In New Haven, Connecticut’s Evergreen Cemetery, there is a monument to one Mary E. Hart, known locally as Midnight Mary. According to David E. Phillips’s book Legendary Connecticut, the engraving on the stone reads, “At high noon / just from, and about to renew / her daily work, in her full strength of / body and mind / Mary E. Hart / having fallen prostrate: / remained unconscious, until she died at midnight, / October 15, 1872 / born December 16, 1824.”
The most common story told is that Hart was thought dead after a fall, mistakenly buried alive, and discovered later to have died in the posture of someone trying to escape from her tomb. Local legend has it that Midnight Mary haunts New Haven forever, that her curse awaits anyone who trespasses on her grave. In their press materials for The Curse of Midnight Mary, Family Vineyard Records sums up the curse like so: “Anyone who gets caught in her graveyard past midnight will die the next day.”
The story of The Curse of Midnight Mary, the album, thus goes like this: musician Loren Connors, born October 22, 1949 in New Haven, Connecticut, visited the grave of Midnight Mary after midnight on a night in March of 1981. With a tape recorder nearby to document the event, an acoustic guitar in his hand, Connors knelt by her tombstone and played his own strange blues, quietly howling along.
In 2008, the cassette tape is relocated. In 2009, it is released as an album, The Curse of Midnight Mary, featuring an eerie 2008 charcoal cover drawing of Mary by Connors himself. A half-hour in length, it’s split into nine ‘chants’, labeled “Chant 1”, “Chant 2”, etc. Each features Connors improvising on guitar, showcasing his truly distinct, off-kilter style of playing, in an especially rough form. Connors’s playing always holds deep reservoirs of feeling and atmosphere, highly redolent of the blues. Here he’s tapping into something particularly elemental, some deep sorrow and mystery.
Along with his playing, he sings — or rather hums and wails. His voice echoes with the guitar while also trawling up the legend of Mary, or the ghost of Mary perhaps. It’s hard to get a read on his tone. Is this playing/singing in emulation of Mary’s spirit, in sympathy with her — expressing sorrow for her unfair death — or in defiance of her and her curse? At first it feels like the latter; there’s something tough and fiery about his playing. But as the album continues, it gets sadder in tone, and then even spiritual, in a dark way. “Chant 6” is an “Amazing Grace” riff, but with his vocals starting to sound especially weary and pained, like he’s groaning his way to death. “Chant 8” is a just as fresh and haunted take on Mississippi Fred McDowell’s “You Gotta Move”.
Ghosts and legends are forever twined with the blues. By its consistent strangeness, and nevertheless deep resonance, Connors’s blues are explicitly open to these ghosts. If someone else, like, say, Eric Clapton, were to undertake this same Midnight Mary endeavor, it may come off as a stunt or sales gimmick. But it only takes a few seconds of listening to The Curse of Midnight Mary to witness the way Connors viscerally captures the nightmares and fears wrapped up in haunting legends. There are moments when this album makes me want to curl up in a ball and hope the darkness of the world disappears, or at least run far away from the stereo and its ghastliness. But run I don’t. This is scary music, yet captivating.