In 2005, I co-produced a documentary for the North Carolina Language and Life Project called “This Side of the River.” It’s about the history of Princeville, the oldest town in the country established by African Americans—freed slaves who settled unwanted land on the banks of the Tar River in 1865. It was my first real effort at video production, and an experience that changed the course of my career.
While that project offered all sorts of opportunities that I’ll never forget, one of the most meaningful moments was the chilly spring afternoon when we shot an interview with a piedmont bluesman named George Higgs. At the time, he was a tough and happy old man with a humble pride, and a strong desire to share. His quiet voice belied the strength of his harmonica lungs, and pulled us into his stories of juke joints and house parties with an easy embrace. But through the years, George became more and more frail, trading in his slow cane for an electric scooter, although his quiet friendliness and welcoming smile remained strong.
This morning, when my partner Ryan called and told me that George had died, I cried. It was a sudden and immense sadness, fixed in the permanence of loss and the guilt that accompanies such a stiff reminder that time does not stop and people should not be taken for granted.
The last time I saw George was on a sunny afternoon in the fall of 2011. I was producing a video for a museum exhibit called “The Story of North Carolina.” Once again, he and Bettye welcomed us into their home with warmth and friendship. George was in his lift chair with his hands tucked under his thighs, a cream colored electric guitar propped against the end table, and harmonicas scattered on top. In the video, George’s line is simply, “I am a North Carolinian.” George always struck me as a man who took pride in his identity as a traditional musician from eastern North Carolina, and he seemed happy to play that role in such a simple way. As we sat down among the pine trees in his front yard, I was grateful to have the opportunity to know him.