Black Prairie Blues
Black Prairie Blues - Macon
The roots of blues and gospel music run deep in the African American culture of the Black Prairie region. Among the performers born near Macon here in Noxubee County, Eddy Clearwater, Carey Bell, and Jesse Fortune went on to achieve renown in Chicago blues, while Brother Joe May moved to East St. Louis and starred as a gospel singer. In Prairie Point near the Mississippi-Alabama state line, Willie King kindled a new blues movement as the political prophet of the juke joints.
African American music in Noxubee County dates back to antebellum days when slaves sang spirituals and work songs on local cotton plantations. Slaves who learned banjo or fiddle also served as entertainers at white social affairs. This musical legacy carried over into the 20th century, when African American family string bands featuring fiddle, guitar, and mandolin performed for both white and black audiences. Such bands included the Duck Brothers (Charlie, Albert, and Vandy Duck), the Salt and Pepper Shakers (Perie, Doc, and Preston Spiller), and the Nickersons (featuring fiddler Booger Nickerson).
Another Macon fiddler, Houston H. Harrington (1924 -1972), guided his family, including sons Joe and Vernon Harrington and nephew Eddy “Clearwater” Harrington, towards careers in the blues after they relocated to Chicago in the early 1950s. Harrington, a part-time preacher and inventor, used a portable disc-cutting machine to make recordings in Macon. In Chicago he produced records byClearwater and others for his Atomic-H label. Clearwater, born east of Macon in 1935, went on to entertain audiences around the world with a flamboyant blues and rock ‘n’ roll act.
Harmonica virtuoso Carey Bell, a Macon native whose real surname was also Harrington, likewise attained worldwide fame after moving to Chicago. Bell (1936 -2007) played with Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon, among others, and fathered a brood of blues musicians, including renowned guitarist Lurrie Bell and harmonica protege Steve Bell. Vocalist Jesse Fortune, born near Macon in 1930, also embarked on a lengthy blues career in Chicago in the 1950s. In the gospel field, Brother Joe May (1912 -1972) and Robert Blair (1927 -2001) built successful careers after leaving Macon.
Although professional musical opportunities were scant, blues singers continued to play house parties and juke joints around Macon, Brooksville, Shuqualak, Mashulaville, and Prairie Point. Big Joe Williams (1903 -1982), one of the most prominent blues artists from the Black Prairies, came from Crawford to perform in Noxubee County at times. Williams and fellow bluesman John Wesley “Mr. Shortstuff” Macon (c. 1923 -1973) died in Macon, and guitarist Elijah Brown, another friend of Williams, was born here. Willie King (born in the Grass Hill area in 1943) later led a revival of the local blues tradition and drew widespread acclaim for his political “struggling songs,” an outgrowth of his civil rights activities in Alabama. In Brooksville, performers active on the local music scene have included Robert Earl Greathree and Brown Sugar.
Eddy Harrington began recording under the name Clear Waters, a takeoff on Muddy Waters. He later used the name Eddy Clearwater and earned another nickname, “The Chief,” from his colorful American Indian headdresses. The title of his first single, “Hill Billy Blues” from 1958, reflected his love of both country music and blues, which he heard on the radio and from Macon area African American string bands who played a mix of black and white music. His uncle, Houston H. Harrington, owned Atomic-H Records. “The Chief” Clearwater recorded for a number of Chicago labels, including his own Cleartone imprint. Jesse Fortune once sang with Clearwater’s band and recorded for various Chicago labels as well. “Too Many Cooks” was written and produced by Vicksburg native Willie Dixon.
Carey Bell Harrington met Eddy “Clearwater” Harrington in Chicago. Both had come from Macon, and they concluded they were probably cousins. Their assorted relatives and in-laws give the Harringtons claim to one of the most extensive family trees in blues history.
Willie King and his various bands (the Pipelayers, the Houserockers, and the Liberators) performed throughout the Black Prairie region of Mississippi and the Black Belt of Alabama. Band members who hailed from Macon have included Willie James Williams, Willie Lee Halbert, and Johnnie B. Smith. King died on March 8, 2009.
Although the term Black Prairie Blues has been used to describe music from this area, the local blues tradition encompasses a wide variety of styles and there is no definitive “Black Prairie Blues” genre. In terms of majority African American population and economic status, Noxubee County mirrors many areas of the Mississippi Delta that are the most famous for cotton and blues.
content © Mississippi Blues Commission
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