DIY Fieldwork (or alone in his field) George Mitchell’s southern trawlings.
“Roots Music”, one of the over-riding themes of this publication from the git-go, takes many forms (Anglo-European, African American, “Ethnic”, “World”, a.o.) and has been documented over the decades by a myriad of individuals, both corporate and otherwise. During the first half of the 20th Century that documentation was being done in the USA and the UK by the extant commercial recording companies… not due to any altruistic motives, mind you… they had the equipment! The record companies (as usual) hadn’t a clue as to what would sell and stuck all sorts of individuals and groups in front of their horns and (later) microphones – what sold got repeat studio appearances; what did not sell was quickly forgotten by them, but not by collectors! That after-the-fact group is responsible for the research that has given us most of the knowledge we possess regarding various forms of “roots” music, both sacred and secular, having done the field research.
During the second half of the last century, most roots music recording was being done by independent labels and individuals (often collector-based), some a part of the community music scene being preserved, most not, but not all official folklorists. And some straddled those categories, with a few starting record labels to get the stuff “out”: major sales were unlikely. The late Alan Lomax was one obvious person of that preservational ilk, as has been Sam Charters, David Evans (High Water Records), Chris Strachwitz (Arhoolie Records), Bob Koester (Delmark Records), Bruce Bastin (Flyright Records), Art Rosenbaum (who’s output is being issued by Dust to Digital), Tim Duffy (Music Maker Relief Foundation), Bob West (Arcola Records), and even myself (Trix Records).
On the other hand, Atlanta-based George Mitchell has quietly been another willing worker, beavering away off his own bat over the decades with no real anticipation of commercial release of his tapes – “product” came after-the-fact and was not a driving force behind his field-work. It was done for the satisfaction of doing “what had to be done” before a particular musical culture altered or disappeared altogether, as well as a true liking/appreciation for the “folk” involved – attributes not always found in a White Southerner! And his results have been uniformly superb when eventually released to the general public. In 2006 one could find some of George’s material on six albums from Fat Possum (the subject of an article by our esteemed founder back then), plus two from Arhoolie, two from Southland, and part of one from Testament/High Tone, plus material out from Flyright (UK) and Old Swingmaster (NE). More recently, Fat Possum has issued more CDs from George’s tapes, including a giant boxed collection, some 7” LP discs, and 12” LPs, mainly by direct mail. Add to this stack the book + two CDs from the Chattahoochie museum in Alabama and you have the available, proverbial iceberg’s tip of Mitchell’s excellence in preserving older, mainly Black, southern musics. A superior and caring field-recordist of great ability, indeed.
But that’s not all, as the TV spruikers say!! George is a top-shelf journalist/writer, and most of his books after 1971’s Blow My Blues Away (his first) have had nothing to do with music per se and everything to do with oral history: one is with young, rural Black kids (I’m Somebody Important); another is with centenarians (Yessir, I’ve Been Here a Long Time); a third deals with denizens of downtown Ponce de Leon Avenue in Atlanta (Ponce de Leon: An Intimate Portrait of Atlanta’s Most Famous Avenue), an area oft considered by locals to be rather seedy and unsavory (like Kings Cross, or St. Kilda!). In all cases, Mitchell allows the voices of the PEOPLE he deals with to be paramount, and treats them all with proper interest and respect. On top of that, the man is a fantastic photographer – right up there with the U.K.’s Val Wilmer in my estimation – whose photographs enhance all of his books, while his writings enhance his photos. In another country, George Mitchell would be lauded as an important and valuable individual and resource, a national treasure, but he is essentially unknown “at home”. No comment is the best thing that I can say about that… I had to come to Australia to get something resembling my propers!
It all goes back to his high-school years in Atlanta and stumbling on Black radio and a copy of Sam Charters’ book, The Country Blues, and sharing it with his best friend, Roger Brown. Stimulated by that book, they did some poking around on their home turf, coming up with Peg Leg Howell, and then Buddy Moss – the former was past musical meaningfulness, but the latter was at his peak. Unfortunately, as far as I am concerned, they followed the developing MS-centrism of the “blues research coterie” and headed off to Memphis and Mississippi to do more field work, finding many worthy individuals at the expense of their own back yard. [It wasn’t until the 70s when Bruce Bastin and I hit town that the SE torch was well and truly picked up.] Not that there’s anything wrong with that! Many important and talented folks were located in those years, first with Roger, then with his wife Cathy – George just quietly kept keeping on, to our great benefit at least in the long run. Our knowledge of Southern musics would be a whole lot more barren without his efforts over the decades – the gaps would be even larger than they are!
Born in Coral Gables, FL in 1944, and raised in Atlanta, Mitchell initially discovered African American musical forms while in high school via local Black AM radio stations around ’58/’59 (stations WERD, and WAOK). He also attended a variety of local blues, R’n’B, and gospel shows, often being the only White face in the crowd. Buying singles and then LPs broadened his listening base of the day; Charters’ book (and the LP that could be purchased from RBF/Folkways) opened up a wealth of pre-war recordings that a White boy wouldn’t have been aware of! Beginning in 1962 George and Roger went to Memphis to meet some of the survivors: In 1963 they borrowed a tape recorder from their maths teacher and went back to record the likes of Charlie Burse, Gus Cannon, Catherine Porter, Furry Lewis, Will Shade, Willie Borum (a/k/a Memphis Willie B.) and Laura Dukes. This was the beginning of a life-long interest bordering on single-minded possession (oh, how I know!) as he documented many important musos, including the first sides by R.L. Burnside, and Othar Turner, plus important recordings by Fred McDowell.
In 1976, Mitchell and his wife, Cathy, traveled back to MS with a recorder and a borrowed camera to follow up on his earlier work in that region. People like Joe Calicott, Robert Nighthawk, Houston Stackhouse, Sleepy John Estes, Jesse Mae Hemphill, a.o were “captured” for posterity. From then on, George had this double-pronged preservation approach – triple if you count interviews – that “worked” marvelously. As a Southerner himself, knowledgeable of the racial mores of the time and place, he was more a “familiar” than someone like myself from New York and thus able to put his contacts at ease by being unthreatening and truly listening. Traveling with his wife, and later their daughter, just made it more so. Besides becoming head of the short-lived Atlanta-based GA Grassroots Festival, George spent some time in Columbus, GA and worked as a field researcher with the Columbus Museum of Art on what became a museum exhibition, book and CDs (In Celebration of a Legacy). Part of the project was recording John Lee Zeigler, J.W. Warren, Jimmy Lee Williams, Precious Bryant, Lonzie Thomas, and Cecil Barfield. This resulted in much more becoming known about western Georgia and eastern Alabama folkways (not only music), regions that hadn’t been paid much attention up to that point by the usual cast of blues/folkloric research characters, a meld of Georgia Piedmont and Alabama blues traditions.
The proof is in the listening. I highly recommend any of the releases out on Fat Possum… if you get hooked, then go whole-hog for the boxed set. The care and respect that George Mitchell showed towards these older Black men and women shows through the superb performances that he was able to garner. His ability to put folks at ease is well-nigh legendary and a major lubricant towards people trusting him and giving him their very best performances. The music, the writing, and the photographs all demonstrate necessary slices of important American roots music as it existed, even at that late date, within its “natural” community context – the stuff is wonderful, and priceless. All hail to George Mitchell!
PETER B. LOWRY [published: RHYTHMS 203/June 2009; pp. 26/27]
Check out the following:
Fat Possum Records/www.fatpossum.com Arhoolie Records/www.arhoolie.com Southland Records/www. jazzology.com Historic Chattahoochie Commission/www.hcc-al-ga.org/store/index.cfm?Do Opera=Yes Arcola Records/www.arcolarecords.com Music Maker Relief Foundation/www.musicmaker.org Dust to Digital Records/www.dust-digital.com Delmark Records/www.delmark.com Flyright Records/www.interstate-music.co.uk
[If Digeridoo is still operational, they supposedly carry Fat Possum, Arhoolie, and Delmark.]
see – www.southernspaces.org/contents/2004/bransford/1e.htm for some recent photos of George Mitchell, plus. www.libs.uga.edu/media/collections/georgiafolklore/georgemitchell.htm for a couple more. http://www.georgiarhythm.com/2008/12/blues-chronicler-georgemitchell.html
The various artists should be available “out there”, especially on Fat Possum’s site!