Mississippi John Hurt’s “Spike Driver’s Blues”

Mississippi John Hurt

Mississippi John Hurt

Mississippi John Hurt (1893-1966) was born in Teoc but raised in Avalon Mississippi, where he spent almost all of his life, working as a farmhand and sharecropper. He began playing guitar at the age of nine, playing for parties and dances on borrowed guitars (like me!). He refused an invitation to join a travelling medicine show because he never wanted to leave Avalon. Through his association with fiddler Willie Narmour, he was first recorded in Memphis in 1928 by Okeh records but it was the time of the Great Depression – the recordings didn’t sell and Okeh went out of business shortly afterwards.

Mississippi John returned to Avalon and obscurity, living his “ordinary” life. However, his 1928 recordings were reissued in 1952, generating interest in locating him. Musicologist Dick Spottwood finally found Hurt’s cabin in 1963, convincing him to perform again. Mississippi John wasn’t comfortable with the idea but he appeared at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival, to widespread acclaim. He subsequently performed extensively at colleges, concert halls, and coffeehouses and even appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. When he died in 1966, Mississippi John Hurt had influenced countless guitar players from several different musical genres. A soft-spoken man, his nature was reflected in his music, making him one of the most beloved figures of the folk music revival of the 1960s.

I first saw and heard Mississippi John Hurt on CBC television reruns of Rainbow Quest, an American black and white TV show hosted by Pete Seeger and featuring unrehearsed performances by the very best artists in folk music, old-time music, bluegrass and blues. That moment literally changed my life. Living in a small rural community of Eastern Ontario and trying to teach myself how to play guitar, I had never heard anyone play and sing as well as John Hurt. His finger-picking style, which was so natural to him and so alien to me, completely captivated me. He had taken on for me the figure of a grand-father, certainly the most important musical influence of my life. I spent the rest of my life trying to play like Mississippi John.

I started working when I was 19 and, after 6 years of borrowed guitars, I could finally afford to buy my first acoustic guitar, a Gibson J-45 which now belongs to Roch Tassé. At the time, I remember that I had “green light” songs and “red light” songs as far as difficulty and “Spike Driver’s Blues” was at the very top of the “red light” songs.

To hear me play Roch’s Gibson J-45, click here.

“Spike Driver’s Blues” is about John Henry, an African-American folk hero who worked as a “steel driver” – a man tasked with hammering a steel drill into rock to make holes for explosives to blast the rock in the construction of a railroad tunnel. According to legend, John Henry’s prowess as a steel driver was measured in a race against a steam-powered rock drilling machine. John Henry won the race only to die in victory with hammer in hand as his heart gave out. Various locations have been suggested as the site of the contest, including Big Bend Tunnel in West Virginia, Lewis Tunnel in Virginia, and Coosa Mountain Tunnel in Alabama.

The story of John Henry has often been told in a classic folk song, which exists in many versions, and has been the subject of numerous stories, plays, books, and novels. Mississippi John Hurt’s version of “Spike Driver”s Blues” came out of the penal institutions and chain gangs, with the lyrics coming from several sources.


Richard Séguin – voice, acoustic guitar
The percussion is taken from samples and original recordings by Roch Tassé


Spike Driver’s Blues

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