“Avalon, my home town, always on my mind. Pretty mama’s in Avalon, want me there all the time.” If it weren’t for these words, sung on a rare 1928 record from the Okeh Label, MISSISSIPPI JOHN HURT (1892 [maybe]–1966), the great master of the Delta and country blues, might never have been rediscovered. The Avalon in the song is a Mississippi hamlet so obscure that, by 1963 — the year folkie Tom Hoskins went looking for Hurt — it wasn’t even on the map. When Hoskins, who’d heard Hurt’s songs included on the 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music collection, knocked on his cabin door, Hurt — who’d worked as a sharecropper until the late 1920s, when he recorded a few modestly successful records, then returned to obscurity during the Depression — assumed it was government agents looking to arrest him for moonshining. Hurt’s career thus recapitulated the mystery of the blues in miniature: How could such a tough, urbane, modern art come out of a place as far out of the way as the Delta? How could someone so far on the fringes of even the Delta create such a singular style? When Hurt plays the guitar each note is clear and bright. His blues sound so easy, like children’s melodies, but they’re all but impossible to duplicate. Such a sweet sound, such a gentle voice… and, if you listen to the words, so much delicate menace.
“You Got to Walk That Lonesome Valley”
“Make Me a Pallet on the Floor”
READ MORE about members of the Modernist Generation (1884–93).