On Friday, August 31, Choctaw County artists and the community, which fostered their music, will be recognized with a marker on the Mississippi Blues Trail. The marker will be unveiled at 5:30 p.m. at 365 Front Street in Weir, Miss.
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 home 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. 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 maternal grandfather, 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. In 1942, Dock’s son, multi-instrumentalist Sid Hemphill, recorded for the Library of Congress 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. 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 (born 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. Archie Fair (c. 1909-1960), the preacher whose guitar playing first inspired B. B. King, was also a Choctaw County native.
With over 150 markers, the Mississippi Blues Trail is a museum without walls taking visitors on a musical history journey through Mississippi and beyond. The trail started with the first official marker in Holly Ridge, the resting place of the blues guitarist Charley Patton, and winds its way to sites honoring B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Son House and others. Out-of-state markers are located in Chicago; Memphis; Los Angeles; Muscle Shoals, Alabama; Ferriday, Louisiana; Helena, Arkansas; Rockland, Maine; Grafton, Wisconsin; and Tallahassee, Florida. The first international marker was erected in Notodden, Norway this summer.
For more information about the Mississippi Blues Trail, visit http://www.msbluestrail.org or explore the official Mississippi Development Authority’s Tourism Web site, http://www.VisitMississippi.org. You may also contact Alex Thomas, MDA Tourism’s Music Trails program manager at 601.359.3297 or firstname.lastname@example.org.