I’ve been diggin’ the number 11 of late. It’s got gravitas.
It has theological significance, of course. 12 apostles minus 1 betrayer.
It has numerological significance too, being the first of the “Master Numbers.” A good blues number, given its colloquial reputation as the “old soul” number.
And there is of course the inevitable Nigel Tufnel “one louder” …
Plus, it’s the value of the Ace. RIP Lemmy.
And there is of course that end-of-days urgency, the 11th hour. (An early review of my first album said I sung as if I was about to expire at any minute. I loved that review, and remain proud of it to this day. I like to think I sing like it’s the 11th hour …)
And there are, of course, 11 songs on the new Preacher Boy album, “The National Blues.”
Which brings me to Mississippi John Hurt. My first Country Blues hero.
Narrowing down a list of his songs to a group of favorites is not unlike limiting your breaths to an A list. You can’t really do it. They’re all necessary.
But, in honor of the number 11, I am nonetheless going to present to you a list of what are indisputably the 11 greatest Mississippi John Hurt songs. There can be no doubt this list is 100% accurate, objective, and correct. You’re gonna like it. I guarantee it.
Without further ado, in alphabetical order:
The 11 Greatest Mississippi John Hurt Songs:
Ain’t nobody’s dirty business
It’s in the Key of C, which for my money is Mississippi John’s money key. It’s from the 1928 sessions, which are to be considered the canonical recordings. And it’s just brilliant.
Without this song, we likely would have been robbed of many more wonderful years of Mississippi John Hurt’s music. Thank you US Postal Service, for making sure that fateful letter made it to Avalon.
The song is rightly considered a guitar tour-de-force. They’re largely forgettable lyrics, and honestly, it’s not my favorite Mississippi John song. But it’s simply too hard to deny the sound of the guitar on this cut.
The Lovin’ Spoonful. Say no more. The song has entered our folklore. The bit about Maxwell House from the live version on Vanguard is worth the price of admission …
Got the blues and I can’t be satisfied
A devastating example of the nuanced and utterly singular way in which Hurt could deliver pathos and joy in the same song. Never have whiskey and murder sounded so jaunty.
I shall not be moved
I include this for personal reasons. It’s always been my mother’s favorite Mississippi John song, and it’s now my daughter’s. My missus and I sing her to sleep with it.
Let the mermaids flirt with me
A criminally overlooked masterpiece for which Mississippi John gets significant songwriting credit.
Such a beautiful lyric, set to such a beautiful melody: “Miss Collins weep, Miss Collins moan/to see her son Louis leavin’ home/Oh, the angels laid him away.”
Richland women blues
Pound for pound, possibly his greatest song. Killer lyric, both sly and poetic. Killer guitar part; bouncin’, swingin’, and bluesy. Totally masterful vocal. The Alpha and the Omega of American roots music.
Personal reasons again. The first Mississippi John song I ever heard, and the song that launched me on what is to date a 3o+ years-and-counting love affair with this music.
The canonical murder ballad. THE definitive version.
If you do nothing else for the world today, please just play some Mississippi John Hurt music through speakers, so that this music enters our atmosphere anew. We’ll all be the better for it.
And turn it up to 11.