The W. B. Thomas Gospel Chorus of the Greater Macedonia Baptist Church, Athens, Georgia (1977), by Margo Newmark Rosenbaum
By Art Rosenbaum
One summer evening in 1981, I knocked on the door of a modest house on a street improbably named the Plaza in Athens, Georgia, looking for a man who, I had been told, knew some old-time work songs. Around town, people were aware that I was interested in the vernacular, rather than the popular, music of the region, and an acquaintance had heard an African-American cement finisher he hired to put in a driveway singing a song to the strokes of his pickax. The listener recognized this as the kind of work songs John and Alan Lomax and others had recorded in the prisons of the South, and called me. When a very portly Henry Grady Terrell opened the door, we both said, almost in unison, “I know you!”
We had met before, at the home of gospel singers Doc and Lucy Barnes on the other side of town, a house that Terrell had named the Holy Ghost Headquarters, because, in Doc’s words, “We have more singing here than in any church!” Terrell had sung informally and in gospel groups with Doc, and had given up the singing of worldly songs—unless he thought no one was listening—so at first he was reluctant to admit to knowing the work songs. After some persuasion he agreed to give it a try, and we went over to Doc’s house, where “Big Boy” Terrell started swinging a pickax—he couldn’t give voice to the song without doing the work it was bound to—and sang:
I’m gonna ring—whah!—this old hammer—whah!
I’m gonna ring—whah!—this old hammer—whah!
And then go home—whah!—oh partner—whah!—and then go home—whah!
Ol’ John Henry died on the mountain
He was a-whipping steel
Ain’t gonna tell nobody my right name,
My name is Sam, and I don’t give a—whah!
Anybody ask you was I running,
Tell ’em I was flying
I’m going ’cross the Blue Ridge Mountain
’Fore the sun goes down.
Terrell’s singing was no rough chant, but showed a mastery of phrasing and vocal ornamentation. He demonstrated how he and his fellow workers would take a break by twirling the pick over his head, like the rotors of a helicopter, to amuse the boss man while they caught their breath. His song evoked hard times, grueling labor, and the determination of a man “scouting,” escaping across the mountains. He had never been in prison, but he learned the songs from former convicts and others on road gangs. He reaffirmed that he preferred to sing spiritual songs, but “the other kind of singing, that’s way back when you were—beating a dog with a ’simmon tree! The world was on fire, then. They put that fire out, on them jobs.”
When I moved to Athens in 1976, to teach studio art at the university, the influential rock music scene was yet to burst forth. I soon met the fiddler and singer Gordon Tanner, son of Gid Tanner, founder of the 1920s and ’30s string band the Skillet Lickers, who lived between Athens and Atlanta; the Ellers, a family of old-time musicians in the mountains a couple of hours north; Maude Thacker, a mountain singer of old ballads; and many more. When the rock scene did emerge, most—though not all—of its young musicians were ignorant of and indifferent to the vernacular music of the region. Michael Stipe, a curly-haired and intensely imaginative student in my class—later to be the front man of the celebrated rock band R.E.M.—for example, was more interested in the type of creativity and aura projected by Andy Warhol than by earlier blues, or even r&b, said to be the sources of rock & roll. This would change, at least for Michael, when he met Reverend Howard Finster, whose prolific and antic creativity burst forth in his famed Paradise Garden up in northwest Georgia, where Finster showed that one (at least he) could make art out of the fusion of imagination and what could be found in the county dump, although he ascribed his process to God. And Finster was a singer, a rough-and-ready banjo-picker, a songsmith, and a poet—actually one of the finer American vernacular voices. Another change in Michael’s respect for regional traditional music came when Brant Slay, a mutual friend, played for him a recording I had made of Cecil Barfield, a South Georgia bluesman. First recorded by George Mitchell, Barfield never attained great fame or traveled far beyond his tenant shack, although his intensity has been compared to the best Delta bluesmen. I don’t know that Barfield directly influenced R.E.M., but as Ezra Pound said, “artists are the antennae of the race,” and antennae do connect with one another.
Doc and Lucy had been my first connection to the enduring traditions of African-American music in the Athens area. Shortly after my arrival in town, a young white guitar finger-picker named Bill Giles told me I needed to meet Doc, who played “the old style.” That he did, and the wiry, earnest septuagenarian and his ever-amused wife and singing partner, Lucy, introduced me and my wife, Margo—who photographed the musicians I was meeting and recording—to many African-American singers of sacred music, some players and singers of blues and pre-blues music, and some who accepted both. (Fiddler/guitarist Joe Rakestraw had performed in string bands with his brothers at country dances on Saturday nights and played spirituals on Sunday—this was all right with his father, he said, as long as he didn’t pat his foot.)
The Barneses took us not only to services but to singings at African-American churches, where we were always welcomed, often told, “Our church doors swing on welcome hinges.” At these singings, groups or choirs from many churches could come by and offer two selections of their own; this gave us the opportunity to hear practitioners of myriad styles, from modern gospel to very old antebellum spiritual and hymn singing. The Brown’s Chapel Choir of Bishop was a powerful proponent of the latter tradition. Another was Doc and Lucy’s group, the W. B. Thomas Gospel Chorus of the Macedonia Baptist Church in Athens. If one’s idea of an African-American church choir resembles a large group of gowned singers swaying from side to side together as they sing, neither the Brown’s Chapel Choir nor the Gospel Chorus conform.
Doc and Lucy’s group consisted of one man and four women, who sang old spirituals in an a cappella style harking back to pre-Emancipation days. They accepted Doc’s rhythmic guitar for some songs, but their strength was in forging a unity from the individuality of each singer: the oldest, Sister Naomi Bradford, had a voice that soared like a swallow and her presence, with her flowing white hair, anchored the group; Doc’s sister, Clyde Gilmore, stood stolid and sang almost to herself; Mavis Moon was a rock of endurance in voice and presence; and Lucy chuckled at the diverse approaches of her fellow singers, even as her voice gave a sweet continuity to the singing. Their repertoires were vast: in a side table Doc kept a notebook in which he had written the titles of several hundred sacred songs he and Lucy could sing. A verse of just one of them:
I met my elder this mornin’
Goin’ up the hill so soon.
Got to make heaven in due time
Before the heaven door close.
I say, wake me, Lord, shake me Lord!
Don’t let me sleep too late.
Get up early in the mornin’,
Gonna swing on the golden gate.
Yes, and there was worldly music, too, in the black community of Athens, music that, like Terrell’s work songs and Rakestraw’s blues and frolic fiddling, harked back to earlier times. Most of this could only be found in homes, back porches, and house parties and dances. There was some commercial entertainment, notably at the Morton Theatre. Established in 1910, and still in use today, the Morton was the only venue in town for black professional entertainers, among them early bluesmen Roy Dunn, Curley Weaver, and Blind Willie McTell. Very few Athenians were among the performers whose talents were tapped by early commercial recording companies, but this was happenstance rather than merit. I was told by a retired down-home musician, William Arthur Lumpkin, that there were, in the 1920s, more than thirty excellent local black musicians in Athens and environs who played fiddle, banjo, guitar, twelve-string guitar, and more, who could be called on to play in juke joints and at fish-fries and frolics.
One old-style musician who was still in his prime when we met him was the blues harp player and singer Neal Pattman. He had lost an arm in a boyhood farm accident, but could bend notes on his harmonica as well as any two-armed player. His music was strictly local in his early years, at country gatherings and at a juke joint he ran in “the bottoms” near the railroad station. Late in life, he was recognized as a fine performer of pre-blues traditional pieces like “John Henry” and “Lost John,” as well as rural and, later, urban blues, and even sacred music. In 1980, he was invited to play at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and toured in Europe. I treasure the memory of going to the Winnipeg Folk Festival with Neal, two young white musicians, Brant Slay and Ben Reynolds—whose “swamp rock” duo was called the Chickasaw Mudd Puppies—and Precious Bryant, a South Georgia blueswoman of Neal’s generation. I suggested a set called “Georgia House Party.” We had never all played together. We started with a sound check, which moved seamlessly into a stream of songs, tunes, blues, and played for an hour. We had the time of our lives, and the audience seemed pleased as well.
Shortly after I met the Barneses, Doc said that I should meet Jim and Mae Wills. Jim, who could play “anything with strings on it,” had worked in the cotton mills with Doc, and the couples were friends and played music together. Knowing that black and white music forms had mingled and cross-pollinated for generations in Southern music, I was not surprised to learn that the Willses were white. And Neal Pattman had not only swapped tunes and licks with the Chickasaw Mudd Puppies but he had a band of admiring white sidemen in his later-life gigs. These instances of black and white musical friendships and interchanges in one community are not exceptional but typical in the South, over decades, even centuries. Whites learned banjo culture from blacks; blacks took up the European fiddle; blacks adapted white hymnody to their church culture; in the cotton ports, black banjo songs morphed into stevedore and sea chanteys; and blues early on crossed racial lines—the examples are endless.
The older black secular music has, in Athens as elsewhere, been largely superseded by new forms of blues and rap. Doc and Lucy’s nephew, Mickey Gilmore, still blows a little bit of blues harp, but the days when musicians like Joe Peelin blew his quills on Broad Street and Fred Sheats would play old-time guitar rags as his dogs danced on Hot Corner are long gone. Some traditional African-American churches maintain the traditions of lined-out hymns and old-fashioned spirituals. And Rev. Willie Mae Eberhart still beats time on her tambourine to her intense singing of gospel songs and jubilees in her Sanctified church, even as she misses the rolling piano of her late friend, Mother Fleeta Mitchell. Fleeta, and her husband, Rev. Nathaniel Mitchell, were also close friends and singing companions of Doc and Lucy in the milieu of Athens black religious singing that I was fortunate to encounter and record. Fleeta and Nathaniel met in the 1920s at the Georgia Academy for the Blind in Macon, where two of their classmates were Pearly Brown (later Reverend Pearly Brown) and Blind Willie McTell. A charming vignette from those years that Mother Mitchell shared with me: she played the part of Little Red Riding Hood in a school play, and Willie McTell played the wood-chopper who saved her from the Big Bad Wolf. In later years, after a period of fame as an early blues and spiritual recording artist, McTell would visit Athens and play at church with his old schoolmates. That would have been something to hear!
Athens, Georgia, is still a music town; as for the local vernacular music, most has faded away. There are fine younger musicians who play Irish music and sing sea chanteys at the Globe pub, and lots of string band and blues enthusiasts among the students and townies. The North Georgia Folk Festival had its thirty-first year at Sandy Creek Park in 2015. The present-day Skillet Lickers performed at the festival in 2014, but most of the old-timers of the region who shared the stage with younger musicians are gone: banjo-pickers W. Guy Bruce and Mabel Cawthorn, the Ellers from Towns County, the Mitchells, Joe Rakestraw, Neal Pattman, Doc and Lucy.
A few strands of tradition remain, some in the old-time churches, some strictly within family circles, with folks who treasure songs passed down from earlier generations. I know that the late Dr. Ben Barrow’s daughters, Betty and Nancy, will continue to love and sing the ditties they learned as girls from their father, as they rode around with him on house calls. One is “Mammy Black Cat”:
If I had a thousand bricks I’d build my chimney higher
To keep old mammy black cat from jumping in the fire.
And lay ten dollars down, and count them one by one.
And lay ten dollars down, and count them two by two.
Occasionally Bill Presley will show up at the J & J Flea Market north of Athens, offering novelty instruments of his own invention, like the “pan-jo,” an aluminum frying pan with five banjo strings running over the back along an accurately fretted hand-carved neck; flip it over, and Bill has painted realistic eggs and bacon on the inside. He grew up in a sharecropping family, and plays a “real” guitar and sings old ballads like “John Riley” and new songs of his own composition like “The Flea Market Blues.” He is white, and his hero is Martin Luther King Jr.; his family detested the Ku Klux Klan.
As I write, I look forward to hearing mountain singers Bonnie Loggins and Mary Lomax, down from Habersham County. Octogenarian Mary might sing one of the many old British ballads she knows, and if she’s up to it, her nonagenarian sister, Bonnie, will sing a song her father, Lemuel Payne, born in 1884, had sung to her:
I’ll drink and be jolly and pass away folly,
I’ll drink it away in a bottle of wine.
I’ll drink it away in full flowing bumper,
I’ll play on my fiddle and pass away time.
From "Athenx x Athens", a special selection from our Georgia Music Issue, Winter 2015.
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