Coffee Blues (Mississippi John Hurt)

Mississippi John Hurt always explained that this song was about coffee; specifically Maxwell House, because it was “good to the last drop, just like it says on the can.” He’d say just one spoonful of Maxwell House coffee was as good as two or three cups of any other brand. Then he’d tell how he used to know a woman who made him that good Maxwell House coffee every morning, but one day she went away — some said to Memphis, some said to Leland — and he wrote this song about her. That’s what he was thinking about when he sang that he wanted her “loving spoonful.”

Later on, a rock band named themselves after this song, presumably because they were coffee fanciers.

In an earlier post I sang and wrote about another song called “’Bout a Spoonful,” which was probably related to this one. I learned that song from Dave Van Ronk, Gary Davis, and Mance Lipscomb, and in my post I kind of hinted that it was about something other than coffee. I apologize for that; John Hurt would not have lied to us.

When I started to play fingerpicking guitar, John Hurt pretty much defined that style — after Elizabeth Cotten’s “Freight Train,” we all learned his version of “Creole Belle“; the first song I learned from tablature was probably his version of “Stagolee“; the first song Dave Van Ronk taught to new students was his “Spike Driver Blues…”

I don’t remember when or how I learned “Coffee Blues,” and for at least forty years I played it pretty much the way Hurt did. Then, a few months ago, it occurred to me that I could play breaks using his fifth-position riffs from “Monday Morning Blues.” Seemed obvious once I thought of it, and fell neatly under my fingers.

I’ve previously posted at least another half dozen songs I learned from Hurt’s records, and that well is far from dry. His guitar arrangements are disarmingly simple and endlessly complex, and his songs have a quiet charm and humor that give me endless pleasure, whether I’m listening or playing. Someone recently asked which of his songs was my favorite, and the only possible answer was that I’m glad I don’t have to choose.