Born August 18, 1915 in Abbeville, Georgia, Reverend Pearly Brown lived his life preaching and singing about the word of God to common folk in the streets. Rev. Brown spoke of his childhood: “I was born blind so I have never seen the world. My mother died when I was quite small and my father had left her. White people raised me, sent me to a school for the blind in Macon. My grandmother taught me slavery songs and spirituals. When I was small I always said when I got to be a big boy, I was gonna get off my people and work for myself. So I learnt how to pick a guitar listening to the radio and records. I been preachin’ ever since I was fifteen years old. I play mostly in Georgia, Macon, Waycross, Albany, Americus. Two or three times in Florida and Alabama...”
Rev. Brown stands as the first black musician to perform on the Grand Old Opry. The Reverend often played folk and blues shows, like the Monterrey Jazz, Southern Folk, and the Newport Folk Festivals. His career gathered attention in the sixties during the civil rights movement. He hosted radio programs in Macon on WIBB for fifteen minutes every Thursday and in Americus on WDEC for a Sunday morning show.
It was on the streets of Macon, Georgia, where two young guitar players named Duane Allman and Dickey Betts, from a local band called the Allman Brothers, according to Betts would: “get a sackful of quarters and follow him all over just to hear that bottleneck style.”
The Macon band, Wet Willie used a photograph of Rev. Brown for the cover of their Keep On Smilin’ album in the seventies. Brown always maintained performances in his home state. He often played in Atlanta and Athens where the University of Georgia students became so fond of the Reverend that they once generated enough money to purchase him some new teeth.
In 1975, Dr. John English of the University of Georgia recorded a 30 minute documentary on Rev. Brown titled “Mean Old World.” In 1981, the Reverend entered a nursing home in Plains, Georgia, where he died in 1986.
This year, Arhoolie Records released a twenty song Rev. Pearly Brown collection titled, You’re Gonna Need That Pure Religion. The first fifteen songs were recorded by Harry Oster in 1961 at the WIBB Macon studios for an album originally titled Georgia Street Singer.
The last five previously unissued songs originated from a radio broadcast hosted by Chris Strachwitz on KPFA in Berkeley, California, on September 24, 1974. At one point Rev. Brown informs radio listeners: “...my grandparents called the guitar, the ‘Devil’s Box’, see and I’m sure the Devil was in the box alright, because I loved myself some music.” This new package contains Oster’s original 1961 liner notes along with new notes provided by Strachwitz.
These songs serve as testimony to Rev. Brown’s gospel message. The opening song, “God Don’t Never Change” reminds people no one escapes death, and everyone must reckon with the Creator, sooner or later. Rev. Brown sings “Oh What A Morning”, an old African spiritual he learned from his grandmother, a Virginia slave. Rev. Brown remarks on the album: “We need more old time songs. They make us live better to have these old songs come back to our memory.”
The title track on this CD forces any humble soul to examine depths and zeniths of their own faith. Rev. Brown covers “Motherless Children” a song Blind Willie McTell (who attended the Georgia Academy for the Blind with Rev. Brown) often played and recorded. Rev. Brown’s guitar sound resembles a style between Blind Willie Johnson and the bottleneck tone of Fred McDowell. Brown covers a rendition of McDowell’s “You Got To Move” and the traditional, “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning.”
“If I Never See You Anymore”, a redemptive song evoking a sad mantra, serves as the most sorrowful tune on the album. Brown’s signature song, “It’s A Mean Old World To Try and Live In”, contains an unshakable wisdom and remains his best known composition. A few desolate lyrics from the song include:
You moan night and day Your friends will drive you away Don’t take everybody to be your friend They’ll learn your secrets and turn their back on you It’s a mean old world to try and live in Old death ain’t no friend to you He’s calling everybody everyday won’t let nobody stay It’s a mean old world to try and live in
Another classic, “The Great Speckled Bird”, a beautiful, timeless song with biblical references breathes a spirit of hope.
This spiritual collection of songs transcends time by revealing age-old realities of spirit and flesh with unwavering faith. Hearing Rev. Pearly Brown’s You’re Gonna Need That Pure Religion inspires one to remain a little more vigilant in this mean old world...