Stevie Van Zandt, Derek Trucks Among Musicians Contributing to Effort to Rebuild Museum Dedicated to Legendary Bluesman Mississippi John Hurt

For fans of American roots music, the Mississippi John Hurt Museum in Avalon, Mississippi, may have been housed inside a 200-year-old shack with a tin roof—it was the childhood home of the late great bluesman—but it was living in an edifice as beautiful and inspiring as the Louvre, the Guggenheim Bilbao, or the Tate.

And now it’s gone, burnt to the ground, lost forever along with all the irreplaceable John Hurt memorabilia such as recordings, guitars and more, probably the work of local racist vandals, but good luck finding any authorities in hot pursuit, as they say in the movies.

Immediately after the disaster struck, Mary Frances Hurt, the artist’s granddaughter who is director of the non-profit Mississippi John Hurt Foundation and the primary curator of the museum, set up a GoFundMe Campaign. The goal is ambitious: to re-establish a museum to honor her grandfather on the same site. Among those who’ve contributed are longtime Springsteen E Streeter Stevie Van Zandt and Allman Brothers alum Derek Trucks.

If you’re unfamiliar with Hurt’s work, there’s no less an authority on his importance than Rock and Roll Hall of Famer John Sebastian, whose band “Lovin’ Spoonful” took their name from the lyrics of Mississippi John Hurt’s ribald classic, “Coffee Blues.” It was in the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early 1960s that Sebastian first heard Hurt.

“We’d heard the soft, almost conspiratorial voice on ancient recordings,” Sebastian recalls for Variety. “We’d listened to what we first thought were two guitars playing. And now here he was. Closing for Tom Paxton at the Gaslight Cafe. And being so engaging — everybody in the room was ready to leave with him. John Hurt live was like no other blues singer I’d ever encountered.”

“He’d be mischievous. He’d be coy,” Sebastian adds. “He’d tell a tale of murder all the while thumping so sweet on this big tore-up guitar that you’d dance and sway in your seat. He’d turn into the coquettish ‘Richland Woman’ in one song and then the surly man from Avalon — where pretty women want him there all the time!”

“Where was this positive energy coming from? Look at his hands and know the life he comes from. And yet here he is playing better than the 40-year-old recordings. With an impish calm like Meher Baba! His style has suffused at least two generations of guitarists, hundreds of bands and songwriters, who in turn have affected our American music scene. But there’ll never be another John Hurt,” Sebastian says.

When Hurt speaks of her grandfather’s legacy, and the poisonous racism she feels is certainly behind the destruction of his museum, her tone is a mixture of weariness at the centuries of racism Black people have faced in Mississippi and calm determination to not allow hate to triumph over beauty.

“The authorities, the Fire Marshall and the County Sheriff, claim ‘No foul play,” reports Hurt. “In February, we were set to make it a national landmark. We had worked for years to get the landmark status, as this was the only known residence of one of the great blues musicians. We took pictures and were celebrating. Then on February 21, they burned it down, knowing it was about to become a national landmark.”

Her sense of loss is palpable. “Everything in the house was in pristine condition. There were original dishes on the table and original furniture. His collection of blues 78s (vintage vinyl) and there 10 guitars that had been donated through the years. It was an awesome place, a sacred place.”

Now living in Chicago, Hurt’s roots in the local scene are deep and her sense of local history includes that of her grandfather and of the conditions he endured.

“When I embarked upon this journey, it was because I knew my grandfather at a young age. I detested Mississippi and all the ugliness. I couldn’t understand how my grandfather could smile through so much pain.”

Hurt’s own awakening came from listening closely to her grandfather’s work. She absorbed his message and credits her grandfather’s roots music wisdom for sustenance and strength against adversity such as the recent devastation of John Hurt’s monument.

“By the grace of God almighty I’m whole,” says Hurt. “I learned there’s only one race: the human race. And it’s not politics and not religion that teaches the most. Music is the universal language that speaks to the hearts of people. I’m grateful to find what John found. Racism and hate and animosity don’t exist. People coming together is what’s real. Thanks to John’s music, I’ve been enriched.”

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