Rory Block Travels Mississippi Back Roads with John Hurt’s Blues

MUSIC TRAVEL

By Kerry Dexter

Destination: Mississippi back roads

Music: Avalon: A Tribute to Mississippi John Hurt, performed by Rory Block, published by Stony Plain Records (2013)

There aren’t many people who live in the northern part of Mississippi — a road trip through northern Mississippi will take you through moderate sized towns, even smaller ones, and ones that might be just wide spots in the road. Rory Block knew that In the early part of the twentieth century, Mississippi John Hurt grew up along these roads and started playing his music in places near his home town of Avalon.

These Mississippi back roads have their own sound, the sound of the blues. John Hurt put his own spin on the blues, telling stories funny and sad, scary and poignant, all backed by his syncopated guitar style, a style that suited his music to playing for dances in 1920s Mississippi.

Chance had him recording a few of his songs in 1928, but the recordings didn’t sell well, the record company collapsed in the Great Depression, and John Hurt went on to other things. One of the songs he’d recorded was about his hometown of Avalon, and it was that bit of music that led musicologists to find him in the 1960s, and to encourage him to come to Washington DC where his music was recorded for the Library of Congress. It was that bit of music which led to a meeting between the bluesman in his sixties and a guitar player named Rory Block.

Block has gone on to become one of the most respected guitar players, singers, and songwriters in contemporary blues music. Drawn to the guitar at age ten and to the blues almost at the same time, Block is often asked why a white girl growing up in Greenwich Village in the 1960s was called to the music of the Mississippi Delta. Her answer: “It’s about soul.”

It was soul that led the young woman to seek out opportunities to meet with the great bluesmen face to face, and it is about soul that she has recently been recording albums that pay tribute to those blues players who had an impact on her life, those musicians she met and played music with as a young woman. Avalon: A Tribute to Mississippi John Hurt is what Block calls her recording of the music of Mississippi John Hurt.

grave of Mississippi John Hurt, subject of Rory Block tribute
The grave of Mississippi John Hurt

Mississippi John Hurt played country blues, music rooted in Mississippi and yet with with stories and melody lines that are familiar in Appalachia, in the red clay hills of Georgia, and across the plains of west Texas. Frankie & Albert, Candy Man, Stagolee, Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor, Richland Woman Blues — these are a few of the ten John Hurt songs Rory Block offers on Avalon. There’s the title song, too, that song of hometown that brought these two creators of musical heritage together. There’s an eleventh track, too, a biography and a tribute, a song Block wrote, called Everybody Loves John.

Whether your road trip to Mississippi and along other blues routes of the American south is by road or by imagination, you couldn’t ask for a better soundtrack than to have one blues legend lead you through the songs of another.

It is the policy of A Traveler’s Library to tell you about affiliate links. Album cover images and album title here are links to Amazon, where you can listen to partial music tracks and shop for albums and books. If you click on the link and make a purchase at Amazon, it will benefit Music Road, for which we thank you. 
The photograph of John Hurt’s grave is from Wiki Commons.

Kerry Dexter

About Kerry Dexter

Kerry Dexter is a regular contributor to A Traveler’s Library, bringing her knowledge of music and musicians who share a sense of place and travel. Her work also appears in Journey to Scotland and the Encyclopedia of Ireland and the Americas, among other places. Check out her bio on the contributor’s page to learn more and see her site at Music Road.

5 thoughts on “Rory Block Travels Mississippi Back Roads with John Hurt’s Blues

  1. I’m due for a southern road trip, and a trip along the Blues Highway really appeals to me. I can see I need to stock up on John Hurt and the new Rory Block album to play in the car on the way. Thanks, Kerry.

    1. Rory Block has done several other albums in tribute to her mentors — you might want to look into those, too, Vera, when you plan for your trip. Her own songwriting and guitar work is very fine as well– she’s won five, I think, WC Handy Awards, the top awards in blues music. Reader that you are, you may want to check out her autobiography/memoir, too.

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