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Collection Now What a Time: Blues, Gospel, and the Fort Valley Music Festivals, 1938 to 1943

1940

In the later 1930s Lawrence Gellert's field trips ended, and by 1940 the Library of Congress was less involved in field recordings in the Southeast. The only known field recordings from the Southeast during the 1940s were made at an unlikely venue at first sight--a black teachers' college in central Georgia. Fort Valley State College in Perry County, south of Macon, was actually a focal center for the rural black community, having held since 1915 an annual Ham and Egg Show, later co-ordinated by the county agricultural agent and sponsored by the college and local businesses. By 1937 an arts festival was begun, including some musical events, and made part of the festival. Horace Mann Bond, the president of the college, inspired by the singing in a rural church, decided to add a folk music festival in 1940. The director of the Third Annual Arts Festival, Edgar Rogie Clark, sent out a letter to "the musicians and music lovers of the State" to the effect that

on behalf of the Arts Department, and the Administration, we are happy to extend [an invitation] to all players and singers of Negro work songs, ballads and folk blues to participate in a special program on Saturday night, April 6, 1940 at 8:00 p.m.

For this parade of secular folk music we wish to invite all banjo players, guitar players, jug bands, fiddlers, mouth organ, harp players and string bands to come to Fort Valley State College on April 6.

Counter clockwise from top:Edgar Rogie Clark, Otis Samuel O'Neal, Horace Mann Bond.The Peachite Vol. II, No. 2, Folk Festival Number, March 1944.

Fortunately the county agent, Otis O'Neal, was extremely supportive, and he helped spread the word so that genuine folk performers came. The magnitude of this event is hard to appreciate forty years later: there has never been a comparable example of a black folk music festival run entirely by blacks. Incongrously, President Bond was considered a member of the "followers of the Tuskegee educator"--Booker T. Washington--the "Uncle Toms" of the period.1

Lawrence Gellert said of black colleges: "Hampton, Fisk, Tuskegee and others in the South, have compiled volumes of plantation melodies from time to time. The songs were taken down from students who were freshly arrived from folk-lore productive areas. However, with endowment from white corporations and individuals their main revenue, and the wish to live in peace with white residents in the area where the institution was located, it is understandable that the songs are carefully chosen and edited to make certain that there was no danger of antagonizing either the sponsors or the Southern whites."2 He might have added that the vast majority of black academics were not in the slightest interested in this music. Indeed, it is hardly less true today. What Fort Valley was attempting in 1940 was remarkable enough, but how much more so that Edgar Clark could have written: "Some people look down on some of the folk music. This type of music may be what polite society calls gutter songs. Often these 'gutter songs' or blues, as they are rightly called, are the very essence of Negro life; songs that men and women sang in their America. There is a human stir in them all. . . . Some made new songs, some changed old songs, and they are carried from place to place today. We at Fort Valley wish to keep these dying and forgotten songs of the Negro by presenting them as art--Negro art songs." Clark's "art songs" were the songs of the people, not the polished "art songs" of Harlem intellectuals. Nine years later Clark wrote that at first he was not in favor of the folk music festival, "but since that time I have observed how little that we really know about our own folk culture as compared to other ethnic groups, that I decided I would do something about it."3 One can hardly imagine a more enthusiastic and dedicated advocate. A truly remarkable man from Atlanta, he was only twenty-three years of age in 1940. He left college in 1943, and his whereabouts were traced too late for him to be interviewed. He was murdered in Detroit in 1978.4

Counter clockwise from top left:William Grant Still, Thomas W. Talley, Howard Odum, Louise Pound. The Peachite Vol. II, No. 2, Folk Festival Number, March 1944.

The 1940 folk festival was a success, but because the agricultural show brought in blacks from the entire region, it was decided in 1941 to integrate it partially with the Ham and Egg Show, rather than incorporate it with the arts festival. It was fully integrated in 1942 and became highly acclaimed. The March 1944 issue of the Peachite, the college magazine, includes supportive comments from prominent black and white scholars of black folk life. W. C. Handy attended the opening ceremony at which "so many variations of the Saint Louis Blues were played by admiring, sometimes barefooted, guitarists and harmonica players, that Mr. Handy wept with joyous laughter and at the end he took out his gold trumpet and played [it] and the folk loved it." Handy saw the importance of the "Fort Valley Rural Folk Festival," as he called it, as it "presented from year to year the people who are making a new form of music in their own tradition without the influence of radio and records." John W. Work saw its significance in bringing "such inimitable music as 'Gus' Gibson, 'Bus' Ezell, and Samuel Jackson . . . to the attention of America, and in the same action proving to these musicians that their appreciative audience extends far beyond their own church or corner storefront where they previously sang and played." His is an important point: all those musicians interviewed who had performed at the festival were proud of their small niche in local history. Gus Gibson was able to hear his recorded songs played on album; Jack Hudson was able to gather his family and excitedly point out his photograph and that of fellow-guitarist Edward Slappy in the Peachite. From the establishment world of black intellectualism, composer William Grant Still and author and poet Langston Hughes added their supportive comments. So too did Thomas W. Talley, a collector of black folk tales, Louise Pound of the American Folklore Society, and Howard Odum, who turned down an invitation to attend the opening festival.

According to the Peachite, "From the first the festival fell naturally into the evening devoted to the secular performers, principally guitarists and banjoists (Note: we have never had a fiddler) and a Sunday afternoon (reaching to unpredictable hours, also, of the evening) for religious groups. Each year increasing numbers have taken part. On the secular evenings, we have had guitarists, banjoists, pianists, harmonic [sic] players, jug bands and artists with washboards, 'quills,' saws, bones, and improvised one-string instruments." That really is a remarkable statement. Many of these folk instruments have seldom been recorded. The banjo was subsequently assumed to have vanished by that time from the black tradition. The Greek syrinx or quills--variously termed reed-pipes or panpipes also--are hollow reeds of graduated lengths bound together to form a musical wind instrument. Quills players have been recalled by a number of persons but rarely recorded. Commercial recordings were made by Big Boy Cleveland for Gennet in 1927 and by the Texan Henry Thomas for Vocalion between 1927 and 1929, and recordings were made in north Mississippi for the Library of Congress in 1942. The only named Fort Valley festival performer on quills was a young Perry County man, Willie J. Burden, a possible suicide from a gunshot wound in 1959 at the age of 35. If by 1944 the festival did not have a fiddler, they were still around and appeared there as late as 1953, when Elbert Freeman brought his five-piece band from Monticello, having played the previous year with a guitarist. In 1951 an Oglethorpe fiddler named J. D. Smith had taken part--his second festival--but although a resident of that town since 1927 he probably was not a folk artist. Registration notes state that he "plays mainly from sheet music" and one of his two performances was "The Mocking Bird." However, his accompanying guitarist, Willie C. Towns, played "John Henry" as a solo piece. The fiddle tradition persisted even longer, and Elbert Freeman was recorded as late as 1967.5

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