Documenting Gravel Springs, Mississippi, in the 1970s: Dr. Cheryl Thurber and Rising Star Fife and Drum

Othar Turner blowing fife at picnic 1973. Photographed by Cheryl Thurber.

One week from today, Monday February 25.

Documenting Gravel Springs, Mississippi, in the 1970s

Exhibition opening with lecture by Dr. Cheryl Thurber and performance by Rising Star Fife and Drum
5:30 p.m. Reception and exhibition viewing
6:00 p.m. Lecture
7:00 p.m. Performance
Scenes and sounds of African-American musical traditions from Mississippi will greet visitors to Wilson Library during the opening of a new photographic exhibition in the Pleasants Family Assembly Room.
“Cheryl Thurber Photographs: Documenting Gravel Springs, Mississippi, in the 1970s” will launch with a talk by the photographer and a performance by Rising Star Fife and Drum.
Thurber is an interdisciplinary scholar, cultural historian, folklorist and photographer whose images have been published in the New York Times and Rolling Stone, as well as in numerous music and folklore publications.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Thurber traveled through the South and California, documenting African-American communities, musicians and musical traditions, including in the small town of Gravel Springs, Mississippi. Thirty prints from Thurber’s time in Gravel Springs will be on view. They are part of the Cheryl Thurber Photographic Collection in the Southern Folklife Collection at the Wilson Special Collections Library.
Following Thurber’s talk, Rising Star Fife and Drum will take the stage for a traditional performance of this iconic form of blues music.
Presented by the Southern Folklife Collection at the Wilson Special Collections Library, the American Studies department and the Center for the Study of the American South.

Frank Hovington materials at the SFC

Frank Hovington posing in front of his Fenton, Delaware home in April of 1978
Frank Hovington posing in front of his Felton, Delaware home in April of 1978. A still image from the video “Frank Hovington at home, Felton, Del., 30 April 1978” (VT-20466/21) in the Robert D. Bethke Collection.

One of my personal favorites in the Robert D. Bethke Collection (20466) is a video recording (VT-20466/21) of Frank Hovington playing guitar and singing at his home in Felton, Deleware back in April of 1978.
The Bethke Collection contains several original analog audio and video recordings of Frank Hovington (1919-1982), an American blues musician who was known for playing his guitar in the Piedmont blues style.
It’s a fascinating story how Frank (aka Guitar Frank), a man who lived the majority of his life in the state of Delaware, began playing the Piedmont blues. Music was in his family (Frank’s grandfather belonged to a fife and drum corps and his paternal uncle played piano and organ), but it was Frank’s neighbor, Adam Greenfield, who influenced him the most. Greenfield was a former Pullman porter from New Bern, North Carolina, who eventually bought a farm and settled about three miles from the Hovington family’s farm. According to Frank,
“They used to have what they called parties on a Saturday night, house-hops, and I would go ’round with my father and sit and hear [Adam Greenfield] play…and that was when I was first inspired to play banjo and guitar through him…I was only around five or six years old and I used to love to get right near him and watch that guitar and watch his fingers when he was playing and my father used to let me go and stay and watch him, so every time he used to be around town, I’d always make it my way to find where he was and listen to that guitar.”*
Frank Hovington on stage holding a guitar and talking into a microphone
Frank Hovington talking to elementary school students in February of 1979. A still image from the video “Frank Hovington at George M. Gray Elementary School, Wilmington, Del., 23 February 1979: tape 1 of 2 ” (VT-20466/36) in the Robert D. Bethke Collection.

Another video (VT-20466/36VT-20466/37) in the Bethke Collection documents Frank telling his Piedmont blues origin story to a group of elementary school students. I highly recommend checking this footage out. Not only do you get to see Frank tell his own story, but you also get to hear Frank play his songs to an enthusiastic audience of children, whose little voices and rowdy responses add a really special element to the video.
Now back to the 1978 footage of Frank I mentioned above. Robert D. Bethke, a folklorist who taught courses at the University of Delaware from 1977 to 2000, shot this particular video on portapak, a portable analog video tape recording system introduced in 1967 that made it possible to shoot and record video outside of a studio.
the front cover and inside of the 1/2" open reel video shot by Robert D. Bethke in 1978
the front cover (left) and a peek inside (right) of the original 1/2″ open reel video (VT-20466/21) shot by Robert D. Bethke in 1978

The video features Frank playing such traditional songs as “Railroad Blues” and “John Henry”. We also catch a glimpse of his home and property, on what looks like a nice, sunny spring day.
Thanks to a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant, this particular video (+ over 80 audio and video recordings found in the Bethke Collection!) have been preserved and are now accessible through the Bethke Collection finding aid (streaming access to the collection’s audio and video materials is limited to the UNC campus at this time). For your enjoyment, we’ve edited this short clip that features Frank playing “John Henry” :

"John Henry" lyrics transcribed from video recording VT-20466/21:

John asked his captain,
When are you goin' to town?
If you bring me a twenty pound hammer,
Beat a little steel back on down, hey gal
Beat a little steel back on
Beat a little steel back on down
Well, who been here since I been gone?
Well, who gonna kiss your rosy cheeks?
Well, who gonna shoe your cozy feet?
John Henry's woman, she talked so fair
Get my shoes from a steel-drivin' man
Kisses from a millionaire, hey gal
Kisses from a millionaire
Kisses from a millionaire
John Henry asked his captain,
When are you goin' to town?
If you bring me a twenty pound hammer,
Beat a little steel back on down
Beat a little steel back on
Beat a little steel back on down
Early in the morning, 'bout the break of day
Heard a voice in the wilderness, cryin,
Well, my side givin' away
Well, my left side givin' away
Well, my left side givin' away
Well, Who been here since I been gone?
Well, who gonna kiss your rosy cheeks?
Who's gonna be your man?
Who's gonna be your man?
John Henry's woman, well, she talked so fair
Get my shoes from a steel-drivin' man
Kisses from a millionaire, hey gal
Kisses from a millionaire
Kisses from a millionaire
Well, who been here since I been gone?
John Henry's woman, name was Polly Ann
Day she heard John Henry died
She drove steel like a man, hey gal
She drove steel like a man
She drove steel like a man

Frank may be best known for his album Lonesome Road Blues, which like the video clip above, features intimate home recordings of Hovington, but this time on guitar, vocals, AND banjo. Folklorist, Bruce Bastin, and musicologist, Dick Spottswood, made the album recordings at Frank’s home over a July weekend in 1975, just three years before Bethke made his way to the same address. The album was released by Bastin’s label, Flyright Records, in 1976 (FLY LP 522) and then again by Rounder Records in 1979 (Rounder Records 2017).

LP covers of Lonesome Road Blues by Frank Hovington
FLY LP 522 (left) and Rounder Records 2017 (right)

The Southern Folklife Collection has copies of both of these releases (pictured above), as well as materials relating to the Flyright release in the Bruce Bastin Collection (20428). We invite you to dig through all of these materials across SFC’s collections to get to know Frank Hovington and his music. A good start may be Bastin’s impressive liner notes on Lonesome Road Blues, as well as the subject files and images of Frank found in the Robert D. Bethke Collection. Happy sleuthing.
*Frank Hovington quote taken from Bruce Bastin’s liner notes to Frank Hovington: Lonesome Road Blues.- Flyright FLYLP 522 (1976)

Congratulations Bill Ferris! "Voices of Mississippi" box set wins two Grammys

Double Grammy award winning box set released by Dust-To-Digital in 2018. Produced from materials in the William R. Ferris Collection (20367).

photo by Marcie Cohen Ferris

We were thrilled to see our colleague, collaborator, and constant source of inspiration Dr. William R. Ferris honored with two Grammy awards at yesterday’s ceremony for the box set Voices of Mississippi: Artists and Musicians Documented by William Ferris. Ferris, along with compilation producers April Ledbetter and Lance Ledbetter of record label Dust-to-Digital and mastering engineer, Michael Graves, received Grammy recognition for “Best Historical Album” and Ferris, along with David Evans, also won for “Best Album Notes.”  Materials for the box set come from the William R. Ferris Collection (20367) that is part of the Southern Folklife Collection at Wilson Special Collections Library here in the University Libraries at UNC Chapel Hill.
Over the past decade, archivists, audio engineers, photo technicians, students, researchers, and Bill Ferris himself have worked to arrange, describe, and digitize the more than 250,000 sound recordings, photographs, videos, films, papers, and ephemera that make up the William R. Ferris Collection. Thanks to the dedicated teams at Wilson Library and with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, a few thousand of these sound recordings, videos, films, and photos are digitized and can be streamed or viewed in their entirety online. It’s exciting to think of listeners hearing a track on Voices of Mississippi and then be able to find that recording and many others in the William R. Ferris Collection (20367) finding aid.  They may want to hear more of Lovey Williams, or to hear James “Son” Thomas playing in a juke joint, or Fannie Bell Chapman singing in her back yard

SFC Audio Open Reel FT-20367/10256

(digitized)

Ferris Folklore Tapes: James “Son” Thomas, Shelby Brown. FFT 41-69-5/24

SFC Audio Open Reel FT-20367/11175

(digitized)

Lovey Williams blues

SFC Audio Open Reel FT-20367/9958

(digitized)

Fannie Bell Chapman: Singing in back yard, 10 August 1973. FCT 68-73-8/10

These examples are the smallest sample of the opportunities available to interested researchers and listeners and explorers of the rich cultural history and beautiful human artistry documented by Dr. Ferris. B. B. King recorded at home, extensive conversations with brilliant minds like Eudora Welty, Walker Evans, Alice Walker, tales told by Ray Lum and Victor Bob and many, many others are streaming online.  There are also thousands of photographs digitized and searchable through the William R. Ferris Collection Digital Photographs.

Bill Ferris, Bruce Payne (WOKJ radio announcer), and Robert Slattery (sound technician) in the WOKJ radio station during the production of the film “Give My Poor Heart Ease.” In DJ booth of radio station. Bill Ferris on left holds a soda bottle. DJ seated is talking with Ferris.
Bill Ferris, Bruce Payne (WOKJ radio announcer), and Robert Slattery (sound technician) in the WOKJ radio station during the production of the film “Give My Poor Heart Ease.

It is exciting to see recognition for the work that Dr. Ferris dedicated his life to. It is also exciting to see recognition for the people of Mississippi who, in Bill’s words, “so courageously shared their stories.”
That list is long, but to start, thanks to Scott Dunbar, Lovey Williams, Walter Lee Hood, Tom Dumas, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Wash Heron, Wallace “Pine-Top” Johnson, Sonny Boy Watson, Mary Alice McGowan, The Southland Hummingbirds, Liddle Hines, Mary and Amanda Gordon, Reverend Isaac Thomas, Bobby Rush, Barry Hannah, Joe Cooper, Joe Skillet, Shelby “Poppa Jazz” Brown, Pete Seeger, Charles Seeger, Imamu Amiri Baraka, Victor Bobb, Cleanth Brooks, Fannie Bell Chapman, Edith Clark, Leon “Peck” Clark, Bill Clinton,
Eudora Welty on left in white sweater, Bill Ferris on right with sport coat. they are standing outside
Eudora Welty at her home on Pinehurst Place in Jackson, Mississippi, 1976. William R. Ferris Collection (20367)

Hillary Rodham Clinton, Willie Dixon, John Dollard, Louis Dotson, Walker Evans, Marcie Cohen Ferris, Shelby Foote, Ernest J. Gaines, Allen Ginsberg, Theora Hamblett,Bessie Jones, B.B. King, Alan Lomax, Ray Lum, Arthur Miller, Ethel Wright Mohamed, Ola Belle Reed, Harry Smith, James “Son” Thomas, Othar Turner, Alice Walker, Pecolia Warner, Robert Penn Warren, Eudora Welty, and members of the Rose Hill Baptist Church in Vicksburg, Miss.
Our sincerest thanks and gratitude to all of these individuals and many more unnamed, for their willingness to share parts of their lives with Dr. Ferris and then with all of us.  But once more, many congratulations to our friend Bill Ferris and his fellow award winners Lance, April, Michael, and David. We can’t wait to hear what stories you will turn up next.
BB King lying on a couch asleep before a show
B. B. King in repose. Photo by William Ferris. William R. Ferris Collection (20367)

Southern Artists in the Judith McWillie Papers

Last year we digitized over 100 videos from the Judith McWillie Papers documenting a diverse set of artists at work. Focusing primarily on southern artists (with an emphasis on Georgia natives), McWillie spent hours filming in homes, studios and yards from the mid-1980s to late 1990s before focusing her lens on Cuban art in the 2000s.
Below is a sampling of screenshots from some of these videos, which were originally brought to the Southern Folklife Collection on Video8 or VHS, and are now available through the Judith McWillie Papers finding aid (20455).

Precious Bryant sit and tunes her acoustic guitar
Precious Bryant tuning her guitar in Waverly Hall, GA on August 8, 1986 (VT-20455/16)

Mary T. Smith stands at a table outside, holding her canvas with two cats in the background
Mary T. Smith is asked to paint her cats in Hazlehurst, MS on December 15th, 1986 (VT-20455/26)

A painting of two yellow cats against a black background stands upright on a table
Cats in progress (VT-20455/26)

Robert Beauchamp stands in his studio surrounded by canvasses of his artwork
Robert Beauchamp in his studio in Athens, GA on May 26th, 1984 (VT-20455/93)

Wadsworth Jarrell sits in front of his paintings
Wadsworth Jarrell discussing his work in Athens, GA on June 9th, 1984 (VT-20455/94)

colorful portrait of a boy using purple, yellow, red, blue and white values
Close up of painting by Jarrell featured in the exhibition AFRICOBRA III at Howard University in 1973 (VT-20455/94)

silhouette of trees and flock of black birds against purple, yellow and pink sunset
McWillie takes a break from interviewing and videotapes formations made by a flock of birds in Athens, GA (VT-20455/15)

Judith McWillie is professor emeritus of drawing and painting at the Lamar Dodd School of Art at the University of Georgia. Preservation and access to these materials was made possible by funding through our Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant, Extending the Reach of Southern Audiovisual Sources.