Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Mississippi John Hurt

  • The Immortal Mississippi John Hurt [Vanguard, 1967]
  • Last Sessions [Vanguard, 1972] A
  • Avalon Blues: The Complete 1928 Okeh Recordings [Epic/Legacy, 1996] A-
  • Rediscovered [Vanguard, 1998] A+

Consumer Guide Reviews:

The Immortal Mississippi John Hurt [Vanguard, 1967]
Of all the rediscovered bluesman of the folk revival, Hurt was the least diminished by age because he was so unassuming to begin with. Having first recorded at thirty-five in 1928, he was seventy-three when he cut this posthumously released collection, which showcases his intricately unflashy finger-picking, begins and ends with hymns, and reprises both his moral take on "Stagolee" and his own fashion-conscious "Richland Woman Blues": "With rosy red garters/Pink hose on my feet/Turkey red bloomers/With a rumble seat." [Rolling Stone: The 40 Essential Albums of 1967]

Last Sessions [Vanguard, 1972]
For some reason folk specialists hold these clear if casual tapes in low esteem, but I think they stand with his other Vanguard music. Recorded in a Manhattan hotel in February and July 1966, shortly before he died, they capture the same playful warmth and quiet rhythmic assurance that marked all his work. These aren't qualities especially well-served by youth, which is one reason Hurt exerted instant artistic authority when he was rediscovered in 1963 at age seventy-one. From "Funky Butt" to "Shortnin' Bread," this is a man who was always ready to meet his maker. A

Avalon Blues: The Complete 1928 Okeh Recordings [Epic/Legacy, 1996]
Although Hurt was beloved in his time--from his first Northern gigs in 1963 at age 69 until his death at 73--his story isn't the stuff of blues legend. A lifelong sharecropper who raised 14 kids with one woman, he was the least dangerous-looking of the '60s rediscoveries, which is one reason folkies found him so irresistible. But however suspect hardboiled postmoderns may find his rep, his music is damn near unique. The school of John Fahey proceeded from his finger-picking, and while he's not the only quietly conversational singer in the modern folk tradition, no one else has talked the blues with such delicacy or restraint. Since his approach didn't sap his adrenaline or testosterone and his skills matured with the years, the many albums he cut in his seventies (try Rounder's casual Worried Blues 1963, or Vanguard's sweetly eerie Last Sessions) betray none of the diminishment of late Son House or Bukka White. Yet these crisp, detailed digital remasters from half a lifetime before pack an added authority: they establish that the gentleness of his music in no way reflects the frailty of a defenseless old age. Emanating from vocal cords that have plenty spring in them at 35, his equanimity seems chosen and vigorous, as befits a major 20th-century artist. A-

Rediscovered [Vanguard, 1998]
Who needs a best-of on the most important artist ever to emerge from the Mississippi Delta? With every Vanguard save the live double superb, buy all three like he was Al Green or Otis Redding and be done with it. Only (a) you don't believe me so you're not gonna and (b) this skillfully selected and segued bargain is the one I'll play too. Beyond his songster's repertoire and his self-taught guitar style (it's said Segovia asked who the other guy was), Hurt's gift was a sweetness of temperament that normalized every subject he touched, from murderous men and adulterous women to Maxwell House coffee and shortnin' bread. Hence, Robert Johnson gets all the ink. Violence as only an aspect of life--what a wimp! A+

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