Tag Archives: Stagolee

The 11 Greatest Mississippi John Hurt Songs

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.

Avalon blues

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.

Candy man

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.

Coffee blues

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.

Louis Collins

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.

Sliding delta

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.


Thoughts On Mississippi John Hurt

Just finished reading a biography on one of my real and true heroes: Mississippi John Hurt.

To be honest, the book wasn’t totally to my liking. A little heavy on things like census reports about the population of Avalon, and a little too much rote speculation on what folks MIGHT have talked about whilst whiling the day away on the porch of the general store. Plus, the constant attempts to link Hurt’s story to the parallel civil rights dramas taking place were at best awkward, at worst totally disruptive, and most of all, unnecessary.

All that said, the book was written with so much obvious love for its subject that it’s hard to be upset. And I will say, I did finally learn the origins of “Let The Mermaids Flirt With Me,” so it wasn’t a total loss, by any means! In fact, it wasn’t a total loss at all, given that since finishing the book, I’ve been basically doing nothing but what the author obviously hoped I’d be doing, which is listening to John Hurt’s music non-stop, and reminding myself all over again just why I fell for it so strongly in the first place …

In reading the book, I also learned a whole lot about the folks who were behind the various “rediscoveries” of still-living country blues singers in the early-to-mid-sixties. Or should I say, I learned a lot about their various court battles over who should get the money generated by the performances and recordings! Not necessarily a pretty part of the story, that bit …

Still again, it’s hard to be upset, given that we likely would never have heard from these remarkable artists again if it hadn’t been for the likes of Tom Hoskins, Dick Waterman, Stefan Grossman, John Fahey, etc. (Waterman comes off as a mixed character in this book, by the way, but I will say, when making arrangements to cover Son House’s “Death Letter” for Demanding To Be Next, SONDICK Music was spot on about granting the right!).

But back to John Hurt’s music. I first learned to play “Sliding Delta” when I was about 16 years old. I say “learned to play,” but I can’t really claim to have learned it properly. I should say I managed to to be able to get through a version of it by the time I was 16 or so. I still don’t play it quite right, really, but having played it about a billion and a half times over the years, I’ve at least got my version down really well! The version I studied so relentlessly was from Hurt’s performance at the Newport Folk Festival. You can find it on this album:

Great Bluesmen/Newport

“Sliding Delta” is easily one of my favorite songs of all time. As are “Ain’t Nobody’s Dirty Business,” “Stagolee,” “Got The Blues, Can’t Be Satisfied,” “I Shall Not Be Moved,” “Coffee Blues,” “Richland Women Blues,” and more. The man was incredible. I love his music. I really and truly love his music.

God of Mississippi John Hurt, thank you for giving us Mississippi John Hurt.

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