By John Lathrop Harvey
In the Summer of ’64 it was all about the Beatles, at least for youngsters like me. There was lots more – the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the escalation of the Vietnam War among them – but, honestly, all we really wanted were mop-top hairdos and 45s of I Wanna Hold Your Hand.
Folk songs that tell stories about people, history and social justice came upon us, too, for those who were listening. And so it was that summer I began to listen and along the way received a history lesson from a living legend at an historic three-day gathering of folkies.
Friday, Aug. 28, 1964
First time I saw Mississippi John Hurt was along the gravel road leading down the hill from the Wilson Homestead to the Philadelphia Folk Festival’s main stage. He was sitting on a tree stump, fingerpicking a Guild F-30 guitar in his unique way and singing what I came to learn was the blues. I took to it right off.
I just stood there. He was the first African American I’d ever seen in person. I’d seen plenty on TV; it was the 1960s and Black people were in the news because of the civil rights struggle. But for a kid from the all-white Main Line suburbs of Philadelphia, Black people were city folks. There wasn’t much mixing going on.
So there I was, staring at this short man, body dripping from narrow shoulders to wide hips, that guitar tucked naturally under his arm. But it was his face that drew me in. I couldn’t stop looking at it, eyes big and round, smile jaw to jaw, life lines that read like a map.
It was magnificent.
He nodded to me and I said “howdy.”
“Y’all like this’n?” he asked, referring to the blues he was playing. “It’s ‘bout my hometown, ‘Avlon’, Missassippa.”
He spoke slow and sure, and that gave me time to register his voice. It ran through my head down to my toes. It was gentle.
“What’s yo name?” he asked.
“John. I’m 11.”
“My name’s John, too, but I’m lots older than 11,” he said, laughing. “You can call me Daddy John. Young ‘uns back home calls me Daddy John.”
I knew he’d be performing at the festival the next day. It was the third of four years the festival would be held at the Wilson Farm in Paoli, Pennsylvania, and I lived there during those summers.
C. Colket Wilson III, “Buzz” to some and “Colly” to others, co-hosted those early festivals with his wife, Martha. The last one, 2021 was its 60th., though they billed it as number 59 and 1/2. Covid-19 forced it to go digital in 2020. Regardless, it still boasts of being the longest-running outdoor music festival in history. In fact, the Philly and Newport Jazz festivals were forerunners of Woodstock, attracting some of the day’s finest musicians.
In the early ‘60s, the folk scene was the hottest thing: hit albums, harmonizing combos, concert tours, TV shows.
Daddy John fell in with it. Actually, folk music found him, a year earlier. Tom Hoskins, a blues enthusiast, had stumbled across a pair of forgotten 78s Daddy John had recorded to little fanfare back in 1928. And then, hearing Avalon Blues, Hoskins figured that’s where Daddy John was and drove to the Mississippi Delta.
Hoskins convinced Hurt to give the music business another shot. It was 1963, more than 35 years after his first stab at fame. Hurt moved to New York City, began recording albums and touring the country as if he had no time to waste. Mostly, he played coffee houses and college campuses.
“Thirsty? It’s really hot, i’nt it?” I asked him on that humid August day. “Can I get you some water?” Mrs. Wilson told us to ask that of the musicians.
“Hot? Son, you ain’t knows nothin’ ‘bout hot. Try working fields with Missassippa heat whipping down yo back. Tell ya, boy, this here’s fine.”
Daddy John said he was prepping for a blues workshop he was leading.
“Can you ‘magine?” he asked rhetorically. “Professor John.”
For the next hour or so Daddy John gave me a history lesson. He talked about his ancestors being enslaved, beaten, abused; how he and others like him were kept from voting, denied educational opportunities, underpaid and cheated out of wages. Overall, he told me the account of how he got from the cotton fields of Dixie to this bucolic farmstead at the outer edge of Philadelphia’s haven for the wealthy.
As I sat there in the grass, legs crossed under me, the sun making me squint. I looked up at the humble Daddy John as he told me the tale of life in the Jim Crow South.
John Smith Hurt was born on March 8, 1898, in Teoc, MS, near his longtime hometown of Avalon. His mother was Mary Jane McCain and his father Isom Hurt. Both were born into slavery and freed after the war. You know, that war.
The Hurts were enslaved at the Waverly Plantation, a cotton growing operation owned by the ancestors of the late Sen. John McCain, the same guy who ran for President. Daddy John’s mother was one of the Black McCains.
The young John Hurt learned how to play the guitar at 9. A musician had been boarding at his house when the youngster snuck into the guest’s room to play his guitar. Soon John could play all of the songs the boarder sang. Self-taught, he developed his own style of fingerpicking others would try for years to emulate.
From then on John Hurt worked the fields by day and sang at juke joints and parties at night. He got a break in the late ‘20s when he was asked to do some sessions for Okey Records in Memphis and New York. He sang several songs, including that one about his hometown. But his career fizzled when the Depression hit in 1929. Mississippi John Hurt decided against a career in music. It would mean time away from Avalon.
Hurt spent the next three decades raising his family and doing manual labor, sharecropping and odd jobs. But he never stopped playing. He could often be found playing for passersby on the porch of the Valley Store in Avalon.
“Farming, whatever else I did to make a living, it was all hard labor for me, and I wasn’t much good at it,” Daddy John said. “Only thing that made me happy was singing. But it was a hard time in Missassippa, being colored.”
I tilted my head, confused.
“You see, in Missasippa, colored folks run scared. Always did. They say you don’t have that so much up here, least they say that but I ain’t so sure. Down South, back then, white people was lynchin’ colored folks for the fun of it. In fact, right up the road from my place, Greenwood, they was a whole bunch of lynchin’s. It’s the Lynchin’ Capital of Missassippa.”
When he told me what a lynching was, my mouth fell open.
“Son, that’s the way of the South. Ever hear of Emmett Till. They lynched that po boy near Greenwood back, well, back in ’54 or ’55, somethin’ like that. That raised quite the stir, brought newsmen from all over. Didn’t make no difference, though. Never has.”
“Was that the worse you ever remember?” I asked.
“Nah, not even near. The one I’ll always ‘member was back in ‘36 – I guess maybe I was nearin’ 40 with kids my own. A mob of 500 whites kidnapped and killed these two colored boys down the road from ‘Avlon’. Don’t even ‘member what they done. But I do recall with great clar’ty them boys were taken to the woods, stripped and chained to trees. Cheers filling them woods and the white men used a blowtorch to burn holes into their bodies. They worked on one, got a confession, for what it was worth, and filled his body with rounds of buckshot. Then they shot a bullet straight into that boy’s head.
“Well, then they turned on the other with the blowtorch, too, ‘til he confessed. Killers built a bonfire ‘round him, doused him with gas and set him on fire.
“And ya know what was most distressin’, young man? The crowd cheered. Cheered. “That was the Missassippa for a colored man in the 1900s.”
Stunned, I asked after a long silence, “Why’d ya stay?”
He chuckled, but not in a humorous way.
“I’ve asked myself that ‘fore. All coloreds do time to time. Lots migrated North, to Chicago and Detroit and other places. Yeah, that’s a question we all ask ourselves. But then I ‘member ‘Avlon’. I decided long time ago to lay low and spend my days at home. I might be somewhere else on ‘casion, but I will always come home to ‘Avlon’.”
Saturday, Aug. 29, 1964
I couldn’t wait for the sun to set that Saturday and the festival stage to light up. It was all I could think about. But I also had chores. My duties those summers included feeding Colly’s horses and mucking the stalls.
Colly Wilson was an expert equestrian. He was thin and Episcopalian, perfect for the Main Line. I never saw him in anything but his riding gear: felt-covered hard-hat, tailored breeches, high top boots and crop. He talked like an aristocrat.
Colly did have a handicap: One leg was wooden. No one would say how he’d lost it, but I imagined it was in a riding accident.
His riding ability was legendary. He’d take Main Liners on trail rides through his 15-acre farm on horses who knew the way and were mostly just interested in getting back to the stable for oats and hay. I rode the caboose, on a lively spooker named Phoebe. But on this day, there would be no trail rides. It was festival day.
That night was crazy. People were everywhere, parking anywhere they could, young people and old, pre-Hippies, just plain nice folks. Some drank. I’m sure there was weed, too; it was that sort of gathering. The chairs we’d set up in front of the stage were filled in no time, and the overflow crowd and those so inclined sat cross-legged on the hillside behind the chairs. The valley was a natural amphitheater, and the woods and running brook behind the stage made for a utopian setting.
I took a spot beneath the stage. There were wood walls across the front and sides of the stage, but only a cloth apron across the back. I slid under it to claim a unique seat.
Leading off the concert was Bernice Reagon, a social activist from Georgia. Others performing, in order, were the renowned Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys; Canadian Bonnie Dobson, daughter of a union organizer; political activist Gil Turner; Hedy West, who wrote the iconic folk song “500 Miles”; Judy Collins, who would go on to become a Grammy-winning singer-songwriter; blues singer Judy Roderick; North Carolina autoharp champion Kirby Snow; Mike Seeger, he of the famous Seeger folk family; protest singer Phil Ochs, and Theodore Bikel, an Austrian-American actor, folksinger, unionist and political activist who later played Tevye in Broadway’s “Fiddler on the Roof.”
Sandwiched between Seeger and Ochs was Daddy John.
When Daddy John came on stage, I laid on my back directly under him and watched through the spaces between boards. I was no more than two feet below him, there with the bugs and dirt, darkness interrupted only by the strobe of the stage lights beaming through the slats.
I could see his fingers gliding up and down the strings and hear his foot lightly tapping. His picking sounded like two guitars at once. Again. his voice was the sweetest thing.
The crowd was loud, and I thought it was being rude. Daddy John opened with an old standard, C.C. Rider, that quieted the audience. It was a song most knew first sung by female blues star Ma Rainey in 1925.
He followed that with Avalon Blues, that song about his hometown. He talked to the audience about it, and I knew from the previous day it meant a lot to him.
Make Me a Pallet on the Floor was a blues song from the 1900s. A pallet is a mattress without bed posters and a box spring. To perform the song he called for guitarist Philadelphia Jerry Ricks and harmonica player John Sebastian to join him on stage. The former was a blues singer who’d lived and worked mostly in Europe; the latter was a 20-year-old harmonica player who would later become a pop star and founding member of the Loving Spoonful. The band’s name came from a line in the Mississippi John Hurt song Coffee Blues.
As I laid there that night, I shut my eyes to focus on the lyrics of his final song, Stagolee. He did not write it, but while many artists have done it, that night Daddy John made it his own. When it was over, Daddy John left to a standing ovation.
Sunday, Aug. 30, 1964
The next morning I rushed down to breakfast, hoping to see Daddy John before he left. The country kitchen was a large rectangle with an old stove and farm sink along one side and a massive plain wooden table across the middle.
The farmhouse, known as the Homestead, had a wooden porch running across the front, bookended with flowery vines and baskets. Entering the home through impressive walnut doors, a visitor would see stairs leading to the third floor, where the kids slept in bunks.
What I remember the most about the Homestead was its unusual basement. Down the stairs you’d come across a 10 by 10 platform, and then the rest of the immense basement was one big indoor pool. It was the coolest thing a kid could see, and enjoy. To this day I still find it hard to tell anyone about it. Who’d believe me?
On that morning all I wanted to see was Daddy John. Mrs. Wilson was working the stove, and so Colly told me to have breakfast. I sat next to the 24-year-old, red-headed Bonnie Dobson, directly across from Judy Collins. Bonnie took a liking to me.
“How you doing, little fella?” she asked, smiling. She looked like an Irish lass, and later in life she’d remind me of Bonnie Raitt.
“I’m good, ma’am. You see Mr. Hurt this morning?”
“Oh, I’m sorry. He didn’t stay here,” she said in a low voice. “He stayed with Jerry Ricks in Philly. Left after the show. I think he felt he’d be more comfortable there.”
”Because he’s colored?” I asked. I felt it came out wrong.
“Maybe. Probly. Yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s why he stayed at Jerry’s, to be in a friendly home. I know it’s hard to understand.”
At the end of the table, Phil Ochs was reading the Sunday Bulletin, Philadelphia’s leading newspaper back when newspapers were wide and well read. “Check this out. Headline says, ’Looting gangs disregard mayor’s curfew orders, policemen.’”
“What the hell’s that about?” asked Theo Bikel as he bit into a muffin.
“”Parently while we were entertaining here, they were having a major race riot 30 minutes up the road. Story says the riots began Friday. Rumors spread that the police had killed a pregnant Negro woman. Doesn’t look to be true, actually, at least according to the police and this reporter, but the riot continued through last night. Story says 341 injured, 774 arrested, 225 stores looted and a total of $4 million in damages.. Whew.”
“Something’s wrong,” Bonnie said. “There are always reasons for this sort of thing.”
“Yeah, there’s a reason,” Phil said. “Police brutality’s the reason. Know what? We should get ourselves there this afternoon.”
“Phil, this isn’t your run-of- the-mill protest. Sounds like these people are rioting, looting, angry.” Theo cautioned.
“I’m going. Anyone with me?” Phil challenged.
“I’ll go,” Bonnie said softly. “It’s important.”
I asked the group if they were concerned that Mr. Hurt was in Philadelphia that morning. The others chattered.
“Ah, I think he’s OK,” Colly said. “This was along Columbia Avenue, North Philly. Ricks’ place is in South Philly. I’ll call and make sure he’s OK.”
Bonnie put her arm around me and reassured that Daddy John would be fine.
“How could this happen here?” I asked. “Police brutality?”
“Racism, little fella, is everywhere.”
I never did get to talk with Mississippi John Hurt again. Not then or ever. He died two years later, on Nov. 2, 1966, in a hospital near Avalon. He was a winter season shy of his 75th birthday.
The career of Mississippi John Hurt was brief, 1963 to 1966, similar to the folk festival’s initial run at the Wilson Farm, 1962-1965. He played at the final festival in Paoli, but it was in the second week of September during the school year. My summer at the farm had ended a month earlier.
My father and I attended that last festival. We sat right up front. I waved with all I had when he came on stage, but he didn’t seem to notice. I’m pretty sure my father thought I was crazy.
Mississippi John Hurt produced his final record on the Vanguard label in July 1966. He and his family left New York for good to go back where he never wanted to leave in the first place.
News that Daddy John had died made me think how hard he’d worked all those years, living as a poor man in the segregated South. But he was where he wanted to be, back home with his people in the town he called “Avlon.”
He wrote it clearly in Avalon Blues:
New York’s a good town, but it’s not for mine.
Goin’ back to Avalon, where I have a pretty mama all the time.