Rich Amerson

Date of Birth: 1893
Place of Birth: Sumterville, Alabama

I n 1937 while collecting songs in Sumter County for the Library of Congress, John Lomax met an individual whom he later referred to as his "Prize Find." Lomax described his first encounter Richard Manuel Amerson in his book Adventures of a Ballad Hunter. "Liar by constant practice, a drunkard whenever possible, ragged, dirty, unkept - Rich was at the time one of the most interesting people I have ever met. His vivid recollections of his life as a roundabout, a section hand, a farmer, a preacher, a mule skinner, a well-digger a minstrel - his ability to relive these experiences and dramatically recount them - what difference did it make if he had never learned to write his name? Somewhere deep down in this raw collop of nature lived a spark of genius" (1941). The person who introduced Lomax to the folksingers of Sumter County, Ruby Pickens Tartt, shared his view of the man she described as an "unlettered bard" : "Rich is one of the most original and creative characters I have ever known. He spins stories and poems as freely as a spider spins a web. He has an inborn genius for melody: and his songs, spirituals or their half-brother, the blues, each born of sorrow and dreams, have unique tenderness and appeal".

Rich Amerson's life is in itself a testament to the indomitability of the human spirit. Born on a farm at Brown's Chapel near Sumterville, Alabama, in 1893, the grandson of a slave, Rich lived in dire poverty all of his life…. He managed to eke out a living in the poorest county in Alabama by picking strawberries. Although she appreciated his in-born genius, Tartt admired Rich most for his courage. Despite the unfortunate circumstances of his life, Rich Amerson still retained the ability to laugh and sing. He enjoyed stories, sermons, and his heavily-embellished Bible stories.

However, it is his music that first attracted the attention of ethnomusicologists from across the United States.He played the harmonica and sang religious songs as reels and play party songs, but he is best known for singing a forerunner of modern blues called "rural blues." Rural blues songs are sung without musical accompaniment, and they are marked by heavy improvisation and conspicuous use of the falsetto voice.

Source: Alabama Music Hall of Fame/ Liner Notes from:
Rich Amerson: Selected Songs & Stories
Recorded by Nathaniel Reed in 1961.
This CD is available through Alabama Folk Life

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