Sunday, July 7, 2013

Rory Block – Avalon: A Tribute to Mississippi John Hurt

Avalon: A Tribute to Mississippi John Hurt
Stony Plain

Of all the older musicians rediscovered in the 1960s after decades of obscurity, Mississippi John Hurt (1892-1966) was my favorite. He made his first records in 1928 and then faded into obscurity. In 1963, Tom Hoskins, a folk music collector tracked him down in Avalon, Mississippi by picking up on the references to “Avalon, my home town” in one of the songs he’d recorded back in ’28. For next three years, John played folk clubs, concerts and festivals and made a bunch of great records before passing away.

He was, perhaps, the gentlest and sweetest sounding of his generation of bluesmen and songsters, but that was in contrast to some of the violence and sexuality at the heart of many of his songs.

I was a little too young to have known John or see perform live but I started collecting his records as a high school student in the late-‘60s and I’ve continued to revisit them regularly.

Rory Block, who’s about four years older than me and grew up right in the Greenwich Village folk music community, was lucky enough to have met John as a young teenager – he was one of several of the older blues masters that she was lucky enough to meet and learn directly from as a kid. Now, she pays homage to him with Avalon: A Tribute to Mississippi John Hurt, the fourth CD in what she refers to as her Mentor Series – tribute albums to seminal artists she encountered back in the day. It follows earlier tributes to Son House, Mississippi Fred McDowell and Reverend Gary Davis.

Rory begins the album with “Everybody Loves John,” a tribute song she wrote for the album – a worthy addition to the list of great Hurt tributes like Tom Paxton’s “Did You Hear John Hurt?” and Happy Traum’s “Mississippi John” – and then continues with fine versions of 10 more songs either written by John or traditional songs from his repertoire.

Among the best tracks are the bawdy “Richland Woman Blues” and “Spike Driver Blues,” John’s take on the John Henry legend. It was hearing Dave Van Ronk do “Spike Driver Blues” and Maria Muldaur’s sexy version of “Richland Woman Blues” with the Jim Kweskin Jug Band that first led 15-year-old me to seek out Mississippi John Hurt LPs.

Other highlights include murder ballads like “Frankie & Albert,” “Louis Collins” – which Philadelphia Jerry Ricks once told me was John’s own favorite of all his songs – and “Stagolee,” as well as a great version of “Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor.”

Rory is the only musician and singer on the album. While she does overdub occasional back-up parts like the harmony vocals on “Pay Day,” most of the album sounds like it was recorded off the floor.

A superb album from Rory and a fitting tribute to the great Mississippi John Hurt.

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--Mike Regenstreif

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