This is another I learned from Donald Garwood’s book, which is long out of print but was fundamental to my early understanding of John Hurt’s playing — like, for example, his habit of getting a high A note while playing a G or C chord by just moving the chord up two frets. (Actually, that explanation is a bit misleading, since Hurt often didn’t hold full chords and often sat on a low G bass when he played a C chord, so what he was moving tended to just be the paired low and high G notes, which I think of as parts of C or G chords because I think that way.)
In any case, I don’t know if I would have learned “Louis Collins” as a kid if it hadn’t been in Garwood’s book, and I definitely owe him one, because it’s a great song. I miss having Peter Keane’s harmony on the chorus — we sang this together a lot of times over the years, and I hear him in my head, and I’m hoping we can maybe link up and film a few duets before this project is over, and if you don’t know his work, he’s worth checking out, on Youtube or various CDs.
As for Louis Collins, all we know about him is what Hurt sang. According to Hurt’s biographer, Philip Ratcliffe, he heard about the murder second-hand at best, vaguely recalling that it might have happened in Memphis and that Collins “was a great man. I know that, and he was killed by two men named Bob and Louis. I got enough of the story to write the song.” Which means that all the most evocative lines, like the opening vignette of Collins’s mother weeping as he left home, were Hurt’s inventions. I don’t know why John Hurt is rarely listed alongside people like Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly as a brilliant songwriter, but damn, he was great.