Rory Block,
(Stony Plain, 2013)

Mississippi John Hurt (1892-1966), a black man with a guitar, is often lazily characterized as a bluesman in the same way that a white Southerner with a banjo usually becomes a bluegrass musician. In other words, with tin ear and dubious accuracy. Hurt's style, which owed more to ballads, rags and hymns than to the hard blues of Mississippi's Delta and hill country, was born in an earlier time. It was at once traditional and original, one gifted musician's reshaping of grassroots sounds.

Though its sources are detectable in various strains of vernacular music, nobody ever put it together as Hurt did in the 13 sides he cut in 1928 for the Okeh label. His "Spike Driver Blues," a "John Henry" variant, appeared on Harry Smith's influential Anthology of American Folk Music in 1952. Ten years later, Texas folksong scholar Mack McCormick traced Hurt to Avalon, Mississippi, taking his cue from "Avalon Blues," which Hurt had celebrated as his home town in the 78 cut decades earlier. Hurt, it turned out, hadn't gone anywhere. McCormick managed to speak with him on the phone but did not meet him personally. In 1963 Tom Hoskins of Washington, D.C., went to Avalon and persuaded Hurt to tour on the folk and blues circuit. Hurt, whose gentle personality and modest demeanor soon won him good will all around, recorded several albums, mostly on the Vanguard label, before passing peacefully in his sleep in late 1966.

Hurt's music is so specific to him that it practically defies reinvention. Rock arrangements of his songs barely exist. A 2001 Vanguard tribute album, Avalon Blues, leaves Hurt's versions more or less intact, with the differences manifesting primarily in the vocals (to riveting effect on Lucinda Williams's "Angels Laid Him Away," a retitled "Louis Collins"). The boldest reassembling of the Hurt repertoire is to be encountered in the newly released Avalon, the latest in Rory Block's celebrations of African-American musicians (the others being Son House, Mississippi Fred McDowell and Rev. Gary Davis).

Block, who's been around since the 1960s folk/blues revival, knows too much to pigeonhole Hurt as yet another bluesman, but in her recreation Hurt's material is dressed in that garb, her vocals taking on a far snakier, melodramatic tone than Hurt's more laid-back, conversational approach. Bluesy slide guitar, not in evidence in anything directly associated with the man himself, figures conspicuously here, laid over more familiar Hurt picking. You can hear Hurt here, and you can sense her fondness for the man, but this is a Block record.

Avalon opens with her own "Everybody Loves John," wordier and lengthier than the more succinct competition, Tom Paxton's "Did You Hear John Hurt?" (covered by Hurt's friend Doc Watson). Ten songs composed by or associated with Hurt follow. One could call them well-chosen if Hurt's songs weren't already so uniformly sublime. Block takes the ones she likes, which in good part comprise grand ballads such as "Frankie & Albert," "Spike Driver Blues" and "Stagolee," all of them from the latter 19th century, Hurt's musical home. The words to "Louis Collins" are Hurt's -- written after hearing of a local murder -- but the melody predates it, taken from the once-ubiquitous "Railroad Bill."

All the guitars and voices are Block's. While always nodding to tradition, these are modern readings sufficiently unlike Hurt's that they never fall into pointless imitation. If anything, one wishes the overcooked "Pay Day" had been closer to Hurt's. With its inexplicable, intrusive r&b/gospel chorus, it leads one to yearn for Hurt's matter-of-fact handling of this well-traveled folk song, a collection of floating verses sometimes called "Red Rocking Chair."

Given what has gone before (it's the last cut), though, it is easily forgivable. Today, as I prepared to write this review, I listened to a CD of Hurt's 1928 sides and followed it with Block's, and both made me happy. Either or both will do the same for you, I expect.

music review by
Jerome Clark

15 June 2013

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