Alabama Black Belt Blues
Alabama Public Television Education

PREMIERING FALL 2020

ALABAMA BLACK BELT BLUES

Alabama Black Belt Blues is the first film in a new series, Alabama StoryMakers, from Alabama Public Television.

Alabama's blues tradition, centered in its fertile Black Belt, is more rural than the well-known Mississippi Delta blues and in some sense closer to the original source. What is known as the blues developed out of the slave culture of the 19th century and lives on today in the impoverished yet culturally rich Alabama Black Belt. The work of John and Alan Lomax along with Pickens County native Ruby Pickens Tartt during the 1930s and 40s brought Alabama's Black Belt blues music to the fore with their recordings of Vera Hall, Dock Reed, Rich Amerson and a host of other singers, some previously unknown. As the film will demonstrate, Alabama's Black Blues tradition is still strong today.

Alabama Black Belt Blues uses slave narratives, archival blues recordings and the recorded music of contemporary African American blues musicians to explore the role this music has played in the region from slavery onward. From cotton fields, to church pews, to prison spaces, to juke joints rural and urban, the film follows the refrain of the region's blues through the cultural landscapes of Alabama, yesterday and today.

PRODUCER/DIRECTOR

Robert Clem

Robert (Bob) Clem, is an Alabama native, graduate of Birmingham-Southern College, and graduate of New York University’s graduate film school. His most recent feature film, How They Got Over: Gospel Quartets and the Road to Rock ‘n Roll has won multiple awards and appeared in 26 film festivals in Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia and the U.S. and screened at both the Grammy Museum in Los Angelos and the County Music Hall of Fame. Big Jim Folsom: The Two Faces of Populism (1997); William March/Company K (2004); John Patterson: In the Wake of the Assassins (2007); Eugene Walter: Last of the Bohemians (2008); Malbis Plantation: Greece to America (2009); The Jefferson County Sound (2012); The Passion of Miss Augusta (2016); and The Two Worlds of William March (2017). A sample of his work as an ethnographic cinematographer in West Africa can be seen in Mali in Five Minutes (2010).

BLUES LEGENDS OF THE ALABAMA BLACK BELT

Very Hall

"BIRMINGHAM" GEORGE CONNOR (1934-2016)

The late "Birmingham" George Conner (1934-2016), born in Aliceville, is one of the fathers of the Chicago Blues. The author of songs performed by famous "blues" artists, such as Howlin' Wolf, B. B. King and others, he was late Willie King's guitar teacher. In the early 1950s, Connor left Aliceville for Chicago to achieve his dream of becoming a "blues" musician. It was there that "Windy City" musicians christened him "Birmingham" George, a nickname that followed him during his musical career. According to Connor, "nobody knew where Aliceville was, and when people asked me where I came from, I would say Birmingham, the most known city in Alabama. This is how I became Birmingham George." Alabama Black Belt Blues features, among others, Connor's music and footage of his pioneer of country blues performances as well as an interview with his daughter.

Very Hall

VERA HALL, BLUES SINGER (1902 - 1964)

Adele “Vera” Ward Hall is considered by many music fans to be the foremost singer of the “blues” and African American spirituals to come out of Depression-era Alabama. Vera Hall, as she is popularly known, recorded, with the help of Alabama folklorist Ruby Pickens Tartt, a large body of work for ethnomusicologists working for the Library of Congress.

Hall was born in Payneville, a small community, just outside of Livingston in Sumter County, Alabama. Sumter County folklorist, Tartt, introduced Hall to folklorist and ethnomusicologist John Avery Lomax during his 1937 travels in the Southeast gathering music from the fields, churches and community gatherings. Lomax collected these oral histories, song recordings and images of Alabama’s Black Belt for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Library of Congress’ Archive of American Folk-Song.

Hearing the recordings made by Lomax and Tartt, others traveled to Sumter County to do their own recordings, and Hall became one of the most sought-after singers. In the 1940s, she gained an international audience when the British Broadcasting Corporation played her recording of “Another Man Done Gone” as an example of folk music in the United States. Later, the recording was played during a commemoration ceremony of the Emancipation Proclamation at the Library of Congress. In 1948, Hall travelled with Alan Lomax, John’s son, to New York where she performed at the American Music Festival at Columbia University. After 1959, little is known of her life other than she continued to work as a laundress and cook.

Vera Hall died and was buried in the Livingston Cemetery near Morning Star Baptist Church. Her gravesite was lost sometime during the 1970s after the wooden cross marking the site was bulldozed. In 2005, Vera Hall was inducted in the Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame and the Alabama Black Belt Halls of Fame.

Tartt scholar Tina Naremore Jones notes in the Encyclopedia of Alabama that Vera Hall’s “examples of early blues and versions of folk songs appear than can be found nowhere else. (Her) voice and her renditions of traditional songs are a defining part of Southern Black culture and the Alabama Black Belt region.” Hall’s music is widely available and continues to influence contemporary artists, such as Moby, and attract new audiences.

Dr. Tina Naremore Jones
Professor of English
Center for the Study of the Black Belt
University of West Alabama, Livingston

Doc Reed
ZEBEDIAH “DOC” REED (1898-1979)

Zebediah “Doc” or “Dock” Reed and Ruby Pickens Tartt’s working relationship and friendship spanned more than 40 years. Reed was the cousin of Vera Hall and the two often sang spirituals together. Reed’s baritone voice boasts a distinctive sound; his duets with Hall often evoke that of a congregation “feeling the music” together. A deeply spiritual man, Reed declined to perform any songs he considered “sinful,” “wicked“ or “worl’l.” Tartt first heard him sing at Pilgrim’s Church, an event that is recorded in Carl Carmer’s Stars Fell on Alabama.

During John Lomax’s first recording trip to Sumter County, Alabama, the WPA folklorist and ethnomusicologist recorded Hall and Reed singing “Mourin’ Song,” “Oh, Jesus, Jes’ Write My Name,” and “Let Me Ride” together. In Lomax’s 1947 autobiography, Adventures of a Ballad Hunter, he wrote of Reed, "...his speaking and singing voice --deep, vibrant, resonant, tremulous at times--always tore at my heartstrings, brought chilly sensations along my spine.”

Lomax’s admiration of Reed never failed, nor did he ever fail to inquire of the deeply spiritual man in his letters to Tartt, nor visit him when in Livingston. Following Lomax’s death, Tartt reported she and Reed wept and sang spirituals together. Reed, in turn, as a soloist and during the reading of the prayers, would do the same at Tartt’s funeral in 1974. For Reed, spirituals comforted and celebrated both the singer and the listener.

While Reed made his living as a farmer in Alabama’s rural Black Belt, he also was known locally as a talented split-oak chair and basket maker. Today, Doc Reed’s songs and his baskets continued to be shared and passed down from one generation to another among families in Livingston.

Dr. Tina Naremore Jones
Professor of English
Center for the Study of the Black Belt
University of West Alabama, Livingston

 

SUPPORTERS

Alabama Black Belt Blues is made possible through the generous contributions of the Alabama Humanities Foundation, Alabama State Council on the Arts, Alabama Tourism Department, and The Chapman Foundation.