kitchen where the ice cream was kept. We perched on the freezer or stood elbow to elbow in the tiny space, ducking the steam pipes that traversed the low ceiling. John would sit in a straight-backed chair, his guitar in his lap and his brown fedora firmly on his head, amiably chatting and showing us the licks and songs we asked him about. Always polite and soft spoken, tolerant of the barrage (p.161) of questions and seemingly pleased with all the attention he was getting from all these white kids, John Hurt won our hearts. His smile was warm and encouraging, and his soft brown eyes made us feel an instant kinship with a man whose life and background we could hardly imagine, much less understand.91

Stefan Grossman described him as, the grandfather we all wish we could have had.” Fred Bolden remembers that John would always finish his performance with a singalong, usually to “Goodnight Irene” or “You Are My Sunshine.” He would then rush down to the exit to thank his audience, shake their hands, and offer autographs.

By February 1964 John had been playing regularly and his competence had increased enormously. Dick Spottswood commented;

I would like to add something that I know John would never say about himself. Since the recordings for Piedmont last March, John’s fingers have grown very, very nimble and much less hesitant than the music you hear on the record. The point of the record was to get something out quick, and we didn’t know John’s ability. Each time he has come back to Washington he has played better and better. Now he is a musician who is quite superior to the man who made those OKeh records 35 years ago. In this case, age has mellowed and improved the man rather than taken away. Every time I hear him I want to throw away all the material in the can and start all over again. Mississippi John Hurt is rather special in many ways.92

Unfortunately, John was forced to withdraw from a tour of Britain and France with George Wein’s Blues and Gospel Caravan in May 1964 due to illness.93 His withdrawal was too late to change the publicity and Mississippi John Hurt’s name appeared on posters (see Fig. 3.11). Tom Hoskins recalls that John was given polio injections prior to the trip, and had a bad reaction to them.94 Dick Spottswood stated that John had had a “slight seizure, which prevented him going.” The second Piedmont LP, Worried Blues, was released in May 1964. It was recorded at the Ontario Place, John’s regular venue in Washington, on March 14, 15, and 21, 1964. Mike Stewart remembered a fantastic performance there when John Hurt and Robert Wilkins duetted. Mike also played the Ontario Place and accompanied John a few times.

Mike Stewart remembered staying for about a week with the Hurts in Washington. “I got to eat Jessie’s short bread and we drank beer. Jessie was drunk a lot of the time. John drank ‘Old Granddad’ whiskey.” No (p.162)

. Rediscovery and Sweet Success

Figure 3.11. Advertisement for European tour.

(Tom Hoskins Archive.)

one ever seems to remember John ever being the worse for drink. Mike remembered that John and Jessie used to frequently indulge in domestic squabbles and Jessie once shot John in the foot. Fred Bolden told me that Jessie would sometimes get very angry with John, especially if she had been drinking. “Uncle John would get on her nerves and she would shout at him, ‘If you don’t shut up John, I’m gonna put this pan across your you-know-what.’ John always backed down.” But Jerry Ricks told me that John would whisper, “What’s it gotta do with you,” out of earshot of course!

Although Archie Edwards and John played a lot together at his barber-shop in D.C., Archie’s first appearance in front of a public audience was in 1964 when Dick Spottswood had booked him to play along with John Hurt and Skip James. They played at the National Institutes for Health. Skip played first, then Archie, and finally John. John played Archie’s Gibson 150.95 Later, Archie was to acquire a Gretsch resonator guitar for $22.50, which was his pride and joy, and there is a photograph of John playing this guitar at the Ontario Place.

(p.163) In the fall of 1964, Skip James and John Hurt appeared on a WTBS radio show hosted by Phil Spiro in Cambridge. ED Denson was present and Al Wilson played harmonica.96 That evening John and Skip were booked to play at the Unicorn Coffeehouse in Boston. Fred Bolden remembers that John was staying with them at the time and was

decked out in a starched white shirt and dark trousers. That was the first time I ever really saw him dressed. It was well known in our family that he didn’t care much for dressing up and that trying to persuade him was like trying to corral a circus monkey. Of course he didn’t require a tuxedo to play for those that came to see him. Having gone to concerts with him, I can tell you first hand that the hippies in those coffee houses usually came attired in beads, fringes and bell-bottom pants while the beatniks wore those dark turtle neck sweaters along with sunglasses and drank espresso coffee.97

At Philadelphia’s Second Fret in 1964, John Miller attended a Mississippi John Hurt performance with his brother Allan and a friend. John played two sets and included “Ain’t No Tellin’,” “Avalon Blues,” “My Creole Belle,” “Spike Driver’s Blues,” “Louis Collins,” and “I Shall Not Be Moved.” Miller remembers being so impressed with John’s performance that the trio decided to wait outside the green room to try to tell him how much they had enjoyed his music. John came out; he was gracious and friendly and offered them a cigarette, to which the young John Miller responded that he didn’t smoke and was only thirteen years old. Miller later visited a club in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, to see John again. The last time he saw Hurt was at the Main Point in 1965 or 1966 and he remembers thinking that he did not look well and lacked his previous energy.

In mid-1964 the Mississippi Freedom Schools Summer Project, aimed at encouraging the teaching of black history and the philosophy of the civil rights movement to African Americans, was gaining momentum. Folksingers such as Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, and Judy Collins became involved and traveled through the state singing and holding workshops. The Klan was targeting the Freedom Schools with a firebombing campaign, and the performers were constantly in a state of fright. In spite of over 150 cases of violence and intimidation against black civil rights workers and their white supporters, the federal government did little to stop it until two white civil rights workers disappeared near Meridian, Mississippi. Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, along with James Chaney, a black Mississippian, had investigated the firebombing of the (p.164) Mt. Zion Methodist Church in nearby Longdale, which had been identified for use as a Freedom School. The search led to widespread national media attention and huge numbers of federal troops and FBI officers were drafted in to search for the missing boys. Their bodies were found on August 4. The Klan had murdered them on Sunday June 21.98

By the fall, the presidential election campaign was in full swing with President Lyndon Johnson running against Barry Goldwater. African Americans had cause for concern as Senator Goldwater of Arizona, who had nationally supported the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960, opposed the much more comprehensive Civil Rights Act of 1964. Goldwater’s opposition, in which he was joined by only four other non-Southern Republican senators, strongly boosted his standing among white Southerners who opposed such federal legislation.99 In 1964 Goldwater had fought and won a bitterly contested, multi-candidate race for the Republican presidential nomination.

Even with this threat to social progress for African Americans, John was not interested. When Louisa Spottswood asked John if was going to vote in the presidential elections of 1964, he replied, “If I vote for Mr. Johnson, Mr. Goldwater will be mad at me, and if I vote for Mr. Goldwater, Mr. Johnson will be mad at me.” Louisa had an impression that John figured that secret ballots were just a rumor designed to get folks into trouble. There seems little doubt as to which side John would have supported and the good grace he offered in not wanting to offend the candidates almost certainly reflected the oppression that had seeped into the souls of southern blacks over a lifetime of white intimidation.

Another grave concern to African Americans was the momentum of the Alabama governor George C. Wallace’s campaign for the Democratic party’s presidential nomination. In 1962 he had been elected governor on a pro-segregation, “states’ rights” platform in a landslide victory. He took the oath of office standing on the gold star where, 102 years prior, Jefferson Davis had been sworn in as president of the Confederate States of America. In his inaugural speech in January 1963, Wallace used the line for which he is best known. “In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”100 He lost the battle for the Democratic nomination to Johnson, who won the presidential election in a landslide victory over Senator Barry Goldwater.

If any racism arose or if the subject of civil rights came up, John would register some recognition, but would never get involved in any discussion. Max Ochs reminisced that everyone within the circle of friends (p.165) seemed to be comfortable in the view that their relationship did not require it. By 1965 it would become apparent that the 1964 legislation was not successfully enabling African Americans to vote. Violence against civil rights activists continued, and the murder of three voting-rights activists in Philadelphia, Mississippi, had gained national attention. On March 7, 1965, peaceful demonstrators were heading for the state capitol in Montgomery, Alabama, when Alabama state troopers attacked them near Selma. The President and Congress were finally persuaded that existing federal anti-discrimination laws were not enabling enforcement of the 15th Amendment, and the Voting Rights Act was enacted on August 6.101

John always appeared to be comfortable among black and white people and, as earlier in his dealings with the white folk around Avalon, John was a respected figure even within the constraints of the Jim Crow South. In the North he could get along with anyone. Bill Givens observed that there was nothing, “in John’s manner seeming in the least deferential or complaisant [sic], nothing beyond the simple country courtesy [that] John extended [to] everyone on sight.”102

At a later date in New York City, John again exercised his strong commitment to avoid offending people. John was playing at the Gaslight and Dick Waterman informed John that a rival club in the Village was offering to pay double the Gaslight’s rate to book John. Dick explained the position, telling him that Clarence Hood, the owner of the Gaslight, was aware of the offer and was keen for John to take it up and earn the extra money. Waterman told John, “It’s your decision.” John thought for a while and said, “Well, if I was to play this other club and business was poor and Mr. Hood’s club was crowded, I would feel badly for my new boss. And if business was good when I was playing and business was poor at Mr. Hood’s club …” His sentence petered out as he looked at Dick. John stayed at the Gaslight.103

Of course, John’s old fedora hat became his trademark, and he was seldom seen without it. One such occasion can be witnessed on the silent black-and-white film footage shown at the end of John Miller’s video lesson in Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop series. John sits playing and singing without his hat on. Grandchildren Ella Mae and Andrew enter the room and sit and watch while Ella Mae plays “air guitar” on the arm of the chair. Later Jessie joins them and Ella Mae does the twist to John’s music. Eventually she decides that John should be wearing his hat and brings it to John who pops it on his head and continues to play.104 John’s grandnephew Fred Bolden recalls that Jessie often scolded John for wearing the old battered hat and that he later bought himself a new coal black Stetson, which he wore at the Club 47.

(p.166) The University of Chicago Folklore Center held its fifth annual three-day festival Friday through Sunday, January 29–31, 1965. The festival was packed with lectures, workshops, and concerts. Mississippi John Hurt appeared in concert on Saturday afternoon along with Robert Pete Williams from Louisiana, Doctor Ross, a one-man blues band from Detroit who was originally from Mississippi, and Avery Brady from Chicago, also originally a Mississippian. The four of them held a blues guitar workshop at 10:00 a.m. Saturday. John also performed at the Friday evening concert beginning at 8:00 p.m. with Robert Pete Williams, the Stanley Brothers with their bluegrass band the Clinch Mountain Boys, cowboy singer Glenn Ohrlin, Nashville comedian and banjo picker Stringbean, and Sarah Gunning, a miner’s union organizer specializing in labor songs. John and Doctor Ross appeared again at the Saturday evening concert along with Stringbean, Ohrlin, the Phipps family (Carter family tradition), and the Beers Family, who specialized in pioneer music. The concerts were in the Mandel Hall at 57th Street and University and lectures were in the Noyes Hall on East 59th Street. Admission was $1.50 to the Saturday afternoon concert, $2.50 for the evening concerts.105

John continued to play at the Ontario Place and at the Gaslight and he would often hang out at the Kettle of Fish bar above the Gaslight. In his book The Mayor of MacDougal Street, Dave Van Ronk provides a tale of John’s prowess at arm wrestling at the club, following the consumption of a large quantity of John’s favorite drink of Old Grand-Dad Kentucky bourbon whiskey. Sam Hood, Rambling Jack Elliott, and Van Ronk were present. All three were big strong guys and began arm wrestling much to John’s amusement. Eventually someone asked,

Come on John, give us a shot. Now, John was a little guy, and damned near as old as the three of us put together, but he plants his elbow on the table, and blam! blam! blam! He throws all three of us. This did not sit well with me. I do not have a sporting drop of blood in my body, and I was damned if this superannuated sharecropper was going to make us look like idiots. But, I figured, look, he just threw these three bohrans; his arm must be tired by now. So, I said, “John, that was just a fluke. We weren’t ready. Let’s try it again.” And, blam! blam! blam! He threw us again. As I remember, he even did it a third time, just to put us in our places.106

Dick Waterman tells of another amusing event that apparently happened regularly in the Kettle of Fish. John had established himself as a regular in the bar and whenever John would come in the young waiter, (p.167) Tommy Sullivan, would see John and shout to the bartender, “Bourbon, water on the side.” Tommy would bring the drink across and put it on the table in front of John. “What is this?” John would say. “That’s your usual, John, shot of bourbon with water on the side.” John would announce, “my usual eh? Now suppose in the time since I was last here that I was to have taken to drinking something else. That would make that ‘something else’ my ‘usual’ wouldn’t it?” Tommy was forced to agree and would pick up the drink and ask politely, “Well, Mr. Hurt, What are you going to have?” John would chuckle and say, “Bourbon, water on the side, that’s my usual you know.”107

John Sebastian whose band the Lovin’ Spoonful was named after a line in Hurt’s “Coffee Blues,” recounted the time that he and the Spoonful were playing at the Night Owl Café in Greenwich Village. “We’d be playing to maybe six beatniks. Then I’d go to see John at the Gaslight and the place would be full of those beautiful college girls that we couldn’t get down to our little club. All the girls were nuts for John Hurt.”108 John also liked to flirt with the ladies and an entry on the Second Fret website, which aims to collect memories about the Philadelphia club, says it all: “I can’t even list all the performers I met while I was there, but the ones I enjoyed the most were—Uncle John—Mississippi John Hurt. He was such a sweet unassuming gentle man and yet he had a twinkle in his eyes for a pretty girl too.” It is signed, “Sam the blonde waitress 1963–1967.”109

Max Ochs was living with his new wife Holly in their apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. John stayed with them twice for a total of around five or six weeks. Firk and Fang had said that John needed somewhere to stay in New York City and asked Max if he could stay with him. Max asked Holly, “Is it OK?” She said, “Sure.” Max had played at the Ontario Place himself and had opened there for Elizabeth Cotten. He and Holly had seen John play there and were in the audience when John and Libba shared the billing. John flirted with Libba and Max remembers it being a fantastic evening. They also saw John at the Gaslight in Greenwich Village. Max felt he was becoming a friend of John’s. John came to stay.

One night at home, Max, a big fan of Blind Willie Johnson, was playing his own rendition of Johnson’s “The Soul of a Man.” John sat intently listening. After Max had finished, John said, “Max, I have been thinking about that question you asked, ‘what is the soul of a man?’ To me the soul is the whole man, it is the body, the soul and the spirit.” Max, having never really considered the words of the song he had so frequently sung, was quick to dismiss all this. “Oh yeah, whatever you say John.” But this (p.168)

. Rediscovery and Sweet Success

Figure 3.12. Mississippi John Hurt playing at Ontario Place.

(Tom Hoskins Archive.)

had made the lasting impression that John Hurt was a deep thinking and spiritual man.

Holly recalls that when John was staying with them, “No matter how early we woke on a Sunday, John was up earlier, sitting in a chair by the window, dressed in his Sunday best, reading the Bible.” Another occasion she remembers:

  • One morning, when I got up to go to work, I wrote a little doggerel verse for him, and left it with his breakfast.
  • “Just a little bit of sausage
  • And a little bit of eggs
  • Will fill up
  • Those hollow legs …”
  • I signed it with a heart. When I came home, he had set it to music, and sang it for me. He had added a chorus all his own:
  • “Here’s my heart
  • It’s thissaway
  • You’re just as welcome
  • As the flowers in May.”

(p.169) The happiness and relief this brought me was very great. Despite our thoughtlessness, and our failings as hosts, he nonetheless knew how truly welcome he was. Years later, I would discover that he had recorded this song in his Last Sessions album.110 He had named it, “Boys, You’re Welcome.” Tears streamed down my face as I listened to it. After so many decades, his love still touched my soul. There was a special bond between us because he had brought a certainty of God into my life. Whenever he left, he said, “Miz Holly, I hope I’ll see you soon. But if I don’t see you here, I’ll see you there. And I’ll say, Wo, Miz Holly, you made it too!!” And we would beam at each other. Then he would head for home, taking for Jessie the gift she had requested. Black stockings. Size Four.

Tom Hoskins had been present in Max and Holly’s apartment when this happened and he recounted the same story during a recorded interview that has only recently (2007) come to light. After Holly had gone off to work, John showed Holly’s note to Tom Hoskins and said, “I feel at home now. I’m not worried about anything.” Tom added, “He then set it to music and called it his ‘Welcome Address.’” John would color his hair with a little hair-black occasionally and during the same interview Tom Hoskins mentioned that when John went to bed he would always put a small towel on the pillow so as not to soil it.111

John was always happy to teach people and Max learned many songs from John including “Frankie” and “Pallet on the Floor.” “He would slow things down and exercise the utmost patience,” Max recalls. One night when Max and John had been up late talking and playing music, Max’s last joint was about finished and John’s last drop of bourbon was almost gone and they decided it was time for bed. At the top of the stair as John was about to go into his room, he jabbed Max very sharply in the ribs, saying, “Max, did you feel that?” Max replied, “Well sure I felt it.” John asked again, “Do you have any doubt that I just touched you?” Again Max replied that he was in no doubt that John had touched him. John answered, “Well, just as sure as you felt that, I can feel the presence of God right here with us in this room. I have no doubt at all that he is here with us.” Max thought a lot about this event, realizing that John was concerned for him. He was not preaching religion, but was genuinely concerned that Max was alone without faith or belief.112

During John’s stay in New York in 1965, Max remembers taking John to appear on the Merv Griffin talk show. John was very nervous about appearing on television. This is perhaps not surprising, as he had never (p.170) even owned a TV set. Before walking out on the set, he said to Max, “I’ve forgot all my songs.” Max said, “Sing ‘Spike Driver,’” the first thing that came into his head, and that’s what John did.113 John also appeared on the Johnny Carson Tonight Show where he performed “You Are My Sunshine.” Dick Spottswood stated that the event did not go well and that the staff was poorly prepared to work with a performer not experienced at appearing on television. Viewers witnessed a conversation between Carson and Hurt which made it clear that neither understood the other, and the performance was marred by blinding spotlights and an awkward exit.114 Some years later Stefan Grossman approached NBC in an effort to locate the tapes to find that they had been destroyed to make room in their storage facility. Stefan also tried to track down an appearance on Canadian television to be told that CBC have no record of it.

Holly learned from John that at least one of the men booking his gigs was stealing from him. “John didn’t find out about this until he was questioned by the IRS about undeclared income. ‘I declared it,’ he said, puzzled; ‘I declared everything I made last year—all $2,000 of it.’ When it became clear what had happened, John simply shook his head and made only one soft comment: ‘That one, he’s young and wild.’ That was all he ever said about it.” Sometimes John’s agents and managers would also stay with Max and Holly. “Other times they left John, and went somewhere else themselves, coming by in the late afternoon or evening to pick him up for the concerts and coffee house gigs. They brought other aging musicians to stay too—Son House, and Skip James.”115

Max had relatives who designed and manufactured high-quality garments. During a visit, Max was given a beautiful high-class fur-lined coat, the sort opera singers and wealthy artists wear. Unfortunately it did not fit; it was too short in the arms and he put it away in the closet. Winter set in and it was cold in New York. John had arrived and he was feeling the cold so Max took the coat from the closet and handed it to John. He put it on and it fit him perfectly. Max remembers the huge smile on John’s face; he wore that coat everywhere.

John had three very busy years with a fairly constant demand for his appearances. He played many coffee houses, of which the most regular spots were the Ontario Place in D.C., the Second Fret in Philadelphia, and the Gaslight in Greenwich Village. He also appeared at the Unicorn in Boston and the Troubadour and the Ash Grove in Los Angeles, as well as larger prestigious venues that were the locations of some of his greatest performances. These included the Oberlin College concert (recorded by Vanguard as the double album The Best of Mississippi John Hurt), the University of Chicago, and Carnegie Hall. Carnegie Hall staged a (p.171) weeklong festival in June 1965; the opening concert included Hurt plus Son House, Muddy Waters, and Chuck Berry.116 John received a standing ovation from a standing-room-only crowd of 2,000 people who absolutely adored him.117

John appeared at the Newport Folk Festivals of 1964 and 1965 (when Bob Dylan caused upheaval in the folk world by playing a Fender Stratocaster). In 1964 Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary, Judy Collins, Tom Paxton, Skip James, Jean Ritchie, Jesse Fuller, Muddy Waters, and Johnny Cash appeared. Tom Hoskins was present during one of these Newport Festivals when Bill Tydings had conveyed John and Jessie along with Skip James and Fred McDowell and their wives to their accommodation. It was the first time they had all been together and they all started to sing gospel songs. “We were all sitting listening, when along comes Bob Dylan. This guy is fried; he’s been up for six days. He goes to the piano—he has no idea what he was doin.’ We looked at one another—picked him up by the elbows and carried him out!”118

During the period of John’s engagements at Carnegie Hall he stayed with Max and Holly Ochs. Holly looked forward to John’s visit, but she was concerned that she should be studying for her art history final exam next day. “It was study or fail, and all my life, academic failure had not been an option.” Of course, when John returned from the evening concert he wanted to talk. “He felt happy, and expansive, and there was no way I could excuse myself, even if there had been a private place in our tiny apartment. So I sat at his feet and we talked.”

Holly recalls the deep emotion and spirituality of the ensuing experience:

I never remembered exactly what he said that night that made the world shift, but it was something very simple—as simple as “God is love.” Whatever it was, it woke my soul. I heard him, and when I looked into his kind, loving face, what I saw was God. “Who are you?” I asked wonderingly. But he just smiled. “Tell me more,” I said. We talked all night, and in the morning, totally relaxed, freshly baptized into a new world, I told him about the exam, and how I had worried about it, which now seemed endearingly silly. “Miz Holly,” he said quietly, “What you need to know ain’t in them books.”

I took the exam the next morning, cheerfully failing it, and then went to the registrar’s office and tranquilly filled out papers for a leave of absence. I had been a student at four colleges, and it was more than enough. John was right. What I needed to know was not in those books. I was through trying to find meaning in my parents’ assumptions about (p.172) essentials. I made a private vow that unless the lack of degrees barred me from something truly important to my life, I would not pursue them anymore. Since that never happened, I never went back. On Sunday I took a subway to Harlem and went to church. The congregants were baffled but accepted me kindly.

In spite of the apparent popularity of folk music in the early 1960s, David Evans reported a different angle, recalling that John Hurt was the people’s favorite. “Frankly, there just wasn’t that much interest in us [referring to himself and his friend, Al Wilson, later to become famous as a member of Canned Heat] or in any of the blues artists really, except Mississippi John Hurt. He would always draw a good crowd. I remember many times going to see Son House or Skip James and there’d be fifty people or less, often quite a bit less. It was depressing that this music wasn’t catching on, wasn’t turning people on the way it had turned us on.”119

Similarly, as Dick Spottswood reported, “Hurt’s delightful demeanor both onstage and off endeared him to the folk crowd nationwide over the next three years in greater measure than some of his rougher edged fellow rediscoveries.”120 Of course this popularity seriously irritated some of these fellow rediscoveries and Dick Spottswood recalled: “He [Hurt] had a certain magnetism that appealed to people. I know it drove Skip James crazy because John was a star and he wasn’t.”

Pat Sky told me that Skip was angry with all of the attention that John was getting; he didn’t consider John a serious blues artist, but John impressed audiences. Dick Waterman wrote to Stephen Calt on October 16, 1966, in which he strongly emphasized the fact that appearances by Mississippi John Hurt made money whereas Skip James’s did not.121 Stefan Grossman once took John to meet Reverend Gary Davis at his home in the Bronx where they all played music together. Later the Reverend Davis dismissed John Hurt’s guitar playing as “old time picking”—which of course it was.

Whenever John played in Philadelphia, frequently accompanied by Skip James, he would lodge with his niece Mrs. Lorenzo Meeks. Louisa Spottswood recalled that John enjoyed his spells in Philly and would often linger awhile after engagements. Louisa had an impression that he was treated rather better there than at home with Jessie and he had his hair dyed black and began to dress rather more jauntily. Lorenzo was one of the family of Hurts from around Greenwood, Mississippi, who moved to Philly in the 1940s to do domestic work. In the 1960s Lorenzo did part-time work as an Avon sales lady. In the summer of 1965, Skip (p.173) James left his wife Mable and took up with Lorenzo. Lorenzo lived with her stepsister Tee (I. T.) and her daughter and son-in-law at 5634 Pearl Street. In April 1966 Skip and Lorenzo moved to a ground-floor apartment at 5274 Jefferson Street in West Philadelphia.122

Tom Hoskins or Archie Edwards would drive John and Skip up to Philly. Sometimes they would all (Jerry Ricks, Tom Hoskins, John, Lorenzo, and Skip) go further north and spend some time relaxing at a cabin by a lake. They would drink and play music and clown around. Jerry recalls that “John was a lot wilder without Jessie, he would sing all the real spicy lyrics to his songs and dance about.”

John’s popularity increased, especially following articles in the New York Times, but the fame did not change him. He had an incredible ability to stay cool, even when, as Jerry Ricks remembered, girls would ask him to sign their T-shirts! Jerry puts this nonchalance down to the fact that unlike others, John was very comfortable with who he was; “He wasn’t a professional musician and he didn’t quit anything to do this. He had no baggage and no frustrations and he didn’t want anything. At big concerts, when introducing a song, he would often twist around the microphone and chat to the people in the front row as if he was sitting in their living room. Maybe that’s just how he felt?” He certainly did not appear to recognize audience pressure; in fact he seemed more nervous when recording than when he was in front of an audience.

By mid-1964 John was hugely popular and was greeted by large audiences wherever he played. There was increasing pressure to release his second Piedmont album that had been recorded back in March at the Ontario Place. John was having a good time and enjoying his newfound fame, but trouble was brewing in the background.


(1) . John Edwards of Sydney, Australia, died age 26 in 1960. He was one of the foremost collectors of American country music. His record collection of over 2,500 rare records, correspondence, discographies, and writings is held in the Southern Folklife Collection, Manuscripts Department Library of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The collection was purchased from University of California, Los Angeles, in 1983 and has since been added to.

(2) . Kay, “Mississippi John Hurt,” pp. 24–26.

(3) . Letter from Tom Hoskins to Alex Haley, February 12, 1982. Tom Hoskins Archive. (p.282)

(4) . Nervous Norvus (Jimmy Drake), with Red Blanchard & the Smogrollers, “The Fang”/“The Bullfrog Hop” (both written by Jimmy Drake), Dot 15500, September 1956. The complete recorded works of Nervous Norvus was issued on Stone Age Woo: The Zorch Sounds of Nervous Norvus (Norton B0002AAPIA, 2004).

(5) . Letter from Tom Hoskins to Alex Haley.

(6) . Ibid.

(7) . Letter from Leland M. Talbot to David Segal, Washington Post, June 27, 2001.

(8) . Ibid.

(9) . Letter from Tom Hoskins to Alex Haley, February 12, 1982.

(10) . David Brown, “From Avalon to Eternity,” Greenwood Commonwealth, December 12, 1976, and reproduced within notes to the reissue of the original Piedmont LPs, Mississippi John Hurt: Avalon Blues (Rounder CD 1081, 1991) and Mississippi John Hurt: Worried Blues (Rounder CD 1082, 1991); Tom Hoskins, handwritten corrections to “From Avalon to Eternity.” Tom Hoskins Archive; letter from Tom Hoskins to Alex Haley, February 12, 1982.

(11) . Mississippi John Hurt and family, Avalon, Carroll County, Mississippi, March 1963.

(12) . Deposition of Thomas Bird Hoskins; Civil Action No. 122898, in the Circuit Court for Montgomery County, Thomas B. Hoskins v. Eugene R. Rosenthal d/b/a Adelphi Studios and d/b/a Adelphi Records and d/b/a Genes Compact Disc Company and Adelphi Records, Inc., January 11, 1995, p. 44. Tom Hoskins states that the name of the girl was Janet Rodd, that she accompanied him to Avalon, and that he never saw her again and did not know of her whereabouts. It has proved impossible to trace Janet Rodd.

(13) . Denise Tapp, “Untitled essay on Tom Hoskins” accompanying Fang 1941-2002, CD (private publication, Joe Lee, undated).

(14) . Kay, “Mississippi John Hurt,” pp. 24–26.

(15) . Tapp, “Untitled essay on Tom Hoskins.”

(16) . “Chuck Berry,” Wikipedia. The commonly used reference to the Mann Act refers to the White Slave Traffic Act of 1910.

(17) . An interesting example of how events can become distorted emerges from Robert Gilpin, “The Way It Ought to Sound: John Smith Hurt and the Blues of the Mississippi,” Journal of Mississippi History 63: p. 1. 2001, who tells of a cream-colored Buick containing Hoskins and Stewart, that “rolled south down Highway 61” in the spring of 1963 as a preliminary to the rediscovery of Hurt. The supporting reference is cited as Ed Ward’s liner notes to the Vanguard album Mississippi John Hurt: Rediscovered (Vanguard CD 79519-2, 1998). However, Ward’s account does not mention what make of car they traveled in. It is also unlikely that they would have traveled along Highway 61 unless using a roundabout route. Making reference to 61, the route taken by many bluesmen traveling between the Delta and Memphis and Chicago and referred to as the “Blues Highway,” would add color to the story.

(18) . Letter from Joe Lee to Washington City Paper, December 9, 2005; Tapp, “Untitled essay on Tom Hoskins.”

(19) . Mississippi John Hurt and family, Avalon, Carroll County, Mississippi, March 1963.

(20) . Ward, notes to Mississippi John Hurt: Rediscovered.

(21) . Kay, “Mississippi John Hurt,” pp. 24–26. (p.283)

(22) . All attempts to trace Janet Rodd have so far failed.

(23) . Kay, “Mississippi John Hurt,” pp. 24–26.

(24) . Interview by Pete Seeger, Mississippi John Hurt: Memorial Anthology.

(25) . “Mississippi John,” Newsweek, February 17, 1964, pp. 87–88.

(26) . Mississippi John Hurt and family, Avalon, Carroll County, Mississippi, March 1963.

(27) . Bill Givens unpublished draft liner notes for OJL 8053 and 8054. Tom Hoskins Archive.

(28) . A 50:50 split would have been familiar to John as it was the basis for many sharecropping agreements.

(29) . Deposition of Thomas Bird Hoskins; Civil Action No. 81-0946, in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. Adelphi Records Inc. v. Polygram Records v. Mark Wenner, 1982, p. 6.

(30) . Mississippi John Hurt, Folk Songs and Blues (Piedmont PLP 13157). The original tapes from these sessions have survived. Peter Silitch Archive.

(31) . Dick Spottswood, Unpublished typescript, 1964. Tom Hoskins Archive.

(32) . The Story of Greenwood, Mississippi (Smithsonian Folkways FD 5593, 2006).

(33) . Letter from Mississippi John Hurt to Tom Hoskins, April 22, 1963. Tom Hoskins Archive.

(34) . Dick Spottswood, notes to Presenting Mississippi John Hurt: Folksongs and Blues.

(35) . Tom Hoskins, undated recorded interview with unknown interviewer. Tom Hoskins Archive.

(36) . Ibid.

(37) . Riches, The Civil Rights Movement, pp. 69–70.

(38) . Letter from Mississippi John Hurt to Tom Hoskins, May 4, 1963. Tom Hoskins Archive.

(39) . Kay, “Mississippi John Hurt,” pp. 24–26.

(40) . Barney Josephson with Terry Trilling-Josephson, Café Society: The Wrong Place for the Right People (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009), pp. xi, 3.

(41) . Elijah Wald, Josh White: Society Blues (New York: Routledge, 2002), pp. 102–4. Josh White became a resident artist at Café Society in 1940, heralding an era of presenting American folk music coupled with civil rights awareness to white intellectuals. He remained a regular there through the early 1940s.

(42) . Barry Lee Pearson, Virginia Piedmont Blues: The Lives and Art of Two Virginia Bluesmen (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990), p. 35.

(43) . Ibid., p. 54.

(44) . Archie Edwards, transcript of an interview with Barry Lee Pearson. Philip R. Ratcliffe Archive.

(45) . Ibid.

(46) . Pearson, Virginia Piedmont Blues, pp. 81, 265

(47) . Archie Edwards, transcript of an interview with Barry Lee Pearson.

(48) . Pearson, Virginia Piedmont Blues, p. 75.

(49) . Ronald D. Cohen, Rainbow Quest: The Folk Music Revival & American Society 1940–1970, (Amherst and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2002), p. 204.

(50) . Brown, “From Avalon to Eternity.” (p.284)

(51) . Riches, The Civil Rights Movement, p. 73. The assassin was Byron De La Beckwith, a member of the Ku Klux Klan who was arrested, tried, and acquitted by an all-white jury. In 1994 the case was reopened and a retrial led to a murder conviction. Throughout the summer of 1963, SNCC, CORE, and SCLC continued their efforts to register black voters, and white supremacists continued to thwart these efforts.

(52) . Cohen, Rainbow Quest, pp. 204–5.

(53) . Mississippi John Hurt, D.C. Blues: The Library of Congress Recordings, Vols. 1 and 2 (Fuel 2000 Records CD302 061 407 2, 2004; CD302 061 495 2, 2005).

(54) . Mississippi John Hurt, Worried Blues (Piedmont PLP 13161, 1963).

(55) . Kay, “Mississippi John Hurt,” pp. 24–26.

(56) . Bruce Bastin, notes to Mississippi John Hurt, Avalon Blues, Vol. 2 (LP, Heritage HT 301, 1981).

(57) . Mississippi John Hurt, D.C. Blues, Vol. 1.

(58) . Bill Dahl, notes to D.C. Blues.

(59) . Newport Folk Festival 1963: The Evening Concerts, Vol. 1 (LP, Vanguard VRS-9148 [mono]/VSD-79148 [stereo], 1963).

(60) . Blues at Newport (LP, Vanguard VRS 9145 [mono]/VSD 79145 [stereo], 1964).

(61) . Eric Von Schmidt and Jim Rooney, Baby Let Me Follow You Down: The Illustrated Story of the Cambridge Folk Years, 2nd ed. (Amherst and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994), pp. 190–91, 193–94.

(62) . Stephen Calt, I’d Rather Be the Devil, p. 251. John Fahey was a musician with an interest in ethnomusicology. He received an MA degree in folklore and mythology from UCLA.

(63) . Newport Folk Festival 1963: The Evening Concerts, Vol. 1.

(64) . John gave this account to Gene Bush in Grenada in 1966.

(65) . Riches, The Civil Rights Movement, pp. 71–72.

(66) . Ibid., p. 72.

(67) . Heilman, “Lawsuit Blues.”

(68) . Letter from Mississippi John Hurt to Tom Hoskins, May 4, 1963. Tom Hoskins Archive.

(69) . Sean Ambrose, “Goodbye Avalon,” Mississippi Magazine (1964). Tom Hoskins Archive (Photocopy, no date or page numbers).

(70) . Mississippi John Hurt interview by Tom Hoskins and Nick Perls.

(71) . Bill Givens, unpublished draft notes for OJL 8053 and 8054. Tom Hoskins Archive.

(72) . Cohen, Rainbow Quest, p. 205.

(73) . Dick Spottswood, notes to Worried Blues.

(74) . Eric Park, unpublished draft notes for OJL 8053 and 8054. Tom Hoskins Archive.

(75) . Ed Ward, notes to Mississippi John Hurt Rediscovered.

(76) . Von Schmidt and Rooney, Baby Let Me Follow You Down. pp. 193–99.

(77) . David Evans, interview, www.bluesnet.hub.org, and personal communication to author.

(78) . Fred Bolden, contribution to Blindman’s Blues Forum, January 6, 2005.

(79) . David Evans, “Bessie Smith’s ‘Back-Water Blues’: The Story Behind the Song,” Popular Music 26:1 (2006): pp. 97–116. “Back-Water Blues” was composed (p.285) by Bessie Smith and recorded on February 17, 1927, before the great flood of the lower Mississippi River that year. The song was about a flood of the Cumberland River that flooded Nashville, Tennessee, on December 25, 1926.

(80) . Dave Van Ronk, The Mayor of MacDougal Street (New York: Da Capo, 2005), p. 188.

(81) . Ibid., p. 188.

(82) . Calt, I’d Rather Be the Devil, p. 233.

(83) . Ibid., pp. 294–96.

(84) . Ambrose, “Goodbye Avalon.”

(85) . Siegel, notes to Friends of Old Time Music.

(86) . Ibid.

(87) . Ibid.

(88) . Van Ronk, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, p. 189.

(89) . Ibid.

(90) . Spottswood, notes to Worried Blues.

(91) . Happy Traum, “Mississippi John Hurt and the Fingerstyle Tradition” article from unknown magazine, 1974. Tom Hoskins Archive.

(92) . Kay, “Mississippi John Hurt,” pp. 24–26.

(93) . Spottswood, notes to Worried Blues.

(94) . Tom Hoskins, undated recorded interview with unknown interviewer. Tom Hoskins Archive.

(95) . Archie Edwards, transcript of an interview with Barry Lee Pearson. Philip R. Ratcliffe Archive.

(96) . Mississippi John Hurt and Skip James with ED Denson, radio interview with Phil Spiro, Boston, Massachusetts. Philip R Ratcliffe Archive.

(97) . Fred Bolden, contribution to Blindman’s Blues Forum, July 18, 2005.

(98) . William Bradford Huie, Three Lives for Mississippi (New York: WWC, 1965). This event occurred on the same day that Nick Perls, Phil Spiro, and Dick Waterman left Mississippi on the hunt for Son House, see Von Schmidt and Rooney, Baby Let Me Follow You Down, p. 193; and a few days before a Pete Seeger concert in Meridian, see Cohen, Rainbow Quest, p. 208.

(99) . Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow, p. 185.

(100) . Michael J. Klarman, From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 407.

(101) . Riches, The Civil Rights Movement, p. 87–88.

(102) . Bill Givens, unpublished draft liner notes for OJL 8053 and 8054.

(103) . Dick Waterman, “John Hurt: Patriarch Hippie,” Sing Out 17, no. 1 (February/March 1967): pp. 4–7.

(104) . The Guitar of Mississippi John Hurt, Vol. 1, Taught by John Miller, Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop (Video/DVD OV12056, 2002).

(105) . “A Three-Day Look at the Blues,” Chicago Daily News, January 23, 1965. Tom Hoskins Archive.

(106) . Van Ronk, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, p. 190.

(107) . Waterman, “John Hurt: Patriarch Hippie.”

(108) . John Milward, notes to Mississippi John Hurt, The Complete Studio Recordings (Vanguard CD181/83-2, 2000).

(109) . Debra Ruben, Second Fret website, www.secondfret.com, 1996–2008.

(110) . Mississippi John Hurt, Last Sessions (LP, Vanguard VSD 79327, 1972). (p.286)

(111) . Tom Hoskins, undated recorded interview with unknown interviewer. Tom Hoskins Archive.

(112) . Max Ochs, as told to E. G. Dubovsky, With Mississippi John Hurt (Berkeley, California: Arkady, 2004), pp. 11–13.

(113) . Ibid.

(114) . Dick Spottswood, additional notes to Mississippi John Hurt, Memorial Anthology.

(115) . It has not been possible to determine the identity of the alleged dishonest agents.

(116) . Cohen, Rainbow Quest, p. 234.

(117) . Givens, unpublished draft notes for OJL 8053 and 8054.

(118) . Hoskins, undated recorded interview with unknown interviewer.

(119) . David Evans, interview, www.bluesnet.hub.org.

(120) . Bill Dahl, notes to D.C. Blues.

(121) . Calt, I’d Rather Be the Devil, pp. 304–6.

(122) . Ibid., pp. 294–96.