Wednesday, April 13, 2011

April 13: Mississippi John Hurt, "Avalon Blues"

Artist: Mississippi John Hurt
Song: "Avalon Blues"
Album: Avalon Blues (78" single)
Year: 1928

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Though every genre in history has a number of distinctive artists who have pushed that style into many different directions, there is perhaps no genre that has seen as wide a range of approaches as one can find in the long history of blues music.  From its earliest days as simply a man and his guitar to the way in which it has been incorporated into everything from heavy metal to hip-hop, there is little question that the blues remain the most important style in all of music history.  Yet even in the first few years of the sound being recorded, there was an massive amount of diversity in the approach, and many of the most iconic figures of the blues established themselves with a distinctive take on the style.  In most cases, it was due to a certain aggression or darker sound being presented, and it is the way in which he took the completely opposite approach that makes the music of Mississippi John Hurt so extraordinary.  Without question, he stands as the most gentle, almost unassuming figure in music history, and his songs have a simple beauty that cannot be found anywhere else.  Making almost all of his small catalog of recordings in the late 1920's, one can quickly understand why he stands so far apart from his peers, and there are few guitarists of that era that showed more talent that Mississippi John Hurt.  Though each of his recordings are brilliant in their own right, there is no other blues song in history that can compare to the uniquely charming, almost serene sound that can be found on Mississippi John Hurt's 1928 song, "Avalon Blues."

Much in the same manner as a majority of his peers, Mississippi John Hurt was an act of no more than his voice and his guitar, yet both his style and tone are completely distinctive.  On the original recording of "Avalon Blues," there are also a few rather significant key changes that occur at seemingly odd places within the music, and it is in these moments that his musical superiority becomes apparent.  Further separating himself from the other blues masters of the era, Mississippi John Hurt does not have the "twang" in his playing that is found in a majority of the Delta-based players, as he concentrates more on finger picking than outright strumming.  It is within this approach that one can quickly understand why he is held to be a far superior player than his peers, and the often looping nature of his playing gives his songs a sense of movement that is completely distinctive.  This approach also allows songs like "Avalon Blues" to have a slightly more positive or uplifting feel, and this is further supported by the uniquely soft touch that can be felt within the playing of Mississippi John Hurt.  It is the way in which he is able to deploy such a high quality and distinctive guitar progression in as unassuming and modest a manner as he does that makes Mississippi John Hurt's performance on "Avalon Blues" so fantastic, and it enables the song to be one of the few that easily appeals to almost every music fan.

However, while the simple instrumental approach would be enough to make "Avalon Blues" a classic, it is the way in which the vocals and lyrics of Mississippi John Hurt blend so perfectly into the mix that pushes the song into a category all its own.  At its core, there are few other early bluesmen who have as strong and captivating a voice as one finds on "Avalon Blues," and his straightforward, often spoken approach quickly gives his songs an "every man" feel.  Rarely needing to push his volume much past this style, one can easily see the link from the story-telling tradition to the blues and later genres within the voice of Mississippi John Hurt.  Furthermore, there is perhaps no other artist from any point in history that has so perfectly proven that one can be more mellow within a vocal approach and still have lyrical impact.  The spirit and soul behind the voice of Mississippi John Hurt never wavers, and with each line, he endears himself more and more to the listener, as there is often an underlying sense of pride and gratitude within his singing.  On "Avalon Blues," he becomes one of the first performers to extol the virtues of his home town, making it clear that he enjoys the comforts and simplicities that can only be found there.  Whether he is singing of the beauty and loyalty of its women or the idea that in many ways, these women are much the same as one finds in the "big city," there is an upbeat longing within his voice, and his performance quickly makes the listener want to seek out what sounds to be an amazing place to live.

Truth be told, while Mississippi John Hurt is without question one of the most important musicians in history, he was almost completely lost to history, mostly due to his modest, unassuming personality.  After making his recordings of the Okeh label in 1928, he returned to his work as a sharecropper, due to the lack of commercial success, as well as the financial realities of the early 1930's.  Nearly thirty years later, a man by the name of Tom Hoskins followed the "clues" within these recordings to track down Mississippi John Hurt, who was still living in Avalon, Mississippi, working the same job that he was at the time of the recordings.  With the "folk rebirth" in full swing, Mississippi John Hurt was finally given some of the credit he clearly deserved, playing to massive audiences who were completely enamored by his sound.  Throughout all of these performances, the genuine appreciation and almost shock of his sudden fame was quite clear, and this honest personality vaulted him to a cult-like status within music circles.  Yet even without these characteristics, the fact of the matter is, Mississippi John Hurt's recordings serve as the foundation for nearly everything that followed, and he was one of the first players to push the norm on what was considered blues music.  Though each of his few recordings are superb, there is not another song in history that has the same sound and feel as one finds in Mississippi John Hurt's stunning 1928 ode to his home town, "Avalon Blues."

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