“Have you ever heard any music like this before?”

Kids, Collinsville, Alabama, c. 1898.

I spent a couple of hours today at the library, working on a project I’ll fill you in on later. I didn’t find a whole lot of what I went to the library looking for, but I did stumble into this happy tangent: photos of music and musicians from the history of Alabama’s DeKalb County.

All of these images come from various installments of the DeKalb Legend, a publication from Landmarks of DeKalb County, a nonprofit devoted to historic preservation. Landmarks put out a bunch of these books in the ’70s, compiling photos that stretch back into the 19th century. Included are all sorts of scenes from daily life, spanning much of the region’s history — but the images that got my attention, one or two of them every hundred or so pages, were those of the county’s musicians and singers. The Louvin Brothers grew up in DeKalb County; so did members of the band Alabama. But these scattered photographs give some insight into the everyday music of everyday people, a glimpse into a narrow geography’s wide-ranging musical culture.

It’s an incomplete record, of course, and we’re left to imagine the sounds themselves. But a dozen such photos from every county in the country would open up to us a history we’ve, at best, hardly heard.

Take a look:

Photograph captions in the DeKalb Legend offer some details but leave others to the imagination. Here, “two unidentified ladies serenade Jesse B. (Peter) Horton, Jr. about 1902.” Beyond that the Legend simply adds: “Horton died in 1904.”

“Joe Shields and his singing group at DeShields School — 1910.”

IMG_1146A blurry image from Chavies, Alabama, c. 1915: a big crowd for the “First Sunday in May singing.”

A “patriotic musical” from 1918.

IMG_1170DeKalb County High School band, 1927. F. S. Thacker, band director, at right.

IMG_1140“Prayer Changes Things”: a scene from the Monroe Tabernacle, a “non denominational church built by Mrs. J. P. Monroe,” pictured here sometime in the 1930s. There’s a lot to look at in this one. I’m interested in the man outside, seen through the window, and in the moments (not pictured) when the boy, more or less center, picks up the small guitar in front of him. I’m curious too about Mrs. J. P. Monroe.

IMG_1129Sacred Harp singers, Mt. Herman Baptist Church, 1949. Leading the singing are Jack Stiefel and Riley Garrett: “the young and the old,” the caption says.

“An old tradition: fox hunters dancing in the streets of Fort Payne about 1950.”

“Newly formed band at Frederick Douglass High School in 1952,” directed by Lillie L. Trammell.

IMG_1151A political rally in 1956, Williams Avenue School, Fort Payne. Adlai Stevenson for President: “For All Of You.”

“Musicians who specialize in modern spiritual music” — posed in front of a historic home in Fort Payne, sometime (undated) in the ’60s or ’70s.

And speaking of the modern — check out teenage rockers the Viscounts, also from Fort Payne, playing the “weekly hootenanny” at the DeKalb Theatre, 1963:
The second Viscount from the left, by the way, is Jeff Cook, age thirteen; later he and a couple of cousins would form the band Alabama, a group clearly steeped as much in rock and roll as in country.

I’m going to leave you with this: a record the Viscounts (or VT-Counts) cut in 1964, “(This Is) Our Generation” — a 1960s Alabama teenage manifesto I’ve become kind of obsessed with. Give it a listen. I’ve transcribed the text, as I hear it, underneath the link.

Greetings and salutations
And all words indicative to a hearty welcome,
My celestial friends
This is Sweet Daddy Whitley
Talking to you cats and chicks about our generation.
Have you ever heard any music like this before?
This is our generation.
We made it what it is today.
Talk about the good old times
There were no good old times
This is it
There’s no need to wait around
This is it
This is our generation.
And his soul cries out: let me hear some more of that guitar


That was the high priest, Jeff Cook, on lead guitar
And in the background you can hear bassman Bailey
The high
And along with him is
Rhythm Ray
the DJ
on rhythm guitar
This age where rockets, satellites
Hot rods
Drag strips

And his soul cries out,
This is our generation

As I count the (ways of life? waves of rye??)
They cry out, let me hear some more of that swinging sound


That’s soul music
It comes from the heart
And soul
They think they had music a long time ago
This is our music
And before I close I would like to remind you
This is our generation.
This is it.
Live it up.
Smile a while.


That’s as good a place as any, I guess, to end this post:

This is it. Live it up. Smile a while.

Thanks for reading.


P.S. Okay, one last photo: I have to add that my favorite image of them all doesn’t take music as its subject, but I couldn’t leave it out. The image, which I included also at the top of this post, is labeled only “Collinsville School Boys, about 1898.” No explanation beyond that is offered, other than the boys’ names.
FullSizeRender-1They are, for the record, from left to right: Jesse Green, Victor Hall, Stanley Brindley, Charlie Hall, L. B. Nicholson, Carl Norwood, and Carl Brindley.

May they rest in peace.

“Western wear invited. Sportswear accepted.” Happenings ’69.

I was working on my next couple of blog posts, “Adventures in Basements” (Parts 1 & 2), when I got a call from my friend Patrick. “Adventures in Basements” will chronicle my favorite discoveries rooting through archives and library stacks around the country. But in the meantime Patrick called to say he wanted to pass on to me a small but generous chunk of his own archival collection.

Over the course of a lifetime Patrick Cather has built an incredible collection of books, records, memorabilia, artifacts, and ephemera related to (among many other things) Birmingham’s history and music. We got to know each other several years ago through a mutual friend, Frank “Doc” Adams. My book-in-progress includes a lengthy, important chapter on Patrick, Doc, and the boogie-woogie pianist Robert McCoy.

About a year ago Patrick entrusted to me a couple hundred R&B and soul records, mostly from the 1960s. This week he shared with me enough 78’s to make my car sink from the weight: Bessie Smith, Jimmie Rodgers, Fats Waller, the Mississippi Sheiks, Erskine Hawkins, and all sorts of other things. There’s even one from Clifford Hayes’s Louisville Jug Stompers and a couple of the V-Disc records, issued during World War II for the soldiers overseas.

Among the papers I got from Patrick was a single issue of Dick Coffee’s Birmingham Doin’s, dated November of 1969. It’s a periodical survey of late 1960s (white) Birmingham nightlife, consisting mostly of advertisements. As such, it’s an interesting glimpse into this city’s nightclubs—a segment of them, anyway—a half a century ago.

I asked Patrick, flipping through the pages: Did you ever go to the Original Boom Boom Room?

Many times, he said, and added: the Boom Boom Room had a chicken in a cage, and it would dance on demand. 

Only one of the establishments listed below is still in business: the Red Lion in Homewood, a place I love. Long may it run.

I’ll be posting many more archival finds in the weeks ahead—including some excerpts from Glare magazine, the glossy 1950s magazine devoted to Birmingham’s black entertainment and social life. For now, here are some Birmingham Doin’s.

Don’t miss the talked about Blaze.









While I was going through his records, Patrick got a call from the family of Joe Rumore, Birmingham’s late, longtime radio personality: a chunk of Rumore’s estate, it happened, was going on sale in the morning, and Patrick passed the tip along to me.

I went to the Rumore sale, but I only purchased one item. There were lots of framed, signed photos of old country music stars, all out of my budget—and autographed head shots don’t do much for me, anyway.  More my speed, and priced at just a few dollars,  was this photo from radio station WSPG in Anniston, Alabama: a trio identified as Mary Frady, Jerry Frady, and Ruby Fallon. I’ve got a decent collection of photos like this—images of forgotten, mostly anonymous musicians—and I find all the details in them wonderful. For starters: from a distance the pattern on Jerry’s shirt might look likes flowers, but it’s cowboys and lassos.

Version 2

Really I love everything about this photo. The mic placement, obviously. The rolled cuffs of Jerry’s pants. The younger woman and the older woman, and their symmetry. That fringe, just under their knees. How everybody’s wearing boots. The look on Ruby’s face. The look on Mary’s. Jerry’s absolute earnestness.

I’d like to have heard him sing.

(Incidentally, about this time last year I compiled some of my photos of “lost and found” musicians in a little collection, titled “Melodies Unheard.” You can get a copy here.

More soon.)