This may well be the first song I ever heard from Mississippi John Hurt, because it was his first track on the Blues at Newport LP from 1963. That was one of the defining albums for me, the first place I heard Dave Van Ronk, John Hammond, John Lee Hooker… I think I’d already heard Rev. Gary Davis, and I’m sure I’d heard Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, but their tracks on that LP are still the ones I recall most clearly.
I can’t imagine how many times I must have listened to that disc, and many previous posts in this project came from this source: Van Ronk’s “That Will Never Happen No More” and “Gambler’s Blues“; McGhee and Terry’s version of “Key to the Highway“; Hammond’s “No Money Down,” Davis’s “Samson and Delilah“; and now, Hurt’s “Candy Man.”
The reason this one is showing up so late is that it took me so long to figure out how to play it. Hurt’s simpler arrangements were the bedrock of fingerstyle guitar, so I was playing “See, See Rider,” “Stagolee,” “Richlands Woman,” “Let the Mermaids Flirt with Me,” and probably a half dozen other Hurt songs by my mid-teens, but I only learned “Candy Man” a decade or two later, and didn’t get it right until I began teaching at blues camps and had to figure out the weird E7 chord.
In hindsight it’s a good thing I didn’t learn this at age ten or twelve, because it was inappropriate enough to be a little kid singing murder ballads, and I really didn’t need to be singing about having “a stick of candy nine inches long…”
Hurt had the reputation of being a sweet, gentle, almost saintly character, and a lot of people have suggested it was strange that he would sing something like this. Of course, it wasn’t the only erotic song in his repertoire: a rock group got it’s name from his “Lovin’ Spoonful,” and in my post on his version of “Salty Dog” I suggest he probably had some verses for that song that he did not choose to record. That was normal for southern secular singers — Rev. Gary Davis also had a “Candy Man” song — and probably for any rural culture, since encouraging public sex is how people with farm animals get more farm animals, even if the farmers themselves reproduce more privately.
More recently I was struck by another aspect of this song, which is the suggestion of homoeroticism. The lyric is initially addressed to the ladies, but when he warns that if you stand too close to the candy man he’ll “ease a stick of candy into your hand” hints at broader possibilities, as does the suggestion that if you try his candy, “good friend of mine,” you’ll find yourself wanting it in the future.
In any case it’s a terrific guitar arrangement, and among the many things I love about John Hurt is his choice to sing this when he found himself performing for the first time in front of a bunch of callow white kids at Newport.