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AVALON, MY HOMETOWN

Even for seasoned “blues travelers,” there are destinations integral to the historical tapestry of early African-American music that unfortunately languish in obscurity. For many, the “blues” conjures images of wide, endless cotton fields, cypress groves, and tin roofed shacks withering under the blistering heat of the Mississippi summer. And while these images are not unfounded, it is precisely this shared cultural image of the Mississippi Delta that draws attention away from other Blues sites that are equally meaningful to the story of this music. One of these places is Avalon, Mississippi, the hometown of an unsung hero of acoustic Folk and Blues music, Mississippi John Hurt. For any fan of Blues, history and especially fans of Mississippi John Hurt, it is well worth a visit.

Located halfway between Greenwood and Grenada, Avalon sits on the eastern edge of the Delta, in Carroll County. And like John Hurt’s song “Avalon Blues” suggests, “New York’s a good town, but it’s not for mind.” As such, John lived most of his life in Avalon, a town too small to even be listed on maps after the early 1900’s. The journey to the museum site is a literal trip back in time. Unlike the starkness of the empty fields and highways of the Mississippi Delta, Avalon is a forested area where the prime thoroughfares are still dirt roads, carved through hill country clay. Making a right turn off of State Road # 7 and driving north from Greenwood, one must wind their way through a maze of old roads that bore silent witness to the passage of time, as horses and mule drawn buggies gradually gave way to motor vehicles.

TAKE THE TOUR

Many of the sites in Avalon that relate to Mississippi John Hurt are described on this page. Fans of John Hurt will want to explore them and, because these points of interest are not so easy to find, it is highly recommended that first time visitors make arrangements for a tour by contacting the Mississippi John Hurt Foundation.

All tours are conducted by Floyd Bailey, a local businessman and the current curator of the Mississippi John Hurt museum. You can reach Mr. Bailey by sending your request to the Foundation at mississippijohnhurtfoundation@gmail.com.

Although tours are donation based (and please be generous!), entrance to the Mississippi John Hurt Museum is a seperate fee of $10 per person. Note that, while visitors are encouraged to take photographs throughout the tour, absolutely no photography is permitted inside of the museum itself.

MARKERS

The tour usually begins at a marker erected in 2004 at the intersection of Highway 7 and County Road 204 by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History to commemorate Mississippi John Hurt.

The marker reads, "John S. Hurt (1893-1966) was a pioneer blues and folk guitarist. Self-taught, Hurt rarely left his home at Avalon, where he worked as a farmer. Although he recorded several songs in 1928, including "Avalon Blues" and "Frankie," he lived in relative obscurity before he was "rediscovered" in the blues revival of the 1960s."

A secondary marker, erected by the Mississippi Blues Commission on Highway 7 in 2008 reads, "World-renowned master of the acoustic guitar John Hurt, an important figure in the 1960s folk blues revival, spent most of his life doing farm work around Avalon in Carroll County and performing for parties and local gatherings. Hurt (1893-1966) only began to earn a living from music after he left Mississippi in 1963 to play at folk festivals, colleges, and coffeehouses. His first recordings, 78 rpm discs released in 1928-29, are regarded as classics of the blues genre."

THE VALLEY STORE

The Valley Store, with its bare wooden walls and hand painted Coca-Cola sign, is also integral to the John Hurt legend as it is where amateur musicologist Tom Hoskins was pointed in the direction to John’s house, just a mailbox or two up the hill, on A.R. Perkins’ land. This was Avalon's general store where John would buy his groceries and enjoy the company of neighbors on the store’s porch.

The Valley Store is one of several stops that Blues fans make when visiting Avalon and taking "the tour" as given by Floyd Bailey, the current curator and caretaker of the Mississippi John Hurt Museum.

FAMILY CEMETERY, JOHN HURT'S HOME & CHURCH

On the way to the Valley Store, there is a steep hill which leads to the cemetery where John Hurt and his family rest, bathed in rays of sunlight that peek through tall trees. The family cemetery is a bit hidden and it is helpful to have a guide to point it out. John Hurt's cabin also stood on this hill, and the St. James Church where he worshipped was located here as well. Both the cabin and the church have been relocated to Foundation property which is just down the road, and that's where the annual Mississippi John Hurt Festival is held.

THE MISSISSIPPI JOHN HURT MUSEUM

The Mississippi John Hurt Museum is dedicated to the life and music of the gentle songster who enraptured the world during the 1960’s Folk Revival with his syncopated fingerpicked rhythms and kindly voice. The building itself is John’s original home - a humble, three room cabin with an endearingly lopsided porch and a tin roof, befitting of the gentle farm hand who had an amazing affinity for playing guitar.

Situated not quite a mile from where the house originally stood, the story of how it fell into the possession of Mary Frances Hurt, John’s granddaughter, is a tale of providence and maybe even fate. Mary tells a story about how through a series of serendipitous events, her grandfather’s home came into her possession. Having not visited Mississippi in quite some time, Mary was suddenly taken with the need to revisit her grandfather’s home. As she stood there, contemplating the forces that had brought her back home, the man who currently owned the land that John’s house sat upon remarked that “God had told him” that Mary would be there that day, and he gave Mary the house.

With $5,000 donated to her by a local Carrollton banker who remembered “Daddy John” playing guitar for his mother, Mary had the house moved to a two acre plot of land just up the road, with the intention of restoring it and converting it into a museum, a beacon for musicians and fans alike. The museum itself is a stellar piece of history. It is quite an experience to walk on the old wooden boards and feel the breeze through the trees, slightly cooling the stifling Mississippi heat. This is the climate in which many great bluesmen were born and bred. The three rooms are filled to the brim with items belonging to or reminding one of “Daddy John,” graciously donated by fans and locals who knew him (Maxwell House coffee cans and railroad spikes are in abundance).

HOMECOMING

Many of these fans descend on Avalon once a year for the Mississippi John Hurt Festival - also known as "Homecoming." The festival feels more like a homecoming than a concert. Fans sit outside of John’s house, enjoy barbecue, pick guitar, and experience the joy of newfound friendship with Mary. Musicians play any number of classic John Hurt songs such as “Spike Driver’s Blues,” “Coffee Blues,” and “Louis Collins,” as well as gospel tunes such as “I Shall Not Be Moved,” and the immortal, bawdy “Candy Man.” The turnout isn't always massive, but Mary staunchly believes that, “Everyone who is supposed to be here, is.” What the festival periodically lacks in turnout is made up for by the open hearts of all who put forth the effort to come out. Visiting John’s house and gravesite isn’t the easiest of journeys, but it is by far one of the most significant pilgrimages that a Blues fan or a fan of John Hurt can make.