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Choctaw County Blues

Choctaw County Blues - Weir

Choctaw County's blues history is distinguished by the accomplishments of two artists in particular, both of them singers, songwriters, and guitarists: Levester "Big Lucky" Carter, who was born in Weir and raised on his family's farm in French Camp, and Texas Johnny Brown from Ackerman. Carter, born on February 10, 1920, began recording in Memphis in the 1950s and climaxed his career with the award-winning CD "Lucky 13" in 1998. He died in Memphis on December 24, 2002.

Choctaw County’s small African American community, although relatively isolated from the major centers of blues development in Mississippi, has produced musicians who achieved international renown in blues circles. In the Weir/French Camp area, the related Carter and Hemphill families laid much of the groundwork for the area's blues legacy.

Levester “Big Lucky” Carter (1920-2002), a longtime singer, guitarist, and songwriter in Memphis, was born in Weir, where his father was a sharecropper. The family moved to his grandmother's in French Camp, where Carter attended the Mt. Salem M.B. Church and school. (Texas Johnny Brown, another acclaimed Choctaw County bluesman, attended a different Mt. Salem church and school near Ackerman). Carter's father, Charlie, sang blues and gospel, as did many other farm workers, Lucky recalled: “Late afternoon, you could hear the farmers in the fields. It was better than a radio station. You could hear people singing all around.” He also heard piano music at home from his aunt and his grandmother Susie Carter, and from his uncle's blues records. Guitarists Big Boy Anderson (who also played fiddle), James Henry, Arlee Miller, and men who made music beating on a box and playing a handsaw entertained at local dances. Carter's mother's father, Geet (or Gete, aka G. D.) Hemphill, also played fiddle, as did Dock Hemphill, the progenitor of a prolific musical family that moved to the Tate/Panola County area. Dock's son, multi-instrumentalist Sid Hemphill, recorded for the Library of Congress in 1942 in Sledge. Sid's daughters played guitar, and his granddaughter Jessie Mae Hemphill (1923-2006) was hailed as one of the world's premier female blues performers.

In Memphis Carter often performed in a band led by trumpeter Ed "Prince Gabe" Kirby (1929-1987), a cousin on the Hemphill side. Carter recorded in 1957 for producer Sam Phillips of Sun Records as a member of Kirby's group. Although Sun did not release the songs at the time, some later appeared on European albums. In the '60s he recorded four singles, including two for another famed Memphis producer, Willie Mitchell. His only CD, "Lucky 13," on the British label Blueside, won awards in 1999 from the magazines "Living Blues" in the U.S. and "Soul Bag" in France. French filmmaker Marc Oriol produced a documentary on Carter, "Le Blues du Survivant," which included conversations from Carter's visits with Jessie Mae Hemphill in Como and Arlee Miller (c. 1907-1999, identified in the film as R. Lee Miller) in Weir.

The famed Staple Singers family also had Choctaw County roots. Roebuck "Pops" Staples' grandfather, William Staples (born c. 1835), and father, Warren (b. 1869) were from an area near Huntsville that was carved out to form part of Montgomery County in 1871. Pops Staples (1914-2000) was an accomplished blues guitarist in his early years and later led the Staple Singers. He credited his grandfather with passing on spirituals that became features of the Staple Singers' repertoire.