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.
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.
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