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

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

Remembering Mamie Brown Mason (1930-2020)

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you, Mrs. Mason, for everything.

LISTEN! Live from Gip’s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gip funeral program

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

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

 

 

The Ballad of Big Jim Folsom, Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ballad of Big Jim Folsom

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

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

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

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

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

Big Jim Folsom & band

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dance-floor Intimacies

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

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Image may contain: 1 person, night

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

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

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*

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

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