Monday, May 21, 2018

The Tale of the Legal Battle over the Music of John Hurt

by Heather Heilman - October 21-27, 1999

"Do you know how good you are?" Tom Hoskins once asked elderly, belatedly famous Mississippi John Hurt.  "Yeah, I know it," Hurt said. "And I been knowin' it."

John Hurt is buried deep in the wooded hills of Carroll County, but dedicated blues pilgrims manage to find his grave.

Occasional bragging notwithstanding, Mississippi John Hurt was a gentle, sweet-natured man. Those who knew him say so, and you can see it in the photographs and hear it in his voice. He was small, barely over 5 feet. His eyes were kind. There was usually a brown fedora tilted toward the back of his head and a cigarette in the corner of his mouth.

Mississippi John Hurt was not a Delta bluesman, though he is often thought of as such. Scholars consider him more of a folk artist than a bluesman. His voice is calm, bemused, free of any emotional anguish. His music seems simple to the casual listener, but he is a virtuoso guitarist whose intricate, layered style continues to influence other musicians. He died a modestly famous but disappointed man, upset by the battles that had broken out over efforts to control him and his career.

Last May in Grenada, Mississippi, a judge decided that 109-year-old Gertrude Conley Hurt, the musician's first wife, and 17 of her descendants are the rightful heirs to the estate of Mississippi John Hurt. They won the right to share in Hurt's royalties, which these days amounts to less than $20,000 a year.

The decision was the result of a suit filed by Gertrude's family against Hurt's manager Tom Hoskins and Rounder Records. The suit also claimed that Hoskins, who rediscovered John Hurt in the early 1960s, manipulated Hurt and essentially robbed the musician of the proceeds of his career. Plaintiffs asked the court to set aside a 1963 royalty contract they claimed was unfair, but the court dismissed the charge. Gertrude's family says that's because their lawyers bungled the case, and are considering refiling the suit.

According to the May ruling, Gertrude's family will share royalties with Hoskins and John William "Man" Hurt, John Hurt's son by Jessie Lee Hurt, the woman he spent 40 years with and who was or was not his second wife, depending on whom you ask. So far, though, the family hasn't collected a cent, unless you count the change tourists leave on John Hurt's grave.

"We're just trying to right a wrong. I want my grandmother to get justice," says Lonnie Conley Hurt, the grandson of Gertrude and John Hurt. "Money would be good, but it's not about the money. It's about this family."

Hoskins says he loved John Hurt like a father.

"I promised him I would take care of Jessie and her two grandkids, and that was my intention," he says.

This is not a simple story.

It all began with a fiddling contest in Winona, Mississippi, where a white fiddler named Willie Narmour came to the attention of a talent scout for Okeh Phonograph Corp. Narmour told the man about another talented musician in the area, a guitarist named John Hurt. And so the first white stranger came to knock on Hurt's door, asking him to come to the big city and make records.

In 1928, at the age of 35, John Hurt traveled from his home in Avalon, Mississippi, to Memphis, where he made his first record, a single for the Okeh label.

"I sat on a chair and they pushed the microphone right up close to my mouth, and told me not to move after they found the right position," Hurt later said. "Oh, I was nervous, and my neck was sore for days after." The song was "Nobody's Dirty Business" with "Frankie" on the back side. He was paid $20 a song.

Then he went back to Avalon, where he finished the farming season as a sharecropper. That winter, the record company invited him to New York City to do more recording. He spent about a week in the city and cut an album's worth of material, as well as a Maxwell House Coffee jingle. One of the songs he recorded was "Avalon Blues," about his tiny hometown in Carroll County where the hill country rolls out into the Delta. He wrote the song one homesick night in New York and recorded it the next day.

It could have been the beginning of a successful and storied career. But it didn't work out that way. The Depression came. Hurt's records made little impact. Back in Avalon, Hurt farmed cotton and corn on 13 acres and turned over half his crop to the white landowner. On Saturday nights he played dances in Avalon and surrounding towns.

Thirty-five years passed.
Lonnie Conley Hurt says his grandfather John Hurt
had a profound influence on him as a teenager.

In the early 1950s, Folkways Records rereleased a couple of the songs Hurt had recorded for Okeh as part of its American Folk Music series. One of the songs was "Avalon Blues." Hurt didn't know about it -- the people at Folkways assumed he was dead -- but the record gained him a small group of new fans.

In Washington, D.C., 20-year-old Tom Hoskins was learning to play the guitar when his friend Dick Spottswood turned him on to Mississippi John Hurt.

"I thought, I wanna play like that," Hoskins says. "How the hell is he doing that?"

When he heard "Avalon Blues," a bell went off in Hoskins' head.

"Everybody thought he was dead. Nobody knew. But I thought 'Avalon Blues'? 'Mississippi' John Hurt? I started looking for Avalon, Mississippi, on the map," Hoskins says. He couldn't find it in a current road atlas, but he finally located the town in an atlas from 1898. With a tape deck and $100 in his pocket, he hit the road.

In March of 1963 he arrived in downtown Avalon, which consisted of Stinson's general store, post office, and gas pump. Locals in the store told him he could find Hurt about a mile up the hill, at the third mailbox on the right. Hoskins knocked on the door of the little shack situated in the middle of a cotton field.

"Yeah, who that?" came a voice inside.

"I'm looking for Mississippi John Hurt," Hoskins said.

"Heh, heh, heh," came the sly laugh.

Hurt opened the door with a wide grin, which fell when he saw an unknown white man standing at the door. Jessie, his second wife, ran out the back door to the house of landowner Mr. A.R. Perkins for help in this unexpected crisis.

"What do you want?" Mr. Perkins asked.

"I want to listen to him play the guitar," Hoskins answered.

"He ain't got a guitar," Mr. Perkins said.

"He can play mine," Hoskins said.

Hurt hadn't played for two years, but his skills were still there.

"I couldn't believe I was hearing what I was hearing and seeing what I was seeing," Hoskins says.

Hurt had been with Jessie for more than 35 years and was raising their son Man Hurt's two kids when Hoskins met him.

"She was the love of his life," Hoskins says. "He married Gertrude when he was young 'cause he wanted some, but Jessie was the one."

Gertrude remembers it differently. Withered by advanced age, she lives in a humble four-room frame house in Greenwood and is looked after by her grandchildren. She spends her days in a recliner in the corner of the living room, watching television and the comings and goings of her extended family. Despite her physical frailty, she is mentally alert and can be quite vehement on the subject of Jessie. She says the rift in her decade-old marriage was caused by conflict between John's music and her increasing involvement in the church.

"But he never stopped supporting me," Gertrude says. After she and John split up in the mid-1920s, she entered into a common-law marriage with Willie Conley. She remembers Jessie as a "loose woman" who traveled from southern Mississippi to a logging camp near Avalon in the hopes of finding a man. She claims Jessie was already pregnant with Man Hurt when she met John.

Gertrude says John never married Jessie. However, a search in the Leflore County Courthouse turned up the 1927 marriage record of John Hurt and Jessie Nelson. But John never legally divorced Gertrude, with whom he had two children. John once told Tom Hoskins that when he and Gertrude decided to split up he talked to his white boss about it, and his boss told him he would take care of it. In those days legal niceties weren't thought to apply to poor black sharecroppers. No one expected that John Hurt would one day have a legacy to fight over. When Hoskins met Hurt, he was making $28 a month taking care of Mr. Perkins' cows, while Jessie did the Perkins' laundry.

Avalon was a community of a few hundred people then. In such a small place, Gertrude's children and grandchildren couldn't have avoided knowing John and Jessie, and there's no reason why their relationship wouldn't be friendly. But Gertrude's grandchildren say they were more than just friendly with John and Jessie. They were family.

"We knew Miss Jessie wasn't our real grandmother, but we treated her like a grandmother," granddaughter Irene Smith says. Gertrude sometimes looked after Man Hurt, while Gertrude's descendants stayed close to Jessie even after John's death.

But Man Hurt remembers it differently. In a letter to the Greenwood paper last year, he said the only father and mother he ever knew were John Smith Hurt and Jessie Lee Hurt. "The only reason they are trying to claim my father is trying to get his royalty," he wrote of Gertrude and her grandchildren. "They only want his money."

"That hurt," says Lonnie Conley Hurt.

"He was here two months ago, sat down, and had dinner at our table," he comments about Man Hurt.

Lonnie Conley Hurt navigates his battered Mercury along a rutted dirt road in the hills of Carroll County. As the windows rattle, he comments, "This car gets good gas mileage. Sixteen miles a gallon."

Lonnie, now 51, has returned to Mississippi after many years in Indianapolis. He had to leave Mississippi to make a living, but he always knew he'd be back. His family is here, and he loves the countryside. "The fishing is good, and you can hunt anything you want," he says.

"Mississippi hasn't changed much," he says, a polite way to say racism is still alive and well. But he's older and has learned how to get along. "If some people don't want to be with other people, well that's their right," he comments.

The Carroll County Conservative, Nov 17, 1966.
At the top of the hill are two modest ranch houses. One belongs to Lonnie's mother and the other to his sister Mary Hurt Wright, who teaches in Chicago but spends her summers here. Behind Mary's house is a decrepit three-room, tin-roofed shotgun shack with holes in the floor, hay in the middle room, and no doors in the door frames. This is the house where John Hurt lived with Jessie all those years, the house where Tom Hoskins found him one afternoon in 1963. The family has moved it up the hill to their property to prevent it from being torn down. Lonnie wants to clean it out, fix the roof and floor, and keep it as a remembrance. Mississippi John Hurt fans would be welcome to visit.

Lonnie says that as a young man, his grandfather was the most influential person in his life. As he looks at the house where his grandfather lived and thinks about the conflict that now divides his family, he begins to weep.

"If you could have known my grandfather you'd understand," he says. "My grandfather was a very, very special person. I'm not talking just because of his music or the money he made, I'm talking as a person. When I was a kid he would talk to me. He encouraged me to make something of myself, without ever yelling at me. He taught me not to be bitter about the way things are. He's a part of me."

Everything changed when Tom Hoskins showed up and talked John Hurt into traveling to Washington, D.C. Hurt would later say he first agreed to go because he thought Hoskins was "the F.B.I."

"My grandfather left his whole way of life," Mary Hurt Wright says. "Everything was altered."

Hoskins, Dick Spottswood, and Spottswood's wife drove down to Mississippi to bring Hurt back to Washington. As they were loading up the car, Mr. Perkins suddenly "remembered" that Hurt owed him $100 for feed and seed. He couldn't leave until he paid up, Perkins said. It was common for landowners to keep sharecroppers tied-down with imaginary debts, and Hoskins knew it.

"Are you sure it's exactly $100," he asked Perkins, "not $97.50?"

But Spottswood's wife, with a cooler head, took $100 out of her purse and handed it to Perkins, while Hoskins commented that he should have held out for $1,000.

Hoskins tells this story as a commentary about the ways of the good ole boys, but another listener might hear something else in it. Some might think, here is a white man buying from another white man the right to a black man's labors. Or, if that is too harsh a judgment of Hoskins, Lonnie would say it's also too harsh a portrait of Perkins, a man Lonnie remembers as far kinder and more generous than most white landowners, who protected his workers from the Klan and who John Hurt always called on when he visited Avalon after the move.

In Washington, Hurt signed a contract with Music Research, Inc., a company formed by Hoskins and Spottswood with Hoskins as president.

Gertrude's family still believes the contract was unfair. According to Irene Smith, her grandfather was only barely literate and probably didn't understand the three-page document.

"He took advantage of him because he knew he couldn't read and write," Mary Hurt Wright says. "My grandfather wouldn't have signed it if he understood it. But he was a sharecropper all his life. If Hoskins gave him a few hundred dollars, that seemed like good money."

It might be, though, that she and her family have an inflated idea of how much Hurt's music earned for anyone.

According to the contract, Music Research Inc. and Hurt agreed to a 50/50 split of all Hurt's earnings, whether from recordings or performances. For recordings made by Music Research, Hurt was to receive 15 cents per record sold, in addition to 2 cents for every song that was his own composition. In other words, for an album of 12 songs, each written by Hurt, he would receive 39 cents for each record sold. This was at a time when an album retailed for between $1.50 and $3. It also gave Music Research power of attorney over Hurt's affairs and exclusive rights to make or arrange recordings. The contract was originally for five years and promised Hurt that he would earn at least $500 in that time.

In his defense in the lawsuit, Hoskins produced a slew of affidavits of record-industry experts, who said the contract Hurt signed was in line with industry standards and comparable to those of Lightning Hopkins, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and Big Joe Williams. If anything, Hurt's contract was more generous than most. But just because a contract was typical doesn't necessarily mean it was fair.

Charles Kingman Mitchell, a lawyer for the National Association of Independent Record Distributors and Manufacturers, discussed underhanded record company practices in his affidavit.

"Unfair record company accounting practices often wiped out all royalties, no matter what the artist's contract provided," he said. "In general, if an artist of Mr. Hurt's stature was paid at all it was because of the personal integrity of some individual at the record company rather than because of enforceable contract provisions. The system was entirely corrupt."

"There is, in my opinion, nothing at all wrong with the agreement, given its time and circumstances," he wrote.

According to Hoskins, the contract was never enforced during Hurt's lifetime. Instead, all the proceeds of his music went directly to Hurt. And Hoskins says his work for Hurt went far beyond the normal duties of a musician's manager. He drove John and Jessie around since neither could drive a car. He enrolled grandchildren Andrew Lee and Ella Mae in school and sent them to summer camp. He took them to the doctor, paid for their clothes, and bought them groceries.

In Washington, Hurt recorded 39 songs for the Library of Congress, the last a love song dedicated to Jessie. In July 1963, at the age of 70, he made an appearance at the Newport Folk Festival.

"He was an absolute hit," Hoskins says. "He played guitar like nobody else did."

Then he went home to pick cotton, but in a month he was back up north to play the Philadelphia Folk Festival. He was lauded in Time magazine and The New York Times, and appeared on the Tonight Show. That fall, Hurt along with Jessie and their two grandchildren moved to an apartment in Washington, D.C., where Hurt made recordings and played in coffeehouses and on college campuses.

Even at the height of his popularity, according to Hoskins, Hurt's income was modest at best.

"While the fees for his appearances were very respectable, he was not able to work as often as a younger performer might be able. Additionally, someone had to travel with him, which added expenses for food, tickets, etc.," Hoskins wrote in an affidavit. Others have contended Hurt could have made more money if his career had been managed better.

Mississippi John Hurt was suddenly famous, but he could never get used to that fact. He was a 70-year-old product of the segregated South who was always a little uneasy around his white fans.

"He had a certain amount of disbelief that all these young people just adored him," Hoskins says. And although Hurt liked the attention and the travel, he was not entirely happy.

Dick Spottswood had moved Hurt into an apartment in northeast Washington, D.C., a crime-ridden inner-city neighborhood. Hoskins thought he should have been living in Takoma Park, Maryland, an integrated, Bohemian suburban area.

"He was miserable being stuck there," Hoskins says. "He was more comfortable in Mississippi." Hoskins and Spottswood had a falling out over this and other questions about Hurt's career, and Music Research, Inc. fell apart. Hurt was caught in the middle and unhappy about the way he was being treated financially. Some of his Northern relatives intervened and fired, or attempted to fire, Hoskins.

After two years in Washington, Hurt packed up and went back to Mississippi. While some of his biographers have written that he bought a house there, Mary Hurt Wright says that isn't true.

"My grandfather never owned a house in his life." Instead, she says he lived in poverty in a rented apartment in Grenada and "could barely eat."

Hoskins says he helped Hurt out as much as he could.

"All the money went directly to John," he says. "But it wasn't much more than nickels and dimes. I couldn't live on it."

Nobody disputes the fact that John Hurt died in his sleep in Grenada on November 2, 1966. He had no will and an estate worth $2,542.18. Hoskins helped Jessie file the petition that allowed her and Man Hurt to be named John Hurt's only heirs. Gertrude's family said in their lawsuit that they were given no notice of this and that the filings made by Jessie were "based upon fraud and fabrication."

Mary Hurt Wright thinks Jessie was ill-used by Hoskins.

"After my grandfather died, Miss Jessie lived in a housing project," Wright says. "She had nothing. Tom Hoskins even took my grandfather's hat and his guitar."

But Hoskins says that from 1964 until Jessie's death in 1981, he gave all royalties to Jessie.

"I didn't take a penny," Hoskins says. "It was my intent to take care of Jessie and the grandchildren. I promised John I would do that. I wouldn't take money away from them."

In 1990, Hoskins entered into an agreement with Rounder Records allowing the company to license the recordings of Mississippi John Hurt. The company currently has three of his albums in their catalog. Hoskins was paid a $2,500 advance and receives 15 percent of the list price for every record sold. Another Rounder artist, Bill Morrissey, has recently released an album of Mississippi John Hurt covers. Rounder will pay around 75 cents for every one of those sold to Wynwood Music, which administers the copyrights to Hurt's songs. Wynwood will in turn pay half of that to Hoskins.

The records made for Okeh in 1928 are now owned by Sony, which pays Man Hurt modest royalties.

Rounder Records was named in the suit brought by Gertrude's family, but co-owner William Nowlin said he would be happy to pay royalties to whomever the court decided was entitled to them. So far, according to Nowlin, the company has not been informed they should pay royalties to anyone but Hoskins.

Hoskins, who has no children of his own and who makes his living buying and selling old phonographs, has named Hurt's granddaughter Ella Mae his heir. She currently lives in Tacoma, Washington, and has five children. Her brother, Andrew Lee Hurt, died two years ago. Her father, John William "Man" Hurt, now lives in Minneapolis and has a sporadic career as a blues musician.

Hoskins said he bears no ill will toward Gertrude's descendants. But he's concerned that if the royalties are divided among a large number of people, they will be of little value to anyone.

"I have no animosity toward those people," he says, "But my loyalty is to John Hurt."

"Without Tom Hoskins, there wouldn't have been a Mississippi John Hurt," Lonnie Conley Hurt admits. "But he should have known better than to think a man my grandfather's age down here would've had just one wife and one son. If he and Man Hurt had done what was right, there wouldn't have to be all this hiring lawyers."

If Tom Hoskins had never gone looking for him, Mississippi John Hurt most likely would have died in obscurity in Avalon, and his music with him. There would be no royalties to fight over. But would Hurt have been better off if no strange white man had ever knocked on his door?

Hoskins comments that although Hurt had been poor in Mississippi almost his whole life, it had been a "good poverty."

"He was respected by everyone in the community, both black and white," Hoskins says. Still, he doesn't believe Hurt was content.

"No black man in Mississippi in the 1960s could have been happy," he says.

But neither was Hurt happy in Washington. He returned to Mississippi as soon as he could -- just like his grandchildren, who left to make money and to make something of themselves, but came back, drawn by the pull of family ties, by the land, and by the blues.

John Hurt is buried on a hill in Carroll County, in a secluded family cemetery, a clearing in the woods lined with simple grave markers and colorful wreaths. His headstone is a plain stone block with his name and the dates of his birth and death. Still, it's the most substantial monument here. On it, blues pilgrims -- the spiritual descendants of Tom Hoskins -- have left behind a drawing of the musician and a handful of coins.