FRED MCDOWELL / “Amazing Grace”
The blues, the basic root of most all of modern black music. The blues, often referred to but not often fully understood; indeed, most often misunderstood, twisted into simplified stereotypes, become most unrecognizable except for a few popular elements. But, you see, the blues is a big sound, the sound not of downpression but people’s spiritual resistance to being put down. Or so I have come to believe. One Mississippi, two Mississippi. Mississippi John Hurt. Mississippi Fred McDowell. And on top of that, here are two more ways to do that thing, two which a ways most have not heard as the blues. First, a gentle, story-telling, finger picking style, so quiet you could sing it in church. Second, a blues you do sing in church. Whoa nah! Get ready for some other kind of blues. Mississippi John Hurt was Mississippi born and bred, might have died unknown to most of us were it not for the folk music revival of the sixties and a renewed interest among college whites in this archetypal music of academically uneducated black people of the deep south. Born March 8, 1892 in Teoc, Mississippi – died November 2, 1966 in Avalon, Mississippi, John Smith Hurt is widely considered one of the major country blues artists. He made his first recordings in 1928 but his career was cut off by the depression before he became popular. He spent most of the remainder of his life rearing 14 children along with is wife and working as a sharecropper. In 1963 based on a hunch occasioned by a line mentioning Avalon as Hurt’s home town, folklorist Tom Hoskins located Hurt near Avalon, Mississippi. Hurt had kept up his guitar skills by playing for neighbors on the weekends. Hoskins arranged for Hurt to play the famed 1963 New Port Folk Festival and to record for Vanguard Records. For the next three years until his death in 1966 Hurt was very popular on the folk music circuit playing festival, colleges and clubs. Hurt’s gentle, story-telling song style and his flowing, finger-picking were different from what most people think of when referring to Mississippi blues. Nevertheless, Hurt’s music is quintessential blues—check out “Talking Casey” (from Rediscovered) which features Hurt’s guitar imitating not only the human voice but also train sounds. A hallmark of Hurt’s style was his wry humor as exemplified in songs such as “Coffee Blues” and the children’s song, “Chicken Blues” (both from the Coffee Blues album). Hurt also specialized in folklore narratives such as “Stagger Lee” (from The Immortal album) and “First Shot Missed Him” (and all the other songs from Last Sessions). “Let The Mermaids Flirt With Me” combines ironic humor with a gentle, lilting melody which contrasts with the subject matter of death and burial at sea. “Cast my body out in the sea / save all the undertaker’s bills / let the mermaids flirt with me.”
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