Walden: Lessons of civil rights from a Macon street singer

January 17, 2014 

Music history seeps through the sidewalk cracks of Macon. And while we were home to some of American music’s greatest figureheads and sound shapers, it’s the unsung heroes of our lyrical street scene who always resonate when you discover their stories.

Blind since birth, the gospel-and-guitar-wielding the Rev. Pearly Brown was a fixture in downtown Macon from the 1940s to the late ’70s, where he wore a sign around his neck that said, “I Am A Blind Preacher. Please Help Me. Thank You. Rev. Pearly Brown. Americus, Ga.”

It was at a Lucinda Williams concert at the Cox Capitol Theatre a few years ago that I truly understood Brown’s influence. Williams spent part of her childhood in Macon. Her father, Miller Williams, the poet who read his “Of History and Hope” at President Bill Clinton’s second inauguration, once taught at Wesleyan College.

The singer recalled how her earliest musical memories were made in Macon, for it was here that she experienced Brown’s sounds and rhythm, which would follow her throughout her Grammy-winning career.

Legend has it that Brown was also the one who showed a young Duane Allman and Dickey Betts the weeping wail of the slide guitar. The band Wet Willie was so smitten with Brown that he was on their album cover of “Keep on Smilin.” Brown may have been a street singer, but he also proved his street smarts -- ultimately suing over his image being used for commercial purposes without his permission.

Brown was also a busy man, with Macon not being the only place he shared his influence. In the 1960s, Brown could be seen front and center and sometimes shoulder-to-shoulder marching alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

From a street singer to a civil rights activist to a revered folk singer, Brown’s influence gained notoriety across the country and he began performing regularly at large music festivals. Eventually, he would find himself on the stage of Carnegie Hall and the Grand Ole Opry, the first black performer to grace the Ryman stage.

Although Albany was his home base, the streets of Macon seemed to be his sanctuary. No matter what, he always returned, saying he “liked it better here,” up until his ailing health put him in a South Georgia nursing home, where he would die in 1986.

In 1958, he told a Telegraph reporter, “I pray to the Lord that we will someday see a world without strife, when all of us can live as brothers. I hope the Lord lets me live to see the day when mankind is considerate of one another.”

Like many in our Macon music folklore, there hasn’t been another one like him since. But his influence still stands and his words and songs ring true.

Next time you find yourself walking the sidewalks of downtown Macon, listen closely to the rhythm of your steps, add a little mental slide guitar, throw in some old time religion and discover Macon through the eyes of a blind, poor, determined, passionate and humble troubadour, who left a mark on the world and sacred memories on our street corners.

Jessica Walden is the director of communications for the College Hill Alliance and co-owner of Rock Candy Tours, a Macon music history tour company. Contact her at rockcandytours@gmail.com.

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