Mississippi John Hurt
First Appeared in The Music Box, December 2007, Volume 14, #12
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Sun December 16, 2007, 09:50 AM CST
If this review were to focus solely upon the quality of the music contained on the installment of Vanguard Visionaries that is devoted to Mississippi John Hurt’s career, it would be unthinkable to give it anything less than five stars. Hurt’s music is blues in its purest and sweetest form. The tracks contained on the effort are transcendent and lovely; they also are powerful and purifying. Although it is both simple and technically unpolished by today’s standards, Hurt’s guitar style epitomizes everything that is appealing about the country-blues sub-genre.
Born in Avalon, Mississippi in 1892, Hurt began playing the guitar as a child, and he performed professionally from a very young age. He recorded two brilliant albums in 1928 for the seminal Okeh label, but the coming depression forced Hurt to retire from the music business in order to seek work as a sharecropper. He remained a farm worker, occasionally playing and singing at local dances, until he was located in 1963 by musicologist Tom Hoskins. Hoskins convinced Hurt to move to Washington, D.C. and revive his career as a singer and musician. Hurt became a regular at folk clubs and colleges throughout the U.S., and he recorded three studio albums (Today!, The Immortal Mississippi John Hurt, and Last Sessions) as well as several concert sets for the Vanguard label before his death in 1966. The music on Vanguard Visionaries is culled entirely from these endeavors. Beautiful versions of some of his best-known songs — such as Stagolee, When I Lay My Burden Down, and Farther Along — are featured.
The problem with Vanguard Visionaries does not reside with the music. Hurt’s performance is stellar, and it should be heard. Every serious music fan should have at least one of his albums, but it shouldn’t necessarily be this one. Vanguard obviously produced the entire Vanguard Visionaries series on the cheap. For starters, there are only 10 songs in the collection. There is room for at least twice that. Reissues are not expensive for a label to produce, and many companies — such as the jazz-oriented Verve — are releasing budget-priced CDs with more than 80 minutes of music on them.
To make matters worse — Vanguard Visionaries contains no liner notes! Other than printing Mississippi John Hurt’s name on the cover of the album there is no other information about him in the packaging. How much would it have cost to have a 100- or 200-word blurb printed on the back cover or inside the sleeve of the disc? As it is, these lovely tracks — like the Dead Sea Scrolls before they were translated — exist in a vacuum.
Mississippi John Hurt is an important artist because his work, as simple and understated as it may be, has had a tremendous influence upon popular music over the past half-century. It needs to be understood and appreciated in context. He deserves a better legacy than Vanguard Visionaries offers. Any of his other efforts for Vanguard — such as the stellar upgrade of The Best of Mississippi John Hurt, which was re-titled Live in 2002 — are far better places to start exploring his work.
Other Artists Featured in the Vanguard Visionaries Series
Vanguard Visionaries is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2007 The Music Box