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Amory

Amory, MS: Blues from a Railroad Town

Just as Amory’s history is tied to the railroad, so is much of its musical legacy. Several generations of blues, soul and gospel performers came from the families of African-American workers employed here by the Frisco line. Others worked as sharecroppers or for local businesses. Lucille Bogan was a prominent blues recording artist in the 1920s and ‘30s, and other Amory performers have included Frank Swan, James Whitfield, Roger and Dudley McKinney, the Top Hats, Al Rachel, and Michael Freeman.

Amory blues history revolves primarily around talented performers who have perpetuated the music as community entertainment, playing on weekends or after hours while holding regular daytime jobs. In a dry county, juke joints and nightclubs did not flourish as they did in many Mississippi towns, but blues has found a place in the streets, cafes, house parties, secret hideaways, festivals, schools, receptions, reunions, American Legion hut, and events here in Frisco Park.

The only Amory resident to emerge as a nationally known blues singer was Lucille (or Lucile) Bogan (1897-1948), who also recorded under the name Bessie Jackson. In the 1910 census she was living in Amory, where her father worked for the Frisco. She also married a railroad man, Nazareth Bogan. Their son Nazareth Jr., a musician, cited her birthplace as Amory when he provided details for her death certificate, but census and Social Security records indicate that she was born in Birmingham, where she lived most of her life. Her 1923-1935 recordings included many classics, some famously bawdy boasts, and songs that dealt with streetwalking women, moonshine whiskey, and trains.

In 1939 many Amory girls recorded for a Works Progress Administration/Library of Congress folk music study at Monroe County Training School. Two songs were released on an album of children’s music in 1978. Amory native Frank Swan (1940-2016) played drums on records by Earl Hooker, Ricky Allen, Big Walter Horton, Willie Dixon and others in Chicago and worked with many bands in the city and on tour. He was also a bus driver for Albert King and Little Milton. In Amory he worked at various jobs and promoted shows by Muddy Waters, Little Milton and others at the American Legion or the West Amory High School gym. Other Amory performers with recording and touring credits include Roger McKinney (1949-2017), who sang gospel with Tupelo-based Lee Williams & the Spiritual QC’s, and Tony Hooper, a member of the Christian blues-rock band Blues Counsel.

In the 1960s West Amory band director Charles Toy hired students to play blues and soul music in his Top Hats band at gigs in various towns. The Top Hats or other groups included Al and Richard Rachel, James and Johnny Whitfield, Cliff Mallard, John Randle, Jimmy Pounds, Johnny Jenkins, Gussie Bassett, and Michael Freeman. Older traditional bluesmen have included guitarists Albert Dooley, who also lived and played in Clarksdale, Bennie Osborn, Zimey Sykes, John Arthur, aka Guitar John, who came to town on Saturdays to play for tips, and pianist Essie Gillum.

St. Louis guitarist Cecil Travis was erroneously cited as an Amory native in one blues reference book, but St. Louis was the destination of guitarists Benny Sharp and Willie Curtis Rhoden (a railroad employee) and saxophonist Ruben McBeth from Monroe County. Others from the county who migrated north and west to various cities included Richard “Harmonica Slim” Riggins (whose birth name was Rylie Riggan), singer, producer and manager James Woodie “J.W.” Alexander, and several noted bluesmen from the Aberdeen area: Howlin’ Wolf, Bukka White and Albert King.

Did you hear, did you hear, did you hear that Frisco whistle blow?
And she blowed just like she ain’t ever blowed before.
I was standing at a station when that 4200 left town,
Burnin’ down in oil, and that train was Kansas City bound.


“Forty-Two Hundred Blues” - Lucille Bogan (Bessie Jackson)

content © Mississippi Blues Commission

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