There are no second acts in American lives, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in his notebook, and his comment says much about a popular culture sustained by personalities of fleeting fame. So do the exceptions to the rule. It's doubtful that the jazz-age author of The Great Gatsby, published in 1925, ever heard the folk blues that John Hurt of Carroll County, Mississippi recorded in 1928. Few did. Hurt, who never thought of himself as a professional musician anyway, slipped back into anonymity. But Hurt had a favourite saying of his own - Don't die 'til your dead.
John Smith Hurt's second act, highlighted by the three studio albums collected here, was as unexpected as it was unlikely - and began in 1963 with the song: Avalon Blues and a pair of young white blues musicians from Washingston, D. C. Tom Hoskins and Mike Stewart. The two musicians came across the recording Avalon Blues on a tape of unreleased Hurt recordings. One line in particular caught their ear: Avalon's my home town, always on my mind. Was it possible that John Hurt still lived in Avalon?
The gumshoe guitar pickers checked a contemporary map but could find no such town. But then, in an atlas published in 1878, they discovered that Avalon was a speck of a community on a secondary road between Greenwood and Grenada, Mississippi. Hoskins packed up his car and headed for the Delta. Two days later, he pulled up to Stinson's, a combination general store, gas station, and post office that constituted downtown Avalon, and asked if anybody knew the whereabouts of a blues singer named John Hurt. To his surprise, he was told to go 'bout a mile down that road, third mail box up the hill. Can't miss it.
Hurt was hesitant when an unknown white man parked his car in front of his three-room house, and later told an interviewer that he thought it was the police or the FBI or something like that. Hurt, who no longer owned a guitar was still suspicious when Hoskins offered up his own instrument to see if the old master could still play. Hurt eventually agreed to follow the young man back to Washington D. C. Since Hurt thought he had no choice, he'd decided to go voluntarily. And so it was that the lost legend slipped through the looking glass into a whole new world.
The transition from tending livestock to minding a musical career had to be difficult, but as a black man scratching out a living in a white man's world, Hurt already knew what it was to be an outsider. The only difference was that the white people he worked for now didn't own farmland or cattle, but coffee-houses and record companies. He found a friend and confidant in Patrick Sky, a folk singer who recorded for Vanguard but who, more importantly, was born and raised in the South, and knew a thing or two about culture shock.
Hurt was signed to Vanguard Records and invited Sky to come to his first recording session. At the label's studio, located in the bohemian Chelsea Hotel, John sat alone in a big room adjoining a sound booth crowded with onlookers, including Vanguard's co-founder, Maynard Solomon. Hurt tried some songs, but nobody was happy with the results.
I walked over to Maynard Solomon, recalls Sky, and asked him, 'Do you want to get a good record out of John Hurt? Make me the producer.' So the first thing I did as producer was to say, 'Now that I'm the producer, everybody get the fuck out.' From then on, it was just me, John and the recording engineer. Then I went out, got a fifth of Jack Daniel's, poured John a drink and we smoked some cigarettes. It all came out pretty easily after that. The performances captured on those three days inevitably recall those of 1928, and while there's nothing quite like the vintage vigour of those original recordings, these later works carry another 38 years of playing the guitar. Close your eyes while listening to these intimate recordings and you could be at a house party in Avalon, or a coffee-house in the village.
Hurt died in his sleep on 2 November 1966, and is buried a couple of miles outside Avalon. But he continues to live in the fingers of countless guitar players