Historic Chattahoochee Commission.
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Folk Traditions

Just as the flow of the Chattahoochee River clearly defines the state line that separates Alabama and Georgia, the Lower Chattahoochee Valley region is defined by the river as it flows from Troup and Chambers counties in the north to Seminole and Houston counties in the south. The region is also defined by its distinctive history, its cultural traditions, and its geography.

Audio file clip for Flat Foot Floogie. »AU File, 216KB (30 Seconds) Flat Foot Floogie: Albert Macon (vocal & guitar) and Robert Thomas (guitar); All audio files copyright 1981, George Mitchell; Distributed by the Historic Chattahoochee Commission.
MP3 file clip for Flat Foot Floogie. »MP3 File, 54KB (30 Seconds)

Historically, the area's cultural identity began nearly four centuries ago when the first Europeans to arrive in continental North America encountered the native people of the region. For more than three hundred years incoming settlers interacted daily with the native tribal people of the region. From them, the newcomers learned of the region's geography, of the abundance of its streams and woodlands, and of the productivity of its rich land.

House. Photo copyright by Fred C. Fussell.
These decorated houses are just a sampling of the wide variety of ways that people in the Chattahoochee region choose to embellish their homes. Yet there are distinctive characteristics in each that typify the region and which are also quite unlike those which might occur at any other place.

The earliest known settlement by a European nation in the Chattahoochee Valley was established in 1689 by Spanish monks who, accompanied by a garrison of soldiers, built the mission and fort of Apalachicola on the west bank of the Chattahoochee River in present-day Russell County, Alabama. The Spanish settlement, however, was short lived and by 1693 the site had been abandoned.

As early as 1714, traders from French Louisiana were engaged in commerce with the Indians of the region. In 1739, James Edward Oglethorpe, a trustee for the British colony of Georgia, traveled to the region to solicit a treaty with Indian leaders at the Muscogee Creek capital of Coweta, from whom he was granted permission to establish the town of Savannah, on Georgia's Atlantic coast.

Audio file clip for Orange Blossom Special. »AU File, 243KB (30 Seconds) Orange Blossom Special: W.H. "Bill Dad" McGlaun, fiddle; Royce McKee, guitar; All audio files copyright 1981, George Mitchell; Distributed by the Historic Chattahoochee Commission.
MP3 file clip for Orange Blossom Special. »MP3 File, 61KB (30 Seconds)

With the formation of permanent European settlements in the Southeast in the 18th century--the British on the Atlantic coast, the Spanish in Florida, and the French on the Gulf Coast--there followed frequent inward migrations of settlers from the British Isles, Europe, New England, Africa, the Carolinas, Virginia, and, occasionally, Asia.

Chattahoochee Folk Art Exhibit at the Columbus Museum. Photo copyright by Fred C. Fussell.
Old World diseases unintentionally introduced into the Southeast by incoming Europeans devastated the native tribespeople, who had little natural resistance to measles, chicken pox, whooping cough, small pox, and other contagious illnesses. That, combined with many decades of intimidation and hostility from the encroaching Georgians, left the Indians of the region weakened beyond the point of meaningful resistance against the intruders.

Finally, in 1825, with the signing of the infamous Treaty of Indian Springs, the way was opened for the forced removal of the remaining native people from the region. Following the Treaty of Washington in 1832, the native American presence in the region was virtually extinguished. When a final section of the region was ceded from the Creek Nation to the United States, the Valley region, for the first time in its history, became united under one federal government.

Audio file clip for Old Joe Clark. »AU File, 242KB (30 Seconds) Old Joe Clark: Carter Rushing, fiddle & vocal; Robert George, guitar; All audio files copyright 1981, George Mitchell; Distributed by the Historic Chattahoochee Commission.
MP3 file clip for Old Joe Clark. »MP3 File, 60KB (30 Seconds)

Wooden Indian statue. Photo copyright by Fred C. Fussell.
The Native Indians had been banished from their beloved homelands, but they left behind a rich legacy of local placenames in the Muskogean and Yuchian languages: Chattahoochee, Eufaula, Tuskegee, Opelika, Hatchechubbee, Weracoba, Loachapoka, Uchee, Notasulga, Cusseta, Cataula, Muscogee, Upatoi, Colomokee.

With the Indians gone, settlers came in droves to the Chattahoochee Valley. They rapidly established cotton plantations, textile mills, riverboat companies, and all the related services needed for the support of commerce and agriculture. From this blending of people from many places there developed over time a singular regional culture that has persisted to the present--diverse, robust, and tradition-bound.

Hog farm sign. Photo copyright by Fred C. Fussell.
Home made trade signs such as this hog farm sign in Southeast Alabama and the muffler sculpture that is on exhibit here are a part of a longstanding tradition that goes back in this country to Colonial times. A careful look around the country roads and town streets of the Chattahoochee Valley will reveal scores of such signs made by local merchants and farmers.

The Chattahoochee Valley Region

Thumbnail map image of Chattahoochee Trace, click on image for full size verison.
Click on image for full size graphic in new window.
The Lower Chattahoochee River Valley region begins, in the north, at Troup County, Georgia, and Chambers County, Alabama. There the Chattahoochee first touches Alabama as it flows southward from its origins in the North Georgia Mountains.

The river then runs down through the Valley, touching Chambers, Lee, Russell, Barbour, Henry, and Houston Counties in Alabama, and Troup, Harris, Muscogee, Chattahoochee, Stewart, Quitman, Clay, Early, Seminole, and Decatur Counties in Georgia. At the Florida border it joins the Flint River to become the Apalachicola, which courses southward through the Florida panhandle and empties into the Gulf of Mexico.

Folklife Research in the Chattahoochee Valley

The Chattahoochee Valley is a rich cultural corridor in which folk expression plays a vital role. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Columbus Museum produced the first significant folklife research to be conducted in the region, under the leadership of folklorist/writer George Mitchell. Mitchell¹s work culminated in a five-year long series of annual folk festivals in Columbus, at which such traditional artists as blues singer Precious Bryant, basketmaker Johnnie Ree Jackson, fiddlers Marion Jones, Carter Rushing, and Gene Jackson, and the Alabama blues and boogie duo of Albert Macon and Robert Thomas were first brought to wider public attention.

Gourd bird house tree. Photo copyright by Fred C. Fussell.
The use of gourd bird houses to attract insect eating Purple Martins is perhaps one of the oldest traditions in the South. There is evidence that the prehistoric Indians of the region used gourds in just this way and for the same purpose. Gourd "trees" and other assemblages of gourds placed in farm yards around the area have become so commonplace and numerous that their presence has become a virtual icon of traditional culture in the Deep South.

A few years later, The Alabama Folklife Program conducted limited research in the region, focusing primarily on the documentation of the African-American shape-note singing tradition, exemplified by National Heritage Award recipient Dewey Williams and the Wiregrass Sacred Harp Singers in Ozark, Alabama. In 1981, folklorist Henry Willett of the Alabama Center for Traditional Culture produced the LP and booklet "Wiregrass Notes: Black Sacred Harp Singing From Southeast Alabama."

Audio file clip for When the Saints Go Marching In. »AU File, 253KB (32 Seconds) When the Saints Go Marching In: Precious Bryant, vocal & guitar; All audio files copyright 1981, George Mitchell; Distributed by the Historic Chattahoochee Commission.
MP3 file clip for When the Saints Go Marching In. »MP3 File, 63KB (32 Seconds)

Family time. Photo copyright by Fred C. Fussell.
Today, the Chattahoochee Valley Folklife Project is an extended effort to build an on-going and viable program of folklife activities and research in the region. The sponsoring agency of the project is The Historic Chattahoochee Commission, a bi-state agency serving Valley counties in both Alabama and Georgia. A major component of the Commission's work is the development of programs and publications that focus on the distinctive nature of the region and its traditional culture and history. The Chattahoochee Valley Folklife Project has brought together the goals and resources of numerous organizations from Georgia, Alabama, and beyond to develop an unprecedented folklife program that focuses on the unique traditions and cultural expression of a region shared by two states. The exhibition "In Our Own Backyard: The Folk Art and Traditional Expression of the Chattahoochee Valley" is one result of that program.

The Chattahoochee Folklife Project

Project Director: Douglas C. Purcell
Field Researchers:
  • John S. Lupold
  • Brent Tozzer
  • Cheryl Johnson
Folklorist/Exhibit Curator: Fred C. Fussell
Secretary: Janice South
Treasurer: Deborah P. Shaw

Picking peanuts. Photo copyright by Fred C. Fussell.
The Chattahoochee Valley Folklife Project is sponsored by The Historic Chattahoochee Commission. The project has received funding from The National Endowment for the Arts, The Lila Wallace-Readers Digest Community Folk Arts Program, and The Georgia Council for the Arts. Additional support has come from The Alabama State Council on the Arts, The Alabama Center for Traditional Culture, The Southern Arts Federation, Columbus State University, and The Columbus Museum.

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