Roma Wilson
Roma Wilson © Radio France  /  Florian Royer

The gospel of Roma Wilson

For almost three decades, the singer and harmonicist Roma Wilson remained one of the most enigmatic musicians in American music. Until the 1980s, there were no pictures, and only one commercially-available recording... Today, he's 107 years old, and France Musique has managed to track him down.

In the fields of Mississippi and Arkansas, in the streets of Detroit, at the White House for the Clintons... Roma Wilson has taken his gospel all over the country for over eight decades. An ordained pastor at the age of 18, he only ever took part in two recording sessions. During the first, in the early 1950s, he recorded three records but only one album was published. He had to wait until 1994 to record another. Rediscovered much later in life, the singer-harmonicist was nominated for a Grammy in 1993, and even continued playing in his church at age 100.

1910-1923: a childhood spent in the fields of Mississippi

Roma Wilson was born on 22 December 1910 in Hickory Flat, Mississippi. The youngest of 10 siblings, his parents were sharecroppers and worked a small patch of land. At the age of eight or nine, he was already working the land, leading the mule that ploughed the furrows. Whenever he could, he would go to school on foot, sometimes without any shoes. To make a living and feed the family, his father and brothers would work on the railroad, laying the rails that would eventually cross the rural State of Mississippi.

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Roma Wilson: "We had to start working, sometimes when we were eight or nine years old".

1923-1929: a peg-legged vagabond and a teacher

In around 1923, a then-adolescent Roma Wilson built a harmonica from scrap metal. At the age of 15 he finally bought his first real harmonica. An old vagabond musician, handicapped and incapable of earning a living through manual labour, taught him to play. Roma Wilson immediately developed his own particular style, powerful with an almost screaming song mixed with a subtle vibrato. 

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Roma Wilson: "An old man, Ned Moss, an old peg-legged man, would kinda show me how to choke them"
The blind singer and guitarist Blind Connie Williams was one of these travelling handicapped musicians © Screenshot
The blind singer and guitarist Blind Connie Williams was one of these travelling handicapped musicians © Screenshot

1929-1935: the wandering gospel musician

In 1929, Roma Wilson heard a divine calling. Ordained by a local religious man, he began travelling all over Mississippi spreading the good word. He sang gospels, whose verses were taken from the Bible, with his harmonica as accompaniment. Often he was only paid for his religious services with bags of potatoes. He performed in temporary and makeshift chapels made out of sheets with wooden logs for benches. His songs and harmonica style gradually became known throughout the surrounding regions, even drawing in large crowds from the white community, keen to listen to the music from Afro-American liturgy.

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Roma Wilson : "Even the White people would love to hear the Black people sing"

1935-around 1949: direction Arkansas

At the age of 25, Roma Wilson crossed the Mississippi river and moved to nearby Arkansas, with his wife and children. There he became a farmer and put an end to his nomadic lifestyle. He still performed every Sunday in small local churches where his music style rapidly gathered attention and success. His style came to be known as "chock", consisting in abruptly accentuating the music and blowing hard into the harmonica, making his instrument scream much like Jimi Hendrix would with his guitar years later. His children learned to play the guitar and eventually accompanied their father.

1950-around 1960: worker at a Detroit automobile factory, and his first record

Drawn by the possibility of employment in the automobile capital, the Wilson family moved to Michigan. Alongside the local chapels, Roma Wilson and his eldest sons performed on Hasting Street, one of the city's busiest streets, where most of the black businesses were situated. In this street, Joe von Battle, a businessman and record producer, noticed the family of musicians and invited them to record six songs to be distributed across three 78rpm records.

The only record by Roma Wilson, published in the 1950s - on the B-side, the song "Lily of the valley", © Joe Louis private collection
The only record by Roma Wilson, published in the 1950s - on the B-side, the song "Lily of the valley", © Joe Louis private collection

However, without warning, Joe von Battle sold the master recordings of the harmonicist to a producer of the Gotham label in Philadelphia, who ultimately chose to release with a limited distribution only two of the six recorded tracks on one 78rpm record. The record sticker only named the artists as "Elder R. Wilson and Family", making their identification difficult. Unaware of the release of the record, Roma Wilson never saw a penny of the sales of his music. A stranger to the realm of show business, he returned to his automobile factory work in order to feed his 11 children, and continued performing his music in the streets and churches. Theft, forgetfulness, or bad faith by Joe von Battle? A retired pastor with a weakness for alcohol, he was certainly no choir boy, though his daughter wholly rejects Roma Wilson's side of the story. As for Roma Wilson, he would wait 45 years before finally recording another record.

Joe von Battle in his shop on Hasting Street (1950s), © photo used with kind permission from Marsha Music
Joe von Battle in his shop on Hasting Street (1950s), © photo used with kind permission from Marsha Music  /  Marsha Music

1960-early 1970s: Leon Pinson, the fake reverend

By the end of the 1960s, Roma Wilson was almost 50. His eldest sons had fought in Korea, and his youngest would soon leave for Vietnam. He continued performing his gospel in the streets of Detroit, now accompanied on guitar by Leon Pinson, another Mississippi-born musician. A self-proclaimed reverend, the musician was marked by meningitis, leaving him lame and almost blind. The two met in Arkansas before both moving to Detroit, though due to his handicap Pinson was unable to work on the factory line. To survive, he polished shoes and worked as an accompanist in churches. He only ever recorded one record during his career, a handful of songs on a 33rpm released in 1967.

Leon Pinson in 1967
Leon Pinson in 1967  /  George Mitchell
Listenby Florian Royer
Roma Wilson: "I don't think he was much of a preacher"

1970-1980: Disappearance and the success of his children

Around the age of 60, Roma Wilson went into retirement and left Detroit, notably after the riots in 1967. At the same time, though he did not know it, numerous amateurs of blues and gospel music had found his music and were tracking him down. Several years earlier, the young collector and producer Chris Strachwitz had met Joe von Battle in Detroit, from whom he had received several unreleased acetate discs. Amongst these discs were the remaining unpublished recordings of Roma Wilson, discarded around 15 years ago. Strachwitz set about trying to find this R. Wilson, but to no avail. 

The musician had returned to his native Mississippi and oversaw a small rural religious community. His house, hidden deep in the countryside, was surrounded by huge fields. There he set up a large caravan that he turned into a chapel, where he would perform and sing, in a style that had remained unchanged after all these years. At the same time, his children in Detroit encountered a moderate musical success. His daughter Ester became a sensation with her "overhand" style of guitar playing, and even joined a group named The Trumpelettes. Rome Jr sang in the reputable quartet The CSJC Gospel Singers, where his brother Robert also officiated. The latter was also a member of the Mighty Gospel Wonders.

A record by The Trumpelettes, with Ester Wilson, Roma's daughter
A record by The Trumpelettes, with Ester Wilson, Roma's daughter © Radio France  /  Radio France
Listenby Florian Royer
Alan Young: Sammy became an ordained preacher

1980-1990: small local festivals

Hidden and out of sight, Roma Wilson was still able to capture the attention of local impresario Worth Long. He had heard talk of Wilson's music through word-of-mouth, and decided to include him in several festivals. Wilson's fame, however, would not go further than Mississippi and its neighbouring states. Even in the blues festivals, he would play his unique kind of gospel, whose intonations brought to mind the music of the Delta. Roma Wilson was often accompanied on guitar by none other than his old acolyte Leon Pinson. As for, Chris Strachwitz, the recent owner of recordings made by Wilson in Detroit, he hoped to commercialise the recordings through his own record label dedicated to traditional music. However, unable to find any information about the author of these recordings, he was unable to progress. Worth Long, a talented sleuth, eventually learned about the quest to find the identity of the mysterious pastor-harmonicist. It was he who introduced the producer to the mysterious musician, and ultimately reignited Roma Wilson's career, now almost 80 years old.

Listenby Florian Royer
David Wilson: Even at the blues festivals, he played gospel

1990-2000: concert at the White House and new album

Worth Long introduced Roma Wilson to various amateurs of rural music. In 1993, the New-Zealander Alan Young crossed the Pacific in order to publish the first interview with Roma Wilson. Proof of his complete disinterest and lack of knowledge on the matter, the harmonicist had even forgotten the recording dates of his own record. That same year, a track by Wilson was reissued on a compilation CD and nominated at the Grammys for best traditional blues album. Chris Strachwitz travelled to Mississippi and recorded Roma playing and singing in his tiny chapel. In 1994, a CD containing a collection of new recordings, alongside those unreleased by Joe von Battle in Detroit, was finally produced, 44 years after the release of Wilson's first record. Following the release, Roma Wilson was awarded the National Fellowship Heritage, a prize rewarding those that defend and contribute to the American nation's traditional arts. The ceremony was held at the White House, during which he gave a concert, and the prize was presented by First Lady Hillary Clinton, in the presence of Bill Clinton. The harmonicist-pastor was also awarded the princely sum of 10 000 dollars, one which he had never in his life earned through his music, given in particular the fact that his second disc did not perform well financially.

Hillary Clinton awarding the National Fellowship Heritage to Roma Wilson at the White House
Hillary Clinton awarding the National Fellowship Heritage to Roma Wilson at the White House © Radio France  /  Wilson Family
Letter addressed to Roma Wilson by Bill Clinton
Letter addressed to Roma Wilson by Bill Clinton  /  Wilson family
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Roma Wilson: Hillary Clinton, and her husband, endorsed the prize

2000-2018: musician, pastor and centenarian

In the early 2000s, Roma Wilson left Mississippi. Having lost his friend Leon Pinson in 1998, he returned to Detroit to be closer to his family. His daughter Ester was still performing, whereas Sam and David had become pastors like their father. Upon his return, the harmonicist put an end to the festivals and only performed for his congregations. Even in 2010 when he became a centenarian, Roma Wilson never stopped his musical activities. He continued leading ministry congregations, and lived with his wife in a small house adjacent to his church. The following year, he hurt himself during a fall. He came out with only a few broken ribs but was unable to continue leading his ministry. His son David, not a musician by training but nonetheless gifted with a magnificent voice, took over from his father. 

Roma Wilson, today in a nursing home, no longer attends the ministry but prays and gives his blessings to the speakers. He has not kept anything of his musical past other than his harmonicas. No records, no photos... His family have preciously saved photos of him with Hillary Clinton and a letter signed by the former president. However, Roma Wilson is more than happy to play the harmonica when asked by a visitor. 

On 22 December 2018, he will celebrate his 108th birthday.

Listenby Florian Royer
David Wilson: When dad was still able to use his hands, he always blew his harp during his ministry
David Wilson took over from his father in the family church
David Wilson took over from his father in the family church © Radio France  /  Florian Royer

The author wishes to thank in particular Joe Louis and John Glassburner for the access to their record collections, and George Mitchell for the picture of Leon Pinson.

Florian Royer