The Ballad of Big Jim Folsom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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For the 1946 election, Folsom’s campaign manager, Newt Raines, wrote a campaign song, “Are You For Folsom?” I haven’t located any recording of that song, but surely such a thing exists. (I also haven’t heard of any recordings of the Strawberry Pickers, sadly.) For the 1954 campaign, singer Jack Cardwell recorded “Big Jim Folsom,” which you can hear below:

A record from the 1962 campaign includes the country standard,”Y’all Come,” which Folsom turned into his theme song, performed by Roland Johnson. The flipside is Jack Cardwell again, with the “Ballad of Jim Folsom,” a knock-off of Jimmy Dean’s “Big Bad John.” (Cardwell played country music on Mobile TV and radio stations and scored his biggest hit with the ballad of another Alabama folk hero, Hank Williams; his “The Death of Hank Williams” was one of the many tribute songs that followed the singer’s death.)

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

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

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

Sugar Foot Sam from Alabam

I bought this photo for a few dollars a few years ago at What’s On 2nd? in Birmingham. It’s undated and un-located, but it’s a beautiful, rare glimpse-in-action of the vaudeville road show, Sugar Foot Sam from Alabam. There’s a lot going on in this photo, onstage and off.

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Richard Penniman, who became Little Richard, worked on the Sugar Foot Sam show, circa 1949-’50. Almost as soon as he joined the troupe, they put him in a dress and changed his name to Princess Lavonne. “One of the girls was missing one night,” he later explained, “and they put me in a red evening gown…. I looked like the freak of the year.” From a brief tenure with Sugar Foot Sam, Richard moved to the King Brothers Circus and then to the Tidy Jolly Steppers, where he also worked in drag. Next, he got work “with the L. J. Heath Show from Birmingham, Alabama. It was a minstrel show, a little carnival. And they wanted me to dress as a woman, too. They had a lot of men dressed like women in their show. Guys like Jack Jackson, who they called Tangerine, and another man called Merle. They had on all this makeup and eyelashes. I’ll never forget it.”

I love the photo above, both as composition and historical document. One wonders which of the women onstage are and aren’t women. It’s the only photo I’ve seen of the Sugar Foot Sam show — anybody out there know of others? Or have anything else on the L. J. Heath Show?

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Notes: Quotes from Little Richard are from The Life and Times of Little Richard by Charles White. For more cool old photos and music and history, follow my radio show, The Lost Child, on Instagram or Facebook, or follow this weekly-ish blog.

Found Family Photos

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Before I knew her, my grandmother, Eloise McKerrall Mathews, had been a dancer. During a recent trip to my parents’ house in Montgomery, we found this box of very old photos — including these great ones of a young Eloise in some of her dancing costumes and poses. None of us remembers having seen these photos before.

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We also found these newspaper clippings from April of 1909, details of a “Baby Opera” at Montgomery’s Grand Theatre. My grandmother, age 3, appeared with her brother Jack, age 4, and her cousin Carolyn, also 3. Someone has labeled this by hand: “First appearance in public.”

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According to the lengthy(!) write-up in the Montgomery Advertiser, Eloise and Carolyn were dressed as “May Dolls” and Jack as a clown. The girls sang a tune called “School Days,” and the three of them together performed the “A. B. C. of the U. S. A.” For an encore they sang “Eat, Drink and Be Merry for Tomorrow You May Die.”

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The Advertiser reports that throughout the night “There were on the stage all sorts of babies, dressed alike in every act.” In one scene, Eloise and Jack appeared as minister and maid of honor in a “Lilliputian wedding.” That’s my grandmother, in the middle, on the broom:

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Speaking of lost-and-found photos, all the month of January I’ll be posting to Instagram daily photos from the fascinating history of Birmingham jazz. Follow @lostchildradio for some great images and anecdotes from the last hundred years; and follow this blog, if you’re not already, for occasional updates.

Happy New Year, everybody.