George Mitchell was born in Coral Gables, Florida in 1944. He was raised in Atlanta, Georgia and in 1958 discovered by accident the two radio stations in Atlanta that played black music, WAOK, and WERD, the first black-owned station in the US. Mitchell was drawn to black music, and as a teenager listened intently to Samuel B. Charters' anthology The Country Blues. He also went to blues and R&B shows and saw Bo Diddley, Jimmy Reed, Ray Charles, John Lee Hooker, and the Staple Singers with his grandmother in tow; they were the only white people at that performance.
Mitchell first recorded in Memphis in 1962 just to have something to listen to. He and some friends recorded Furry Lewis, Gus Canon, Will Shade, Charlie Burse, Laura Dukes, and Catherine Porter. This was the start of a career devoted to recording blues musicians.
In 1963, he located and recorded the early Atlanta legends, Peg Leg Howell and Buddy Moss. Also in 1963, he worked in Chicago for Delmark Records and, with Michael Bloomfield, produced concerts at the Fickle Pickle, bringing in both unknown blues artists and re-locating such bluesmen as Washboard Sam. Recordings of these concerts have been issued extensively.
In the summer of 1967 Mitchell traveled with his wife Cathy and a Wollensack tape recorder and borrowed a 35mm camera from the University of Minnesota to document blues musicians in Mississippi. After returning to Minnesota Mitchell turned the trip into a master's thesis that also became his first book in 1971, Blow My Blues Away. They had recorded legends Fred McDowell and Houston Stackhouse, and at the time unknowns R.L. Burnside and Othar Turner.
Beginning in 1976 Mitchell took a job for the Bureau of Cultural Affairs in Atlanta to oversee the Georgia Grassroots Music Festival. Mitchell was able to travel across the state and document folk musicians native to the state and hire a staff to do field work. He curated the Festival for three years and in that time recorded such musicians as James Davis, Precious Bryant, James Lee Ziegler, and Willie Guy Raines.
From 1979 to 1981 he worked as a field researcher for the Columbus Museum of Art in Columbus, Georgia, for In Celebration of a Legacy, a project initiated by folklorist Fred Fussell. A book by that name by Mitchell and a double record album from his field recordings were published by the Museum and re-published and currently available from the Chattahoochee Historic Commission.
In Atlanta in 1984 George Mitchell created the National Downhome Blues Festival which was held at the Moonshadow Saloon. The three-day festival was the largest gathering of old-time blues musicians before or since. A one-hour program of performances and interviews held on these three days was broadcast on PBS; in addition a 4 record LP was released by Southland.
After field recording Mitchell focused on his other passion, photography. He taught high school students in Atlanta helping them produce the photography book Sweet Auburn: the Many Faces of Atlanta's Most Historic Avenue.
George Mitchell resides in Atlanta with his wife Cathy.
Books by George Mitchell include:
- Blow My Blues Away (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1971)
- I'm Somebody Important: Young Black Voices from Rural Georgia (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1973)
- Yessir, I've Been Here a Long Time: The Faces and Words of Americans Who Have Lived a Century (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1975)
- Ponce de Leon: An Intimate Portrait of Atlanta's Most Famous Avenue (Atlanta: Argonne Books, 1982)
- Numerous record albums and CDs issued by a number of labels including Fat Possum, Arhoolie, Rounder, Testament, Hightone, Flyright, Southland and Swingmaster.
- Fat Possum has issued 26 CDs of field recordings, including a boxed set, most of them listed under The George Mitchell Collection.