Monday, May 30, 2011

10 Essential Delta Blues Songs – Candy Man Blues

Happy Monday, folks!  We’re coming at you with the Monday Morning Blues & a really great song as part of the 10 Essential Delta Blues series.

Now, some may think it odd to see Mississippi John Hurt featured in this series—after all, when people think of the Delta “sound,” they usually think of what music critic Robert Palmer called “the deep blues” (from his book of the same title)—music  by players like Charlie Patton, Son House & Robert Johnson.  But after all, the Mississippi Delta is a place, & not all the people who lived in that place played music that can be traced back to Patton & his circle. 

Mississippi John Hurt, who lived in Avalon, Mississippi, in Carroll County, which lies in the southeastern section of the Delta region, was certainly one who followed a much different musical path.  Avalon, which no longer exists as a town (tho it does serve as a location for the Mississippi John Hurt Musem, housed in Hurt’s old sharecropper’s shack), was small & isolated even at the turn of the 20th century when Hurt was a boy.  This isolation may have been the reason Hurt developed a repertoire that may have been somewhat “old-fashioned” in his day, & may also have contributed to his unique guitar-playing style.  We do know that Hurt taught himself his highly syncopated style of guitar picking.  This style does have a lot of similarities with the so-called “Piedmont style” of picking, tho that style is generally associated with players from Georgia, the Carolinas & Virginia.

After determining that I wanted a Hurt song on the list, I had to pick one—the tough part, as he had so many classics in his repertoire.  Although I gave serious consideration to his “Stackolee,” I finally decided on “Candy Man Blues,” certainly one of his signature tunes, & one that showcases his playing very nicely, with its up-the-neck break.  Lyrically, the song is ribald & suggestive to say the least—more so than the Reverend Gary Davis tune of the same name, tho the ultimate subject matter is the same.  But the ribaldry of“Candy Man Blues” is humorous & without any sort of macho posturing—there’s a genial humor that suits John Hurt’s voice perfectly.

This version of “Candy Man Blues” comes from an Okeh recording made in New York in 1928; Hurt recorded a dozen songs for Okeh but—surprisingly from our persepctive—the songs weren’t commercially successful & Hurt returned to Avalon, Mississippi to work as a sharecropper, while keeping his musical hand in by playing locally at parties & dances.  He was “re-discovered” in 1963 & had a brief but very successful career from then until his death in November 1966—Hurt made five albums, including a couple from live performances, & also appeared at the Newport Folk Festival & at many other venues.

Hope you enjoy “Candy Man Blues!”

Photo at the top of the post shows the Mississippi John Hurt Museum in Avalon, MS.  The photo is by Flickr user Matt Lancashire & has been posted to Wiki Commons under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.


  1. Interesting! I've heard Re. Gary Davis' version, first from Hot Tuna (Jorma Kaukonen was a big Gary Davis freak), and then from the good Reverend himsrlf. This is the first I've heard of Mississippi John Hurt's version, and I'm struck by the similarities in harmonic structure. I wonder who's version came first?

  2. Well, there went a half hour or more with Hurt's silky voice, which of course led to YouTube connections to John Fahey and Christine Pizzuti. What an enjoyable education, but I was supposed to be on the treadmill!

  3. Hi Roy & Banjo52

    Roy: I know Hurt's song is considered an original composition by him, but of course that's always a complicated concept. After a cursory look into the official provenance of Gary Davis' tune, I can't tell whether it's considered "original" or an "adaptation/arrangement." I suspect that the "Candy Man" concept probably gave birth to several songs/variants, tho Davis' & Hurt's are the two we now know. Of course, when I announce Davis' song at a performance, I always expect half of my audience is expecting the Sammy Davis, Jr tune & the other half the James Taylor one!

    Banjo52: It's easy to listen to Mississippi John Hurt for a long time, isn't it? Thanks for stopping by!

  4. What a treat, John, thanks for this. Oddly enough, the day before I was playing along with guitarist Bill, doing Happy and Artie Traum's little hommage, 'Mississippi John', which ends with 'Candy Man'.

  5. Hi Dick: John Hurt sure is fun to listen to, isn't he? Thanks for stopping by!


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