Jumping for Joy at Bob’s Savoy

A couple of weeks ago I got my hands around this great little artifact: a drinking glass from Bob’s Savoy, for many years the beating heart of Birmingham’s Fourth Avenue North.

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Under segregation, Fourth Avenue, between 15th and 18th Streets, was a thriving business and entertainment center for African Americans in the Magic City. It was home to restaurants, barbershops, beauty parlors, funeral parlors, hotels, poolrooms, and theaters, along with the offices of Birmingham’s most elite black professionals. The seven-story “Colored” Masonic Temple stood at the corner of Fourth and 17th Street, housing meeting spaces, hotel rooms, and a library, and hosting in its second-story ballroom a steady stream of swanky gala dances.

No place was more central to the scene than the Little Savoy Cafe, or Bob’s Savoy, located just across the street from the stately Masonic lodge. Its remarkable cast of characters ranged, through the years, from Sun Ra to Willie Mays, and its tables served as setting for impassioned political conversations that helped lay the groundwork for the city’s civil rights movement.

Bob was Bob Williams, one of Fourth Avenue’s most prominent and popular figures (“We know of no guy in town who has more honest-to-goodness friends than Bob,” remarked local columnist J. B. Sims in 1944). He cut an imposing figure, dressed in tuxedos and (often) a Shriner’s fez, cigar clamped almost permanently in his mouth. He was a tireless promoter of Birmingham’s black businesses and fraternal societies, an avid champion of local sports, a chief patron of the city’s distinctive jazz scene. Bob was a well-known advocate for African American rights in the city, a civic pioneer who condemned legal segregation and devoted himself with passion to black opportunity and community.

Bob’s Savoy sold chicken dinners, its specialty, for 35 cents; a bowl of beans or stew for 15 cents; and steak for 75. In a single year, reported Birmingham’s Weekly Review,  Bob supplied his diners with more than four tons of chicken — not to mention all the other menu items or the constant flood of drinks. (“The atmosphere will soothe you. The drinks will groove you,” the ads ran; one customer claimed the Savoy sold more alcohol, in a given year, than any other Alabama business.) “Special cut rate meals” were available for students and office employees. And out of the back of the place a woman called “Messy Bessie” ran a sort of bootleg operation: “Anything you needed,” the musician Frank Adams laughed, whether strictly legal or not, “you could send for Messy Bessie and get it.”

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In 1974, two decades after Bob’s shut its doors, an article in Black Enterprise magazine recalled that “Not all the black restaurants and nightspots of those years were as unpretentious and inexpensive as the Little Savoy, or as truly black.” Every year, Bob hosted more than one hundred banquets and meetings for any number of causes, hosting black business leaders and civil rights groups, along with an array of sports and entertainment celebrities. Visitors of all social classes found their way to the Little Savoy. A writer for the Chicago Defender marveled at the scene in 1943: “It’s the only place we have ever been into where people walk up to your table and say ‘We’ll give you six-bits or a dollar on your bill if you’ll save your table for us.'”

Hailing Bob’s as the “Largest Negro owned cafe” in Birmingham “and without doubt one of the finest in the nation,” another of the Defender‘s correspondents outlined the namesake restauranteur’s climb to fame. “Bob’s rise in the business world is almost like [a] fairy story,” writer David Kellum began. In 1932, Williams had arrived “penniless” from Chicago [other sources say New York]: he’d come South for an aunt’s funeral but stuck around. “For four years he worked for $10 a week at the Elks club, then one day an idea struck him. He had observed that the Negroes of Birmingham did not eat after 10 o’clock in the evening and so with a partner he opened the Little Savoy where he featured Southern fried chicken.”

That initial effort faltered, and Bob — whose connections stretched in all directions — appealed to “Chief of Police Brown, whose friendship he had acquired over a period of years. Brown paid his rent and gave him sufficient money [with] which to re-open his business.” (The specifics of that arrangement are not entirely clear, but other observers noted that Birmingham police ate free at the Savoy, anytime they wanted.)

“Bob’s business grew by leaps and bounds until his chicken bill alone averaged $1,000 a month,” Kellum continued. Today [in 1948] Bob’s Savoy does a gross business of $125,000 yearly.”

Robert Bob Williams, Ch Defender
Bob Williams, pictured in the Chicago Defender

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The Little Savoy served, too, as headquarters and hangout for the Birmingham Black Barons, the city’s Negro Leagues baseball team. The Black Barons conducted their business, celebrated their victories, mourned their losses, picked up their mail, and gathered for carpools at the Savoy. Williams made the cafe into an all-purpose hub for black Birmingham’s sports culture: he sponsored amateur basketball, football, and baseball teams and sold tickets for all the big games. He hosted packed-out after-parties for every local championship and promised local boxers free chicken dinners for scoring knock-outs in their first round. His place became hangout for every black celebrity athlete who lived in or came through town: Satchel Paige, Joe Louis, Willie Mays, Jackie Robinson.

And then there was the music.

Frank Adams played at Bob’s as a teenager in the early 1940s, a member of Fess Whatley’s celebrated local band. In our 2012 book, Doc, Adams remembered: “Bob’s Savoy had international recognition. It was a huge place. They had beer and alcohol in there, and usually they would have a band. People would get off on Friday night, and they’d come in there — Friday, Saturday — they’d stay in there and drink beer and beer and beer. From all parts of Birmingham — Fairfield, Bessemer — they would come into town.

“See,” Adams continued, “this was the town. Fourth Avenue was just the heart of everything. You had all these barbershops; you had all the poolrooms and everything; and Bob’s Savoy was just the center. It was the centerpiece where everyone would go to be entertained. Any time at night, you’d see people crowding into Bob’s Savoy. Bob was a popular person and people always liked him. We would play in there sometimes in Professor Whatley’s band, and of course you couldn’t hear, because of the beer bottles and everything. But they always tried to have some kind of a band in there.”

Another band that played the Savoy was Sonny Blount’s group. In a few years, Sonny would leave Birmingham and become Sun Ra, one of jazz music’s most original, iconoclastic visionaries; in the early ’40s, he was an innovative, unpredictable favorite of Birmingham’s own homegrown jazz scene. In the summer of 1944, J. B. Sims’s column predicted big things for Sonny:

“One of the finest features I’ve ever seen exhibited in our town,” Sims wrote (a strong statement, coming from a popular ex-bandleader, himself, and a constant chronicler of the local scene) “was the very swelegant dinner given at BOB’S SAVOY last Monday night, by [promoter] J. B. BARKER on occasion of the first anniversary of the SONNY BLOUNT dance crew. We repeat, that we think that Sonny has one of the finest dance bands in the country and they should really go places. More power to ’em. . .”

Sonny at Bob's Savoy
Also notable: The waitresses at Bob’s Savoy have organized themselves into a social and savings club … 

National acts played the Savoy, too: Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Count Basie. Some nights they’d play the Masonic Temple across the street, then head to Bob’s and play a second show upstairs.

In the early 1950s, trumpeter George Washington was a budding musician in Frank Adams’s Lincoln School band room; today he’s a veteran musician of the longstanding Birmingham Heritage Band. In those early school days, he worked across the street from Bob’s Savoy at Brock’s Drug Store. “I must have been twelve or thirteen,” he told me in 2016. “I was the delivery fellow. And I rode a bicycle all over Birmingham delivering medicine. But because I worked at the store, they knew me around here, so I could go in the Savoy. I’d sneak in when the big bands come — like B.B. King, Louis Jordan — you know, I’d sneak in … until they catched me, and they put me out. Dr. Adams played round there. And that was, I mean — that was the spot.”

The Savoy catered to all classes, but within its walls social distinctions nonetheless prevailed. As historian John Klima observes, the Little Savoy was “in every way an exact replica of the caste system that existed within Birmingham’s black populace”: steel workers and coal miners crowded the first floor, while visiting celebrities, athletes, and the social elite gathered upstairs amid more upscale accommodations. On occasion, touring black bands performed at Bob’s to exclusively white audiences. Willie Patterson of the Black Barons described the arrangement to historian Chris Fullerton: on those nights, he said, “The whites had to go upstairs … the Negroes came downstairs.”

One Sunday in May of 1951, a fire ravaged the Little Savoy. Many believed the fire was a racially motivated attack: the next day, in nearby Fairfield, another fire broke out, and the homes of four hundred black families were laid to waste — while, in the words of the New York Amsterdam News, “a whole company of Birmingham firemen stood idly by, less than 200 yards away.” The fire department refused to help until they’d received word from their boss: police commissioner, fire chief, and “arrogant exponent of white supremacy,” Eugene “Bull” Connor. Word from Connor never came, and for four hours the firemen watched black homes burn. (“I don’t know nothin’ about it,” Connor spat at reporters, while the fire raged on.)

Whether or not the two fires — the one in Fairfield, and the one at Bob’s — were connected, no one ever determined. The Amsterdam News simply added that, in the last two years, “There have been 9 bombings of Negro homes” in Birmingham. Given the Savoy’s significance to the black community, it wasn’t a great stretch to suspect arson.

The Little Savoy suffered $25,000 in damages but rebuilt and quickly reopened.

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In 1952, singer Del Thorne recorded for Nashville’s Excello record label a jumping little tribute to the Fourth Avenue scene. “Down South in Birmingham” was a musical postcard whose refrain exclaimed that “All the joints are jammed, down South in Birmingham.” Thorne encouraged outsiders to venture South, and she even gave a plug, specifically, to the Little Savoy:

  Now, don’t go South and take the boys for fools,
  ‘Cause all of those cats have been to jive school
  You just walk in and fall in line
  And grab yourself a gal and have a good time

  All the joints are jammed
  All the joints are jammed
  All the joints are jammed
  Down South in Birmingham

   Now, don’t get drunk, take everybody for your friend
  ‘Cause if you mess up that might be your end
  Just drink enough to jump for joy
  You’ll buy all kinds of drinks at Little Bob’s Savoy 

The South, Thorne’s record proclaimed—and Birmingham in particular—was hipper than you’d think. At least, hip had its outposts there. Certainly, things could be worse:

  When you get back, tell them the fun you had
  The South ain’t the worst, and it’s not so bad
  Every place you go, the joints were jammed
  In the great Magic City called Birmingham

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Another fire struck in 1958. This time, the Little Savoy closed its doors for good, and Bob moved on to other endeavors — in Detroit, in Philadelphia, and in Monrovia, Liberia, where he opened his own hotel. He exported to Liberia a piece of the Birmingham jazz scene, bringing with him in 1964 several local music stalwarts, including Newman Terrell, Melvin Caswell, and Walter Miller. All had been regulars at the old Savoy. Terrell and Caswell had belonged to Fess Whatley’s band before leading groups of their own. Before and after the Liberia gig, Walter Miller toured and recorded with Ray Charles — and he collaborated often, over the years, with Sun Ra, who he’d known since those first Birmingham days.

Caswell et al ads
The Savoy set the standard, but it wasn’t the only game in town. This page from the Huntsville Mirror, 1953, promotes several popular Birmingham musicians, including Caswell, Terrell, and John L. Bell (see below). Laura Washington, a former vocalist with the Erskine Hawkins Orchestra, recorded the hit “I’ve Got a Right to Cry” in 1946 and had since then come back home to Birmingham.

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One more artifact: here’s an image from the J. L. Lowe collection of Birmingham jazz photos, housed in the archives of the Birmingham Public Library:

Joe Guy Cat Summerfield etc
“Cats Band.” Birmingham, Ala., Public Library Archives.

Left to right, that’s pianist John L. Bell, once known as “Birmingham’s Fats Waller”; Joe Guy, the great and tragic bebop trumpeter (he’d been both bandleader and lover to Billie Holiday and he played the house band, with Thelonious Monk, at the famous Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem); Chuck Clarke, a favorite local saxophonist and member of one of the city’s most prominent musical families; and drummer Cat Summerville. Summerville lived in the Masonic Temple’s fraternal hotel and played the burlesque shows upstairs in 18th Street’s Pythian lodge. Frank Adams remembered him as the city’s “champion drummer” and recalled that “He had a huge cat drawn on his drum”; George Washington also remembered, from his boyhood, Cat’s “huge, huge bass drum” and — on Cat’s head — the first conk, or chemically straightened hairstyle, he’d ever seen. In this photo, Cat’s drum skin features a drawing of Bob Williams’s Little Savoy.

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I’m grateful to David from Manitou Supply Co. for spotting that glass from Bob’s somewhere in Pelham, Alabama, and thinking of me. He asked if “Bob’s Savoy” rang a bell, and I was thrilled to say it did. I’d scored a glass just like this several years ago on eBay, and I gave it to Doc Adams as a Christmas present. Ever since, I’d been hunting one for myself, even setting up a Google alert for Bob’s Savoy, hoping another would crop up for purchase.

No luck, until that message from David. So I’m happy, at last, to toast Bob Williams tonight from one of his very own glasses.

Bottoms up.

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P. S. If you’ve got any personal or family stories (or memorabilia!) from Bob’s Savoy, let me know — I’m always on the lookout for more. And anybody know more about singer Del Thorne?

P. P. S. Sources for this history include multiple articles from the papers named above, as well as my many conversations with Frank “Doc” Adams. My interview with George Washington was conducted as part of the Alabama Folklife Association’s “Alabama Makers” project in 2016, with funding from the Alabama State Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts. Any history of the Birmingham Black Barons baseball team (or its players) includes details of Bob’s Savoy: I consulted Alan Barra’s Rickwood Field and Mickey and Willie, as well as John Klima’s Willie’s Boys.

P. P. P. S. Ever since I wrote that book with Doc, I’ve been working on a fuller history of the Birmingham jazz scene, and this blog serves (among other things) as a place to share some of the outtakes and asides from the writing process. Some related posts include this birthday remembrance of Doc Adams, one of my early interviews with Doc, and this excerpt from our book together. There are brief biographies of bandleader and singer Ethel Harper (parts one and two), bebop trumpeter Joe Guy, and saxophone screamer Lynn Hope, plus a variety of Sun Ra-related resources. (Stay tuned, in the next few weeks, for some more cool Sun Ra stuff.) There are rare photos from Birmingham’s jazz historylinks to more(!) photos, and a little Fess Whatley-inspired art. There’s a short write-up on 1963’s star-studded “Salute to Freedom” civil rights concert in Birmingham. And there are glimpses into the writing process itself: an old table of contents, a moment of despair, an occasional breakthrough. Some stories just don’t fit the book’s design as it evolves, and creating a space for them here allows me to let them go; on other occasions the blog becomes an excuse to think through some cluster of details that I just don’t know what to do with. Sometimes I just come here looking for help (what can you tell me or show me, that I might not already know, about Bob Williams and his Little Savoy? Or, again, that Del Thorne record?)

At any rate, thanks for coming along.

Oh / and / also — in the latest issue of the journal Southern Cultures, there’s an article I wrote about all this Birmingham jazz. Check it out, stay tuned, and thanks.

Draw Your Ancestors

1. Classroom Faces

At the start of this school year, I moved into a new classroom and had a new, big, blank cinder-block wall to fill. So I used one of those giant printers to print out life-sized and larger-than-life photos of a few American literary icons, and I arranged their faces into a huge collage:

Your Words Can Change the World
(Left to right, this is Eudora Welty, Gertrude Stein, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Walt Whitman, Flannery O’Connor, and Toni Morrison.)

I think of it as a (partial!) Mount Rushmore of American writing, a wall of literary ancestors. Their job is to remind us that our words, too, can change the world.

Over the course of my Creative Writing course, we’ll read at least a little something by most of these writers, and sooner or later we’ll talk — at least a little — about the rest. To be sure, it’s a subjective and incomplete wall of ancestors, filtering the “canon” through my own biases and tastes, but it’s a start. (I keep in the hollow space of my podium a huge, rolled up head of Kurt Vonnegut, whose impish sidelong glance I just couldn’t fit, physically, anywhere into that puzzle of faces. Later I may create a second line-up on another wall; in the meantime, when Vonnegut comes up in discussion, I can whip out and unfurl his image.)

2. Student Drawings

Especially because Creative Writing happens to be the first period of the day — and because I think some “mindless” drawing can awaken some playful, spontaneous, unpredictable part of the brain — I sometimes like to start the class by asking students to draw for five or six minutes. I’ve asked them to reserve the first three pages of their Creative Writing notebooks for these start-of-class drawings and doodles, so that by the end of the year those pages will be crammed with all sorts of images — images which will serve as untamed and untranslatable intro to all the words that will follow. Of course, half the class complains that they “can’t draw,” which is the real point (it turns out, they can). But because they only have five minutes for the drawings, the perfectionists have to abandon perfectionism and the slow-to-starters have to jump in, ready or not. There’s no time to think, and everybody is equal.

I started the year’s drawing times by having students choose one of the big literary faces on the wall and try, quickly, to draw it. At the start of the year, they’re likely to know something about one or two of these writers — probably Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes — but the rest, so far, are strangers to them. Ultimately you have to choose your own creative ancestors, and I know my students haven’t chosen these particular writers as theirs. But that’s part of what I like about these first drawing activities: I tell them to just choose whichever face stands out or interests them the most, and spend a few minutes with it. Maybe later a voice or a meaning, or some historical weight or baggage, will attach itself to the face and the drawing. But for now you’re just moving your pencil or pen across a sheet of paper, waking up your brain.

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Later on, students will add to the same three pages their own self portraits — and self portraits of themselves as superheroes or supervillains — and they’ll look up pictures of their own creative heroes and their own creative ancestors and draw their faces, too. The ones on the wall are just our starting point, and I absolutely adore the results:

Another reason I like starting with the same limited group of faces, before students branch out into their own, is because I love the variation you get from a few repeated, recognizable images. Each Gertrude Stein reflects its drawer’s personality above all; the result is part Gertrude Stein and mostly that student. No two Gertrude Steins are alike — but they’re just enough alike to make those differences magical.

You can see a few of the students’ own heroes and ancestors mixed in among these sample drawings; I’ll post some more later on in the year. (One day I gave them the option of drawing anything in the room. A student in my film class had recently brought in a wonderful, creepy E.T. mask that her father had made her, out of felt, years ago, as a Halloween costume; it was still hanging on a hook in the front of the room, which is why you see that E.T. There are a couple of stuffed Kermit the Frogs on my bookshelf, too.)

So:

3. Your Turn

Here’s an assignment, if you want one. I recommend starting your day with this, to warm yourself up — if not first thing in the morning, then right before you begin the most productive part of your workday. Take about five minutes to draw one of your own creative heroes or ancestors (a writer, artist, musician, filmmaker, comedian, teacher, lawyer, whatever — maybe choose somebody you admire from your own line of work, someone whose example reminds you why you do what you do).

Keep it to about five minutes. That way it’s not a huge time commitment, and it takes the pressure off: you can’t expect it to be super-accurate, and you can’t worry about whether it’s “good.”

When your five-ish minutes is up, look back upon your creation. Don’t ball it up or throw it away. Take a picture or scan it, and send me a copy (burgin@bhammountainradio.com). Then put the original on your refrigerator or over your desk, or leave it in a public space for a stranger to find.

Here’s an idea, if you want to really go all-in: get a notebook just for this. Spend five minutes doing this, every day for 30 days — or, if you like, for 365 days. Set a goal and keep it up. Create a diary of five-minute faces, a one-of-a-kind, homemade, ever-growing book of ancestors. Occasionally send me pictures (again: burgin@bhammountainradio.com).

Or, finally, an alternate assignment, if you prefer the mystery of losing yourself in a stranger’s face: Google “Czech authors” or “Ugandan authors” or “Indian” or “Hungarian authors” (someplace whose literacy ancestry is unknown to you). Choose the face that most arrests you, and spend five minutes drawing it. Be sure to write the author’s name beside, around, or under the drawing, and maybe (quickly) add to that a book title, birthdate, or fun fact, whatever you get when you click that person’s picture.

I am certain that you will create something magical that otherwise would never have existed. Give it five minutes and see.

P. S. This week I got my hands on the new book by Lynda Barry, Making Comics, and it’s wonderful, offering many of Barry’s own exercises to draw your way into unexpected and extraordinary, imaginative places. Don’t let the title fool you: her book isn’t for aspiring comics artists (although those people should get it, too), nearly so much as it is for the rest of us — especially those of us who quit drawing pictures around the same time we stopped being kids.

P. P. S. Here are a few of my favorite things from the drawings above: Langston Hughes at an enormous, blank typewriter; all the Toni Morrisons; the bored, tired, or mildly annoyed Whitmans; “powerful.” Also this truth: that sometimes when you’re drawing, your pencil produces something your brain didn’t mean or want (a “mistake”) and you just have to run with and reclaim it. So Zora Neale Hurston becomes “Evil Zora Neale Hurston” — which is pretty wonderful in itself.

Don’t forget to send me your drawings! Thanks for reading.

“If This Ain’t Hugging, Show Me Now”: Juke Boxes & Juke Joints, Hank Williams, Jim Folsom, & Alabama Square Dance Politics

In the spring of 1948, Alabama Governor “Big Jim” Folsom helped host a huge “Square Dance Jamboree and Show” at Montgomery’s City Auditorium, the culmination of a daylong school for square dance callers. The headliners were the Strawberry Pickers, the downhome string-band who’d helped propel Big Jim into office, along with Montgomery’s own singing star, Hank Williams “and his gang.” Hank was a regional favorite, broadcasting out of local radio station WSFA; his MGM record, “Move it On Over,” was already a hit, and he was on the verge of national country stardom. The ads in Montgomery’s Advertiser newspaper billed the jamboree’s “2 BIG HILL BILLY BANDS” and promised “Good Clean Fun For the Entire Family.”

Strawberry Pickers, Hank Williams square dance ad
“Swing your corner on a rusty gate. Now your own if it ain’t too late.”

As far as Jim Folsom was concerned, there wasn’t much some good singing and dancing couldn’t fix. His 1946 gubernatorial campaign leaned heavily on the popularity of the Strawberry Pickers, who’d filled his rallies with old-time fiddle breakdowns and rustic country crooning. His inaugural party crammed 6,000-plus revelers into an airplane hangar at Montgomery’s Maxwell Air Force Base, where the usual black-tie ball gave way to an old-fashioned barn dance. And as soon as he entered office, he overturned a law that made roadhouse jukeboxes illegal, telling the honky-tonks to “oil up their machines” once again. The jukebox law was a prohibitionist tactic to, in essence, make drink joints less enticing social hangouts, but the new governor loved both music and beer, and — as the populist “big friend” of the “little man” — he saw the anti-juke rule as just another way to keep the working man down.

“I’m just common folks,” Folsom explained — and “common folks have just as much right to dance as rich people.”

Among Folsom’s many critics were members of Alabama’s teetotal set, religious conservatives who blanched at the governor’s well-known penchant for drink. But this crowd, too, he figured, could be won over with a little old-fashioned dancing. In collaboration with the Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) board and the Southern Farmer newspaper, Folsom championed a push to bring wholesome, family square-dancing right into the honky-tonk, and into the day-to-day mainstream of Alabama life.

Folsom asked the joints to put up a sign, “Square Dancers Have Priority One Night a Week,” and the ABC board encouraged those places to set aside Tuesday nights for that purpose. Families were invited to come out and dance, grandparents and kids and all — the whole program, the Southern Farmer explained, “helping honky-tonks become community recreation centers.”

But if Alabama needed more square dancing, it needed more square dance callers — which brings us back to Montgomery’s big Jamboree and Show. The Southern Farmer urged all community leaders to participate in the free dance-calling school, sending out direct invitations to select individuals around the state. “Farm leaders, 4-H Club and FFA directors, union leaders, home demonstration agents, school teachers, and social workers have found that square dancing is an invaluable tool for building community spirit, providing wholesome recreation, and attracting both young and old,” the Farmer told potential callers. “As a community leader we know you are anxious to qualify yourself to lead such a program.”

The Southern Farmer was bringing in some heavy hitters for the occasion. According to the ad below, “Some of the expert teachers who will be on hand for the school are–Charley Thomas of Camden, N. J., editor of AMERICAN SQUARES, the national folk-dance magazine; D. B. Hendrix, of Seveirville, Tenn., a famous ‘Smoky Mountain’ caller; and Miss Rosalind Reiman, Atlanta, Ga., well-known authority on Southern folk music and square dancing.”

Large ad, Strawberry Pickers & Hank dance
“Eight Hands Across, Ladies Bow and Gents Knew How, If this ain’t Hugging Show me now.”

In advance of the event, Alabama newspapers pictured the six-foot-eight governor in his element, dancing to the sounds of the “Shoe Fly Swing”:

Big Jim square dance
“Swing your opposite lady, now your own sugar baby.”

The Dothan Eagle newspaper commented, sometimes sardonically, on the square-dancing drive. “This is a fine thing The Southern Farmer is doing,” the paper proclaimed, “helping the ABC board make honky-tonks into community recreation centers for the family. Too long have Granpaw and Granmaw been staying at home minding the kids while Paw and Maw were out juking the night through. Now, just think, the whole bunch can go, chillun and all.

“Under The Farmer’s plan every community will have an expert caller, trained by experts at Montgomery. Night life will soon be in bloom throughout Alabama. Culture will blossom, along with sanitation, for one of the ABC rules requires all dancers to wear clean clothes. And everybody’s going to have fun, juke-joint style.

“Alabama marches on.”

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A couple of quick post-scripts — speaking of square dancing and Hank Williams and Big Jim Folsom — here’s another ad, this one for a 1955 dance at the P. Z. K. Hall in Robertsdale, Alabama. The music’s by Jack Cardwell, a popular country entertainer out of Mobile, who’d recorded tribute songs for both Big Jim and Hank Williams.

Jack Cardwell dance

P. Z. K. stands for Poucreho Zabavniho Krouzku, which is Czech for “educational recreation circle.” The P. Z. K. Hall was built in 1924 by members of Baldwin County’s Czech community, and the renovated hall remains open for business today.

In 1954, Jim Folsom and Jack Cardwell had both appeared, along with a host of the day’s top country stars, at a mammoth Hank Williams Memorial Day in Montgomery. Like any holiday, this one inspired its share of department store sales, as seen in this ad from the Montgomery Advertiser:

Hank Williams Day duds

You might have noticed that for the last couple of months I’ve been chasing “Big Jim” Folsom down one rabbit hole after another; one short blog post led to a second, longer post, led to more and more research, a trip to the state archives, and an epic story, coming out soon in the Old-Time Herald magazine. The square dance and juke joint stuff here is a tiny aside in a much larger story about politics, power, class, race, and downhome music in mid-twentieth century Alabama.

If you’re into southern music, old-time string-bands, and the like, and you don’t subscribe already to the Old-Time Herald, I’d encourage you to change that now. I’m thrilled to tell this story in detail in that magazine’s pages, and I’ll save the rest of the details for the publication. Meanwhile, if you want some more good, wholesome juking, check out my most recent blog post, about Gip Gipson and Gip’s Place — featuring a full Lost Child radio hour of historic, live recordings from that iconic Alabama establishment.

As always, thanks for reading.

LISTEN! Live from Gip’s

Henry “Gip” Gipson started throwing backyard blues parties at his Bessemer, Alabama, home back in the 1950s. Half a century later, those parties were still going, and “Gip’s” became famous as one of the last surviving juke joints in the country. Acts came in every Saturday night, from all over the country and all over the world. Both Gip and Gip’s became local icons.

Gip kicked off each weekend’s show with a prayer and a few blues tunes of his own. For the rest of the night, he’d work his way through the crowd, shaking hands, or he’d sit on the side of the stage, soaking in the scene he’d made possible.

Gip passed away on October 8. To help celebrate his legacy, I broadcast on The Lost Child an hour of historic, never-released performances from the Gip’s stage, which you can now stream anytime, right here:

This hour includes performances by several great Alabama blues players and singers, recorded live at Gip’s in 2008 and 2009: Willie King, Elnora Spencer, Jock Webb, and, of course, Gip Gipson himself. Lenny Madden kicks off the proceedings with the house rules. Ray Gant made the recordings. Roger Stephenson made them available for radio play. Also included are a couple of tunes from Gip’s only album, Nothin’ But the Blues.

It’s an honor and a privilege to share these recordings with a larger audience. Not only do they offer vivid entry into the sound and spirit of Gip’s Place, a tribute to “Mr. Gip”‘s great legacy; they also provide testament, along the way, to another of Alabama’s most remarkable blues heroes, the late Willie King. He died in 2009, just a few months after these recordings were made.

At Gip’s funeral, friends and family described a man who’d changed their lives — through his music, his faith, his example, his unique approach to the world. Visitors to his juke joint described it as a kind of sacred space where everyone was welcome and everything was steeped in love. Jock Webb played a little blues harmonica, some “traveling music” to send Gip home, and there were two performances of “Amazing Grace” — by singer Tara Sabree and harmonica player Randy Guyton — Gip’s favorite song.

Pastor Alfonzo January described in his eulogy a scene from the movie The Color Purple, when the blues singer Shug Avery leads her crowd, dancing and singing, straight from the juke joint and into the church — where the two groups, long separated by custom, prejudice, and pride, are joyously united. “When the juke joint and the church get together,” Pastor January preached, “it’s going to be a time” — and Gip Gipson was a man whose life symbolized that union. The pastor, whose own church is around the corner from Gip’s, noted that there were a couple of church pews in the place, and he joked that he knew he was missing one or two. At Gip’s Place, they fit right in. At the end of his eulogy, the pastor implored Gip’s family to keep the juke joint going — which is what they intend to do.

Gip funeral program

When you have some time, I hope you’ll give a listen to these recordings from Gip’s. Many thanks for Roger Stephenson for making them available.

Rest in peace, Mr. Gip, and thanks for everything.

 

 

The Ballad of Big Jim Folsom, Part 2

Over the weekend I posted some songs and photos highlighting the musical legacy of Alabama governor “Big Jim” Folsom. Country music — it was called “hillbilly music” then — helped Folsom into office twice: in 1946 his Strawberry Pickers stringband canvassed the state with him, warming up the crowds at rallies in upwards of four and five towns a day, and in 1954 his theme song, “Y’all Come,” again offered working class Alabamans open invitation to come and see him at the governor’s mansion in Montgomery. Country singer Jack Cardwell cut a couple of Big Jim ballads, extolling the governor’s biography, virtues, and downhome charm (“The legend of Big Jim Folsom will never die!” Cardwell proclaims in one tune), and Alabamans around the state sent in to the governor their own compositions in his honor. But another widespread ballad of Big Jim showcased the steamier, unseemlier side of the statesman and long outlasted his governorship, working its way across the country and into the mouths of singers far removed from the ins and outs of Alabama politics. Adapted from a nineteenth-century British ballad, the tune exposed the scandal opponents hoped would derail Big Jim’s career, lambasting the governor’s hypocrisy, lampooning his well-known sexual appetite, and offering a pointed critique of the age-old power structures that divided rich from poor.

Folsom was dubbed “Big Jim” for his six-foot-eight stature, his hulking frame and size-sixteen shoes; an exuberant, larger-than-life personality only helped make the name stick. He was also known as “Kissin’ Jim,” a reputation he relished: he claimed he’d kissed “50,000 of the sweetest mouths in Dixie,” that he’d “started with the 16-year-old ones and worked up from there.” At campaign rallies he worked his way through the crowd, shaking hands and kissing not only the babies but every female cheek or mouth he could get his lips around. His political opponents liked to point out his weaknesses for both women and booze, but Folsom failed to see those hobbies as political liabilities: “If they bait a hook with whiskey and women,” he said, confessing and boasting at once, “they’ll catch Big Jim every time.”

In March of 1948, midway through his first term in office, Big Jim’s kissing caught up with him, setting off a scandal that might have ruined another political career; in his case, it inspired a popular, caustic, sing-along song — but didn’t preclude his election (in 1954) to a second term in the state’s highest office. A clerk at Birmingham’s Tutwiler Hotel announced that Big Jim had fathered her child, and she filed a paternity suit against him. Folsom was unfazed: nine days after the scandal broke, he staged an event outside a New York City modeling school, where a hundred young models lined up for a kiss from the man they declared “The Nation’s Number One Leap Year Bachelor.” (According to biographers Carl Grafton and Anne Permaloft, the stunt attracted 2,500 onlookers, created a traffic jam, and had to be moved inside.) Two months later, Folsom married 20-year-old Jamelle Moore, who he’d met at a stop on the 1946 campaign. He never denied fathering that child — eventually he admitted it outright — and in the summer, after his kissing stunt and his marriage, he settled out of court with the mother.

The ballad “Big Jim Folsom” grew out of the scandal and, if anything, only added to the legendary, tall-tale aura that surrounded the man. But the tune also offered a biting commentary on a system that allowed a powerful man to thrive at the expense of a poor, working-class woman. That Jim was a Christian and a Populist, a self-proclaimed champion of the poor, only underscored the irony.

I’ve found just one good audio recording of the tune online, a version collected by Max Hunter, a traveling salesman from Springfield, Missouri, who lugged a reel-to-reel tape recorder all over the Ozarks in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, documenting the songs of the ordinary people he encountered on the job. In Wichita, Kansas, he collected this version from a woman named Joan O’Bryant. She sings:

She was poor but she was honest
Victim of a rich man’s whim
When she met that rich and Christian gentleman, Big Jim Folsom
And she had a child by him

Now, he sits in the legislature
Making laws for all mankind
While she walks the streets of Cullman, Alabama
Selling grapes from her grapevine

It’s the rich what gets the glory
It’s the poor what gets the blame
It’s the same the whole world over, over, over
It’s a low down dirty shame

Now, the moral of this story
Don’t you never take a ride
With the rich and Christian gentleman, Big Jim Folsom
And you’ll be a virgin bride

The tune and the story — sometimes called “She Was Poor But She Was Honest,” sometimes “It’s the Same the Whole World Over” — dates back to sometime in the late nineteenth century, where it was sung in British music halls (predecessors of the American vaudeville stage). By the time of the first world war, it had evolved into countless bawdy variants, popularly sung by British servicemen. The rich man in the original wasn’t an Alabama governor, but a wealthy squire or M. P.; still, the storyline and the moral were the same, and they were easily adaptable to Big Jim’s specifics. Take, for example, this English verse:

Now he’s in the House of Commons
Making laws to put down crime
While the victim of his pleasures
Walks the street each night in shym [shame]

That key plot point stayed intact in the song’s journey across the Atlantic, even if it’s not exactly how things happened in real life: in the “Big Jim” ballad, the “poor but honest” victim resorts to prostitution to make ends meet, while the “rich man” Jim makes the laws and reaps the glory, unaffected. In some versions, like the one from Wichita, Folsom’s victim “walks the streets of Cullman, Alabama, selling grapes from her grapevine” (what a phrase!), while in others she’s “selling chunks of her behind” (!!) or “selling shares of her behind.” At least one recorded version adds this verse:

Now you think this is my story
But the worst is yet to come

While he sits up in the capital kissin’ women
He won’t even name his son.

It’s an especially damning, personal jab. Not only did “Kissin’ Jim” fail to acknowledge or care for the son he fathered out of wedlock; running for a third term in 1962 (long after he’d weathered the storm of the paternity scandal), he appeared on TV in such a drunken stupor that he couldn’t recall the names of his own (legitimate) children. The televised debacle did more damage to Folsom’s career than the paternity suit or the “poor but honest” ballad ever managed; Folsom lost the election to George Wallace and, despite many efforts, never won a seat in public office again. Whether the verse above deliberately referenced the infamous on-air bungle (it’s possible the verse predates that event), it certainly would resonate, ever after, with rich and awful double meaning.

Indeed, the song lived on, long after Folsom’s last term, and it traveled far. Across Alabama and beyond, it was sung over the airwaves, in fraternity basements and sorority halls, by mothers and aunts having fun at home, by servicemen in the Air Force, by lawyers passing the bottle after hours. It’s no surprise it cropped up in Wichita: versions of “Big Jim Folsom” were popular, too, among college students in Texas and Kentucky, and the women at Agnes Scott College in Georgia sang it at their campus hangout, The Hub. At the University of Arkansas, a student included the text in a collection of sorority songs, changing the governor’s name (to Big Joe Clipler) and his state (to Louisiana) in order “to avoid libel.” Folklorist Mack McCormick included a version of the song on the 1960 album, Unexpurgated Songs of Men, which documented “an informal song-swapping session with a group of [unnamed] Texans, New Yorkers, and Englishmen exchanging bawdy songs and lore.” Jim Folsom’s own (legitimate) daughter provided a variant of the tune to the Folklore Archive at UCLA.

Like the song says, “It’s the same the whole world over”; the ballad’s basic plot, universally familiar, made the tune adaptable to countless real-life scandals, and some later versions replaced Big Jim with politicians from other states. Tompall Glaser fictionalized the story (just barely) into “Big Ben Colson,” and country singer Bobby Bare sang it that way in 1969. Certainly listeners in Alabama, at least, would see through the flimsy pseudonym. The gist remained the same:

Now he sits with the dignitaries
And the wealthy ladies all love his charms
While she sits in a lonely shack in Alabama
With his baby in her arms 

In 1960s Nashville the song became an unlikely anthem for social change. The Southern Student Organizing Committee, founded in Nashville in 1964, brought together progressive white students working for change: the group coalesced around the civil rights struggle and gradually expanded to take on women’s rights, the Vietnam War, and other issues. Unlike most activist groups of the day, the white, southern students in SSOC found in country music a resource for their progressive goals, and “Big Jim Folsom,” with its critique of hypocritical political power, became the group’s unofficial theme song. Activist Sue Thrasher later recalled that the Folsom ballad “made us come to terms with our own backgrounds, which were largely poor and rural, and admit that was where we came from and where we had to begin.” In this song and others, students discovered a tradition of southern white progressivism upon which their own efforts could build. Big Jim’s poor but honest victim reminded them of their own roots, and of the issues at stake; the song became a call to arms.

For another Nashville activist, the song helped support the charge of nonviolence. Bernard Lafayette was a prominent leader in the black freedom struggle, a participant in the Nashville sit-ins, a co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a confidante to Dr. King, and one of the original Freedom Riders. A student at Nashville’s American Baptist Theological Seminary, Lafayette was scanning the radio dial in his dorm room one night, trying to find anything besides the twangy, redneck country that seemed to dominate the airwaves. Hearing one corny hick singer after the next, he finally switched off the radio in disgust — but then had a kind of epiphany. “I thought about it,” he later said, “because of my nonviolence training. I turned the station on again, and I said what I’m going to do is just sit here and listen now to the words. And you know what I heard?” It was a thick, nasal, white, country accent, and it sang:

She was poor, but she was honest,
Victim of a rich man’s pride,
When she met that Christian gentleman, Big Jim Folsom
And she had a child by him…

The song came as a revelation to Lafayette. “That hillbilly stuff,” he realized, “is nothing but white folks’ blues.” The country twang on the song’s surface may have conjured up a host of redneck stereotypes, but the suffering, injustice and pathos revealed in the lyrics were recognizable and relatable. “And once you understand the experiences of other people and can appreciate that,” Lafayette would explain, “then you understand why they act the way they do.” Whites and blacks had more common ground than either group tended to admit; a shared suffering and mutual humanity bound them together, and only from such an understanding could social progress be made. It was a lofty message for such a simple song, but the impact of “Big Jim Folsom” stayed with Lafayette all his life.

Big Jim himself died in 1987, but a quick internet search reveals that a lot of people today still remember the lament of that poor but honest Alabama girl. If you remember singing or hearing the song, I’d like to know whatever details you recall, however fuzzily — when and where you heard it, who sang it, what lyrics you remember, etc. You can post in the comments below or email me. One story about the song is likely apocryphal or at least exaggerated, but the fact it’s a story at all is worth noting: that Folsom, true to character, embraced the tune, and his followers chanted its refrain as they cheered him on along the campaign trail. Anybody heard that one before?  I’m still/always on the lookout for any songs about, for, against, or by Jim Folsom and/or his Strawberry Pickers, so pass them along if you’ve got them. Musical photos, too. (For yesterday’s post on this subject, click here.) Thanks.

P. S. I consulted multiple sources for this writing. Check em out yourself:

Roy Baham, Jamelle Foster, and E. Jimmy Key, The Strawberry Pickers (Southern Arts Corps, 2000).

Carl Grafton and Anne Permaloff, Big Mules and Branchheads: James E. Folsom and Political Power in Alabama (University of Georgia Press, 1985).

Don Phillips, “James Folsom, 79, Colorful Governor of Alabama in ’40s and ’50s, Dies,” Washington Post, 22 Nov. 1987.

Kyle Gassiott, “Before Roy Moore, Alabama Grappled with ‘Kissing Jim’,” NPR, 9 Dec. 2017.

Ben Windham, “Southern Lights: Big Jim Folsom’s Christmas Vision,” Tuscaloosa News, 22 Dec. 2002.

Ed Cray, The Erotic Muse: American Bawdy Song (University of Illinois Press, 1999).

The Max Hunter Folk Song Collection, Missouri State. https://maxhunter.missouristate.edu/

“Lyr Req: Big Jim Folsom,” thread, The Mudcat Cafe, https://mudcat.org/thread.cfm?threadid=38147

“Lyr Req: She Was Poor (Same The Whole World Over),” thread, The Mudcat Cafe, https://mudcat.org/thread.cfm?threadid=140894.

Vance Randolph and Gershon Legman, Roll Me In Your Arms: “Unprintable” Ozark Folksongs and Folklore, Vol. 1 (University of Arkansas, 1992).

H. Brandt Ayers, In Love with Defeat: The Making of a Southern Liberal (New South Books, 2013).

Gregg Mitchell, Struggle for a Better South: The Southern Student Organizing Committee, 1964-1969 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).

Bernard Lafayette Transcript, The National Center for Civil and Human Rights, Atlanta, Georgia.

Richard Beck, “She was poor, but she was honest.” http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com

Big Jim Folsom & band
“Never take a ride with the rich & Christian gentleman, Big Jim Folsom” — seen here, third from left, in the back, with some Strawberry Pickers.

The Ballad of Big Jim Folsom

A few days ago I got my hands on these two old press photos of “Big Jim” Folsom, Alabama’s governor from 1947 to 1951 and, again, from 1955 to 1959. “Hillbilly” music was central to Big Jim’s populist persona, and that music figures into both photos. I don’t know the photographer(s) or newspaper(s), or the names of everyone pictured, so if you can help me out let me know.

 

 

 

In his landmark 1946 campaign, Big Jim Folsom covered the state accompanied by a string band, the Strawberry Pickers, who’d stir up the crowd before Jim took the stage. Other southern populist governors had made music central to their own campaigns before: Louisiana’s “Singing Governor,” Jimmie Davis, was then enjoying the first of his two terms, and in Texas the Light Crust Doughboys, a popular western swing band, had helped propel “Pappy” Lee O’Daniel into office. As for the Strawberry Pickers, Folsom later recalled: they were “completely a string band, nothing professional about it, just country boys, that’s the way I done it…. And it just jumped up.” Opponents lambasted Folsom for substituting entertainment and cheap gimmicks for substance. “But,” he said, “I was getting the votes and they knew it, and there wasn’t any way that they could stop it.”

The Folsom entourage traveled in two cars, the Strawberry Pickers heading to each town first, to reconnoiter the scene, get set up, and draw a crowd. They’d drive all over, a three-horn loudspeaker system strapped to the roof of their car, spreading the word there was about to be a rally. Then they’d find a place to set up and start making music: “Silver Dew on the Blue Grass Tonight,” “Fire on the Mountain,” “Listen to the Mockingbird,” “Peace in the Valley,” “Down Yonder,” or Folsom’s favorite, “Oh Susannah.”

Folsom arrived in the second car with his driver, Bill Lyerly. In the book Strawberry Pickers, published in 2000, Lyerly describes the routine: “I would stop on the outskirts of town at a filling station; he would wash his face and comb his hair and be ready the minute we hit that town because we could hear the Strawberry Pickers playing wherever they would set up — we didn’t have any trouble finding them — and we would go straight to where they were playing.” Big Jim would walk through the crowd, shaking hands. “And sometimes he would get up on the stand before the boys were through playing a particular tune and he might not be quite ready yet, and he would tell them, ‘Play one more boys, play that so and so tune.'” Finally, the candidate would launch into his spiel. Folsom promised paved roads along every school bus route and past every mailbox, a living wage for teachers, pensions for the old folks, and repeal of the poll tax. He swore he’d kick the corrupt “Big Mules” out of Montgomery, and to drive the point home he waved around a corn-shucks mop and a galvanized “suds” bucket, swearing he’d clean the crooks out of the capitol; while the Strawberry Pickers picked another tune, the bucket was passed through the crowd, taking up a collection of quarters that Folsom said were the suds he needed to do the cleaning. It was gimmicky, populist theater, and it worked. Folsom won by a landslide.

Folsom wasn’t much of a singer himself (Bill Lyerly first met him at a convention in Montgomery: “I was standing at a piano in the Jefferson Davis Hotel, and we were singing songs, just singing, and this voice kept coming down from up high over my head, and wasn’t on key, and wasn’t singing too good. And I turned to look to see who it was, and it was Jim Folsom.”), but in this first photo he gets in on the action. A group of boys watches the band. Anybody recognize these musicians?

Big Jim Folsom & band

This second photo dates from the 1962 election season. Here Folsom and his wife Jamelle are entertained by Roland Johnson and his band, the Meat Grinders, a later iteration of the Strawberry Pickers.

big-jim-folsom-meat-grinders.jpeg

For the 1946 election, Folsom’s campaign manager, Newt Raines, wrote a campaign song, “Are You For Folsom?” I haven’t located any recording of that song, but surely such a thing exists. (I also haven’t heard of any recordings of the Strawberry Pickers, sadly.) For the 1962 campaign, singer Jack Cardwell recorded “Big Jim Folsom,” which you can hear below:

Another record from the ’62 campaign includes the country standard,”Y’all Come,” which Folsom turned into his theme song, performed by Roland Johnson. The flipside is Jack Cardwell again, with the “Ballad of Jim Folsom,” a knock-off of Jimmy Dean’s “Big Bad John.” (Cardwell played country music on Mobile TV and radio stations and scored his biggest hit with the ballad of another Alabama folk hero, Hank Williams; his “The Death of Hank Williams” was one of the many tribute songs that followed the singer’s death.)

Folsom lost the 1962 election. He’d developed a reputation for graft (“Something for everyone and a little bit for Big Jim,” an anti-Folsom slogan said), and he never recovered from a disastrous, drunk TV appearance. And there was this: Folsom was a racial moderate who believed that integration was inevitable, he argued for the fair treatment of black Alabamians, and he clashed with his strict segregationist legislature. He warned against the “stirring of old hatred and prejudices and false alarms,” adding that “The best way in the world to break this down is to lend our ears to the teachings of Christianity and the ways of democracy.”

Those ideas didn’t endear Big Jim to a lot of white voters. Folsom lost the race to his one-time political protege, George Wallace, who went all in for the hatred and prejudice and false alarms and ushered in a long, new era of Alabama politics. Folsom ran for governor again — five times, all the way to 1982 — but he never regained the office.

Coming tomorrow-ish: “The Ballad of Big Jim Folsom,” Part 2 — the steamier, unseemlier side of Big Jim’s ballads… 

Dance-floor Intimacies

From about 1950 into the late 1980s, the Jack Normand Band played “Dancing Under the Stars” on Thursday and Saturday nights at the luxurious Grand Hotel in Point Clear, Alabama. This photo, circa 1960, is extraordinary for the multiple dance-floor intimacies it captures, if you look closely enough.

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Image may contain: 1 person, night

Image may contain: 2 people

Image may contain: 1 person

Image may contain: 1 person, indoor

Image may contain: 1 person, smiling, night and indoor

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Image may contain: one or more people

Image may contain: 1 person, sitting, night and indoor

Image may contain: 5 people, indoor

*

I don’t know who the photographer is. If you do, let me know.

As for the Jack Normand Band, here’s a little history. A friend and fan, radio broadcaster Paul Harvey, once declared on-air that families like the musical Normands “foretaste heaven.”