ODDENDA & SUCH: #111

CECIL BARFIELD                                                                                                                                   “The Plains Man”

This is one of the many artists I had hoped to release an album on back in the day before things went a bit pear-shaped for blues labels in general and mine in particular. It is also dedicated to my late friend, music business writer Jim Pettigrew, who was the first to “locate” Cecil in the region of Plains, GA back in 1975. He was on assignment from BROWN’S GUIDE TO GEORGIA[1] to see if he could locate any older black musicians to write about for them. Jim was a long-term friend of Rev. Pearly Brown and was aware of my efforts at locating musicians in Georgia, as well as the rest of the SE. He really appreciated the music I had found, and was fascinated by the potential of finding others as I had been doing, interviewing them and paying their art its due. Folks that he spoke with on that field trip included Pearly Brown, Cliff Scott, Bud Jones, Melvin Jackson, Sammy Henderson, and Uncle Jack Henry. A few of them had already been located by George Mitchell (Scott, Jones), but the great “find” was one Cecil Barfield.

Born 19 December, 1921, Cecil was a farm laborer for most of his life until he badly injured his back and could no longer do that kind of hard work. He was a typical part-time musician who played for local parties of various kinds, white or black. At the time that Jim found him, he was living near the small town of Bronwood in Terrell County outside of Albany, GA. The main cash crops there are still pecans and peanuts, as well as the usual rural truck (vegetable) farming. Barfield picked up the guitar at the age of ten, “studying” under one Bo Miller, a local performer, among others. He was also influenced by phonograph records (as can heard on some of this collection!), but they had no radio. Jim spoke with Cecil and recorded a few songs – he was definitely worthy of our attention! Often known locally as “Cecil Gant” due to a slightly similar vocal approach to that famous Nashville singer, this man was a fine guitarist and singer in his own right. I played a few of these pieces for folkloric doyen Alan Lomax in later years, and he was knocked off his chair by the sounds. Alan always did like a good and distinctive singer, and Cecil surely was that!

George Mitchell was initially “sicced” on Cecil in my stead as he lived and worked out of Atlanta and so he began recording him in 1976 – he borrowed my recording equipment over that Xmas holiday and he recorded Cecil again in ’77, giving those tapes to me when I came back South that year. I later recorded him myself twice more after that when Cecil still lived in Plains, GA in 1979, obtaining an additional sixteen selections. An album was under consideration at that point for Trix Records, but it sadly did not happen then. Others did work with Cecil though.  Prof. Allen E. McLeod recorded Cecil in 1987 for a radio series he was working on with Art Rosenbaum[2]; Mitchell also recorded Cecil in depth in the late 70s/early 80s – an earlier album of George’s recordings was released by Southland Records[3]. Then German researcher Axel Küstner taped and photographed him in 1990 for probably his last recordings, as yet unreleased.

One fact that needs to be discussed is the use of a nom-de-disque on his first issued recordings by Mitchell – he was afraid that he’d lose his welfare payments if word got out about making records for money. Therefore, the name “William Robertson” was used, even to the point of a self-referencing by Cecil on one song (“William Robertson Blues” on that Southland LP release). There was also another problem regarding the use of his photographic images: George (a fine photographer) was not permitted to use a photo on the LP for Southland. Jim’s magazine article started us knowing about Cecil’s folk-belief situation: he felt that an enemy could curse him by placing the photograph face-down on the table and that would be enough to kill him. I took photographs at the time I recorded him, but did not publish any of them during his lifetime. As Art Rosenbaum has written:

“By the time we visited him (in the late 80s) …, Barfield was willing to use his real name and have Margo photograph him. “That’s what they come here and do”, he said.”[4]

George Mitchell has written about him that:

“Cecil was illiterate, but he was a genius. He couldn’t read or write, but he was a highly intelligent person. I would stay up for hours, just talking to Cecil. I’ve never met someone who was such a philosopher. And who could articulate his ideas in such colorful, country ways. He was an artist.[5]

Certainly, Cecil Barfield was a one-of-a-kind “find” by us blues-crazy white folks as a singer, as a song creator, and as a guitarist.

I did not have the sort of relationship with Cecil that George did; I was basically in-and-out and on my way, while George lived in Georgia full-time with his work and his daughter. (I was not the sort of person who would have survived living in the deep South so I never did.) Cecil and his wife Clara were lovely hosts in putting up with my intrusions – that they lived in near-abject poverty mattered little to either of us. His was one of two examples of REAL poverty[6] in the South during my decade of travels: and yet great art overpowers such poor circumstances, in spite of it all.  As Art Rosenbaum has written:

“His artistry was immense; he had full command of his voice instrument, and idiom, the old Georgia blues … . Cecil Barfield’s life and music ran counter to a number of myths about the blues: that the blues originated in the Mississippi Delta – they (a)rose all over the South; that the best country blues men and women of the 1920s and 1930s were found and recorded by the commercial companies – many, many were not. (L)iving in regions like South Georgia and south Alabama which were not penetrated by the companies’ talent scouts [precluded that]. [The theory was] that blues arose mainly from the field hollers set to guitar, [but] it has become clearer that the blues hark back to a tradition of solo voice accompanied by a stringed instrument harking back to Africa, and that the accompanying instruments before the guitar was the banjo and its ancestors.[7]

George Mitchell asked Cecil ca. 1976 how he rated his playing; his response to George’s questions says it all:

 “I couldn’t tell by myself… Somebody else would have to tell me. But in my eyes, what I do, it satisfy me.[8]

 Probably the best review he could have had! Cecil stayed at home most of his life, usually not going beyond his county and its towns, like Albany and Plains. George may have taken him to Atlanta for a festival once, or at least to one in Columbus, GA – he was a real homebody. This is why “W.E.” almost missed out on his wonderful musical art. His talent was relatively unique and he was able to grow that talent to what you hear here… good stuff!

 Cecil apparently died of a heart attack on June 10, 1994 (in Opa Locka, FL, of all places), and he was certainly worthy to be considered as a last example of […put own designation here]. His was a singular and intense, but relaxed, approach to the music that was what it was, and not a copy of someone else’s. We own a great debt to all the people who spread the Barfield word as best they could, but we owe most to the late Jim Pettigrew for first locating this extremely fine guitarist and singer back in the day. Thanks, my friend… we miss ya’.

PETER B. LOWRY                                                                                                                             Sydney, Australia                                                                                                                                  2019

 

[1] “Can’cha Hear Me Cryin’, Oo-hooo” in July/August, 1976: Vol. 4; No. 4. – pp.40-47.

[2] Some pieces issued on the box sets for Dust to Digital Records: “Art of Field Recording”, Vol. I and II (2007 and 2008).

[3] As “South Georgia Blues” by William Robertson (SLP – 5); Fat Possum Records issued some material on “The George Mitchell Collection” (FP 1039)

[4] Rosenbaum: Art of Field Recording, Vol. 1 – p. 55. Dust-to-Digital Records.

[5] Mitchell: the George Mitchell Collection” – Fat Possum, Vol. 1-45.

[6] The other was Guitar Shorty (John Henry Fortescue) in NC. I’m sure there were worse.

[7] Same source as note 4

[8] “South Georgia Blues: William Robertson” (a/k/a Cecil Barfield) – Southland Records SLP-5.

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