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.
Today, an excerpt from my book Doc – and a chance to win a copy of the book’s new paperback edition. To win, submit your email address on this page to follow this blog. This Friday (4/26), I’ll put the new followers’ names into some kind of hat and randomly draw a winner. (If you’re impatient – or read this after Friday – feel free to go ahead and buy yourself a copy here or wherever else you buy your books.)
Doc tells the story of Frank “Doc” Adams (1928-2014), a beloved icon of Birmingham, Alabama’s historic jazz scene. In the early 1940s, the teenaged Adams belonged to Sonny Blount’s band, which was already pushing the bounds of local convention; a few years later, Blount would move to Chicago, become Sun Ra, and launch his Intergalactic Arkestra, creating a new kind of music for the cosmos. Adams joined Blount’s band after a brief fallout with Fess Whatley, leader of Birmingham’s preeminent dance orchestra, but after patching things up with Fess, he found himself playing in both bands. Whatley led the music program at Industrial High School, where Adams was a student, and he was notorious for his strict discipline and rigid approach to music. In Sonny Blount’s band, meanwhile, it was another culture entirely.
Doc: The Story of a Birmingham Jazz Manis a work of oral history, drawn from two years of weekly interviews with Frank Adams. Even into his 80s, Adams was a consummate musician, teacher, and storyteller, and his memories of Sun Ra represent the only detailed firsthand accounts of that musician’s early years in Alabama’s “Magic City.” The following excerpt comes from Chapter Five, “Outer Space.”
Frank “Doc” Adams
… Blount’s band was real unique. Everybody in there couldn’t read music real well, but he could put them together: I admire Sonny for being able to mold his musicians together to do things that he did. His orchestra would consist of maybe three trombones or five, it didn’t make any difference — he wanted to know how you sounded and how you sounded. If two bass players showed up, they were both on the job: he’d have two. Some of the musicians might have complained, because they’d have to split the money more ways, but Sonny wanted to hear what each one of them could do: how it all sounded together.
As I said, he lived in this rickety old house, and his whole world was in that place. It was a wooden frame building. As far as we got, and anybody got, was the front room, and that was where he had his bed and where he rehearsed. I think he took his meals in there. We understand that he had a sister or somebody, but nobody ever saw anybody there in the house. He would always be there, and he had these records stacked about five feet off the ground, these 78 records, and he had his piano in there. I remember that the hallway was about to fall in — you could step down in a hole or something if you weren’t careful — and the furniture was in shoddy shape.
Always it was very crowded. Whenever we had a singer, after he set the drums up, the singer would have to be out in the hallway, and he would call that person in whenever they would do a vocal number. The saxophones would be up against the wall over here, and the trumpets would be somewhere back in there. But you didn’t think about it. There was never any talk about anything but the music. He had a wire tape recorder, and he had a shortwave radio — I don’t know how he got it — and he could get music out of New York, like from the Savoy. He would have all these wild players on there, like Don Stovall. They were playing bop before bop was even heard about. He’d listen at night to that, and he’d play that back for you. It was the craziest music, but he would say, “That man’s not crazy. You just aren’t able to understand it yet. He’s trying to tell you something, but you don’t know what to do. He’s just trying to tell you he’s free — okay? So listen at it.” And if you listened long enough, you’d get it.
He would say, “I was born with x-ray ears; I can hear all these things you humans can’t hear yet.”
He had people like Henry “Red” Allen on that transistor radio, and they would be playing the trumpets: they would be playing very differently than you would hear them play in a concert, in a ballroom, or even on a record. It was a wild thing, and they would be playing number after number after number.
Sometimes if there was a big band like Jimmy Lunceford or Benny Goodman, he would transcribe that off the radio; he’d copy his arrangements right off the radio. If a band would come to the Masonic Temple, I don’t care who it was — Duke Ellington — he’d put that little wire recorder down there, and in about two or three days, he’d have all those parts written down, by hand. Nobody knew how he could do that.
Of course, Professor Whatley called me back after reflecting on what he had done. So it wasn’t but a couple of weeks before I was playing with both Fess Whatley and Sun Ra. That gave me two bands — and there was a great difference between Fess Whatley’s band and this Sun Ra experience. I know that sometimes I would look at Whatley’s music, and I would compare it to Sun Ra’s. If a vocalist would be singing, Sonny’s background music would be much simpler to play, lots of whole notes and things. Professor Whatley would have bought and copied out arrangements that would have these cascading runs like the pros would play. On the “Swanee River,” you’d have maybe a sixteen-bar reed chorus — Sun Ra didn’t have that type of thing, but he’d play a lot of blues. He had a fellow named Teddy Smith who played saxophone — a natural. They would play this “Hootie Blues” that would go fifteen minutes. Teddy Smith would be out there playing, playing, swaying from side to side; the people would be hot and sweaty and perspiring, and he’d go on and on and on.
Sonny was very popular because he had these soloists, and if you got out in one of those public housing projects where he played, your three-minute record wouldn’t do. If you played Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” and had to stop after three minutes, like the record — those folks want to stay out there eight minutes, perspiring. That’s what they call dancing. Even a blues band like B. B. King: they could play what they recorded, but that’s not enough for dancers. They want to get out there and dance until they fall out. So you had these soloists who could carry on all night. That was one of the things that made Sonny’s band so popular in certain areas: Sonny could play the thing through once, twice, over again, and add something to it — and people liked that.
Now, Professor Whatley’s band: he’d play a dance, and we’d play a number — maybe “Tea for Two” — and then the number would be over, and people would sit down. When I left Birmingham, I found out that people don’t do it that way in New York and other places: you play sets of numbers. You’d have a set of four or five numbers before people would sit down. Sonny would take just one number, and play it for thirty minutes if he wanted to, as long as he saw people out there dancing.
Of course, Professor Whatley believed in the strictest interpretation of things. Sun Ra would take liberties — and he was composing his music, so he had a say-so in it. Sun Ra took pride in who he was as a creator of music. And that was all he did; morning and night, it was music. He’d say, “I can’t afford to be sick, because my music demands that I’m working twenty-four hours a day on it.” Said, “I wish I didn’t have to do that, but — it’s my mission. And even if I am sick, I’m still creating.”
So Sun Ra was in demand, because his band could improvise. They could start from the back and go to the top, and all that type of thing. And they had some showmanship — they could move a little bit. In Whatley’s band, you just stood there; he didn’t want you to move. Whatley had all these rules, that if you were playing a wedding or something, the band was not to eat the food — because, he said, “You’re the servants.” But in Sun Ra’s band, during intermission, if there was some food out there, they were going to get it. And with the people they were playing for, it was okay.
Man, Sun Ra: that was jazz music. Those guys didn’t wear tuxedos, they wore what they could. He didn’t tell you certain things to wear, like all the other bands would, and as a consequence, they said he never got those jobs over at Mountain Brook Country Club — because his band would be in their BVDs or whatever. Somebody might have a tux on, but the next guy might have his T-shirt on. And Sun Ra wouldn’t discuss that. It was all okay.
He played all over the housing projects — on the street, anywhere he could play. And when I finally started playing with him, that was a change in my life. I found out there was a discipline in Sun Ra’s band that you wouldn’t necessarily perceive. Whatley’s thing was this rigid discipline, which was okay, but in Sun Ra’s band, he had his own concept. With Whatley we were strictly doing what was proper. The dynamics wouldn’t be changed; you weren’t allowed to get up and play a solo unless it was written down. But with Blount, you could stumble over something, and then go back and try it again. And it was the sort of thing where you could talk to each other; you could have fun. You would sit there sometimes all night. If somebody was making a mistake, you could stop and help him — there isn’t anybody getting mad about it.
Sun Ra had discipline, but he had a thing where you would want to discipline yourself. If you messed up, he might say a little something and just pinch you with the fact that you should know better than that: you’re disrespecting the music. He wouldn’t talk about it so much, but you know; you know you didn’t play your best.
When I was playing with Whatley’s orchestra, it was mathematical, precise — and I marveled at that. Everything Fess Whatley did had its place: when to get up, when to go to bed, what to read. I would organize my thing, and it was good.
But I knew there was something else out there in this jazz music.
That’s all for now. For more, check out the bookDoc. Sign up to follow this blog, and I’ll enter you in a chance to win a copy this week; I’ll announce the winner this Friday, and post a new story about another of Birmingham’s jazz pioneers, the bebop trumpeter Joe Guy.