Elder Roma Wilson Biography

22 December 1910, Hickory Flat, Mississippi, USA. Wilson taught himself to play harmonica as a small child and as a young adult he performed and sang while touring his home state and neighbouring Arkansas as an itinerant preacher. For some years he worked closely with the blind guitarist Leon Pinson and although the two played mainly religious music they sometimes added secular songs to their repertoire. In the 40s, the duo split up and Wilson settled in Detroit, Michigan, where he worked in a foundry until laid off and scraped a living as a street musician. In the late 40s he was covertly recorded by record store owner Joe Von Battle and the result was released on a 78 by Gotham Records. The two songs were ‘Lily Of The Valley’ and ‘Better Get Ready’, and Wilson’s harp playing was a minor sensation. A little later, he also recorded with his sons, whom he had taught to play harmonica, and guitarist daughter; amazingly, considering the remarkable ensemble playing, the children had at the time barely entered their teens.

Wilson then drifted into obscurity and in the 70s, following the death of his first wife, he returned to Mississippi, unaware of the high regard in which his few recordings were held. It was here in Mississippi that Wilson re-encountered Pinson. In 1983, some of the 78s were re-released and Wilson came to the attention of a much wider audience than ever before. Subsequently, Wilson and Pinson played at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, the Chicago Blues Festival, the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife and the National Black Arts Festival. In the early 90s, they toured extensively under the auspices of the Southern Arts Federation. In 1994 Wilson was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Although Wilson is very highly regarded by aficionados of blues harp playing, he insists that he is not and never has been a blues player. Clearly, this is a genuine belief and it is one that highlights the powerful if sometimes unconscious bond between the blues and black religious music. Late in 1994, Wilson was recorded in Johnson’s Chapel, Church Of The Living God, Abideen, Mississippi, with his second wife and the congregation. The result, This Train, was nominated for a Grammy Award. Also on this album are included reissues of early 78 recordings with his children.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

Filter Results