An interdisciplinary journal about regions, places, and cultures of the US South and their global connections

Blues in the Lower Chattahoochee Valley

Steve Bransford, Emory University

Published: 
16 March 2004
Overview: 
This guide provides an introduction to the rich and varied blues traditions of the Lower Chattahoochee Valley. It includes original documentary footage of area musicians, including interviews and music clips.
Introduction:

The Lower Chattahoochee River Valley region has one of the richest traditions of blues music in America; but, apart from long-time residents of the region and a handful of blues afficianados, the blues legacy of the Lower Chattahoochee Valley is largely ignored. The region — defined here as the eighteen counties that hug the Chattahoochee River along the Georgia/Alabama border, along with three additional counties in Georgia that have traditionally been a hotbed for blues music — doesn't have a revered blues reputation like the Mississippi Delta. That's probably due to the fact that virtually no 78's of country blues emerged from the Lower Chattahoochee Valley from the twenties through the forties and only a small number of Lower Chattahoochee blues 45's, LP's, and CD's have been issued since the fifties. The material that has been released mostly consists of field recordings and live performances put out by small record labels and various historical societies.

Map:
Steve Bransford, Lower Chattahoochee Region.

The twenty-one counties highlighted are home to the Lower Chattahoochee blues tradition. They include Troup, Harris, Muscogee, Chattahoochee, Stewart, Quitman, Randolph, Clay, Early, Decatur and Seminole Counties in Georgia; and Chambers, Lee, Russell, Barbour, Henry, Dale and Houston Counties in Alabama.

One person has been largely responsible for documenting the rich blues tradition of the Lower Chattahoochee Valley: George Mitchell. From the late sixties through the eighties, Mitchell recorded dozens of nonprofessional blues artists, many of whom were old enough to have recorded before World War II. More than just an amazing portrait of talent and creativity, Mitchell's recordings demonstrate that the region has developed a unique blues sound. Of course, a wide range of external influences can be heard in Lower Chattahoochee blues including Delta blues, Piedmont blues, Chicago blues, rock 'n' roll, and various threads of pop music; but Lower Chattahoochee blues artists, through their original songwriting and adaptations of blues standards, have collectively created a blues sound that is all their own.

This site has been designed to be modular, dynamic and media-rich. Rather than develop a linear narrative about the history of Lower Chattahoochee blues, I will present a series of interconnected fragments that will allow the user to piece together their own narrative of the region's blues legacy. The web-based approach also allows for content/ to be continually added and edited, and I invite users to contact me if they have material that they feel might be useful for the site or if they have any comments about what's already up. Images and sounds are as important as text within this site, and I will do my best to continually add more audio, video, maps, and photographs to round out this portrait of Lower Chattahoochee blues.

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The Region:
This section provides geographical, sociological, and historical information about the Lower Chattahoochee Valley.
Geographical Definition of the Region:
Historian Fred Fussell offers a precise geographical definition of the region:
The Lower Chattahoochee River Valley region . . . is marked at its northern end by the point at which the Chattahoochee River, as it flows through the Georgia Piedmont, first touches Alabama. The southern end of the region is designated by the point where it connects with the Flint River at the Florida border. There the two joined rivers become the Appalachicola and flow on southward to the Gulf. East to west the Chattahoochee River's sphere of influence is defined by its watershed—with its thousands of tributaries—the creeks, streams, brooks, and branches which feed it. So defined, the lower Chattahoochee River valley region is, in essence, the geographical center of the Deep South. There are a total of eighteen counties that lie within the nucleus of the Lower Chattahoochee Valley region—seven in Alabama, eleven in Georgia. The Chattahoochee region begins, in the north, at Troup County in Georgia and Chambers County in Alabama and then runs southward through Lee, Russell, Barbour, Henry, and Dale Counties in Alabama and through Harris, Muscogee, Chattahoochee, Stewart, Quitman, Randolph, Clay, Early, and Decatur Counties in Georgia to end up in Houston County in Alabama and Seminole County in Georgia, both of which border the Florida state line.

(Fussell, Fred. A Chattahoochee Album: Images of Traditional People and Folksy Places Around the Lower Chattahoochee Valley [Eufala, AL: Historic Chattahoochee Comission, 2000] page 1)

Map:
Lower Chattahoochee Region and Tributaries. From Fred Fussell, A Chattahoochee Album: Images of Traditional People  and Folksy Places Around the Lower Chattahoochee, 2000.

NASA's group in Southeast Regional Climate Assessment produced this map. It contains only 16 counties, but helps contextualize where the region is and what it looks like.

Please click on the map to access a larger version.

Fussell's definition of the region is extremely helpful, but there are a number of great blues artists who are from towns just outside the main eighteen Lower Chattahoochee counties:
Cecil Barfield from Bronwood, GA (in Terrell County, approximately twelve miles east of Randolph County)

Cliff Scott and Dixon Hunt from Draneville, GA (in Marion County, approximately ten miles east of Stewart County)

Jim Bunkley and Golden Bailey from Geneva, GA (in Talbot County, approximately eight miles east of Muscogee County)

Albert Macon and Robert Thomas from Society Hill, AL (in Macon County, one mile outside the intersection of Lee and Russell Counties)

Green Paschal from Talbotton, GA (in Talbot County approximately eight miles east of Muscogee County)

Jessie Clarence Gorman and Bud Grant from Thomaston, GA (five miles east of Talbot County)

Because these artists are integral parts of the regional blues sound, I have stretched the boundaries of the region to include them. In addition to the eighteen counties that Fussell lists, I have expanded the region to include Marion, Talbot, and Terrell Counties in Georgia; the town of Thomaston, Georgia; and the tiny town of Society Hill in Alabama.
Population/Race/Economics:
(all figures taken from the 2000 US Census)
Total population of all 21 counties in Lower Chattahoochee Valley: 761,915

Population on Georgia side: 377,220
% White/% Black on Georgia side: 54.7/40.8 (206,490/153,960)

Population on Alabama side: 384,695
% White/% Black on Alabama side: 68.3/28.8 (262,842/110,940)

% White/% Black in region: 61.6/34.8 (469,332/264,900)

% White/% Black in state of Georgia: 65.1/28.7 (5,329,381/2, 349,512)
% White/% Black in state of Alabama: 71.1/26.0 (3,161,888/1,156,246)
% White/% Black in all of United States: 75.1/12.3 (211,347,900/34,614890)

These figures show that there is a higher percentage of African Americans living in the Lower Chattahoochee Valley as compared to the overall percentages for Georgia, Alabama, and the United States. The percentage of black to white in Georgia is notably higher than in Alabama. For more information, please visit a racial breakdown of the population of the fourteen Georgia counties in the Lower Chattahoochee Valley.

Video:
 
Mitchell discusses the racial problems he observed in the lower Chattahoochee Valley, including a story about how he was chased off a plantation owner's land while recording Cecil Barfield.

The percentage of people living below the poverty line in the United States is 12.4%, and the per capita income of an American adult is $21,587.

In comparison, the percentage of people living below the poverty line in Georgia is 13%, and the per capita income of an adult in Georgia is $21,154; (See Table) while the percentage of people living below the poverty line in Alabama is 16.1%, and the per capita income of an adult in Alabama is $18,189 (See Table.) With the exception of Houston (in the southeast corner of the state on the Florida border, containing the town of Dothan) and Dale (just northwest of Houston County), all the Alabama counties in the Chattahoochee Region are poorer than the state average.

 

Geographical/Historical Notes:
(taken primarily from A Chattahoochee Album by Fred Fussell)
It is believed that Native Americans lived in and around the region for ten thousand years before the invading Spaniards came in the late 17th century.

The very first European settlement in the Chattahoochee Valley came in 1689 by Spanish monks who built the mission and fort of Apalachicola, approximately 15 miles south of Columbus in Russell County Alabama.

The 1825 Treaty of Indian Springs opened the way for the forced removal of the native people from the region. Cotton plantations, textile mills, and riverboat operations quickly sprouted up after this point.

Georgians and not Alabamians have controlled the industry on the river. In the past, the river was the main transportation route between rural communities but today that is no longer the case.

In 1900, 75.3 percent of all black farmers were tenants or sharecroppers in the South, and as late as 1910, 78.8 percent of all blacks in the South lived in rural areas, the majority in the Cotton Belt.

Masses of country people devastated by the Great Depression left their family farms in Southeast Alabama and made their way to the textile communities of Columbus and the other mill towns to the north. In the '30s thru the '50s thousands of black families left the region to seek their fortune elsewhere in the urban centers of the Northeast and Midwest. Atlanta was the "gravitational center of the Southeast".

Columbus was the last city of its size in the US to be connected to the interstate highway system.

Immigration has increased in the region, making the area more diverse than just the black white split

In Harris County lies the western side of the ending segment of the Southern Appalachian mountains: the Pine Mountain Ridge, where the mountains, the Piedmont, and the coastal plain converge.

Flat-land agriculture and pine tree forestry are the principal, and sometimes only substantial economic activities within extensive sections of the region.

The word Chattahoochee is usually declared as originating in the Muskogean language and usually means something like "painted rock".

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Topics and Terms:
This section provides information about the festivals, musical customs, and radio and records of the Lower Chattahoochee Valley. It also includes links to important resources on music in this area.
Festivals:

Chattahoochee Folk Festival
Held in Columbus, GA between 1979 and 1984. Organized by Fred Fussell.

Georgia Grassroots Festival
Held in Columbus 1976-1977. Organized by George Mitchell. Tracks by Lower Chattahoochee artists:"Jews Harp Jump" by James 'Tip' Neal and "The Dog" by Golden Bailey.

Fort Valley State College Folk Festival
Fort Valley State College in Perry County held a Ham and Egg show beginning in 1915. By 1937 an arts festival had begun, and, in 1940, a folk music festival was launched. As Bruce Bastin notes, the magnitude of this event is hard to appreciate: there has never been a comparable example of a black folk music festival run entirely by blacks. W.C. Handy attended the festival in 1944, praising the musicians for "making a new form of music in their own tradition without the influence of radio or records" (Source: Bruce Bastin's Red River Blues, page 74). Gradually, the coordinators allowed for more modern secular numbers to filter into festivals, including songs by Lightning Hopkins and Little Walter, but, in the early fifties, Fort Valley students began to ridicule the folk musicians, so much so that some of the musicians refused to attend. The festival was shut down in 1954. (Note: This festival was held in Perry County, slightly outside the Lower Chattahoochee Valley, but it's likely that some Lower Chattahoochee musicians performed at it. Even if no Lower Chattahoochee musicians performed at it, the Fort Valley Festival is still incredibly important because it was the first festival in the South to feature blues music and was organized entirely by African Americans.)

National Downhome Blues Festival
Held at the Moonshadow in Atlanta, Georgia 1984; Festival Coordinator: George Mitchell; Associate Coordinator: David Evans.

Southland Records, National Downhome Blues Festival Volume One LP, 1984.

The Southlands Records LP of this festival contains some tracks from the following Lower Chattachoochee blues artists:

Albert Macon and Robert Thomas:
She Wanna Do The Boogie Woogie
My Baby Don't Wear No Drawers

Precious Bryant:
Baby, Please Come Home to Me
Ain't That Loving You, Baby?
Black Rat Swing
You Don't Have To Go
Long Distance Call
Precious Bryant Staggering Blues

Musical Customs:

Buck Dancing
"The term 'buck' is traceable to the West Indies, where Africans used the words 'po bockarau', or 'buccaneer,' to refer to rowdy sailors. Eventually the term came to describe Irish immigrant sailors whose jig dance was known as 'the buck.'" (Source: www.dance-teacher.com)

Buck dancing was popularized in America by minstrel performers in the nineteenth century.

"The old-style African-American buck dance consists essentially of a stamp and slip of the weight-bearing foot backward, often with an incidental toe bounce, with the body leaning forward." (from The International Encyclopedia of Dance)

 
George Mitchell discusses the buck dancing tradition of the Lower Chattahoochee Valley.
(Clip courtesy of George Mitchell and Fat Possum Records).
Other resources related to buck dancing traditions:

 
"Buck Dance" By J.W. and James Jones. Recorded in Waverly Hall, GA in 1969. (Clip courtesy of George Mitchell and Fat Possum Records.)
Fife and Drum Music
"...as early as the seventeenth century blacks may have 'picked up' the skills of fife and drum playing from the militia units in New England and the Middle Colonies...During the eighteenth century there are numerous reports of black fifers and drummers." (from David Evans' "Black Fife and Drum Music in Mississippi")

"Thomas Jefferson's slaves formed a fife-and-drum team as their contribution to the War of Independence...Indeed, blacks had often been assigned to play military music in early America; one document tells of a black fife-and-drum corps playing for a Confederate regiment." (from Alan Lomax's The Land Where the Blues Began)

 
"Every Time I Go to Town You Better Stop Kicking my Dog Around."By the Georgia Fife and Drum Band. Recorded in Waverly Hall, GA in 1969. (Clip courtesy of George Mitchell and Fat Possum Records.)
In Red River Blues, Bruce Bastin provides some excellent information about the Georgia Fife and Drum Group: "Perhaps Mitchell's most interesting discovery was the presence of a fife-and-drum tradition in the country between Waverly Hall and Talbotton, northeast of Columbus. Until recently it was assumed that the tradition of fife-and-drum music was uniquely that of north Mississippi around Senatobia...The similarities of the music of the Senatobia and Waverly Hall groups hints that the music was probably more widespread than appreciated....The Georgia fife-and-drum group was essentially a family band comprising J.W. Jones on bamboo cane fife and his brother James on kettle drum, with the bass drum played by either a younger brother, Willie C. Jones, or a cousin, Floyd Bussey."
Radio and Records:
Not surprisingly, records and radio stations influenced blues musicians in the largely rural Lower Chattahoochee region.

 
"Precious Bryant Discusses Listening and Learning from Records and Radio." Bryant talks about her family's Grafonola record player and radio. She also mentions local Columbus DJ's Daddy Cool, Thin Man, Satellite Papa, and Hound Dog. (Clip courtesy of Cathy and Jake Fussell.)

Bruce Bastin notes the wide influence of records in Nothing But the Blues: "The traditional folk pattern of passing on music to a younger set was to be enhanced by pure fortuity of circumstance, traditional folk music could be recorded and their records heard by thousands of others, miles away from the home of the recording artist. This enabled a rapid dissemination of music that otherwise could have come only from the slow passage of itinerant artists or the even slower projection of the music from generation to generation."

WCLS and WRBL out of Columbus, Georgia were two prominent blues radio stations from the 1950s through the 1970s that broadcast through the Lower Chatahoochee region. Today, WOKS AM is the only radio station in Columbus with a daily blues programming.

Additional Influences:
Stylistically, many artists in the lower Chattahoochee were and influenced by the Piedmont Blues, a musical style played a few hundred miles northeast of the lower Chattahoochee region.

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Lower Chattahoochee Blues Artists:
Bailey, Golden

Golden Bailey lived in a little house just west of Geneva, Georgia, on the edge of an area which could (and still can) boast of an inordinate population of traditional musicians." (from A Chattahoochee Album by Fred C. Fussell)

 

Barfield, Cecil (a/k/a William Robertson)
"Born in 1922, William Robertson was a farmer all his life until he had to retire because of a back injury. Robertson began playing blues when he was five years old on a cooking oil can he had rigged up with a neck and one string. 'Well, I left the cooking oil can off and put a wire upside of the house,' he said, 'and I played that with a bottleneck.' Robertson began playing guitar when he was 12, and 'started off ragging it, playing them rag pieces,' which were traditional to the Chattahoochee Valley" (George Mitchell, from In Celebration of a Legacy: The Traditional Arts of the Lower Chattahoochee Valley). In Jim Pettigrew's article on Georgia blues entitled "Can' Cha Hear Me Cryin' Ooo-hooo," Barfield states: "I was listenin' to Bo Miller and some o' them--they were the best around here then--and then I took up the guitar myself. I don't know how many I've worn out since then. There wasn't any radio around here then. We only had record players, you know, the kind that you fold up like a suitcase. It was a long time before there was any radio in these parts....Oh, I used to play a lot. I played for both whites and colored, dances, parties, just about any occasion. There was a few of us and we'd go around all over the country. People were always calling on us. They'd never let me alone...."
View liner notes
for William Robertson's LP South Georgia Blues

Bryant, Precious
Precious Bryant was born Precious Bussey on January 4, 1942 in Talbot County, Georgia, just east of Columbus. The third child of nine, with seven sisters and a brother, was born into a family of traditional musicians who lived in a close-knit community, surrounded by many fine players and singers of traditional blues and gospel.

Precious recalls a childhood filled with many different kinds of homemade music. Her mother was a piano player and an avid singer of church songs. Her father, Lonnie James Bussey, was a traditional blues player. Her uncle, George Henry Bussey, served as her principal mentor and taught her to play bottleneck guitar and to sing the old blues tunes. Several of her male cousins were members of a "fife and drum" group, a rare type of folk band which, with snare drums and homemade "reeds," often paraded and serenaded at community celebrations, fish frys and on holidays around Talbot and Harris counties.

The first instrument Precious Bryant ever attempted to play was her father's old "home guitar," which was so big that the six-year-old Precious could not lift it by herself. She fondly recalls her father placing the guitar in her lap and encouraging his daughter to "take it up" and learn to play. At age nine she had advanced in her playing skills to the point that he bought her an instrument of her own - a Silvertone guitar from Sears & Roebuck.

Precious' early performances were in the Baptist Church. She and her siblings sang spiritual songs together as The Bussey Sisters, with Precious and one of her older sisters accompanying on guitar. Outside of church, Precious was asked to play at parties and talent shows in and around Talbot County.

Her emerging repertoire was rooted in the traditional sounds of the lower Chattahoochee River Valley, but it also began to reflect the influence of the rhythm and blues and early rock 'n' roll that Precious heard on the radio. Precious explains, "I listened to Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters and all them. Elmore James and blues like that. I would listen to a song on the radio and write the words down and I wouldn't worry about the music 'cause I could get the music. All I wanted to know was the words."

Precious Bryant

George Mitchell on Precious: "Precious Bryant is a Georgia musical treasure. She is one of the last of the living exponents, and certainly still the most active, of a truly wonderful blues tradition that is unique to the southwest region of Georgia. But, unusually, not only is she one of the last — she is no doubt one of the best who ever sang and played this spirited style of blues...whether in nearby Columbus, or in Europe, or in Canada, or in New York or Atlanta, Precious Bryant has gotten thousands and thousands of feet tapping... to her infectious blend of the old and the new, of the songs of her father and uncle, and of her own compositions, most of which are keeping alive the great and truly unique blues tradition of the lower Chattahoochee River Valley.

Folklorist George Mitchell first recorded Precious in 1969. Over a decade later, at Mitchell's coaxing, she reluctantly agreed to play at the Columbus, Georgia Chattahoochee Folk Festival. Precious was an instant hit. Her naturally warm stage presence and lively guitar style, combined with her excellent voice, quickly won her a devoted audience. Since her debut in Columbus, Precious Bryant has performed for scores of audiences in the United States and abroad. In addition to the Chattahoochee Folk Festival, notable venues include the Blues to Bop Festival in Lugano, Switzerland, the North Georgia Folk Festival in Athens, the Canadian Folk Festival, and the Alabama Folk Festival in Montgomery.
These days Precious plays mainly at home, with an occasional show in Columbus or Atlanta. To see Precious play live is a treat. She entices the audience, telling them, "Pat your hands together, ain't nobody sick, ain't nobody dead." Along with Precious' own witty standards, any song she chooses to play is instantly transformed into a moving arrangement stamped with the attitude and assuredness of the true performer she has become.

Precious Bryant is a rarity. Truly traditional female blues players, especially those as vocally powerful and technically skilled as Precious, have always been few. In the 1930s, Columbus, Georgia's Gertrude "Ma" Rainey became known as the "Mother of the Blues." Now, as we enter a new century, Talbot County's Precious Bryant has secured her place in the world of traditional American music as Georgia's "Daughter of the Blues." (press bio and photo courtesy of Terminus Records)

Bunkley, Jim

Jim Bunkley

From George Mitchell's liner notes for the Revival Records LP George Henry Bussey and Jim Bunkley:

"This album, sadly, is a memorial to Bunkley. He was killed in a head-on collision on a rainy day in October, 1970. I learned of his death about a month later when I visited his home to tell him his recordings were going to be issued. Bunkley lived in a small tar-papered house he bragged was his own, in Geneva, his birthplace. He was eight years old when they took the census in 1920. It was about that time he made friends with the guitar. 'When I was about eight, my brother had one, and me and my nine-year-old sister used to play it. Us couldn't hold it. Had it hangin' up 'side of the wall and we'd get up on the chair and play it. Everyone in my family could play — we had five boys and four girls. We could play fiddles too.' When he got up in age, Bunkley was about the best known musician in Talbot County. He recalled the many times he walked away with prizes offered at the theater in nearby Junction City. 'I was rough then,' he said. 'I had a great big ole cowboy hat and I got up there on stage and cracked a whole lot of jokes and then played. I win all that money too. Lottie Kate Buckley, Jim's wife, was born October 22, 1918. She sang only two songs for us, but both were superb.'"

Bussey, George Henry
From George Mitchell's liner notes for the Revival Records LP George Henry Bussey and Jim Bunkley:
"George Henry Bussey, a woodworker, lives near Waverly Hall, about 15 miles from Geneva. He was born in nearby Harris County in 1925. Bussey learned how to play guitar at the age of 18. Although he came from a very musical family, he says no one taught him. 'I just always went around to a lot of friend's houses that had gramaphones and listen to different records and catch the sound myself. I listened to a lot of Blind Boy Fuller's records, but I wouldn't try to play it where I learnt the chords.' Until we found him, it had been 12 years since he had played guitar. 'I just got tired of fooling with it,' he said. 'Mine got busted up, wouldn't sound worth nothing, so I just quit fooling with it.' Bussey — a quiet, reserved man — was hesitant to play for us when we asked. But he consented, and some of the pieces of this record were recorded without any practice! But after that first night (we lent him a guitar) he refused to play song for us until he had it just the way he wanted. 'Blues is a feeling,' Bussey says. 'Well, sometimes you get the blues, get 'em on your mind, and you'll feel better when you sing about 'em and just let 'em go on off and let you won't have to worry with 'em no more.'"

Coleman, Bob
Bob Coleman was originally from the Columbus area but moved to Cincinnati in the 1920's, where he helped form The Cincinnati Jug Band. The Cincinnati Jug Band's track "The Newport Blues" is featured on Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music.

Daniel, George

Fred Fussell's article in the Fall 2003 Chattahoochee Folkways newsletter (page 5) provides an account of George Daniel's life and music.

 

Davis, Cliff
"Cliff Davis was born [in 1913] in Alabama, moving to Stewart County, Georgia...as a small child. A farmer, he used to sing field hollers to relieve the tedium of his work." (George Mitchell, from In Celebration of a Legacy: The Traditional Arts of the Lower Chattahoochee Valley)

Jimmie Tarlton and Tom Darby

Darby, Tom & Jimmie Tarlton

Jimmie Tarlton was born into a sharecropping family in Chesterfield, SC. As a young boy, he learned to play the slide guitar from black musicians, and, as a young man, he busked his way across America. He met famed Hawaiian guitarist Frank Ferera in California in the early twenties, and Ferera helped develop Tarlton's slide guitar technique. Tarlton eventually settled down in native who had developed his vocal approach from listening to black singers in Columbus. Darby and Tarlton two began to play together and were signed to Columbia Records in 1927. Their second record — with "Birmingham Jail" on one side and "Columbus Stockade Blues" on the other — was a hit, selling nearly 200,000 copies. Their recording career petered out in 1930, and they both gave up the music business in 1935. They were rediscovered during the folk revival and played a handful of reunion concerts together.

Georgia Fife and Drum Band
Bruce Bastin provides some excellent information about this group: "Perhaps Mitchell's most interesting discovery was the presence of a fife-and-drum tradition in the country between Waverly Hall and Talbotton, northeast of Columbus. Until recently it was assumed that the tradition of fife-and-drum music was uniquely that of north Mississippi around Senatobia...The similarities of the music of the Senatobia and Waverly Hall groups hints that the music was probably more widespread than appreciated....The Georgia fife-and-drum group was essentially a family band comprising J.W. Jones on bamboo cane fife and his brother James on kettle drum, with the bass drum played by either a younger brother, Willie C. Jones, or a cousin, Floyd Bussey."

Grant, Bud
Grant made his first guitar from a poplar tree. As a young boy, he played "frolicking" dance music at neighborhood parties (even before he was twelve years old). His uncle bought him a mail-order guitar from Sears Roebuck for $4.95, and he started playing blues in 1940, " learning to play from listening to records." He mentioned in an interview: "I can play a little rock 'n' roll myself now, but I always fancy blues the most."

Grant, William
"William Grant, [born in 1908], was born near Pittsview, Alabama...He was given a harmonica one Christmas, and he says he learned how to play it while sitting on a plow in the fields. 'I played at parties in the countries,' he said. 'I used to pick guitar, but I come to religion and I put the guitar down. I promised the Lord I wouldn't fool with a guitar no more, but I didn't promise Him I wouldn't fool with a harp. I always keep a harp." (George Mitchell, from In Celebration of a Legacy: The Traditional Arts of the Lower Chattahoochee Valley)

Harris, Jimmy Lee and Eddie
Jimmy Lee Harris was born in 1935 in Seale, Alabama. He later moved 10 miles away to Phenix City, Alabama. '"The first instrument he played was the mouthbow, which he made himself when he was nine. His parents bought him a guitar three years later, and he learned to play from a woman named Seesa Vaughn." Jimmy Lee's brother Eddie is also a blues musician. (George Mitchell, from In Celebration of a Legacy: The Traditional Arts of the Lower Chattahoochee Valley)

Hunt, Dixon
According to Bruce Bastin, the parochial nature of Hunt's performing territory--little more than sixty miles end to end--was typical of Southeast blues musicians. Dixon Hunt was taught to play by Cliff Scott.

Macon, Albert

Albert Macon "lived in Macon County, Alabama, where he was born in 1920. He started blowing the harp when he was 10, learning to play the guitar from his father several years later. He played 'set frolics' (couples paid 10 cents a set to round dance) and at houseparties and schoolhouses. Macon and Robert Thomas played together for over four decades until Macon's death in 1993." (George Mitchell, from In Celebration of a Legacy: The Traditional Arts of the Lower Chattahoochee Valley)

Photo by Lyn Bonham
Paschal, Green
Born around 1927 in Talbotton, Georgia, Paschal started playing music relatively late in life, sometime in the 1950s. "I used to play nothing but the blues before I joined the church," he says, "I joined the chuch about fifteen years [ago] and I quit playing blues...Good old church songs, these old-fashioned songs, I likes 'em...I don't like these jumped up songs that people sing now...I believe in the old way, I just like old songs, the spirit of those old songs. Now those songs that they sing now, they're all right, them that want to sing 'em, they good, I like to hear 'em singing, but it ain't for me..."

 

Video:
 
George Mitchell discusses Paschal and the tension between blues and religious music.
Rainey, "Ma"
Born Gertrude Pridgett on April 26, 1886 in Columbus, Georgia, "Ma" Rainey is the most celebrated of the early "classic" blues singers. She performed for twenty years in minstrel shows, circuses, and tent shows before her recording debut in 1923. Her recording career lasted only six years, but, during that time, she cut more than a hundred sides, some which eventually went on to become blues standards, including the classic "C.C. Rider." She recorded with a variety of different backing bands, including jug bands, guitar duos, solo bluesman like Blind Blake, and jazz ensembles including such luminaries as Louis Armstrong and Fletcher Henderson. Her intense vocal delivery and open attitude about sexuality made her very popular amongst black working class audiences, particularly in the South. After retiring from performing in 1933, she settled in Columbus and later died of a heart attack in 1939.

Thomas, Lonzie

" 'I watched my daddy's fingers on the guitar and I caught it,' remembered Lonzie Thomas, who was born in Lee County, Alabama in 1921. He was shot in the face and blinded at the age of 22. 'After I got blind, I got more interested in playing and singing,' he said. 'It was something to keep my mind off worrying.' It was also one of the few ways a blind man could make a living, and he began playing on the streets of Opelika and Columbus for tips and at parties." (George Mitchell, from In Celebration of a Legacy: The Traditional Arts of the Lower Chattahoochee Valley)

Link:
Lonzie Thomas' "Red Cross Store"
http://www.hcc-al-ga.org/folk_index.cfm?GetPage=2

Warren, J.W. The following excerpt is from George Mitchell, In Celebration of a Legacy: The Traditional Arts of the Lower Chattahoochee Valley. Follow the link to The Musicmaker Foundation's recording of J. W. Warren.

J.W. Warren was born in 1921 in Enterprise, Alabama. In a family of eleven children, he was the only one to take up music, starting at the age of fifteen or sixteen. He entered the military as a young adult and served for 14 years. While stationed overseas with the military in 1947, he won first prize in a music contest. After his stint in the military, he farmed and began to play blues at barbeques and house parties in southeast Alabama. Like many lower Chattahoochee blues artists, he cites Blind Boy Fuller as a key influence. J.W. died on August, 5, 2003.
White, Bud
White learned to play the song "Sixteen Snow White Horses" from a traveling bluesman from Florida.

Lower Chattahoochee Songs
From 1969 until the early eighties, George Mitchell recorded over two dozen lower Chattahoochee blues artists. The list below represents the songs that were recorded by more than one artist.
16-20
Baby, Please Don't Go
Blues Around My Bed
Careless Love
Catfish Blues
Crawling King Snake
The Dog
Freight Train Blues
Going Up the Country
I Love Jesus
Jack of Diamonds
John Henry
Key to the Highway
Lay My Burden Down
Mean Ole Frisco
My Babe
Oh, Red
Rabbit on a Log
Rock Me
Someday Baby
So Sweet
Step it Up and Go
That's All Right Mama
What's the Matter with the Mill?
The blues artists that Mitchell recorded are listed below. The date in parentheses after the musician's name indicates when the recordings were made.
Bailey, Golden (1976)
Barfield, Cecil aka William Robertson (1976, 1977, 1980, 1981)
Bryant, Precious (1969, early 1980s)
Bunkley, Jim (1969)
Bussey, George Henry (1969)
Carter, Ella Mae and A.K. (1976)
Daniel, George (1979)
Davis, Cliff (early 1980s)
Georgia Fife and Drum Band (1969)
Gorman, Jessie Clarence (1969)
Grant, Bud (1969)
Grant, William (early 1980s)
Harris, Jimmy Lee and/or Eddie Harris (early 1980s)
Hodge, Eddie B. (early 1980s)
Hubbard, Buddy (1969)
Hunt, Dixon (1969)
Macon, Albert and/or Robert Thomas (early 1980s)
Paschal, Green (1969)
Scott, Cliff (1969)
Thomas, Lonzie (early 1980s)
Warren, J.W. (1981, 1982)
White, Bud (1969)
For information on songs recorded by specific lower Chattahoochee artists consult the artist repertoire index.

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Bryant, Daniel and Mitchell:

This section provides original video and audio footage from interviews with Precious Bryant, George Daniel, and George Mitchell, as well as several music clips and audio interview clips from other sources.

Precious Bryant: Video/Audio Clips
 
Interview Excerpt with Precious Bryant. Bryant talks about some of her earliest musical experiences.

Use the scroller to the right of the playlist to watch all seven clips.

 

 

George Daniel: Video/Audio Clips:
 
George Mitchell conducted this interview with George Daniel in 1979. (Courtesy George Mitchell)

Use the scroller to the right of the playlist to watch all six clips.

 
George Mitchell: Video Clips:
 

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George Mitchell Audio Interview Excerpts:
 
J.W. Warren, recorded in Ariton, AL 1982. J.W. Warren discusses some of his songs and influences, including his spoken word version of "Corrinna" and his love for Hawaiian music (which he developed while stationed in the Philippines). Clip courtesy George Mitchell and Fat Possum Records.
J.W. Warren, date unknown.
J. W. Warren, date unknown.
Warren was born in 1921 in Enterprise, Alabama. In a family of eleven children, he was the only one to take up music, starting at the age of fifteen or sixteen. He entered the military as a young adult and served for 14 years. While stationed overseas with the military in 1947, he won first prize in a music contest. After serving, he entered farming and began to play blues at barbeques and house parties in southeast Alabama. He notes, "I came up the hard way, I hadn't had no break whatsoever...I was born in the wrong part of the world and, then again, I didn't go no place to do any better...I got stuck here, and so, this is my home, seeming I can make it better here than I can any place elsewhere." Like many lower Chattahoochee blues artists, he cites Blind Boy Fuller as a key influence.
 
Jim Bunkley, recorded in Geneva, GA 1969. (Clip courtesy of George Mitchell and Fat Possum Records.) Bunkley discusses his life, music and brief work in a medicine show in Southwest Georgia.
Jim Bunkley, date unknown.
Jim Bunkley, date unknown.

Born in 1911 in Talbot County, Jim Bunkley started playing music when he was eight years old. He had four brothers and four sisters, all of whom played some form of music. An early influence on Bunkley was Blind Lemon Jefferson.

 
Green Paschal, recorded in Talbotton, GA 1969. (Clip courtesy of George Mitchell and Fat Possum Records.)

Paschal was born around 1927 in Talbotton, Georgia and started playing music sometime in the 1950s. He "used to play for the white people at the frolic". He comments: "I used to play nothing but the blues before I joined the church...I joined the church about fifteen years [ago] and I quit playing blues...Good old church songs, these old-fashioned songs, I likes 'em...I don't like these jumped up songs that people sing now...I believe in the old way, I just like old songs, the spirit of those old songs. Now those songs that they sing now, they're all right, them that want to sing 'em, they good, I like to hear 'em singing, but it ain't for me..."

 

 
Albert Macon and Robert Thomas. (Clip courtesy of George Mitchell and Fat Possum Records.) Recorded in Society Hill, AL in the early 1980s.
Albert Macon and Robert Thomas, date unknown.
Albert Macon and Robert Thomas, date unknown.

Robert Thomas was born in 1929, Albert Macon in 1920. Both grew up in Macon County, Alabama. Thomas began playing blues guitar when he was nineteen or twenty, learning under Albert Macon. The two played together consistently until Macon died in 1993.

 

 
Bud Grant, recorded in Thomaston, GA in 1969. (Clip courtesy of George Mitchell and Fat Possum Records.)

Grant discusses making his first guitar from a poplar tree and playing "frolicking" dance music at neighborhood parties. He started playing blues in 1940," learning to play from listening to records." Grant also notes, "I can play a little rock 'n' roll myself now, but I always fancy blues the most."

 
Unknown Blues Artist, possibly recorded in 1969. (Clip courtesy of George Mitchell and Fat Possum Records.) Note: This recording contains some distortion.

Although the identity of this artist remains unknown, his story contributes to the musical history of the region. He was born in 1928 and grew up in Talbotton, GA. He started playing guitar when he was nine years old; some of the early blues tunes that he learned "came from Blind Boy Fuller." At the end of the clip, he demonstrates "The Buck", an instrumental tune that was played at neighborhood parties. "The Buck" sounds similar to Precious Bryant's "Georgia Buck".

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Assorted Performances:
 
"Blues Around My Bed" by George Henry Bussey. Recorded in Waverly Hall, GA in 1969. (Clip courtesy George Mitchell and Fat Possum Records.)
George Henry Bussey, date unknown.
George Henry Bussey, date unknown.
 
"Blues Around My Bed" by Precious Bryant. Recorded in Buena Vista, GA in 2001.
Precious Bryant is the niece of George Henry Bussey, so note the similarities and differences between her version and her uncle's version above.

(Clip courtesy of Terminus Records.)
Precious Bryant, date unknown.
Precious Bryant, date unknown.
 
'Them Greasy Greens" by Jim Bunkley. Recorded in Geneva, GA in 1969.

(Clip courtesy of George Mitchell and Fat Possum Records.)
Jim Bunkley, date unknown.
Jim Bunkley, date unknown.
 
"Don't Nothing Hurt Me But My Back and Side"

by Albert Macon and Robert Thomas

Recorded in Society Hill, AL in the early 1980's.

(Clip courtesy of George Mitchell and Fat Possum Records.)
[ Albert Macon's version of "Got to Move"]
Albert Macon and Robert Thomas, date unknown.
Albert Macon and Robert Thomas, date unknown.
 
Unnamed harmonica tune by George Daniel. Recorded in 1979 by George Mitchell.

(Clip courtesy of George Mitchell.)
George Daniel, date unknown. Photo by Axel Kustner.
George Daniel, date unknown. Photo by Axel Kustner.
 
"Corrinna" by J.W. Warren. Recorded in Ariton, AL in 1981. Warren performs a talking blues version of "Corrinna."

(Clip courtesy of George Mitchell and Fat Possum Records.)
J.W. Warren, date unknown.
J.W. Warren, date unknown.
 
"Pole Plattin'" by Cliff Scott. Recorded in Dranesville, GA in 1969.

George Mitchell sees a connection between the blues sound of the Lower Chattahoochee Valley and the Mayday tradition of "pole plattin'" in which two guitarists strum bright rhythmic patterns as ribbons are wrapped around the Maypole. (Note Scott's comments about this at the end of the song.)
(Clip courtesy of George Mitchell and Fat Possum Records.)
 

"Every Time I Go to Town You Better Stop Kicking My Dog Around" by the Georgia Fife and Drum Band. Recorded in Waverly Hall, GA in 1969.

In Red River Blues, Bruce Bastin provides insightful information about this group: "Perhaps Mitchell's most interesting discovery was the presence of a fife-and-drum tradition in the country between Waverly Hall and Talbotton, northeast of Columbus. Until recently it was assumed that the tradition of fife-and-drum music was uniquely that of north Mississippi around Senatobia...The similarities of the music of the Senatobia and Waverly Hall groups hints that the music was probably more widespread than appreciated....The Georgia fife-and-drum group was essentially a family band comprising J.W. Jones on bamboo cane fife and his brother James on kettle drum, with the bass drum played by either a younger brother, Willie C. Jones, or a cousin, Floyd Bussey."
(Clips courtesy of George Mitchell and Fat Possum Records.)
 
"Buck Dance" by J.W. and James Jones. Recorded in Waverly Hall, GA in 1969. (Clip courtesy of George Mitchell and Fat Possum Records.)
 
"When the Saints Go Marching In" by Green Paschal. Recorded in Talbotton, GA in 1969.

(Clip courtesy of George Mitchell and Fat Possum Records.)
 
"When the Saints Go Marching In" by Precious Bryant. Recorded in Buena Vista, GA in 2001.

Compare Bryant's version to Paschal's version above.
(Clip courtesy of Terminus Records.)

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Recommended Resources:

Print Resources
Bastin, Bruce. "Truckin' My Blues Away : East Coast Piedmont Styles." In Nothin' But the Blues : The Music and the Musicians. New York: Abbeville Press, 1993.

Bastin, Bruce. Red River Blues: The Blues Tradition in the Southeast. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986.

Evans, David. "Black Fife and Drum Music in Mississippi." In Afro-American Folk Art and Crafts. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1983.

Fussell, Fred. A Chattahoochee Album: Images of Traditional People and Folksy Places Around the Lower Chattahoochee Valley. Eufala, Alabama: Historic Chattahoochee Comission, 2000.

Lomax, Alan. The Land Where the Blues Began. New York: Pantheon Books, 1993.

Mitchell, George. In Celebration of a Legacy: The Traditional Arts of the Lower Chattahoochee Valley. Columbus, Georgia: Columbus Museum of Arts and Sciences, 1981.

Pettigrew, Jim. "Do They Sing the Georgia Blues Anymore?" Brown's Guide to Georgia. 4, No. 4 (July/August 1976): 40-47.

Weblinks

Alabama State Council on the Arts
http://arts.state.al.us/

Georgia Statistics System
http://www.georgiastats.uga.edu/

Historic Chattahoochee Commission
http://www.hcc-al-ga.org/

The Music Maker Foundation
http://www.musicmaker.org/

University of Alabama Geography Department
http://alabamamaps.ua.edu/

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