Here’s a photo of banjo player Aunt Bertha Robinson of New Market, Alabama. The photograph is by Rod Whited, likely taken for the Huntsville Times, circa 1979.
Aunt Bertha was born in Jackson County, Alabama, near the community of Lem Rock, in 1904; the family moved to nearby New Market when she was seven or eight years old. She picked up and adapted her distinctive two-finger picking style from a local banjo player named John Benton, who’d himself learned the style from a pair of Mississippi brothers, John and Dink Clark. In the 1960s, Bertha became a fixture of the Tennessee Valley Old Time Fiddlers Convention, held annually in Athens, Alabama. She was a frequent winner and a beloved, dependable presence in banjo competitions across north Alabama and into Tennessee. Along the way, she carved out a unique role for herself as a champion and elder in a culture traditionally dominated by men. (In this distinction she was joined by the multi-instrumentalist Lena Hughes of Missouri, who appeared at many of the same competitions.)
Here’s Aunt Bertha in 1986, in a video posted to Youtube by Huntsville musician Bob White:
And here’s her “Soldier’s Joy,” with a little buck dancing on the side:
Aunt Bertha was a cherished older member of the Huntsville Association of Folk Musicians, founded in 1966. That group released one compilation album of music by its members — including one recording of Bertha, barely over a minute long, an old banjo instrumental called “Big Jim.” (I wonder if the tune had something to do with the Alabama Governor; the album notes indicate that Bertha didn’t recall anything about the tune’s origins.) Alan Lomax recorded a couple of her tunes at the fiddlers convention in Athens in 1969 and ’70. And you can stream some recordings of Aunt Bertha at Southern Folklife Collection’s digital archive, here. (The same reel-to-reel tape, digitized at the link, includes some good dulcimer playing, too — you may as well listen to the whole thing.) If anyone out there knows of other Aunt Bertha recordings, I hope you’ll let me know. And if anyone has memories to share of Aunt Bertha, I hope you’ll post them in the comments.
Bertha Robinson died in 1995. Here are a few more images in celebration of her legacy.
An unrelated P. S.: In honor of Little Richard’s departure this week, here’s a short post I wrote a year ago this month, about Little Richard’s brief early tenure as “Princess Lavonne” on the Sugar Foot Sam From Alabam road show. I encourage you to check it out. This Saturday on The Lost Child, I’ll be playing an hour of Little Richard’s music, including some classics and some you likely haven’t heard, plus interview snippets and more. I hope you’ll tune in.
Here’s something: quarantined Italians, from their windows and balconies, joining their voices in song:
There are several of these videos cropping up. Journalist David Allegranti captured the moment below, adding this caption(translated here to English): “In Sienna, the city to which I am very much attached, you stay at home but you sing together as if you were on the street.” The song here is “Canto della Verbena” (“And While Siena Sleeps”), whose lyrics proclaim “Long live our Siena, long live our Siena!”
Meanwhile / FYI … if you’re under quarantine, you can stream today’s episode of The Lost Child anytime & often, here. On this episode: an hour of vintage country radio broadcasts, featuring Crazy Water Crystals, speaking in tongues, a musical saw, kid stuff, and cigarettes. The old country radio shows typically included a shout-out for “all our shut-in friends” at home. Now we’re all shut-ins, so this one goes out to everyone. In the days to come, I’ll be updating The Lost Child’s Mixcloud archive with additional shows to help fill your shut-in hours, including some just-for-the-internet specials.
For what it’s worth, here’s Henry Miller, from the second page of Tropic of Cancer. A bit out of context, maybe, but I adore this opening, and those singing Italians brought it to mind.
“To sing you must first open your mouth. You must have a pair of lungs, and a little knowledge of music. It is not necessary to have an accordion, or a guitar. The essential thing is to want to sing. This then is a song. I am singing.”
Y’all be safe out there (or in). Wash your hands. Don’t hoard all the toilet paper. Don’t be afraid to open your windows and sing.
P. S. If you liked that post, you might like this post.
I hope you’ll give it all a listen, to enjoy the full gamut of Nixon-inspired tunes. Some of this music you won’t hear anywhere else — like this psych-folk record from singer Melany Dyer, who offers a unique perspective on impeachment in her “First Lady’s Lament.” Sample lyrics: So take me, take me, Richard / Take me away in the morn / Before impeachment bells start ringing / And my love turns into scorn.
The Nixon era inspired multiple “Watergate Blues,” along with lots of funk — from the Honeydrippers’ “Impeach the President” to the extended riffs of James Brown’s band, the JB’s (see “Rockin’ Funky Watergate” and “You Can Have Watergate But Give Me Some Bucks and I’ll Be Straight,” both fueled by the mighty trombonist Fred Wesley). Nixon himself actively sought the loyalty of the country music community, launching National Country Music Weeks and appearing, at the height of the scandal, onstage at the Grand Ole Opry. But for all that, even the country crowd would turn on him: in his own “Watergate Blues,” Tom T. Hall imagines dead presidents rolling in their graves and conjures up (“Lord help us all”) a nightmarish vision of America’s future. (A recent Netflix documentary digs into Johnny Cash’s own gutsy clash with the president.) In Franklin, North Carolina, on his own Me Too record label (its logo the head of a Democratic donkey), singer Les Waldroop recorded several variations on the wiretapping theme (“Watergate Bugs,” “Big Watergate Bugs,” “Sermon on the Bug”). You can hear two of them, and a lot of other gems, on my Watergate show.
But what of the other impeachments? Surely our nation’s first impeachment — Andrew Johnson’s — inspired a number of songs; I’ve found just a couple so far.
In case you forgot the history, Johnson was impeached by the House, but the Senate failed, by a single vote, to convict him. One pro-Johnson (or at least anti-impeachment) song, “Impeachment’s Sad Fate,” reveled in that failure. Sung to the tune of a cynical Civil War ballad, “Grafted into the Army,” the new lyrics took shots at Benjamin Butler, one of three House impeachment managers who’d failed to sell the pitch for removal. O, Butler! the song proclaims:
’tis well! your impeachment fell
Beneath the Constitution;
You thought men would dare—
Without thought or care,
To despise that institution.
Still, Johnson remained deeply unpopular, even in his own party, and when the next election rolled around, he failed to win the Democratic nomination. A new song — built on the tune of another wartime ballad, “Just Before the Battle, Mother” — let the president know exactly where he stood:
Just before election, Andy We are thinking most of you; While we get our ballots handy Just be sure they’re not for you; No, dear Andy, you’ll not get them, But you will get what you deserve; Yes, you’ll get your leave of absence As you swing around the curve.
Fast forward to 1999. That year, the Drive-By Truckers gave us an impeachment song like no other, the raucous, singalong saga of “Buffalo Bill,” lampooning the hysteria engendered by the presidential member. “The President’s Penis Is Missing” moves through time and space and concludes that there are just bigger fish to fry: Meanwhile, the whole world’s suffering from hunger and meanness / But we’re all more concerned with the president’s penis.
In his “President Clinton Blues,” Piedmont bluesman Drink Small similarly declares the latest scandal unworthy of our worry. I don’t know why people are worrying about Clinton, Small begins: The man did the same thing that Adam did to Eve. Fair warning, this one’s got a couple of cringey moments that only age worse and worse with time — but it’s a remarkable document all the same, and a throwback to the downhome Watergate blues of Big Joe Williams, Bobo Jenkins, and Sam Chatmon. Small’s take-home message: President Clinton, go on and live your live.
But impeachment songs, post-Nixon, have been relatively few. In 2006, over the course of just nine days, Neil Young cranked out an entire album of urgent, blaring protest songs aimed at George W. Bush. Among the more memorable tracks on Living With War was “Let’s Impeach the President.” But, of course, we didn’t.
And here we are in 2020. Who’s making the impeachment songs now? Twenty years after the jokey “President’s Penis,” the Drive-By Truckers have become more and more overt in their politics, more scathing in their commentary; “The Perilous Night” — released last month, and written before this impeachment saga began — takes on Charlottesville, the president, “White House Fury,” and knocking fascism (“Trump says, ‘Let them in'”).
But the only impeachment-specific songs I know, this go-round, come from Randy Rainbow, who’s been cranking them out like a champ —
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?”
In the spring of 1948, Alabama Governor “Big Jim” Folsom helped host a huge “Square Dance Jamboree and Show” at Montgomery’s City Auditorium, the culmination of a daylong school for square dance callers. The headliners were the Strawberry Pickers, the downhome string-band who’d helped propel Big Jim into office, along with Montgomery’s own singing star, Hank Williams “and his gang.” Hank was a regional favorite, broadcasting out of local radio station WSFA; his MGM record, “Move it On Over,” was already a hit, and he was on the verge of national country stardom. The ads in Montgomery’s Advertiser newspaper billed the jamboree’s “2 BIG HILL BILLY BANDS” and promised “Good Clean Fun For the Entire Family.”
As far as Jim Folsom was concerned, there wasn’t much some good singing and dancing couldn’t fix. His 1946 gubernatorial campaign leaned heavily on the popularity of the Strawberry Pickers, who’d filled his rallies with old-time fiddle breakdowns and rustic country crooning. His inaugural party crammed 6,000-plus revelers into an airplane hangar at Montgomery’s Maxwell Air Force Base, where the usual black-tie ball gave way to an old-fashioned barn dance. And as soon as he entered office, he overturned a law that made roadhouse jukeboxes illegal, telling the honky-tonks to “oil up their machines” once again. The jukebox law was a prohibitionist tactic to, in essence, make drink joints less enticing social hangouts, but the new governor loved both music and beer, and — as the populist “big friend” of the “little man” — he saw the anti-juke rule as just another way to keep the working man down.
“I’m just common folks,” Folsom explained — and “common folks have just as much right to dance as rich people.”
Among Folsom’s many critics were members of Alabama’s teetotal set, religious conservatives who blanched at the governor’s well-known penchant for drink. But this crowd, too, he figured, could be won over with a little old-fashioned dancing. In collaboration with the Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) board and the Southern Farmer newspaper, Folsom championed a push to bring wholesome, family square-dancing right into the honky-tonk, and into the day-to-day mainstream of Alabama life.
Folsom asked the joints to put up a sign, “Square Dancers Have Priority One Night a Week,” and the ABC board encouraged those places to set aside Tuesday nights for that purpose. Families were invited to come out and dance, grandparents and kids and all — the whole program, the Southern Farmer explained, “helping honky-tonks become community recreation centers.”
But if Alabama needed more square dancing, it needed more square dance callers — which brings us back to Montgomery’s big Jamboree and Show. The Southern Farmer urged all community leaders to participate in the free dance-calling school, sending out direct invitations to select individuals around the state. “Farm leaders, 4-H Club and FFA directors, union leaders, home demonstration agents, school teachers, and social workers have found that square dancing is an invaluable tool for building community spirit, providing wholesome recreation, and attracting both young and old,” the Farmer told potential callers. “As a community leader we know you are anxious to qualify yourself to lead such a program.”
The Southern Farmer was bringing in some heavy hitters for the occasion. According to the ad below, “Some of the expert teachers who will be on hand for the school are–Charley Thomas of Camden, N. J., editor of AMERICAN SQUARES, the national folk-dance magazine; D. B. Hendrix, of Seveirville, Tenn., a famous ‘Smoky Mountain’ caller; and Miss Rosalind Reiman, Atlanta, Ga., well-known authority on Southern folk music and square dancing.”
In advance of the event, Alabama newspapers pictured the six-foot-eight governor in his element, dancing to the sounds of the “Shoe Fly Swing”:
The Dothan Eagle newspaper commented, sometimes sardonically, on the square-dancing drive. “This is a fine thing The Southern Farmer is doing,” the paper proclaimed, “helping the ABC board make honky-tonks into community recreation centers for the family. Too long have Granpaw and Granmaw been staying at home minding the kids while Paw and Maw were out juking the night through. Now, just think, the whole bunch can go, chillun and all.
“Under The Farmer’s plan every community will have an expert caller, trained by experts at Montgomery. Night life will soon be in bloom throughout Alabama. Culture will blossom, along with sanitation, for one of the ABC rules requires all dancers to wear clean clothes. And everybody’s going to have fun, juke-joint style.
“Alabama marches on.”
* * *
A couple of quick post-scripts — speaking of square dancing and Hank Williams and Big Jim Folsom — here’s another ad, this one for a 1955 dance at the P. Z. K. Hall in Robertsdale, Alabama. The music’s by Jack Cardwell, a popular country entertainer out of Mobile, who’d recorded tribute songs for both Big Jim and Hank Williams.
P. Z. K. stands for Poucreho Zabavniho Krouzku, which is Czech for “educational recreation circle.” The P. Z. K. Hall was built in 1924 by members of Baldwin County’s Czech community, and the renovated hall remains open for business today.
In 1954, Jim Folsom and Jack Cardwell had both appeared, along with a host of the day’s top country stars, at a mammoth Hank Williams Memorial Day in Montgomery. Like any holiday, this one inspired its share of department store sales, as seen in this ad from the Montgomery Advertiser:
You might have noticed that for the last couple of months I’ve been chasing “Big Jim” Folsom down one rabbit hole after another; one short blog post led to a second, longer post, led to more and more research, a trip to the state archives, and an epic story, coming out soon in the Old-Time Herald magazine. The square dance and juke joint stuff here is a tiny aside in a much larger story about politics, power, class, race, and downhome music in mid-twentieth century Alabama.
If you’re into southern music, old-time string-bands, and the like, and you don’t subscribe already to the Old-Time Herald, I’d encourage you to change that now. I’m thrilled to tell this story in detail in that magazine’s pages, and I’ll save the rest of the details for the publication. Meanwhile, if you want some more good, wholesome juking, check out my most recent blog post, about Gip Gipson and Gip’s Place — featuring a full Lost Child radio hour of historic, live recordings from that iconic Alabama establishment.
Henry “Gip” Gipson started throwing backyard blues parties at his Bessemer, Alabama, home back in the 1950s. Half a century later, those parties were still going, and “Gip’s” became famous as one of the last surviving juke joints in the country. Acts came in every Saturday night, from all over the country and all over the world. Both Gip and Gip’s became local icons.
Gip kicked off each weekend’s show with a prayer and a few blues tunes of his own. For the rest of the night, he’d work his way through the crowd, shaking hands, or he’d sit on the side of the stage, soaking in the scene he’d made possible.
Gip passed away on October 8. To help celebrate his legacy, I broadcast on The Lost Child an hour of historic, never-released performances from the Gip’s stage, which you can now stream anytime, right here:
This hour includes performances by several great Alabama blues players and singers, recorded live at Gip’s in 2008 and 2009: Willie King, Elnora Spencer, Jock Webb, and, of course, Gip Gipson himself. Lenny Madden kicks off the proceedings with the house rules. Ray Gant made the recordings. Roger Stephenson made them available for radio play. Also included are a couple of tunes from Gip’s only album, Nothin’ But the Blues.
It’s an honor and a privilege to share these recordings with a larger audience. Not only do they offer vivid entry into the sound and spirit of Gip’s Place, a tribute to “Mr. Gip”‘s great legacy; they also provide testament, along the way, to another of Alabama’s most remarkable blues heroes, the late Willie King. He died in 2009, just a few months after these recordings were made.
At Gip’s funeral, friends and family described a man who’d changed their lives — through his music, his faith, his example, his unique approach to the world. Visitors to his juke joint described it as a kind of sacred space where everyone was welcome and everything was steeped in love. Jock Webb played a little blues harmonica, some “traveling music” to send Gip home, and there were two performances of “Amazing Grace” — by singer Tara Sabree and harmonica player Randy Guyton — Gip’s favorite song.
Pastor Alfonzo January described in his eulogy a scene from the movie The Color Purple, when the blues singer Shug Avery leads her crowd, dancing and singing, straight from the juke joint and into the church — where the two groups, long separated by custom, prejudice, and pride, are joyously united. “When the juke joint and the church get together,” Pastor January preached, “it’s going to be a time” — and Gip Gipson was a man whose life symbolized that union. The pastor, whose own church is around the corner from Gip’s, noted that there were a couple of church pews in the place, and he joked that he knew he was missing one or two. At Gip’s Place, they fit right in. At the end of his eulogy, the pastor implored Gip’s family to keep the juke joint going — which is what they intend to do.
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.
From about 1950 into the late 1980s, the Jack Normand Band played “Dancing Under the Stars” on Thursday and Saturday nights at the luxurious Grand Hotel in Point Clear, Alabama. This photo, circa 1960, is extraordinary for the multiple dance-floor intimacies it captures, if you look closely enough.
I don’t know who the photographer is. If you do, let me know.
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.
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?
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.
This is how Billie Holiday tells it in Lady Sings the Blues, her 1956 memoir.
“He was a young boy, fresh up from the South—Alabama or Georgia. He played trumpet and his name was Joseph Luke Guy. He was new on the scene, just getting started as a musician. And he could be a big help to me.”
Joe Guy had come north to Harlem from Birmingham as a teenager, playing trumpet with the Rev. George Wilson Becton’s Gospel Feast Party, a jazz-fueled religious revival famous for its youthful band of “swinging apostles.” By the time he met Holiday he’d already been making his name as a forward-thinking, energetic jazz soloist. He was only five years Holiday’s junior, but the difference seemed greater: she was certainly more famous and was already wearier of the world. But Joe Guy was young and handsome and full of ideas, and his playing anticipated a new, modern era for jazz. He became Holiday’s trumpeter, her bandleader, her husband, and her drug runner.
Holiday and Guy met sometime in the early 1940s; a few years later, they were exchanging heartrending love letters from separate prison cells.
More on those letters in a minute. First, a little more about Guy.
Joe Guy appears in histories of jazz, when he appears at all, as a kind of footnote: at key moments in the music he pops up, horn in hand, then disappears. Dizzy Gillespie helped champion his career and borrowed from his playing. Miles Davis admired and learned from his solos. With Thelonious Monk and drummer Kenny Clarke, Guy belonged to the house band at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem, the legendary nightspot whose late-night jam sessions laid down the groundwork for bop. You can hear Guy’s trumpet backing Coleman Hawkins on Hawkins’s seminal records, “Body and Soul” and “Stardust” and others; in his work with the Cootie Williams orchestra, you can hear him helping nudge the sound of swing into the future. He’s on Holiday’s records from 1945 and ’46, and for a while he led her touring band. The couple married, or said they did (they likely never got a license). And then he was gone.
Guy hasn’t fared well in the historical treatment of Holiday. In her biographies he’s often cast as villain, another bad man in a string of bad men, all more or less interchangeable. Ken Burns’s Jazz series narrates Holiday’s downfall in crisp prose and a portentous delivery, a series of short sentence-bursts suggesting a straightforward cause and effect. “In 1941,” the narration intones:
… she married a sometime marijuana dealer named Jimmy Monroe and began smoking opium.
Then she moved in with a good-looking trumpet player named Joe Guy.
He was addicted to heroin.
Soon she would be using it, too.
Really it’s not so cut and dry as that, and historians have quibbled over whose heroin habit came first. “He may have done things he shouldn’t,” Holiday herself once said to DownBeat magazine, “but I did them of my own accord too.… Joe didn’t make it any easier for me at times—but then I haven’t been any easy gal either.” One way or another, the couple was hooked, and their self destructions became wrapped up together. Under the influence, Guy’s playing became increasingly erratic, his reputation less and less reliable. Meanwhile, federal authorities were closing in on the couple. Jimmy Fletcher, a black narcotics agent, was assigned their case and closely monitored their movements (in the process he befriended, and very likely fell in love with, Holiday; what he considered his betrayal of her would haunt him for the rest of his life). The couple was creative in their evasion of the law, even recruiting into their service Holiday’s boxer, Mister. Fletcher later recalled that every day Joe Guy procured some new drugs from a connection in the city. Then he “walked the dog from way down on Morningside Drive up to 125th on Eighth and told the dog to go ahead. The dog would walk right in the Braddock Hotel … and the elevator operator was waiting for him.”
Mister would ride up the elevator, then walk down the hall to Billie’s door. Secured behind his collar was the day’s ounce of heroin.
Joe Guy gets half a chapter in my book, Doc, the life story of Alabama jazz man Frank “Doc” Adams, who played with Guy in the 1950s and very early ’60s. For my current book, a history of Birmingham jazz, I’m digging a little deeper into Guy’s story. And that brings me back to those letters.
In the spring of 1947, the feds finally caught up with Holiday and Guy, busting them for narcotics possession in their room in New York’s Hotel Grampion. Holiday was sentenced to a year and a day in the Federal Reformatory for Women in Alderson, West Virginia, while Guy awaited his own trial in a Pennsylvania prison cell. The couple sent letters back and forth from their cells; in recent years two of Holiday’s letters have surfaced and sold in auctions (they brought in around $6,000 apiece). The letters offer a poignant look into the heart of one of American music’s most beloved, most tragic figures—and they suggest a more tender and complex relationship than most biographers have allowed Holiday and Guy.
It’s a shame we don’t have more of the exchange—if any of Guy’s letters have survived, I haven’t seen them—but Holiday’s two surviving letters are compelling, aching documents. The first is dated July 6, 1947, and begins, “Joe Darling … I have read your letter so Many times, I know it by heart.” Friends are helping Joe get access to money and a lawyer, it seems, and Holiday frets that there’s nothing she can do, herself: “I Wish to God I could do anything to help you,” she writes, “but as you know both My hands are tied.” She worries, too, about her own career–“Maybe My public won’t forget me after all,” she hopes, “but a year and a day is a long time”–but she takes some comfort in news from New York that her friends and fans still ask about her and play her records on the airwaves. The letter continues (I’ve left the original punctuation, capitalization, and spelling as Holiday wrote them):
all this makes me happy but then it leaves Me Very sad all I think about is you My Work and Will I ever get straight and get started again in a Way I’m glad Mamas dead because this Would Just about killed her Darling there was a Mag that came out called Holiday My picture was in it I cut it out to send to you so you don’t forget What I look like (smirk) Bobbys sister Janey send a small picture of Mister so you Will be able to at least look at your family oh I Wish I had a picture of you please tell Bama [trumpeter Carl “Bama” Warwick] or Jimmy [Joe’s brother Jimmy Guy] or somebody to get one and send it to Me oh Joe Sweetheart you know I love you so it hurts you are all I ever think about please Write Me a long letter as soon as you can I can’t Write your Mother and Dad as I can only Write a few people But tell them I love them also and if they Write to me I Will answer I love you love you Will never stop
As Ever Your Billie Holiday.
A few days later, in a letter dated July 12, she writes, just before bed: “I am going to try so hard to dream of you,” and quickly admonishes: “Don’t laugh. Sometimes I am lucky and can.” The prison had screened a movie that night, Sister Kenny with Rosalind Russell: “It was a very good picture but it made me kind of sad thinking about the last show we seen together odd man out” (James Mason’s 1947 noir, Odd Man Out). Lights out cuts Holiday’s writing short, but the next night she picks up her pencil again:
Well darling its night again. After I got thru my work today I just couldn’t write. I cried for the first time. Oh darling I love you so much I am so sorry you have to stay there in Phila. It must be awfully hot. Yes baby I gained nine pounds and I am getting biger all the time gee you wont love me fat (smile) But you must look wonderful. Youer so tall and you needed some weight. So thank heavens for that and what ever happens at your trial sweetheart keep your chin up don’t let nothing get you down. It won’t be long before were together agian. My lights has been out every since I last saw you. But they will go on agian for us all over the world. Write to me Joe as soon as you can. Ill always love you as ever your Lady Billie Holiday.
In her own trial, Holiday had blamed Joe for her addiction. When his trial came up in September, her testimony now exonerated him. The drugs had all been hers, she said—Guy didn’t even know where they came from. The jury deliberated for an hour, and Guy was released. “Billie Holiday’s Mate Freed,” the headlines read: “Word From Blues Singer Would Have Landed Joe Guy in Pen.” But Billie had spared him.
The next March, Holiday returned to New York—she was released two months early, for good behavior—but her prison time, and her unshakable habit, haunted her career. As a felon, she was forbidden by New York law to work anywhere liquor was sold, a restriction that cut her off from the night clubs and cabarets that were a jazz singer’s lifeblood. Almost immediately, she was using heroin again.
Joe Guy, meanwhile, was gone. According to the New York Amsterdam News, “The guys on the street intimated that … Guy, who was exonerated of dope charges, had recently taken an apartment in the 200 block of 129th St., but nobody could quite agree on the exact house.” As far as Holiday’s biographers are concerned, Joe Guy’s story ends there, with a vanishing act no one seemed too much to mourn. In the words of one writer, Guy “permanently dropped out of music” and “died in obscurity”; according to another, he “faded back down South where he was born.” For most historians, Guy simply disappears from the stream of history, his brilliant future—widely predicted, less than a decade before—evaporated.
Guy wound up back in his hometown of Birmingham, playing local clubs and mentoring younger players, who he emphatically urged to keep away from dope. Sometimes, friends and admirers said, his original brilliance still came through in his solos, and local musicians revered his playing. But his personal demons never left him alone.
Billie Holiday died in New York in 1959, at the age of 44. Guy died two years later in Birmingham. It had been more than a decade since the world had passed him by. He was 41 years old.
P. S. Earlier this week I announced a giveaway for my book Doc. (There are several good Joe Guy stories in it.) Thanks for all who entered the drawing by signing up to follow this blog, and congrats to phil-bond for the win. Hope you like it. Let me know.
Another P. S. What prompted me to write this post in the first place was a phone call, a few days ago, with Guy’s nephew Bernith, who lovingly recalls his uncle’s last days. I’m grateful for the added insight into Guy’s life, death, personality, and family, and I look forward to telling more of the story in the next book. Please stay tuned.