Recording of September 2001: A Tribute to the Music of Mississippi John Hurt

AVALON BLUES: A Tribute to the Music of Mississippi John Hurt
Dave Alvin, Beck, Peter Case, Bruce Cockburn, Justin Earle, Steve Earle, Richard Greene, Ben Harper, Alvin Youngblood Hart, John Hiatt, Taj Mahal, Bill Morrissey, Clare Muldaur, Geoff Muldaur, Jenni Muldaur, David Rawlings, Mark Selby, Chris Smither, Gillian Welch, Lucinda Williams, Victoria Williams
Vanguard 79582-2 (CD). 2001. Peter Case, prod.; Francisco Lugo, Dawn Hopkins, Ray Kennedy, Mark Raines, Mark Wilkins, Jeff Landrock, Matt Andrews, David Rawlings, engs. AAD.? TT: 51:29
Performance ****
Sonics ***?

At the beginning of the 1990s, Bob Dylan was suffering from acute writer's block. His muse had deserted him; he wondered if he'd ever write a song again. Dylan then did a remarkable thing. He started from scratch, going back to the source material he'd started out learning as a teenager, and released two albums—As Good As I've Been to You and World Gone Wrong—of traditional material. The therapy worked—Dylan went on to write the astonishingly great Time Out of Mind. The first song that appears on the first of those two traditional albums is "Frankie & Albert," and you can practically hear Dylan recharging his creative batteries as he tells this age-old tale of love and murder.

I don't think it's an accident that project coordinator Peter Case starts off this wonderful tribute to Mississippi John Hurt with Chris Smither's treatment of this piece of American mythology. It's a reminder of the power this material holds within it, and of the stature of the man who passed that power down to successive generations of musicians.

The genius of Avalon Blues is that it's not as much about Hurt per se (check out Vanguard's Newport Folk Festival: Best of the Blues, 1959-1968 to hear Hurt's dramatic return to the scene before a new generation of listeners) as about the people paying the tribute. Just as Dylan went to this well for inspiration, others as obvious as Chris Smither, Taj Mahal, and John Hiatt, and as surprising as Beck and Victoria Williams, have profited from Hurt's teachings.

Smither is the perfect student on "Frankie & Albert," flashing his dazzling fingerpicking in a display of virtuoso skills that sets a high standard for the album. Bruce Cockburn brings a special gravity to the title track, inhabiting Hurt's very personal story like a method actor and lining the narrative with a shimmering brocade of 12-string guitar. Ben Harper breathes life into the gorgeous imagery of "Sliding Delta," accompanying himself skillfully on guitar. Bill Morrissey deals out a perfectly balanced version of "Pay Day," his crackling vocal and sparse guitar accompaniment backed by Cormac McCarthy on harmonica and Kent Allyn on fretless bass.

Taj Mahal could do an entire compilation album of his own of Hurt songs he's recorded over the years; Case picks an appropriately left-field version of "My Creole Belle" from Hanapepe Dream, the album Mahal made with the Hula Blues Band. Mahal's genius is in seeing the unlikely connections between seemingly disparate genres, and here he seamlessly adapts Hurt's country blues to a ukulele arrangement. The beautiful melody has a swaying, antique character in this ingenious setting. This wise choice leaves open the wonderful "I'm Satisfied," which Mahal has turned into his own signature tune, for joyous treatment from John Hiatt.

Hurt's gospel material was an important part of his repertoire, and Avalon Blues does a good job of representing it. Gillian Welch and David Rawlings give "Beulah Land" an understated, old-timey country feel. Lucinda Williams illuminates "Angels Laid Him Away" in a haunting, spiritual reading, and Victoria Williams performs the most eccentric version of "Since I've Laid My Burden Down" imaginable, sounding like some undiscovered jug-band genius from the 1930s. Alvin Youngblood Hart really gets into the Hurt mode with his bouncing one-man-band treatment of "Here Am I, Oh Lord, Send Me."

Avalon Blues also includes several interesting collaborations. Case and Dave Alvin share the vocals and offer delicate fingerpicked guitar counterpoint on a terrific "Monday Morning Blues," and Case adds reedy punctuation on harmonica. Steve and Justin Earle nail one of Hurt's best-known songs, "Candy Man," splitting the guitar figures into a deep-funk exchange, the beat driven by Brad Jones on bass and Will Rigby on drums.

Geoff Muldaur keeps the feel-good "Chicken" in the family, recording it with Jenni and Clare Muldaur. The spelling verse is deftly handled with the perfect combination of humor and reverence, and Richard Greene plays great fiddle. Mark Selby delivers an altogether convincing version of "Make Me a Pallet On Your Floor," syncopating his silvery slide guitar against the driving rhythm set by Chuck Fields on drums and Tony Nagy on bass.

The tracks were recorded at a variety of studios across the country and vary in tone and ambiance, but Beck's dry, lifeless version of "Stagolee" is the only disappointment—and, surprisingly, Avalon Blues' only piece of commercial pandering. It's hard to imagine that Beck ever put much stock in an unaccompanied performance in which his halting guitar work ends up being masked by unintended feedback. But the mere fact that Beck agreed to appear on this set proves the breadth of Mississippi John Hurt's influence.—John Swenson