Delta Man Sings 'That Ole Blues' And Touched By Spirit Of The Lord

Leon Pinson: Fame Not Elevating Lifestyle, Income
By Janet Pardue - Clarion Ledger - Feb 22, 1976

CLEVELAND — Songs of Jesus and the promised land drifted through the Mississippi Delta more than a century ago. Today, many of those same songs composed by slaves ring through downtown Cleveland when the Rev. Leon Pinson plugs in his electric guitar and "sings with the spirit of the Lord." 

On any Saturday. he might be set up on the sidewalk here, performing traditional spirituals with a gusto that sometimes spreads to passersby. "Every once in a while someone will jump in with me," grins Pinson. He feels "if it ain't got no spirit about it. I just ain't gain' nowhere."

Pinson, with little money or education, has shaped his life around his music. Spinal meningitis as an infant rendered him almost totally blind and crippled. yet he grew up singing spirituals at churches in his hometown of New Albany and at outlying Guntown and Booneville. Now 57, Pinson has his own following in Cleveland, sings on a Sunday morning radio program and twice has represented Mississippi at the Smithsonian Institution's folklife festival. But recognition has done little to elevate Pinson's lifestyle.

Sometimes people donate a little something when he sings, but he says that money barely pays the monthly water bill. And stretching his welfare check from month to month is fairly impossible.

"As soon as you get it. when you start to pay the bills, you don't finish," Pinson worries. "I ain't wan-tin' to be rich. I ain't lookin' to get rich. I just want a living where I can get things when I need them." Pinson waits on the front porch of his four-room rent house behind the Cleveland bus station, He barely can discern the shapes of passing cars.In the muddy yard, two wood-en chairs have been left out in the rain. 

Inside his house on a stormy day, a space heater keeps the living room warm and humid. The walls, floor and furniture, as well as his suit, are blue — Pinson's favorite color. Two roomers share the house with him. but they're out working. Except for an occasional rooster's crow in the distance. it's quiet as Pinson limps across the room to turn on the amplifier.

He settles down finally on the couch with a bright red Gibson guitar on his lap. "My people used to sing a long time ago." Pinson says. "Three brothers used to come to our house and play guitar and fiddle and sing. They used to play that ole blues like their fathers used _ to. So, I got to liking music and got to playing myself." 

Shades of "that ole blues" emerge when Pinson sings spirituals such as "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen- or "I Want To Be at the Meeting. - But the reverend insists it's sacred music, not blues. that he performs. "I don't think there's nothing as stayable as spiritual music. I think that's what God is pleased with." 

When Pinson lived "up in the hills" at New Albany. he was a minister at the Church of God. Upon moving 12 years ago to the Delta. he had to give up the ministry because there's no Church of God here. Helping people find God can be accomplished through his music. Pinson says, because "with so much robbing, killing and shooting these days, it's what we need to get people's minds off all that stuff."

Mississippi slaves had the same idea in the 1820s when they sang spirituals as a mental and spiritual escape from life's hardships, says historian Dr. Bennie Reeves at Jackson State University. Forbidden to communicate with each other in their native African languages. the blacks created the "invisible church in the woods or in the fields and composed spirituals to go with it, says Reeves. They sang about their oppressed state and about hope of something better in another world, he says. Such songs as "Steal Away to Jesus" also played a major role in spreading messages of the under-ground railroad by which slaves could flee bondage. 

The solitary Pinson, singing "Soldiers' Plea- in his blue living room is oblivious to his role in continuing a black folk tradition. Electrified sounds bounce around the room as he launches into "How Great Thou Art."
 
The artist becomes enraptured when he plays. a necessity in effectively spreading the sacred word, he says. When you be singing, if the spirit don't touch you. then you can't reach no one. When people find God. they just shout out loud in church over the songs. It lets you know you're touching people. You know they're feeling the spirit." Pinson says. 

Mostly, the reverend likes to sing well-known spirituals he's picked up over years of listening to tapes and records. A large stereo dominates an entire wall of the room.

Pinson threads a tape player and proudly turns up the volume so the recording of his voice rises now and then above the tape's static. Pinson says he'd like to cut some records as have his favorite groups . the Swan Silvertones, the Harmonizing Four and the Pilgrim Travelers. But he doesn't have the money to finance the project. . Would he like to be famous? "It'd suit me," Pinson says. "I'd get to meet a lot of different people. go places I've never seen and do things I've never done before." Also, there's the money. ain't never worried about if I'm going to get too much."

Blues Most Every Day The Rev. Leon Pinson leads a solitary life dedicated to his music. The Cleveland man no longer preaches and spends much of his time listening to recordings of spirituals. But on Saturdays he plays and sings on sidewalks, drawing crowds in the Delta town.

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