Annual festival draws the talents of young artists building on the gifts of elders

Local youth choirs have become a mainstay at the annual Black Belt Folk Roots Festival.

The Black Belt Folk Roots Festival, originating in 1975 through the Miles College Eutaw Program, was designed to lift the history, culture, and traditions of the county and region. The focus was, and has been for a long time, on the elders – the bearers of the culture. They lived through times when quilts were made to protect against the cold winter nights and baskets were weaved for practical use such as picking cotton, gathering vegetables, holding laundry and more. The ole timey blues strummed on makeshift guitars, accompanied by jug blowing, hambone slapping and washboard rubbing, recounted the struggles, hardships, loss and pain a people long endured. They sang their stories on back porches through long summer evenings and in juke-joints on Saturday nights. And those same folk, in a different venue, shifted to lift their gospel singing voices in praise and thanksgiving as they recounted “How We Made It Over.” So that’s why the festival was and is, however, the elders don’t live forever. Each year some one or two pass on. But the stories must live on; and there are new stories birthing and growing all the time. The youth have their chapters to our stories and their own stories as well.

On this 43rd celebration of the annual Black Belt Folk Roots Festival we can lift several young artists who are here to share their gifts. Nigel Speights of Boligee, AL, a rising 11th grade student, is on his way to becoming an accomplished blues musician. He strums his guitar in the spirit of the elder bluesmen who continue to teach and lead him. Jontavious Willis, a young man from Greenville, GA, sought out our festival, appealing to me with the words: “I have the spirit of the blues in my heart and soul. Just let me play at the festival – I don’t ask for money – just let me play.” Jontavious has been coming and playing ever since. The festival also showcases youth choirs who lift that ole timey gospel of the elders. We also feature the children of gospel crooners who have passed on. James and John Sykes, of the Mississippi Traveling Stars, are no longer with us on this Earth, but their sons have taken up the baton of Ole Timey Gospel praise and celebration. Fatima Robinson and Mynecia Steele, Greene County born and bred, are gifted artists creating with their hands what can only be inspired through the mutual workings of the mind, heart and soul. To know and appreciate their creations, come to the festival and start your collection. Even the foodways of the festival are leaning toward our youth. The soul food dinner tradition of Geraldine Sands, continues through her daughter, Rita Sands Mahoney. Like mother, like daughter and daughter gets better. It was truly a blessing when Delfreda Coleman came to the festival for the first time last year with her home made ice cream. Ms. Sarah Duncan had graced us with her heavenly delight of churned-on-the-spot homemade ice cream for many, many years, until, for health reasons, she couldn’t any longer. So we missed a year – no homemade ice-cream at the festival – until Delfreda came on the scene with her cream. The 43rd Black Belt Folk Roots Festival is scheduled for Saturday August 25 and Sunday August 26, on the old courthouse square in Eutaw, (Greene County) AL. There is no admission. There is no charge to celebrate. Come join us and enjoy. For more information contact: Carol P. Zippert at 205-372-0525.