Eighteen years ago, Mary Frances Hurt-Wright began a festival in the tiny community of Avalon to celebrate the memory of her grandfather and blues legend, Mississippi John Hurt. That festival has now become an international draw, with people from Australia and even Japan coming to Avalon to attend in the John Hurt festival.
Held Labor Day weekend, the festival brings out blues musicians and lovers alike who respect and appreciate the legacy that Mississippi John Hurt left behind. Hurt-Wright said after moving her grandfather’s cabin back to Avalon in 1997, two years later it was an opportune time to hold the festival in Hurt’s memory.
“It just worked out that way,” she said.
Hurt-Wright said she that each year there’s a guest musician; however, there are other musicians that come from all over the world, and she never knows who is coming. This year’s guest musician is Ben Wiley Payton.
Payton is a renowned blues artist that grew up in Greenwood and lived in Chicago before moving back to Greenwood.
“He used to play everywhere with various crowds,” Hurt-Wright said.
Payton’s style is similar to that of Hurt’s style.
A legend during the Folklore-Blues Revival in the 1960s, Hurt’s style of blues is still copied and celebrated in the blues world. Known for his famous “Candy Man,” his finger-picking style of blues wasn’t as harsh as other musicians.
Hurt performed well into his seventies. Although Hurt, didn’t tour as much then as he did during the 1920s and 30s, he was still popular. He died in 1966 in Grenada.
“My grandfather was a self-taught guitarist. He was a very talented, very spiritual individual who had a great love and respect for people and his favorite love was his music,” Hurt-Wright said. “His spirit and his style of playing has resonated all around even after his death. He was a quiet person who spoke volumes with his kindness. He was just an all-around good guy.”
She said it’s always interesting to see the younger generation at the John Hurt festival.
“I always love for them to come. I want them to learn about the culture and history of the music and how it relates to black people,” she said.
Hurt-Wright said this year the foundation is adding a new component to the festival.
“We’re going to open up the Old St. John’s Church,” she said.
A landmark in Avalon, the church served as a school and was the spiritual home for many in Avalon during that time, including Hurt-Wright’s ancestors.
She said many of the local churches around Avalon have been invited and will have a big church choir to help render musical selections during the service on Sunday.
Hurt-Wright said for her, the event is big in the sense that it continues her grandfather’s legacy.
“It’s big in the sense that people far away like Australia and Japan come to be apart. I’m hoping for a large crowd. But, it’s big to me because it’s the spirit of the people that come to show homage to my grandfather. It is mind blowing,” she said.
She said it’s huge in the sense that it brings people from all over together in a small rural Mississippi community like Avalon. Hurt-Wright said it’s because of her grandfather’s music, she learned people and not to see them by skin color.
And growing up in the time period she did, it was her grandfather’s music that helped her cope. “Music for me is the elixir for all the ills and hatred in the world. Through music, I gained an appreciation to love people. My grandfather was bold enough to go out in the world and it gave me the opportunity to see people as one race- and that’s the human race. That’s huge to me.”