Wednesday, April 1, 2020

You Gotta Walk That Lonesome Valley—Murfin Home Confinement Music Festival

You Gotta Walk That Lonesome Valley sung by Mississippi John Hurt.
Fear of Death is a matter of fact as we hunker down during the Coronavirus pandemic.  Some gospel hymns like Rev. Thomas A. Dorsey’s Take My Hand, Precious Lord reassure us that we are not ultimately alone and have the prospect of eternal life.  Other songs face the issue far more bluntly like You Gotta Walk That Lonesome Valley.
You Gotta Walk That Lonesome Valley is an American traditional gospel folk song, dating back to its first known recording in 1927 by old-time musician David Miller.  It was sung by other hillbilly and country artists like the Monroe Brothers, the Carter Family, the Statler Brothers, the Carolina Ramblers Stringband, the Dixie Reelers, Woody Guthrie and others. It was also recorded by Elvis Presley, during the Sun Sessions in Memphis, Tennessee.
But quite early on the song spread across the semi-permeable barrier between the White and Black communities across the rural South.  Cross fertilization between these groups was always more widespread than either community was likely to openly acknowledge spread by impromptu performances on country store porches, barn dances where Blacks often gathered outside to listen to the fiddling and singing, and camp meetings and revivals.  Black bluesmen picked up and spread the song to juke joints and barrel houses and on Sunday mornings it showed up in worship.  The extent of these connections is only now being acknowledged as was reflected in Ken Burns’s great PBS documentary series Country Music earlier this year.
Mississippi John Hurt was born on March 1893 on the Avalon, Mississippi where his parents had been enslaved.  He took up guitar at an early age and mastered a unique finger picking style.  He performed catch as catch can around his home then became one of the young bluesmen to record for race record labels.  He recorded 12 sides in 1928 for Okeh Records including Frankie, Stack O Lee, Ain’t No Telling, and Spike Drivers Blues. his unique variations on popular blues standards.  The records were not great successes and Okeh never invited him for another session.  After the Great Depression pretty much destroyed the folk blues market Hurt gave up any hope of making a living as a musician.  

Mississippi John Hurt recording for the Library of Congress.
He was a share cropper on the old plantation until 1963.  Unbeknown to him Frankie and Spike Drivers Blues were included in The Anthology of American Folk Music in 1952 which generated considerable interest in locating him.  For years the search was fruitless and he was considered a lost bluesman and quite likely dead.  Musicologist Dick Spottswood discovered him where he had always been—sitting on the porch of his tiny sharecropper’s cabin.  Hunt no longer even owned a guitar but when one was found he played several songs on Spottswood’s reel to reel tape recorder and showed he had lost none of his dazzling picking style or forgotten lyrics.
Soon Hurt was launched on a totally unexpected second career.  His performance at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival caused his star to rise for the folk revival audience. He performed extensively at colleges, concert halls, and coffeehouses, and even appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. He also recorded three albums for Vanguard Records and much of his repertoire was also recorded for the Library of Congress. 

Visitors sit on John Hurt's cabin porch, now a museum dedicated to his memory in tiny Avalon, Mississippi.  There were no window airconditioners when Hurt spent his long life there.
 It was a brief but glorious moment in the sun.  Hurt died on November 2, 1966, of a heart attack, in hospital at Grenada, Mississippi at age 73.  He was buried near his long-time home and his cabin is now preserved as a museum and blue pilgrimage shrine.
Before he died, Hurt appeared on Pete Seeger’s public television series Rainbow Quest where he performed You Gotta Walk That Lonesome Valley.

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