The down-home gospel sounds of renowned Union County musicians Elder Roma Wilson (b. 1910) and Rev. Leon Pinson (1919-1998) won them many admirers among blues and folk music audiences, although they were evangelists rather than blues artists. Partners early in their careers, they performed at a number of festivals after reuniting in 1989. Wilson, who formed one of the first African-American gospel harmonica quartets in the 1940s, was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship in 1994.
Elder Roma Wilson and the Reverend Leon Pinson performed music that accentuated both the similarities and the differences between gospel and the blues. Instrumentally, the music often sounded so much like blues that it was sometimes called "holy blues" or "gospel blues." But the lyrics of their songs were sacred, not secular, and both Wilson and Pinson steadfastly adhered to their religion and claimed that they never played the blues. Wilson told author Alan Young, "I don't have the blues. I only have joy. Got no blues, but we got respect for them - if people want to play 'em, that's their business." Pinson said, "I hear some people say I'm singing the 'gospel blues.' Gospel blues! Ain't no blues in gospel . . . You don't have no need of the blues if you're
While churchgoers have often been at odds with the blues community, some of Mississippi's most renowned African American artists recorded and performed both blues and gospel music, including Charley Patton, Son House, B. B. King, Memphis Minnie, Bukka White, Big Joe Williams, Blind Roosevelt Graves, and Mississippi Fred McDowell. Clarksdale native Sam Cooke helped revolutionize popular music when he "crossed over" and adapted his gospel style to rhythm & blues.
Roma Wilson, born December 22, 1910, near Hickory Flat in Benton County, began playing harmonica in his teens and was ordained by the age of eighteen. He grew up around New Albany, farmed and worked at a sawmill and on the railroad, and moved to Arkansas and then to Michigan, where he found a job at a foundry, all while continuing to preach and play gospel music. He taught his three sons to play harmonica, and together they performed in church and on the streets of Detroit. Their unique harmonica quartet sound was featured on a 1952 recording credited to "Elder R. Wilson and Family " which later piqued considerable interest among blues and gospel collectors. In 1976 Wilson returned to the New Albany area, although he eventually moved back to Detroit.
Guitarist and pianist Leon Pinson was born in Union County on January 11, 1919. A case of meningitis left
him partially crippled and almost blind, but his musical talent enabled him to sustain a career playing at churches, concerts, and on street corners. He performed with Wilson in Mississippi and Arkansas, and was also a member of groups including the Silvertone Quartet in New Albany and the Delta Melodies in Cleveland, Mississippi, his home for most of the years between 1964 and 1988. While in the Delta, Pinson, who also trained and played for gospel choirs across North Mississippi, came to the attention of folklorists, and he was already known on the folk and blues circuit by the time he rejoined Wilson. For several years they traveled around the country to great acclaim. Pinson died on October 10, 1998.