By Don Powers
Activities Council of Thomson Board Member
Blind Willie McTell, one of the true pioneers and all-time greats of country blues guitar, was born south of Thomson, Georgia, in the area known as Happy Valley in McDuffie County. He was inducted posthumously into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 1990. (He died in 1959.)
During the early nineties, Dorothy Jones, tourism director for Thomson/McDuffie County in Georgia, searched diligently for a new way to promote the community. At the urging of Don Rhodes, a local music journalist for the Augusta Chronicle, Ms. Jones began organizing a music festival to honor the music and spirit of McTell, as well as to promote the area, Thomson in particular.
The effort paid off. The Tourism Board, led by Ms. Jones and artistic director Gary Erwin from Charleston, S.C., hosted the 1st Blind Willie McTell Blues Festival in October of 1993. It was held north of Thomson in a hay field owned by the Peter S. Knox family.
Anson Funderburgh and the Rockets, featuring Sam Myers, headlined. The overcast day finally gave way to rain during Funderburgh’s set, but the band had enough cover to stay dry: they kept the crowd rocking into the night.
The festival kept going and growing with normal attendance in the 2,000 plus range. An array of talent from around the U.S. made the trek to east Georgia each year to play the festival. The 1993 line-up included Funderburgh, Steve James, Big Boy Henry and Sandra Hall.
In 1994, Magic Slim and the Teardrops, Sugar Blue, Del Rey, Steve James, Roy Book Binder, Dave Peabody, Junior Kimbrough, Deborah Coleman and Mudcat performed.
Subsequent years featured performers such as Rod Piazza, Jimmy Rogers (now deceased), Deanna Bogart, Little Charlie and the Nightcats, Bill Morganfield, Michael Burks, Crosstie Walkers, Neal Pattman, Eddie Shaw, Shrimp City Slim, Jimmy Johnson, Paul Geremia, Eddie Kirkland, Mad Cat and Kane and Blind Mississippi Morris.
The Tourism Board relinquished the lead role in planning and putting on the yearly show in 1998 and the festival fell silent. The county started searching for a private organization to continue the tradition.
They found one. The Blind Willie McTell Blues and Heritage Foundation Inc. sponsored the festival the following year and moved the event from the spring to the fall. The effort was entirely volunteer, with funding from the county and local businesses.
Though the weather was rough, the show was anything but. Slide guitar wizard Roy Rogers, Kenny Neal, Guy Davis and Francine Reed led an afternoon of great music.
The festival was back on track.
The festival in 2000, the McTell Blues and Heritage Foundation merged with the non-profit Activities Council of Thomson. The council was formed in the late 1970′s and has a long history of supporting the arts locally.
The Blind Willie McTell Blues Festival will continue annually and will serve as the largest fundraiser for the Activities Council.
Along with the organizational change, the line up and performance tin 2000 were nothing short of incredible for a festival our size. On stage were the likes of Anson Funderburgh, Little Charlie and the Nightcats, the Blind Boys of Alabama, Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys, Peter Case, Paul Geremia, Chris Smither, and the late John Jackson.
In addition to the festival, we sponsored two free concerts in local area schools featuring Geremia and Jackson. The kids loved both of these guys as they played and talked their way through the long history of country blues, including 12-string selections by McTell.
In 2001, the festival again featured Kenny Neal and Deborah Coleman. In addition we brought in the amazing newcomer from Atlanta, Sean Costello, and the magical Tarbox Rambers from Boston. It was another great afternoon of great sounds.
In 2002, the festival featured Hubert Sumlin, Duke Robillard, Bob Margolin, Carey Bell, Steve Forbert, Bill Sheffield and the Ringtaill Rounders, and the Crosstie Walkers.
Look back through the names of the artists that have appeared in this small east Georgia birthplace of Willie McTell and we think you’ll agree with our claim to be one of the best weekends of music anywhere.
The Activities Council and the community of Thomson have discovered a formula that brings in great music, honors a native son and provides financial support for area arts and artists.
Come join us on Sat., May 19, 2012, as we celebrate the 19th Annual Blind Willie McTell Blues Festival.