Considered among the premier gospel harmonica masters of his era, Elder Roma Wilson was for decades a mystery to folklorists — unaware his music had ever even been recorded, he did not learn of his international renown until he was well into his seventies, at which time he finally began to pursue a professional performing career to wide acclaim.
Born December 22, 1910 in Hickory Flat, MS, Wilson began playing harmonica at the age of 13, honing his skills on old mouth harps discarded by his brothers; in order to get the worn-out instruments to play properly, he was forced to develop a kind of sucking or “choking” style which, over time, resulted in a seemingly endless wind supply.
Upon becoming an ordained minister in the Pentecostal Church in 1929, he began traveling the northern Mississippi region alongside another musical minister, the Rev. Leon Pinson; together they garnered a strong following on the church circuit, earning renown for their renditions of “This Train,” “Lily of the Valley,” and “Better Get Ready.”
Wilson relocated to Michigan during the early ’40s, working in a steel mill in the Muskegon area before settling in Detroit in 1942. There he resumed his musical career, performing on street corners with his children for spare change; while playing harmonica in a local record shop in 1948, he was secretly recorded by the store’s owner, who without Wilson’s knowledge or consent, licensed the tracks for release around the world.
For years after, folklorists attempted to seek him out, but he remained beyond their reach; after the death of his wife, he moved back to Mississippi during the early ’70s, where he again began playing with Pinson. In the years that followed, Wilson slowly began to realize that he was renowned among roots music scholars, finally hearing his decades-old recordings for the first time; he and Pinson were enormously well-received on the festival circuit, winning accolades for their performances at the Chicago Blues Festival and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, among others. In 1993, Wilson was one of 11 folk artists to win a $100,000 National Heritage Fellowship from the NEA. A year later, he issued the LP This Train, which included his first new recordings in decades.