Tuesday, August 29, 2006

John Hurt Festival in Avalon, Miss.


(Originally posted: Aug. 17, 2004)

Held during the Fourth of July weekend, the second annual Mississippi John Hurt Blues and Gospel Festival in Avalon, Miss., wasn't easy to find, but if you turned off Hwy. 7 and kept going up a hill on a narrow dirt road that wound its way through the woods and past a handful of houses and you followed the signs and your instincts, you came across an opening that looked like the top of the hill, where you saw the great bluesman's shotgun shack and maybe 30-40 cars parked nearby.

About 15 miles northeast of Greenwood, Miss., Avalon is a tiny hamlet that straddles the Delta and the hill country.

Avalon was where Hurt lived for almost his entire life.

Mary Hurt Wright, the great man's granddaughter who lives in a newer house near the old shack, had organized the festival and welcomed musicians and fans.

The festival offered plenty of good music and barbecue, and there were several John Hurt CDs for sale.

Later, a historical marker was unveiled on Hwy. 7 as a tribute to Hurt's life and music. Alvin Youngblood Hart from Memphis (a distant cousin of John Hurt's) was among the performers at the festival.

He's part of a younger generation of musicians who are keeping blues alive with their enthusiasm and originality.

His award-winning CDs include Territory, Start with the Soul, Big Mama's Door and Down in the Alley, and he plays classics and his own songs on acoustic and electric guitar. Hart is as gifted as he's unpretentious, and it's always a treat to hear him, especially at an intimate festival where a small group gathered around him. (He'll be at Sticky Fingerz in Little Rock on Aug. 19.)

The small stage was in a shaded area just behind John Hurt's old home, which is now a museum. Perhaps 50 fans had made their way to this rural hamlet to hear several performers, among them Steve Cheseborough (the author of the indispensable "Blues Traveling: The Holy Sites of Delta Blues") and Art Browning, but we were there to pay homage to one of the greatest folk poets of the 20th Century who toiled as a tenant farmer in the area for most of his adult life. He made some great records in 1928 in Memphis and New York and didn't record again for 35 years.

Hurt was born at nearby Teoc in 1892, and his mother soon took him to Avalon, where the family worked as tenant farmers.

As a child, Hurt got his hands on a guitar and taught himself to play all kinds of music, both black and white, because the community was integrated and he loved music from all cultures. Hurt died in Avalon in 1966, enjoying three or four years of fame as he performed at blues festivals and at coffee houses up North.

He's buried deep in the woods in a nearby cemetery.

His earliest recordings are collected on a stunning CD called Avalon Blues: The Complete 1928 Okeh Recordings (Columbia/Legacy), which includes traditional songs and his own compositions, among them the title track ("Avalon, my home town, always on my mind, pretty mamas in Avalon want me there all the time").

Strictly speaking, he was not really a blues player but a songster, a troubadour who sang about life as he understood it. His was a gentle voice, and he picked his guitar as if it were an extension of his soul.

This simple farmer brought to his music a conviction that is as profound and moving as it is original. He sang from the heart, and his music is timeless.

Hurt made several fine records during his brief 1960s rediscovery period, among them The Best of Mississippi John Hurt (Vanguard), recorded in concert at Oberlin College and includes the usual mixture of gospel and spirituals, folk songs and blues.

Vanguard has also issued The Complete Studio Recordings, a three-CD set that contains many of the songs in the live recording – "Nearer My God to Thee," "Richland Woman Blues," "Make Me a Pallett on the Floor," "Nobody's Dirty Business," "Candy Man," etc. – but they were recorded in different settings, and they're all worth hearing over again.

D.C. Blues: The Library of Congress Recordings, Vol. I (Fuel 2000 Records) is another essential recent reissue with two CDs for the price of one. Again, many of the songs appear on the other CDs, but they, too, were recorded separately.

For those who want just about everything Hurt ever recorded, check out Worried Blues 1963, Avalon Blues 1963 and Legend, all from Rounder, and they're all wonderful. Hurt always performed at his best.

Play them all and have your own Mississippi John Hurt festival at home.


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