I’m a bit of an old school blues fan and 2 years ago I decided I would go check out the Mississippi. It was kind of an odd set up. I was in Columbia, Ohio for work and I figured…hell… this is about as close to the Mississippi as I ever got… so I should go check it out!
As it happened, that very weekend was a festival in honor of one of my blues heroes – Mississippi John Hurt. Amazing timing.
So, I hired a car and away I went. How far could it be? As it happens it could be over 800 miles. A drive that would also take me through Kentucky and Tennessee. This was all new territory for me and I was up for the adventure.
On the way I had some interesting stops. First stop was in Kentucky at a Saturday morning community fair. Awesome… I love fairs… cupcakes, maybe an espresso truck, second hand goodies…
…fluffy fairies in goldfish tanks…
…large men selling guns…
…hand guns, rifles and gospel CDs…
It wasn’t the kind of country fair from back home where the most malicious offering is an old scrabble set with some of the pieces missing. Instead I was surrounded with firearms in great quantities, casually sold to whoever wanted them.
I felt out of my depth. So I headed south again and watched as Kentucky faded away in the rear view mirror. I was in a bit of a hurry. I knew I wouldn’t make it to Avalon, where the festival was, until the next day but I had to get somewhere to sleep. My choice was Tupelo – a famous place for me as my favorite John Lee Hooker song is about Tupelo
The first few lines being
Did ya read about the flood?
Happened long time ago
In Tupelo, Mississippi
There were thousands o’ lives
It rained, it rained
Both night and day
The poor people was worried
Didn’t have no place to go
The thing is… as I came up upon Tupelo it started to rain. I was still some miles from the city line and as I came up to the city boundary the rain got harder and harder. It wasn’t long before I couldn’t see more than a few metres, forcing me to slow the car to walking speed. It was the hardest rain I have ever experienced in my life. I began to have the feeling that this was something more than just another road trip…
I got to Tupelo and stayed the night at a crappy soulless hotel. Getting up early I discovered that Tupelo is actually very famous as it was where Elvis was born. I stopped in to see the humble house, worked out which store sold him his first guitar and then headed out towards Avalon.
As I drove, the roads were long and narrow. The towns small. I saw unhappy posters taped to power poles calling for information about a missing young local woman. A short stop for gas allowed me to overhear the attendants agreeing that gas should be free for anyone in (army) uniform. I passed farms with large homesteads that I imagined were once plantations of old… reality was starting to agree with my imagination. I drove onward…
Avalon is famous in the blues world. It is where MJH grew up, and Avalon Blues is one of Mississippi John Hurt’s most well-known songs and the title of his first album. Avalon is also where he was rediscovered many years later when blues fan Tom Hoskins went on a legendary journey to look for him, after refusing to believe, as most did, that he had been dead for many years.
The thing about Avalon is, it doesn’t exist. At least, it doesn’t exist now. The spot where I thought I would find a small town and a festival was a wasteland of empty shacks and potholes. It was dusty, weird, and full of ghosts. Further, it had no connectivity so finding my way to the festival was going to be tricky.
I drove around a bit. I went down a long road which came to a dead end with a sign saying the road was closed. I turned back but a car, the only one I had seen for a while, passed me and continued up past the sign. I followed them but lost them. The road turned bumpy. Somewhere it became heavy duty road works, heaped dirt and the impressions of giant graders.
Everything looked abandoned.
I drove on, turned down a narrow road that got narrower. The trees seemed to hang closer to the road and slowly obscure more and more of the sky… I passed a home with abandoned cars in the front and a family sitting outside staring at me as I drove slowly past.
I finally turned a corner and came into a clearing. There was a brick house on a small open lawn. Two cars were parked by the house but I couldn’t see anyone. I parked up and walked over to the house. Behind it I found half a dozen friendly faces looking at me…. one of them walked up to me. She looked weirdly like Mississippi John Hurt. It was Mary Hurt, his granddaughter. She had a large smile and shook my hand. It was like history just reached out and grabbed me.
We sat around and talked and played blues on the lawn. There is even a video of me hanging with the gang, playing guitar. I didn’t bring my guitar so Mary gave me one to play given to her by John Sebastian from the Loving Spoonful. I felt overwhelmed.
We played a bit and then Mary took us down to visit her grandfather’s grave. We drove a bit then got out in a deeply wooded forest. On one side of the road was a reasonably maintained cemetery. It was where the white people were buried. On the other side of the road, throughout the forest and in unmarked graves was where the black people were buried. Mary reminded us to be careful where we stepped…
We came to a small clearing.
It was the grave of Mississippi John Hurt. So simple and alone in this beautiful forest.
Mary told us stories about her grandfather. About Mississippi itself. How she hated it for how hard it is. How mean it has been. I wondered how I could think of the blues so romantically until now. How I hadn’t understood the sadness. I wondered about the history of rock and roll. How one of the giants was right here in front of me. How humble the scene was, how humbling it was.
We stood around and listened. We played some of his songs.
It was a very moving experience and I emerged from the forest with some new friends.