Wednesday, July 18, 2001

Gentle rendering

Posted By on Wed, Jul 18, 2001 at 12:00 AM

The primal sting of an acoustic guitar string-screech, pluck-cuddle and chord-swoon accompanied by a gentle husk of voice. Few artists have captured enigmatic longing through sound with such a sincere slap and a sly wink as Mississippi John Hurt, a gentle bluesman whose mysterious, folky meanderings rooted their toes deep into the mud of the Delta.

Hurt’s mother bought him a guitar when he was 9 years old. Brought up in the somewhat isolated obscurity of small-town Avalon, Miss., he quickly taught himself how to play the instrument, making it “sound like I think it ought to.” He made a living as a tenant farmer and played local dances on the side. He recorded some material, which didn’t really take off at first for the Okeh record label. It wasn’t until after two of his songs (“Frankie” and “Spike Driver Blues”) were included on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music and the ensuing folk resurgence of the early ’60s, when Hurt’s career hit its high point. Perhaps that’s because his songs owed so much to the folk tradition. They were complex narratives, something rarely heard in blues. A few years before he passed away in 1966, he recorded some of the best work for the Vanguard label. That label has brought together a diverse group of musicians to pay respect to the legendary musician in Avalon Blues: a Tribute to the Music of Mississippi John Hurt.

And pay respect is what they do. Rarely does a track stray too far from the strong base of Hurt’s trademark acoustic, multiple-personality guitar style. The tracks distinguish themselves from the originals through unique vocal renderings and light percussive garnishes such as a knee-slap on Chris Smither’s version of “Frankie & Albert” or the washboard on Geoff Muldaur’s “Chicken.” Victoria Williams exaggerates the scratchy nature of her unique voice with wahwah banjo, rainstick, guitar, ukulele, bass, organ, percussion and background vocals in the toe-tapping gospel “Since I’ve Laid My Burden Down.” Bill Morrissey’s voice characteristically crackles and pops as he serves up “Pay Day” crisp and clean with bottleneck guitar, harmonica and bass. Lucinda Williams lays a winter blanket of sweet melancholy over “Angels Laid Him Away” with understated voice accompanied by soft guitar and Colin Linden’s haunted electric dobro. The prerequisite hear-comes-the-airplane big-name contributors on this comp are Ben Harper and Beck. Both should successfully draw in new fans for the late Hurt. Harper’s track, “Sliding Delta” sounds as if it were made for the funk-rock-folk-soul man as his nimble fingers slide and pick through the complex up-tempo changes and his kind voice eases gently into the cracks. Beck softens the rawness of an acoustic scratch with a misty hiss backdrop and deep, hollowed vocals. All in all, it’s a beautiful mix, one that will not only please already existing fans of Hurt; it provides an appropriately gentle introduction to the artist for new ones as well.

Melissa Giannini is the Metro Times staff music writer. E-mail her at mgiannini@metrotimes.com.

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