Head’s in Mississippi

Sky’s the color of dishwater, that maelstrom murk before the drain gets pulled. It dots the walkways with snaps of rain, daubing your clothes with mischievous spots. Thunder rattles low in its throat. I’m reminded of a late night last summer when I stepped into a meteorological medley punctuated by soft, dimming flickers and strident, brilliant streaks down the center of town, followed by loud barked warnings from a restless Mother Nature.

Me, I prefer my pops artificial. So tonight I spread across an empty patch of floor, fill the rest with Mississippi John Hurt. You don’t exhume him often, just when your wandering mind needs an understanding companion. That modest, rough-honeyed shrug of a voice. Those gentle fingers plucking acoustic currents from somewhere deep inside. Man and instrument wrestle with their era’s sonic limits, pushing past the campfire snaps of decrepit shellac to spread so wide and fine. Mind-boggling, no? Here they perform, in a real-time 1928 — a year my grandparents were just children — and they’re somehow entertaining me. Unbelievably, we share the same space.

Even more amazing is that once the final ting of ’28 string whistles back to the boneyard, a second disc will rumble into position, aging Hurt some 40 years, transporting him from the unmarked hush of Avalon, Mississippi, to mighty, daunting New York. Valleys will yawn down that friendly face. Technology will leap chasms in an instant; the aural shifts between 1928 and 1966 are the differences between a raggedy dirt path and a paved-smooth highway. Man and guit are but living forces in an airtight expanse, blending into an immaculate warmth for stereophonic hearths. Hurt was a tinny whisper in ’28; now he sat in your living room, a permanent and gracious hi-fi guest. Life couldn’t be more modern — the title of his ’66 album reflected that. Today! it insisted.

Yet neither he nor even the much younger men who recorded him in his twilight could imagine the possibilities I enjoy. With the touch of a button, I can boost his bass. I can filter him through different modes. I can shuffle his sequence, upload him onto my desktop, trade him with my friends. Fire him ’round the world without a passport! Ah, life could not be more modern — such is the vanity of now.

Life is done with him, as it will one day be with me. And yet I hope to crack through time just as sweet as he.


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