Mississippi John Hurt
If you don't know him, you don't know shit. If you're familiar with the recent documentary Searching for Sugar Man, then this is the original archetype. Main difference is that John Hurt's music is actually good. He made some recordings in the 1920's, then disappeared. With the folk and hippie movements in the 60's, his recordings became popular again, his music and lyrics resonated with the times. But no one knew what happened to him.
Much like Sugar Man, his songs provided the key to his whereabouts: the song Avalon Blues contains the lyric "Avalon, my hometown," and he was eventually tracked down on his farm in Avalon, MS. When located, he was completely unaware of his popularity. In fact, he thought it was all a con, or that he was in some sort of trouble. When the folks that located him requested he come back to Washington DC with them, he thought they must be with the FBI and that he didn't have a choice, so off he went.
He enjoyed a celebrated status for the next several years, recording and performing around the country. He was considered the Patriarch Hippie, and was sometimes referred to as Mister Hippie John Hurt. His songs were covered by and his influence can be heard in many of the artists of that era, particularly Jerry Garcia and Taj Mahal. He had a clean, rolling fingerpicking style that to my ears is more intricate and rhapsodic than anything Robert Johnson ever did. And his voice was just as smooth as a warm summer breeze blowing through the pines. His storytelling songs are about a long-forgotten time and place, but made timeless by the soul that shines through.
From the liner notes to The Immortal Mississippi John Hurt:
While we were waiting for a train one day, I asked John what he wanted out of life more than anything else in the whole world if his wish could be granted.
He thought about it for a long time until his face became serious and the wrinkles on his brow deepened. And then he leaned forward and said slowly, "If I was to have just one wish and I knew that wish was to come true, I would wish...I would wish that everyone in this world would love me just like I love everyone in this world."
His head bobbed back and he lauged out loud. He laughed until tears came and then he smiled that cherubic impish grin of the Patriarch Hippie and added, "Man, what a cool world this would be!"
There are a lot of different compilations of his music, but if I had to recommend just one it would be Avalon Blues, the Complete 1928 Okeh Recordings