"Now What a Time":
Blues, Gospel, and the Fort Valley Music Festivals,
The sky, lazily disdaining to pursue
The setting sun, too indolent to hold
A lengthened tournament for flashing gold,
Passively darkens for night’s barbecue,
A feast of moon and men and barking hounds,
An orgy for some genius of the South
With blood-hot eyes and cane-lipped scented mouth,
Surprised in making folk-songs from soul sounds.
--Jean Toomer, “Georgia Dusk”
The United States Congress has declared 2003 the year of the blues—in part because W.C. Handy “discovered” an itinerant Mississippi slide guitarist in 1903. Thus, it is appropriate that we now turn our attention to "Now What a Time": Blues, Gospel, and the Fort Valley Music Festivals, 1938-1943, which offers access to an archive of African-American folk music (mostly blues and gospel) recorded by African-American professors. This multimedia website contains:
- Approximately 100 sound recordings of blues and gospel songs, which can be streamed through a media player or downloaded as mp3 files (the MP3 Format is the default in the archive; if that won't play for you, click on Additional Audio Formats, and you will find a link for Real Audio [RealPlayer])
- Biographies of the professors who recorded the music and a historical essay by Bruce Bastin on “noncommercial” recordings made in the 1940s
Unlike "field" recordings made by white ethnomusicologists in artificial environments, the performances on this website were captured at a “black folk music festival run entirely by blacks” (Bastin). As a result, this archive allows visitors to eavesdrop on an African-American community singing and speaking to itself.
- Letters and other manuscripts pertaining to the festivals
Discussions on African-American folk music have often focused on two claims:Both claims are undoubtedly true, but overemphasizing them has led to a distorted view of African-American folk culture. This music is more than a precursor to other forms of music (specifically rock and roll) that have become popular in our larger, white-dominated society.
- the roots of all popular American music can be found in African-American blues and gospel music
- African-Americans have expressed their anger and discontent through these musical outlets.
Blues and gospel music has served a variety of functions within the African-American community. Moreover, the performance of this music is more than group commiseration; rather, it evokes a full range of emotions that reflect complicated responses to racism and oppression.
In this unit, you will encounter music that may sound strange and alien to you. Whereas T.V. documentaries and archival CDs are packaged for general consumption, the "Now What a Time" website has not been pre-cooked to make it palatable to new listeners. This week’s challenges will include making sense of these musical sounds and placing them into their historical context. You may decide that you have acquired a taste for this music, or you may decide it’s not your cup of tea. Either way, I hope you will begin to grasp the complexity of African-American folk culture.
This week your assignment will be:
- to listen to several hours of music from the past
- to be an historian
- and to construct your own historical presentation of authentic African-American folk music
And we owe it to history to try to understand the truth about how the music grew and evolved, not to create romantic fictions about prisons, misery, and Devils at the crossroads. --Elijah Wald, “Respecting the Blues Makers” in Living Blues Magazine