Peter Case, Bill Morrissey and Dave Alvin pay tribute to the sweet genius of Mississippi John Hurt
Seventy-three years ago this month, in 1928, John Smith Hurt left his small-town home in Mississippi, at the request of Okeh Records, and made his way to New York City. He was 36 years old. The very first song he composed and recorded there, “Avalon Blues,” was a melodic, homesick love song to his distant Delta, where he was a tenant farmer and day laborer. Thirty-five years later, the gentle tune became a giant key for a pair of intrepid collectors of blues 78s, a crackly treasure map leading directly to Avalon, Mississippi, and to John Hurt’s wondrous rediscovery.
“Mississippi” John Hurt, folk-blues giant, all 5-foot-4 of him, became a grandfatherly, brown-fedora’d cause celebre in the exploding folk-blues festival circuit of the early 1960s. His soft voice and elegant fingerpicking style was introduced to the world via a show-stopping performance at the prestigious Newport Folk Festival in 1963. He was 71.
As Hurt’s fame grew, worldwide audiences learned his hardscrabble story—that in the tiny hamlet of Avalon he had worked by day and made extra pocket money playing Saturday-night socials and square dances with a white fiddle player named Willie Narmour. This fellow recommended Hurt to an Okeh rep, which led to Hurt’s solitary trip to NYC in 1928, where he recorded five songs. But the Depression squashed lives and plans, and it relegated Hurt to rapid obscurity. He slipped quietly back into the land of Avalon, and only by the latter-day grace of those two gumshoe blues fans was he rediscovered over three decades later.
Two youngsters who heard that “Avalon” call were East Coast teens Peter Case and Bill Morrissey, certainly twin sons of different mothers in relation to Hurt. Both count hearing a copy of Today, Hurt’s 1963 debut studio album for Vanguard, as a defining moment. “I came across the album in a library in 1968,” explains Case, a Vanguard recording artist himself, who has lovingly produced a multi-artist project titled Avalon Blues: A Tribute to the Music of Mississippi John Hurt. “I was 13. It was my door into real old-time American music. It was of such quality that it stuck with me my whole life. His guitar style is something that three or four generations of musicians have picked up on, sort of like the Holy Grail of fingerpicking.”
Bill Morrissey, whose sublime album The Songs of Mississippi John Hurt (Philo/Rounder), was nominated for a Grammy in 1999, has a unique, honey-burled voice with closer kinship to Hurt’s than any of his contemporaries. “I first head Today in 1966,” he recalls, “about a month after John’s death. I dropped the needle on the record and four bars into ‘Coffee Blues,’ I was drop-jawed and bug-eyed. This was not the harsh, haunted Delta blues I was familiar with; this was elegantly melodic and funny. It was subtle and gentle and it swung. This was the way I wanted to play.”
“John’s fingerpicking was just incomparable,” says Dave Alvin, “and he has a master’s touch for song composition. The key to his art was that he had this very soothing, almost lullaby element to his voice, yet his songs were about such painful topics—he could express with the wisdom of a Buddha. It is sweet redemptive music.”
The tribute album does feel like a night in a Greenwich Village coffeehouse, a Route 66 motel room or a Delta rent party, with friends just passing the guitar around. And this week, Tuesday, December 4, at the warmly down-home Palms Playhouse in Davis, these three highly talented famous friends—Peter Case, Bill Morrissey and Dave Alvin—aim to join up with the Buddha spirit of their songsmith hero.