The latest, from my ongoing Book of Ancestors: Fess Whatley’s Jazz Demons.
Fess Whatley was nicknamed the “Maker of Musicians,” thanks to the legions of professional jazzmen he trained at Industrial (later Parker) High School in Birmingham. He started the city’s first jazz band — the Jazz Demons, seen here — and for years he led one of the Southeast’s premiere “society” dance bands. After the Jazz Demons came Fess Whatley’s Vibra-Cathedral Orchestra and his Sax-o-Society Orchestra. I love this newspaper ad for Sax-o-Society: “a real jazz orchestra,” it promises — “but not that ‘ear-splitting,’ ‘nerve-racking’ kind.”
One of Fess Whatley’s many talented students was Herman “Sonny” Blount, the pianist and composer who soon enough would become Sun Ra, one of jazz music’s most extraordinary iconoclasts. Sun Ra always claimed to come from outer space, but his real roots were very much in Birmingham, as the ad below demonstrates. Sonny’s band was one of several student bands Whatley sponsored over the years; this ad, from October 1935, promotes an upcoming show presented by Whatley at Kingsport, Tennessee’s Floral Casino.
Incidentally, some great, good news: Doc, my book with another Birmingham jazz hero, Frank “Doc” Adams, will be released in its first paperback edition in just a few weeks. Look for it as of December 18, its official release date, though it’s likely to be available to order within the next few days. Both Fess Whatley and Sun Ra figure prominently into the book; Doc played in both of their bands.
I’m pretty excited for a new round of readers to encounter Doc Adams through this new edition of our book. I hope you’ll get your hands around a copy as soon as you can. Thanks.
For next Saturday’s radio show, I created an exclusive illustrated playlist, in the form of a full-color, 16-page, pocket-sized zine. I decided not to announce the song titles and artists on air as I play them next week, but instead to make available this little guide you can use to follow along at home.
The best part: all this can be yours(!!) for a donation of $5 or more to The Lost Child.
Just shoot five bucks, via PayPal, to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or, if you like, email me at that address for other payment options. I’ll get it in the mail to you ASAP. Your $5 covers the cost of printing and shipping and handling; any dollars over those first five will be considered a generous donation to this radio show and will help support further endeavors like this.
If you use PayPal, be sure to include your name and address in the notes.
The illustrated show began as a playlist of unaccompanied ballad singing and other sorts of a cappella song; but I started breaking it up with a few soft instrumental ditties and other odds and ends to mix up the flow of things. One highlight: a Galician immigrant to the U. S. — a badchen, or wedding entertainer, recorded in the 1950s by folklorist Ruth Rubin — performs a series of wedding tunes on the fiddle, songs he’d brought with him from the old country. And a Polish immigrant to the states, also recorded by Rubin, sings a beautiful, wordless Chassidic tune. Another favorite moment in the mix: a Puerto Rican immigrant to New York, recorded by Tony Schwartz in the ’50s, translates into English the lyrics of a jukebox lament — a record about the Puerto Rican experience in New York, no less — while the song plays in the background. There’s also preaching by Brother Claude Ely, hokum by Peg Leg Bates, and a lonesome field holler by Livingston, Alabama’s Annie Grace Horn Downson. Plus ballads, spirituals, and lullabies from North Carolina, Alabama, West Virginia, Tennessee, and more. And for just five dollars American, it’s all illustrated and annotated for your own eyes and ears.
(To hear the show, tune in Saturday, November 17, to Birmingham Mountain Radio, from 9 to 10 a.m. (Central). It will rebroadcast Tuesday, November 20, from eleven to midnight. You can listen in Birmingham at 107.3 FM or stream it online anywhere at www.bhammountainradio.com. After that, I’ll post it on The Lost Child’s Mixcloud site, where you can stream it anytime.)
Before I sign off for today, here’s a little tribute I just made to the Delmore Brothers, Alton and Rabon, for my ongoing “Book of Ancestors.”
The Delmores had a great signature tune called “The Brown’s Ferry Blues,” which included such lyrics as this — “Hard luck poppa, counting his toes, you can smell his feet wherever he goes” — and which also offered this sad testimony: “Early to bed and early to rise, and your girl goes out with other guys … If you don’t believe me try it yourself; I tried it, and I got left.” The Delmores were born to a family of tenant farmers in Elkmont, Alabama, and they grew up to pioneer first a trendsetting style of soft country vocal harmonies and then a rollicking brand of amplified “hillbilly boogie” guitar. They spent their youths down the road from Brown’s Ferry, Alabama, and as members of the Grand Ole Opry they formed the Brown’s Ferry Four with country superstars Merle Travis and Grandpa Jones. Today the spot their music memorialized is home to the Brown’s Ferry Nuclear Power Point.
Someone should write a song about that.
Thanks for following along with this blog. See you next time.
In case you’re curious, here are a few of my family’s illustrated endorsements for the state of Alabama.
The first one of these is by my stepdaughter Norah.
There’s still time for you to draw your own favorite candidates, too. Grab some Sharpies or some crayons to help pass the time (and soothe the nerves) while the returns come in. Give yourself just a few minutes per candidate, so you don’t overthink it. I’d like to see the final products, not just from my own state but from other places too. You can email your illustrated endorsements to email@example.com, or post them to Instagram and tag @lostchildradio.
Juliette Hampton Morgan, the latest in my Book of Ancestors (a work in progress):
Morgan is one of the many unsung heroes from behind the scenes of the Civil Rights Movement. Her story is inspiring and utterly tragic, her life one of the heartbreaking casualties of the era.
She grew up in Montgomery, Alabama, like me, but a couple of generations before I came along. For high school research papers, I spent time in the downtown library that’s named in her honor; I’d never noticed the library’s name, and I certainly never knew the story behind it.
There’s more fine print on this portrait than on most of my Book of Ancestors tributes; I wanted to get as much of this story on the page as I could fit, since there’s so much here to tell, so much that might otherwise be overlooked. So, here’s that fine print, in case you had trouble making it out, above:
Juliette Hampton Morgan (1914-1957): Montgomery Librarian & A Champion Of Justice * “One feels that history is being made in Montgomery these days…” – Letter to the editor, Montgomery Advertiser, Dec. 12, 1955. * A granddaughter of the Confederacy, born into Montgomery’s social elite – as an advocate for racial justice, she was vilified, shunned, and harassed. Morgan frequently protested injustice in letters to the editors of Alabama newspapers, she attended & organized interracial prayer meetings in Montgomery, and she argued for anti-lunching legislation, the elimination of the poll tax, and the end of segregation – all while friends & family abandoned her. “The cuts from old friends, the ringing telephone with anonymous voices, I know how it feels when butterflies in your stomach turn to buzzards.” In July of 1957, a cross was burned on her lawn; the next day she resigned from the library. That night, she took her own life. Today, the Montgomery central branch library is named in her honor. “The angels laid her away; may she rest forever in power.”
… And still, for lack of space, plenty more details had to be left out. There’s this: that white citizens of Montgomery demanded the library fire Morgan for her outspoken politics; and when the library refused — a notable stance, for that time and place — angry citizens burned their library cards in protest.
Think of that.
And there’s this: that Morgan suffered from panic attacks all her life and as a result couldn’t drive a car. Otherwise a woman of her social position wouldn’t have found herself relying daily on public transportation. But it was on those Montgomery buses, in the years leading up to that landmark boycott, that Morgan’s social consciousness found its essential cause. More than once, when she saw a black passenger mistreated, Morgan pulled the bus’s emergency brake and brought its wheels screaming to a halt. In one letter to the editor of the Montgomery Advertiser, she took care to single out by name the few white drivers who treated their black passengers well (Mr. Alton Courtney, Mr. Eliot I. Newman); then she turned her pen angrily toward the others, those drivers who hurled slurs and insults and took their black patrons’ money, then sent them to the back entrance of the bus, only to shut their doors and speed away.
She compared the protestors in Montgomery to Thoreau and to Gandhi.
Some old friends declared her insane.
One night during the boycott, Martin Luther King spoke to a meeting of the Council of Human Relations in Montgomery. Juliette Morgan sat that night with Virginia Durr: another white woman, another descendent of privilege, and another outspoken advocate for change. A member of the racist White Citizens Council infiltrated the meeting, and Morgan recognized the man.
“You know,” she told Durr, “I feel like somebody is pointing a gun at me.”
Dr. King remembered Morgan in Stride Toward Freedom, his account of the boycott. “Miss Juliette Morgan,” he wrote, “sensitive and frail, did not long survive the rejection and condemnation of the white community.” Because here’s, tragically, what happened in the end. For a while Morgan stayed her pen – the library said they’d stand by her, but finally asked her to lay low with the letters – until in 1957 she wrote the editor of the Tuscaloosa News. Attempts to integrate the University of Alabama, her own alma mater, had erupted in violence from the local white community. The News publicly editor denounced the violence, and Morgan commended his stance in a private letter — which, with her permission, he printed in the paper.
In Montgomery, the sky fell. Since the library wouldn’t fire her, the city of Montgomery reduced the library’s funding, by exactly Morgan’s salary. Things started happening fast, and the story veered to its gut-wrenching end. The Klan burned its cross in Morgan’s yard. Morgan resigned from the job she loved. Then she took her own life.
In 1963, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Pete Seeger brought to Carnegie Hall in New York a program of the songs that he’d learned and sung in the mass meetings and marches down South. As he led the audience through “We Shall Overcome,” he introduced the final verse like this:
“The best verse,” he said,
was made up down in Montgomery, Alabama.
It says, “We are not afraid.”
And here you and I up here,
like every human being in the world, We have been afraid.
But you still sing it! We are not afraid.
We are not afraid.
In that last, best verse, the familiar someday of the refrain becomes, powerfully, today — “We are not afraid, to-day” — and somehow in the singing the singer is transformed. Because in belting it out that we’re unafraid, in pretending aloud that we’re fearless, we gain power. We become what we say we are, for at least as long as we’re singing.
When I learned about Juliette Morgan, this verse — born in Montgomery, like her — came to my mind. Morgan’s story’s end is heartbreaking, because finally that fear caught up with her, the consequences of her courage became too much for her to bear.
But the end of her story will never change this: that her courage along the way was profound, her example a lesson for us all.
Because there’s no bravery whatsoever in not being afraid. Real bravery means being terribly afraid, and acting anyway like you’re not. Because courage isn’t the absence of fear; it’s how you live in fear’s presence.
My heart breaks that Juliette Hampton Morgan didn’t make it through. But I’m grateful for what she did, and for who she was, while she was here.
Note: Most of what I’ve learned so far about Juliette Hampton Morgan comes from her entry in the Encyclopedia of Alabama or from this article in the Montgomery Advertiser, which quotes one of her letters to the editor in full. The exchange with Virginia Durr appears in Durr’s autobiography, Outside the Magic Circle, and the MLK quote appears in Stride Toward Freedom. After writing the paragraphs above, I ordered a copy of Morgan’s biography, Journey Toward Justice, by Mary Stanton. I’m about thirty pages in, and it’s a fascinating read.
Also in this post: details about this Saturday’s Blues Potluck at The Jaybird, a fitting big finish to our beautiful Jaybird year.
1. First, the radio shows:
For the last two weeks on The Lost Child, we’ve dug pretty deep into the roots of Alabama music. Two weeks ago, Joyce and Jim Cauthen joined me to talk about their work, over the last 30+ years, documenting and preserving Alabama’s fiddle traditions and tunes. We listened back to some of their original field recordings, talked about some of their favorite old-timers, and enjoyed some of their own live music in the studio. We also investigated the history of “The Lost Child,” the tune that gives this radio show its name.
Last week, the show turned its attention to Alabama blues, with music from these great performers: Clarence “Bluesman” Davis, Jock Webb, Elnora Spencer, Rob Harris, and Sam Frazier, Jr. — each of whom you can hear at The Jaybird’s Blues Potluck this coming weekend (Saturday, 9/22/18). All the music in this hour was either recorded live at The Jaybird (thanks to Dennis Tyler for the recordings) or was originally performed and broadcast live on past editions of this radio show. It’s a special hour. On the Jaybird recordings, you can hear the energy, warmth, and good humor of that room; near the end of the show Elnora Spencer brings the house down. On the Lost Child segments, you can hear these players discuss the meaning of the blues, as well as their own personal roots in the music: Clarence “Bluesman” Davis describes growing up in Eutaw, Alabama, and having to decide between the blues and the church, while Jock Webb and Sam Frazier describe the rich music communities of Rosedale and Edgewater, Alabama, where they first encountered the blues in backyard parties and neighborhood shot houses. Along the way, of course, there’s a lot of great music.
And more Alabama music(!): since this week marks the 95th anniversary of the birth of Hank Williams, I’m posting once again the three-hour tribute I put together for Hank’s 90th. Included in this show is a mighty mix of rarities and classics, reminiscence from old friends, covers from a wide range of artists and genres (soul, gospel, funk, country, conjunto, 1960s Thai pop, and more), a look into the Hank’s musical roots, live and rowdy recordings, historic radio broadcasts, and other musical offerings. And, on a darker note, here’s my Hank Death Show, featuring excerpts from Hank’s funeral, songs about his death, and more.
For a long time I’ve been meaning to do a Beatles tribute show, and a few weeks back I finally did. Check it out here.
These radio hours posted online represent just a fraction of the shows we broadcast over the airwaves. You can hear new episodes of The Lost Child every Saturday morning (9 to 10, Central) and Tuesday night (11 to midnight) on Birmingham Mountain Radio. Thanks for tuning in. Thanks for telling your friends.
2. Back, now, to that Blues Potluck:
On September 22 of 2017, some friends (Lloyd Bricken, Lillis Taylor, Glory McLaughlin (my wife!)) and I kicked off a year of events at a new space we were calling The Jaybird. Our goal was to create a season of special events rooted in grassroots community, creativity, and the arts. We’ve had an extraordinary year of monthly concerts, bimonthly art shows, and much more along the way — poetry, zines, workshops, books, food, craft fairs, and other collaborations and gatherings. This weekend — on September 22 of 2018 — we’ll have one more Jaybird concert; it’ll be a doozy of a thing, and the perfect way to ring out our Jaybird year.
For Saturday’s Blues Potluck we’re inviting back to the Jaybird all the blues artists who have played our stage in in the last twelve months. The gates swing open at 5; music starts at 5:30; dinner will commence at 6. We’ll start with an acoustic set of music, outside. As the night gets darker and the music gets louder, we’ll move inside, from 7 ’til 10. We’ll probably hang out for a while.
I, for one, can’t wait.
To be clear: it’s a real potluck. If you’re in town and plan to come, bring a dish to get $5 off the $15 cover. (We’ll be eating all night, so even if you arrive after the dinner bell rings, I guarantee your food will still find a stomach.)
I’ll be writing more here soon about our Jaybird year, and about what you can expect from this space in the future. But I’ll end this post with some glimpses of the artists you can plan to see if you come out and join us this Saturday.
Here’s Sam Frazier, Jr., with his song “Inherit the Blues”:
Here are Clarence “Bluesman” Davis and Jock Webb at the 49 Navy Tavern in Pensacola:
A heads up — this is kind of a long post, compared to most of the others. Included herein: a visit to Folklore Brewing and Meadery; “The Hugging Molly”; YellaWood lumber, the richest man in Alabama, and a small-town downtown’s weird revitalization; Eufaula, Alabama’s historic Jewish cemetery; deer and kudzu; a quick drive through Smut Eye; boiled peanuts. If you only have a minute or suffer from a short attention span, I think the photos from the Jewish cemetery are the highlight, and you’re welcome to scroll straight to them. It was our visit to that cemetery that inspired me to write about this drive.
Once a year my wife Glory goes to this big convention of Alabama lawyers, and I get to ride along. Every year it’s on or near the ocean, and while she’s shuffling from one hotel conference room to the next I get to spend the day reading and writing and walking on the beach, eating long lunches or checking out the local record store. At the end of the day we are given free drinks and have the rest of the night to find and eat as much seafood as we can.
It’s not a bad deal.
But what I want to write about here is yesterday’s drive back from this most recent trip to the beach. (“Yesterday,” now, is a few weeks ago; but most of this was written a day after the trip, so I’ll let it stand.) We decided that going and coming we’d stick as much as possible to the state and county roads, avoiding the interstates and taking in as much of our state as we could. On the way south we drove through Selma and Oak Hill and McWilliams, down through Enterprise and Brewton and on into Florida, where the convention was held. We didn’t make many stops on the way down, though I did get out of the car long enough to take a few photos of this old gas station, covered in Biblical and all-American texts:
After our last day at the beach, we consulted my Alabama Gazetteer, one of my favorite, handiest possessions, for an alternate route home. We left the beach too late to get too far, and we ended up for the night in Dothan. They were having a Fourth(ish) of July celebration at the fairgrounds, complete with seed-spitting contest and talent show, but we decided food and drink were a greater priority and, alas, we never made it to the fairgrounds. I’d be sorrier to have missed it if we hadn’t let our GPS direct us instead to the Folklore Brewing and Meadery, which lies some distance out of town and is situated on somebody’s old family farm, and which, it turns out, is a pretty magical place. They make good beer (I especially enjoyed the Front Porch Pale Ale) and all kinds of muscadine mead(!), and their kitchen made me the best hamburger I’ve eaten in a very long time. A couple of sisters, maybe 20 years old and billing themselves as The Sisters, played guitar and keyboards and sang Gnarls Barkley and “No Scrubs” and a medley of “House of the Rising Sun” and “Jolene.” People sat around smoking cigars, available for purchase at the counter, and there was lots of good dog watching. After the sky got dark we could hear and occasionally see, over the trees, the fireworks from the fairgrounds. We sat and played a couple of long, high-scoring games of thirteen-card gin rummy.
It was a beautiful night.
The next morning we did finally stop at the fairgrounds to gawk at its enormous peanut — they love(!!) peanuts in Dothan — before hitting the road eastward and north.
Our route took us through Abbeville, Alabama, which bills itself as the “Home of Huggin’ Molly.” As you approach, there is this unsettling welcome, which seems depict a wild-haired madwoman with outstretched arms, chasing a small child:
(I couldn’t help but think of the recent controversial drawing that got a political cartoonist fired from his longtime gig at the Pittsburg Post-Gazette, the one that shows, on a yellow roadside caution sign, the black silhouette of our president snatching a small child from her fleeing family. Of course, any perceived similarity is only coincidental; the child-snatching menace seen here is no president but someone or something called “Huggin’ Molly.”)
We’d already noticed a billboard, a few miles back, for a Huggin’ Molly’s hot dog joint in Abbeville, but this image demanded a little online research and a detour in our drive. It turns out there’s an old story parents in Abbeville used to tell their children, about the “phantom woman” who chased after little children who stayed out too late at night. If she caught them, she’d give them a terrifying hug and scream in their little ears. A 2017 article on al.com offers further details:
“One version of the story claims Molly was the ghost of a woman who had lost an infant who dealt with the tragedy by hugging local children. Another states Molly was a professor at the former Southeast Alabama Agriculture School who was trying to keep students safe by keeping them off the streets at night.” According to the legend, she was “as much as 7 feet tall”—and, other than whatever trauma her hugs and screams may have inflicted, she was on the whole good-intentioned and harmless.
According to the article above, “the legend of Huggin’ Molly is unique to the Alabama town of Abbeville,” but it seems to have a slightly wider provenance than just that — and in some of her variations, the Hugging Molly (the the, I think, makes it way creepier) has a more sinister edge than in those Abbeville parents’ cautionary tales. On an ancestry.com message board, we find this—
“I am looking for information on something or someone my Grandmother used to talk about when I was a little girl. My Grandmother was born in 1906 and grew up in Mobile, Alabama. She mentioned, more than once a story about a woman who walked the streets at night and killed men. She was called the hugging Molly. My Grandmother said she killed the men by hugging them. This story creeped me out as a child and I never forgot it. Has any one else ever heard of this? I would greatly appreciate any info.”
The same writer eventually followed up in her own thread, with some answers:
“I finally, after all these years found out what the “Hugging Molly” was. I ordered a book called Gumbo Ya Ya off the internet. It was first published in 1945. It has all kinds of Louisiana folk lore in it.
“The Hugging Molly was in there. The HM was actually a mentally disturbed man who would hug women on the street. He dressed up in a white sheet or robe and would very strongly hug women at random. He never hurt anyone, but many black women were afraid of him because the white robe or sheet made them think he was part of the clan [sic].”
Yikes. A woman hugging men to death. A mentally disturbed man, hugging random women. Strongly. In a white robe.
Welcome to Abbeville!
The ancestry.com thread also does contain a couple of references to the Abbeville variant, endorsing the tamer version of the Huggin’ Molly story, the one sanctioned by the local Chamber of Commerce, in which Molly’s function is simply to keep kids off the streets (and, these days, to lure tourists to buy Abbeville hot dogs). And there’s this:
“When I was thirteen, my family moved from California to Dothan, AL. I heard the legend of Hugging molly when I moved there from a girl that lived in my neighborhood. I was very skeptical, having never heard people believing in such silliness. So, I decided to go in the woods with this silly girl. We were just walking around when this girl who seemed to be made of red light came towards us with her arms outstretched. She was moving very fast. We ran and I never ventured into the woods again. I often wonder if I just had an overactive imagination or something.”
Hm. One wonders.
One way or another, it seems that Molly has become a central piece of the small town of Abbeville’s recent re-branding — all thanks to Jimmy Rane, the local treated wood magnate, and Alabama’s richest citizen. If you live in or near Alabama, you’ve probably seen Jimmy Rane on billboards or on TV; he’s the owner of YellaWood treated lumber, an international company, and the star in a series of epically ambitious, kitschy Western-themed YellaWood ads, like this:
Jimmy Rane, it seems, carries a weighty influence in his hometown. It was Rane who opened the downtown restaurant Huggin’ Molly’s, and Rane who engineered the “Home of Huggin’ Molly” welcome sign on the edge of town. And it’s Rane, too, who’s responsible for tricking out downtown Abbeville with loads of vintage neon signs: as we drove through the little downtown, we noticed a cool old sign for Buster Brown shoes and were impressed it had survived all the years intact — until, a few seconds later, when we started to notice vintage signs over just about everything and realized that, though some of them might have been original to Abbeville, others must have been brought in more recently, as the local leadership refashioned the place into a nostalgic 1950s downtown.
Again, we take to the internet. And again confirm that it’s Jimmy Rane — and his soft spot for kitschy ‘50s memorabilia — that’s at the heart of the town’s weird “revitalization.” From what we can tell, the man is a much loved figure in Abbeville; he’s made the little town the headquarters of his hugely successful company, and he’s given loads of money to student scholarships and to the Republican party and Auburn University. And he’s sunk chunks of money into the town itself, seeking to turn it into a tourist stop (his efforts did succeed in luring us off the main road). He helped restore the looks this cool old downtown theater, where he hopes to one day show It’s a Wonderful Life and John Wayne movies and the like.
I do hope Jimmy Rane brings some longterm, meaningful prosperity and life to the town he clearly loves. But I have to admit that the new, old Abbeville kind of gave us the creeps; maybe it was just that it was a Sunday and everyone was at church or in bed — but with all the vintage signs and empty streets, we felt like we’d stumbled into an abandoned theme park, or some kind of a spotless 1950s ghost town. And so we hit the road again, before the Huggin’ Molly screamed into our ears.
We stopped a little later in Eufaula for lunch, and on our way out of that town we happened across the beautiful, old Fairview Cemetery, and — on the far edge of its grounds, overlooking Lake Eufala — this: “The Jewish Cemetery,” established in 1845 and restored and rededicated in 1987. The dead there included Jews born in Alsace, France; Poland; Bavaria; and other points of origin — immigrants who died not only in Eufaula but in Georgia and Kentucky and other places across the South and who, one way or another, ended up here.
There was a lot of history in this graveyard, and history I’d honestly never considered: there were two soldiers buried here who’d fought for the Confederacy, and one of the graves was flanked by both the American and Confederate flags.
A Confederate flag in a Jewish cemetery is something we hadn’t expected to see, and it made me curious about the Jewish history of the Confederacy. There is just a handful of books on the subject: among them, Robert N. Rosen’s overview, The Jewish Confederates; a reader, Jews and the Civil War; and a few biographies of Judah P. Benjamin, a “rare Sephardic Jew in the Old South and a favorite of Jefferson Davis,” the so-called “brains of the Confederacy,” who served posts as the CSA’s attorney general, secretary of war, and secretary of state.
There are also sections of Odd Fellows and Masons buried in Fairview Cemetery. Here’s one of the Masons’ headstones.
And once, too, there was a “Negro Cemetery” included on a hillside. But those graves, now, are nowhere to be seen, and a historic marker in their place tells us this: that the names of the dead are “known only to God,” “the wooden grave markers which located the burials … long since vanished.”
Any drive through the South invites us to consider the ways in which public memory is constructed, the ways in which the past is memorialized, enshrined, entombed, redacted, and revised. In one town, an entire community becomes invisible, anonymous, and lost, replaced eventually by a lone historic marker. A few towns over, a pseudo-history is fashioned from tube lights and antiques. And so it goes.
And meanwhile: there is a lot of natural beauty in Eufala, a place I’d never visited before. I could stand to spend some more time there, taking it all in. A little trail off the Jewish cemetery leads through the woods, down to a paved walking and biking path, bordered on one side by the lake and on the other by a mountain of kudzu. In the kudzu we came across four deer, three of which you can see here, just before they disappeared back into all the encompassing green.
Here’s more of the view around there:
After Eufala, we had to make better time back to Birmingham, so there weren’t many more stops. We did drive through the neighboring communities of Smut Eye and Blues Old Stand, two of my favorite-named Alabama towns. We barely missed the town of Mathews, where some of my ancestors came from, a destination for another day’s drive. The okra stew I’d slurped down in Eufala had kind of made a mess of my stomach, and I spent a good stretch of the afternoon’s drive hunched over in the passenger seat, moaning softly. We picked up the interstate in Montgomery, and for an hour everything looked like everything else again. Then we were home.
We had a good time at the beach; the water there was so clear that you could wade into it up to your neck and still clearly see your feet below you in the sand. But the highlight of the trip may have been the two days with Glory in the car. We learned a lot we didn’t know about our state, ate some good food, shot the breeze, and heard Loretta and Conway on Dothan’s “country legends” radio station.
Oh, and this:
For as long as I’ve been driving a car, I’ve made a point of stopping for boiled peanuts, anytime I see them for sale. For almost as long as that, I’ve been taking pictures of the boiled peanut stands where they’re sold, and of the signs that advertise them. Sooner or later, once the collection gets up past a hundred photos or so, I plan to compile them all into some public format. I’m almost there, so stay tuned. Meanwhile, for the last month of the summer, I’ve been posting a boiled peanut photo a day to my Instagram account. You can follow along here.
Our drive through south Alabama did turn up a few boiled peanut shots I can add to the collection. Like I say, they love their peanuts in (and around) Dothan:
Thanks for reading. Peace.
P.S. “We picked up the interstate in Montgomery, and for an hour everything looked like everything else again.” Perhaps this is not entirely fair: I’ve just driven up and down this road so many times I barely notice its eccentricities. As interstates go, there’s actually a good deal to take in. There’s a water tower in the shape of an enormous peach, and a big sign that reads “GO TO CHURCH OR THE DEVIL WILL GET YOU.” And speaking of Confederate flags, there’s a giant, obscene one on a hill: menacingly, cockily, defiantly huge, a gross display of my state’s worst impulses at work. This stretch of I-65 goes by several names, advertised along the way: somewhere between Prattville and Clanton, for example, the “Hank Williams Lost Highway” becomes the “War on Terror Memorial Highway.” It’s unclear where one ends and the other begins. But here’s what Hank Williams says, for whatever it may be worth (in a song he made famous, but which singer Leon Payne wrote):
Now, boys, don’t start to ramblin’ round / on this road of sin, or you’re sorrow bound Take my advice, or you’ll curse the day / you started rollin’ down that lost highway
That’s all for now. See you around.
Note: If you like this sort of thing, you can support the endeavor by doing any of the following: follow this blog by signing up on the righthand side of this page; follow @lostchildradio on Instagram; or “like” my book and/or radio show on Facebook. You can purchase my book with Alabama jazzman “Doc” Adams online or at your local bookstore. Heartfelt thanks, sincerely, for any / all of the above.
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.
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.)
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:
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:
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.)
Here’s, lastly, what Vera looks like on the big screen:
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.
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.
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org). 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.
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.
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:
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.”
“Joe Shields and his singing group at DeShields School — 1910.”
A blurry image from Chavies, Alabama, c. 1915: a big crowd for the “First Sunday in May singing.”
A “patriotic musical” from 1918.
DeKalb County High School band, 1927. F. S. Thacker, band director, at right.
“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.
Sacred Harp singers, Mt. Herman Baptist Church, 1949. Leading the singing are Jack Stiefel and Riley Garrett: “the young and the old,” the caption says.
“An old tradition: fox hunters dancing in the streets of Fort Payne about 1950.”
“Newly formed band at Frederick Douglass High School in 1952,” directed by Lillie L. Trammell.
A political rally in 1956, Williams Avenue School, Fort Payne. Adlai Stevenson for President: “For All Of You.”
“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:
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
That was the high priest, Jeff Cook, on lead guitar
And in the background you can hear bassman Bailey
And along with him is
on rhythm guitar
This age where rockets, satellites
And his soul cries out,
This is our generation
As I count the (ways of life? waves of rye??)
They cry out, let me hear some more of that swinging sound
That’s soul music
It comes from the heart
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.
They are, for the record, from left to right: Jesse Green, Victor Hall, Stanley Brindley, Charlie Hall, L. B. Nicholson, Carl Norwood, and Carl Brindley.
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.
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.
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