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

1944 and 1945

In 1973 Pete Lowry and I made a brief search to locate survivors from these early festivals, as well as a check of Houston and Perry County death records. While we found no trace of many performers, we quickly realized how parochial these events had been. Within a few hours, we had located John Amica, Jack Hudson, and Gus Gibson still living in or close to Fort Valley. Finding Gus Gibson truly was a shock, as the Peachite had reported his death sometime after the 1943 festival. Tobe Jackson (born 1908) had died in 1972; John Henry Grace (born 1905) had died in Powersville a few months earlier, in March 1974; and Chovie Hill (born in Houston County in 1896) had died in 1961. Interviews revealed that Buster Ezell, Jesse Stroller, Dise Williams, Alvin Sanders, Will Chastain, and Lewis Clayton were all dead.

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

The 1944 festival began on March 3 and included choirs, glee clubs, and quartets. Of the listed performers, only Buster Ezell, Tobe Jackson, and Alvin Sanders were back; nothing was ever heard again of Sanders's old partners, Sneed and Duffy. This time Sanders was teamed with pianist Curtis Daniels, and they played "Southern Rag." Some of the new performers were clearly from the folk idiom. Nathan Jefferson, born in 1902 in Fort Valley, where he died in 1966, played harmonica and Virgil Harris, a guitarist from Zenith, played two blues. Emmanuel Green, a Fort Valley guitarist known to Jack Hudson, was also present. However, a change of taste is represented by two trumpet-playing entrants, one of whom played "Sweet Slumber" and "Star Dust." Doubtless Hoagy Carmichael would have been pleased--after all, W.C. Handy had brought white pianist J. Russel Robinson with him in 1941--but it seems some distance from President Bond's initial concept. Interestingly, the main guest speaker was Ralph McGill, liberal, antiracist editor of the Atlanta Constitution, while in the local Leader-Tribune the following week, Otis O'Neal, the black agricultural agent, thanked "the white people of the community whose interest and financial support have encouraged the continuation of the event for so many years." Of passing interest, the festival poster stated that the 1944 winners would be recorded.

Secular music seems to have been a staple part of the festival for a further decade. Although details are either unavailable or unascribable to particular years, circumstantial evidence is strong. For example, in 1945 the C. W. Smith "string ensemble" might not have come from Macon, for a scribbled note states "boys scattered but will try to get some." The $10.00 prize that year was won by Glover's String Band, which comprised, at least, "Popcorn" Glover on washboard and George Anderson, a banjo player who roomed with him in Milledgeville. Clay Wade's band was unable to attend because of illness. Apparently the 1945 festival featured a new harmonica-guitar duet from Fort Valley--Jesse Stroller and Charlie Smith, both of whom had attended before, the former recording in 1941. There might be a connection with the Smith and Harper who recorded for ARC in Augusta in 1936. "Poor Girl" has two men singing in unison, very much like Buddy Moss and Josh White on their 1935 ARC sides. Presumably one plays guitar and the other harmonica, the former reminiscent of Moss, the latter in the same regional style as Jesse Stroller. A second guitar is added on both this title and "Insurance Policy Blues," a slightly slower number with fine slide guitar, in the style of McMullen, Weaver, and Allison Mathis. As harmonica players are called "harpers," it is just possible that Smith might be the guitarist. If so, Smith and Harper might be Charlie Smith and Jesse Stroller from Fort Valley, with another local man--maybe Allison Mathis. After all, a main road links Macon with Augusta, and other artists at the sessions had to come to Augusta from Atlanta and Charleston.

Familiar names appeared at this 1945 festival: James Merrit, V. L. Holmes, John Amica, Joe Holmes, Gus Gibson, Buz Ezell, John Lee Thomas--who wanted to play saw as well as harmonica--and the one-man band from Byron, Chovie Hill. Some new names appeared as the festival's fame spread. Americus guitarist Bosey McDonal was too sick to attend, but Clarence and Willie Price, a guitar-banjo duet from Cordele, were there, as were Sweet Little, a guitarist from Eatonton (recalled by Roy Dunn), Julius Gipson on washboard from Milledgeville, Grady Mathis, a Fort Valley harmonica player, and guitarists Wesley Jackson from Macon and James Hopkins from Donaldsonville. Willie J. Burden, who appears to have been in the army, appeared playing quills. The festival was also broader in scope, for the Leader-Tribune promised that "on Friday night [March 9] there will be exhibitions of children's folk games, the usual guitarists and banjoists and other folk performers, possibly a railroad section gang singing railroad songs, and a 'liar's contest' featuring local story tellers in folk tales."12

"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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