Blues singer Mississippi John Hurt never got the credit he deserved. I mean, what African-American musician born in the late 1800’s did? He came into this world in 1893 – barely free, broke, and somehow discovered his own unique style that easily turned him into a musical treasure.
Hurt worked as a sharecropper, singing the riveting tunes of the Mississippi delta blues with his fingerpickin’ guitar. He was a self-taught musician. Channeling his God-given talent during an ugly time in history. Humming the tunes of spirituals that kept an entire race optimistic and hopeful. Hopeful that their lively and intricately woven lyrics about better days would someday come true.
The Mississippi Delta, widely recognized as the birthplace of the blues, is located between the Mississippi River and the Yazoo River. The distinctive region extends all the way up to another music landmark – Memphis, Tennessee.
Hurt came from the era where the state you were born in became part of your stage name. This was a trend in the early 1900’s. Examples of other delta blues artists are: Mississippi Joe Callicott, Mississippi Fred McDowell and Mississippi Slim. All these artists would go on to influence commercially successful blues singers like BB King, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker and Bo Diddley. You know, the ones who managed to market their brands in the North aka the land of opportunities.
Here’s how the Delta influenced several generations and movements to follow. Legendary folk singer Pete Seeger was a white man capable of captivating black audiences with charisma and relevancy during a segregated society. Remnants of slavery lingered in Jim Crow’s south. It lingered in the politics, cultural norms and music.
What Pete Seeger was able to do was parallel his music career with social activism – creating protest music that excited people from all backgrounds (and angered others). The Harvard college dropout took a liking to John Hurt’s authentic folksy & bluesy music. Hurt would perform poetic songs about the lonesome valley on Pete’s television show “Rainbow Quest.”
Pete gave Mississippi John Hurt a platform to speak his truths. If it wasn’t for the almost-forgottens like Mississippi John Hurt, Pete Seeger would not have been as successful with his folk music revival movement. You can argue with me on this, but I stand behind it. Generations of influential musicians spiraled out of the Mississippi delta sound.
Artists like Mississippi John Hurt influenced Pete Seeger – who you can’t mention without also acknowledging Woody Guthrie’s career. Seeger went on to influence the lyrical genius Bob Dylan who influenced John Lennon (once he pursued a solo career). Lennon would go on to influence many modern day contemporary rock ‘n roll singers. Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones were both influenced by the delta blues. So were all the British Invasion bands who mimicked the soulful and fiery harmonic delivery of blues singers – a hallmark style distinguishable and hard to execute without the life experiences to bring the lyrics to life.
Blues music originated as a temporary escape to make the best out of harsh situations. You can imagine what I mean by harsh. The testimonies inked in legendary blues songs paved the way for artists who demanded social change – Bob Dylan, John Lennon, etc. African-American folk culture, birthed by the likes of Mississippi John Hurt, deserves its credit. Not just in small-town museums in the Mississippi delta, but everywhere. It’s timeless music. The kind of music probably playing somewhere in heaven right now. Rest in peace to all the delta blues legends.