He was one of the country’s last great street singers.
He walked the streets of downtown Macon for decades, picking his guitar and singing old-time gospel.
Blind since birth, the Rev. Pearly Brown figured his songs helped provide a kind of racial bonding.
“I pray to the Lord that we will someday see a world without strife, when all of us can live as brothers,” he told a reporter in 1958. “I hope the Lord lets me live to see the day when mankind is considerate of one another.”
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Now, 24 years after his death, Brown will be inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame on Saturday night during the 32nd annual awards ceremony.
It’s an accolade that’s long overdue, said Lisa Love, the museum’s executive director.
“The Hall of Fame awards have tended to lean toward the commercial side, but I believe it is vitally important to recognize musicians who don’t necessarily top any charts, but have nevertheless been influential and inspirational,” she said. “Hopefully, this well-deserved induction will bring back memories for some people who knew or encountered him, and for others, introduce them to his story and songs.”
Brown was born in Abbeville, in Wilcox County, in 1915. When he was growing up, a teacher in Americus, where Brown’s family had moved, noticed his determination one day as he tried to nail a box together. She asked him if he’d like to go to school. He said yes, and she got him enrolled at the Georgia Academy for the Blind in Macon. He finished eight grades in six years and learned to read Braille.
After he finished school, he began preaching and reading the Bible on the street, and he learned how to play the guitar. He played from Atlanta to Thomasville, but he always returned to the streets of Macon, once saying, “I like it better here.”
He began coming to Macon to play in the 1940s, catching a bus in Americus on Wednesdays and walking a route through downtown Macon each day as he played, a cup attached to his guitar for donations. A sign hung from his neck that read, “I Am A Blind Preacher. Please Help Me. Thank You. Rev. Pearly Brown. Americus, Ga.” He would return to Americus by bus on Saturday night.
“I’ve come to love the streets,” he said in a 1972 Telegraph profile. “It’s not bad to be a street singer. It’ll learn you something. You got to look over how some people can be mean to you.”
Brown gained more recognition in the 1960s, spurred in part by his accompanying the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on marches during the civil rights movement.
As his notoriety grew, he played across the South, from colleges to folk festivals. In time, he played at Carnegie Hall, the Newport Folk Festival, the Monterey Jazz Festival and the Country Music Jamboree at Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tenn.
In the early 1970s, he had a 15-minute radio show on WIBB in Macon each Thursday and a Sunday morning broadcast on an Americus station. The shows helped put his songs before a larger audience.
Among his influences were Blind Lemon Jefferson and Blind Willie Johnson. He adapted the bottleneck guitar style from them, using it in much of his repertoire, according to Steve Leggett’s “All Music Guide.” Like Johnson, he played a kind of blues gospel, singing spirituals in his rich baritone and what Brown called “slave songs.”
He also shared what he had learned.
“A lot of musicians sat with him on the street” to watch, listen and try to improve their craft, Love said. “That says a lot about him.”
Among the musicians he’s said to have mentored on the slide guitar are Duane Allman and Dickey Betts of Allman Brothers fame.
Brown once told a reporter that he took a dim view of rock ‘n’ roll and “honky tonk music.”
In 1974, he sued Capricorn Records after the Wet Willie band used his picture on the cover of the album “Keep on Smilin’” without his permission. A judge denied an injunction on the sale of the album, however.
Brown’s first album, “Georgia Street Singer,” was released in 1961. His second, “It’s a Mean Old World to Try to Live In,” was released in 1975. A documentary by the same name followed in 1977.
Brown continued to sing on the streets of Macon until the late ’70s, when poor health forced him to retire. He died in Plains Nursing Home in 1986.
“His music had the spirit of the blues and the power of the church,” Leggett noted.
Information from the Telegraph archives was used in this report. To contact writer Oby Brown, call 744-4396.