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.
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.
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?
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, TheBirmingham News, The Dothan Eagle, TheFayette County Times, ThePhenix Citizen, TheAshland Progress, The Gadsden Times, TheMoulton 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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”:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
I don’t know who the photographer is. If you do, let me know.
For Martin Luther King Day, an excerpt from my book in progress: the story of Birmingham’s “Salute to Freedom ’63” concert, a star-studded, integrated fundraiser from the height of the Civil Rights Movement…
In August of 1963, just weeks before the Sixteenth Street bombing, Birmingham played host to a special variety show, the “Salute to Freedom ’63.” Organized by the American Guild of Variety Artists and its president, Jewish comedian Joey Adams, the event was an unprecedented gathering for the city, presenting an integrated stage of artists to an integrated audience, with all proceeds going to the efforts of the movement. The line-up included an impressive variety: headliners included Ray Charles, Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, the Shirelles, and Johnny Mathis, along with author James Baldwin, comedian Dick Gregory, and former heavyweight champion Joe Louis. There were dancers, comedy, speeches—even a magician. The entire Apollo Theatre orchestra came down from Harlem, and Birmingham’s own civil rights singers, the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights Choir, led the audience in freedom songs. Under the direction of singer-composer Carlton Reese, the choir had become by now a rallying force in Birmingham’s mass meetings and marches, and the group’s signature songs—“I’m On My Way To Freedom Land,” “We’ve Got a Job,” and more—gave powerful voice to the struggle. The entire event was funded by donations and fueled by volunteers; with production costs all but eliminated, proceeds went to the upcoming March on Washington.
From the get-go, city officials attempted to undermine the event. The concert had been scheduled for Birmingham’s Municipal Auditorium (the same site, a few years earlier, of the attack on Nat King Cole), but at the last minute the auditorium canceled, offering an unconvincing excuse: thanks to a double-booking “error,” the space had been scheduled to be repainted on the very day of the concert. The paint job, apparently a matter of some urgency, could simply not be postponed. Organizers regrouped, and the concert relocated to Miles College in Fairfield, just five miles from downtown Birmingham. Volunteers scrambled to ready the space: in 98 degree heat a plywood bandstand was erected and lit on the football field. Audience members paid $5 admission and brought their own seating from home, many traveling several miles on foot for the show, folding chairs in hand. Some 20,000 attended.
A.D. King—brother to Martin Luther King, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Ensley, and one of the event’s principal organizers—declared the production “the first integrated show and audience in the history of Birmingham.” On stage, James Baldwin underscored the historical import of the moment: “This is a living, visible view of the breakdown of a hundred years of slavery,” he told the crowd; “it means that white man and black man can work and live together. History is forcing people of Birmingham to stop victimizing each other.” Martin Luther King sat beside the stage, leaning forward intently to hear the Shirelles and other acts perform. Even purely apolitical pop tunes—the Shirelles’ biggest hits included “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “Mama Said (There’ll Be Days Like This),” and “Dedicated to the One I Love”—became charged with social significance when performed for the cause of freedom. All night long, the threat of violence hung over the event: organizers had received warnings of attack, and the city police force refused requests for protection. During Johnny Mathis’s performance, a section of the makeshift stage collapsed, severing an electric line, and the whole field went suddenly dark. For a moment, performers and spectators imagined they’d been bombed—the city had seen so many bombings already—but inspection revealed no other culprit than shaky construction. In the uneasy darkness, the movement choir broke into a freedom song, and the audience joined in, thousands of voices filling the air like they’d filled the churches, streets, and jails of Birmingham all through the past spring and summer. In half an hour the show resumed, the stage repaired and the lights re-connected. Salute to Freedom ’63 continued without further incident, the music and speeches lasting until well past midnight.
Grey Villet, a LIFE magazine photographer, captured some extraordinary images from the concert, but they were never published. Fortunately, you can see them now, here. I strongly encourage you to check them out.
This excerpt belongs to my book in progress, on the history of Birmingham jazz. The chapter at hand looks at the role jazz musicians and other performers played in Birmingham’s civil rights struggle. More to come.
Every day this month, I am posting to Instagram and Facebook images from Birmingham’s important and unsung jazz history. Every day this MLK weekend, I’m posting images from the intersecting histories of Birmingham, jazz, and the Civil Rights Movement.