The Augusta area is fortunate to have festivals that honor its hometown heroes including the Oliver Hardy Festival in Harlem, Ga.; the James Brown Birthday Bash in Augusta and, of course, the Blind Willie McTell Blues Festival near Thomson, Ga.
This Saturday, May 7, the 23rd edition of the festival honoring the blues legend and Georgia Music Hall of Famer takes place at the original festival site one mile north of Thomson Exit 172 off Interstate 20.
Gates open at 11 a.m. with the music starting at noon. Details about festival rules can be found at blindwillie.com. Tickets are $30 advance or $40 at the gate. Children 12 and younger are admitted free.
Performances include The Deslondes at noon, Col. Bruce Hampton and the Madrid Express at 1:15 p.m., Cash Box Kings at 2:25 p.m., Blind Boy Paxton at 3:40 p.m., Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams at 4:45 p.m. and Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters at 7:10 p.m.
Buckwheat Zydeco led by Stanley “Buckwheat” Dural Jr. was scheduled to appear but had to cancel due to Dural recovering from a collapsed lung suffered in March from fractured ribs.
He wrote festival organizers, “We played three festivals in April. However, it looks like that it was a little too soon to get up and play a 45-pound accordion!
“Now, upon doctor’s orders, I’m sorry to say we will need to cancel or postpone some shows in May so that I can allow this condition to heal better. Sorry folks. But Buckwheat Zydeco will be back. Soon. And, you can take that to your best bank.”
One of the aspects of the annual festival that has drawn national and international attention is the official poster, of which prints are sold to defray the festival’s costs. This year’s poster was created by the festival’s longtime supporter Alex Murawski, a resident of Athens, Ga., who is a professor of graphic design at the University of Georgia.
He has created several posters with his 2002 and 2008 versions winning the Society of Illustrators Top 51 competition and being displayed at the Museum of Illustration Gallery in New York City.
As a prelude to this year’s festival, there will be a free showing of the documentary film Blind Willie’s Blues at 7 p.m. Friday, May 6, at the Thomson Depot, 111 Railroad St., with the writer and producer of the movie, David Fulmer, talking and answering questions.
It was Fulmer who in 2011 notified the McDuffie Museum in Thomson that he was moving to a new house in Atlanta and didn’t want to move the original 75-pound gravestone of McTell whose real name was William Samuel McTier.
Fulmer was planning to donate it to the Georgia Music Hall of Fame but it closed, and Fulmer decided to move the marker back home to Thomson.
Oddly, the marker that was over McTell’s grave does not have his name on it. The headstone was ordered over the phone by McTell’s cousin, Eddie McTier, and when it arrived the lettering said, “EDDIE McTIER 1898-AUG 19 1959 AT REST”
McTell’s wife, Kate, once talked about her husband dying of a cerebral hemorrhage at the state hospital in Milledgeville, Ga.
“I brought him home, and buried him in Happy Valley (a community near Thomson) at Jones Grove Cemetery. His grave is marked Eddie McTier, but it is Blind Willie McTell.”
In researching McTell, writer and producer Fulmer personally paid for a new, correctly-named tombstone for Blind Willie, and traded it for the original. Aside from the gravestone, which is at the McDuffie Museum, and the grave itself, there is a historic marker at the old Thomson train depot.