Song of the day: MISSISSIPPI JOHN HURT – Candy Man Blues (1928)

The most familiar voices of Mississippi Delta blues are the anguished holler of Charley Patton and the haunted tenor of Robert Johnson. Together they portray a world of natural disasters, poverty, divine retribution, whiskey and mean women. Light-hearted fun doesn’t really come into the equation. It’s a mistake to think that country blues between the wars was all doom and disaster. After all, these guys earned what living they made from performing at dances, parties and roadhouses. People wanted to drink and dance and have a good time, not wallow. Although the recorded legacy is all we have of this vanished world, the musicians themselves made next to nothing from the recordings they made. They were, in essence, just another opportunity to be paid for playing your songs. The oeuvre is skewed towards the dark side due mainly to the tastes of the northern white men who came to the south to record the artists. Party songs were not what they wanted, so party songs weren’t what they got.

John Hurt (the ‘Mississippi’ prefix was little more than a record company marketing device) recorded just 13 songs in his heyday. Two were cut in Memphis in February 1928, and the rest at two sessions a week apart in New York City in late December the same year. Producer Tommy Rockwell of Okeh records was responsible for putting the sessions together. When the resulting records failed to do much commercially, Hurt wasn’t asked back, and Okeh itself fell foul of the Depression a few years later.

Hurt’s version of the standard murder song “Stack O’Lee” was paired with “Candy Man Blues” on a 1929 shellac disc (Okeh 8654), and the two songs remain his best known. “Candy Man Blues” is a jaunty, funny and dirty little song. It’s clear that he sure isn’t singing about a stick of candy:

Well all you ladies gather ’round
That good sweet candy man’s in town
It’s the candy man
It’s the candy man

He likes a stick of candy just nine inch long
He sells as fast a hog can chew his corn
It’s the candy man
It’s the candy man

All heard what sister Johnson said
She always takes a candy stick to bed
It’s the candy man
It’s the candy man

Don’t stand close to the candy man
He’ll leave a big candy stick in your hand
It’s the candy man
It’s the candy man

He sold some candy to sister Bad
The very next day she took all he had
It’s the candy man
It’s the candy man

If you try his candy, good friend of mine,
you sure will want it for a long long time
It’s the candy man
It’s the candy man

His stick candy don’t melt away
It just gets better, so the ladies say
It’s the candy man
It’s the candy man

Hurt was already 36 years old when he recorded the tune. He’d been playing guitar since of the age of nine, and it showed. His playing is nimble, complex and melodic. His voice is a lot different to many of his contemporaries, too – light and reedy and a little tremulous, not a million miles away from Marc Bolan (although less affected). And “Candy Man Blues” is simply a great, catchy little tune.

In 1963 a folk and blues fan called Tom Hoskins managed to track down a septuagenarian Hurt in his home town of Avalon, Mississippi. What happened next was remarkable. He played at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival and was showered with praise. The last three years of his life were spent recording albums, playing theatres and even making TV appearances. He died in November 1966 aged 74.

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