In the early 1960s an unlikely audience latched on to the blues of the Depression era: college students and record collectors from New York, Boston, Washington, D.C. and Berkeley. “The blues mafia,” as they liked to call themselves, studied rare 78s, so rare that sometimes, as in the case of Skip James’s “Drunken Spree,” there was only one known copy of a record. And a few thought about driving south to locate the men whose voices they heard coming from their turntable. But where to start? There were no biographies, no press releases to consult or Wikipedia page. The songs were all they had.
In 1963, Tom Hoskins, a member of the so-called blues mafia, drove to a general store and post office in the southeast corner of the Mississippi Delta. On old maps this spot was labeled “Avalon,” and more than three decades before, Mississippi John Hurt, a figure revered by the blues mafia, had recorded a song called “Avalon Blues.” At the store Hoskins got directions to Hurt’s house. Hearing that he was from Washington, D.C., Hurt initially believed Hoskins was a revenue collector. Finally, Hoskins was able to convince Hurt of his true purpose, and was also able to convince him to come north and begin recording again. A few months later, Hurt, who had not made a recording since the 1920s, was appearing on the Johnny Carson Show and at the Newport Folk Festival.
That same year, a guitarist named John Fahey sent a letter to
Booker White (old blues singer)
c/o General Delivery
“I’m sitting down in Aberdeen, with New Orleans on my mind,” sang White in his 1940 song “Aberdeen Mississippi Blues.” When the letter was forwarded to him, White, who was now living in Memphis, replied to Fahey, and the following year Fahey decided to track down the most elusive bluesman of all, Skip James. In June of 1964 he left Berkeley with Bill Barth and Henry Vestine, friends and fellow guitarists. (more…)