How I became involved in writing the biography of Mississippi John Hurt


I grew up near Liverpool, England with a love of New Orleans jazz and the country blues. Around 1970, I purchased a second hand copy of an Origin Jazz Library LP featuring the Mississippi Blues.

On the record was Mississippi John Hurt playing ‘Stack O’ Lee Blues’. What an incredible sound! I lifted the pickup arm from the record and carefully dropped it onto the beginning of track three again, and again, and again.


On the album cover the credits read; "Mississippi John Hurt –  John Hurt was born in Teoc, Miss., in 1894 [actually 1892]. He lived in nearby Avalon all his life until his rediscovery in 1963. From then until his death in 1966 he played for audiences all over the country."


I read this brief paragraph over, and over, and over. Was this it? Just a single recorded track and a vague paragraph about this incredible musician?          


I pursued my guitar playing in a very rudimentary way building on my childhood passion initiated by Lonnie Donegan's recording of "Rock Island Line," but for almost thirty years, I largely I got with a career as a Wildlife Biologist. Eventually, encouraged by the purchase of some Stefan Grossman lessons, I began to learn some of my favorite ragtime and country blues tunes.  


I had purchased an old Stella guitar from Neil Harpe of Stella and was planning a trip to visit the blues sites of the Deep South. After telling Neil about my trip, he told me of how he had met John's granddaughter, Mary Frances Hurt. Mary Frances had discovered Neil's painting of Mississippi John Hurt on his web site and called Neil to inquire. A friendship developed and Neil went to Avalon to meet her. Mary had told Neil of her plans for a Mississippi John Hurt Music Festival and he passed this on to me wondering if I wanted to include it in my itinerary. I jumped at the chance and Neil decided to join me on a life-changing journey. We drove through Virginia, Georgia and Alabama into Mississippi and on July 2, 2003, we arrived at the site of the first Mississippi John Hurt Festival among the hills that overlook the Mississippi Delta at Valley above Avalon, Mississippi.


The sun was shining and it was hot and humid. The scene was relaxed. Folk were wandering around making ready for the gospel and blues festivals to be held over the next two days. I immediately spotted the old shotgun house in which John and Jessie had lived. As we got out of the car we were greeted with a warm welcome from an elegant lady with a big smile.


‘Hi and welcome, I am Mary Frances,’ she said. I could hardly believe that I was here in Avalon talking to Mississippi John Hurt’s granddaughter. The next two days were a whirl of excitement, friendship, love and emotion. I spent hours talking to local people who had known John. I scribbled a few notes, played some of John’s tunes and drank a beer or two under the shade of the trees in the humid heat of midsummer Mississippi. Without being aware of it, I had begun to catalogue the story of Mississippi John Hurt. Now, I have come full circle. I hope that you enjoy his story.”




Suzanne Hoskins Brown, whose brother Tom Hoskins rediscovered

                                                      Mississippi John Hurt in 1963, with ‘Dr Phil’ and Mary Frances Hurt Wright,

                                                                                                 Avalon, Mississippi, 2008


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