An interdisciplinary journal about regions, places, and cultures of the US South and their global connections

Homage to Mississippi John Hurt

This morning when I went to play the scales
the strings of the guitar were so cold they might
have slept all night in the Holston's South Fork.
And the week after I bought it, while it traveled
between Herman Wallecki & Sons of Los Angeles
and southern Illinois, I dreamed
of a guitar so old it had weathered gray as a barn.
It had two necks, and when I touched
the bottom one to grab a C, the neck broke off
in my hands and wasps flew from the sound chamber.
But the tone of the strings on the other neck
was yours, old sweet-playing father.

In the late twenties, they cut a few minutes
of you into vinyl and sent you back to pick
and sing for nearly forty years in church and at parties
and to get by as a hired hand, practicing fatherhood.
Greatest of the fingerpickers, lost in dark mud,
two folkies found you in the singing vinyl
and asked, "How do you do that with a guitar?"
and searched maps of Mississippi for the town
Avalon from one of your songs, and could not find it
after all that time, so it seemed that you were never there.

And what was there? Kudzu, polio, celestial darkness?
My band played Bumgilly, Nowhere, the cattle
auction, the armory in Wedowee, and our biggest gig:
the annual Fourth of July bash at the asylum.

But music has no place. "Mississippi has two cities,"
said Faulkner, "Memphis and New Orleans."
Upriver, the Vienna of the Delta is Clarksdale.
We looked for easy sevenths and found a covered
wagon drawn by eight mules, a beautiful dwarf
who leapt a rail to gulp down a crushed-out cigarette.

In the New York Public Library, on a nineteenth-century surveyor's plat,
The two folkies found Avalon,
drove to Mississippi, and asked at a general store,
"Have you heard of a musician named John Hurt?"
"Third road, turn right, house on your left, up on a hill."
So they found him on a porch and took him north
to become briefly, cogently famous and leave songs —
"Louis Collins," "Candy Man," "Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor," "Casey Jones,"
"Creole Belle" —
and return to Mississippi and die.

He was a little man, but cathedrals lit up in his hands.
When Segovia heard him, he asked, "Who is playing the other guitar?"
He darted and slurred, a syncopation, a waltz evolving to jig.
By slowing the record down and listening, a phrase
at a time, repeatedly, for six weeks, I learned
to scratch out a barely detectable rendition of "Funky Butt."
I do not like to sing, but sing, driving home from work,
sing to heal the language of its long service as a tool.

Greatest of the fingerpickers, lost in dark mud,
I do not know about the god of the fathers,
but to be born again in the tink and clong of a guitar
is better than to rot in a symphony of heavenly accountants
plucking the varicose vein of elderly harps. I know
a small man's largeness can be a pistol
in the dark, but it can also play. The name of joy is music.

 

Published in Salvation Blues: One Hundred Poems, 1985-2005 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 194-196.

Published: 22 January 2009
© 2009 Rodney Jones and Southern Spaces