Did You Hear John Hurt?

The upcoming Coen Brothers’ movie, Inside Llewyn Davis, is a fictional tale, loosely based on the real life folk singer Dave Van Ronk. Early positive buzz is bringing new attention to the man who was known as “The Mayor of McDougal Street”. Once the movie is officially released In December, that attention will certainly grow.

Up until a few years ago, I wasn’t even aware of Van Ronk, who was a friend and mentor to so many musicians who came through the Greenwich Village folk scene in the 60’s and 70’s (Dylan, Ochs, etc.). I became aware when one of his recordings showed up on a compilation CD I acquired. The song was “Did You Hear John Hurt?”, written by Tom Paxton. I listened to it a lot.  I still do.  It has become one of my favorites.  I include it on most playlists, these days.  It illustrates, to me, how a great song, performed wonderfully, can be the start of a wonderful journey into musical discovery.

I fell in love with this simple little tune about listening to blues legend Mississippi John Hurt.  And I loved how, over the opening chords, Van Ronk informs us that Tom Paxton is the writer.  I knew Paxton’s name, but not his catalog.  So, inspired Van Ronk’s beautiful performance, I looked into Paxton.  As a music lover, I was a little embarrassed to realize this guy is such a folk-music icon, and I was just barely aware of him.  “The Last Thing On My Mind”, “Ramblin’ Boy”, “Bottle of Wine”, and so many others are just great songs.  But for me, the pinnacle is the ode to John Hurt.

While exploring Paxton’s career, I came across a live performance where he explains the origin of “Did You Hear John Hurt?”  Hurt, like so many other bluesmen of the early twentieth century, had slipped into obscurity.  Songs like “Avalon Blues” and “Candy Man” were great, but remained largely unknown.  In the early 1960’s, he was found in his hometown of Avalon, Mississippi, and brought to the 1063 Newport Folk Festival, just as folk music was experience a revival in the popular culture.  Hurt then spent a couple of weeks in Greenwich Village. playing the Gaslight Theater several times nightly.  It was there that Paxton, Van Ronk, and other contemporaries of theirs, experienced this legend in his glory.  And it was in recalling that experience, about ten years after Hurt died, that “Did You Hear John Hurt?” was written.

It’s a fascinating story that connects Hurt, Paxton, and Van Ronk to part of an even bigger story where these artists impacted so many others.  Please look them up and learn about them, if you haven’t already.  But for now, I mention all of this as a lead in to the song I want to share with you.  Dave Van Ronk performing Tom Paxton’s “Did You Hear John Hurt?”.  This performance I’ve found took place just five months before Van Ronk passed away in February, 2002.  Enjoy.

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~ by themattmorrisshow on November 13, 2013.

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