Big Feet & Footnotes

Big Jim's shoe

In 1931, my grandfather built a little cabin up on Alabama’s Lake Jordan, and the place is still in our family today. My grandfather owned a furniture store in Montgomery, and he lined the inside walls of the house with dismantled furniture crates, then built floor-to-ceiling shelves, which he spent the next decades filling with all kinds of odds and ends: huge collections of bottles, mugs, and earthen jugs, busts of Beethoven and FDR, a half dozen moustache cups (coffee and tea mugs with a porcelain barrier designed to keep your moustache dry), turtle and tortoise shells, dozens of Alabama arrowheads, the heavy sharpened stone of a tomahawk. The house became a little museum of unlikely wonders: all over the living room are hand grenades, helmets, and “Buy Bonds” posters from both world wars; Civil War and Japanese military swords; concrete roadside souvenirs from Mexico and hanging, woven tapestries from Egypt. An eleven-foot snakeskin stretches from one wall to the other, and an enormous wasps’ nest hangs (empty) from the ceiling. From one wall, affixed by fishing wire, dangle a couple of spiky sawfish bills. A wooden airplane propeller and an old ox yoke are suspended from the ceiling — along with a chandelier made from a wagon wheel, its circumference punctuated by little lights. From thick-framed photographs gaze the austere faces of our Mathews and McKerall ancestors, daunting matriarchs with names like Olive and Mary Euphemia; another photo, taken just after the house was built, shows a cousin standing on the new chimney, on his head. The whole oddball collection only grew and grew over the years, as the family continued to add new finds to every empty space: a Pat and Richard Nixon ashtray, an ostrich egg, a petrified orange. Beneath a small stained glass window stands an old pump organ, rescued from an abandoned country church. At Christmas, we stand around it and sing.

On the floor by the fireplace sits one of my favorite artifacts, an enormous leather shoe that once belonged to “Big Jim” Folsom, Alabama’s larger-than-life, two-time populist governor. As kids, we’d get our friends to hold their feet against the shoe’s huge sole, and we’d marvel at the difference in size, wondering at the man whose foot once matched that monster of a shoe.

People who knew my grandfather sometimes brought him gifts, like this one, to add to his collection of curiosities. Once, some workers at his store were installing some carpet in the governor’s home, and they spotted a pair of Big Jim’s shoes in the bedroom. They snuck one of them out — a present for my grandfather — and it’s been at the house we call “Homestead” ever since.

That shoe, and that story, were my introduction to Big Jim.

Lately I’ve learned a lot more. 

Big Jim Kicks Back
Big Jim Kicks Back

A Brief History of Big Jim’s Feet

First, about those feet. Folsom, at six foot eight, was a giant of a man, and he presented himself as a kind of backwoods, tall-tale hero sprung to life. In his 1946 campaign for the governorship he canvassed the state with a rollicking old-time string band, the Strawberry Pickers, setting up on small-town street corners for impromptu rallies. He kept a grueling travel schedule and, arriving in a public park or courthouse square, he’d announce that he needed a rest; then, as his Strawberry Pickers entertained the gathering crowd, he’d take off those shoes and wiggle his toes (he made a point of wearing no socks), stretch out on the ground, and pretend to nap. Finally he’d get back up, put on his shoes, work his way to the front of the crowd, and launch into his speech. 

“Can’t think when my feet hurt,” Folsom once said, explaining the routine, “so I took off the shoes. Helps my thinkin’ to be able to wiggle my toes.”

Folsom’s feet and his shoes were often in the news. At some rallies, the candidate fumed against the lies his opposition was spreading about him all over the state: he’d rail and rage against the alleged disinformation campaign, finally building to a characteristic punchline. “Yes,” he’d proclaim, “they are circulating far and wide that I wear Number 16 size shoes!” Then he’d hold out a foot and declare it a mere 15 ½. Laughter ensued; reporters rolled their eyes. (The shoe we’ve got is a size sixteen.)

Once he became governor, some critics noted that Folsom had started wearing socks inside those shoes, betraying his image as a rustic common man, a poor country boy who took defiant pride in his utter lack of luxury. Others balked that Folsom appeared in Life magazine barefooted at the breakfast table, that he conducted state business in the governor’s mansion — even hosted foreign dignitaries — with no shoes or socks at all.

Growing up looking at that shoe, I’d had no idea what a big deal Big Jim’s feet and footwear had once been in Alabama.

On Stands Now! “Y’all Come: The Ballad of Big Jim Folsom” 

But what drew me back to Big Jim was the music. For years I’d heard about that band, the Strawberry Pickers, and about how Folsom made “Y’all Come” a ubiquitous theme song for the state. I was curious to know more about the intersection of music and politics in Big Jim’s Alabama, and — starting with a couple of unearthed old photos and a few blog posts here — I started digging deeper into the story. The fruits of that research are out now, in the new edition of the Old-Time Herald, the preeminent magazine for old-time string-band and southern roots music. “Y’all Come: The Ballad of Big Jim Folsom” traces the governor’s rise and fall through his music, from campaign songs and stump music to the scathing ballad that exposed his biggest scandal; along the way it explores the ways in which Folsom reshaped (and failed to reshape) Alabama’s political culture. Folsom was a complicated man with plenty of outsized faults, but as I immersed myself in his story I found myself falling a little bit in love. He’s a comic figure, yes, and a tragic one, too. But the tragedy is really Alabama’s: researching his story, it was tempting to imagine an alternate history in which Jim Folsom, not George Wallace, led the state through its civil rights struggles. But that’s not the way things went.

This Month in Birmingham: Live Music, Beer, and a Reading 

If you’re in Birmingham, I’m going to be reading and talking about Big Jim at the new and beautiful Thank You Books on Saturday — Leap Day! — February 29. I hope you’ll make it out. It’s a wild story and (if you haven’t been yet) it’s a fantastic neighborhood bookstore. There’ll be live old-time string band music, and I’ll play a few of Big Jim’s campaign records. We’ll have some beer (as Folsom would have wanted it), and you’re welcome to bring drinks of your own. The fun starts at 6:30 and is free. What more could you want? 

If you’re not in Birmingham, you can order yourself a copy of the Folsom story here

Foot Notes

By the time I’d come up for air, my Old-Time Herald  article had snowballed (way beyond the projected word count) into an epic musical-political, tragicomic adventure, and there wasn’t much room left in the magazine to elaborate on my sources. (Thank God, by the way, there are still a (very!) few magazines in the world which will publish good and long stories like this one. The Old-Time Herald is a miracle, and I’m proud to share space with each of this issue’s articles and authors. Editor Sarah Bryan is a hero.) 

So, for curious readers — and lest you think I’m just making this up — here are those sources, Big Jim’s foot notes, size sixteen. (If  you’re not interested in the research minutiae, just scroll through for some news on the governor’s shoes.) 

“Y’all Come: The Ballad of Big Jim Folsom” draws from a wealth of reporting from Alabama newspapers: The Montgomery Advertiser, The Birmingham News, The Dothan Eagle, The Fayette County Times, The Phenix Citizen, The Ashland Progress, The Gadsden Times, The Moulton Advertiser, The Union Banner, The Opelika Daily News, The Demopolis Times, The Centreville Press, The Selma Times-Journal, and The Florence Herald. I also consulted and incorporated out-of-state reporting from The Atlanta Constitution, The Nashville Tennessean, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and The New York Daily News.

The_Wetumpka_Herald_Thu__Jul_8__1943_
1943, “The army will have to make special oversize uniforms and shoes for the 7-foot Cullman giant.”

Quotations from “Big Jim” himself come from a 1974 interview for the Southern Oral History Program, conducted by Candace Waid and Allan Tullos. Quotations from two of the Strawberry Pickers, Roland Johnson and Hobart Key, are taken from the biography Big Mules & Branchheads: James E. Folsom and Political Power in Alabama (Carl Grafton and Anne Permaloft, University of Georgia Press, 1985), which proved an essential resource in many other ways, fleshing out Folsom’s biographical details and the larger political context. (The Folsom quote in this post, about wiggling toes, also comes from the Big Mules book.)

The book The Strawberry Pickers (Roy Baham, Jamelle Folsom, and E. Jimmy Key, Southern Arts Corporation, 2000) provided a detailed look behind the scenes of that first Folsom band, from their initial auditions through the 1946 campaign. The book’s three authors include a former Strawberry Picker (Key), Folsom’s widow, and a country music songwriter (Baham). My article’s quotes from Bill Lyerly — Folsom’s right-hand-man, driver, and all-purpose “Colonel” — come from the Lyerly interview at the end of that book. 

The_Huntsville_Times_Tue__Jan_8__1946_
1946, “Folsom Appeals To Friends For Shoes”

For info on the scandalous “Ballad of Kissin’ Jim” / “She Was Poor But She Was Honest,” I had to look to other sources, including the Max Hunter folk song collection at Missouri State, the LP Unexpurgated Folk Songs of Men (Arhoolie Records, 1960), The Erotic Muse: American Bawdy Songs (Ed Cray, University of Illinios Press, 1999), a discussion thread on The Mudcat Cafe website, and my own informal polling via Alabama-related Facebook groups (“Does anyone remember this song? Where did you learn it? When did you sing it?”). Quotations about that song from Civil Rights icon Bernard Lafayette come from a fascinating 2011 interview conducted by Tom Putnam for the JFK Presidential Library and Museum on the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides — and from a blog post (“She Was Poor But She Was Honest”) by Richard Beck at his Experimental Theology website. The quote from Sue Thrasher of the Southern Student Organizing Committee appears in Struggle for a Better South (Gregg L. Mitchell, Palgrave MicMillan, 2004). 

Folklorist D. K. Wilgus collected numerous variants of the bawdy Folsom ballad, and once upon a time those documents were among the Wilgus papers at UCLA. Their current whereabouts are an unsolved mystery; I’d love to see them, and I invite any leads, if you’ve got em. In the meantime, Maureen Russell at the UCLA Ethnomusicology Archive and Aaron Smithers at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Wilson Library were both gracious in searching their collections and their brains for the missing Wilgus/Folsom lyrics. One day those Wilgus files will crop up somewhere. Let me know if you get there first. 

The_Marion_Times_Standard_Thu__Jul_18__1946_
1946, “It’s not the feet but the stupidity.”

I spent a great day searching the Folsom collection at the Alabama Department of Archives and History in Montgomery. Shout out to archivist and DJ Kevin Nutt. 

I was wrapping up my article when an exciting new book came out, I’d Fight the World: A Political History of Old-Time, Hillbilly, and Country Music (Peter La Chapelle, University of Chicago, 2019). This book goes into great detail about (among other things) Folsom and his music, and it continues where my story leaves off, exploring the fascinating country music legacies of George Wallace’s Alabama. What a world. 

Alabama_Journal_Fri__Jan_27__1950_
1950, “Why don’t you wear suitcases?”

My own little zine, Singing Governors, Fiddling Senators, and Other Country Music Politicians (Lady Muleskinner Press, 2008), made passing reference, more than a decade ago, to Folsom and his band. I guess you could say that’s where this project started.

But really it goes back to that shoe by the fireplace. 

Thanks, y’all. Come to Thank You on the 29th if you’re in town.

Big Jim's shoe
The author, with Big Jim’s shoe

The Birmingham Sessions

img_3760

I’ve got an article in this month’s issue of The Old-Time Herald exploring Gennett Records’ 1927 trip to Birmingham. For two months the label set up shop in the Starr Piano store and waxed records of all sorts of local music makers: blues musicians, old-time string bands, jazz bands, Sacred Harp singers, society dance orchestras, gospel quartets, and more. The records, seldom heard today, offer a kind of cross section and time capsule of Alabama music as it sounded 90 years ago. My article dives into the specifics of these Birmingham sessions, placing them in the context of other “location recording” expeditions of the era—and takes a look at the many performers who came to the Starr store to record.

For many years, The Old-Time Herald has documented both the history and contemporary state of old-time string band music and other related traditions.They make room for long articles like this one, and they take great care with their photos and illustrations—as you can see in the spreads below. My article on the Birmingham sessions is a much-expanded version of a piece I published last summer in Birmingham magazine.

A quick excerpt follows. To read the whole thing, subscribe to the OTH. Thanks to the magazine’s editor, Sarah Bryan, for all her help—and to Joyce Cauthen for loaning some great photos, like the two below.

img_3761img_3763

From “The Birmingham Sessions: Gennett Records and the Sounds of 1920s Alabama”:

“Southern Artists To Make Records,” a headline announced in July of 1927: “Making Of Phonograph Discs Is Birmingham’s Latest Industrial Effort.” Gennett Records had come to Birmingham from Richmond, Indiana, with a load of equipment and a team of engineers. The company planned to set up a temporary studio in the Alabama city and hoped to attract talent from across the South. Ambitions were high all around. The Birmingham News imagined the city becoming “a musical center of the South,” drawing in new streams of profit and acclaim; in a town whose name had been built from steel and coal, music was a local resource so far untapped—and it could be the foundation, the papers imagined, of a whole new industry.

Gennett had plenty to gain, too, from the enterprise. According to one trade magazine, the company expected from its Birmingham base “to make a specialty of Alabama negro folk songs.” Gordon Soule, the studio’s chief recording engineer, spoke auspiciously on his arrival: “The nation looks to the South,” he said, “for its Dixie melodies, its jazz orchestras, its ‘hot’ music. Our initial reception here in Birmingham has been beyond our expectations.”

The very same month, up in Bristol, Tennessee, the Victor label set up a temporary studio of its own, likewise inviting local musicians to audition. Victor’s twelve days in Bristol have become the stuff of American musical mythology: the sessions produced the first recordings of both the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, two iconic acts that helped shape the sound and the business of country music for generations to come. Scholars, fans, and tourists have all flocked to Bristol for years, and the impact of those sessions is well known […] Less familiar are the other field recording sessions conducted, in the same decade, by Victor’s contemporaries. Gennett’s trip to Birmingham offers a single case study.

As it happened, the Gennett sessions did little to advance the careers of the musicians who participated; most of these artists never recorded again. Birmingham, for all the newspaper’s excitement, wasn’t reborn into a mighty music hub. There were no game-changing discoveries, no Carters or Rodgers as there were that summer in Bristol. But the recordings made in Birmingham that July and August—nearly 170 sides altogether—represent a unique and valuable cross-section of the region’s musical culture. There are jazz bands and country blues singers, old-time string bands, gospel quartets, a ragtime pianist and singers of the Sacred Harp—a rich diversity of local sounds, all testament to a community steeped in music….