Jontavious and Muddy and Me

A few days ago I uploaded this little interview clip to Facebook... and after two days it had received over 7,000 views and was shared on the official Muddy Waters Facebook page.

Interestingly enough, the first time I heard Jontavious Willis play in spring 2016, he reminded me of Muddy Waters. Not exactly the way he phrased his songs, but the emotion behind the songs. His charisma. Humanity. Soul. He was playing at a little street festival in LaGrange, Ga. My son and his friends were playing in another group right before him. Someone told us we should stick around for the blues player. That he had played a cigar box instrument at a little New Orleans festival a few months earlier. That Taj Mahal had invited onstage in Atlanta a few months before that and was telling everyone he was the real deal (ie, country blues musician). 

After Jontavious played, he carried his guitar over to my son's house, a few blocks away, while talking about the history of the blues like a grad student in musicology.  Then he jammed on the front porch for the next couple of hours with my son and friends. By the way, he knows a bunch of bawdy blues songs and knows how to make them work.

At some point I told him my Muddy Waters story. It was a Sunday afternoon. April 9, 1978. I was working part-time at the Coop record store in Tallahassee, across the street from Florida State University. Muddy Waters was giving a concert on campus that I planned to go to. But then my coworker said he'd heard from a record distributor that Muddy would try to drop by the store after the show. So I stayed. Missed the show. Watched the door. A hard rain fell. One of those Florida afternoon showers. No Muddy. And that was that. Maybe it's good sometimes not to meet your heroes. 

But as I told Jontavious on that spring day about 38 years later, I was feeling Muddy through him. And I thanked him for that.

The Shiloh-Rosenwald School in Notasulga, Alabama

The Shiloh-Rosenwald School sits at the crossroads of talking about the history of civil rights in the South, and it's hoped that future generations of students and visitors will drop by this living museum.

The school was built in the 1920s, perhaps on the site of the original school building that was one of the first Rosenwald Schools (numbering 5,000) built as a result of a partnership between Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington.

The landowning farmers (former slaves and children of slaves) helped build the school and pay for its operations. Students thrived here under wonderful teachers until they were able to attend integrated schools in the 1960s.

Unfortunately, the school and community also witnessed a tragic event in U.S. history -- the Syphilis Experiment conducted by the government that allowed men and their families in the community to suffer from the disease so that doctors could study its progress.

It wasn't until former Shiloh-Rosenwald student Charlie Pollard (among others) helped to bring the case to light that a U.S. president apologized to the community.

You can find more information about the school at

Update (April 8, 2017): The Shiloh film below was accepted in the Short Documentary category in the 2017 Inspired Faith Film Festival (

Telling the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper Story

It's not the biggest success story of the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper (CRK). That would be winning a $2 billion legal victory against the City of Atlanta which convinced politicians it was time to upgrade an antiquated sewer system that made the waters downstream an extension of its sewers. (It worked. Now the river downstream is healthier than ever.) But it might be the #2 or #3: How CRK responded to an ongoing toxic spill by an asphalt company that refused to stop dumping or clean up the damage... how the contamination flowed down a stream into the Chattahoochee River... and how CRK teamed up with local lawyers and media to force a cleanup. It took many many months for the case to be resolved in the courts—but it's all in a day's work for CRK.

In September 2016, CRK showed the film at their annual membership dinner in which Ambassador Andrew Young received the River Leader Award. A few weeks later the film was chosen as a semi-finalist in the Cause + Effect Georgia Progressive Film Festival, with finalists to be named in late October.

Documenting the Billops-Hatch Story

In early 2015, my son, Henry, and I spent a memorable afternoon filming in the SoHo loft of James Hatch and Camille Billops with Emory archivists/scholars Pellom McDaniels and Randall Burkett, and the Rose Library director Rosemary Magee. One of the results of that day was a short documentary that gives an overview of Camille and Jim's passions and work -- creating art and documenting African American life and culture -- over the last 50+ years. Besides being online (see below), the documentary is playing at the "Still Raising Hell" exhibition (September 15, 2016 through May 14, 2017) that features some of the materials now residing in Emory's Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library.

 (from left) Pellom McDaniels, Randall Burkett, James Hatch, Camille Billops, Rosemary Magee, Hal Jacobs, Henry Jacobs

(from left) Pellom McDaniels, Randall Burkett, James Hatch, Camille Billops, Rosemary Magee, Hal Jacobs, Henry Jacobs

The Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library is home to the Camille Billops and James V. Hatch collection of materials related to African American life and culture. The current exhibition of this work in the Woodruff Library's Schatten Gallery features some of these materials and highlights the many ways in which the couple has been actively raising hell for more than 50 years through their artistic productivity and collecting.

Teaser for "moat" by Staibdance

A little peek at the upcoming performance of "moat" by Staibdance at Emory's Performing Arts Studio. George Staib and his dancers do it again... and again and again. You can find more info at

Jontavious Willis & The Hillside Front Porch Collective

Just a crazy good show... When you see Jontavious play for the first time, you realize why the blues community is so jazzed about him. He's from the country around LaGrange, Ga., learned to play on his own (with the help of YouTube videos), still plays in church every Sunday, and is starting to get gigs in other countries. My son Henry (the drummer) met him last month at a little festival down the street from his house, then invited Jontavious back to the front porch to jam with him and Nick (bass) and Haden (mandolin). A month later they had this gig at Maggie's Pure Life Studios in LaGrange. I hope it's not the last one.


Friend and neighbor Art Linton, with Marcus Durham, plays Bill Withers's classic "Use Me" on our backporch. That's Art's daughter, Kiki, kicking off the action. Art and Marcus are working out a complete song list, including some great originals by Art, and will start looking for gigs soon.

Miss Ann's Hamburgers

One of the first videos I made involved one of Atlanta's most infamous hamburgers at Miss Ann's Shack Shop on Memorial Drive. Miss Ann was an artist whose medium was ground beef. She was recognized by the "Wall Street Journal" as creator of the best hamburger in the U.S. That honor meant more work -- and 3-hour waits to get one of the 10 or so stools inside (you waited outside in the screened porch until everyone finished their hamburger shift, and she was ready to clock the next crew in).  She passed away a few years ago, but not before selling the place and getting some well-deserved rest.

Biking Around New Orleans

New Orleans in April... Cool and sunny... Perfect for biking around, attending a friend's wedding (congrats Thomas and Emily Middour!) and getting away from viewing the world through a screen... except for looking through the viewfinder every now and then.

Documenting the Shiloh-Rosenwald School of Notasulga

 This week we've started documenting the ongoing work of the Shiloh-Rosenwald school, located in Notasulga, Alabama.  Rosenwald schools , a collaboration between Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald, CEO of Sears & Roebucks, are landmarks in the history of African-American education. Many of these schools have faded from the landscape, but thanks to efforts of people in the Notasulga community, the Shiloh school ( ) has been restored and is now welcoming students and educators. (photo by Henry Jacobs)

This week we've started documenting the ongoing work of the Shiloh-Rosenwald school, located in Notasulga, Alabama. Rosenwald schools, a collaboration between Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald, CEO of Sears & Roebucks, are landmarks in the history of African-American education. Many of these schools have faded from the landscape, but thanks to efforts of people in the Notasulga community, the Shiloh school ( has been restored and is now welcoming students and educators. (photo by Henry Jacobs)

Promoting Emory's Art History Dept.

One of my last projects at Emory involved showcasing the Art History Department in a short video they could use on social media. The department has always been one of my favorites at Emory, especially with its strong connections to the Carlos Museum and Rose Library (formerly MARBL). (One of the students in the video (Kate) talked about how impressed she was with the intimacy of the Carlos -- it's on a scale that was common among private collections before the big public institutions took over.) After interviewing faculty and students, it's easy for me to see why so many first-year students take the Introduction to Art History class and decide they want to stay around the department for a major or minor.

Documenting the Color Line in Atlanta

If you want to really understand -- see and feel -- the color line that existed in Atlanta prior to desegregation in the 1960s, there may be no better starting point than the Fabulous Fox Theatre. Turns out it wasn't so fabulous for black patrons during the first 30 years of its existence.

This is the subject of a NEH-sponsored summer workshop directed by Dr. Tim Crimmins, Professor of History and Director of the Center for Neighborhood and Metropolitan Studies at Georgia State University. He wants to document the color line in segregated Atlanta, as well as find people who experienced it firsthand.

In this video, we enter the Fox with Gwen Middlebrooks and Dr. Crimmins via the colored-only entrance -- the steep outside staircase that hugs the building on Ponce de Leon Ave. -- and sit in the nose-bleed section of the balcony while she recounts her experience on a date in the late 1950s. Her father later castigated her for going in through the "back door," something he told to never do again.

Then we approach the Fox from its grand (formerly whites-only) Peachtree Ave. entrance, stepping in through the front doors, as did Gwen and friends, a few years later, wearing sari's and passing as Indians as they accompanied a visiting Indian professor at Spelman. Yes, she was a risk taker. She later participated in the Atlanta sit-ins.

We edited two versions of the video. The longer version includes more background on Ms. Middlebrooks' parents (re their working-class background and attitudes towards segregation) and also show the separate-AND-unequal restroom facilities. A stark contrast there.

8-17-16 UPDATE:  he GSU Creative Media Industries Institute referred to the Fox video in its blog today: "The issue [how race, class, poverty, and discrimination] is of central importance for Atlanta. Despite progress, the historical legacy of segregation has been deeply persistent; e.g., watch this powerful video tour of the Fox Theatre, which features Gwen Middlebrooks and GSU historian Tim Crimmins and tells the story of historically segregated entertainment...."


Capital Campaign for Youth Baseball Park

This was a project near and dear to me. The baseball park where my sons played... and where I coached and served on the board -- Druid Hills Youth Sports (DHYS) at Medlock Park... is launching a capital campaign soon and needed to stir up some excitement. So I produced two videos -- a short 60+-second attention grabber and a longer 4+-minute version that goes into details about the park's needs. I also enlisted my colleague Joe Boris to help grab some exciting visuals. The final pieces evolved over many weeks and consultations with DHYS volunteers. And I got extremely lucky one evening by being at the park during one of the best sunsets of the fall.

The Color Line in Atlanta: Segregation at the Fox Theater

My latest project (with the help of Joe Boris and Robert Lambert) involved the Fabulous Fox and Dr. Tim Crimmins (Professor of History and Director of the Center for Neighborhood and Metropolitan Studies at Georgia State University), producing a video for his "Following the Color Line: Atlanta Landmarks and Civil Rights History" teacher workshops funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. In the video, Tim talks with Gwen Middlebrooks about two experiences she had at the Fox as a young woman: Sitting in the segregated "Colored" section on a date (to her father's consternation when he finds out) and later sitting in the whites-only section with friends, accompanied by a teacher from India, all of them dressed (and passing) in sari's. Gwen became involved in sit-ins about a year later in Atlanta.

Below are a few images that capture the disparity of the times. The Fox began desegregating in 1962.

 Whites entrance on Peachtree Ave.

Whites entrance on Peachtree Ave.

 "Colored" entrance on Ponce de Leon.

"Colored" entrance on Ponce de Leon.

 "Colored" seats in balcony section.

"Colored" seats in balcony section.

 Seating for whites.

Seating for whites.

Floating a Classroom

It was a good day on West Point Lake (downstream from Atlanta, close to LaGrange) when the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper (CRK) christened a new floating classroom. The boat will be used to educate children -- and educators -- about the importance of that waterway and clean water in general. CRK is close to my heart for a few reasons besides it being one of the best-run nonprofit organizations I've ever seen. It also employs my son as an outreach coordinator in LaGrange. And credit goes to him for those nice aerial shots in the video, which he captured from the passenger seat of a J-3 Piper Cub "Grasshopper" (that may or may not have flown General Patton during his North Africa campaign). 

Talking about Common Good Atlanta

Common Good Atlanta was started a few years ago by English professor Sarah Higinbotham -- she was later joined by GSU creative writing instructor Bill Taft -- to teach liberal arts classes at Philips State Prison, a medium-security prison in Buford, Georgia. In the videos below, Sarah and Bill, joined by other volunteer instructors, talk about the impact of the program on both their students and themselves. They all describe the inmates as being some of the most curious and engaged students they've ever taught.

Book Trailer for "My Father's Guitar"

I met novelist Joseph Skibell a few years ago as he was organizing an Ellmann Lecture Series at Emory featuring Paul Simon. Together we produced about 15 short videos ( involving faculty, staff and students talking about their favorite Paul Simon songs. It was a bonding experience. In addition to being a fine novelist, Joseph is also a fine guitarist himself and enjoys the film editing process as much as I do. So I grew to appreciate Simon more and began reading Joseph's novels -- and was blown away, particularly by "A Blessing on the Moon."

So now Joseph has a new book -- a collection of short, personal essays -- that are as illuminating as they are laugh-out-loud funny. And it was a simple matter to gather a few insightful readers from the metro Atlanta area to sit down and talk about the book, and later sit down with Joseph to stitch everything together, as well as record him playing the guitar for our little music track.

staibdance's attic

Joe Boris and I filmed staibdance's performance of "attic" back in January, and with George Staib's collaboration we finally have a trailer to show for it. Staibdance is a joy to work with, mostly because the choreography is all about joy and drama that has a tendency to erupt into a free-for-all before coalescing into something quiet and profound. The trailer is all about finding those little moments.