By Melissa Fossum
By Lauren Wise
By New Times
By Amanda Savage
By Jason P. Woodbury
By Troy Farah
By New Times
On contemporary maps, Teoc, Mississippi, rests as far off the path as it did in the twilight years of the 19th century. Located almost exactly between Texarkana, Arkansas, and Birmingham, Alabama, Teoc lies several miles from the nearest U.S. Route. And there wasn't a single paved road anywhere near it when John Hurt was born there on July 3, 1893.
As a young man Hurt tried his hand at tenant farming, but soon gave it up for day laboring. To make extra money, and just because he enjoyed it, he began playing guitar in the evenings, at town dances, and at church socials. After relocating to nearby Avalon, he came to the attention of Okeh Records in the late 1920s when a prominent fiddler named Willie Narmour directed visiting talent scouts to a humdinger guitar player who lived just up the road.
Upon hearing Hurt, Okeh offered to record him, provided he could make two required trips, to Memphis and New York City, for the sessions. John Hurt cut seven sides in all for Okeh in 1928 -- two in Memphis, five more in New York -- but following the Depression (a familiar story) his records went unpromoted and largely unsold. John Hurt went back to Mississippi and back to day laboring, continuing to play nearly every weekend in neighboring towns.
The years passed, as they will. But in 1963, two blues aficionados from Washington, D.C., named Tom Hoskins and Mike Stewart ran across the Okeh release of "Avalon Blues." They made a pilgrimage to Mississippi and asked after Hurt at Avalon's only gas station. "John Hurt?" said the attendant. "Yeah, he still lives here. Down that road, third mailbox up the hill."
Hoskins and Stewart found the man who'd cut "Avalon Blues," now 71 years old, his hands and voice still intact. Sure, he still played. In fact, he'd written dozens of songs in the intervening years. Scarcely believing their good fortune, Hoskins and Stewart set up a tape recorder and asked John if he'd play. They took the reels back to D.C.
Exit John Hurt, day laborer and weekend musician. Enter Mississippi John Hurt, unqualified success of the mid-1960s folk and blues revival, whose influence would be felt by four subsequent generations of songwriters. And counting.
The album is called Avalon Blues: A Tribute to the Music of Mississippi John Hurt, upon which 19 singer-songwriters honor the music and the man. The person responsible for that album is Peter Case, founder of the Plimsouls and a singer-songwriter of no meager talent himself. But the spirit and soul on Avalon Blues is Hurt's, from start to finish.
Peter Case first heard Mississippi John Hurt on a record he'd found at the local library. The year was 1968, two years after Hurt's death, and Case was 14 years old.
"For me, Mississippi John Hurt was like a door into American music," he reports from a beach in California, where he's come to play with his kids on their first day of summer vacation. "The Scots-Irish and the African-American elements are what make American music special, and what's going on with Hurt was, he was a doorway into both. He was a real songster, too, he wasn't just improvising blues lyrics, though he was tagged as a blues singer. It's like [singer and Avalon Blues contributor] Bill Morrisey says, those songs on Today are as good singer-songwriter songs as you're ever going to get."
1963's Today, now considered a classic of the American folk revival, was the first studio album Hurt recorded after his rediscovery. Packed evenly with gospel songs, folk stories and energetic poppers like the now-standard "Coffee Blues," Today illustrates Case's observation that throughout his long hiatus from the public eye, Hurt was "not only playing blues, but early jazz and popular tunes, and gospel music. He worked in a wide spectrum of styles, and he was an incredible player. His 1928 recordings were just beautiful, and then he dropped out, and here he comes back in 1963 with this amazing perseverance. It shows that his music wasn't just about making records, it was a part of his life."
Though known and beloved by musicians, the name (if not the songs) of Mississippi John Hurt remains criminally unfamiliar to modern-day listeners, a state of affairs that Case hopes Avalon Blues will remedy. "I'd loved his music ever since I was a kid, so doing Avalon Blues was really kind of a labor of love. I know it sounds clichéd, but during all the different periods of my life -- personally and musically -- I always had a couple of his records with me. Even when I was with the Plimsouls on the road, I'd always have a copy of Today somewhere close."
Plans for Avalon Blues had been percolating long before Case began to approach possible contributors, but once he made his plans known he received almost more cooperation than he knew what to do with. His initial "dream roster" included Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, Bill Morrisey, and Victoria Williams, all of whom jumped at the chance.
Also on that list was Dave Alvin -- whose erudition on the subject of American music is second to no one's -- who was initially a bit wary of the project.