May 1999

Bill Morrissey - Songs of Mississippi John Hurt
Rounder/Philo 11671-1216-2
Released: 1999

by Marc Mickelson

Musical Performance ****
Recording Quality ***1/2
Overall Enjoyment ****

[Reviewed on CD]Why would Bill Morrissey, accomplished folksinger and songwriter that he is, decide to cut an entire album of tunes by bluesman Mississippi John Hurt? Well, as the liner notes to this disc indicate, Morrissey has been smitten with Hurt’s songs for over 30 years, which is a good enough reason for a musician of Morrissey's stature to explore them. Of greater importance, though, is how well Hurt’s songs fit Morrissey’s throaty singing and become the real star here.

Of course, a collection like this lives or dies based on the interpretive road the performer follows, and Morrissey succeeds, although hardcore Delta-blues fans will be disappointed. Hurt’s songs don’t quickly lend themselves to the twang and growl to begin with, and Morrissey’s delivery is matter-of-fact. His characteristic vocals make the songs resonate as though they tell his stories, which is what performing them is about. "Avalon Blues" begins with guitar, then adds piano and sax. But it’s Morrissey’s calm, reassuring voice that anchors the song's vignettes of leaving and longing. Even the playful, sexual lines of "Shake That Thing" have an earnestness about them that buys the song a more human touch, as though Morrissey really is "sick and tired of telling you to shake that thing." The sound is good, delicate and nuanced, as is the playing by Morrissey on guitar and a host of others on electric bass, piano, trumpet, harmonica, sax and drums.

This CD broadens the discography of one of the best folksinger-songwriters alive, and it’s a modest stop-off from his own creations. Its winning way is testament to the songs, their interpretive legs, and the insight of a performer who lets them do the running.