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When a song became a road map: the Tom Hoskins collection and Mississippi John Hurt

This is a guest post by Marcia Segal, a Processing Archivist at the American Folklife Center.

Legendary blues singer Mississippi John Hurt’s song “Avalon Blues” appears on numerous recordings in the Tom Hoskins collection:

“…Avalon, my hometown, always on my mind…”

Hurt first recorded the song in 1928. In 1963, musician and blues music fan Tom Hoskins went to Avalon, Mississippi, encouraged by musicologist Dick Spottswood and their shared hunger to answer the question: was Mississippi John Hurt still alive? The day he arrived, Hoskins had his answer: yes. The next day, when he sat down to record Hurt, the answer was: yes, very much so. While Hurt had not recorded since 1928, his skills and gifts were still in evidence (and not rusty, as some writers have claimed). Using a guitar borrowed from Hoskins, Hurt’s performance was still commanding and moving all at once. This recording is part of the collection, along with other recordings, photos, original letters, and other materials. Details are available in the collection finding aid, recently made available online.

While Hurt’s story has been written, documented, and discussed since the second phase of his professional life, the collection provides a look inside the mind and career of the man who drove all those miles to find him. Hoskins and Hurt developed and maintained their personal and professional association from the time of their meeting until Hurt’s death in 1966, and Hoskins stayed in contact with Hurt’s family after Hurt’s passing. The underlying goal of Hoskins’s activities seems to have been to make sure as many people had a chance to know about Hurt and hear his music as possible. From a publicity folder there are lists of articles that could be used for free to promote Hurt, plus logs of recordings, interview transcripts, and Hoskins’s address books, as well as other materials.

Black and white photograph depicting a gas station in Avalon, Mississippi. There are several people at the entrance to the building, and a VW Beetle on the road in front. "Mar 63" printed on edge of photograph. Tom Hoskins collection, AFC2011/26.

Gas station in Avalon, MS. March 1963. Photograph from the Tom Hoskins collection, AFC 2011/26.

The collection includes handwritten letters from John and from his wife Jessie, and the music business side of Hoskins’s career, with stock certificates (issued and unissued) for Music Research, International (the company which originally had rights to promote Hurt and his recordings). Photographs taken in Avalon in 1963 and 1965 show John, Jessie, and other people, as well as buildings and other subjects. Concert images, in contact sheets and prints, document Hurt in performance during his brief resurgence; photos taken by Bob Campbell, Seth Beckerman, Jim Mahan, Paul S. Ulrich, and others. The only color photos in the collection are 21 Ektachrome 35 mm slides, showing Hurt during an undated concert performance. These images, plus the documents and recordings, shed further light on Hurt’s career, from Hoskins’s perspective.

Image of a handwritten letter composed by musician, Mississippi John Hurt. Letter describes his early life, indicating he was born in Carroll County, Mississippi. The letter also indicates that one of Mr. Hurt's school teachers was a "guitar picker." The letter is contained in the Tom Hoskins collection, AFC2011/26.

Letter written by Mississippi John Hurt. Part of the Tom Hoskins collection, AFC 2011/026.

The recordings made at the Library of Congress are also part of the collection (AFC 2011/026: SR059-SR064). On July 15 and July 23, 1963, Hurt recorded over 60 songs and stories in the Coolidge auditorium, and was interviewed by Joe Hickerson (later to become the Head of the Archive of Folk Culture). Another AFC collection includes the recordings: Mississippi John Hurt recordings collection (AFC 1964/003). Both sets of recordings provide a chance for listeners to hear the recordings without the commercial polish, but with all the improvements that recording in a concert-quality venue such as the Coolidge could (and still can) provide, not to mention a proper audio recording set-up both for Hurt and the guitar.

The Tom Hoskins collection takes its place at The American Folklife Center alongside other collections of folk revival-era recordings, including the University of Chicago Folk Festival, 1962 (AFC 1963/001), the Caffè Lena collection (AFC 2009/035), and other collections with live music that reflect the energy and spirit of the era.

Hurt’s “rediscovery” by Hoskins is not the only story the collection has to tell. Also in the collection are photos (most are black and white), taken by photographers who are sometimes identified. One such photographer was Bob Campbell, who photographed Hurt at The Gaslight, a club in Boston, circa 1964-1965. Hurt appears both on the stairs leading to the club, and onstage with other (unnamed) musicians.

Image of a black and white contact sheet from photographer, Bob Campbell. Frames depict Mississippi John Hurt on stage at the Gaslight Club with two unnamed musicians. Contact sheet is in the Tom Hoskins collection, AFC2011/26.

Contact sheet from photographer, Bob Campbell. AFC2011/26.

The collection has four contact sheets of Campbell’s photos. Campbell himself has his own story: an important, though lesser-known photographer of jazz musicians and other subjects in the 1950s-1960s. Archivist Jessica Ferber “rediscovered” him, publishing Rebirth of the Cool in 2015 as a retrospective of Campbell’s work. In this book Hurt’s photo appears among many other artists of the era.

Another “find” in the collection is a recording of Hurt’s first wife, Gertrude Conley, singing on the March 3, 1963 recording. This recording has not been released commercially:

In subsequent years there would be legal contentions regarding royalties, involving Hurt’s families, Hoskins, and others involved in business dealings related to Hurt’s career. And yet, here was Hurt and members of his families, in the same room, unaware of the rush of events to come, when John would move to D.C., take on the touring life, and back to Mississippi again. From the same recording comes the final selection, a duet with Hurt and Jessie:

Come to AFC and hear the recordings, read the documents, see the photos, and appreciate the lives of both Hurt and Hoskins.

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