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.
"Tribute albums in general are a tricky prospect," says Alvin, who himself co-produced the splendid 1994 Merle Haggard tribute Tulare Dust. "Often, you get the feeling that there was no care given to whether the performers were influenced by, or even liked, the subject of the record. It's just, 'Who can we get to play on this record?'
"But more than that, when Peter called me I thought, 'Well, how the hell do you do a song better than Mississippi John Hurt?' And the answer is, you don't. Some songwriters don't perform the 'definitive' version of their songs; you get the feeling that there are other possibilities in the music. But Hurt's songs are fairly complete in their composition and in his performance style, so at first I was a little bit hesitant."
When Alvin and Case went into the studio to perform "Monday Morning Blues," however, his fears were dispelled. "That's when I understood what Peter was after. There's a real attention to Hurt's spirit that runs through the record. Some of those people blew me away; I'd done shows with Ben Harper, but I had no idea he could finger-pick like that. His version of 'Sliding Delta' is damn near note-for-note. And even somebody like Gillian Welch, who I don't really see as being directly influenced by Hurt's playing, took that song [the spiritual "Beulah Land"] to another place. Not in a bad way," he says quickly, "in a really careful and loving way."
His only personal disappointment, Alvin admits with tongue firmly in cheek, is that Lucinda Williams got a song he really wanted to do. Williams turns in a devastating performance of Hurt's heartbreaking "The Angels Laid Him Away."
"Oh, man, Lucinda got the cherry," he says. "There's no question about it."
Case, in the meantime, was pressing on with increased assistance from the assembled crew, and from other interested performers who'd gotten wind of the record.
"After I got a little bit into the project," he says, "people started calling me up. In some cases I wasn't really familiar with what the connection was. Like with Bruce Cockburn, I had no idea how big a fan he was, but I was amazed by his track ["Avalon, My Home Town"]. It's an incredible performance, which was why we put it right up near the front of the album. Or John Hiatt's ["I'm Satisfied"]; John's been a friend for a long time, but I had no idea how important Hurt was to John's music. I feel like in a way he did the closest sound-wise to Hurt's own style, on the whole record.
"Victoria Williams' song [a highly stylized rendition of "Since I've Laid My Burden Down," featuring wah-wah banjo, no less] was the farthest away anybody got, sound-wise. But even so, it's still very close spiritually to Hurt's music. Victoria knows a lot about gospel and blues, of course, and she's taken that song to quite a different place. It's one of my favorite tracks on the album.
"I knew Beck was into Mississippi John Hurt from an interview I'd read, so we called him. And we had to get Taj [Mahal] on it. Alvin Youngblood Hart is a big fan, obviously; he's done amazing interpretations of old blues material, old Skip James and so on, and I really love his take on 'Here Am I.'"
Despite the unassailable credentials of the gathered performers, Hurt's unique and complex contribution to American music would have been a daunting shadow for any producer to work under. But Case, in particular, was entering personally uncharted waters.
"You never know how things are going to come together," he says. "I'd never done anything like this before. I don't know if I'll do it again, man. It's a lot of work. I'm a singer and songwriter, not really a producer. But the first cut that came in was Chris Smithers' 'Frankie and Albert,' and when he sent in that one, I loved it so much it gave me the confidence to go ahead. It was really fresh, but it was true to John Hurt's style."
That's a description that applies evenly to all the performances on Avalon Blues, which is that rare "tribute album" that delivers the goods from start to finish. Unconventionally relying not on star power or stylistic modernizing, but on the strength of good songs carefully performed, Avalon Blues delivers a double blessing. Firstly, it accurately represents Hurt's diverse catalog by presenting familiar tunes (Beck doing a near-classicist version of "Stagolee") alongside lesser-known ones (Ben Harper's whispering "Sliding Delta"), gospel songs (Alvin Youngblood Hart's joyful "Here Am I, Oh Lord, Send Me") beside sexy blues numbers (Steve and Justin Earle's salacious "Candy Man"). Secondly, and equally as importantly, it treats each performance with a minimal production touch, allowing the beauty of each composition to emerge on its own.
"The real test," says Case, "was when I went to sequence it. That was the moment of truth. To me, it really sounds like one evening, where a lot of people sit around and pass a guitar. There's the feel of a late-night session and you're hearing people do different things, but with a single purpose in mind. Which is appropriate, because the extraordinary thing about John Hurt, besides the music, was his personality, his unique spirit. I think this album really tries to capture his love and his gentleness and his humor."
If by that list Case refers to Hurt's sly merging of the sacred and the secular, the performances here -- by turns rascally and rowdy, then somber, then rejoicing and grateful -- are an across-the-board success.
"[Hurt's music] kind of reminds me of what Prince does," says Case, suddenly laughing at a comparison he seems surprised to hear, even from himself. "There's the Dirty Mind and then there's God. But I've always felt like those were two parts of the same thing. Many years ago, people tried to divide it up: 'You either play blues or you play gospel.' But John Hurt played everything. It's all part of the same life."
Dave Alvin concurs. "A lot of those Mississippi singers, like Charlie Patton and Son House and so forth, came from deep in the Delta, which was a very violent place, and that violence fed into their performing style. John Hurt came from Avalon, which was somewhat on the rim of the Delta and wasn't quite as vicious, and that fed into his style. It's funny. People can listen to John Hurt sing a song about murder and sadness, and they'll say 'Oh, what a lovely song, what a pretty song.' He'll sing about the same things that Patton and Son House sang about, but it's almost like the Buddhist idea, 'Life is suffering: Accept the suffering.' Where other people would sing about those things in a violent and angry way, there's the feeling that Hurt had accepted the pain, and he was going to tell you about it, but in such a way that he almost slipped it in on you."
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In a way, Avalon Blues is the thank-you that Case, and a full compliment of contemporary players, never got to deliver in person.
"I never knew John Hurt," Case says almost wistfully. "I got into him only in the years after he died. But as I did the record I got to know people that did know him -- Geoff Muldaur and those guys, Taj [Mahal], Chris Smither -- they all knew John. It's amazing how many people learned how to finger-pick off his old records. His playing was so careful and precise. Taj said to me at one point that a lot of those Mississippi guys from Hurt's generation really whacked their guitars; that was the big style. But Hurt played his guitar more like a kora [a harp-like African instrument, made from a calabash gourd], and he was a storyteller as well. He's got a wit and an edge, but he was also gentle and loving, and there's this amazing kind of groove that it all flows into.
"I didn't really know whether we were going to have an album that people could play all the way through until the whole thing got sequenced, but after I heard it I thought, man, this sounds like a single night of music.
"It reminds me of some of the records I grew up on as a kid. One of those old records where you put it on, and this whole other world just opens up."