Helping communities across the state connect their heritage arts and traditions to local development, education, and active citizenship
Vaughan, Warren County, NC
Skills: Public Presentations
Matt Nelson raised 51 crops of flue-cured tobacco on the land where he was born and raised near Vaughan, North Carolina. As a boy, Nelson was drawn to the blues music played by African-American laborers on his father’s farm. “There was a black guy that lived not too far from me that played the guitar,” he explains. “I heard him playing the blues, and I liked it.”
Because of those experiences, “I bought my first [harmonica] from Rose’s dime store in Littleton for a quarter,” he remembers, “and I learned to play ‘Oh Susanna’ on it.” It wasn’t until he witnessed a performance by renowned African-American vaudeville performer Peg Leg Sam that he began to understand the mechanics behind playing blues harp.
“Around 1950, I was at a warehouse in Rocky Mount watching the tobacco sale, and I could hear some music out back…There was a peg-legged man playing a harmonica…I listened to him play for a while; he was playing something about an iceman...I said, "Can you play 'The Iceman Blues' for me?”…So he played it and I listened to him play and kind of caught on to what he was doing.”
Nelson absorbed as much blues music as his farming and school schedules would allow. He recalls seeing famed Piedmont blues musician Blind Boy Fuller play his trademark “Step It Up and Go” at a tobacco warehouse in Henderson, and purchasing blues albums from Harry Black’s pawn shop in the same town. “I’d get together with a bunch of boys at some place out on the edge of town,” he remembers, “and we’d play. That is actually where I learned to play the blues good.”
Despite his talent, Nelson put the harmonica down for over three decades. A few years ago, however, Nelson dusted off his harps when his grandniece in Roanoke Rapids needed accompaniment for a music program. Since then, he’s become a regular at the Norlina Jamboree and the Ridgeway Opry House. While Nelson is adept in traditional styles—including country and western and bluegrass—he holds a special place in his heart for the music he first heard as a child in the fields outside Vaughan. “I just love the blues,” he says.