Mississippi John Hurt was involved in two recording sessions in 1928 that resulted in a compilation of 13 sides for Okeh Records. After those recordings were complete, Mississippi John Hurt was virtually never heard from again until he was rediscovered by blues musicians Tom Hoskins and Mike Stewart in 1963. where he thrilled audiences at the Newport Folk Festival. For the next three years, until his death in 1966, Hurt was acclaimed as one of the major influences in American music. Unfortunately, after his death, Hurt again slipped into relative obscurity, known well only to hard core blues fans and many contemporary musicians.
Avalon Blues is a tribute to the musical talent of Mississippi John Hurt by a consortium of performers from blues, rock, pop and folk music. It is also part of an attempt to bring Hurt's music and impact on the music business back into a more prominent light. As I listened , one of the best aspects of Avalon Blues was the fact that the performers did not attempt to radically rework these classic tunes, but instead seek to, in their own styles, pay tribute to the gentle vocals and elegant finger picking of this influential musician.
The array of musicians performing on the CD is another unique aspect of Avalon Blues. The varied lineup includes rockers Ben Harper and Beck; pop notables Bruce Cockburn and John Hiatt; folk/roots musicians Dave Alvin, Geoff Muldaur; country players Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams and Gillian Welch; along with blues stalwarts Taj Mahal, Alvin Youngblood Hart and Mark Selby. Regardless of the genre these musicians hail from, all work to remain true to Mississippi John Hurt's musical legacy.
The songs on Avalon Blues range from humorous ("Chicken" performed by Geoff Muldaur with Jenni and Claire Muldaur) to romantic ("My Creole Belle" performed by Taj Mahal) to traditional ("Beulah Land" sung by Gillian Welch) and classic ("Candy Man" performed by Steve and Justin Earle). Taj Mahal's version of "My Creole Belle" is particularly enjoyable, as his voice seems perfect for interpreting Hurt's music, as he has done on many of his own records.
The styles employed on the songs vary as well. Dramatic differences exist between the shrill vocals of Victoria Williams on "Since I've Laid My Burden Down" and the more lyrical voice of Gillian Welch on "Beulah Land." Likewise, differences are apparent between the emotional vocals and/or guitar by Chris Smither on "Frankie and Albert" and Bruce Cockburn on "Avalon, My Hometown," versus the flatter toned vocals presented by Beck on the Hurt classic "Stagolee."
Although a couple of the songs may disappoint the blues purist, anyone who has listened to Hurt's music will be pleased with Avalon Blues. The songs are true to the music of Mississippi John Hurt and the performers seem to demonstrate the necessary passion and interest in their delivery to make this a worthwhile endeavor.
According to Ben Harper, "If it wasn't for Mississippi John Hurt, I would not be making music at all." The retrospective acknowledgment of John Hurt's influence on American music is wonderfully presented by the artists who offer their talents on the 15 song recording. For more information on Avalon Blues, or to pick up a copy of the CD, visit your favorite music outlet or go to the Vanguard Records website at www.vanguardrecords.com.
This review is copyright © 2001 by Dave "Doc" Piltz, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved. Copy, duplication or download prohibited without written permission. For permission to use this review please send an E-mail to Ray Stiles.