George Mitchell stumbled upon the music of the Lower Chattahoochee Valley area — technically, those parts of Alabama and Georgia where the Chattahoochee River first touches the Alabama border, and the 18 to 21 counties (depending upon whose definition you use) that line either side on its way down towards the Florida border — almost by accident. After making field recordings in Atlanta, Mississippi and Memphis, he had finished his master's thesis (which would become the acclaimed book, Blow My Blues Away ), and had accepted a newspaper job in Columbus, Georgia, pretty much in the heart of the Chattahoochee Valley.
He and his wife Cathy decided to take a drive one weekend to see if they could find some blues being played in the area. And as the old saying goes, boy did they ever. As George relates:
"[This was] a very different sound, one that I had never heard before, and one that had never made it to record. I assume this was because Columbus was the poorest area in Georgia, and it was very isolated. It didn't have a freeway connection, the residents didn't travel to Atlanta, and [talent] scouts never went down there. So on weekends and some nights we'd go look for people east and south of Columbus, and we'd usually find at least one person in every town that would play at least a few songs well. Most of them did not have big repertoires.... but there were a lot of people who could play a few songs really well, and could do a lot of songs from this style that no one had really heard of before."
As he had done before, George Mitchell started recording and photographing the blues musicians he encountered. Eventually, some of these recordings slowly but surely made their way onto LPs, books (In Celebration of a Legacy: The Traditional Arts of the Lower Chattahoochee Valley, was originally published in 1981, with a revised edition coming out in 1998 with two CDs of original field recordings), and eventually CDs, when Fat Possum Records started an extensive reissue program. Although some of the performers were reluctant to travel, George Mitchell managed to get some of them onto the stages of local folk festivals, and eventually — in the case of Precious Bryant — the international stage as well.
But Cecil Barfield, whom George thought to be one of his greatest "discoveries," was a colorful figure who was content to stay where he was. Part farmer and part country philosopher, Barfield asked George Mitchell to use only a pseudonym — William Roberston — on recordings of his that were issued in his lifetime (his fear was that money coming in from the recordings would jeopardize the welfare checks that he relied upon for living expenses). He was also superstitious — perhaps to a fault — when Southland Records issued an LP of his material, it appeared without his picture on the cover, because he feared that anyone could turn a photo of him face down and kill him. And of the money that came in for the recording, Mitchell suspects that it was all spent on traditional "root doctors," to help with Barfield's various ailments. Refusing calls to travel overseas for international Blues festivals, Mitchell finally succeeded in getting him up to Columbus, Georgia, just once, for a folk festival. Barfield said he'd been there one time before — in World War II — and apparently didn't see much of a need to go back (another George Mitchell "discovery" from the Lower Chattahoochee was a local fife and drum band tradition in Waverly Hall, Georgia — stunning researchers, who had believed (up until then anyway) — that it was strictly a northern Mississippi tradition).
Colorful figures such as Barfield and engaging performances from a whole host of musicians abound on this episode of Blues Unlimited. Come and join us, then, on a special musical journey as we travel through the Lower Chattahoochee River Valley, and celebrate these legendary field recordings all made by one person — George Mitchell.
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