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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 by Clearwater 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.

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