Mississippi John Hurt

I was a theatre major at ENMU and in the summer of 1960, I landed my first professional job. There was a tourist town in Colorado, near the Royal Gorge: Buckskin Joe… it was laid out like one of those old western towns and we did gunfights in the street during the day and at night we presented Melodramas, with a vaudeville olio after the play. I made $20 a week and room and board. I worked there 4 summers.

My first job at an “Equity Theatre” (Equity is the stage actors’ union) was at Arena Stage in Washington, DC. I started out as a production intern, then became an assistant stage manager and on occasion, I got to play a small role. It’s hard to make good where you start out, for some reason they always see you as that kid from NM with a southwestern drawl…. not exactly the midAtlantic accent that “stage actors” were expected to have. So, in the six years Mary and I were in DC, I almost never landed a good role in the plays. I did learn my craft there, though… I would cast myself in the part I thought I should have and I’d go home and work on it. I would studiously watch rehearsals… locked onto every nuance and gesture from the guy THEY had cast. Sometimes he was really good and I would work his ideas in my interpretation… but sometimes, I had a better handle on the character than he did. (Even then, my ego knew no bounds). It wasn’t until I got to NY that anyone of note took an interest in my talent. It was Joseph Papp… Mister NY Theatre… but that’s a story for another time.

In the 1960s The Ford Foundation awarded Fellowships to famous writers outside the theatre, in hopes of kindling an interest for them to write a play. Our Playwright in Residence for 1963-64 was Shelby Foote, the great Civil War novelist and historian. Shelby was an incredible human being as well as being, for my money, the great writer of the Civil War. He arose at 4 am and wrote until 8 am… every day, without fail. He also had a really quirky approach to writing. He wrote his books at a stand-up desk with a dipped pen. He gave a talk about that one day. He said that he had tried typing his manuscripts (this is obviously before computers and word processors), but he said it just didn’t work for him. He said that his thinking process depended on the dipping, blotting, and care in keeping the page he was working on “neat”. He also said that this particular ritual helped keep him mindful of the historical period he was chronicling. He said he wished there was a more convenient way, but nothing else worked for him. It was always fascinating hanging out with Shelby and listening to his stories.

One day Shelby came to me and said, “Ronny, I know you really love music… we’re having a party at my house tonight and a singer from my home state is going to play… you might want to come”. I showed up, not having the vaguest idea of who might be playing. And when he did start playing, I still didn’t have a clue. He had been recorded in his home state in the ’30s but had disappeared for several decades. He had been re-discovered in 1963 and was in DC recording in 1964. I’m embarrassed to say, I didn’t know who he was… had never heard of him. So here I was sitting 3 feet away from this shy, self-conscious little man who would hide his smile behind his cupped hand whenever he spoke. The music was…. unbelievably moving… simple… stirring and magical. He played for almost an hour. I sat frozen, in awe at the artistry and humanity of this wonderful man. One of the biggest thrills of my life was being asked to sing “You Are My Sunshine” with Mississippi John Hurt.