Sieger on Songs: The Legend of Mississippi John Hurt » Urban Milwaukee
John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

The Legend of Mississippi John Hurt

“Louis Collins” is quietly powerful, by an artist who will never be forgotten.

By - Feb 9th, 2018 12:59 pm
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Mississippi John Hurt. Photo from Facebook.

Mississippi John Hurt. Photo from Facebook.

Long before digital and decades before electric, musicians moved airwaves with acoustic instruments. They’d sit in a room or a field miles from the nearest socket and generate their own electricity. This qualifies as a magic trick — one I’ll never tire of until the day robots get souls. Yes, listening to recordings from so long ago requires a little more work than asking Alexa to fill the room with sound. But it’s worth it.

Mississippi John Hurt did the trick described above with deceptive ease. His under-the-radar singing sounds so ridiculously natural you’d think he was right next to you whispering in your ear. His singing is not the only deceptive thing about him. The springy syncopation in his playing has stopped many a guitar student cold. Much harder than it sounds and if you should learn it, you have to avoid turning it into some kind of self conscious academic exercise. It was right up to date when he did it, so he didn’t have to think about that.

His quiet, gentle voice told stories that were often violent. “Louis Collins” is one such tale. It’s a gun fight, a burial, a weeping mother, and people dressed in red, not black, to memorialize him. To listen to it is to envision some kind of folk art come to life or a movie waiting to be made. His slippery finger picking, on display here, was a gift to the folk crowd of the early 60’s. Taj Mahal, no slouch at that kind of thing, is shown as a powerful looking young man at Hurt’s side in the slide show that accompanies this song. He was one of the lucky ones who saw him when he reappeared after more than three decades in obscurity.

Hurt had cut a few sides for Okeh records in 1928. That’s 90 years ago, folks. His records didn’t sell and soon he was back sharecropping in Avalon Mississippi, where he hailed from. A homebody and a quiet man, it took some serious snooping to find him and coax him back out on the road, but that’s exactly what a guy named John Hoskins, inspired by those Okeh recordings did. Hurt’s reemergence was short:  about a year later he was gone, the victim of a heart attack.

Mrs. Collins weeped, Mrs. Collins moaned,
To see her son Louis leavin’ home
The angels laid him away

The angels laid him away,
They laid him six feet under the clay
The angels laid him away

Oh, kind friends, oh, ain’t it hard?
To see poor Louis in a new graveyard
The angels laid him away

The angels laid him away,
They laid him six feet under the clay
The angels laid him away

Oh, when they heard that Louis was dead
All the people they dressed in red
The angels laid him away

The angels laid him away,
They laid him six feet under the clay
The angels laid him away

Mrs. Collins weeped, Mrs. Collins moaned,
To see her son Louis leavin’ home
The angels laid him away

The angels laid him away,
They laid him six feet under the clay
The angels laid him away

© John S Hurt

We should be thankful for the clean-cut folk crowd of the late 50’s and early 60’s. The search for authenticity brought back Hurt and many other seminal artists who were then fading into almost certain obscurity. These artists influenced the British invasion groups and to this day a strain of this lyrical and haunted music runs through much of what we listen to.

A common misconception about blues is that it’s sad and that’s enough of an excuse to avoid it. It would be a mistake to do so. It is in fact a creative and triumphant response to a harsh existence, a way of spitting in trouble’s eye. It’s entertaining, humorous, and sometimes it’s eerie and death-obsessed. Add it to your playlist and you’ll discover more like John Hurt.

Ninety years is a long time. If you’re making music today you have no idea if anyone will be listening in 2208. What makes the blues and it’s tremendous cast of idiosyncratic artists endure is the undeniable necessity of the music. These songs weren’t trifles for a bored ruling class, they were medicine for the spirit. Time tested and guaranteed to foster joy in all corners of this twisted landscape, they beg the question: What will happen to black culture if (and that’s a mighty big if) and when we achieve a just society? This music is precious and we’ll always have it, but it might not existed in an ideal world. As we celebrate Black History Month and pray for a better world we have to at least imagine the possibility of a time and place where music will be made for other reasons. We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. Let’s hope we do.

5 thoughts on “Sieger on Songs: The Legend of Mississippi John Hurt”

  1. Tom bamberger says:

    What will happen to black culture if (and that’s a mighty big if) and when we achieve a just society?

    Your question got me thinking of Detroit that was lifting a lot black people out of poverty about the time Motown came along. Same thing happened in Pittsburg. And what about New York and Jazz? Not exactly economic quality but things were on the upswing for Black when Black culture bloomed.

  2. Thomas says:

    There is a warmth in the singing and playing of Mississippi John Hurt that may not yet have been matched. I haven’t heard everybody, but nobody I have heard has been warmer in the nearly 50 years since I first heard Mississippi John Hurt. Thanks for sharing him with others.

  3. Christina Zawadiwsky says:

    The repetition in the lyrics is very moving in this song (giving it substance and weight and gravity).

  4. Thomas says:

    I thought again about John Hurt’s warmth and humility when I recently heard Jackson Brown’s “Doctor My Eyes.” That Brown song seems especially relevant again in these Trump times.

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