HOT BOIL PNUTS (& other works in progress)

Three works in progress this week:

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

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

 

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

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

First a drawing I made of Vera Hall:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Girl Scouts, Lost Heroes, & the Soul of Man

One Saturday last April my radio show was visited by a troupe of Girl Scouts; they were working on their music badges, and one of the moms (my friend Marnie) asked me to talk to them about radio and share a little music history. I decided to focus on some of the Alabama music that I play on the show, and as a kind of handout I made them a little zine they could take home: “The Girl Scouts’ Guide to Alabama Music Heroes, Volume 1.”

The girls and their moms and a few dads came, and we talked about Alabama music and zines and radio. I recorded them singing a couple of songs, one of which I played over the airwaves a week later. “Make new friends,” the girls sang, “but keep the old, one is silver and the other’s gold.” After the show, the troupe went on to make new friends at Seasick Records for Record Store Day, in further pursuit of their music badges.

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Troupe 30672 visits The Lost Child radio show, 2017

Originally there only existed about a dozen copies of the zine, and each was the property of a Girl Scout. But last month, for the opening of an art / history / photo show I put together at Crestwood Coffee, I decided to make some more copies for the general public, giving the zine its worldwide, non-Scout debut. If you want one, you can pick up a copy at the coffeeshop or at The Jaybird in Birmingham, or you can email me for one (burgin@bhammountainradio.com). They’re $3 each (plus shipping), or just $1 for Girl Scouts.

The show on the coffeeshop walls, both its content and design, was actually inspired by the original Girl Scout zine. “What is the Soul of Man?: The Roots of Alabama Music” highlights many of the state’s music heroes and traditions, with historic photos and original text. Included are more than a few forgotten heroes a handful of legends, all of whom made substantial marks on their musical communities and culture. It’s a history that incorporates jazz pioneers, old-time fiddlers, blues women, country brother duets, civil rights foot soldiers, rural singers, rock-and-roll harbingers, and more. The show is only up for another couple of days, through Tuesday, March 6, so I invite you to come out to the coffeeshop before it closes and check it out.

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After I take this down I think I’ll continue expanding it for some other location. There are a few segments I meant to get to before it went up, but never did — Muscle Shoals soul, Sacred Harp singing, Gennett Records’ 1927 Birmingham sessions, and so on — so hopefully there’ll be more to come, somewhere down the line.

In the meantime, come check out the current installation while you can. Hopefully you’ll find some history there that’s news to you.

“Have you ever heard any music like this before?”

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Kids, Collinsville, Alabama, c. 1898.

I spent a couple of hours today at the library, working on a project I’ll fill you in on later. I didn’t find a whole lot of what I went to the library looking for, but I did stumble into this happy tangent: photos of music and musicians from the history of Alabama’s DeKalb County.

All of these images come from various installments of the DeKalb Legend, a publication from Landmarks of DeKalb County, a nonprofit devoted to historic preservation. Landmarks put out a bunch of these books in the ’70s, compiling photos that stretch back into the 19th century. Included are all sorts of scenes from daily life, spanning much of the region’s history — but the images that got my attention, one or two of them every hundred or so pages, were those of the county’s musicians and singers. The Louvin Brothers grew up in DeKalb County; so did members of the band Alabama. But these scattered photographs give some insight into the everyday music of everyday people, a glimpse into a narrow geography’s wide-ranging musical culture.

It’s an incomplete record, of course, and we’re left to imagine the sounds themselves. But a dozen such photos from every county in the country would open up to us a history we’ve, at best, hardly heard.

Take a look:

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Photograph captions in the DeKalb Legend offer some details but leave others to the imagination. Here, “two unidentified ladies serenade Jesse B. (Peter) Horton, Jr. about 1902.” Beyond that the Legend simply adds: “Horton died in 1904.”

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“Joe Shields and his singing group at DeShields School — 1910.”

IMG_1146A blurry image from Chavies, Alabama, c. 1915: a big crowd for the “First Sunday in May singing.”

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A “patriotic musical” from 1918.

IMG_1170DeKalb County High School band, 1927. F. S. Thacker, band director, at right.

IMG_1140“Prayer Changes Things”: a scene from the Monroe Tabernacle, a “non denominational church built by Mrs. J. P. Monroe,” pictured here sometime in the 1930s. There’s a lot to look at in this one. I’m interested in the man outside, seen through the window, and in the moments (not pictured) when the boy, more or less center, picks up the small guitar in front of him. I’m curious too about Mrs. J. P. Monroe.

IMG_1129Sacred Harp singers, Mt. Herman Baptist Church, 1949. Leading the singing are Jack Stiefel and Riley Garrett: “the young and the old,” the caption says.

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“An old tradition: fox hunters dancing in the streets of Fort Payne about 1950.”

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“Newly formed band at Frederick Douglass High School in 1952,” directed by Lillie L. Trammell.

IMG_1151A political rally in 1956, Williams Avenue School, Fort Payne. Adlai Stevenson for President: “For All Of You.”

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“Musicians who specialize in modern spiritual music” — posed in front of a historic home in Fort Payne, sometime (undated) in the ’60s or ’70s.

And speaking of the modern — check out teenage rockers the Viscounts, also from Fort Payne, playing the “weekly hootenanny” at the DeKalb Theatre, 1963:
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The second Viscount from the left, by the way, is Jeff Cook, age thirteen; later he and a couple of cousins would form the band Alabama, a group clearly steeped as much in rock and roll as in country.

I’m going to leave you with this: a record the Viscounts (or VT-Counts) cut in 1964, “(This Is) Our Generation” — a 1960s Alabama teenage manifesto I’ve become kind of obsessed with. Give it a listen. I’ve transcribed the text, as I hear it, underneath the link.

Greetings and salutations
And all words indicative to a hearty welcome,
My celestial friends
This is Sweet Daddy Whitley
Talking to you cats and chicks about our generation.
Have you ever heard any music like this before?
This is our generation.
We made it what it is today.
Talk about the good old times
There were no good old times
This is it
There’s no need to wait around
This is it
This is our generation.
And his soul cries out: let me hear some more of that guitar

[solo]

That was the high priest, Jeff Cook, on lead guitar
And in the background you can hear bassman Bailey
The high
esteemed
bassman
And along with him is
Rhythm Ray
the DJ
on rhythm guitar
This age where rockets, satellites
Hot rods
Drag strips

And his soul cries out,
This is our generation

As I count the (ways of life? waves of rye??)
One
Two
They cry out, let me hear some more of that swinging sound

[solo]

That’s soul music
It comes from the heart
And soul
They think they had music a long time ago
This is our music
And before I close I would like to remind you
This is our generation.
This is it.
Live it up.
Smile a while.

*

That’s as good a place as any, I guess, to end this post:

This is it. Live it up. Smile a while.

Thanks for reading.

*

P.S. Okay, one last photo: I have to add that my favorite image of them all doesn’t take music as its subject, but I couldn’t leave it out. The image, which I included also at the top of this post, is labeled only “Collinsville School Boys, about 1898.” No explanation beyond that is offered, other than the boys’ names.
FullSizeRender-1They are, for the record, from left to right: Jesse Green, Victor Hall, Stanley Brindley, Charlie Hall, L. B. Nicholson, Carl Norwood, and Carl Brindley.

May they rest in peace.

Audio Archive: Frank “Doc” Adams remembers…

This weekend marks the five-year anniversary of the publication of my book with the great, much-beloved Alabama jazz hero, Dr. Frank Adams: a master performer, educator, family man, community icon, storyteller, and history-keeper known to many around here as “Doc.” Our book — Doc: The Story of a Birmingham Jazz Man — tells Frank Adams’s story in his own words, drawing from more than two years of weekly interviews.

To celebrate the anniversary of the book’s publication, I’ve uploaded the first few minutes of the first interview I conducted with Doc, from July of 2009 (in the recording below, I attribute this interview to 2002, not catching my verbal typo). At the time, I thought I’d write an article about Doc and about the history of Birmingham jazz community. Most of all I wanted to preserve some of this man’s remarkable story and storytelling for posterity; beyond my vague ideas for an article I didn’t have much of a plan. But this interview turned into many more interviews, which turned in turn into our book — and eight(!!) years later, I’m still very hard at work on the book that’s grown out of that one, a history of jazz in Birmingham, and of Birmingham in jazz.

Doc died two years after the publication of this book — three years ago this month. It’s a joy to hear his voice again in this recording. I remember vividly the day of this interview, sitting across from Doc in his office, engrossed in his stories and his spirit. I had no idea that we’d record ninety-something more of these interviews, no idea that this recording would become the opening pages of our book. I certainly did not anticipate the friendship and collaboration that would grow out of this first session. For that friendship, above all, I’ll be eternally grateful.

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When the book was finished, Doc constantly instructed me: “Keep the book in front of people.” He believed, and I believe, that it told an important story — a story about more than jazz, and more than Birmingham — and a story that ought to be widely shared. He didn’t want it collecting dust on book shelves but wanted it to pass through as many hands as it could. So I’ll remind you on its anniversary that’s it’s still available from Amazon — and right now available at the best price I’ve seen on it yet. Maybe your library has it, or maybe you can get your library to get it. If you’re in Birmingham, we’ve got it for sale at our new store, The Jaybird. However you get your hands around it, I hope you’ll spend some time with this book and with Doc.

Meanwhile, here’s how this whole thing started: Dr. Frank Adams sitting in his office, age 81, talking about his father and his brother and his mother, and about his first musical performance — a brothers’ duet of “The Old Rugged Cross,” performed for the congregation of Birmingham’s Metropolitan A. M. E. Zion Church.

“That,” he said, “sort of hooked me on music.”

Happy anniversary, Doc.

Thursday!

Tonight I’m donating a drawing apiece to two auctions going on around town, both of them for very good causes.

At TrimTab Brewing Company from 6 to 9 there’s a Beer Tasting and Silent Auction Benefiting the Public Interest Institute. This institute sends UA law students on summer internships with nonprofits and government orgs committed to social justice and the public good; tonight’s fundraiser directly supports participating students, since the gigs are unpaid. The students are doing important and inspiring work; in the past they’ve spent their summers with groups like the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Justice, Alabama Possible, and the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative in Kampala, Uganda. Tonight’s fundraiser is one of the many important and exciting projects spearheaded by my inspiring wife, Glory.

Since it’s a law thing, I drew some favorite legal figures:

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Last night the power went out while I was drawing the next one, so I had to do it by candlelight.

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I didn’t realize last night that I was mixing black and blue pens in the dark, but now I like the way the two colors came out together. “Pioneering Women of Rock and Roll” is for the Girls Rock Art Auction at Seasick Records and Crestwood Coffee tonight. Girls Rock Birmingham is a great local org. Here’s their exciting mission: “Girls Rock Birmingham helps girls build self-esteem and find their voices through unique programming that combines music education, performance and promotion; empowerment and social justice workshops; positive role models, collaboration and leadership skill building.” You can find out more at www.girlsrockbham.org.

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To be sure, both events will have greater and hotter auction items than these two modest contributions. And both events will assemble great groups of people for a great good time. You might not even remember you’re supporting a good cause, just by showing up.

Finally, I must mention, too, one more incredible event, also happening tonight: an evening performance and art exhibit to benefit the Society for the Arts and Culture of South Asia, featuring Parvathy Baul—singer, painter, musician and storyteller from Bengal. That event is 7-9 at Tres Taylor’s studio in Avondale (right next to Saturn) and is bound to be an inspiring and memorable night. Call Lloyd at 205-317-8983 for more info.

Regrettably, none of us can be in three places at once. So let’s spread out tonight and each do our best to support art, social justice, education, and community in Birmingham and around the world.

 

The “Singing School Marm” & Sun Ra: The Ethel Harper Story, Part One

Ethel Harper described a certain “bulldog tenacity” as her most distinguishing feature. She was independent, resilient, energetic and strong-willed, and she knew how to get things done. But she was also a bottomless well of generosity, full always of compassion and charity—for children and the elderly, especially. She was elegant and refined, full of grace, poise, and glamor. She had several careers, all successful—was an educator, an entertainer, and a civic leader—and her impact was broad, most notably in her adopted home of Morris County, New Jersey.

I went to Morris County a few years ago to learn more of Harper’s story. Her personal papers are housed in the North Jersey History and Genealogy Center, in the lowest level of the beautiful, old Morristown library. The papers include news clippings, speeches, original poetry, and an autobiography, self-published in 1970. I went there hoping to fill in some gaps in my research on the Birmingham, Alabama jazz story. Harper’s career started in Birmingham, and she was one of the few women to emerge from the fertile scene there. Indeed, if she’s remembered at all today, it’s likely for this curious footnote: her first band, Ethel Harper’s Rhythm Boys, included in its lineup a young player named Sonny Blount. Blount would emerge as the band’s star musician, eventually replacing Harper as the group’s leader; soon after that he’d move to Chicago and become Sun Ra—one of the most iconoclastic, inventive, and utterly unclassifiable figures in the history of jazz.

But Harper’s own history is interesting and illuminating in its own right. After Birmingham she’d perform on Broadway and in Europe, and she’d tour, broadcast, and record with a popular vocal group, the Ginger Snaps. In her later years, in Morristown, she’d become a tireless and respected champion of numerous social causes, a voice for both the youth and the aged, an advocate for education, black history, civil rights, and the arts. When she died in 1979, newspapers around the country (among them the New York Times and Washington Post) remembered her in their headlines for one of her longest running—and ultimately most controversial—roles: as Quaker Oats’ “Aunt Jemima,” a character she portrayed in live appearances through much of the 1950s. It was a character steeped in stereotype, but Harper had sought to bring the job a dignity and grace, even a kind of authority. In the 1960s Jemima was increasingly denounced as an icon of American racism, but Ethel Harper, a vocal proponent of civil rights, took a staunch pride all her life for her work in the role.

Last week, for International Women’s Day, the internet was full of images, quotes, and stories of inspiring women, some famous and others not. I found myself thinking of Ethel Harper, a unique and complex figure whose story has been all but forgotten but very much deserves to be told. This week on this blog I’ll try to tell some part of that story, as I understand it.

Here’s part one: on Birmingham, Sun Ra, and (as Ethel Harper was for a while called) the singing “Bama School Marm.”

*

Ethel Harper was born in Alabama’s Black Belt in 1903. At the age of nine she was orphaned and came to Birmingham from Selma to live with an adult brother and his wife. Her autobiography describes her anticipation for the “big city with the bright lights and big crowds,” a city that weighed in her imagination with a thrilling and terrible kind of mythological power: she’d been told the train as it pulled into town would pass right over the giant Sloss Furnace, and the idea of it haunted her. “I thought that to get into Birmingham,” she wrote, “one had to cross the fiery furnace on the train; if the furnace was open and the passengers could see the fire, all would be destroyed”—the train itself melted along with the iron, the passengers consumed in molten steel and flame.

As a new student at Industrial High School, Harper joined the school’s Dramatic Club; a performance with that group at the the upscale Jefferson Theatre downtown inspired in her the desire to spend her life on stage. In her earliest career, she’d balance her passion for the stage with an equal passion for the classroom: at the age of seventeen she graduated from the the State Teachers College in Montgomery (now Alabama State University), and she landed her first job at an elementary school in North Port, Alabama. Her salary there was $62.50 a month—“a small fortune”—and she picked up some extra income offering private music lessons on the side. North Port Elementary had a faculty of seven, and the teachers shared a range of duties. Harper took charge of the choir, “my first big adventure in the music field.”

Soon, though, she was back in Birmingham at Industrial High, the state’s largest high school for blacks and her own alma mater. There she organized the Girls’ Minstrel, an annual musical and theatrical showcase, one of the most popular events of the school year (there was a Boys’ Minstrel, too, and competition was high between the genders). At the behest of the superintendent of schools and to much local acclaim, she coordinated a thousand girls in an elaborate, costumed, and choreographed military drill at Birmingham’s Legion Field. Meanwhile, she pursued her own opportunities to perform.

Her memoir picks up the story: “Permission was given me by the principal of the high school to form an orchestra with some of the boys from the band department.” Ethel Harper’s Rhythm Boys “made quite a name for themselves, playing for social affairs through the state.” Harper fronted the group, acting as singer and emcee, and the band was a hit. It was the era of the fierce if friendly “jazz battle,” with local groups competing onstage for the acclaim of their fans, and Harper and her boys held their own, besting such popular Birmingham bands as Fred Averytt’s Society Troubadours, another collective of Industrial students. In the summers, Harper took the band on the road. “Miss Ethel Harper,” the Chicago Defender reported, “popular teacher of the Industrial high school, left Monday in a special chartered Greyhoud bus,” accompanied by “her newly organized rhythm boys orchestra whose ages range from fourteen to sixteen years…. Miss Harper,” the paper went on, “is to be commended. This is her second trip to New York. She worked last summer in a night club in Chicago.”

After a while, though, the school intervened. “It was with regret,” Harper later wrote, “that finally the Board of Education felt I must relinquish this activity because it was too strenuous along with my teaching chores. The boys in the orchestra remained together and some of them went on to become top musicians and today are members of some of our leading name bands.”

One of those Rhythm Boys who remained was the pianist and arranger Sonny Blount—Sun Ra—who was already distinguishing himself as one of the city’s most creative and promising musicians. As he would later tell it, the real reason Harper left was a bit more sensational than Harper herself let on: the school’s leadership simply wasn’t comfortable with a female teacher—young and glamorous, dressed in an evening gown and crooning sweet love songs—fronting a stage loaded full with her own male students.

“Well,” Sun Ra explained to brothers Peter and John Hinds for Sun Ra Research, “everybody talked about fifteen or sixteen fellows being up there under a woman. They talked about her because she was a schoolteacher … and it was a big scandal.” Harper herself was “very dignified,” Sun Ra said—nothing ever but pure professionalism—but “a lot of people were jealous of her.” The gossip mill churned, and “the fellows in the band got worried.” The upshot was that Sonny Blount found himself fronting his first band.

“Everybody was talking about her, so some kind of way, they voted to give me the band,” Sun Ra said. “And the next thing I know I saw my name out there—and I didn’t ask for it, they just said I was the person that should be the leader of a band.” He never wanted the job, he’d always insist; it was just part of a larger, transcendent design. “So my destiny in music was determined by other people—not me.”

“Change seems to be part of my destiny,” Ethel Harper wrote of the incident, echoing Sun Ra at least on that point—that a greater force was at work. The moment would mark the beginning of Sun Ra’s career as a bandleader, but it also marked the real beginnings of Ethel Harper’s own professional career. Her break with the Rhythm Boys—and with Industrial High School and Birmingham—presented more an opportunity than a setback.

Her ambitions anyway lay elsewhere.

*

In 1936, after twelve years in the classroom, Ethel Harper left Birmingham for New York. She took with her two students, Albert Phillips and William Keyes, both dancers. “I had made a promise to the boys’ parents,” she wrote, “to try and get them started in their chosen field of dancing.” She planned to spend the summer performing where she could, getting all three of them gigs; in the fall she’s continue her own education in the graduate program at Columbia University.

Again, though, destiny intervened.

Harper was beautiful, talented, and charismatic, and the local black press quickly took notice of her arrival in town. The New York Age announced matter-of-factly that “Miss Harper, who divides her time between teaching high school and leading a band, will try her hand at night club entertaining while in New York.” Her first week there she performed at the local Poosepahtuck Club, and a few days later the Age reported this gossipy tidbit (with a slight geographic inaccuracy): “Just because Ethel Harper … a singing chick from Montgomery, Alabama has come to town, Fats Savage, whom you remember if you’ve ever sipped a cocktail at the Poosepahtuck, went and rigged himself out in a brand new linen suit.”

How Fats and his suit came out went unrecorded, but Ethel Harper appeared several more times that summer in the papers. She performed next at the Apollo Theater’s Amateur Hour, and she won: her rendition of “Without a Word of Warning” earned her a weeklong engagement at the theater, where she was billed “The Singing School Teacher from Alabama.”

Her background in the classroom made her something of a novelty—and good copy for the press. “Bama School ‘Marm’ Wins Amatuer Hour,” reported the New York Amsterdam News: “Miss Harper teaches English in Industrial High School, but in her leisure she dances and sings torch songs for the fun of it and within the walls of her own home.” “The piece de resistance of the night,” the New York Age reported of the Apollo show, “was the big timey singing of Miss Ethel Harper, a reformed school teacher from Alabama.” That paper, though, qualified its praise: Harper may have been good, but talent guaranteed little in the big time. “If she’s smart,” the paper concluded, “she’ll stick to her pedagogy as the existence of singers is for [the] most part precarious…. That night club songstress can sing but so do oodles of other people whom I know. No she isn’t likely to set the world on fire.”

That warning notwithstanding, the Apollo gig boded for Harper a greater financial success than any classroom might offer. For a week’s performances she netted $125; and “by comparison with my teaching salary of seventy-five dollars per month, one can readily see how I could be lured away from the world’s most honored profession”—even though, she was quick to add, all her life, “my love for children exceeded my love for the theatre.”

Ethel Harper called off her plans with Columbia. There were still bigger stages waiting.

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Later this week on this blog—the Ethel Harper Story, Part Two: Broadway; Shakespeare in swing; Aunt Jemima; a civic life; more.

Follow the blog (see the right-hand column to follow) to receive the next installment in your inbox.  

The Birmingham Sessions

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I’ve got an article in this month’s issue of The Old-Time Herald exploring Gennett Records’ 1927 trip to Birmingham. For two months the label set up shop in the Starr Piano store and waxed records of all sorts of local music makers: blues musicians, old-time string bands, jazz bands, Sacred Harp singers, society dance orchestras, gospel quartets, and more. The records, seldom heard today, offer a kind of cross section and time capsule of Alabama music as it sounded 90 years ago. My article dives into the specifics of these Birmingham sessions, placing them in the context of other “location recording” expeditions of the era—and takes a look at the many performers who came to the Starr store to record.

For many years, The Old-Time Herald has documented both the history and contemporary state of old-time string band music and other related traditions.They make room for long articles like this one, and they take great care with their photos and illustrations—as you can see in the spreads below. My article on the Birmingham sessions is a much-expanded version of a piece I published last summer in Birmingham magazine.

A quick excerpt follows. To read the whole thing, subscribe to the OTH. Thanks to the magazine’s editor, Sarah Bryan, for all her help—and to Joyce Cauthen for loaning some great photos, like the two below.

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From “The Birmingham Sessions: Gennett Records and the Sounds of 1920s Alabama”:

“Southern Artists To Make Records,” a headline announced in July of 1927: “Making Of Phonograph Discs Is Birmingham’s Latest Industrial Effort.” Gennett Records had come to Birmingham from Richmond, Indiana, with a load of equipment and a team of engineers. The company planned to set up a temporary studio in the Alabama city and hoped to attract talent from across the South. Ambitions were high all around. The Birmingham News imagined the city becoming “a musical center of the South,” drawing in new streams of profit and acclaim; in a town whose name had been built from steel and coal, music was a local resource so far untapped—and it could be the foundation, the papers imagined, of a whole new industry.

Gennett had plenty to gain, too, from the enterprise. According to one trade magazine, the company expected from its Birmingham base “to make a specialty of Alabama negro folk songs.” Gordon Soule, the studio’s chief recording engineer, spoke auspiciously on his arrival: “The nation looks to the South,” he said, “for its Dixie melodies, its jazz orchestras, its ‘hot’ music. Our initial reception here in Birmingham has been beyond our expectations.”

The very same month, up in Bristol, Tennessee, the Victor label set up a temporary studio of its own, likewise inviting local musicians to audition. Victor’s twelve days in Bristol have become the stuff of American musical mythology: the sessions produced the first recordings of both the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, two iconic acts that helped shape the sound and the business of country music for generations to come. Scholars, fans, and tourists have all flocked to Bristol for years, and the impact of those sessions is well known […] Less familiar are the other field recording sessions conducted, in the same decade, by Victor’s contemporaries. Gennett’s trip to Birmingham offers a single case study.

As it happened, the Gennett sessions did little to advance the careers of the musicians who participated; most of these artists never recorded again. Birmingham, for all the newspaper’s excitement, wasn’t reborn into a mighty music hub. There were no game-changing discoveries, no Carters or Rodgers as there were that summer in Bristol. But the recordings made in Birmingham that July and August—nearly 170 sides altogether—represent a unique and valuable cross-section of the region’s musical culture. There are jazz bands and country blues singers, old-time string bands, gospel quartets, a ragtime pianist and singers of the Sacred Harp—a rich diversity of local sounds, all testament to a community steeped in music….