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Ask Rufus: The Legacy of Black Prairie Blues

 

Roxie’s Place was a jukejoint at White Station (near West Point) where Howlin’ Wolf often played.

Roxie’s Place was a jukejoint at White Station (near West Point) where Howlin’ Wolf often played. Photo by: Courtesy photo

 

Rufus Ward

 

Blues is a great unifier. A week ago there was a horrible incident in West Point that threatened to create divisions within the community. However, on Friday night in West Point, blues brought people of all sizes, shapes and colors, from all over the United States and even several foreign countries together. One person even came from Australia. A crowd of over 500 mixed, mingled and had a great time. The blues is Mississippi's music and it transcends race and nationality. 

 

The event was the Howlin' Wolf Blues Festival which has been held annually in West Point for 19 years. The festival was founded to honor Howlin' Wolf, a music legend from White Station, an old railroad stop a couple of miles north of West Point. His legacy of musical genius merged into an atmosphere of peace, barbecue and music. The event opened with "Mr. Sipp's" stirring electric guitar version of The Star Spangled Banner, reminiscent of Jimmy Hendrix. It brought everyone to their feet and set the tone for the evening. It was an evening that ended with a performance by the great George Porter, Jr. who has opened for the Rolling Stones and had recording sessions with the likes of Paul McCartney, Jimmy Buffett and Taj Mahal. 

 

When blues is mentioned most people think of the Delta or Memphis or St. Louis or Chicago blues but blues music has deep roots in the Black Prairie. In addition to Howlin' Wolf, the Black Prairie (named after its fertile black soil) has produced such blues legends as Big Joe Williams, Bukka White, Lucille Bogan and Willie King. And the Prairie is still producing blues musicians of note. Last month Karen and I had a great evening at Blues Night at Anthony's in West Point listening to our friend Big Joe Shelton continue the tradition of outstanding blues music. 

 

I grew up in Columbus surrounded by blues music but not fully appreciating the level of talent I was hearing. At Ole Miss my fraternity, DKE, would often have blues musicians perform. In the late 1950s and early 1960s Howlin' Wolf played there on several occasions. When I was there in the early 1970s we would have Furry Lewis come from Memphis to play. I would pick him up and now want to kick myself for not recording the stories he told me. He had begun playing blues in the 1920s and had played in the W.C. Handy Orchestra. Furry described how he invented "bottle-neck blues." He once told me that "nothing resonates like a Gilbey's Gin bottleneck." He recalled two European tours with the Rolling Stones and talked about Joni Mitchell and her song about him, "Furry Sings the Blues." 

 

In 1979 Michigan State University began a multi-year archaeology project on the Tombigbee River. We decided to have a barbeque for them and got Big Joe Williams to come up from Crawford and play. I was amazed when the folks from Michigan all brought their "Big Joe" record albums to get autographed and asked how we could afford to get such a famous artist to play for a private party. He had charged us all of $50. Like Furry, Big Joe just liked to play for people who enjoyed his music. 

 

It is both interesting and sad that the blues musicians of the Black Prairie have become more noted and famous overseas in Europe and in Japan than at home. Howlin' Wolf (1910-1976) is thought of as a bluesman but is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He both influenced and recorded albums with the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton. 

 

Big Joe Williams (1903-1982) was born in Crawford and has been called "king of the nine-string guitar." He has also toured Europe and Japan. In his book "The Legacy of the Blues" Samuel Charters described Big Joe and his bluesman cousin J.D. Short in the St. Louis of the 1950s: "The two of them - Mississippi bluesmen still playing in the old field holler rhythm and half-picking, half-strumming their battered old guitars." 

 

Lucille Bogan (1897-1948) is considered to have with Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey the greatest female blues voices of all time. She was born in Monroe County near Amory and made her first recording in 1923. 

 

Bukka White (1906/09 - 1977) was born on his grandfather's farm between Aberdeen and Houston. If that location of his birth is not vague enough, he at various times gave his birth year as 1906 and 1909. His music influenced both Bob Dylan and Led Zeppelin and his song "Fixin' to Die" was a 2012 Grammy Hall of Fame Selection. 

 

Willie King (1943 - 2009) was born in Prairie Point, Mississippi. He also was an internationally known bluesman who won many national awards but seemed to most enjoy playing locally. He was even the subject of a Dutch documentary. He died at Old Memphis, Pickens County, Alabama in 2009. 

 

The Black Prairie has a rich heritage of blues music and though it is usually labeled as Delta or Hill Country blues it is in fact Black Prairie Blues. It is music that, as we saw in West Point Friday night, can bring many different people together bridging divides with the common language of music and a fun evening.

 

Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at rufushistory@aol.com.

 

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