John Hurt was born in Carroll County, Mississippi in 1892, and raised in Avalon, Mississippi.
He taught himself to play guitar at the age of nine, stealthily playing the guitar of a friend of his mother’s, who often stayed at the Hurt home while courting a woman who lived nearby. As a youth he played old-time music for friends and at dances. He worked as a farmhand and sharecropper into the 1920s.
In 1928, Okeh Producer Tommy Rockwell took in John Hurt to two recording sessions, in Memphis and New York. Totalling 12 songs. Hurt tried to record for Okeh again but his recordings were commercial failures. When the Great Depression hit shortly after Okeh went out of business and Hurt went back to being a sharecropper in Avalon.
Hurt’s renditions of “Frankie” and “Spike Driver Blues” were included in The Anthology of American Folk Music in 1952 which generated considerable interest in locating him. When a copy of “Avalon Blues” was discovered in 1963, it led musicologist Dick Spottswood to locate Avalon in an atlas, and ask Tom Hoskins, who was traveling that way, to enquire after Hurt. When Hoskins arrived in Avalon the first person he asked directed him to Hurt’s cabin.
Avalon, my home town, always on my mind / Avalon, my home town.— Mississippi John Hurt, “Avalon Blues”
Hoskins convinced Hurt to move to Washington D.C. to perform to a new audience. His appearance at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival led to him becoming a well respected name in the growing folk music industry.