Columbus, Mississippi Blues
The Black Prairies of eastern Mississippi have produced a number of notable blues musicians, including Howlin’ Wolf, Bukka White, and Big Joe Williams. Activity in Columbus, the largest city in the region, centered around areas such as this block of 4th Street, called “Catfish Alley” after local fishermen brought their catches to town to be cooked and sold on the street. Bukka White sang of the good times to be had in town in his 1969 recording “Columbus, Mississippi Blues.”
The blues heritage of Columbus and Lowndes County has drawn on a variety of sources, both homegrown and imported, dating back to the heydays of cotton plantations and traveling minstrel shows. The first Columbus musician to record, in 1929, was bluesman Ben Curry, a.k.a. Blind Ben Covington, who worked the minstrel show circuit as a contortionist in addition to displaying his skills on harmonica and banjo. Since he only pretended to be blind, he also had another name: Bogus Ben Covington. The county’s most prominent blues singer was Big Joe Williams of Crawford. Williams (1903-1982) recorded prolifically and toured several continents, but would still come to Columbus to play in Catfish Alley in his later years. Among other early blues guitarists based in Lowndes County were Otto Virgial, Robert Blewett, Tom Turner, and, at times, Bukka White.
Columbus was also a stop for touring acts such as B.B. King, Bobby Bland, Little Richard, Louis Jordan, Louis Armstrong, and James Brown, who all stayed at the Queen City Hotel (for many years the only hotel that catered to African Americans). Blues was featured at venues along Seventh Avenue North and in other neighborhoods including Frog Bottom and Sandfield. Entertainment spots included the Hut, Richardson’s Café, the Tic Toc, the Blue Room, the Night Owl, and the Blue Goose. Bluesmen also played in the cafes and pool halls, or on the street, in Catfish Alley, a center of black business and social life. Live gospel broadcasts also once emanated from WACR radio in “the alley.” In later years, music spread to other venues such as the Elbow Room, Down at Joe’s, and the Crossroads, featuring area blues and R&B performers including Margie & Keith, Jake Moore, Big Joe Shelton & the Black Prairie Blues Kings, Brown Sugar, and the Flames. Blues also became a feature of the annual Seventh Avenue Heritage Festival, which began in the 1980s.
Another tradition with Columbus roots, Decoration Day (now known as Memorial Day), began with the placement of flowers on the graves of Civil War soldiers. Decoration Day was also practiced in the African American community in remembrance of departed loved ones, inspiring songs by several blues singers. Big Joe Williams played guitar on the best-known version, “Decoration Blues” by John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson. Sonny Boy also recorded “Decoration Day Blues No. 2,” and Howlin’ Wolf, Bukka White, and Big Joe Williams were among those who later recorded their own versions.
content © Mississippi Blues Commission
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