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Mississippi John Hurt saved my life

By Kaleb HortonJune 14, 2015

A vinyl record player
A vinyl record player StefanG81

I decided I was dying, which always happened when I felt unusually powerless. It was an elusive condition that usually kicked in when work became overwhelming or when loan providers called my home phone number.

On this particular day, I was very dead. There was an argument, a long drive to and from nowhere, a stack of papers 2 feet high, 15 phone calls, all of them unanswered, and finally an old-fashioned letter in my mailbox, but all you need to know is there had been bad news. Routine bad news, just too much, and all at once. The aggregate weight of my everyday misfortune had finally become lethal.

What I had to do was start my life over, but my body was unaccustomed to the volume of stress involved in that decision and treated it like death. All I knew how to do was give myself a stay of execution. So I turned the phone off, locked the front door, drew the curtains, and lost myself in my record collection. I tried my old punk rock standbys, but for the first time they all sounded mean and unsympathetic. They just weren't good music to die to. I needed a hand on my shoulder. Something from childhood. Something entirely divorced from the burdens of modern life. Songs my mom sang to me when I was a kid; songs my grandpa sang when he was fixing the rototiller. The songs I would whistle if you told me, right this second, to start whistling.

I was looking for the American folk songbook, but I had yet to hear anybody play it right. Every attempt I heard sounded like an oppressively stoic audition for an "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" sequel or a summer tour with Bob Dylan.

Then I dug out singer Mississippi John Hurt's sessions for the Library of Congress, an intimidating and suspiciously academic-looking three-and-a-half hour behemoth. I always dismissed Hurt as "too soft," because as a kid who mostly knew stress secondhand through my parents, I thought music had to have the grit and muscle I didn't. Now, I knew exactly what adult stress was, and I needed peace.

And here was peace. Here was a man who flirted with the music business just once, in 1928, before going back to his farm and playing the occasional party. He was 70 years old when he was rediscovered and sat down to sing all his songs for the Library of Congress — and he didn't need any of it. 

From that lack of pressure emerges an almost superhuman serenity. Listen to the intro of "Waiting For A Train," how he laughs after saying he can't yodel. You can spend your whole life trying to get that peaceful without even coming close. Listen to Hurt's version of "Will The Circle Be Unbroken," which is the most beautiful thing in the world. He almost whispers it. He knows it's mournful. He knows it's about death. And that's fine. 

Through his pure acceptance, weary but unbroken, Hurt strips away artifice and recovers the heart of American folk music: He's had trouble all his days and that's fine; he's going up the country in the cold sleet and snow and that's fine; Stagger Lee killed Billy Lyons for a $5 Stetson hat, and that's fine too.

The more I listened, the more the weight of death lifted. A few hours later, I found my footing. I could open that letter with both eyes open. I could return those calls, pack my things, and start over. Mississippi John Hurt made me realize my problems weren't going to kill me. I still listen to him every night to remind myself.