CARROLL COUNTY — Decades after the passing of his musical mentor, Mississippi John Hurt, Grammy-winning artist Taj Mahal performed Saturday in honor of Hurt deep in the hills of Carroll County.
Now 77, Mahal, who has toured across the country, found himself on stage in a small clearing of land surrounded by a sea of trees.
Wearing a Hawaiian-style camp-collar shirt that was illuminated by the stage lights, Mahal was joyously greeted by concert attendees. Some had traveled from far away to see him perform.
“Oh my God, it was awesome,” said Mary Frances Hurt-Wright, Hurt’s granddaughter and the president of the Mississippi John Hurt Foundation, which hosts the annual Mississippi John Hurt Homecoming Festival.
Held Saturday and Sunday on the grounds of the Mississippi John Hurt Museum near Avalon, this year’s festival drew more than 300 people, Hurt-Wright said.
“We had the largest local participation ever,” she said. Some of the concert-goers came from countries such as Switzerland, Germany and Canada.
Mahal curated Saturday’s lineup of blues artists and provided recommendations for Sunday’s lineup of gospel artists. “Without Mahal, there’s no way I could’ve done this on my own,” Hurt-Wright said.
Mahal said that he found a musical mentor in Hurt amid the social strife of the 1960s.
Mahal was in his 20s when he first became aware of Hurt. Mahal told the crowd that Hurt’s music guided him “to be more relaxed and focused.”
“I started following him, and consequently I’m where I am now today as a result of his guidance through music,” Mahal said.
Mahal’s burgeoning career and the resurgence of Hurt’s musical career both took place in the 1960s. Mahal released his first album in 1967; Hurt’s career was resurrected in 1963.
There’s a picture of Mahal and Hurt taken backstage during the 1964 Newport Folk Festival in Newport, Rhode Island. Both are smiling, and Mahal towers over Hurt.
Hurt, who was born in Teoc, got his first big break in the 1920s when he recorded music in Memphis and New York. He was known for his gentle sound and finger-picking style of guitar playing.
But his career fell by the wayside. He remained in his home in Avalon, working manual labor jobs to make ends meet.
In 1963, Tom Hoskins, a fan and collector, approached Hurt in Avalon. He helped Hurt’s career take off, giving the musician an opportunity to tour the country and perform.
Three years later, Hurt passed away in Grenada.
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Frank Chambers, an Iowa-born St. Louis transplant, moved to Clarksdale eight years ago.
He, like many others at the music festival, was excited to be at Mahal’s performance.
“I’m here today because of Taj Mahal. You don’t get to see him very often,” Chambers said. “Taj infuses the old style of blues, some jazz” and other genres, he said.
“I don’t know if he falls in any classification,” Chambers said.
Better known by the nickname “St. Louis Frank,” Chambers says he loves the blues and has been coming to the Delta to hear blues performances for years.
He’s been friends with Sylvester Hoover, a Greenwood-based blues historian, for 18 years. “He knows every blues player. He knows everything; he just goes everywhere,” Hoover said.
Mahal’s music has a special meaning for Chambers, however.
Chambers, who is the same age as Mahal, is dealing with lymph node cancer. As a result, he’s lost seven teeth, many of them on his upper jaw. However, he said he maintains a positive attitude when getting chemotherapy by singing his own take of Mahal’s “Cakewalk Into Town.”
During treatment, he sings, “Oh, baby, I got radiation now I’m going to cakewalk into town,” rather than Mahal’s original lyrics, “You know I'm feeling so much better, I could cakewalk into town.”
Ben Payton, a Greenwood-based guitarist and vocalist, was also appreciative of Mahal’s performance.
“I believe that this is good for the community and it’s good for the Mississippi John Hurt Foundation,” Payton said.
Proceeds from the festival’s ticket sales are used to support musical instruction for youth and disadvantaged women.
“His presence has been needed for a long time,” Payton said.
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Hurt-Wright and Mahal had tried to get in touch with each other for years to collaborate on a festival.
Sam Ellis, a Hurt Foundation board member, said he left a note for Mahal backstage during a performance last October in Augusta, Georgia. The note contained Hurt-Wright’s contact information.
Ellis recalled getting a phone call days later from an elated Hurt-Wright, who said that she was contacted by Mahal.
At the conclusion of Mahal’s performance Saturday night, he shouted, “Let’s do this next year!”
Hurt-Wright said Mahal has “dedicated himself for years to come.”
•Contact Gerard Edic at 581-7239 or email@example.com.