Song: Coffee Blues (1966)
Artist: Mississippi John Hurt
In the song Coffee Blues, the legendary blues artist Mississippi John Hurt, in his usual good-natured way, talks about wanting a spoonful of something. He claims, in the beginning, that it’s Maxwell House coffee (he calls it Maxwell’s House), his favorite coffee that really is good to the last drop “just like it says on the can.” He says that he used to have a woman who “cooked” him some good Maxwell House, but she moved away…maybe to Memphis, or maybe to Leland. But he found her, he says, and wanted her to cook him some Maxwell House, because, if he could get just a spoonful of Maxwell House, it would do him as much good as “two or three cups of this other coffee.”
Of course, he’s not talking about a spoonful of coffee, he’s talking about a spoonful of lovin’, and not just any kind of lovin’, but sexual lovin’.
I’ve got to go to Memphis, bring her back to Leland
I wanna see my baby ’bout a lovin’ spoonful, my lovin’ spoonful
Well, I’m just got to have my lovin’,
I found her
And there, in “Lovin’ Spoonful” is where The Lovin’ Spoonful, best known for Summer in the City, got their name.
Now, many assume it was from Howlin’ Wolf’s song Spoonful:
It could be a spoonful of diamonds,
It could be a spoonful of gold,
Just a little spoon of your precious love
Satisfy my soul
Men lies about a little
Some of ’em dies about a little
Everything fight about a spoonful
That spoon, that spoon, that spoonful
He’s singing about a spoonful of love, and both songs are about a craving. Both songs are connected. But nowhere in the song is the phrase “lovin’ spoonful.” Still, a spoonful of love could derive “Lovin’ Spoonful,” but the real answer is found not in speculation, but in the word of Lovin’ Spoonful founder John Sebastion, who not only confirms that the name of the band came from the lyric in Mississippi John Hurt’s Coffee Blues, but who was friends with the bluesman and got guitar advice from him, often going to see him play.
You will notice that both spoonful songs have things in common. But, while John Hurt’s song is lighthearted and obviously about sex, although maybe a bit stalkerish by today’s standards, when hunting down your ex-lover is frowned upon — but note that he is polite when he does find her.
Howlin’ Wolfs is much darker in tone. It is frequently suggested that the cravings he sings about are “more desperate” and probably refers to drugs, the true craving the song is about. The ‘spoonful’ referring to cocaine. The complex and confusing history of the song may bear this out somewhat…at least the possibility.
Howlin’ Wolf’s Spoonful was actually written by Willie Dixon, and it is the most popular of a group of songs that have their origin at least as far back as 1925, with Papa Charlie Jackson’s ragtime banjo song All I Want is a Spoonful. Both Charley Jordan’s Just a Spoonful (1925) and Charlie Patton’s A Spoonful Blues share similarities with Papa Charlie Jackson’s tune, in the chord progressions (although the keys are different) and the use of the word spoonful to mean sex.
Willie Dixon’s Spoonful, which Howlin Wolf recorded in 1960, was quite different, done in a minor key. While it still suggests a potential for violence, it is not as outright in its violent imagery as Charlie Patton’s “spoonful” which most definitely could be about drugs and probably is, as Patton sings that he would kill a man, go to jail, or leave town to find his spoonful.
Howlin Wolf, like Charlie Patton, sometimes leaves out the “full” in spoonful, at the end of the verses, and you will find this common among most versions of this song.
It is probably the popularity of Howlin Wolf’s song that leads some sources to conclude that the name of The Lovin’ Spoonful came from it. John Hurt’s influence is just as important, if not more so, and his style of syncopated fingerpicking still influences guitar playing today. His most famous songs are Candy Man and Frankie, the latter of which is in the Grammy Hall of Fame as a “Benchmark Recording.”
Although he could sing about dark subjects, including murder, just like the other Delta blues greats, many appreciate his gentler take and more lighthearted performances.
He was born in Teoc, Mississippi, near the town of Avalon (and Greenwood). He spent most of his live farming as a sharecropper and playing around the environs of his home town. He not only played blues, but also ragtime, dance songs, and gospel songs. He was first recorded in 1928 by the OKeh record company at the age of 35, first in Memphis, and then in New York. In Memphis, a recording experience Hurt did not remember fondly, he made eight recordings, but only one 78 record was released, bearing Nobody’s Dirty Business and his classic, Frankie. He was paid about $20 per song.
After Memphis, Hurt returned home and continued farming, but was soon invited to New York to record more songs. On his first day in New York, he wrote and recorded Avalon Blues, a song about his home town:
Avalon my home town,
always on my mind,
Avalon my home town,
always on my mind,
Pretty mama’s in Avalon
want me there all the time
Although he recorded a total of five blues songs and three spiritual songs, it was Avalon Blues that ended up being the most important song from the New York sessions. At this time, however, none of the recordings sold well, and Hurt returned home where he lived the same impoverished lifestyle, playing around town, until the 1960s.
Unbeknownst to him, “folk music” began having a revival in the 1960s, and Folkways Records re-released two of his old recordings. Although most people thought he was probably dead, he developed a small fan-base. A white man named Tom Hoskins, variously identified as a musician, folklorist, and music collector, heard a recording of Avalon Blues, and, in 1963, figuring Hurt might still be alive, traveled to Mississippi to track him down. Hoskins found him still in his home town and convinced him to return to New York to revive his career. A skeptical Hurt agreed, only because he thought Hoskins might be the police and would take him away if he refused.
Once again in New York, Hurt made his “debut” album with Piedmont and became an important music figure and quite the local celebrity. He recorded albums of his earlier work, re-recording his classics, as well as other albums. After living most of his life in obscurity, Mississippi, in his last few years, became famous, and, by all reports, embraced his new-found celebrity.
In 2001, a tribute album was released called Avalon Blues: A Tribute to Mississippi John Hurt, with Lucinda Williams, Beck, Ben Harper, Taj Mahal, John Hiatt, Bruce Cockburn, and others.
A good way to discover his music is through the book and 2-CD set, Mississippi John Hurt, part of The Early Masters of American Blues series. The book is a 3-page biography by Jas Obrecht and the CD’s contain 26 original recordings, including Shake That Thing, Spike Driver’s Blues, Casey Jones, Got The Blues, Can’t Be Satisfied, Joe Turner Blues, Stocktime, Hey Baby, Right Away, Ain’t Nobody But You Babe, Make Me A Pallet On Your Floor, Nobody’s Diry Business, Richland’s Women Blues, Louis Collins, Blessed Be The Name, Praying On The Old Camp Grounds, Let The Mermaids Flirt With Me, Corinna Corinna, Oh Mary Don’t You Weep, Avalon Blues, Sliding Delta, Coffee Blues, Monday Morning Blues, Candyman, Trouble I’ve Had All My Days, See See Rider, Stack O’Lee Blues, and Big Leg Blues.
More 1960s Music
- I’m Your Venus, I’m Your Fire, Your Desire – Who Sang It Before Bananarama?
- I Can’t See Me Lovin Nobody But You
- Everybody Look What’s Goin Down
- Please Share My Umbrella – What Song Is It?
- Please Don’t Bother Trying To Find Her, She’s Not There
More Blues Music