This CD (originally released in 1996) contains the entire original recorded output of John Hurt, who, after recording these sessions (mostly in one day in 1928) returned to his home in Avalon, Mississippi and was not heard from again until he was re-discovered in the 1960’s. What he left behind is one of the most extraordinarily moving legacies in modern musical history. The 13 songs on this disc offer a perfectly clear window into the world Mississippi John Hurt occupied in a time that now seems impossibly far away. Possessed of an angelic voice and face and a soothing, smooth style of fingerpicked guitar, Hurt’s songs initially seem to bear no resemblance to the excited, rough playing of Charlie Patton, or the blinding speed and precision of Robert Johnson, but Hurt, who apparently had no role models or teachers, plays in a style that is as definitive as any of his peers. Primarily utilizing a three-finger picking style with his thumb providing an almost machine rhythm, the overall impression he leaves is of a Zen-like master of vocal and guitar technique. However, when one looks slightly below the surface, it becomes clear that John Hurt is as possessed by demons as he is by kinder spirits.
Each of the first nine songs on Avalon Blues are, in one way or another, about either fightin’ or fuckin’- there’s really no other way to say it. Even though he sounds like a man in control, he finds himself on the wrong end of a bottle or a cheatin’ woman on each of these songs. The result, more often than not, is gun and/or knife play and someone ending up “six feet under the clay.” Within these tales are the genetic goo of all blues and then rock to come. “Frankie” and Albert are there. “Stagger Lee” (“Stack O’ Lee” here) who would become one of the most enduring popular culture myths makes his definitive appearance, the tragic “Louis Collins” is laid away by the angels for the first of many times. The Candyman, who would slip in back doors for the rest of musical history, shows up for the first time. It quickly becomes clear that Mississippi John Hurt is one of the founders and originators of all the music that would follow him into the 20th century and beyond. Not only did he write these songs and seemingly snatch this guitar style from the ether, his versions of what are now standards are by far the best.
Then, at the end of his December 28, 1928 session in New York City, Hurt takes a left turn and plays four songs that show a much different side to the man. “Blessed Be The Name” and “Praying On The Old Camp Ground” show Hurt to be a man with heavenly concerns to balance his earthier tastes. His voice softens even more on these songs, and he coos and moans his way through two beautiful spirituals. Then, he ends with my two favorite songs, which show him as a real man of the earth - not a dangerous lothario, not a preacher, but a simple man who needs to work so he can live. “Blue Harvest Blues” is about a farmer facing a bad harvest (“harvest time is comin’ / will catch me unprepared”), who has no family, nothing. “Blues are on my shoulder / Blues are all around my head / with my heavy burden, lord I wished that I was dead” he sings, and anyone who has had a streak of bad luck can relate. The set ends with one of the greatest of all blues songs, “Spike Driver Blues,” which reads like the original “Take This Job And Shove It,” whereby Hurt compares himself to the story of yet another lynchpin of American folklore, John Henry, but in this case he says “take this hammer and carry it to the captain / tell him I’m gone tell him I’m gone, tell him I’m gone” John Hurt wisely takes the path of least resistance.
What makes Mississippi John Hurt’s early recordings so important transcends his wonderfully controlled and expressive voice, it transcends his groundbreaking and defining guitar style, it is that very modern mixing and mastery of subject matters which shows him to be an exemplar of the complex human spirit. Rather than being a museum piece, he is a beacon for how to behave in the future. Mississippi John Hurt’s Avalon Blues is an essential key to unlocking the modern psyche.
- Paul Epstein