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


Thus ended a truly fascinating decade and a half of festivals at Fort Valley. Apart from a few recordings at Virginia's Hampton Institute, they constitute the only known noncommercial recordings of blues in the Southeast from the 1940s. They provide the link between pre- and postwar recordings and offer unparalleled evidence of both persistence and change in the music. With no preconceived notions--although a few performers appear to have tried to guess the possible taste of the judges--these musicians clearly played the music with which they were most familiar. Many of them, like Buz Ezell and the fascinating Smith band, were effectively professional. The very persistence of older black secular traditions might well have been enhanced by the principles under which the festivals were conducted, but it is probably fair to assume that little ground had been given in the direction of newer black secular sounds when the Smith Band played "Boodie Woogie" or when Artis Ford and Elbert Freeman played "Shoe Shine Boy." If by 1953 Little Walter and Lightning Hopkins hits were being played, that is really little different from Alison Mathis performing "Bottle Up and Go" in 1941, provided it remained some distance from a straightforward copy.

Byron Baptist Church Choir of Byron, Georgia recorded by Lewis Wade Jones. The Peachite Vol. II, No. 2, Folk Festival Number, March 1944.

What really does strike one forcibly is that the earlier secular sounds were alive and well throughout the 1940s and into the 1950s. Gus Gibson was still performing Blind Boy Fuller numbers into the early 1950s--doubtless in his very personal manner--and new performers still came forward. The reason for many older performers failing to attend in the 1950s was the changing attitude of the college students, which terminated the festival. When Elbert Freeman and Nathaniel Ford recorded, more than a dozen years after the festival had ceased, they showed no modern musical influences. When three former musicians at festivals were interviewed in 1974, there was nothing to suggest that any significant musical changes had entered their lives before they ceased to play. When Pete Lowry recorded "Popcorn" Glover on washboard behind Atlanta bluesman Frank Edwards in 1972, it was a conscious attempt to try to recreate Edwards's 1941 recording session.21 "Popcorn" fitted in easily enough and there was no reason to assume any great changes in his playing style or preferences in the thirty years since he appeared at Fort Valley.

Apart from the unique setting of the Fort Valley festivals and the abundance of information they provided, they also point out very effectively that the apparent shift in black secular music as reflected in commercial recordings--or lack of them--can be very misleading, if commercial recordings are our sole arbiters of changes in taste. Of course the music was changing, but change did not necessarily register with everyone, and the older black secular music styles persisted long after critics blandly assumed them to have disappeared.

"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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