Monday, December 21, 2009
Mississippi John HURT - Last Sessions 1972
Manhattan Towers Hotel, NY (02/1966-07/1966);
Vanguard's 23rd Street Recording Studio, NY (02/1966-07/1966)
On these final 17 recordings of Mississippi John Hurt's remarkable career, the septuagenarian songster evinces all the warmth, humor, and mastery that mark the entirety of his recorded work. A gifted fingerpicker, singer, and songwriter, Hurt spent most of his life in obscurity. The folk boom of the '60s revived the music career he had abandoned during the Depression. Before his death in 1966, Hurt completed four wonderful albums for Vanguard Records.
LAST SESSIONS includes Hurt's takes on others' blues classics ("Poor Boy, Long Ways From Home," "Goodnight, Irene") as well as a number of great originals ("Let the Mermaids Flirt with Me," "Trouble, I've Had it All My Days"). Throughout, Hurt deftly mixes the serious ("You Got to Die") with the bawdy ("Funky Butt") and whimsical ("Spider, Spider"). Like all available Hurt recordings, LAST is a great album from one of the '60s' greatest artists.Including Patrick Sky on Guitars.
Music criticism is basically a myth-making game. It's all over the place, really. It's the process by which Lady Gaga becomes one who knows that the one-hit wonders are weirder and cooler than the well-paid musicians who stretch their careers over seven years on the stage and twenty more behind it, or how Wavves was once something of a left-field mystery. It's how music critics aim to make broad, sweeping, persuasive points about the artists they're talking about. Music criticism is a mythopoeic act, and the beautiful part of RYM is that it allows you to become your own historian, lay down your own law. And this site is overrun with that kind of myth-making. I'm a part of it. That's kind of a bummer, and part of the reason why I'm becoming exponentially more interested with personal reactions to music than pseudo-professional (or just plain professional) ones.
But I've been reticent to file either reaction in with blues, as have a lot of people, as evidenced by the relative paucity of reviews for Mississippi John Hurt (and others). Beyond the sneaking cynical suspicion that blues became a bourgeois talking-point when the Rolling Stones were covering Muddy Waters, there's also some degree of research to be done. I haven't tracked Mississippi John Hurt from a pithy Pitchfork review circa 1999, so I don't feel entitled to etch dramatic essays into stone for everybody.
Here's the very glib, likely innaccurate, history behind Last Sessions: Mississippi John Hurt learned to play guitar in Avalon, Mississippi and cut some records for Okeh, who did race recordings (lotta country, lotta blues) in the American South, in the 1920s. Once blues became a big deal in the 1960s, artists like Son House, Rev. Gary Davis, and Mississippi John Hurt became a big deal again. Mississippi John Hurt records Last Sessions in 1966 and dies of cancer shortly thereafter.
I hope I'm not making a myth when I say that Last Sessions has a fatalistic aura. Hurt's voice is faint and scratchy and his guitar-playing is softly finger-picked, unlike Rev. Gary Davis' hair-raising sermons and Son House's dirgy confessionals. It sounds personal and probably closer to folk in that respect. On a purely aesthetic note, I feel like Devendra Banhart and M. Ward have copped a lot from this album, but I have no basis for that comparison and it's a snotty thing to point out, because:
Content-wise, if Hurt is approaching death, he's not the least bit bitter about it. He's meek and forgiving: "Joe Turner Blues" bemoans a horrible person in major key; "Nobody Cares for Me" is woefully alone in the same manner; "First Shot Missed Him" ("first shot missed him, so they say/ last shot got him from a mile away") feels intrinsically linked to prison yards and Jim Crow Laws even if they are not borne from them; and "Let the Mermaids Flirt With Me" says, "throw my body out in the sea/ let the mermaids flirt with me" without a hint of dejectedness. You could probably throw words like minimalism and Rorschach at "Good Morning, Carrie" or "You've Got to Die," two songs with a few lines repeated over and over with great emotional effect. Hurt covers Leadbelly's "Goodnight, Irene" and rides out into the sunset as if it was Hurt's own. Among these, "Funky Butt" stands out as a short, catchy ditty about a fart.
That meekness makes this a somber but ultimately uplifting affair. About 40 minutes of listening to a man who sounds self-actualized in facing death. Sounding contented and wise with few significant regrets, maybe a little lonely, but empathetic and happy nonetheless (e.g. the motherly "Boys, You're Welcome").
Yes, uplifting as fuck. As a young adult, I'm full of the kinds of rashness and erroneousness you'd expect from a young adult, but I've taken to listening to Last Sessions in my downcast moments rather than those of the bizarro screamo or furious noise ilk. There's an authenticity to bluesmen that isn't anywhere else - this raspy, wise grandfatherly tone that speaks to experiences I can only fathom. And part of that is the mythos I feel like I've created for Hurt and the bluesmen, this self-sustained portent of long-dead gods strumming from the clouds. In Hurt's case, he's singing about the injustices we rage against, crafting songs not explicitly tied to any particular injustice so that only emotion sustains, to which he lacquers the bliss of knowing that everything will be okay: we've all been a long way from home.
A1. Poor Boy, Long Way From Home 2:12
A2. Boys, You're Welcome 3:00
A3. Joe Turner Blues 3:30
A4. First Shot Missed Him 1:40
A5. Farther Along 3:43
A6. Funky Butt 1:55
A7. Spider, Spider 1:25
A8. Waiting for You 3:28
A9. Shortnin' Bread 2:13
B1. Trouble, I've Had It All My Days 3:02
B2. Let the Mermaids Flirt With Me 3:20
B3. Good Morning, Carrie 1:58
B4. Nobody Cares for Me 3:42
B5. All Night Long 2:44
B6. Hey, Honey, Right Away 1:58
B7. You've Got to Die 3:28
B8. Goodnight, Irene 2:26