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  • 40. Twenty Eight—Pardon Me—and Twenty-Nine

    By Mississippi John Hurt

    Here is something different: Not a work of fiction or artifice, not even a written story at all—but a serene and winsome rendering of a personal memory, by the blues singer Mississippi John Hurt. Watch Hurt’s eyes, his expressive hands; listen as his pace ebbs and surges; study his moments of reflection and high peaks of joy. Most of all, watch as Hurt’s body language opens up with the story, till he owns the floor as surely as he owned that $1.50 guitar.
    Any storyteller could take
    lessons at his feet.

    PETE SEEGER: Incidentally—John? We got time. Tell a little bit about how you first made a record—way, way back in nineteen twenty-seven. You remember?

    JOHN HURT: Ah, yeah, twenty-eight, was—pardon me—and twenty-nine.

    To learn to play guitar, I had no teacher. I might say—well, I’ll say it like this:

    In a way, I . . .

    I kinda stole music, in a way.

    There was a gentleman . . .

    There was a school near my home—I didn’t have but just a little place to go to school.

    And this little teacher lady, Miss Belle Simmons.

    And this gentleman, he courted this lady, admiring her.

    And he would come up every weekend, Friday evening.

    And he could play the guitar.

    And he would come up and make a little music, you know.

    So . . . He lived a pretty good piece from the school. And after he got through talking with her and making music, why, he would come down to my mother’s house and spend the night.

    And, so he would play my mother some music.

    And I was just a eight-year-old boy.

    He’d play till he got tired, and he’d set his guitar down. And I would just—

    My chair, I just couldn’t get right, you know. And I—I reckoned I’d pick up his guitar.

    Quite naturally, it makes a little noise.

    He looks around and says, “Uh-uh, son, don’t do that.”

    My mother speak up, says, “Ahh, put that man’s guitar down. What are you doing?”

    I said, “Yeah, mother, I’ll put it down. Okay, mother. I’ll study now.”


    I’m going to play the guitar.

    I’m going to play this guitar.

    Well, I studied me to start playing, I thought. Which did work pretty good.

    Okay, then.

    I’d sit there and they’d talk, until bedtime, nearly. Go in their different rooms, go to bed.

    I’d go in and go to bed. But I wouldn’t go to sleep.

    And, late over in the night, first thing I would do, I would tiptoe to my mother’s room. She would—you know, you just could hear her sleeping. Put my ear up beside the door like this—she’s sleeping.

    Then I’d go to this gentleman’s room, just like to hear him breathe—kkhuuh. I said, Aaww, yeah.

    I came back and I get the guitar.


    I kept on at that till I learned to play one number. And I said, Wow.

    And it was a number that he would play, and when I learned to play that number, why—I didn’t care who heard it then, and I never showed it.

    Yet my mother came through the door, opened it up. . . .

    This gentleman was named William Henry Carson.

    She looked, and it was—she thought it was him.

    She saw me, and says, “Well, my lord!” Says, “I thought that was William Henry.”

    I said, “Naw, it’s me, Mom.”

    And she said—I looked around, and she was just standing there in the door.

    I said, “Mother, I want you to buy me a—”

    She said, “I haven’t got anything to buy you a guitar.”


    So she told the white gentleman—what she washed for, you know?—

    Told him about I had learned to play guitar.

    He says, “Well, Mary Jane”—that’s my mother’s name—says, “why don’t you buy one?”

    She says, “Mister Kendall, I haven’t got anything to buy a new guitar.”

    He says, “How do you know?”

    She says, “I know I haven’t got no money!”

    He says, “Listen, Mary Jane.” Says, “I got a guitar, practically new, that my son married off and left. And he told me that I could have it, and I can’t play no guitar. And he told me that I could have it, sell it—to do anything I want to with it.”

    And says, “I’ll let you have the guitar for him for one dollar and a half.”

    She bought it.


    From the television program Rainbow Quest, hosted by Pete Seeger, who invites John Hurt to tell the story. Also featuring Hedy West, and Paul Cadwell.

    Explore the Mississippi John Hurt Museum, in his beloved Avalon, MS, hometown.

    More on John Hurt here and here.

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