The two acre Mississippi John Hurt Museum site in Avalon, MS is where the Mississippi John Hurt Music Festival is held once a year, on Labor Day weekend. The festival is emceed by Mary Frances Hurt, Mississippi John Hurt's granddaughter. The late Art Browning, musician and Carroll County native, was also instrumental in the creation of the festival, serving as co-organizer and Museum curator for many years.
One of the enduring stories of the Mississippi John Hurt legend took place in 1964. The Newport Folk Festival, fresh on the heels of John's resounding success at the 63' Festival, took John to Manny's Music in Manhattan and told him to pick out any guitar he wanted, recommending to him an expensive pre-war Martin. Hurt declined and picked a modest Guild F-30, not wanting to take advantage of his hosts. Mississippi John Hurt never liked for too big of a fuss to be made over him- as such, the Mississippi John Hurt Foundation, established in 1999, has held a yearly festival uniquely suited to honoring this humble songster. The festival resembles closely the country dances and fish fries John would play in his formative years as a musician.
The Festival is split over two days, Saturday being devoted to Hurt's blues music, and Sunday being devoted to his gospel work. John never differentiated between sacred and secular in his playing and singing, and a two day gathering is the best way to honor the full spectrum of the man and his music. The blues Festival, held on the Saturday of Labor Day Weekend, begins at noon and continues until six. Professional and amateur musicians take turns sharing the wooden outdoor stage, performing John Hurt songs such as Spike Driver Blues and Candy Man Blues under the shade of tall Mississippi pines.
The special guest list is a revolving list of musicians who knew and sometimes even played with Mississippi John Hurt. John Sebastian, of Lovin' Spoonful fame, named his famous 60's band after a lyric in John Hurt's Coffee Blues and was present at the Museum's ribbon cutting ceremony in 1999. Other notable guests include modern blues musician Alvin Youngblood Hart, Chicago musician and educator Eric Noden, and Gene Bush, another guest who personally knew and played with Mississippi John Hurt.
While the professional musicians always put on a great show, many would agree that the real heart of that Mississippi John Hurt Music Festival is the impromptu guitar sessions. Festival attendees are invited to enjoy barbeque and a cold drink, while musicians sit in the shade with their guitars, picking and singing John's repertoire. For those who wish to play, musicians of all walks of life and skill levels are welcome. Nowhere else will a budding guitarist find a more accepting, gracious audience. In addition, the Museum doors are left open, and any Festival attendee is welcome to peruse the items left in memoriam of John Hurt. In fact, many fans, upon Mary Hurt's request, sign the rough-hewn wooden walls inside the house's front room. No greater tribute could be made to Mississippi John Hurt.
When the sun begins to set on Saturday's festivities, guests begin their slow procession out of Avalon, passing the site where John's home originally stood, and the Valley Store. Before leaving, everyone is invited to climb the steep hill leading to the Hurt family cemetery. Here fans gather to pay their respects to John, who is buried in a peaceful spot in the back of the cemetery. His tombstone simply reads "John S. Hurt", followed by his birth and death dates. A special honor to some fans, Mary Frances Hurt often asks a select few to bring their guitars to the cemetery to play a song in tribute to the man who inspired them to travel many miles to rural Mississippi.
Sunday's Gospel Festival continues in much the same way as the blues festival. After a headlining performance by that year's Gospel act, fans are once again invited to participate in an open jam, or to play the open mic. While John Hurt's gospel music is the focus, the day always progresses organically, with musicians switching freely between gospel and more bawdy blues material. John Hurt would approve wholeheartedly.
The ending of the festival is a bittersweet affair. Attendees are often found idling, finding reasons to not leave. Pure kinship of this type is rarely found this day and age, and it is a testament to Hurt's character that more than forty years after his death, people are still united by the strength and kindness of his spirit. Phone numbers and e-mail addresses are exchanged, and plans are made for visiting next year's Festival. In addition, one of a kind Mississippi John Hurt T-Shirts and memorabilia are available, with proceeds going directly to the Foundation. Walking in the footsteps of Mississippi John Hurt is a joyous musical experience. Whether it is your first festival or your tenth, it is impossible to return home not having been touched by John Hurt's spirit and the hospitality of Mary Frances Hurt.
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