Hardcover, 5 page Forward, 8 page Introduction, 237 pages of text, 23 pages of Appendices-including Hurt's contracts and a lengthy discography, Chapter Notes and an Index are also included. There's a number of b&w photographs (including some never before seen) and reproductions of advertisements and posters throughout the book, which add depth and detail to the text.
Of all the country blues artists, Mississippi John Hurt deserves to be included with other notable artists of his era. Not strictly a blues singer (he was referred to as a "songster" like Texas' Mance Lipscomb), Hurt also sang folk and gospel songs and would add popular tunes into his repertoire when people requested them. His warm quiet voice and his wonderful guitar playing was easy on the ears. He led a quiet life in Mississippi for the majority of his life. He recorded some of his best work for the OKeh label in 1928, and then seemingly disappeared for decades until his re-discovery in the early 60's, during the folk-blues boom. He then recorded some more fine work up until his death in 1966.
This book, the first to look at Hurt's life and music in depth, is a well researched and written book. Beginning with Hurt's parents, who were freed slaves, the author, Philip Ratcliffe, has used previously published works, interviews with a number of musicians and others who knew Hurt, stories from family and friends, and census records, to put together not only Hurt's life, but what life was like in (very) rural Avalon, Mississippi during this era. Ratcliffe goes into detail about life in the South, and it's affect on the poor farmers (including Hurt), and you come away knowing not only about Hurt, but what shaped his outlook and music. An example-Hurt, talking about his first guitar ("Black Annie" cost his mother $1.50) said-"I would put it on the bed, and flies would light on the strings, and they would ring out just as if someone had been playing them."
The world of the rural South was one of hard-scrabble existence, and Hurt's music was a soothing balm for both himself and his neighbors on a Saturday afternoon or in the evening after a hard day's work. Ratcliffe has done a good job in describing Hurt's easy going personality and outlook on life. His warm, gentle voice (Hurt would never play a juke joint because of the noise) and his sometimes intricate guitar playing were originally known only to a few, and his 1928 recordings basically went nowhere. Ratcliffe pieces together the years Hurt spent in obscurity working hard to support his family, and his final years as a recording artist, and as a star on the concert stage.
The depth of information and it's presentation sometimes make you wish you could have known John Hurt. His gentle outlook and approach, not only to his music, but to life in general, is an example of a man who worked quietly, played his songs, and just got on with life the best he could. If you're interested not only in blues music, but "American" music, you'll like this book. This fine book not only tells the story of Hurt's music, but (perhaps more importantly) tells the story of an America that was vastly different than today, and how Mississippi John Hurt fit into the life given him. You'll come away knowing more about his music, but you'll know much more about this quiet, unassuming, simple man. And that's the real story.
If for some reason you've heard little if any of Hurt's music-try "1928 Sessions" on Yazoo Records, or "Avalon Blues: The Complete 1928 OKeh Recordings" on Columbia/Legacy. For his work in the 60's listen to his work on Vanguard Records. Also of great interest are Hurt's recordings for the Library of Congress, on various labels.
If your tastes run towards this era of blues music/musicians, look into the recently published book "I Feel So Good-The Life and Times of Big Bill Broonzy", authored by Bob Riesman. It, too, is a good book about an important blues artist.