Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide Album

Mississippi John Hurt: Avalon Blues: The Complete 1928 Okeh Recordings [Epic/Legacy, 1996]
Although Hurt was beloved in his time--from his first Northern gigs in 1963 at age 69 until his death at 73--his story isn't the stuff of blues legend. A lifelong sharecropper who raised 14 kids with one woman, he was the least dangerous-looking of the '60s rediscoveries, which is one reason folkies found him so irresistible. But however suspect hardboiled postmoderns may find his rep, his music is damn near unique. The school of John Fahey proceeded from his finger-picking, and while he's not the only quietly conversational singer in the modern folk tradition, no one else has talked the blues with such delicacy or restraint. Since his approach didn't sap his adrenaline or testosterone and his skills matured with the years, the many albums he cut in his seventies (try Rounder's casual Worried Blues 1963, or Vanguard's sweetly eerie Last Sessions) betray none of the diminishment of late Son House or Bukka White. Yet these crisp, detailed digital remasters from half a lifetime before pack an added authority: they establish that the gentleness of his music in no way reflects the frailty of a defenseless old age. Emanating from vocal cords that have plenty spring in them at 35, his equanimity seems chosen and vigorous, as befits a major 20th-century artist. A-