Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Avalon Blues


Song: Avalon Blues Written By: Mississippi John Hurt

Appears on: Mississippi John Hurt: 1928 Sessions (Yazoo); The Best of Mississippi John Hurt (Vanguard)

I don’t tend to be a fellow who thinks in terms of “best” or “greatest”—these concepts are a bit too hierarchical for my tastes. However, if I could take the recordings of only one fingerstyle blues guitar player to the proverbial desert island, I’d certainly have to pick the music of Mississippi John Hurt. While Hurt’s playing didn’t have the drive or urgency of Charlie Patton’s or Blind Lemon Jefferson’s, there’s something so lyrical about his music—it’s really like a clear running stream with the rippli
ng melody notes & the low hum of the steady bass pattern underneath. It’s just beautiful.

Of course,
we might never have known so much about Mississippi John Hurt—he was not a professional musician, but a sharecropper in his hometown of Avalon, Mississippi. He did play for various social functions, however, & as a result he partnered with fiddled Willie Narmour, who later recommended Hurt to Okeh Records producer Tommy Rockwell. Rockwell arranged for Hurt to travel to New York for a recording session in 1928 & something very special was captured on 13 tracks.

The Great Depression was just on the horizon, however, & this had a major impact on the fledgling recording industry: one big casualty was that the companies curtailed recor
ding a lot of the folk & blues & country music that appealed to less affluent customers—recordings of African-American artists in particular were particularly hard hit—& so John Hurt stayed on in Avalon, farming & playing guitar in the local area.

After World War II the interest in what was then called “folk music” really started to take off, however. A number of folks scoured every source possible for old 78s, & of course among these collectors was Harry Smith, who used his vast 78 collection as the basis for the groundbreaking Anthology of American Folk Music. Among the 84 recordings on the Anthology were two by Mississippi John Hurt: “Frankie” & “Spike Driver Blues.”

The Anthology was a major event in the folk music circles—guitarist John Fahey called it a more important document than the Dead Sea Scrolls—& since the Anthology’s 1952 release was really only a generation removed from the artists whose work it featured, people began to track down these musicians.

Musicologist Tom Hoskins decided to find this mysterious Mississippi John Hurt, the masterful guitarist (it’s said that when Segovia heard “Frankie” he couldn’t believe only one guitar was playing!) How could he manage to find this man who’d drifted into obscurity for over 20 years?

It turns out that Hurt had composed & recorded a song about his hometown—“Avalon Blues”—which he recorded during those 1928 Okeh sessions. As a result, Hoskins was able to find Hurt in 1963—at which point Hurt was either 70 or 71 years old (there’s some dispute about whether he was born in 1892 or 1893). But despite his age, & his years of manual work, he could still play the guitar & sing—& I mean he could really play the guitar. After convincing Hurt that he was not an FBI agent, Hoskins encouraged Hurt to start a second career as a musician, & for three years until his death in 1966, Hurt was a major sensation on the folk music circuit (& beyond—he even appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson). The quality of his musicianship during those few years compares very favorably with his early recordings—in fact, there’s a certain relaxed quality in his later live recordings that in some ways seems even better than his earlier material (see Vanguard’s The Best of Mississippi John Hurt, recorded live at Oberlin in 1966 as proof of this).

“Avalon Blues” is a great example of Hurt’s work: it has the quiet humor riding atop a genuine vein of emotion—homesickness in this case—that are both trademarks of his vocal style. The guitar work is just superb: Mississippi John Hurt was a master of the pattern picking that’s known as the “Piedmont Style,” which is also associated with two other favorites of mine, Elizabeth Cotten & Etta Baker. The first video clip is the 1928 version of "Avalon Blues"; the second is from a later, live recording. As you’ll notice, Hurt changed the lyrics when he was older: among others, he added: “Just one thing I can’t understand, many pretty mamas in Avalon, & I’m just one man.”

“Avalon Blues” is just a wonderful song, & it can be appreciated simply as that. But the history it illustrates is fascinating, too: the big recording push in the 20’s, the failure of many record labels in the Depression, & the keen interest in the old music that came out of the 1950s.

Enough from me—hope you enjoy this great music!

Avalon Blues

Got to New York this mornin', just about half-past nine
Got to New York this mornin', just about half-past nine
Hollerin' one mornin' in Avalon, couldn't hardly keep from cryin'

Avalon is my hometown, always on my mind
Avalon is my hometown, always on my mind
Pretty mamas in Avalon want me there all the time

When the train left Avalon, throwin' kisses and wavin' at me
When the train left Avalon, throwin' kisses and wavin' at me
Says, "Come back, daddy, and stay right here with me"

Avalon's a small town, have no great big range
Avalon's a small town, have no great big range
Pretty mamas in Avalon, they sure will spend your change

New York's a good town, but it's not for mine
New York's a good town, but it's not for mine
Goin' back to Avalon, near where I have a pretty mama all the time





2 comments:

  1. I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


    Susan

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  2. Very inspiring story and uplifting tunes. Enjoyed this post!

    ReplyDelete