Sun Ra in Birmingham: A Few Ear(th)ly Artifacts

One hundred and six years ago today, in the Magic City of Birmingham, a spaceways composer and bandleader arrived for the first time on Earth.

All his life, Sun Ra claimed to have come from outer space. He spoke of abstract other-worlds and alternate planes of existence, offering through his music a portal to other realities. For decades, he built around himself a personal mythology that rejected any earthly attachments. He may have grown up in that Alabama city of Birmingham, but he hadn’t been born there, he’d insist: he’d “arrived,” “combusted,” or “appeared,” sent from the cosmos to teach new truths to humankind. He left the city in 1946 and, as far as we know, didn’t return for decades. The place, it seemed, was irrelevant to his music and his mission.

His sister, Mary Blount Jenkins, balked at her brother’s refusal to acknowledge any earthly family or home. “He was born at my mother’s aunt’s house,” she told The Birmingham News in 1992, “over there by the train station. I know, ‘cause I got on my knees and peeped through the keyhole.

“He’s not,” she said, “from no Mars.”

For all his otherworldliness, Sun Ra was steeped in and shaped by the culture of his hometown. Herman “Sonny” Blount grew up in a fertile local jazz scene, a protégé of bandmaster John T. “Fess” Whatley, Industrial High School’s celebrated “Maker of Musicians.” By the time he graduated high school, in the spring of 1934, he was already leading his own band. Soon the Sonny Blount Orchestra was drawing acclaim across the Southeast.

Birmingham was full of musicians, many of whom would make significant marks on the sound and culture of jazz. Sun Ra’s generation of Birmingham players included the trumpeter-bandleader Erskine Hawkins and most members of his popular dance band; drummer Jo Jones, whose work with Count Basie remade the very rhythm and shimmer of swing; bandleader and businessman Teddy Hill, who turned Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem into the epicenter of the developing bebop sound. Other Birmingham instrumentalists worked in the bands of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Earl Hines, Cab Calloway, Benny Carter, Billie Holiday. To make their careers in music, they left the South to find work in the jazz capitals of the nation—Chicago, New York, Kansas City—but all of them, even Sun Ra, were shaped first in the same thriving music scene back home.

Local newspaper clippings from Sonny Blount’s years in Birmingham offer fascinating glimpses into the ear(th)ly roots of an enduring jazz icon. Below are several discoveries from my ongoing research into this history, presented in celebration of Sonny’s “arrival day” today. I’ve divided the post into two sections: first, a couple of rare early photos, and a look at Sonny’s vocal quartet, the Rhythm Four; then, a very brief survey of some of the venues and events where Sonny honed his role as bandleader in the early 1940s.

Together, these snatches of information help flesh out a portrait of the man who would become Sun Ra.

Part One: The Rhythm Four — Making a Name in Radio World 

Sonny Blount and Ripple Rhyth,

To my knowledge, this photo from October, 1940—and a similar photo from the same session, below—are the earliest known images of Sun Ra. That’s him, second from left, in a quartet called the Rhythm (or Ripple Rhythm) Four. Between 1939 and 1943, the group broadcast five days a week over radio station WSGN, their fifteen-minute midday segments squeezed into a crowded, diverse line-up of news programs, “hillbilly” bands, society dance orchestras, and more. They were sponsored first by R. C. Cola, then by the Ripple tobacco company—hence the “Ripple” that was sometimes added to their name. I first discovered this image above while scrolling through old microfilmed issues of the Birmingham World, a local African American newspaper, archived on the third floor of Birmingham’s central library. The same photo appears, around the same time, in the Weekly Review, an entertainment weekly that served the city’s black community for a few years in the ‘40s. The photo below presents the band in another pose; again Sonny is second from left.

Ripple Rhythm Four photo 2

The quartet first appeared on the airwaves in the spring of 1939. On April 9th, an ad in the Birmingham News, the city’s leading white paper, announced that “Another outstanding local-live-talent program makes its debut over WSGN tomorrow…. The Rhythm Four, a Negro quartet, is one of the finest singing organizations in the South. Their blended harmonies are applied to currently popular ballads and Negro spirituals.” Another ad from the same paper, below, promises “Sparkling Rhythms!” and “Scintillating Harmonies!” in the group’s “distinctively-styled arrangements of popular ballads and folk songs.”

Great Rhythm Four ad 1939

Sonny’s contributions were central to the sound and success of the quartet, and his involvement with the group was only one part of his active creative output. The Weekly Review identified Sonny as “a composer and arranger of no little talent,” adding that “When he’s not working with the Ripple Rhythm Four, Blount leads his own orchestra.” By October of 1940, when the photographs above were published, the Review already considered the Four “Birmingham’s favorite quartet”—a bold statement in a town flush with quartets, and a sentiment echoed in advertisements that appeared in the Birmingham News (below). The group’s recurring appearances in both black and white local papers suggests the reach of their appeal.

Rhythm Four fave quartet ad 1942

Some context: for decades, Birmingham was a hotbed of African American a cappella gospel quartets, a history that’s been chronicled in depth by Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff. The Rhythm Four, while more secular in its orientation, would have been unavoidably influenced by this distinctive homegrown tradition. In fact, bass singer and guitarist Clarence Driskell, pictured above, also belonged to a local gospel quartet, The Heavenly Four. According to Abbott and Seroff, singer Jimmy Ricks—“one of the most beloved figures in gospel quartet history”—had a brief tenure with the Rhythm Four as well, before moving to Detroit in 1941. After leaving Birmingham himself, Sonny settled for fifteen years in Chicago, where he legally changed his name to Le Sony’ra and, in addition to forming his own band, found regular work as a composer, arranger, manager, and producer for a variety of groups—including experimental vocal harmony acts like the Nu-Sounds and the Cosmic Rays. His work with the Rhythm Four would have inevitably informed those later efforts.

Rhythm Four narrow 39 ad

No known recordings exist, however, of the Birmingham quartet, and their photos raise several questions about the group’s repertoire and sound. The presence of two guitars, including a resophonic guitar, is intriguing: most Birmingham gospel quartets performed without instrumentation, and acoustic guitars are hardly associated with Sun Ra’s later work. A notice in the Birmingham News compares the Rhythm Four favorably to the nationally popular Ink Spots; the guitars and white dinner jackets reinforce that connection, hinting at the group’s possible sound. According to descriptions in the local press, Sonny’s piano (not pictured in the publicity shots, most likely for practical reasons) was a core feature of the group’s sound, along with the vocal harmonies and guitar accompaniment.

Sonny Blount Xmas 1940

By Christmas of 1940, Sonny had added a new feature to the Rhythm Four’s sound. The Solovox, introduced earlier that year, was an electric attachment that added synthesized effects to an acoustic piano or organ. It became a trademark of all of Sonny’s Birmingham groups and reflects his early forays into new technologies. Years before synthesized sounds entered the mainstream of jazz—or of popular music, more broadly—Sonny Blount in Birmingham was experimenting with their potential, even in the quartet setting.

Clearly, this was no ordinary quartet.

The Rhythm Four remained active in Birmingham through at least September of 1943. They were featured at a wide range of events, including society dances and charitable fundraisers in Birmingham’s black community. They performed for white audiences in variety shows at the Lyric and Alabama Theaters and in retail exhibitions at the Pizitz department store. All the while, their broadcasts over WSGN remained their steadiest gig, helping establish their reach in both the local black and white communities.

Rhythm Four at Lyric 2Rhythm Four at Lyric

Here’s one more shot of the Rhythm Four, from July of 1943. If this is Sonny, he’d again be second from left—but this time, I’m not so sure it’s him. Turnover was not uncommon in groups like this, the resemblance here is less clear, and no names are mentioned in the caption. Despite Sonny’s key role in the quartet from at least 1939 to 1942, it’s possible that by now he’d moved on, his hands too full with his orchestra work. Then again, it might be him. Sooner or later, I hope to confirm this detail in one direction or the other.

Either way, it’s a compelling glimpse into Sonny’s world. And the headline—“They Do Jive Differently”—is fitting hint of things to come.

Rhythm Four 4 (Sonny??)

Part Two: Live Wire Entertainment — Swing Sensation Sonny Blount

For all its popularity, the Rhythm Four was never Sonny Blount’s primary focus. What mattered most, above all, was his band. And local ads reflect the movements of a bandleader on the rise.

The Sun Ra of later years turned every live performance into a full-fledged spectacle, a musical happening replete with costumes, pageantry, dancing, parading, and audience interaction. In the early 1940s, Sonny’s standing gigs at Birmingham area nightclubs provided a kind of warm-up for those later events. Sonny was a popular regular performer at spots like Fourth Avenue’s “Colored” Masonic Temple and Eighth Avenue’s Elks Rest, where the most elite members of the local black community hosted lavish society dances. But at the Grand Terrace and Club Congo—two late-night clubs on the outskirts of town—his band could participate in spectacles more raucous. Night after night, Sonny Blount’s orchestra was central attraction in wild and wide-ranging line-ups that included not only musicians and singers but tap dancers, shake dancers, comedians, and female impersonators. An advertisement for Club Congo from July of 1942 promised “a Variety Show of Live Wire Entertainment Each SATURDAY and SUNDAY NITE.” Three times a night (at 9:30, 11:30, and 1:30) for 40 cents admission, Sonny Blount’s “Solo Vox Band” was joined by “Ace Comedian” Jazzbo Williams; Chick, “The Prince of Rug Cutters”; an “Exotic Shake Dancer” named Madame Sonja; and others.

Sonny Blount Club Congo 1942

A year later, Sonny was fronting similar line-ups at the Grand Terrace Café, located between Birmingham and Bessemer. Named for the famous Chicago ballroom, this Grand Terrace offered dining and dancing, a golf course and outdoor garden. Sonny Blount “and his New Rhythm Style Band” played Friday and Sunday nights in events whose casts included singer Fletcher “Hootie” Myatt (nicknamed for his signature performance of Jay McShann’s “Hootie Blues”); the shake-dancing “Madame Twannie”; Lillian Harris, a “Mammy Blues Singer”; and the “Fast Stepping Floorshow” of “Mess Around” Brown. Identified earlier as “Prince of Rug Cutters,” Chick—a staple of these shows—is identified now as a “famous female impersonator.” “Entertainers and band will play your request numbers,” the ads promise. On Sundays, dancing—prohibited during the day—commenced at midnight and continued until 2:30. Admission was fifty cents.

Recurring ads in the Weekly Review (see below, at right) included photos not of the entertainers themselves but of the Grand Terrace’s typical weekly crowds, urging readers to come out and join the scene.

Sonny’s band also appeared at other popular events of the day, the much-hyped “Jazz Battles” — fierce if friendly cutting contests which pit one group against the next, each trying to outplay the other. Some contests, like the one advertised below, doubled as fundraisers for important local causes. Here (from December, 1943), Sonny and his high school mentor Fess Whatley faced off—along with a third band, the Bob Harris orchestra—in a benefit for the Negro T. B. Association. This “Battle of Music” was one of many events designed to combat the spread of tuberculosis in the black community.

Sonny v Fess TB Battle

Finally, two advertisements from 1945—featuring one more early photo—reveal another kind of performance for the Sonny Blount band.

Fourth Avenue’s Masonic Temple was a central hub for Birmingham’s black social life in the age of Jim Crow. Its second-story ballroom hosted frequent appearances by local groups like Fess Whatley’s and Sonny Blount’s, and it brought to town major touring acts, including the Count Basie and Duke Ellington orchestras. Occasionally, the temple hosted special events for white audiences. This advertisement in The Birmingham News, from March of 1945, promotes such an event, a “Nine O’ Clock Barn Dance” and “Jitterbug Special Introducing the New Swing Sensation: Sonny Blount And His Orchestra.” Sonny had been well known for a decade already to black music lovers in Birmingham, and many white listeners would have heard his broadcasts with the Rhythm Four, even if they did not remember his name. Given the nature of segregation in Birmingham, Sonny likely remained a “new” phenomenon, indeed, to readers of the Birmingham News.

Sonny Blount Barn Dance 1945

The above ad’s instructions—“Come early, be patriotic, obey the curfew”—refer to the wartime policy instituted nationwide that February, which demanded all entertainment venues close their doors at midnight. In September, the second world war came to a close, and the Masonic Temple invited white Birmingham revelers to another performance by Sonny Blount, this one billed as a “Victory Jubilee Dance.” This time, the event lasted “until.” The curfew had been lifted.

Sonny Blount Victory Dance 1945

Readers of Space is the Place, John Szwed’s eye-opening Sun Ra biography, will remember the trauma and transformation the war years created for Sonny. That will have to be a story for another time — sorry! — but, suffice to say, Sonny’s feelings about patriotic victory dances must have been complicated. So were his feelings about Birmingham itself. Sonny left the city in January, 1946, a few months after that Victory Jubilee Dance.

He would create a new future for himself, and a new past.

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Newspaper ads and write-ups offer invaluable hints about the past, but they only tell part of the story. For a more personal look at Sonny Blount’s Birmingham years, please check out my book, Doc: The Story of a Birmingham Jazz Man, an oral history of saxophonist and educator Frank “Doc” Adams, who played in Sonny’s band in the 1940s. In that book, in his own words, Doc Adams provides firsthand reflections of Sun Ra’s early days, helping fill in some blanks with intimate and visceral detail.

Earlier this month, I spoke about Sun Ra’s Birmingham years in a long interview with the Sun Ra Arkive. You can stream that conversation here for a deeper dive into Sun Ra history. Thanks to Christopher Eddy for hosting; I had a great time.

Meanwhile, I’m neck deep in wrapping up my second book, more than a decade in the making: a narrative history of Birmingham jazz, the culmination of all these years of researching and interviewing and writing and digging. It’s a great and important story, of which Sonny Blount is just one fascinating piece. You can follow this blog to stay in the loop—and you can support this next book by buying that last book (see above). Thanks.

Several posts on this blog have addressed Sonny Blount’s early years in Birmingham. You can scroll through all of them here. For further window’s into Sonny’s world, I recommend the stories about Sonny’s early bandleader, Ethel Harper, and about the popular Fourth Avenue venue Bob’s Savoy.

Two final notes: all Sun Ra researchers remain indebted to biographer John Swzed, whose groundbreaking Space is the Place was just reissued, a few weeks ago, with a new introduction by the author. That’s a great place to start if you want more on Sun Ra (including the story of his wartime clash with Uncle Sam). For Birmingham’s gospel quartet history, please see the extraordinary work of Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff—in particular their book To Do This, You Must Know How: Music Pedagogy in the Black Gospel Quartet Tradition.

(The book links above, by the way, are to bookshop.org, an excellent alternative to Amazon. Bookshop.org gives a significant chunk of its proceeds to independent, local bookstores across the country and even allows you to pick which favorite bookstores you want to support. Of course, you can get all these books through Amazon, too. Support working writers however you can—but whenever possible, please support local booksellers in the process.)

Aunt Bertha Robinson

Here’s a photo of banjo player Aunt Bertha Robinson of New Market, Alabama. The photograph is by Rod Whited, likely taken for the Huntsville Times, circa 1979.

Aunt Bertha Robinson

Aunt Bertha was born in Jackson County, Alabama, near the community of Lem Rock, in 1904; the family moved to nearby New Market when she was seven or eight years old. She picked up and adapted her distinctive two-finger picking style from a local banjo player named John Benton, who’d himself learned the style from a pair of Mississippi brothers, John and Dink Clark. In the 1960s, Bertha became a fixture of the Tennessee Valley Old Time Fiddlers Convention, held annually in Athens, Alabama. She was a frequent winner and a beloved, dependable presence in banjo competitions across north Alabama and into Tennessee. Along the way, she carved out a unique role for herself as a champion and elder in a culture traditionally dominated by men. (In this distinction she was joined by the multi-instrumentalist Lena Hughes of Missouri, who appeared at many of the same competitions.)

Here’s Aunt Bertha in 1986, in a video posted to Youtube by Huntsville musician Bob White:

And here’s her “Soldier’s Joy,” with a little buck dancing on the side:

Aunt Bertha was a cherished older member of the Huntsville Association of Folk Musicians, founded in 1966. That group released one compilation album of music by its members — including one recording of Bertha, barely over a minute long, an old banjo instrumental called “Big Jim.” (I wonder if the tune had something to do with the Alabama Governor; the album notes indicate that Bertha didn’t recall anything about the tune’s origins.) Alan Lomax recorded a couple of her tunes at the fiddlers convention in Athens in 1969 and ’70. And you can stream some recordings of Aunt Bertha at Southern Folklife Collection’s digital archive, here. (The same reel-to-reel tape, digitized at the link, includes some good dulcimer playing, too — you may as well listen to the whole thing.) If anyone out there knows of other Aunt Bertha recordings, I hope you’ll let me know. And if anyone has memories to share of Aunt Bertha, I hope you’ll post them in the comments.

Bertha Robinson died in 1995. Here are a few more images in celebration of her legacy.

Aunt Bertha Robinson, Banjo Newsletter Oct 1979
Aunt Bertha Robinson, Banjo Newsletter (October 1979)
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Aunt Bertha Robinson, The Devil’s Box (March 1974)
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Aunt Bertha celebrating the Golden Anniversary of her marriage with a banjo-shaped cake. From The Devil’s Box (March 1974)
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On stage at the Tennessee Valley Old Time Fiddlers Convention. From The Devil’s Box (March 1974)
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Aunt Bertha at the Sixth Annual Tennessee Valley Old Time Fiddlers Convention. From The Devil’s Box (December 1971)

An unrelated P. S.: In honor of Little Richard’s departure this week, here’s a short post I wrote a year ago this month, about Little Richard’s brief early tenure as “Princess Lavonne” on the Sugar Foot Sam From Alabam road show. I encourage you to check it out. This Saturday on The Lost Child, I’ll be playing an hour of Little Richard’s music, including some classics and some you likely haven’t heard, plus interview snippets and more. I hope you’ll tune in.

Remembering Mamie Brown Mason (1930-2020)

Earlier this year, we lost an icon. Mamie Brown Mason, one of Birmingham’s true civil rights heroes, died on March 17 at the age of 90.

I’ve just uploaded to The Lost Child’s occasional online archives the radio tribute I broadcast the week after her death. It’s now streamable anytime.

Mason was a founder of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights Choir, which led the music that fueled the mass meetings and marches in Birmingham. She was among the first in this city (along with Martin Luther King and other members of the choir) to be jailed for defiance of the segregationist law. Her signature song, “On My Way to Freedom Land,” became a civil rights anthem. And she remained fiercely committed, all her life, to the cause of civil rights — and to the preservation of the movement’s history and music.

Speaking of that history — yesterday, May 2, marked the fifty-seventh anniversary of what was called D-Day: the day masses of Birmingham schoolchildren began to march in the streets, nonviolently protesting segregation. Hundreds were arrested. May 3, 1963 — fifty-seven years ago, today — was Double D-Day. This time, the children were met by firehoses and police dogs. Hundreds more were crammed into jail. And that night America witnessed the spectacle on TV, in images that would galvanize the nation. The Children’s Crusade continued through May 10, its eight days marking a turning point in the movement; what happened in Birmingham would lead directly to the passage, in 1964, of the Civil Rights Act.

In Birmingham, we’re still surrounded by many of the Civil Rights Movement’s unsung heroes, though we seem to lose a few more each year. I’m especially, eternally grateful to have gotten to know Mamie Brown Mason in recent years. Hosting her and the rest of the Carlton Reese Memorial Unity Choir on a 2016 episode of The Lost Child will always remain one of the greatest honors of my life. The radio tribute below, which aired after Mason’s death in March, includes an excerpt from that original show, plus excerpts from two interviews she and I recorded in her home. Also included are some inspiring recordings from 1963, from the front lines of the movement. I hope you’ll honor this history and this hero by giving it a listen.

Thank you, Mrs. Mason, for everything.

Music Under Quarantine

Here’s something: quarantined Italians, from their windows and balconies, joining their voices in song:

There are several of these videos cropping up. Journalist David Allegranti captured the moment below, adding this caption(translated here to English): “In Sienna, the city to which I am very much attached, you stay at home but you sing together as if you were on the street.” The song here is “Canto della Verbena” (“And While Siena Sleeps”), whose lyrics proclaim “Long live our Siena, long live our Siena!”

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Meanwhile / FYI … if you’re under quarantine, you can stream today’s episode of The Lost Child anytime & often, here. On this episode: an hour of vintage country radio broadcasts, featuring Crazy Water Crystals, speaking in tongues, a musical saw, kid stuff, and cigarettes. The old country radio shows typically included a shout-out for “all our shut-in friends” at home. Now we’re all shut-ins, so this one goes out to everyone. In the days to come, I’ll be updating The Lost Child’s Mixcloud archive with additional shows to help fill your shut-in hours, including some just-for-the-internet specials.

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For what it’s worth, here’s Henry Miller, from the second page of Tropic of Cancer. A bit out of context, maybe, but I adore this opening, and those singing Italians brought it to mind.

“To sing you must first open your mouth. You must have a pair of lungs, and a little knowledge of music. It is not necessary to have an accordion, or a guitar. The essential thing is to want to sing. This then is a song. I am singing.”

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Y’all be safe out there (or in). Wash your hands. Don’t hoard all the toilet paper. Don’t be afraid to open your windows and sing.

P. S. If you liked that post, you might like this post

Big Feet & Footnotes

Big Jim's shoe

In 1931, my grandfather built a little cabin up on Alabama’s Lake Jordan, and the place is still in our family today. My grandfather owned a furniture store in Montgomery, and he lined the inside walls of the house with dismantled furniture crates, then built floor-to-ceiling shelves, which he spent the next decades filling with all kinds of odds and ends: huge collections of bottles, mugs, and earthen jugs, busts of Beethoven and FDR, a half dozen moustache cups (coffee and tea mugs with a porcelain barrier designed to keep your moustache dry), turtle and tortoise shells, dozens of Alabama arrowheads, the heavy sharpened stone of a tomahawk. The house became a little museum of unlikely wonders: all over the living room are hand grenades, helmets, and “Buy Bonds” posters from both world wars; Civil War and Japanese military swords; concrete roadside souvenirs from Mexico and hanging, woven tapestries from Egypt. An eleven-foot snakeskin stretches from one wall to the other, and an enormous wasps’ nest hangs (empty) from the ceiling. From one wall, affixed by fishing wire, dangle a couple of spiky sawfish bills. A wooden airplane propeller and an old ox yoke are suspended from the ceiling — along with a chandelier made from a wagon wheel, its circumference punctuated by little lights. From thick-framed photographs gaze the austere faces of our Mathews and McKerall ancestors, daunting matriarchs with names like Olive and Mary Euphemia; another photo, taken just after the house was built, shows a cousin standing on the new chimney, on his head. The whole oddball collection only grew and grew over the years, as the family continued to add new finds to every empty space: a Pat and Richard Nixon ashtray, an ostrich egg, a petrified orange. Beneath a small stained glass window stands an old pump organ, rescued from an abandoned country church. At Christmas, we stand around it and sing.

On the floor by the fireplace sits one of my favorite artifacts, an enormous leather shoe that once belonged to “Big Jim” Folsom, Alabama’s larger-than-life, two-time populist governor. As kids, we’d get our friends to hold their feet against the shoe’s huge sole, and we’d marvel at the difference in size, wondering at the man whose foot once matched that monster of a shoe.

People who knew my grandfather sometimes brought him gifts, like this one, to add to his collection of curiosities. Once, some workers at his store were installing some carpet in the governor’s home, and they spotted a pair of Big Jim’s shoes in the bedroom. They snuck one of them out — a present for my grandfather — and it’s been at the house we call “Homestead” ever since.

That shoe, and that story, were my introduction to Big Jim.

Lately I’ve learned a lot more. 

Big Jim Kicks Back
Big Jim Kicks Back

A Brief History of Big Jim’s Feet

First, about those feet. Folsom, at six foot eight, was a giant of a man, and he presented himself as a kind of backwoods, tall-tale hero sprung to life. In his 1946 campaign for the governorship he canvassed the state with a rollicking old-time string band, the Strawberry Pickers, setting up on small-town street corners for impromptu rallies. He kept a grueling travel schedule and, arriving in a public park or courthouse square, he’d announce that he needed a rest; then, as his Strawberry Pickers entertained the gathering crowd, he’d take off those shoes and wiggle his toes (he made a point of wearing no socks), stretch out on the ground, and pretend to nap. Finally he’d get back up, put on his shoes, work his way to the front of the crowd, and launch into his speech. 

“Can’t think when my feet hurt,” Folsom once said, explaining the routine, “so I took off the shoes. Helps my thinkin’ to be able to wiggle my toes.”

Folsom’s feet and his shoes were often in the news. At some rallies, the candidate fumed against the lies his opposition was spreading about him all over the state: he’d rail and rage against the alleged disinformation campaign, finally building to a characteristic punchline. “Yes,” he’d proclaim, “they are circulating far and wide that I wear Number 16 size shoes!” Then he’d hold out a foot and declare it a mere 15 ½. Laughter ensued; reporters rolled their eyes. (The shoe we’ve got is a size sixteen.)

Once he became governor, some critics noted that Folsom had started wearing socks inside those shoes, betraying his image as a rustic common man, a poor country boy who took defiant pride in his utter lack of luxury. Others balked that Folsom appeared in Life magazine barefooted at the breakfast table, that he conducted state business in the governor’s mansion — even hosted foreign dignitaries — with no shoes or socks at all.

Growing up looking at that shoe, I’d had no idea what a big deal Big Jim’s feet and footwear had once been in Alabama.

On Stands Now! “Y’all Come: The Ballad of Big Jim Folsom” 

But what drew me back to Big Jim was the music. For years I’d heard about that band, the Strawberry Pickers, and about how Folsom made “Y’all Come” a ubiquitous theme song for the state. I was curious to know more about the intersection of music and politics in Big Jim’s Alabama, and — starting with a couple of unearthed old photos and a few blog posts here — I started digging deeper into the story. The fruits of that research are out now, in the new edition of the Old-Time Herald, the preeminent magazine for old-time string-band and southern roots music. “Y’all Come: The Ballad of Big Jim Folsom” traces the governor’s rise and fall through his music, from campaign songs and stump music to the scathing ballad that exposed his biggest scandal; along the way it explores the ways in which Folsom reshaped (and failed to reshape) Alabama’s political culture. Folsom was a complicated man with plenty of outsized faults, but as I immersed myself in his story I found myself falling a little bit in love. He’s a comic figure, yes, and a tragic one, too. But the tragedy is really Alabama’s: researching his story, it was tempting to imagine an alternate history in which Jim Folsom, not George Wallace, led the state through its civil rights struggles. But that’s not the way things went.

This Month in Birmingham: Live Music, Beer, and a Reading 

If you’re in Birmingham, I’m going to be reading and talking about Big Jim at the new and beautiful Thank You Books on Saturday — Leap Day! — February 29. I hope you’ll make it out. It’s a wild story and (if you haven’t been yet) it’s a fantastic neighborhood bookstore. There’ll be live old-time string band music, and I’ll play a few of Big Jim’s campaign records. We’ll have some beer (as Folsom would have wanted it), and you’re welcome to bring drinks of your own. The fun starts at 6:30 and is free. What more could you want? 

If you’re not in Birmingham, you can order yourself a copy of the Folsom story here

Foot Notes

By the time I’d come up for air, my Old-Time Herald  article had snowballed (way beyond the projected word count) into an epic musical-political, tragicomic adventure, and there wasn’t much room left in the magazine to elaborate on my sources. (Thank God, by the way, there are still a (very!) few magazines in the world which will publish good and long stories like this one. The Old-Time Herald is a miracle, and I’m proud to share space with each of this issue’s articles and authors. Editor Sarah Bryan is a hero.) 

So, for curious readers — and lest you think I’m just making this up — here are those sources, Big Jim’s foot notes, size sixteen. (If  you’re not interested in the research minutiae, just scroll through for some news on the governor’s shoes.) 

“Y’all Come: The Ballad of Big Jim Folsom” draws from a wealth of reporting from Alabama newspapers: The Montgomery Advertiser, The Birmingham News, The Dothan Eagle, The Fayette County Times, The Phenix Citizen, The Ashland Progress, The Gadsden Times, The Moulton Advertiser, The Union Banner, The Opelika Daily News, The Demopolis Times, The Centreville Press, The Selma Times-Journal, and The Florence Herald. I also consulted and incorporated out-of-state reporting from The Atlanta Constitution, The Nashville Tennessean, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and The New York Daily News.

The_Wetumpka_Herald_Thu__Jul_8__1943_
1943, “The army will have to make special oversize uniforms and shoes for the 7-foot Cullman giant.”

Quotations from “Big Jim” himself come from a 1974 interview for the Southern Oral History Program, conducted by Candace Waid and Allan Tullos. Quotations from two of the Strawberry Pickers, Roland Johnson and Hobart Key, are taken from the biography Big Mules & Branchheads: James E. Folsom and Political Power in Alabama (Carl Grafton and Anne Permaloft, University of Georgia Press, 1985), which proved an essential resource in many other ways, fleshing out Folsom’s biographical details and the larger political context. (The Folsom quote in this post, about wiggling toes, also comes from the Big Mules book.)

The book The Strawberry Pickers (Roy Baham, Jamelle Folsom, and E. Jimmy Key, Southern Arts Corporation, 2000) provided a detailed look behind the scenes of that first Folsom band, from their initial auditions through the 1946 campaign. The book’s three authors include a former Strawberry Picker (Key), Folsom’s widow, and a country music songwriter (Baham). My article’s quotes from Bill Lyerly — Folsom’s right-hand-man, driver, and all-purpose “Colonel” — come from the Lyerly interview at the end of that book. 

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1946, “Folsom Appeals To Friends For Shoes”

For info on the scandalous “Ballad of Kissin’ Jim” / “She Was Poor But She Was Honest,” I had to look to other sources, including the Max Hunter folk song collection at Missouri State, the LP Unexpurgated Folk Songs of Men (Arhoolie Records, 1960), The Erotic Muse: American Bawdy Songs (Ed Cray, University of Illinios Press, 1999), a discussion thread on The Mudcat Cafe website, and my own informal polling via Alabama-related Facebook groups (“Does anyone remember this song? Where did you learn it? When did you sing it?”). Quotations about that song from Civil Rights icon Bernard Lafayette come from a fascinating 2011 interview conducted by Tom Putnam for the JFK Presidential Library and Museum on the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides — and from a blog post (“She Was Poor But She Was Honest”) by Richard Beck at his Experimental Theology website. The quote from Sue Thrasher of the Southern Student Organizing Committee appears in Struggle for a Better South (Gregg L. Mitchell, Palgrave MicMillan, 2004). 

Folklorist D. K. Wilgus collected numerous variants of the bawdy Folsom ballad, and once upon a time those documents were among the Wilgus papers at UCLA. Their current whereabouts are an unsolved mystery; I’d love to see them, and I invite any leads, if you’ve got em. In the meantime, Maureen Russell at the UCLA Ethnomusicology Archive and Aaron Smithers at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Wilson Library were both gracious in searching their collections and their brains for the missing Wilgus/Folsom lyrics. One day those Wilgus files will crop up somewhere. Let me know if you get there first. 

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1946, “It’s not the feet but the stupidity.”

I spent a great day searching the Folsom collection at the Alabama Department of Archives and History in Montgomery. Shout out to archivist and DJ Kevin Nutt. 

I was wrapping up my article when an exciting new book came out, I’d Fight the World: A Political History of Old-Time, Hillbilly, and Country Music (Peter La Chapelle, University of Chicago, 2019). This book goes into great detail about (among other things) Folsom and his music, and it continues where my story leaves off, exploring the fascinating country music legacies of George Wallace’s Alabama. What a world. 

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1950, “Why don’t you wear suitcases?”

My own little zine, Singing Governors, Fiddling Senators, and Other Country Music Politicians (Lady Muleskinner Press, 2008), made passing reference, more than a decade ago, to Folsom and his band. I guess you could say that’s where this project started.

But really it goes back to that shoe by the fireplace. 

Thanks, y’all. Come to Thank You on the 29th if you’re in town.

Big Jim's shoe
The author, with Big Jim’s shoe

“Impeach Me, Baby”: Songs of Presidential Impeachment (1868 – 2020)

Photo: Henry Burroughs / AP (1968)

Last weekend on The Lost Child, I played an hour of impeachment songs — not from our own troubled age, but from what I’d call the golden age of impeachment songs, circa 1974 — a wide-ranging collection of blues, soul, country, folk & funk from the heart of the Watergate years. There was more music than I knew what to do with, so I’ve posted the whole show here, along with an extra thirty minutes of bonus songs, and you can stream it anytime.

I hope you’ll give it all a listen, to enjoy the full gamut of Nixon-inspired tunes. Some of this music you won’t hear anywhere else — like this psych-folk record from singer Melany Dyer, who offers a unique perspective on impeachment in her “First Lady’s Lament.” Sample lyrics: So take me, take me, Richard / Take me away in the morn / Before impeachment bells start ringing / And my love turns into scorn.

First Lady's Lament

The Nixon era inspired multiple “Watergate Blues,” along with lots of funk — from the Honeydrippers’ “Impeach the President” to the extended riffs of James Brown’s band, the JB’s (see “Rockin’ Funky Watergate” and “You Can Have Watergate But Give Me Some Bucks and I’ll Be Straight,” both fueled by the mighty trombonist Fred Wesley). Nixon himself actively sought the loyalty of the country music community, launching National Country Music Weeks and appearing, at the height of the scandal, onstage at the Grand Ole Opry. But for all that, even the country crowd would turn on him: in his own “Watergate Blues,” Tom T. Hall imagines dead presidents rolling in their graves and conjures up (“Lord help us all”) a nightmarish vision of America’s future. (A recent Netflix documentary digs into Johnny Cash’s own gutsy clash with the president.) In Franklin, North Carolina, on his own Me Too record label (its logo the head of a Democratic donkey), singer Les Waldroop recorded several variations on the wiretapping theme (“Watergate Bugs,” “Big Watergate Bugs,” “Sermon on the Bug”). You can hear two of them, and a lot of other gems, on my Watergate show.

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But what of the other impeachments? Surely our nation’s first impeachment — Andrew Johnson’s — inspired a number of songs; I’ve found just a couple so far.

In case you forgot the history, Johnson was impeached by the House, but the Senate failed, by a single vote, to convict him. One pro-Johnson (or at least anti-impeachment) song, “Impeachment’s Sad Fate,” reveled in that failure. Sung to the tune of a cynical Civil War ballad, “Grafted into the Army,” the new lyrics took shots at Benjamin Butler, one of three House impeachment managers who’d failed to sell the pitch for removal. O, Butler! the song proclaims:

’tis well! your impeachment fell
Beneath the Constitution;
You thought men would dare—
Without thought or care,
To despise that institution.

Still, Johnson remained deeply unpopular, even in his own party, and when the next election rolled around, he failed to win the Democratic nomination. A new song — built on the tune of another wartime ballad, “Just Before the Battle, Mother” — let the president know exactly where he stood:

Just before election, Andy
We are thinking most of you;
While we get our ballots handy
Just be sure they’re not for you;
No, dear Andy, you’ll not get them,
But you will get what you deserve;
Yes, you’ll get your leave of absence
As you swing around the curve.

Fast forward to 1999. That year, the Drive-By Truckers gave us an impeachment song like no other, the raucous, singalong saga of “Buffalo Bill,” lampooning the hysteria engendered by the presidential member. “The President’s Penis Is Missing” moves through time and space and concludes that there are just bigger fish to fry: Meanwhile, the whole world’s suffering from hunger and meanness / But we’re all more concerned with the president’s penis.

In his “President Clinton Blues,” Piedmont bluesman Drink Small similarly declares the latest scandal unworthy of our worry. I don’t know why people are worrying about Clinton, Small begins: The man did the same thing that Adam did to Eve. Fair warning, this one’s got a couple of cringey moments that only age worse and worse with time — but it’s a remarkable document all the same, and a throwback to the downhome Watergate blues of Big Joe Williams, Bobo Jenkins, and Sam Chatmon. Small’s take-home message: President Clinton, go on and live your live.

But impeachment songs, post-Nixon, have been relatively few. In 2006, over the course of just nine days, Neil Young cranked out an entire album of urgent, blaring protest songs aimed at George W. Bush. Among the more memorable tracks on Living With War was “Let’s Impeach the President.” But, of course, we didn’t.

And here we are in 2020. Who’s making the impeachment songs now? Twenty years after the jokey “President’s Penis,” the Drive-By Truckers have become more and more overt in their politics, more scathing in their commentary; “The Perilous Night” — released last month, and written before this impeachment saga began — takes on Charlottesville, the president, “White House Fury,” and knocking fascism (“Trump says, ‘Let them in'”).

But the only impeachment-specific songs I know, this go-round, come from Randy Rainbow, who’s been cranking them out like a champ —

— one after another, after another. After another

So, what have I missed? Tell me your favorite impeachment hits in the comments below. And thanks, as always, for reading and for listening.

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A Fire No Water Could Put Out (Memphis, 1968; Birmingham, 1963)

Here’s Martin Luther King, speaking in Memphis, 1968, about Birmingham, the power of song, and the unique “transphysics” of the Civil Rights Movement:

I remember in Birmingham, Alabama, when we were in that majestic struggle there we would move out of the 16th Street Baptist Church day after day; by the hundreds we would move out. And Bull Connor would tell them to send the dogs forth and they did come; but we just went before the dogs singing, “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me round.” Bull Connor next would say, “Turn the fire hoses on.” And as I said to you the other night, Bull Connor didn’t know history. He knew a kind of physics that somehow didn’t relate to the transphysics that we know about. And that was the fact that there was a certain kind of fire that no water could put out. And we went before the fire hoses; we had known water. If we were Baptist or some other denomination, we had been immersed. If we were Methodist, and some others, we had been sprinkled, but we knew water.

That couldn’t stop us. And we just went on before the dogs and we would look at them; and we’d go on before the water hoses and we would look at it, and we’d just go on singing “Over my head I see freedom in the air.” And then we would be thrown in the paddy wagons, and sometimes we were stacked in there like sardines in a can. And they would throw us in, and old Bull would say, “Take them off,” and they did; and we would just go in the paddy wagon singing, “We Shall Overcome.” And every now and then we’d get in the jail, and we’d see the jailers looking through the windows being moved by our prayers and being moved by our words and our songs. And there was a power there which Bull Connor couldn’t adjust to; and so we ended up transforming Bull into a steer, and we won our struggle in Birmingham…

That comes from my favorite of King’s speeches, the one he delivered the night before he was killed, the one commonly known, now, as the “Mountaintop” speech or “I Have Seen the Promised Land.” I often share with my students the last couple or so pages of that printed speech. Almost none of them have heard it before: usually the only of King’s writings they’ve been exposed to is the “I Have a Dream” speech and, even then, most only know those four words, I have a dream, and just a little bit of their context.

In one of my college freshman classes, we were encouraged to buy our own copies of the massive A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King. I don’t know if any other book I’ve read had such an impact on me; I encourage my own students and now also you to get their (your) hands on a copy, to read (for starters) the rest of this extraordinary final speech, and to encounter, in page after page, Martin Luther King not only as icon but as philosopher and theologian, as poet, radical, and chronicler of his time.

Here’s the very end of that “Mountaintop” speech, but you need to find the whole thing:

And speaking of Birmingham and jail and Bull Connor and song:

Here’s something local singer-activist-hero Mamie Brown Mason told me a few years ago, recalling her own time in the Birmingham jail. In 1959, Fred Shuttlesworth recruited her and another singer, Nims “Bo” Gay, to lead the music for the mass meetings that fueled the growing Birmingham movement; they created the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights Choir, which would soon find a prolific songwriter and dynamic director in Carlton Reese. Members of that choir were among the first protestors arrested in Birmingham (in May of ’63, the jail would be flooded with marching schoolchildren), and Mason remembers singing freedom songs and leading prayers in the jail cells all day and night. On Sundays, prisoners were allowed to worship in the chapel, where there was a piano and where the foot soldiers, as they often did, remade an old song to fit the specifics of their movement. Here’s how Mamie Mason tells the story:

I said, “Carlton” — Carlton was in jail also — I said, “Carlton, that’s a nice piano.” He went to the piano. And the chaplain used to always ask one of the regular prisoners to lead the songs. She started leading the song “I Shall Not Be Moved”: “Just like a tree planted by the water.” So I took it from her and said, “Go and tell Bull Connor, we shall not be moved” — and I was making that up right then. Making a song about Bull Connor — in his jail!

“We sang to him a lot,” Mason says of Bull Connor, and laughs. “What else can he do? We’re in jail! What else can he do to me for singing about it?”