I grew up claiming the Black Prairie as home. Named after its rich black or charcoal colored soil the Black Prairie stretches in a crescent shape from northeast Mississippi to south west Alabama. It is prime cotton land and in the late 1700s and early 1800s was considered some of the best grasslands in the world. Across the Tombigbee from Columbus the prairie was opened for settlement by Anglo-Americans after the Choctaw Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek in 1830 and the Chickasaw Treaty of Pontotoc Creek in 1832.
There followed a land rush and the creation of many farms where Indian farms had once been. There also developed large plantations, their land worked by slaves. It was the making of the antebellum “cotton kingdom” prior to the clearing of the Delta. The African slaves brought their musical heritage when they farmed that rich, dark land. It was a musical tradition predating that of the Delta. 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.
Black Prairie blues is often considered Delta blues, or even Hill Country blues, though the hill country of northeast Mississippi lacked the large farms and African-American population of the prairie. The prairie has produced some of the greatest and most influential blues musicians. These musicians include:
Chester Arthur Burnett, who attained fame as Howlin’ Wolf (1910-1976), who was born about five miles north of West Point at White Station. He especially influenced the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Joseph Lee “Big Joe” Williams (1903-1982) was born in Crawford. As Big Joe Williams, he became a legend in blues and folk music. He became known as the “King of the 9-string guitar” and in the 1960s and 1970s, he toured Europe and Japan.
Lucille Bogan (1897-1948) is considered to have had 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 “Pawn Shop Blues” in 1923.
Booker T. Washington, who was known as Bukka White, (1906 or 1909 – 1977) was born on his grandfather’s farm between Aberdeen and Houston. Bukka was considered a master guitarist and his music influenced both Bob Dylan and Led Zeppelin. 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 and was very popular in France. He was even the subject of a Dutch documentary.
It’s strange that with all of the local music heritage, it was not until I was attending Ole Miss that I began to appreciate the blues. There 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 we had Furry Lewis come from Memphis on several occasions to play. I would pick Furry up in Memphis and drive him to Oxford and back. It is to Furry Lewis that I owe my appreciation of the blues. I now want to kick myself for not recording the stories he told me on those rides or while sitting at his house drinking “a breakfast quart” with him.
I had heard Furry play at Huey’s in Memphis but did not know anything else about him. The first time I went and picked him up, I got a lesson. He talked of opening for the Rolling Stones at an European concert and how the way Joan Baez sang John Henry wasn’t the way he taught her to play the song. I remember thinking of him as a friendly and amazingly talented person who was better known and appreciated on the stages of Europe than where he lived.
Furry was on two European tours with the Rolling Stones, and Joni Mitchell wrote a song about him, “Furry Sings the Blues.” He was playing blues in the 1920s and had played in the W.C. Handy Orchestra. He even played a bluesman named Uncle Furry in the 1975 Burt Reynolds movie WW and the Dixie Dancekings. In Furry’s music, we see the evolution of the blues.
On one of the rides to Oxford, Furry described to me how he originated “bottle-neck blues.” He told me that once when he was playing at a bar, he had decided to use a broken bottle neck from a Gilby’s Gin bottle he spotted on the floor as a guitar slide. Furry said he discovered that “nothing resonates like a Gilbey’s Gin bottleneck.” He thought nothing else ever sounded so good.
Taking him back to Memphis early one morning, he asked if I would join him for breakfast. I was thinking bacon and eggs but when we got inside his house, he opened his refrigerator, which was in his bedroom, pointed to two shelves of quart bottles and asked, “You want a Bud or a Schlitz?”
The Black Belt Blues Foundation will celebrate the great blues legends of our region with the 22nd annual Black Prairie Blues Festival (formerly the Howlin’ Wolf Memorial Blues Festival) in West Point. It will be at Mary Holmes College this Friday, September 1, 5:30 PM -11:00 PM. I already have my tickets. Get yours in Columbus at the Columbus Arts Council, in Starkville at Jack Forbus Insurance or the Growth Alliance in West Point. Tickets are also available online at blackprairiebluesfestival.com or at the door. It will be a night to enjoy celebrating a grand musical heritage.
Rufus Ward is a local historian. Email your questions about local history to him at email@example.com.
Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at firstname.lastname@example.org.