An anniversary I missed being able to blog about on the day was the 75th anniversary on July 22nd of the birth of John Edwards, the mystery man whose short life's large efforts made possible the mid-1970s research into Blind Willie McTell's life by the academic David Evans, his wife Cheryl (née and now Thurber) and his parents, to which we are all indebted. The profile below is edited down from a section of the final chapter of Hand Me My Travelin' Shoes that was pruned out because of pressure of space in the end...
Who was John Edwards? He was an Australian amateur botanist, map maker, hiker, banjo-player, guitarist and collector of early American folk and hillbilly music. He was born in Sydney in 1932 and died in a car crash on Christmas Eve 28 years later, but his will left his collections of records and his papers for the “furtherance of serious study, recognition, appreciation and preservation of genuine Country or Hillbilly music...”
A major country-music record collector from Los Angeles, Gene Earle, with whom Edwards had long been in correspondence, was his executor, and he got together with several of the key academic folklorists with whom Edwards had also corresponded, to make all this happen. The John Edwards Memorial Foundation (the JEMF), duly incorporated in 1962 “to promote the study and dissemination of knowledge about American folk music of the 1920s-1940s”, was established within the Folklore and Mythology Center at UCLA.
At the end of June 1975 the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington DC awarded them a grant of $16,000 to help expand the JEMF’s program of reissuing old recordings, which they had already launched. In a nice touch, the grant letter from the NEA was from a woman called Nancy Hanks - which is the name of a famous, almost mythologised train from 19th Century Georgia. (This train was in turn named after a racehorse, and the horse in its turn named after Abraham Lincoln’s mother.) The Executive Secretary at the JEMF who received the letter, Norm Cohen, was himself working on a book about the railroad in American folksong at the time.*
One of the albums the JEMF wanted to put out was the collection of unreleased test-pressings from the 1933 recordings made in New York by Curley Weaver, Buddy Moss and Blind Willie McTell.
These test pressings had been saved all through the intervening four decades by the recording sessions’ original producer, Art Satherley, the Briton who had first come to the States to look for cowboys and indians. Known latterly as Uncle Art Satherley, he had now donated his unique surviving copies of 23 unreleased tracks from the 1933 sessions, among other items, to the JEMF, thanks to a veteran country songwriter and singer from Oklahoma, Johnny Bond, who had kept in touch with Uncle Art all along but was also in touch with Ken Griffis at the JEMF. Bond had been a 1930s radio star, co-written a couple of songs with Ernest Tubb and with Gene Autry, and appeared in the cowboy films Saga of Death Valley, Kansas City Kitty, Duel in the Sun, Gallant Bess, Cowboy Commandos, Six Lessons and TV Ranch Party. In Johnny Bond, Art Satherley had at last found a cowboy of sorts.
David Evans, along with the British folklorist and writer Bruce Bastin, got involved in the project of turning some of these test pressings into an LP, eventually to be called Atlanta Blues 1933. The intention, as with others in the JEMF series, was to press just 1,000 copies of this album: a rather small number, granted the huge amount of work and travel that was to go into providing its sleevenotes, though this too conformed to their policy for the series. Norm Cohen had written in 1971: “We have in mind fairly limited productions…but with particular stress on careful and extensive annotation in the form of elaborate insert brochures.” Material was to be “chosen not only for entertainment value, but also on the basis of historical, sociological, folkloristic and musicological importance.”
The money that funded the Evans' research trips to Georgia had been pulled in thanks to the value of the JEMF, which itself was founded upon the independent freelance work of the late John Edwards himself.
*Long Steel Rail: the Railroad in American Folksong, Urbana-Champaign: Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois, 1981; 2nd edition 2000.