Mississippi John Hurt (1893–1966) is among a number of great bluesmen who made recordings in the 1920s and '30s and afterward lived in obscurity, oblivious to interest in them and their songs, until they were rediscovered during the blues revival of the early 1960s. Blues enthusiasts more or less took for granted that they were dead and gone, their 78 rpm records all that remained. Then, amazingly, one after another, they began turning up: Son House alive and well in Rochester, New York, Sleepy John Estes in Brownsville, Tennessee, Bukka White in Memphis, and Skip James in Bentonia, Mississippi.
In 1963 Tom Hoskins, a guitar player and blues collector, happened on a 1928 recording of Mississippi John Hurt singing "Avalon Blues." The song has a little refrain that goes "Avalon my hometown, always on my mind / Pretty mamas in Avalon, want me there all the time." Hoskins put two and two together, Mississippi John Hurt, Avalon my home town, pulled out an atlas, located Avalon, and took a road trip to Mississippi.
John Hurt had not played the guitar in years, and he had to be convinced that Hoskins was not the FBI come to arrest him. The account I found when researching this piece did not explain why Hurt thought the FBI might want to arrest him. We could speculate. 1963. Seventy-year-old black man in Mississippi. Why else would a white guy from Washington DC come looking for him?
Hoskins arranged for Hurt to move to Washington, where he made several records and recorded for the Library of Congress. He was a popular performer at folk festivals, coffeehouses, and colleges until his death in 1966.
The word "gentleness" and reference to his warm personality appear time and again in descriptions of Mississippi John Hurt. These qualities shine through in performance, carried by his voice and intricate, inventive fingerpicking. Listening to John Hurt invariably leaves me feeling better than I did before. I suspect I am not alone.
This is the coffee blues. I like the same brand, Maxwell's House. It's good till the last drop, just like it says on the can. I used to have a girl, cooked me a good Maxwell's House. She moved away. Some said Memphis and some said Leland. But I found her, and I wanted her to cook me some good Maxwell's House. Y'understand that if I can get just a spoonful of Maxwell's House, do me as much good as two or three cups of this other coffee.