Baby baby baby baby baby baby baby baby baby baby baby baby baby baby

A year or two ago my family and I watched for the first time together Little Shop of Horrors — easily my favorite musical, and a great movie, too, from director Frank Oz. You may remember there’s a kind of doo-wop Greek chorus in it, inspired by the “girl groups” of the sixties; watching the movie inspired me, later that night, to draw a couple of those original groups. After that I put them aside until this just week, as I scrambled to get together some works for my art show, which opens this(!!) Saturday. I added the Chiffons to the two groups I already had (the Ronettes and the Crystals — I had to throw out a kind of disastrous Supremes, saving them for another project, some other time), and I fashioned them all together into a single tribute. Here’s the week’s progress and final result:

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I’m excited to have my first-ever public showing of my drawings, something I thought I’d never do; I’m only doing it now thanks to the encouragement of some very fine friends. And I’m delighted to show these drawings alongside the photography of Jared Ragland, an artist whose work I very much admire. If you’re in Birmingham, I hope you’ll come to the opening: it’s at The Jaybird this Saturday, August 11, from 7 to 9. We’ll have music provided by djcasequarter (the illustrious Kevin Nutt), and a short set too from Tiny Montgomery. We’ve got the ingredients for a very fine night.

(For more drawings, see this previous post, or this one.)

P.S. Usually I write here about the outsides of empty cardboard boxes — but stay tuned in the next week or two for a post about the insides of this cardboard box, which arrived at our house yesterday — and about whose contents I’m positively giddy.

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P. S., also: For the last thirty days I’ve been posting to Instagram daily photos I’ve taken over the years of boiled peanut stands and boiled peanut signs. Today marked the last day in the series, with this portrait of the artist, a photo taken in Florida a few years back by Susan Shoemaker. To see the whole set — as well as additional drawings not seen on this blog, and posts about my radio show and the roots of American music — check out @lostchildradio. Thanks, everybody.

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Letters to Norah

1.

This week, my step-daughter Norah is away at camp. So, apparently, are her guinea pigs, Sylvester and Sebastian, who’ve been sending her letters. Hopefully, she’s having as much fun as they are:

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2.

Speaking of letters to Norah, here’s something I’ve been meaning to share — somewhere, with somebody — for nearly two years.

At the start of her third grade year, Norah was worried about needles: a year before, kids had been able to take a spray of flu mist up their noses, instead of rolling up their sleeves for the usual flu shots. But for 2016 the mist had been declared ineffective, and school systems were requiring the shots again.

Norah wasn’t having it. She went to her room and carefully wrote out a letter expressing her concerns. Then she sent it off to the Jefferson County Department of Health.

Needless to say, we did not expect a response. But a few days later, a letter addressed to Norah appeared in our mailbox.

Here are both letters in the exchange. If you have any doubts that there are beautiful souls left in our world, please read the thoughtful, inspiring response Norah received from a stranger, a doctor and public health official from Jefferson County, Alabama; be sure to read through to the last couple of paragraphs.

We really weren’t sure just where to tell Norah to send her letter, but clearly it wound up on the right person’s desk. I like to imagine the care with which Mark E. Wilson, MD, a busy man, sat in his office and composed these words. Watching Norah open and read the letter remains one of my favorite family memories to date.

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Norah got the shot, without complaint.

Alabama Road Trip (Summer 2018)

A heads up — this is kind of a long post, compared to most of the others. Included herein: a visit to Folklore Brewing and Meadery; “The Hugging Molly”; YellaWood lumber, the richest man in Alabama, and a small-town downtown’s weird revitalization; Eufaula, Alabama’s historic Jewish cemetery; deer and kudzu; a quick drive through Smut Eye; boiled peanuts. If you only have a minute or suffer from a short attention span, I think the photos from the Jewish cemetery are the highlight, and you’re welcome to scroll straight to them. It was our visit to that cemetery that inspired me to write about this drive.

 So:

Once a year my wife Glory goes to this big convention of Alabama lawyers, and I get to ride along. Every year it’s on or near the ocean, and while she’s shuffling from one hotel conference room to the next I get to spend the day reading and writing and walking on the beach, eating long lunches or checking out the local record store. At the end of the day we are given free drinks and have the rest of the night to find and eat as much seafood as we can.

It’s not a bad deal.

But what I want to write about here is yesterday’s drive back from this most recent trip to the beach. (“Yesterday,” now, is a few weeks ago; but most of this was written a day after the trip, so I’ll let it stand.) We decided that going and coming we’d stick as much as possible to the state and county roads, avoiding the interstates and taking in as much of our state as we could. On the way south we drove through Selma and Oak Hill and McWilliams, down through Enterprise and Brewton and on into Florida, where the convention was held. We didn’t make many stops on the way down, though I did get out of the car long enough to take a few photos of this old gas station, covered in Biblical and all-American texts:

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After our last day at the beach, we consulted my Alabama Gazetteer, one of my favorite, handiest possessions, for an alternate route home. We left the beach too late to get too far, and we ended up for the night in Dothan. They were having a Fourth(ish) of July celebration at the fairgrounds, complete with seed-spitting contest and talent show, but we decided food and drink were a greater priority and, alas, we never made it to the fairgrounds. I’d be sorrier to have missed it if we hadn’t let our GPS direct us instead to the Folklore Brewing and Meadery, which lies some distance out of town and is situated on somebody’s old family farm, and which, it turns out, is a pretty magical place. They make good beer (I especially enjoyed the Front Porch Pale Ale) and all kinds of muscadine mead(!), and their kitchen made me the best hamburger I’ve eaten in a very long time. A couple of sisters, maybe 20 years old and billing themselves as The Sisters, played guitar and keyboards and sang Gnarls Barkley and “No Scrubs” and a medley of “House of the Rising Sun” and “Jolene.” People sat around smoking cigars, available for purchase at the counter, and there was lots of good dog watching. After the sky got dark we could hear and occasionally see, over the trees, the fireworks from the fairgrounds. We sat and played a couple of long, high-scoring games of thirteen-card gin rummy.

It was a beautiful night.

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The next morning we did finally stop at the fairgrounds to gawk at its enormous peanut — they love(!!) peanuts in Dothan — before hitting the road eastward and north.

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Our route took us through Abbeville, Alabama, which bills itself as the “Home of Huggin’ Molly.” As you approach, there is this unsettling welcome, which seems depict a wild-haired madwoman with outstretched arms, chasing a small child:

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(I couldn’t help but think of the recent controversial drawing that got a political cartoonist fired from his longtime gig at the Pittsburg Post-Gazette, the one that shows, on a yellow roadside caution sign, the black silhouette of our president snatching a small child from her fleeing family. Of course, any perceived similarity is only coincidental; the child-snatching menace seen here is no president but someone or something called “Huggin’ Molly.”)

We’d already noticed a billboard, a few miles back, for a Huggin’ Molly’s hot dog joint in Abbeville, but this image demanded a little online research and a detour in our drive. It turns out there’s an old story parents in Abbeville used to tell their children, about the “phantom woman” who chased after little children who stayed out too late at night. If she caught them, she’d give them a terrifying hug and scream in their little ears. A 2017 article on al.com offers further details:

“One version of the story claims Molly was the ghost of a woman who had lost an infant who dealt with the tragedy by hugging local children. Another states Molly was a professor at the former Southeast Alabama Agriculture School who was trying to keep students safe by keeping them off the streets at night.” According to the legend, she was “as much as 7 feet tall”—and, other than whatever trauma her hugs and screams may have inflicted, she was on the whole good-intentioned and harmless.

According to the article above, “the legend of Huggin’ Molly is unique to the Alabama town of Abbeville,” but it seems to have a slightly wider provenance than just that — and in some of her variations, the Hugging Molly (the the, I think, makes it way creepier) has a more sinister edge than in those Abbeville parents’ cautionary tales. On an ancestry.com message board, we find this—

“I am looking for information on something or someone my Grandmother used to talk about when I was a little girl. My Grandmother was born in 1906 and grew up in Mobile, Alabama. She mentioned, more than once a story about a woman who walked the streets at night and killed men. She was called the hugging Molly. My Grandmother said she killed the men by hugging them. This story creeped me out as a child and I never forgot it. Has any one else ever heard of this? I would greatly appreciate any info.”

The same writer eventually followed up in her own thread, with some answers:

“I finally, after all these years found out what the “Hugging Molly” was. I ordered a book called Gumbo Ya Ya off the internet. It was first published in 1945. It has all kinds of Louisiana folk lore in it.

“The Hugging Molly was in there. The HM was actually a mentally disturbed man who would hug women on the street. He dressed up in a white sheet or robe and would very strongly hug women at random. He never hurt anyone, but many black women were afraid of him because the white robe or sheet made them think he was part of the clan [sic].”

Yikes. A woman hugging men to death. A mentally disturbed man, hugging random women. Strongly. In a white robe.

Welcome to Abbeville!  

The ancestry.com thread also does contain a couple of references to the Abbeville variant, endorsing the tamer version of the Huggin’ Molly story, the one sanctioned by the local Chamber of Commerce, in which Molly’s function is simply to keep kids off the streets (and, these days, to lure tourists to buy Abbeville hot dogs). And there’s this:

“When I was thirteen, my family moved from California to Dothan, AL. I heard the legend of Hugging molly when I moved there from a girl that lived in my neighborhood. I was very skeptical, having never heard people believing in such silliness. So, I decided to go in the woods with this silly girl. We were just walking around when this girl who seemed to be made of red light came towards us with her arms outstretched. She was moving very fast. We ran and I never ventured into the woods again. I often wonder if I just had an overactive imagination or something.”

Hm. One wonders.

One way or another, it seems that Molly has become a central piece of the small town of Abbeville’s recent re-branding — all thanks to Jimmy Rane, the local treated wood magnate, and Alabama’s richest citizen. If you live in or near Alabama, you’ve probably seen Jimmy Rane on billboards or on TV; he’s the owner of YellaWood treated lumber,  an international company, and the star in a series of epically ambitious, kitschy Western-themed YellaWood ads, like this:

Jimmy Rane, it seems, carries a weighty influence in his hometown. It was Rane who opened the downtown restaurant Huggin’ Molly’s, and Rane who engineered the “Home of Huggin’ Molly” welcome sign on the edge of town. And it’s Rane, too, who’s responsible for tricking out downtown Abbeville with loads of vintage neon signs: as we drove through the little downtown, we noticed a cool old sign for Buster Brown shoes and were impressed it had survived all the years intact — until, a few seconds later, when we started to notice vintage signs over just about everything and realized that, though some of them might have been original to Abbeville, others must have been brought in more recently, as the local leadership refashioned the place into a nostalgic 1950s downtown.

Again, we take to the internet. And again confirm that it’s Jimmy Rane — and his soft spot for kitschy ‘50s memorabilia — that’s at the heart of the town’s weird “revitalization.” From what we can tell, the man is a much loved figure in Abbeville; he’s made the little town the headquarters of his hugely successful company, and he’s given loads of money to student scholarships and to the Republican party and Auburn University. And he’s sunk chunks of money into the town itself, seeking to turn it into a tourist stop (his efforts did succeed in luring us off the main road). He helped restore the looks this cool old downtown theater, where he hopes to one day show It’s a Wonderful Life and John Wayne movies and the like.

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I do hope Jimmy Rane brings some longterm, meaningful prosperity and life to the town he clearly loves. But I have to admit that the new, old Abbeville kind of gave us the creeps; maybe it was just that it was a Sunday and everyone was at church or in bed — but with all the vintage signs and empty streets, we felt like we’d stumbled into an abandoned theme park, or some kind of a spotless 1950s ghost town. And so we hit the road again, before the Huggin’ Molly screamed into our ears.

*

We stopped a little later in Eufaula for lunch, and on our way out of that town we happened across the beautiful, old Fairview Cemetery, and — on the far edge of its grounds, overlooking Lake Eufala — this: “The Jewish Cemetery,” established in 1845 and restored and rededicated in 1987. The dead there included Jews born in Alsace, France; Poland; Bavaria; and other points of origin — immigrants who died not only in Eufaula but in Georgia and Kentucky and other places across the South and who, one way or another, ended up here.

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There was a lot of history in this graveyard, and history I’d honestly never considered: there were two soldiers buried here who’d fought for the Confederacy, and one of the graves was flanked by both the American and Confederate flags.

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A Confederate flag in a Jewish cemetery is something we hadn’t expected to see, and it made me curious about the Jewish history of the Confederacy. There is just a handful of books on the subject: among them, Robert N. Rosen’s overview, The Jewish Confederates; a reader, Jews and the Civil War; and a few biographies of Judah P. Benjamin, a “rare Sephardic Jew in the Old South and a favorite of Jefferson Davis,” the so-called “brains of the Confederacy,” who served posts as the CSA’s attorney general, secretary of war, and secretary of state.

There are also sections of Odd Fellows and Masons buried in Fairview Cemetery. Here’s one of the Masons’ headstones.

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And once, too, there was a “Negro Cemetery” included on a hillside. But those graves, now, are nowhere to be seen, and a historic marker in their place tells us this: that the names of the dead are “known only to God,” “the wooden grave markers which located the burials … long since vanished.”

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Any drive through the South invites us to consider the ways in which public memory is constructed, the ways in which the past is memorialized, enshrined, entombed, redacted, and revised. In one town, an entire community becomes invisible, anonymous, and lost, replaced eventually by a lone historic marker. A few towns over, a pseudo-history is fashioned from tube lights and antiques. And so it goes.

And meanwhile: there is a lot of natural beauty in Eufala, a place I’d never visited before. I could stand to spend some more time there, taking it all in. A little trail off the Jewish cemetery leads through the woods, down to a paved walking and biking path, bordered on one side by the lake and on the other by a mountain of kudzu. In the kudzu we came across four deer, three of which you can see here, just before they disappeared back into all the encompassing green.

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Here’s more of the view around there:

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After Eufala, we had to make better time back to Birmingham, so there weren’t many more stops. We did drive through the neighboring communities of Smut Eye and Blues Old Stand, two of my favorite-named Alabama towns. We barely missed the town of Mathews, where some of my ancestors came from, a destination for another day’s drive. The okra stew I’d slurped down in Eufala had kind of made a mess of my stomach, and I spent a good stretch of the afternoon’s drive hunched over in the passenger seat, moaning softly. We picked up the interstate in Montgomery, and for an hour everything looked like everything else again. Then we were home.

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We had a good time at the beach; the water there was so clear that you could wade into it up to your neck and still clearly see your feet below you in the sand. But the highlight of the trip may have been the two days with Glory in the car. We learned a lot we didn’t know about our state, ate some good food, shot the breeze, and heard Loretta and Conway on Dothan’s “country legends” radio station.

Oh, and this:

For as long as I’ve been driving a car, I’ve made a point of stopping for boiled peanuts, anytime I see them for sale. For almost as long as that, I’ve been taking pictures of the boiled peanut stands where they’re sold, and of the signs that advertise them. Sooner or later, once the collection gets up past a hundred photos or so, I plan to compile them all into some public format. I’m almost there, so stay tuned. Meanwhile, for the last month of the summer, I’ve been posting a boiled peanut photo a day to my Instagram account. You can follow along here.

Our drive through south Alabama did turn up a few boiled peanut shots I can add to the collection. Like I say, they love their peanuts in (and around) Dothan:

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Thanks for reading. Peace.

— Burgin

P.S. “We picked up the interstate in Montgomery, and for an hour everything looked like everything else again.” Perhaps this is not entirely fair: I’ve just driven up and down this road so many times I barely notice its eccentricities. As interstates go, there’s actually a good deal to take in. There’s a water tower in the shape of an enormous peach, and a big sign that reads “GO TO CHURCH OR THE DEVIL WILL GET YOU.” And speaking of Confederate flags, there’s a giant, obscene one on a hill: menacingly, cockily, defiantly huge, a gross display of my state’s worst impulses at work. This stretch of I-65 goes by several names, advertised along the way: somewhere between Prattville and Clanton, for example, the “Hank Williams Lost Highway” becomes the “War on Terror Memorial Highway.” It’s unclear where one ends and the other begins. But here’s what Hank Williams says, for whatever it may be worth (in a song he made famous, but which singer Leon Payne wrote):

Now, boys, don’t start to ramblin’ round / on this road of sin, or you’re sorrow bound
Take my advice, or you’ll curse the day / you started rollin’ down that lost highway

That’s all for now. See you around.

Note: If you like this sort of thing, you can support the endeavor by doing any of the following: follow this blog by signing up on the righthand side of this page; follow @lostchildradio on Instagram; or “like” my book and/or radio show on Facebook. You can purchase my book with Alabama jazzman “Doc” Adams online or at your local bookstore. Heartfelt thanks, sincerely, for any / all of the above.

Tom Joad’s Last Words

Saturday was the 106th anniversary of the birth of Woody Guthrie, and (to celebrate) on The Lost Child I played about an hour’s worth of Guthrie’s Library of Congress recordings, his epic 1940 series of sessions with folklorist Alan Lomax. At the end of the show I slipped in, also, a couple of excerpts from “Folk Songs of America,” a radio broadcast from later the same year, in which Guthrie appeared as guest, trading songs with Leadbelly.

One of the songs from that old radio program — and the performance that ended my own show, last Saturday — was “Tom Joad,” in which Guthrie distills The Grapes of Wrath‘s 700 pages into a seven-minute, 16-verse ballad. He borrows the melody from “John Hardy,” the outlaw song, and the tune frames Steinbeck’s Dust Bowl refugee — and, by association, a whole generation of real-life migrants — as another kind of outlaw-hero. (Similarly, Guthrie would rework the popular ballad “Jesse James” into “Jesus Christ,” reading the New Testament, too, as an outlaw tale.)

Near the end of Steinbeck’s novel, the protagonist Joad — inspired by the Christ-like Preacher Casy, and on the run for his life — gives a farewell speech to his “Ma.” His words go like this:

“Well, maybe like Casy says, a fella ain’t got a soul of his own, but on’y a piece of a big one — an’ then—“

“Then what, Tom?”

“Then it don’ matter. Then I’ll be all aroun’ in the dark. I’ll be everywhere — wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’ — I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build–why, I’ll be there. See?”

Henry Fonda made the speech famous. Here’s how it goes in John Ford’s 1940 movie of the book:

And here’s how Woody Guthrie boils all that down into song:

“Ever’body might be just one big soul
Well it looks that a-way to me
Everywhere that you look, in the day or night
That’s where I’m a-gonna be, Ma
That’s where I’m a-gonna be

Wherever little children are hungry and cry
Wherever people ain’t free
Wherever men are fightin’ for their rights
That’s where I’m a-gonna be, Ma
That’s where I’m a-gonna be”

I suppose Woody Guthrie (who was something of an outlaw, himself) is in all those places too, now, today. He’s well worth looking for and listening to, and fighting alongside.

So happy birthday to him.

Here’s “Tom Joad”:

P. S. If you like this sort of thing, you can support the endeavor by doing any of the following: follow this blog by signing up on the righthand side of this page (you’ll get about 2 posts a month in your email inbox); follow @lostchildradio on Instagram; or “like” my book and/or radio show on Facebook. You can purchase my book with Alabama jazzman “Doc” Adams online or at your local bookstore. Heartfelt thanks, sincerely, for any / all of the above.

Sunday listening: “The Legend of Buford Pusser”

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This Sunday’s listening, purchased a few days ago at Secondhand Sam’s in Jasper, Alabama: Eddie Bond Sings The Legend of Buford Pusser, 10 songs on the life & death of the McNairy County, Tennessee, sheriff known for waging war against organized crime, prostitution and moonshine in south Tennessee. This album’s notes describe Pusser as “an American folk hero” and “rugged symbol of honest law enforcement”; he carried a huge wooden stick as all-purpose weapon and was famous (his memory still celebrated by many admirers today) for his relentless, ruthless approach to the law. Pusser made lots of enemies and was subject to a few assassination attempts. His wife was killed in 1967 in an ambush meant for the lawman; Pusser survived the attack, his mangled jaw put back together with wire mesh.

Eddie Bond was a one-time rockabilly singer who’d also served as Buford Pusser’s deputy — and who, at the time of this recording, was “the singing police chief of Finger, Tennessee” (a job, by the way, that Pusser helped him land). Eddie Bond Sings The Legend of Buford Pusser was produced by “Cowboy” Jack Clement and released in 1973 on a subsidiary of the STAX record label(!!); its release helped inspire Walking Tall, a movie about Pusser, which led to two sequels and a short-lived TV series. (A 2004 remake starred Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in the Pusser role but gave the sheriff a new name and backstory.)

I’ve got The Legend of Buford Pusser on the turntable right now, and it’s something — all hero worship and country twang. In “Buford Pusser Goes Bear Hunting With a Switch” (a mouthful of a song title) the sheriff gets full-scale tall-tale treatment:

On the day that he was borned he weighed 42 pounds
He jumped out of bed and he stomped on the ground
He said, Listen here, doc, don’t hit me no more
If you do, you’re going to pick yourself off of the floor

He’s Buford Pusser! He goes bear-hunting with a switch
Ain’t a moonshiner in the county that big Buford can’t get

And so on.

A few other songwriters have remembered Pusser less favorably. Jimmy Buffett had a drunken run-in with the sheriff, himself — Pusser allegedly pummeled him and pulled a tuft of hair out of his head, after Buffett walked across the hood of Pusser’s car in golf shoes — and he alludes to the incident in a couple of songs, “Semi-True Stories” and “Presents to Send You.” The Drive-By Truckers devote two angry songs of their own to Pusser on their 2004 album, The Dirty South, both looking at the man from the vantage point of those who faced his brutal brand of justice. In “The Boys from Alabama,” singer Patterson Hood promises to tell “the other side” of the Pusser story, and in “The Buford Stick” he sings:

Now Sheriff Buford Pusser’s gotten too big for his britches
With his book reviews and movie deals

Down at the car lot making public appearances
For breaking up our homes and stills
I know he likes to brag how he wrestled a bear
But I knew him from the funeral home
Ask him for a warrant, he’ll say “I keep it in my shoe”

That son of a bitch has got to go
That son of a bitch has got to go

Pusser had already laid down his badge by the time his legend really took off outside McNairy County. In 1970, term limits prevented him from running again as sheriff; when he did run in 1972, he was defeated, even as his national celebrity was on the rise. Eddie Bond’s album and the first Walking Tall both appeared in 1973, and for a little while Pusser rubbed shoulders with the rich, famous, and powerful. On August 21 of 1974, he made a deal to play himself in the next movie about him, this one to be titled just Buford; he was feeling good, and maybe a little drunk, as he drove to his home in Adamsville, Tennessee. His bright red, custom Corvette, paid for with Walking Tall money, hit an embankment at high speed, just four miles from home, and Buford Pusser was thrown from his vehicle. He was killed on the spot. Rumors of foul play abounded. The legend grew.

And what of Eddie Bond? Poor fellow! When he died in 2013, the first sentence of his New York Times obituary emphasized what may now be his greatest claim to fame: that he “once told a teenage Elvis Presley that he would be better off driving a truck than trying to make it in music.” Well over half of the Times obituary is concerned with this story, which Bond had spent years trying to explain away; the rest of Eddie Bond’s life — including an unsuccessful run for sheriff of Shelby County, Tennessee — is presented as afterthought, condensed to a few sentences.

The Elvis story, for what it’s worth, goes like this: the unknown singer auditioned for Eddie Bond’s band in May of 1954. Bond was three years older than Elvis and already established in the Memphis music scene. He told the kid to keep his day job — but two months later, Elvis cut his first sides at Sun Records, and his truck-driving days were history.

A few years later, en route to Hollywood for the making of Jailhouse Rock, Elvis confided to a friend that Bond’s advice “broke my heart.” But, he said: “I wonder what Eddie Bond thinks now.”

P. S. If you like this sort of thing, you can support the endeavor by doing any of the following: follow this blog by signing up on the righthand side of this page (you’ll get about 2 posts a month in your email inbox); follow @lostchildradio on Instagram; or “like” my book and/or radio show on Facebook. You can purchase my book with Alabama jazzman “Doc” Adams online or at your local bookstore. Heartfelt thanks, sincerely, for any / all of the above.

HOT BOIL PNUTS (& other works in progress)

Three works in progress this week:

1. Fifteen or twenty years ago I started taking pictures of boiled peanut signs on the side of the road. Over the years I’ve developed a pretty sizable collection of these images, and for the rest of this summer (through sometime in early August, when a new school year starts), I’ll be posting one boiled peanut photo a day on Instagram. If you’re an Instagrammer, take a moment to follow @lostchildradio to stay abreast of the progress.

I’m seven days into the series so far. Here’s some of what’s up there already.

 

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2. This week I’ve been trying to reorganize one of the most important sections of my book on Birmingham jazz. A stack of index cards has proven useful. Below is my reshuffling of a chapter on John T. “Fess” Whatley, Birmingham’s extraordinary and influential “Maker of Musicians.” (The notecards might be cryptic to you, but know that they represent progress — at the bottom of today’s post, I’ll post a few paragraphs from this chapter.)

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3. Yesterday I was asked to give a talk in Tuscaloosa on the late Sumter County, Alabama, singer Vera Hall. Here is a recording of Vera Hall singing. And here’s Moby’s famous 1999 remix of one of her songs, “Trouble So Hard” (reimagined by Moby as “Natural Blues”). And here are a few illustrations from my talk…

First a drawing I made of Vera Hall:

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Not totally finished, but here’s a tribute to other Sumter County singers, part of my “Book of Ancestors” project, described in a recent post:

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And here’s Ruby Pickens Tartt, who introduced the singers above to many visiting folklorists and writers, including the father and son John and Alan Lomax. (Anticipating the abundance of T‘s in “Tartt” I got carried away with the letter R and added an unnecessary extra. Oh well; I will try her again another time.)

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Here’s, lastly, what Vera looks like on the big screen:

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Thanks for reading. Finally, if you’re curious to read some of the Fess Whatley chapter outlined above, here are a few quick paragraphs. My book explores the ways in which Birmingham’s black community, through much of the 20th century, fostered an overlooked but significant jazz tradition. The schoolteacher-bandleader John T. “Fess” Whatley was at the heart of this culture, sending scores of his pupils and band members out into the larger worlds of jazz. A previous chapter describes Fess Whatley’s own musical roots and his rise to prominence in Birmingham’s segregated school system; the chapter outlined above delves deeper into his story, exploring the unique nature of his influence and the creation of his larger-than-life persona. Here’s an excerpt:

Whatley’s corporal reprimands were legendary. Fess would count off a tune, recalled trumpeter Amos Gordon, “One, two, three, four”—and “if you didn’t come in, he’d crack you across the head with a stick.” J. L. Lowe, perhaps the most avid of all Whatley’s admirers, remembered the ritual of Fess’s rappings: “He hit me three times a day,” Lowe said. “One was to start me off, the second lick was if there was a mistake, and the third lick meant ‘that’s enough.’” Fess was known even to strike his students on stage, mid-concert, if they’d played a wrong note. In the town of Gadsden, about sixty miles east of Birmingham, trumpeter Tommy Stewart experienced Whatley’s disciplinary style when his mother arranged for a private lesson. “My mama knew that I needed to have some contact with him,” Stewart said, “because that was the man who had developed so many [musicians] already. When I first came in, he hit me on my knuckles—I hadn’t even played. He said, ‘I know, Mr. Stewart, I’m going to have to get you for something, so hold your hand out.’ Bap! He hit me on the knuckles and told me to start playing.”

Other Whatley stories were embedded in Stewart’s family history. Years ago, Stewart’s grandfather had started a community band and, the story goes, “they got Fess to come down here once a month to help develop the band. When Fess walked in, he said, ‘I want to hear some music. I don’t want any mistakes’—and pulled out his .45!” Whatley kept the gun visible on the table throughout the rehearsal. “He carried a .45 with him all the time,’ Stewart laughed. “Never shot nobody, but he always kept everybody intimidated.”

In Fess Whatley’s band, explained Sammy Lowe, “everything was done in a businesslike way.” For starters, everyone in the band had his jobs: “One guy would set up the music stands, another would put the music out—and by the way, each fellow had to keep his book in numerical order or risk a fine—other members would help the drummer set up, and so on down the line.” Most importantly: “According to Fess, there was no excuse … I repeat: no excuse but death … to be late.” For Whatley, time was everything. Gigs began—and, just as important, no matter how well the night was going, no matter how eager the audience, gigs ended—on the precise minute advertised: with a bit of “Home Sweet Home” Fess and the band signaled the end of each evening’s performance, ushering dancers out the door and back to their sweet homes. Tardiness was the greatest sin, a preoccupation remembered by all Fess Whatley’s players: for every sixty seconds a player arrived late, he’d incur a separate fine. “One night,” remembered Sammy Lowe, “we were to leave for a gig at 7:00 P.M. At exactly 7:00 PM Fess said, ‘Let’s ride.’ We started off just in time to see a band member rushing around the corner. Fess kept on driving, refusing to wait for him. That night Fess fined him for being fifteen seconds late.”

Years after Fess’s death, his old students and disciples still referred to what they called “Whatley Time”: that strict adherence to the clock the bandsman had ingrained in his musicians. “If I had an appointment with the devil himself,” he’d told them, “I’d get there fifteen minutes early—to find out what in hell he wanted!” Fess seemed even to move with the built-in timing of a human metronome. “Even the way he walked,” said J. L. Lowe: “it was with rhythm in his mind. One, two, three, four. It was always like that with him.” Like a lot of Whatley’s musicians, J. L.’s brother Sammy insisted late in life that the Whatley training instilled in him an unbending sense of punctuality: after a long and prolific career he could count on one hand the number of times he’d arrived anyplace late. For the Lowes and others, Whatley Time, reinforced by knuckle-raps and fines, became an instinct.

Okay; all for now. More later. Happy Saturday to you.

Born To Live: suggested listening

Maybe tonight you need to hear something hopeful and human.

So:

Two of my heroes are Moe Asch and Studs Terkel. Asch created his Folkways record label in an ambitious attempt to document the “entire world of sound”; Terkel, with his tape recorder, long-running radio show, and epic books of oral histories, attempted, similarly, to preserve as wide a swath of human experience as he could, beginning in his own backyard of Chicago.

One place their visions come together is in the 1965 album, Born to Live, originally conceived and broadcast by Terkel as a radio documentary for Chicago station WFMT, his home base of operations, and soon thereafter released on the Folkways label, where you can still find it today (Asch, again ambitiously, vowed that every Folkways album would remain forever in print — when the Smithsonian eventually acquired the label, they made it their business to honor this design). The album opens with the voice of a young survivor of the Hiroshima bombing, then weaves together a variety of voices. Some of the speakers — James Baldwin, Gwendolyn Brooks, Pete Seeger, Simone de Beauvoir, Miriam Makeba, and others — are celebrated figures; others are the ordinary, everyday sorts of people Studs Terkel spent his career talking to.

So: if you need something hopeful and human tonight or tomorrow — or just something to pass the time — here is Side One of that album. 

And here is Side Two.

(And here is much, much more from Smithsonian-Folkways, and here is much, much more from Studs.

Have at it.)

P. S. For another recent post about Studs, if you missed it, click here. And if you like this sort of thing, or any of the other sorts of things you see on this site, please consider doing any of the following: follow this blog by signing up on the righthand side of this page; follow @lostchildradio on Instagram; or “like” my book and/or radio show on Facebook. You can purchase my book with Alabama jazzman “Doc” Adams online or at your local bookstore. Heartfelt thanks, sincerely, for any / all of the above. See you next time. 

born to live album