Mississippi John Hurt played fingerpicking guitar blues that were as gentle as a country lullaby. A creased and tiny man with wide and beatific eyes, he was ushered onto the national stage during the heyday of the folk revival in the early 1960s, by then a senior citizen with just a few more years to live. He sang both gospel numbers and bawdy rags, all the while conveying a life-affirming serenity over a quietly thrumming guitar.
Every few decades, Hurt is dramatically rescued from obscurity by a new generation of admirers. "Avalon Blues," a winning and warm tribute album by performers including Steve Earle, Beck and Lucinda Williams, is the latest rescue. But it's not nearly the most dramatic.
Hurt lived most of his life in a flyspeck town on the Delta's edge and would have missed his brief detour to fame if not for a pair of Washington music fans. For most of his 73 years, he was a railroad worker and sharecropper, living without electricity, his self-taught style of fingerpicking guitar a secret that only his neighbors, friends and a few hard-core folk fans knew much about. He'd recorded a few songs in the late '20s, but the sessions yielded weak-selling 78s and the Depression ended any chance of a career in music. Hurt returned to the fields.
He might have stayed there until his death except for Dick Spottswood and Tom Hoskins. In the '50s, Folkways reissued Hurt's songs and, a decade later, the kindly voiced man who sang "Candy Man Blues" and "Nobody's Dirty Business" had a new coterie of followers. None, however, knew what had become of Hurt; most assumed he'd died years ago. In 1963, Spottswood, a local musicologist and later a WAMU deejay, began searching, armed with the sole clue that Hurt had left about his life: a reference to "Avalon, my home town," on a song called "Avalon Blues."
It turned out that Avalon was too tiny to show up on modern maps, so Spottswood found an atlas from the 1890s. Hoskins was soon on his way to Mississippi, and was amazed to learn from residents that Hurt was alive and picking, a few mailboxes up the road. Then 69, Hurt was astonished that anyone was looking for him; oddly enough, he assumed Hoskins was with the FBI.
Hurt was invited to D.C., where he lived for a while on Rhode Island Avenue and recorded dozens of tracks at the Library of Congress's Coolidge Auditorium. Those recordings, as well as his Rip van Winkle life story and twinkling manner, turned him into a folk circuit hit. He played the Newport Folk Festival three times and even appeared once on "The Tonight Show."
Hurt died in Mississippi in 1966, but again, his supporters won't let him settle into rural oblivion. "Avalon Blues" brings Hurt back for a bow while underscoring his influence on singers both in the world of acoustic blues and beyond. Beck's take on "Stagolee" feels as respectful as a eulogy, with all the song's mournful energy intact. Steve Earle and his son Justin play up the raunch of "Candy Man" ("Don't stand close to the candy man, he'll leave a stick of candy in your hand") by adding a snappy drumbeat and some roadhouse atmosphere.
New York bluesman Geoff Muldaur captures Hurt's more child-friendly side with "Chicken," a song that teaches the listener how to spell the song's title and would be a monster hit if Sesame Street controlled the radio airwaves. Lucinda Williams gets the funereal tone of "Angels Laid Him Away" just right; Taj Mahal's take on "My Creole Belle," as simple and endearing a love song as there is, nails the buoyant stride of the original.
Ben Harper, John Hiatt, Taj Mahal and Gillian Welch all get turns on this album. With that sort of talent, Hurt and his music could well earn a fresh group of zealots. And with "Avalon Blues," you don't even need a map to find the guy.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8161.)