by Anne Kimzey
The untimely death of blues guitarist Albert Macon last month surprised and saddened Alabama blues fans, many of whom were looking forward to annual performances by Macon and musical partner Robert Thomas at the Alabama Folklife Festival in Montgomery and City Stages music festival in Birmingham.
Friends report that Macon's death followed complications from a shooting injury received while he was cleaning his gun. After being treated by a doctor for the gunshot wound in his leg, he returned home and appeared to be mending well. His condition took a rapid turn for the worse, however, and he was admitted to the East Alabama Medical Center in Opelika where he died May 12 of kidney failure.
Macon, born in 1920 in Society Hill, played a type of music he called "boogie and blues," which he learned from his father, Buster Macon, at house parties and frolics in the rural Macon County community. They played old-time, country blues tunes, such as "John Henry," and "Staggerlee," in a rousing style intended for dancing.
In a 1991 interview with music researcher Joyce Cauthen, Macon described set dances held in neighbors' homes where his father played guitar and Robert Thomas' father called the figures that guided the couples on the dance floor. He also described another type of dance involving rhythmic foot shuffling and tapping, known as buckdancing. Macon, who was an excellent buckdancer himself, recalled the competitive nature of the scene. "They'd be singing what I'd be playing. Like 'Sixteen-Twenty' and 'Mean Old Frisco.' And then all the ladies would stand back and the men would come around and do the dance and see which one do the best dancing. He'd get out there and do the buck dance and other'n get out there and do another kind of dance and then another'n come in and see which one beat. And they had a little pot they give him, which one do the best dancing. They had the hat around, they'd give him a tip."
Albert Macon began teaching Robert Thomas to play blues guitar when Thomas, who was nine years younger than Macon, was about 15 years old. For the past 40 years the two men had been playing music together at fish fries, parties and festivals in the greater Auburn, Tuskegee, and Columbus, Georgia area. The two men also received national and international attention, playing such venues as the Knoxville World's Fair and the American Blues Festival in the Netherlands and the WDR Blues Festival in Bonn, Germany. Macon and Thomas recorded Blues and Boogie from Alabama, an album on the Dutch Swingmaster label, and are also featured on the recording In Celebration of a Legacy: Traditional Music of the Chattahoochee River Valley, produced by the Columbus Museum of Art.
Albert Macon defies the stereotype of the itinerant blues musician. He lived his entire life and raised his large family Society Hill, Alabama. He drove a school bus for 40 years in Tuskegee, where the town's leading citizens, including school principals, teachers, police officers and even the mayor, he said, were once students who rode his bus. He was one of the very few country blues musicians left in Alabama today who actually lived and learned his music in the era, setting and social conditions that produced this powerful, African-American musical tradition. Fortunately before his death, he was beginning to receive recognition for the cultural treasure that he was. Let us hope his legacy continues.
Anne Kimzey is a folklorist with the Alabama Center for Traditional Culture. Write: Alabama Center for Traditional Culture, 410 N. Hull St., Montgomery, AL 36104. The Alabama Center for Traditional Culture is a division of the Alabama State Council on the Arts.
Much of the information in this article is taken from an interview with Albert Macon and Robert Thomas conducted by Joyce Cauthen, February 14, 1991.