There is another relatively unsung hero in the realm of blues research specifically in the SE, and that is George Mitchell, photographer, writer, “recordist”, and producer par excellence. Much of his work over the years has been outside of his “home” state of Georgia, although he keeps coming back! One might consider him something of a US counterpart to Val Wilmer, the closest (and best) comparison I can think of, although Val did no recording. His books have included some on music, but also one dealing with young Black kids in rural GA, another on centenarians of all races in the South, and one dealing with some of the denizens of Ponce de Leon Ave. in Atlanta. A multi-facetted output in print over time, wouldn’t you say?! George began his work with his friend Roger Brown (O&S 39) when they were in high school during the late fifties; they interviewed Peg Leg Howell and Buddy Moss. (Sam Charters’ book THE COUNTRY BLUES had had a stimulating effect on them.) Had they continued “working” Atlanta, they might have come upon Curley Weaver, a.o., but they were additional moths attracted to the candle of Mississippi that seemed to pull in the few field-workers around that time. There they interviewed, photographed, and recorded many important performers, some known, some not: included were the first recordings by R.L. Burnside (acoustic). George didn’t totally abandon his home state altogether, though, and his recordings of the Waverly Hall (GA) Fife & Drum Band were momentous, shattering ever so slightly the prevailing MS-centricity of thinking on blues roots within nascent blues scholarship.
I have known George and his wife, Kathy, and their daughter for decades, now… I would often stay with them when on my own in the Atlanta area, sharing my “finds” with them and comparing notes. George moved to Columbus, GA for a time, a city in which he had previously worked as a journalist and where he had done some earlier research on the life of Gertrude “Ma” Rainey… it was the home town to which she had retired after her TOBA vaudeville years. George worked at one time for a local arts council and one project he created was a two LP set of western Georgia and eastern Alabama folk music, both Black and White. This is a region that had not been “covered” by anyone such as W.E. and some of the Black material also found its way onto LP via the Old Swingmaster label in the Netherlands… some of his earliest MS and GA recordings were also released in the UK by Revival (for which he was not sufficiently paid) and in the US by Rounder. All contained magnificent stuff.
Another even more unsung hero in Atlanta was Jim Pettigrew, a free-lance journalist with a musical bent and another old friend… as is his former flat-mate, photographer Tom Hill. I do not select the folks to praise simply because they were willing to put up (and put up with) me and my dogs, either! Jim’s journalistic output covered a wide swath, covering everything from rock concerts to car drag races; presently Jim has moved to South Georgia and has written books about the music business for Billboard Publications. I met him through his music activities and he was taken by what I was attempting to do, being very supportive. One time he “caught” an assignment for BROWN’S GUIDE TO GEORGIA (sort of a southern regional equivalent to YANKEE MAGAZINE) to write an article for them on older blues performers. Jim may have had a couple of leads from George, but he and his photographer did more than cover someone else’s trail. One of the folks that he located near the town of Plains (hometown of Jimmy Carter) was a man named Cecil Barfield, often known in the region as “Cecil Gant”. Jim included a goodly bit on Cecil in his 1975 article for BROWN’S and once he heard him sing, knew why the “Gant” appellation! He also told George Mitchell about him.
In February of 1977 I loaned my trusty Uher and two mics to George… having no equipment available to himself at the time, he wanted to record Cecil, which he and Kathy did, getting fourteen songs from him. Off my own bat, I recorded Cecil and spent some of my NEA money that way: seven songs one time, nine another, and, coupled with the tapes that George had done (which he gave to me), were to be worked into a projected LP to be entitled naturally enough, “The Plains Man”! Cecil was a good guitarist with a raspy baritone voice that that resonated to all get out, making an incredible sound and incredible music. It was one of these songs of Cecil that I played for Alan Lomax that blew him off of his stool (O&S 24). This was one stirring and unique blues artists.
George Mitchell recorded Cecil later on, having the material issued on LP on one of George Buck’s labels (Southland) with two caveats from Cecil. His real name was not to be used and that there could be no photograph of him on the record cover. Therein lies a tale that goes back to Jim Pettigrew’s story for BROWN’S GUIDE. Cecil was very disturbed to see a photo or two of himself with the article, for he truly believed that if someone wanted to harm him, they could take that picture, place it face down on a table, and he would die. An African-American version of the Australian aboriginal belief in pointing the bone… in either case, the subject would not necessarily have knowledge of this aggressive act by another, but the outcome would still take place. In order to satisfy Cecil and get the LP out, George used the nom de disque of “William Robertson” and used a pencil sketch (this was OK) by Kathy on the cover. This way, Cecil felt he was protected from harm (and the welfare, like Frank Hovington/”Guitar Frank”, perceived as all-seeing and all-knowing, and possibly the receipt of being dobbed in by another – this was when there WAS a welfare system in the US, faulty though it may have been).
I didn’t spend as much time around Cecil and his wife (or too many others near the end of my activities in the SE) as with some others earlier on in my “career”, but I have partial mental images of their living conditions. Their home was an old 3-4 bedroom farmhouse when I visited them in 1979, but we were all huddled up around an open fireplace while doing the recordings. It was late winter and often cold, even for me from the (relative) North and I could see no other heat source for them in my limited wanderings about the house… I think they cooked at the fireplace as well. Even Shorty and Lena (O&S 41) had a cook stove in their kitchen and a heating stove in their main living room (both wood-fired), so this may have been the roughest living conditions that I witnessed in person, if not the worst poverty. There is something wrong with a wealthy country that allows people to live so marginally, so out-of-sight.
Later on George Mitchell came back to Atlanta (where he still lives), producing The Down Home Blues Festivals, but Cecil was reluctant to leave Plains to attend. I know that Axel Kustner visited him more recently and told me of his relatively recent death in the nineties, so I guess that no malefactor utilized a copy of BROWN’S to get him! He was an unique performer and one day I hope a CD will emerge from my tapes, complete with photos that I took back then… they shouldn’t be a problem at this point. Mitchell has been a superior and sensitive field-worker over the decades, writing about and photographing (and sometimes recording, when possible) some of the most important and interesting music and musical performers, but he hasn’t dealt only with that aspect of artistic communication or community activity. His books should all be re-published and his field recordings the same.* Personally, George was a great help to me in my activities in and around Atlanta over the decade I traveled the SE, as well as supplying me with great photos of Frank Edwards, and Robert Lockwood for Trix LP album covers. And he recorded Cecil Barfield, as important and idiosyncratic a performer as Guitar Shorty… not bad, huh?!
Since writing this some years back, Fat Possum has acquired George’s tapes from Cello Records and released a number of CDs, a.o. from them – the big box set is the way to go in my opinion. It’s all great music well and sensitively recorded. You can’t go wrong. He teaches photography in Atlanta now.
Now lives in Florida.
Peter B. Lowry
Published B&R 249 – May 2010; pp. 12-13. As the first part of the piece. Edited.