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

1950 to 1955

By the early 1950s the festival was dying. Nineteen fifty-four saw the last secular folk festival and the following year the last of sacred music. Changing attitudes among students caused it to close, for students so ridiculed folk artists that they refused to attend.13 Registration sheets exist dated Friday, March 30, 1951. Dolphus "Gus" Gibson played an "original composition," "Boogie Blues," and "Step It Up and Go," and an Oglethorpe harmonica player won $3.00 with "Mama Blues" and "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl." The remarkable Buz Ezell had updated "Roosevelt and Hitler" to "Great Things Are Happening in Korea" and reworked his 1941 "Boll Weevil." He also performed "The Story of Truman and Staff" and "A Robber of the First National Bank 1951." He must have been a fascinating balladeer and it is clear why he worked for many years with John Robinson's six-ring circus, playing guitar as he had once done since the early years of the century.

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

The name of Raymond Bronson from Lumpkin had been forwarded by the local vocational agricultural instructor, 14 so Otis O'Neal's 1942 directive to scout for local talent still held good. Other sponsors are on file: the Macon County Schools suggested a gospel quartet, the Rising Four, and Noamon Grubbs, a guitarist. A faculty member of Savannah State College recommended a local man, Richard Grayson, who could "play a solo on a saw with remarkable ability."15 Also present were Fort Valley guitarists Ausby Alexander and David E. Lockett, and Blind Billy Smith from 1941 was back as C. W. Smith on guitar with Bamalama on "jug and rubboard," who must have been the man recalled by a Savannah informant as "a guy in Florida who danced on his hands. And he would use a jug, washboard, or anything else to make music with. . . . It must have been about (1955 or 1957). They called him Bamalam, because of him beating on that old washboard that they used to have to wash clothes. He used to make music with that thing. And he could take a jug and blow it, you know. He'd draw peoples. . . . But he was an elderly man when he was doing that."16

The 1952 festival was held on March 27 and 28 and the "oldest participant who never misses," Buz Ezell, was back with two titles which won him $20.00. So too were guitarists Ausby Alexander--with Mose Smith on spoons--and David Lockett, and they won $10.00 and $5.00, respectively. Another guitarist, Major Vance from Perry, won $6.00, and the string band which won $20.00 comprised Artis Ford and Elbert Freeman from Monticello. Their selections were "Shoe Shine Boy" and "Tennessee Waltz."

In 1953 the festival was held on Friday, March 27, and Ezell was again there. Moses Smith was back playing "clay spoons" with George Smith, a blind player. Charlie Jenkins, absent for some years, was back playing harmonica, but his old partner Dise Williams had been replaced by Will Chastine [sic]. Jenkins, listed as having played harp since 1940, was still around--thought not interviewed--in 1974. Gus Gibson played two songs, including "Sweet Honey Hole" (probably the Blind Boy Fuller song), and a note stated that he had been there since the first festival. Ausby Alexander was back with another local guitarist, Philip Stevens, playing a current Little Walter hit, "Sad Hours." Perry guitarist Isiah King also played juke-box hits with Rosco Gordons's "No More Dogging" and "A Bald-Headed Woman," clearly from Lightning Hopkins. Whoever completed the registration blank had added two lines of the song: "I don't want no woman with her hair shorter than mine, She jus' make trouble buying wigs all the time." W. C. Handy's comment that performers played "without the influence of radio and records" clearly no longer held good.

The augmented Freeman String Band from Monticello played "Blues--Freeman Arrangement" and "Down Yonder," made famous by the white Georgia fiddler Gid Tanner. Elbert Freeman was on fiddle and Ortis [Artis?] Ford, presumably the man who accompanied him the previous year, on guitar, joined by Nathaniel Ford on electric guitar, Howard A. Smith on piano, and Alfred Johnson on bass. Freeman and Nathaniel Ford were recorded fourteen years later when, among tunes played at the 1952 and 1953 festivals, they recorded "Blues" with fine, rough, alley fiddle from Freeman, closer to Eddie Anthony's style than on his other pieces, such as "John Henry" and Fiddlin' John Carson's "Old Hen Cackled."17 Both men are now dead.18 Nathaniel Ford might be the man recalled by Roy Dunn as a member of a band which played around Machen and Shady Dale (Henry County), to the north of the county sear of Monticello. Along with Joe *Buck, *Bo Harris, Will *Sanders, and a father and son, *Em and Edward *Sanders, was *Namon Ford. Somewhere between Dunn's pronunciation and my transcription in 1972, Nathan could easily have become Namon--again it was two years before the college files came to light. Perhaps Alvin Sanders of the Sneed band was related to these men too.

The 1954 festival was held on Friday, March 12, and only Jack Hudson and Edward Slappy are known to have attended--at least their names are written on the back of an announcement sheet of that year. The following year the Leader-Tribune stated simply that "President C. V. Troup and members of his staff at the college . . . are lending their co-operation as usual to make this agricultural event a success."19 However, Bill Mathis was chairman of the festival committee in 1955 and the blind Americus singer, Pearly Brown, had been invited to attend, for in a letter to the college, he promised to bring "the Lord's work and electric guitar."20

"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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