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

1941 and 1942

The first festival recordings were made in 1941 by John Work from Nashville's Fisk University. The preliminary contest was held at 5:00 PM and the final took place at 7:30 PM on Thursday, March 6, with "Mr. W. C. Handy, Mr. Alan Lomax as guests." Unfortunately, Work's name was omitted from the official program, whereas Lomax did not attend. On the Friday the festival winners were presented after lunchtime barbecue and Brunswick stew and a spiritual by Sam Jackson's group. Probably those who recorded did so afterwards, before they headed home, although the religious component of the festival was broadcast on the Sunday over ration station WMAZ. Those recorded by Work were eventually copied by the Library of Congress and allocated their AFS disc numbers between 5147 and 5167.

W. C. Handy. The Peachite Vol. II, No. 2, Folk Festival Number, March 1944.

Recorded were guitarists Sonny Chestain, Allison Mathis, Gus Gibson, and Buz [sic] Ezell, who also played rack-harp. Harmonica player Jesse Stroller and pianist Charles Ellis were also recorded, as were banjo player Sidney Stripling and the Smith Band, comprising guitar, bass, banjo-mandolin, and the kazoo. The band was from Macon, and Blind Billy Smith--as the Peachite called him, although he was listed differently almost every time he participated--was a good friend of Blind Willie McTell in the 1950s and generally known around Atlanta as Blind Cliff.6 Allison Mathis--or Anderson Mathis, as he is probably more accurately named in a later listing--was a superb guitarist, playing slide in a manner reminiscent of Fred McMullen or Curley Weaver. He performed a powerful "Bottle Up and Go," transformed into his own piece, and was supported by the fine harp of Jesse Stroller on two other numbers. Chestain recorded a rough but highly appealing "Po' Boy," which has distinct stylistic similarities with the similarly tuned "John Henry," recorded by John Davis from St. Simon's Island in 1935. Buster Ezell was something of a local character and was still playing at the festival in 1953. Pianist Charles Ellis performed one pleasant number with no particular regional distinctiveness, while the Smith Band recorded two titles--a fine "Fort Valley Blues" and "Smithy Rag," a spirited version of the 1918 popular song "Hindustan."

The field notes are specific about the instrumentation of the Smith Band and the upright bass is bowed. In one musical combination or another Clifton William Smith returned year after year and as late as 1951, as C. W. Smith, was playing guitar along with Bamalama on jug and rubboard, keeping up-to-date with "Boogie Woogie." In 1942 William C. Smith was playing banjo and an undated festival lists Clifton Smith's "string ensemble" from Macon. Jack Hudson, a festival participant born in 1909, remembered Blind Cliff's string band from Macon. A thoughtful annotator in 1951 added a note that C. W. Smith and his accompanist lived at 64B Tindall Heights, Macon, stating that Smith played guitar, mandolin, and banjo and had traveled with string bands from "Cuba to Canada."

The 1941 festival judges were invited back the following year, but Tuskegee's William L. Dawson only arrived in time to judge the religious festival on the Sunday. Absent were Howard Odum, Guy Johnson, and Zora Neale Hurston, but "Willam C. Handy of New York City" was back as "Chief Judge"; the other two were John Work and Willis Lawrence James of Atlanta's Spelman College, who had recorded two "folk" songs in the accepted white style for Paramount in 1927. Linton Berrien, then director of music at Fort Valley State College, sent a letter to faculty staff stating that "our Festival had now become an established tradition. We at Fort Valley must keep alive these dying and forgotten songs, ballards [sic], work songs, melancholy melodies, 'gutter songs,' or blues . . . performed on guitars, mouth organs, jug bands, by string bands, railroad gangs, peach orchard groups. . . . We must keep these songs, games, and tales alive by presenting them." Prizes were now offered. First prize for the best string band was $10.00 with a $5.00 for second best. For best banjo, guitar, harp, and fiddle, there were first prizes of $7.50 and further prizes of $5.00 and $2.50 for each instrument with a prize of $5.00 for the best novelty instrument, "jug, washboard, bottle, etc." The festival was also carefully organized "in order to prevent long-drawn out [sic] performances of mediocre performers." Brief tryouts before a judge took place in Room 16, and those who passed went into Room 14 before going on into the auditorium, each with a card showing "name, place, sponsor, if any, and air to be played." Tryouts were on Thursday, March 5, from 5:00 to 7:00 PM with the main festival commencing at 7:30 PM so there was little time for delay. The memorandum regarding the handling of the crowd included an order that "a space of about seven rows back on the right hand side of the auditorium (as one enters from the front) should be reserved for visitors."

A list of the 1942 secular performers exists:

Buster Ezell. The Peachite Vol. II, No. 2, Folk Festival Number, March 1944. Used with permission of Time Life Syndication.
Guitar. Fred Lindsey Fort Valley
Willie Chasteen [sic] Macon
Ernest Poole Macon
Joe Holmes Macon
John Amica Fort Valley
Grace Lindsay Fort Valley
Emmit Matt Andersonville
Mose Hill Perry
Buster Ezell Fort Valley
Gus Giberson [sic] Fort Valley
Bob Roberts
Anderson Mathis Perry
Jack Hudson
Harmonica. Jessie [sic] Stroller Fort Valley
Johnnie Lee Thomas Griffin
Sarah Jessie Fort Valley
Tobe Jackson Hawkinsville
Leroy Ellis Marshall [possibly Marshallville]
Soloists. Mary Perry Americus
William C. Smith Riverside
Snead Montezuma
String Bands. Dise Williams & Charlie Jenkins Byron
Sneeze, Sanders, Duffy Montezuma
Banjo. David Hillman Riverside

The 1941 winners were back: Ezell, Mathis, Stroller, Gibson and John Thomas. Other names were to become more familiar, and some were to record the following year. Jack Hudson's name was hurriedly added in longhand to the list, but the name of his hometown--Fort Valley--was omitted. Bob Roberts might have been from out-of-state, for his residence was simply "523 Army Lot, Macon Street," which could well have referred to nearby army camps like Fort Benning or Camp Wheeler, as Edgar Clark had gone out of his way to invite wartime groups of soldiers to the festival.

"Noncommercial recordings: the 1940s," from Red River Blues, by Bruce Bastin. Copyright 1986 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Used with permission of the University of Illinois Press.

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