Friday, February 12, 2021

Avalon Blues

For the past six or eight months, I have been listening to a lot of country blues, pre-war and post-war.  I always come and go with it, picking out a few discs from my collection and listening for a week or two, but I've stuck with it longer this time than ever before.  It's been a lot of fun to hear the original recorded versions of songs that you first heard from the legends of the 50's from all the Chicago labels and, later on, from British and American rock guitarists.  I've come to appreciate these artists even more than previously by taking the time to let this music soak in more than ever before.

I first heard Mississippi John Hurt in the late 80's, when I picked up a Vanguard collection called Blues at Newport, which featured performances from the Newport Folk Festival between 1959 and 1964.  Hurt had three tracks that opened the disc and I was captivated by his gentle approach, his intricate guitar work, his gentle vocals, and his amiable nature in conversation with the was a bit different from the other artists featured.  Later on, I heard a track from his 1928 recordings on another collection, and it was amazing that 35 years separated that performance with the Newport recordings.  

Over the next couple of years, I picked up some other recordings from Hurt, including those incredible 1928 sessions (13 songs) and several sets after his 60's "rediscovery."  These are some of the finest, and most unique country blues that you'll hear, an almost-perfect marriage of blues and folk music as Hurt tells stories about everyday living and assorted characters that have passed down over the years from musician to musician.  I have returned to these recordings over and over again and Hurt's music appeals to music lovers who rarely, if ever, listen to the blues.  It has a timeless appeal that spans genres.

Hurt was born in rural Carroll County, a tiny community called Teoc.  He grew up in nearby Avalon, a few miles north of Greenwood.  He started playing guitar around the age of ten and was soon playing parties in the area, mostly ragtime tunes, while working as a farm hand.  In his twenties, he began working for the railroad, though briefly, but it allowed him to expand his repertoire in the process, and in a few years, he drew the attention of Okeh Records.  The label had come through the area to record white fiddle player Willie Narmour, who pointed them to Hurt (the two played square dances together around Avalon), which led Hurt to record the 13 tracks in 1928.

Hurt's recordings, which included "Stack-O-Lee," "Candy Man Blues," "Avalon Blues,", "Louis Collins," and "Frankie," were wonderful songs, but unfortunately didn't sell very well, which really didn't bother Hurt very much....he was content to work on the farm and play for his friends whenever he had a chance, and he probably would have done so in complete obscurity if it had not been for the folk music revival of the late 50's and early 60's.  

A music scholar named Tom Hoskins was curious about locating Mississippi John Hurt, and decided to follow the directions within Hurt's "Avalon Blues," locating the 70-something performer alive and well in Avalon.  By that time in his life, Hurt had worked very hard for a very long time with very little to show for it, but he could play and sing as well as he did in those 1928 recordings and was not opposed to playing his music for anyone who wanted to hear.  

(L to R);  Yank Rachell, Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, Elizabeth Cotten, Doc Reese, and Sleepy John Estes

He began to play concerts, the festival at Newport among them, and he was received warmly, which thrilled Hurt.  These fans, old and new, were eager to hear his music, buy his music, and hung on his every word, and he was a most congenial host and performer, completely relaxed and "at home" with this new audience.  He suddenly had more money than he'd ever imagined and was able to enjoy it, along with fame and success, recording several more times, all of it inspired and worth hearing today.  He passed away in November of 1966.

I've always wanted to go to Avalon, just to see the area where he lived and where he is buried.  Over the past couple of years, I've been able to venture out a bit.....most areas in Mississippi are a short day-trip of two-three hours from my house, so I decided to venture out a couple of weekends ago.  While doing a little research on the internet, I discovered that there is a Mississippi John Hurt Foundation, which was established in 1999 by Hurt's granddaughter, Mary Frances Hurt, to preserve the musician's legacy and history through several means, including the Mississippi John Hurt Museum, which is set up in Hurt's old home, which is also the site for the annual Mississippi John Hurt Festival.  If you're interested in helping them with their mission, visit the site for information on donations....every little bit helps keep his music and legacy alive.

Since we're still battling this accursed virus, I was uncertain as to whether the museum might be open right now (I've been trying to get into another one for several months with no success), so I contacted Ms. Hurt to see about a possible visit.  She was most accommodating and got me in touch with Floyd Bailey, the museum curator, since visits are by appointment only.  Mr. Bailey contacted me and advised me to meet him in Greenwood and he would guide me to the museum, so my brother and I made the journey to Greenwood a couple of Saturdays ago.

Mr. Bailey met us at a local convenience store and we followed him on Highway 7 north out of town, turning right at Teoc Road.  It's always neat to be in the Greenwood area because you can plainly see where the Delta begins.....the rolling hills to the east just stop and then everything is flat.  The area where Mr. Hurt lived is right at the edge of the Delta, literally.  We went into the hills and took several dirt roads cut deeply into the hills of Carroll County before coming to a clearing where we could plainly see Hurt's house to the left.  Driving up to Greenwood, I told my brother that I hated for Mr. Bailey to have to meet us and lead us to the house because I figured we could find it ourselves.  Boy, was I wrong!  When we stopped, he got out of his van and, smiling, he asked, “Do you think you could have found this yourself???"  

There's an interesting story on the Foundation website that describes how Ms. Hurt ended up with her grandfather's house.  She was able to move it from it's original location about a mile west of the current location.  The cozy three-room house is a great little stop with some of his old furniture still in place and lots of information on the walls.....newspaper clippings, pictures of Hurt and his family members and other musicians of the time.  It was just a cool feeling to know that he had lived in this house, probably playing his guitar on the porch from time to time.  Ms. Hurt also moved the original St. James Church on the property and it sits about 100 yards away from the house.  

I asked a few questions to Mr. Bailey while there and he filled me in on a few details that I had not been aware of.  Mr. Bailey lives in Itta Bena, a few miles west of Greenwood.  I lived there as a young child, so we talked a little bit about that as well.  He was a most gracious host!

We also wanted to see Hurt's blues marker and also his grave site.  Mr. Bailey said, "Follow me," so we followed him out to the paved road to the site of the old Valley Store, which is where Hurt would buy his groceries, visit with friends, and occasionally play on the front porch.  

From there, Mr. Bailey led us to a dirt road cut into a steep hill that he said would lead us to the cemetery, saying to drive past a double-wide trailer on the right, go about 600 yards, and "look to the left."  Hurt's first log cabin was on this road, as well as the old St. James Church (the one that is now next to the museum).  The new location of St. James Church is now a few miles away and there's mostly deer camps and deer stands dotting this road now.

There were actually two cemeteries down this roads, the one we were looking for and a newer cemetery just across the road with only a few headstones.  We found the cemetery when we saw a couple of wind chimes hanging from trees at the cemetery on the right.  We were lucky to see it because it's basically a cut in a small hill that's maybe about ten feet wide and marked by a granite marker on the edge of the road....."Durbin Cemetery."  I happened to be looking down and caught a glimpse of the marker as I passed, so we drove another hundred feet or so down the narrow road until we found a place to pull over.

The cemetery was on the side of a hill.  The graves were set up on either side of a narrow path, about two or three to a side, some with nice markers, some with stones with faded writing, some with the metal markers from the funeral home.  Hurt's grave was near the back, about 75 yards maybe from the road.  His grave was well-tended, with stones lining the sides.  The headstone that has been seen in pictures from books and magazines is at the head of the grave and another newer stone is at the foot.  Like other graves we've seen, there were things left behind by fans who made the journey (I'm not sure about the significance of the urn in the picture... UPDATE:  Ms. Hurt told me that the urn contains the ashes of Hurt's son, John William, who passed away in 2016).  It's a very peaceful, serene site, definitely off the beaten path.  It's located where John Hurt spent the majority of his life.  It's near his home place and where he went to church, where his family and friends were, so I’m sure it was where he wanted to be.  

There are a lot of other Hurts in this cemetery as well, including John's wife, Gertrude, who passed away in 2012 at 111, and son, T.C. (Ms. Hurt's father), who passed away a couple of months before his father.  Gertrude Hurt is buried closer to the road, about 50 yards away from her husband, and T.C. Hurt is buried close to his father.  Mary Frances Hurt's mother, brother, and sister are also buried in this peaceful place.

I've really enjoyed my recent travels into Mississippi Blues Country.  This was one of the most interesting because I've enjoyed Mississippi John Hurt's music for so long.  Any blues fan enjoys his music.  As stated above, it has a timeless appeal that really spans's not just good blues, it's good music.  If you are not familiar with his music, here are three essential releases that I've enjoyed over the years, but trust me when I tell you that you can't go wrong with any of his recordings.  These are just the tip of the iceberg.

Avalon Blues:  The Complete 1928 Okeh Recordings (Legacy):  These are the legendary first recordings.  The sound is superb, considering that they're over 90 years old.  What's amazing is that when Hurt was "rediscovered" some 35 years later, he sounded just as good as he does on these tracks.  Every blues fan should have a Mississippi John Hurt album in their collection and they definitely need this one if they don't have any others.

The Immortal Mississippi John Hurt (Vanguard):  I like all of Hurt's Vanguard recordings, but this album, released shortly after his death, is my favorite of those.  He sounds fantastic on these tracks.  When I first purchased this one years ago, I played it all the time.  The sound is pristine, as on many of Vanguard's releases, and it just has a warm, cozy feel, like you're listening to Hurt play on his front porch.

The Best of Mississippi John Hurt (Vanguard):  Somewhat awkwardly titled, this is actually a 1965 concert recorded at Oberlin College, not a collection of his "Greatest Hits."  However, this set captures Hurt  in great form performing most of his classic songs and interacting with an appreciative audience.  

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