Beware of any post that starts, “Last night, I was trying to fall asleep and I started thinking about…” You’ve been warned! So, last night, I was trying to fall asleep and I started thinking about the Easterish theme of resurrection. And I’ve had Elizabeth Cotten in my head (delightfully) for a few days, so I started to think about blues musicians who recorded some tracks in the 20s and early 30s, and then weren’t heard from again until the sixties. Their careers were resurrected.
Of course their lives continued in those decades, and they worked and struggled to get by, and they wrote about working and struggling, they wrote about their lives. In particular, I was thinking about Mississippi John Hurt and Skip James. (And then I thought about how hard it is to write about something that you really love as much as I love the music of Mississippi John Hurt and Skip James. But here goes!) Mississippi John Hurt and Skip James were Delta blues musicians. They were both born around the turn of the last century in Mississippi. They both started playing very young, sneaking a chance to play guitar any time they could. They were both largely self-taught, and they both developed unique styles of playing, just as Elizabeth Cotten did. She, being left-handed, turned the guitar upside-down, plucking out the melody with her thumb. Skip James has his own special tuning, in melancholy D-minor. Mississippi John Hurt played the guitar the way he “thought it should sound.” And when you hear him play, you’ll agree, this is the way guitar should sound.
Their music and their lyrics are disarming–sophisticated and wild, perfectly, strangely, human and familiar, poetical, violent, at times, but always sung in the sweetest possible way. Mississippi John Hurt’s voice is gentle and comforting, Skip James’ high and haunting.
Hurt was born in Avalon Mississippi, and he was endearingly fond of his home town. He travelled to Washington and New York to record music in the late 20s, but he wasn’t happy there – he was homesick. They tracked him down, later in life, based on lyrics to his song Avalon Blues. “New York’s a good town but it’s not for mine. New York’s a good town but it’s not for mine.” He was given a chance to perform with a traveling show, but he declined, because he wanted to stay near to his home. Skip James travelled for jobs and work camps, but his lyrics are about the people back home.
I wonder what it must have been like for them to be in their 60s and suddenly discovered by New York City folksy hipsters. What it must have been like to travel, at that age, and perform at the Newport Folk Festival, and be revered by these kids whose lives must have been so different from their own. Supposedly, Hurt, whom everybody liked his whole life due to his pleasant nature, enjoyed the experience, and James, who “could be sunshine, or thunder and lightning depending on his whim of the moment,” hated the folkie scene, and wasn’t fond of some of the covers of his songs that became wildly popular. What a strange turn for their lives to have taken. Blues music is full of fables and mythical characters, tales of death and life and reinvention, tales of people with legendary powers. I like to think about the long and hard-earned lives of James and Hurt in this way.
Here’s a short playlist of some of my favorite Mississippi John Hurt and Skip James songs.
So, this meal is something like winter’s last hurrah. It’s warm and comforting and nourishing. It has barley and french lentils, spinach, potatoes and carrots. So it’s pretty much everything you need in one big pot. The sauce is rich and savory, with port wine, tamari, sage and rosemary. And we topped the whole thing off with some grated smoked gouda and sharp cheddar. This is one of those “serve-with-a-good-loaf-of-crusty-bread” meals.
2 T olive oil
1 large shallot, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 bay leaves
1 t dried sage
1 t rosemary, chopped
1/2 t dried thyme
1 T tomato paste
2 T port wine
1 T tamari
2 medium-sized potatoes, scrubbed and chopped into 1/3 inch dice
1 cup diced carrots
1/2 cup pearl barley
1/2 cup french lentils
1 t smoked paprika
1/2 t mustard powder
water to cover
2 or 3 cups spinach, washed and finely chopped
1 t balsamic
1 T butter
salt and plenty of freshly ground pepper
grated smoked gouda or sharp cheddar, to serve
In a large soup pot over medium heat, warm the olive oil. Add the shallots, garlic and bay leaves. Stir and cook until the garlic starts to brown – a minute or two. Add the rosemary, sage and thyme, stir and cook. Add the tomato paste, tamari and port wine, and stir to make a thick paste. Cook until it’s reduced slightly, a minute or two. Add the potatoes.
Cook the potatoes, stirring frequently until they’re starting to soften – five minutes maybe. If the bottom of the pan seems to burn, add a little water. Add the carrots and continue to cook a few minutes. Add the barley and french lentils. Stir and cook for a minute or two.
Add the paprika and mustard powder, and then immediately (so the spices don’t burn) add enough water to cover by about an inch. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until the lentils, barley and potatoes are soft but still have a bit of bite to them. Half an hour should do it, but it can simmer longer if you’re doing other things.
Stir in the spinach, and then add the butter, balsamic and salt, and lots of freshly ground black pepper. Warm through, and then serve with good crusty bread and a bit of grated smoked gouda or sharp cheddar (or a combination) to sprinkle over each bowl.