I was standing next to Kempf Poole, chairman of the Mississippi Blues Commission, appreciating the grin on his face as he watched Bruce bluesman Leo “Bud” Welch make his hot pink guitar sing from a chair just a few feet beyond the freshly unveiled marker celebrating Calhoun County music.
“You couldn’t have staged this more perfect,” Kempf said.
It did just all come together rather amazingly, just like Bud’s remarkable story. The Sabougla native has played and sung the blues and gospel all his life, but went relatively undiscovered until Calhoun City native Vencie Varnado secretly recorded him and introduced him to the world.
Over the past four years, 84-year-old Bud has earned international acclaim, performing in more than a dozen countries and half the United States. It was his and Vencie’s success that opened the door for Calhoun County to be added to the Blues Trail, which officially happened last Saturday on the Bruce Square.
The marker pays tribute to Bud and the bluesmen that traveled through the county playing in the “jukes” of the Bruce “Quarters” and other hidden gems in different corners of Calhoun.
It honors Ace Cannon, of Calhoun City, whose influence with his saxophone stretched across all genres of music. It was thrilling to see Ace and Bud there together Saturday to share in such an honor.
But the marker celebrates far more than that. It also points toward Calhoun’s notoriety as a hotbed of Sacred Harp singing, both black and white. I spent a lot of time last week emailing Scott Baretta, lead writer and researcher for the Blues Trail, back and forth exchanging histories and stories of Calhoun County music.
The first known Sacred Harp singing in the county was in 1866. Calhoun is also home to the oldest surviving annual singing (1875), and the first organized convention (1878), which still meets annually.
Warren Steel, of Ole Miss, forwarded some great information about the first black convention – the Pleasant Ridge Colored Musical Convention in1898 which met annually until about 10 years ago. He shared articles and more on shape-note singings. He mentioned Elmer A. Enochs (1888-1994) – a schoolteacher and singing master. Steel said Enoch’s parents were slaves, and his son Aubrey was principal of an integrated middle school, as well as president of the Pleasant Ridge and Mississippi Negro State conventions.
I knew Mr. Aubrey, who was a remarkable man who represented Calhoun County well in a number of areas.
The shared research for the marker also touched on the deep country and bluegrass roots here. Steel noted Gene and James Wilson, of Banner, who recorded as The Wilson Brothers in the 1970s on the Gauley Mountain label. We also spoke of the Coleman family and Estha Mae and Porter Parker’s opry house outside of Bruce that has celebrated all forms of music with pickin’ sessions for years. I mentioned it was a Saturday night there many years ago that I saw the “Buck Dance” for the first time.
Looking at the marker I was flooded with memories of singings at Old Bethel, bluegrass concerts in Banner, The Mighty Gospel Warriors, following Bud to Red’s in the Delta, Andrew Bryant’s incredible talent, the smoothness of Ace’s sax, and the many unnamed others that have entertained us all for so many years at local gatherings and church services.
Calhoun County music deserved this great tribute. I’m proud to have been there to witness it.