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Primary Sources for Musical Learning: Supporting and Critiquing America during WWII: Primary Sources from the Fort Valley Music Festivals

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This post is by Carolyn Bennett, the 2018-2019 Library of Congress Teacher in Residence.

The Peachite Vol. II, No. 2, Folk Festival Number, March 1944

Among dangling hams and crates of eggs, the voices of Georgia folk musicians filled the Fort Valley State College campus every spring. The festival, held in conjunction with the agricultural extension’s Ham and Egg Show, attracted the attention of John W. Work, W.C. Handy, and John Lomax – leading to its documentation by the Library’s American Folklife Center in the early 1940’s. By 1943, with the U.S. deep in World War II, many artists turned to patriotic themes. How did these African American changemakers express support for their nation while still recognizing the complexity of its imperfections? The multidimensional nature of music allows artists to explore and communicate such complex perspectives. Through exploring the Fort Valley recordings, students can discern how performers connect musical elements and cultural referents to create strong, nuanced messages.

The Library has 1941 field recordings of Buster Ezell, a cornerstone of the Fort Valley festivals, performing “The Boll Weevil” and “The Salt Water Blues,” among others. By 1943, Ezell returned to Fort Valley with several new pieces and a new wartime perspective. “Do Right By My Country (Do Right By Me)” exemplifies his message: Forthright in wartime patriotism and circumspect in critique of injustice at home.

Roosevelt and Hitler from The Peachite Vol. II, No. 2, Folk Festival Number, March 1944

Ezell’s Roosevelt and Hitler invites close analysis; lyrics published in The Peachite campus quarterly help listeners understand Ezell’s perspective. For example, when social studies teachers from Fulton County Public Schools in Georgia recently examined the song through their work in the Library’s Teaching with Primary Sources program, they readily identified lyrics that support the war efforts; Ezell’s critiques of racial injustice emerged only upon much closer observation. Ask students: How does Ezell use musical elements of instrumentation, vocal tone, phrasing, and melody to strengthen his lyrical message?

As the editor’s note suggests, Bus Ezell was using more than pitches and rhythms to communicate his viewpoint. Ezell used cultural touchstones, familiar to his audience, to amplify his subtle undertones of critique. Though the core musical idea likely predates emancipation, “Strange things are happening in this land,” was first recorded by Blind Joe Taggart in 1929. Two years later, it was recorded for radio by Rev. A. W. Nix and broadcast widely throughout the south; many Fort Valley concertgoers could have heard it. Roosevelt and Hitler draws heavily from this widely-known theme. Why might Ezell root his piece in a religious song heralding the end times?

Picketers with signs: “Help the Southern Tenant Farmers Union,” Where is Mrs. Myers Report?” “Sharecroppers are Denied Civil Liberties,” etc. Harris & Ewing, 1935

In 1936 John L. Handcox, a leader of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, adapted the song to “Mean Things Happening In This Land.” It was performed at strikes and marches supporting economic justice for farmers. By examining this photograph, students may notice several ways the progressive union prefigured the Civil Rights movement. Through nonviolent efforts, African American and white farmers worked together, often experiencing severe persecution. How can Ezell’s song be interpreted in relation to the work of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union?

“Mean Things Happening In This Land” foreshadowed the tradition of song adaptation that accompanied the Civil Rights Movement; it was later recorded by Pete Seeger and more recent artists. Invite students to identify similar techniques in the music they listen to today: How do musical changemakers create depth of meaning by weaving familiar melodies, rhythms, and lyrics with new ideas?

Want to learn more about blues music at the Library of Congress?  Join Carolyn Bennett’s webinar, “Creatively Exploring the 12-Bar Blues,” April 30 at 4 PM.  Register here.

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