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


J. F. Duffy and Alvin Sanders. The Peachite Vol. II, No. 2, Folk Festival Number, March 1944. Used with permission of Time Life Syndication.

The 1943 festival, held on Friday, March 5, and Sunday, March 7, was again recorded. Willis James recorded AFS discs 6986 to 6993, of which the first half were of secular music. These comprised two sides by Buster Brown, a harmonica player from Cordele, three by Buz Ezell accompanied by his own guitar, one by Gus Gibson, and a rag by James Sneed's band. With the exception of one by Ezell, all these sides have been released on album.7 Buster Brown and Ezell both sang topical songs about the war, and Ezell's "Roosevelt and Hitler" became a firm festival favorite. However, there were traditional themes--a faster-tempoed "I'm Gonna Make You Happy" by Brown, Sneed's "Southern Rag," and Gibson's "Milk Cow Blues" (not the song associated with Georgia guitaris Kokomo Arnold). Although the field notes by Lewis Jones and Willis James list "Milk Cow Blues" as "sung by Gus Gibson (?) with guitar by Will Chastian (?)," Gibson maintained that he had played the guitar and that Chastain had not been present. James Sneed might well be the person whose "tin-can band" was recalled by Atlanta guitarist Buddy Keith, but the Peachite tells us rather more about his guitarist partners, J. F. Duffy and Alvin Sanders, who were peach orchard workers. "The audience loves them because of their talent and their intensely interesting personalities; they achieve a personal, natural, human balance which is above mere comedy and which might well be the ambition of more famous artists. Sanders and Duffy never fail to 'set-off' an unrestrained current of response from the audience when they sing."

Pearly Brown. The Peachite Vol. II, No. 2, Folk Festival Number, March 1944. Used with permission of Time Life Syndication.

The elimination contest for new performers took place as usual at 5:00 PM; "all new performers and those who entered last year who did not win prizes" were auditioned for some to join the winners of the previous year in the final, starting at 7:00 PM. Money appears to have been tighter, for there was no second prize for string bands and the three prizes for other categories were reduced to $5.00, $2.50, and $2.00. Folk tales was an additional category and the poster proudly proclaimed that "Records Will Be Made of all Performers' Music."

A list of artists without their instruments was given:

Fort Valley Edward Slappy
Gus Gibson
John Amica
Bus Ezell
Lester Jolley
Jackson Hudson
Lewis Clayton
Charlie Smith
Walter Baldwin
Ulysses Knight
George Lumpkin
Byron D. Williams & C. Jenkins
Will Chasteen
Chovie Hill
Marsha[ll]ville Harvey Oglesby
Powersville John H. Graces [sic]
Americus Pearly Brown
Cordele Buster Brown
Hawkinsville Tobe Jackson

Pearly Brown, no relation to Buster, remained a blind religious street musician into the 1970s in Americus and Macon. However, other artists were present, some of whom were also recorded. In 1972 Pete Lowry and I located a washboard player, Arthus "Popcorn" Glover, who claimed to have been recorded in a guitar-and-washboard duet with Blind *Simon *Davis, with whom he had played for many years.8 There seems to be no reason to doubt that he recorded; he made no other such claim. Incidentally, we located him two years before we were even aware that college files remained on some festivals, but on checking we found an undated sheet listing the names of "Mr. Eddie Buckeye Bryant and Mr. Arthur Glover (washboard), 312 Clark Street, Milledgeville," which was where Roy Dunn had taken us to find him. This sheet almost certainly referred to 1943 as Gus Gibson was listed with "Milk Cow Blues," corroborating his statement that Will Chastain was not present. Fort Valley guitarist Jack Hudson, with no prompting, remembered the words of Gibson's song, made at the same time that Hudson recorded "Chain Gang Blues" and "Baby You Think I'm Crazy about You, You Better Change Your Mind" for a Miss *Reed. In 1974 Hudson recalled both songs--which were listed on the sheet with Gibson's--and his uncle was even able to quote lines from the former.

Buster Brown. The Peachite Vol. II, No. 2, Folk Festival Number, March 1944. Used with permission of Time Life Syndication.

Also on the list was Will Chasteen from Byron, who played two titles, one of which was "Poor Boy," and one wonders if he might not have been the Sonny Chestain who recorded this title in 1941. Alvin Saunders from Henderson and Duffy (variously named Jeb, Zebe, and Zeke) were listed as performing two titles, one of which was the rag recorded with James Sneed in 1943. Duffy's name was most probably Jeb, as the field notes list him as J.F. Duffy. Buster Brown is listed as performing "I Got My Questionnaire" and "Come Back Baby," surely the ones he recorded. Dess [Dise?] Williams and Charlie Jenkins were the guitar-harmonica couple listed as a string band in 1942, and they played "John Henry" and "Lost John." Photographs of Hudson and Edward Slappy, taken at the 1943 festival, appeared in the 1944 Peachite, and on the sheet of titles performed, Slappy is credited with three blues. Hudson recalled that Slappy also recorded. Finally Ezell--variously credited as Buz, Bus, and even Bux--was listed as playing "The Story of Joe Louis," which was recorded from him in 1943.

Other snippets of information exist about the 1943 performers. John Amica was shown playing banjo, which he subsequently denied ever having played. Buster Brown also played harmonica in a quartet which included "trap drums." Harvey Oglesby was elsewhere stated to have been from Nashville, but as this is close to the Florida state line, Marshallville seems more likely. V. L. Holmes brought a harmonica-guitar duet from Thomaston, but J. Merritt's string band from the same town appears not to have arrived.

Perhaps Willis James arranged for more titles to be recorded than the Library of Congress checklist suggests. There are some discs of religious songs, not all of which were copies, held at the college and entered in the Library of Congress files, made later in the year by James.9 It is also possible that Edgar Clark10 recorded some himself. Despite his initial reluctance he quickly became involved in the folk festivals and by the end of the decade had not only formed the New York Folklore Council but was making lecture tours with color slides and recorded music. He even offered to bring his recording machine to the 1949 festival, by which date he had undertaken field trips in Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina, and Louisiana, all with no outside funding.

Life magazine published photographs of the 1943 show and even quoted from Buster Ezell's "Roosevelt and Hitler."11 Other photographs were made available to the Peachite and included Jack Hudson, Edward Slappy, Buster Brown (twice), Sanders and Duffy, as well as a remarkable shot of two young boys playing one-stringed instruments, using a bottle to slide over a wire.

"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.


  1. Fort Valley Blues, Flyright-Matchbox SDM 250 (Bexhill-on-Sea, England, 1974). The Smith Band's "Smithy Rag" is on Red River Runs, Flyright 259 (Bexhill-on-Sea, England, 1979). [Return to Text]
  2. Pete Lowry, "Doin' the Piedmont," Blues Unlimited 100 (April, 1973): 23. [Return to Text]
  3. Library of Congress copies are dated June 1943. A different Fort Valley copy is dated June-July 1943. Willis James was the director of the Fort Valley Peach Folk Festival held at the college on August 1, 1943, but only gospel groups attended and were recorded that summer. [Return to Text]
  4. Edgar Rogie Clark to J. W. Freeman, February 2, 1949. [Return to Text]
  5. Life, March 22, 1943. [Return to Text]
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