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

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

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

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

“He’s not,” she said, “from no Mars.”

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

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

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

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

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

Sonny Blount and Ripple Rhyth,

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

Ripple Rhythm Four photo 2

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

Great Rhythm Four ad 1939

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

Rhythm Four fave quartet ad 1942

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

Rhythm Four narrow 39 ad

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

Sonny Blount Xmas 1940

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

Clearly, this was no ordinary quartet.

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

Rhythm Four at Lyric 2Rhythm Four at Lyric

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

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

Rhythm Four 4 (Sonny??)

Part Two: Live Wire Entertainment — Swing Sensation Sonny Blount

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

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

Sonny Blount Club Congo 1942

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

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

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

Sonny v Fess TB Battle

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

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

Sonny Blount Barn Dance 1945

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

Sonny Blount Victory Dance 1945

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aunt Bertha Robinson

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

Aunt Bertha Robinson

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

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

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

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

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

Aunt Bertha Robinson, Banjo Newsletter Oct 1979
Aunt Bertha Robinson, Banjo Newsletter (October 1979)
IMG_4107
Aunt Bertha Robinson, The Devil’s Box (March 1974)
thumb_IMG_4109_1024
Aunt Bertha celebrating the Golden Anniversary of her marriage with a banjo-shaped cake. From The Devil’s Box (March 1974)
thumb_IMG_4111_1024
On stage at the Tennessee Valley Old Time Fiddlers Convention. From The Devil’s Box (March 1974)
thumb_IMG_4089_1024
Aunt Bertha at the Sixth Annual Tennessee Valley Old Time Fiddlers Convention. From The Devil’s Box (December 1971)

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

Remembering Mamie Brown Mason (1930-2020)

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you, Mrs. Mason, for everything.

Music Under Quarantine

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

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

*

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

*

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

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

*

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

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

Big Feet & Footnotes

Big Jim's shoe

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

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

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

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

Lately I’ve learned a lot more. 

Big Jim Kicks Back
Big Jim Kicks Back

A Brief History of Big Jim’s Feet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Foot Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

The_Huntsville_Times_Tue__Jan_8__1946_
1946, “Folsom Appeals To Friends For Shoes”

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

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

The_Marion_Times_Standard_Thu__Jul_18__1946_
1946, “It’s not the feet but the stupidity.”

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

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

Alabama_Journal_Fri__Jan_27__1950_
1950, “Why don’t you wear suitcases?”

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Henry Burroughs / AP (1968)

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

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

First Lady's Lament

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

IMG_0208.JPG

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— one after another, after another. After another

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

IMG_0216.JPG

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

IMG_2887

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.”

*

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

*

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.

*

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

*

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.

*

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.

*

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.

IMG_5508

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.

IMG_5063IMG_5060

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.”

*   *   *

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.