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.
Here’s Martin Luther King, speaking in Memphis, 1968, about Birmingham, the power of song, and the unique “transphysics” of the Civil Rights Movement:
I remember in Birmingham, Alabama, when we were in that majestic struggle there we would move out of the 16th Street Baptist Church day after day; by the hundreds we would move out. And Bull Connor would tell them to send the dogs forth and they did come; but we just went before the dogs singing, “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me round.” Bull Connor next would say, “Turn the fire hoses on.” And as I said to you the other night, Bull Connor didn’t know history. He knew a kind of physics that somehow didn’t relate to the transphysics that we know about. And that was the fact that there was a certain kind of fire that no water could put out. And we went before the fire hoses; we had known water. If we were Baptist or some other denomination, we had been immersed. If we were Methodist, and some others, we had been sprinkled, but we knew water.
That couldn’t stop us. And we just went on before the dogs and we would look at them; and we’d go on before the water hoses and we would look at it, and we’d just go on singing “Over my head I see freedom in the air.” And then we would be thrown in the paddy wagons, and sometimes we were stacked in there like sardines in a can. And they would throw us in, and old Bull would say, “Take them off,” and they did; and we would just go in the paddy wagon singing, “We Shall Overcome.” And every now and then we’d get in the jail, and we’d see the jailers looking through the windows being moved by our prayers and being moved by our words and our songs. And there was a power there which Bull Connor couldn’t adjust to; and so we ended up transforming Bull into a steer, and we won our struggle in Birmingham…
That comes from my favorite of King’s speeches, the one he delivered the night before he was killed, the one commonly known, now, as the “Mountaintop” speech or “I Have Seen the Promised Land.” I often share with my students the last couple or so pages of that printed speech. Almost none of them have heard it before: usually the only of King’s writings they’ve been exposed to is the “I Have a Dream” speech — and, even then, most only know those four words, I have a dream, and just a little bit of their context.
In one of my college freshman classes, we were encouraged to buy our own copies of the massive A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speechesof Martin Luther King. I don’t know if any other book I’ve read had such an impact on me; I encourage my own students — and now also you — to get their (your) hands on a copy, to read (for starters) the rest of this extraordinary final speech, and to encounter, in page after page, Martin Luther King not only as icon but as philosopher and theologian, as poet, radical, and chronicler of his time.
Here’s the very end of that “Mountaintop” speech, but you need to find the whole thing:
And speaking of Birmingham and jail and Bull Connor and song:
Here’s something local singer-activist-hero Mamie Brown Mason told me a few years ago, recalling her own time in the Birmingham jail. In 1959, Fred Shuttlesworth recruited her and another singer, Nims “Bo” Gay, to lead the music for the mass meetings that fueled the growing Birmingham movement; they created the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights Choir, which would soon find a prolific songwriter and dynamic director in Carlton Reese. Members of that choir were among the first protestors arrested in Birmingham (in May of ’63, the jail would be flooded with marching schoolchildren), and Mason remembers singing freedom songs and leading prayers in the jail cells all day and night. On Sundays, prisoners were allowed to worship in the chapel, where there was a piano — and where the foot soldiers, as they often did, remade an old song to fit the specifics of their movement. Here’s how Mamie Mason tells the story:
I said, “Carlton” — Carlton was in jail also — I said, “Carlton, that’s a nice piano.” He went to the piano. And the chaplain used to always ask one of the regular prisoners to lead the songs. She started leading the song “I Shall Not Be Moved”: “Just like a tree planted by the water.” So I took it from her and said, “Go and tell Bull Connor, we shall not be moved” — and I was making that up right then. Making a song about Bull Connor — in his jail!
“We sang to him a lot,” Mason says of Bull Connor, and laughs. “What else can he do? We’re in jail! What else can he do to me — for singing about it?”
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.
For Martin Luther King Day, an excerpt from my book in progress: the story of Birmingham’s “Salute to Freedom ’63” concert, a star-studded, integrated fundraiser from the height of the Civil Rights Movement…
In August of 1963, just weeks before the Sixteenth Street bombing, Birmingham played host to a special variety show, the “Salute to Freedom ’63.” Organized by the American Guild of Variety Artists and its president, Jewish comedian Joey Adams, the event was an unprecedented gathering for the city, presenting an integrated stage of artists to an integrated audience, with all proceeds going to the efforts of the movement. The line-up included an impressive variety: headliners included Ray Charles, Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, the Shirelles, and Johnny Mathis, along with author James Baldwin, comedian Dick Gregory, and former heavyweight champion Joe Louis. There were dancers, comedy, speeches—even a magician. The entire Apollo Theatre orchestra came down from Harlem, and Birmingham’s own civil rights singers, the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights Choir, led the audience in freedom songs. Under the direction of singer-composer Carlton Reese, the choir had become by now a rallying force in Birmingham’s mass meetings and marches, and the group’s signature songs—“I’m On My Way To Freedom Land,” “We’ve Got a Job,” and more—gave powerful voice to the struggle. The entire event was funded by donations and fueled by volunteers; with production costs all but eliminated, proceeds went to the upcoming March on Washington.
From the get-go, city officials attempted to undermine the event. The concert had been scheduled for Birmingham’s Municipal Auditorium (the same site, a few years earlier, of the attack on Nat King Cole), but at the last minute the auditorium canceled, offering an unconvincing excuse: thanks to a double-booking “error,” the space had been scheduled to be repainted on the very day of the concert. The paint job, apparently a matter of some urgency, could simply not be postponed. Organizers regrouped, and the concert relocated to Miles College in Fairfield, just five miles from downtown Birmingham. Volunteers scrambled to ready the space: in 98 degree heat a plywood bandstand was erected and lit on the football field. Audience members paid $5 admission and brought their own seating from home, many traveling several miles on foot for the show, folding chairs in hand. Some 20,000 attended.
A.D. King—brother to Martin Luther King, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Ensley, and one of the event’s principal organizers—declared the production “the first integrated show and audience in the history of Birmingham.” On stage, James Baldwin underscored the historical import of the moment: “This is a living, visible view of the breakdown of a hundred years of slavery,” he told the crowd; “it means that white man and black man can work and live together. History is forcing people of Birmingham to stop victimizing each other.” Martin Luther King sat beside the stage, leaning forward intently to hear the Shirelles and other acts perform. Even purely apolitical pop tunes—the Shirelles’ biggest hits included “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “Mama Said (There’ll Be Days Like This),” and “Dedicated to the One I Love”—became charged with social significance when performed for the cause of freedom. All night long, the threat of violence hung over the event: organizers had received warnings of attack, and the city police force refused requests for protection. During Johnny Mathis’s performance, a section of the makeshift stage collapsed, severing an electric line, and the whole field went suddenly dark. For a moment, performers and spectators imagined they’d been bombed—the city had seen so many bombings already—but inspection revealed no other culprit than shaky construction. In the uneasy darkness, the movement choir broke into a freedom song, and the audience joined in, thousands of voices filling the air like they’d filled the churches, streets, and jails of Birmingham all through the past spring and summer. In half an hour the show resumed, the stage repaired and the lights re-connected. Salute to Freedom ’63 continued without further incident, the music and speeches lasting until well past midnight.
Grey Villet, a LIFE magazine photographer, captured some extraordinary images from the concert, but they were never published. Fortunately, you can see them now, here. I strongly encourage you to check them out.
This excerpt belongs to my book in progress, on the history of Birmingham jazz. The chapter at hand looks at the role jazz musicians and other performers played in Birmingham’s civil rights struggle. More to come.
Every day this month, I am posting to Instagram and Facebook images from Birmingham’s important and unsung jazz history. Every day this MLK weekend, I’m posting images from the intersecting histories of Birmingham, jazz, and the Civil Rights Movement.