Rory Block Salutes Mississippi John Hurt on Her New CD
Multi-award-winning blues singer/guitarist Rory Block will release the fourth CD in her “Mentor Series” on June 4 with Avalon on Stony Plain Records, a tribute to blues master Mississippi John Hurt. Previous Rory Block salutes have been to Rev. Gary Davis (I Belong to the Band), Mississippi Fred McDowell (Shake ‘em on Down) and Son House (Blues Walkin’ Like a Man).
Like the others before it, on Avalon Rory Block pays a loving reverence to another of the blues greats whose influences have made a major impact on her career path and music. Ten of the 11 tracks on the new CD are songs associated with Hurt’s repertoire; while the lone original tune - which leads off the album - “Everybody Loves John,” is Rory’s personal love letter to the iconic bluesman, name-checking a litany of songs that were a major part of his blues canon.
“Mississippi John Hurt was a truly unique artist,” says Block, the most celebrated living female acoustic blues artist. “He left a resounding impact on our musical landscape. We think of him as outwardly mellow, sweet, and as one writer described it, singing in a ‘whisper.’ But have you pondered the words? Alongside gospel material, this gentle man sang about sex, murder, mystery, violence and steamy sensuality. It gets ever deeper the more you listen.
“Most people finger pick simply, carefully, and with enough volume to be heard and enjoyed. But next to the masters we can find ourselves tinkling away while the train pulls out of the station. Mississippi John Hurt bounced rhythmically from side to side while he was playing – did this bounce add power and jauntiness to the notes, or did his extra strong attack on the strings create the bounce? We can never do polite versions of these songs if we want to capture some of the power that made the originals great and enduring.”
Many of Hurt’s best known and beloved songs are on Avalon, including “Candy Man,” “Frankie & Albert,” “Got the Blues Can’t be Satisfied,” “Richland Woman Blues,” “Spike Driver Blues,” “Stagolee,” “Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor,” “Pay Day” and the title track, plus other tunes that demonstrate how diverse and significant his contributions were to blues history.
“Many worthy artists have covered these songs, but when you examine the source, you understand more fully the level of greatness that was in the original versions – greatness that is also almost impossible to define,” Block states. “But let me try by saying that true character, charisma, drive, and soulfulness are some of the essential ingredients. So how will we manage? With devotion, respect, reverence, and with energy – with extra ‘oomph’ – lest we be weak.”
And Rory Block is anything but weak on these tracks, imbuing every ounce of her musical and spiritual strength into each song, muscling inside the core source of every track and working her way out through each verse and chorus as they take their own twists and turns to get to their final denouement.
Rory Block’s connection to Mississippi John Hurt goes back five decades. "In December of 1963, I met Mississippi John Hurt at a concert in New York which also featured the great Old Timey musician Doc Boggs,” she recalled in her autobiography, When a Woman Gets the Blues. “We went backstage as we always did. Stefan Grossman was part of the accepted insiders group and we never needed special passes. Hurt's presence was shy and gentle. His face was beautifully weather beaten; he wore a signature hat, and always had a mellow smile. I loved the way he rocked around when he played... it was a bounce that started slow and built up to a strong pace that carried the music. He had his own way of doing this – I never saw anyone else with this exact style of moving and playing. At times when I am performing I feel this energy come over me: the Mississippi John Hurt bounce energy.”
“I think it interesting to note that Mississippi John Hurt covered many Appalachian country songs,” adds Block. “This just underscores the exchange of musical styles that was going on in the early 1900s which few people understood. Mississippi John Hurt knew musicians who played Appalachian music (Doc Boggs for example), and many of the Old Timey players knew the blues pickers. At the age of 14, sitting on the porch of an old wood frame house in North Carolina, I heard Clarence Ashley say, ‘I learned this one from an old blues player’ and I heard Mississippi John Hurt talk about the country fiddle players he knew. What we have in the end is a true melting pot which included music from Africa, the British Isles, Flamenco (Hurt referred to open G tuning as ‘Spanish’), folk, jazz, popular contemporary music of the day, and probably even Classical music, to name some of the sources.”
Avalon was produced by Rory Block and Rob Davis and recorded/mixed/mastered by Davis at Aurora Productions mobile studios. All of the guitars and vocals on the CD are by Rory Block, who plays her OM40 Signature Model Martin guitars, uses Martin SP3200 medium gauge strings, a Shubb capo, and an SK 14mm deep well socket to great effect.
“One of the things I have endeavoured to capture in this tribute series is a return to a more earthy, natural approach,” Block summarizes. “We don't love the old recordings because they are crackle-free, or fancy, or have clever formats. No, some of the songs are one chord throughout. Some have the same simple refrain which repeats again and again after each verse – no solos, just the driving beat and original theme. And almost never fancy endings. I call these abrupt events the ‘Get outa' town’ endings – just plunk, and wham, or the sound of someone getting up and leaving the room before the song is over. This is part of what I love. So instead of sweeping the tracks clean of all noise, sanitizing, bleaching, disinfecting and straining the music, Rob and I feel compelled to let it be real. Every recording is a field recording in my view. The first take is always the best. So, in this effort I remember John Hurt, celebrate his music and times and rejoice at having had the chance to meet him. Nothing will ever be the same as a result, and my life has been made far richer by the experience.”