When, if ever, does an act of rescue become an act of pillage?
It’s a question many museums are asking themselves as they re-examine storerooms filled with artifacts obtained before cultural theft was a concept, or at least one that people acknowledged. Private collectors can’t avoid it either. Even if the law doesn’t ask them the question, sometimes their consciences do.
A decade of pondering a personal repatriation scenario ended for me on a recent spring day in front of a dilapidated house in Mississippi. There I gave away my prized possession—a torn piece of wallpaper with a campaign poster from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s last presidential run glued to it. The item had, improbably, once belonged to Mississippi John Hurt, one of the great blues guitarists and singers of the 20th century.
How I got it, and why I gave it away, is my contribution to the conversations about repatriation that are part of our era’s evolving view of its past, and its present responsibilities.
I came to possess the object—which is as much art as artifact—in the summer of 1976. I was a 24-year-old reporter at a small daily newspaper in Greenwood, Mississippi. The circulation area covered two counties, Leflore and Carroll, in a part of the state known as the Delta. Formed by eons of flooding from the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers, it was a place of cotton cultivation and its attendant sins—slavery, sharecropping and racial repression—that gave rise to a musical tradition known in its Black communities as the “Delta blues.”
One of the more unusual of the Delta bluesmen was a short, soft-spoken man often in a battered fedora named Mississippi John Hurt. Born in the late 1800s, he lived nearly all of his life in a settlement called Avalon at the eastern edge of the Delta. “Classic” Delta blues was melodically complex, haunting and often discordant. Songs frequently spoke of violence, infidelity, poverty and material longing. While Hurt shared that lyrical tradition, his music was different—so different that some historians don’t consider him a Delta bluesman at all.
In both style and repertoire, it seems he was influenced by ragtime and popular music he may have heard on records and at minstrel and medicine shows Blacks were able to attend. Whether the hill-country musical tradition was important in his formative years is uncertain. His virtuosity secured him a position unusual among the Black folk singers of the early 20th century whose recordings survived.
In the liner notes to a 1966 LP, the late historian and author of Jazz Is, Nat Hentoff, wrote that “Hurt is not a raw, harsh chronicler of the human condition in the manner of many Mississippi-shaped blues storytellers. There is an uncommon gentleness in his work. Often, in fact, sweetness would be the word, providing one remembers that a man can be a man without having to prove his virility constantly by ‘toughness’ of stance and texture.”
In addition to being a great musician, Hurt had a personal story, not unique among early 20th-century bluesmen, of having been “discovered” and recorded, and then “rediscovered” and recorded again—nearly four decades later.
The first discovery was by a talent scout from the OKeh Phonograph Corporation of New York (a subsidiary of Columbia Phonograph Company) searching the South for unknown musicians. Willie Narmour, of Carroll County, recorded after winning a fiddle contest, suggested the scout look up Hurt. Unusual for the time, Hurt sometimes played with Narmour, a white man, when the fiddler’s regular guitarist wasn’t available.
Hurt was what OKeh was looking for. The company paid his train fare to Memphis, where on Valentine’s Day in 1928 he recorded eight songs. Then in December, OKeh brought him to New York City, where he had two recording sessions. In all, 12 sides were issued as 78 rpm records. He was paid $20 per side and “Mississippi” became a prefix to his name.
With the onset of the Depression, the recording industry contracted. Columbia was sold in 1931, and OKeh effectively ceased to exist, although the label has been periodically revived. Hurt corresponded with a record company called The Lonesome Ace, but it went out of business, too. Eventually, he returned to a way of life that befell many underprivileged Blacks of that era.
He picked cotton and cut crossties for the railroad. He obtained a Works Progress Administration job spreading gravel on roads and cutting trees on their verges, for $3 a day. He also continued to play music—at barbecues and social events for up to $10 a gig, sometimes with other musicians.
The story of how he came to be “rediscovered” 35 years later exists in several versions. What’s undisputed is that Tom Hoskins, a 21-year-old Washington, D.C. resident, was the person who brought Hurt into the public eye once more.
Invariably described as a “hippie,” Hoskins worked odd jobs, played the guitar left-handed and was fascinated by the music of folk singers recorded in the 1920s and ’30s. Hurt “impressed me the most,” said Hoskins, who was determined to find out if the musician was still alive.
Insightfully, Hoskins noted that one of Hurt’s songs was called “Avalon Blues,” with the line “Avalon, my hometown, always on my mind.” (Hurt wrote it in his sojourn in New York City during Christmas.) Hoskins couldn’t find Avalon, Mississippi, on a road map, but he did find it in an old atlas.
Hoskins headed south in late February 1963 (en route to Mardi Gras, with a new girlfriend in one version of events). He stopped at the general store in Avalon and inquired after a “Mississippi John Hurt.” He was directed up the hill to the settlement of Valley, where a man named John Hurt lived.
It was the Hurt he was looking for, but he didn’t even have a guitar. Hoskins did, and when he returned the next day with a tape recorder, it was clear that Hurt, although rusty, was still a virtuoso. He was the country blues equivalent of Tutankhamen’s tomb—intact and marvelous beyond all expectation.
The idea that white folkies, like me and Hoskins, were listening to his music and wondering if he was still alive was preposterous to the 70-year-old musician. In his own account of the “rediscovery,” Hurt said that when he opened the door to Hoskins’ knock, “I thought the man was a sheriff or the FBI, and I was thinking to myself, ‘What have I done?’”
Hurt soon moved to Washington, D.C. with his wife and two grandchildren they were raising. From the start, financial jockeying and charges of exploitation surrounded him.
Two weeks after Hoskins “found” him, Hurt signed a five-year contract that gave Music Research Inc. (founded by Hoskins and another man) 50 percent of his gross compensation. A separate company controlled the publication of his songs, providing him with only 25 percent of royalties. Music Research wrangled with the giant Vanguard Records over the right to record him a few months later at the Newport Folk Festival, where he was the undisputed star. Over the ensuing decades, people and companies sued each other. A dispute between Hurt’s heirs and Hoskins wasn’t settled until 2004, nearly 40 years after the musician’s death.
But that was only half the story.
Many people showed great kindness and generosity to Hurt and his family. They were protective and patient. (He had to be taught how to use a telephone.) Hoskins said the terms of the contract were never enforced, and that Hurt got nearly all the money from concerts and recordings. Hoskins, who died in 2002, named one of Hurt’s granddaughters his heir.
In late 1965, homesick and tired, Hurt returned to Mississippi. He died in the city of Grenada, not far from Avalon, on November 2, 1966. He was 74. His career as a living legend had lasted a little more than three and a half years. As his widow told me years later, “By rights, you know, John went into this when he ought’ve been coming out.”
I knew Hurt’s music but only a little of his story when I moved to Greenwood in 1974. By then, the days of meeting and interviewing the Delta bluesmen of the early 20th century were almost over. Nevertheless, I wanted to experience Hurt’s mysterious allure even if secondhand. He was my favorite, and I was living around people who’d known him.
In the summer of 1976, in spare hours between daily stories, I worked on a feature about Hurt’s career and the legal wrangling over his music and legacy that was still underway. The ten-year anniversary of his death was the news peg, and I knew I could write long, as the newspaper had started a Sunday edition that needed filling.
One August day, the paper’s summer-intern photographer, Mary Urech, and I drove to Avalon to talk with A. R. Perkins, a man who’d taught history and “vocational agriculture” in the Carroll County public schools. Hurt and his wife were living on Perkins’ farm when Hoskins drove up in 1963.
After an embarrassingly timid interview—I still had a lot to learn about reporting—I asked if the Hurt house was still standing. Perkins said it was and pointed us down a gravel road.
“I store hay in it,” he said.
I forget if we drove or walked, but what we found was a three-room shotgun house with a collapsing front porch. It was unlocked, and some of the windows were gone. We went inside. As our eyes adjusted to the darkness, a spectral face came into view on one of the walls. To our astonishment, it was Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s. Above FDR’s image was the word “America,” and below it, “Roosevelt.”
It was a campaign poster. The picture appeared to be from the late 1930s, before war had turned the flesh around Roosevelt’s eyes into dark puddles of worry and exhaustion. In fact, it was from the 1944 campaign, FDR’s last, when he was reaching back for a less haggard look. Except for a few cards with religious iconography nailed to the wall nearby, it was the only thing in the dilapidated building that intimated human habitation.
How had it survived? It would’ve been a treasure in any abandoned tenant house in the Delta. But in Mississippi Hurt’s? We were speechless.
For me, speechlessness was soon replaced by covetousness. When we were finished looking around, we went back up the gravel road to see Perkins to ask one more question.
“There’s what looks like an old poster of FDR glued to the wallpaper inside the house,” I told him. “Is there any chance I could have it?”
In the second most astonishing moment of the day, he said yes. We hustled back to the house before he could change his mind.
The poster was on a piece of brown-and-silver floral wallpaper delaminating from the wood underneath. I had no cutting instrument, so I gently tore a section of it down and laid it on the floor. I sat on the hay, and Urech took a picture. A slab of sunlight illuminated the poster, my shirt and my face, which had a look of reverence.
Even then I knew I needed to have a good explanation of why—not just how—I took possession of this artifact. I had a good one, an honest one.
Hurt’s house was now a barn. Like thousands of tenant houses in Mississippi, it was being consumed by weather and entropy. Eventually, it would fall down or be burned intentionally. I didn’t give it more than ten years. A campaign poster of one of America’s most loved presidents that had been in Hurt’s house was a relic that shouldn’t be allowed to end up in a pile of rotten boards. So I reasoned that I was rescuing it.
My feature story, with the fulsome headline (which I, of course, wrote) “From Avalon to Eternity: The Journey of John Hurt,” ran on December 12, 1976. I’d just left Greenwood to take a job at the Baltimore Sun, carrying the rolled-up piece of wallpaper with me. Four years later, I had it framed and hung it in my first house, a two-story version of the place it had come from—three rooms in a row.
Four decades came and went. The Hurt FDR poster hung in other houses and one other city. It was always the showpiece, with a story to go with it.
In May 2011, I returned to Greenwood to cover the 100th anniversary of the birth of Robert Johnson, another legendary bluesman. He’d died there in 1938. By that time, I was working at the Washington Post. The Johnson event was far off my beat, but nobody else at the paper was going to it. So I got the requisite permissions and headed to Mississippi for the first time in years.
As part of the reporting for that story, I interviewed a musician, composer and historian named Scott Ainslie, who’s an expert on both Johnson’s and Hurt’s music. Ainslie had come down from Vermont, and he was speaking and performing at the Johnson centennial symposium. We hit it off when we met. By that time I’d learned of the existence of a Mississippi John Hurt Museum, although I’d never been there and had no idea what it looked like. We agreed to visit it together, and I said I’d also take him to Hurt’s grave, which is notoriously hard to find.
The museum is unusual. It has no regular hours, and its director lives in Illinois. For access, visitors must call a local caretaker, and he’ll open it if he doesn’t have anything else to do. That is, if you can find it; it’s down a dirt road with no sign.
With my two best friends from the newspaper days, and Ainslie and his wife, Barb Ackemann, we paid our respects at Hurt’s grave. Afterward, we followed written directions to the museum. We pulled up to a dilapidated shotgun house. To my astonishment, it was the one I’d taken the FDR poster from 35 years earlier.
I felt like the title character of Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim, who abandons a foundering ship full of passengers only to see it safely in port a few days later, rescued by another vessel. He spends the rest of his life, and the book, atoning for that act of cowardice. While my act wasn’t shameful, the survival of the house, I realized immediately, did change things.
We went inside. All the wallpaper was gone. The contents were period-piece donations; only one small table had been there during the Hurts’ occupancy. Framed pictures, album covers and newspaper stories (including mine) hung on the walls. It wasn’t much of a museum.
When we were done, we went outside and sat on the porch. Ainslie took out two guitars. For the next 90 minutes he played and talked about Hurt songs, standing on the grass in front of us. It’s one of the most memorable afternoons of my life.
How the house was saved is its own long, complicated story—too much to tell, but here’s the synopsis.
Mary Frances Hurt, one of 14 children of John Hurt’s son T.C., was a reading teacher in a town outside Chicago. Her grandfather, “Daddy John,” died when she was 10. She revered him and the memories of times at his house. In 1996, she visited Mississippi and had a chance encounter with the building’s owner. He told her he’d sold the surrounding land but had kept the house because “God told me to.” Hearing her story, he agreed to sell her the house for $5,000.
She got a loan from a bank in Carrollton (one of the county’s two seats) whose president remembered his own father talking about John Hurt. When it came time to hand over the check, however, the owner backed out. A person in the neighborhood didn’t want a cavalcade of tourists on his road and said he’d burn the house down if it was opened to the public. When the owner saw how crestfallen Mary Frances was, he told her he’d give her the house if she’d move it.
She found someone who would relocate it (for $5,000) to a piece of Hurt-family property nearby. Seven years later Mary Frances opened the Mississippi John Hurt Museum. She considered the whole thing a miracle.
A few years after our time together in Greenwood, Ainslie and his wife visited me in Baltimore. I showed them the FDR poster and told them how I’d acquired it. By then I’d decided I was only its custodian and had put in my will that when I died it was to go to the Delta Blues Museum, in Clarksdale, Mississippi. However, as we reminisced about the Mississippi John Hurt Museum, I commented, not seriously, that maybe that’s where it should go. To my chagrin Ainslie said: “Yes, it belongs there.”
More years went by.
I left the Post, stopped working full time, and entered the deaccessioning stage of life. In the world of museum curatorship, “repatriation” was gaining traction. Then came the era of “racial reckoning.” At some point, I decided that waiting until I was dead to move the poster along was a classically selfish strategy. The time was now—or soon.
In late 2021, I learned that Ainslie was helping a Knoxville film company make a documentary about John Hurt to benefit the Mississippi John Hurt Foundation, which had been created by Mary Frances Hurt. The foundation has held a few concerts at the museum and aspires to provide music education to Mississippi schoolchildren while keeping “the kindness and spirit of John Hurt alive.” In March 2022, the videographers, Mary Frances Hurt, and Ainslie were among a few people gathering at the museum for filming and interviewing.
I made plans to join them.
On March 29, with cameras rolling, I presented the framed piece of wallpaper with the FDR poster on it to Mary Frances. She shed tears and said, “It is the most amazing thing that has ever happened to me”—which if even 10 percent true was thanks enough. The event made the front page of my old employer, the Greenwood Commonwealth, under the headline “Hurt artifact returned.”
In advance of the handoff, I’d had high-resolution prints made of the object, which were then mounted on boards with beveled edges. The image is so detailed, it’s hard to distinguish the prints from the original. I kept one and gave one to the photographer who found it with me. I also gave copies to Ainslie, Mary Frances and my two Greenwood friends who’d listened to the musical evocation of John Hurt on the porch of the house 11 years earlier. Nothing was lost; everyone gained.
What’s still a mystery is who put the poster on the wall and why.
In Mississippi John Hurt: His Life, His Times, His Blues, biographer Philip Ratcliffe noted the house was built by a family named Liddell, and that John and Jessie Hurt moved into it in 1947. That was three years after the election for which the poster was made. Was it already there, or did the Hurts bring it with them?
John Hurt’s views of Roosevelt aren’t known, but it’s unlikely he ever voted for him.
In 1965, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights held hearings and subsequently published a “Voting in Mississippi” report. It says of Carroll County: “While Negroes make up roughly half the voting age population of 5,700, only five were registered to vote at the time of the hearing [in February 1965].” Among American counties, Carroll is in a three-way tie for eighth place for the most lynching victims from 1877 through 1950, according to the nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative, in Montgomery, Alabama. (There were 29.) Hurt lived in a place where trying to register was dangerous.
All one can say with confidence is the Hurts thought enough of FDR to have his face on the wall for 16 years.
I’m glad I returned the poster even if fewer people will see it now than when it was in my living room. Of the story, there’s a hint of what T. S. Eliot observes in “Four Quartets”:
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
The poster is back where it came from, and everything is different.