Ask Rufus: The Heritage of the Blues

August 29, 2018 10:23:13 AM

Rufus Ward - [email protected]


The blues is Mississippi's music and though African-American in origin, it transcends race and culture. When most people think of the blues, they think of the Delta blues, the Memphis blues, the St. Louis blues or the Hill Country blues. Though not so well known, there is also the Black Prairie blues. The old Black Prairie of Mississippi and Alabama has blues roots as deep -- if not deeper -- than anywhere else. Blues is a music with a foundation in the work chants and hard times experienced by laborers on plantations and steamboats, and the Black Prairie was the antebellum cotton and corn belt of the south. It was the Black Prairie that produced such blues legends as Howlin' Wolf, Big Joe Williams, Bukka White, Lucille Bogan and Willie King.  


The Black Prairie was named after its fertile black soil. It runs in a narrow crescent shape from northeast Mississippi into south central Alabama. It was settled by Euro-Americans between 1816 and 1835. The African slaves that were brought to farm the rich, dark land carried with them their musical heritage. After emancipation, the former slaves mostly became tenant farmers and their hard life and music continued. The field work chants, steamboat chants and mournful ballads merged into the blues. 


It was a musical tradition predating that of the Delta, though it is often considered Delta blues. It is even sometimes referred to as Hill Country blues, though the hill country of northeast Mississippi lacked the large farms and African-American population of the prairie. A few of the Columbus work chants of the 1800s have survived. The roots of blues run deep into these chants. 


When cotton was King it was steamboats that carried it from Aberdeen and Columbus down the Tombigbee to the Mobile market. Two of the 1870s Tombigbee work chants have survived; 




"The William S. Holt and John T. Moore 


All them boats are mine 


Oh see the boat go round the bend 


Goodbye my lover goodbye 


Loaded with Columbus men 


Goodbye my lover goodbye." 




"Sally is a good gal 


And a bad one too 


Oh Sally oh gal." 




At the sites of old tenant houses on area farms it is not unusual to find broken harmonica reeds as evidence of the blues often played by the tenants working the cotton or corn fields. The verbal and physical relics of the origins of the blues still surround us. As are most of the old blues joints and clubs, though, they are fast disappearing.  


The popularity of the blues was carried in the early 1900s first by minstrel shows and then by the W.C. Handy Orchestra. In a ca. 1924 interview W.C. Handy commented on the music that was popular, such as in the minstrel shows; "They (the blues) are essentially racial, the ones that are genuine - though since they became the fashion many blues have been written that are not Negro in Character..." The minstrel shows often presented the ragtime and blues in a demeaning racist manner but did give black musicians a chance to advance in the field of music. I have to admit I'm rather fond of one minstrel song, "Whistling Rufus" an 1899 ragtime piece. 


In the November 14, 1915, Columbus Commercial it was reported that "Joe Coburn and his big minstrel Blues (would) make their annual parade down Main Street" in Columbus. Their blues was said to be newer and bluer than the "Memphis Blues." There is a ca. 1910 photo at the Billups Garth Archives that the late Sam Kaye made a pastel drawing of. We thought it was an "Eight of May" parade but it may well have been Joe Coburn's blues parade. 


The result of the new popularity of blues and the spreading use of the phonograph is evident in local advertising. In 1917 the Hale Music House in Aberdeen was doing a mail order business and featured "Paradise Blues" in an ad in the Macon Beacon. Newspapers advertisements for Victor Records and blues music at Divelbiss book store in Columbus and Maier Jewelry Store in Aberdeen appeared between 1919 and 1921.  


Some of the Black bluesmen traveled about singing for food and lodging at area farms. One such musician was Big Joe Gray who traveled the through the prairie west of Columbus around 1930. 


In Columbus the blues flourished. The Seventh Avenue North neighborhood of Columbus was the center of a bustling African American community and a regional entertainment center. The heart of the neighborhood was the Queen City Hotel which opened in 1909. By 1911 it had become a venue for concerts and dances. It was a hotel that in the days of segregation hosted some of the most famous names in sports and entertainment. The list of entertainers and guest reads like a who's who: Louis Armstrong, Pearl Bailey, Little Richard, B.B. King, Bobby "Blue" Bland, Billie Holliday, Ella Fitzgerald, James Brown and Duke Ellington to name only a few. 


Space does not allow the full story of the blues of the Black Prairie. Among the notable musicians of the prairie are: Blind Ben Covington who first recorded in 1929 and was not blind; Lucille Bogan (1897-1948) is considered to have, with Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, one of the greatest female blues voices of all time; Howlin' Wolf (1910-1976) is thought of as a bluesman, but he is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; Big Joe Williams (1903-1982) was born in Crawford and has been called "king of the nine-string guitar;" Bukka White's (1906/09-1977) 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) also was an internationally-known bluesman who won many national awards and was even the subject of a Dutch documentary. The music heritage of Columbus and the Black Prairie is amazing. 


For those who appreciate great music and an enjoyable evening, The Black Prairie Blues Festival is Friday night in West Point. It is at the Mary Homes College Gym. Doors open at 5 pm and the concert starts at 6 pm. Tickets ($20 in advance $25 at the door) are available at the door or at Columbus Arts Council, Jack Forbus Insurance in Starkville or the Growth Alliance in West Point. I am looking forward to a most enjoyable evening of some fine music. 






WHAT: Black Prairie Blues Festival 


WHEN: Friday, Aug. 31, 6 p.m. 


WHERE: Mary Holmes College, West Point 


TICKETS: $20 advance (; Columbus Arts Council; Jack Forbus Insurance/Starkville; Growth Alliance/West Point). $25 at door.

Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]