When I was a kid and visiting South Carolina relatives in the 1950s it was a common thing to see chain gangs working along the roads. These gangs were mostly made up of African Americans who were often arrested for no other reason than the local road commissioner needed cheap labor to cut weeds or dig ditches.
NOTE: This is a reprisal of a piece I published in 2012 and while it remains informative and accurate it astounds me how positive I sounded eight years ago and how pessimistic I feel today. Eight years ago we had the hope that arrived with our first African American president. Today we have a president who wouldn’t hesitate to fertilize the seeds of strange fruit if he thought it would advance his fortune and fame.
I’ve been a student of American History for most of my life. The thing that draws me to history is the constant challenge it presents to one’s perception of reality. We all live in a comfort zone and make assumptions that everyone is experiencing what we are and that things have always been as they are. Studying history never stops pulling the rug out from under one’s feet. Just when I thought I couldn’t be shocked, bam!, I’m laying on the floor!
Jessye Norman was a force in the world of opera. My knowledge of her is limited and came from watching a PBS special about the history of the song, Amazing Grace. She helped tell the story of John Newton, an English slave trader who sought redemption by, in part, authoring what may be Christianity’s most popular and well-known hymn. During the program, Norman and others performed various renditions of the song.
I later watched a PBS recital of operatic music performed by Norman and was enthralled.
Jessye Mae Norman died in September of 2019 at the age of 74.
While I can’t claim to be a great devotee of jazz I have been aware of it since being a teen in the 1950s. I remember people like Al Hirt, Pete Fountain, Ella Fitzgerald, and Duke Ellington appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show and that’s probably where my limited knowledge of jazz began. I also need to mention Mad Magazine since they often featured cool characterizations of players like Dizzy Gillespie and Charley Parker. I mean, if jazz was good enough for Mad, it must be something I needed to be aware of.
I was an early convert to folk music back in the 1950s and one of the first songs I learned to play on my cheap Harmony guitar was Freight Train. Like so many folk songs I just assumed the author was long gone and long forgotten.
It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I discovered Elizabeth Cotton, the very old and very talented lady who on her cheap Sears & Roebuck guitar, wrote the folk classic, Freight Train.
A friend recently posted an audio recording of country music performer, and Greenfield native, Brad Martin performing the hit record, Before I Knew Better, he cut back in the early 2000s. I dug a little deeper and found a video of Brad being introduced to a Grand Ole Opry crowd by Little Jimmy Dickens.
Lots of you watched the Ken Burns film, Country Music, and remarked on what you thought was omitted. My number one pick was the omission of anything to do with Johnny Paycheck.
At the recent Oktoberfest, I was talking with Gary Adams, who played guitar for Paycheck, and he agreed. Gary, arguably, felt there was too much given over to Johnny Cash. But, given that someone as inconsequential as Kinky Friedman at least got his name mentioned, why wasn’t Paycheck mentioned? Also, in the scheme of outlaws and Texas songwriters, why didn’t Billy Joe Shaver get a mention.
My son introduced me to a very young Taiwanese ukelele player named Feng E. It was a video of him sitting in the back of his mom’s car doing unworldly things with a uke.
The next day I did a search on YouTube and came across this kid playing a 6-string guitar and performing a very complicated number he’d written. I remarked to my son that the boy’s style reminded me of Tommy Emmanuel and my son told me that this kid has appeared on stage with Emmanuel doing the old Mason Williams number, Classical Gas.
Back in 2005, I decided I’d like to judge a BBQ contest so I did a little research and discovered I’d have to take a class through either the Kansas City BBQ Society or the Memphis BBQ Network. I decided on Memphis because it was closer and I’d heard more about the Memphis in May events which included a huge BBQ festival and competition.
So, off to Memphis went I and after the training session, I decided to meander through the Delta for several days. I’d been there before but always with family and always on a schedule. I was retired now and my time was my own.
There was a time in the American South when juke joints were to be found at every dirt road crossing. Sometimes they were ramshackle houses or abandoned commercial buildings but often, they were small buildings assembled from whatever could be found. Rough cut boards, disassembled shipping crates, and rusting metal roofing were common.
Inside these places could be found fried catfish, smoked pork, cold beer, corn liquor and a couple of guys with cheap instruments pounding out the rhythms that we know today as the blues. If there wasn’t live music there’d be a jukebox playing records and thus the name, juke joints.
Most music lovers have probably never heard of Sam Hopkins. But call him Lightnin Hopkins and maybe the light bulb switches on. Hopkins was from Texas and before his death in 1982 he became one of the best known of all the early blues pioneers. He was also one of the most prolific and frequently recorded.
People always reference Robert Johnson’s style of guitar playing as being the best but best is something hard to define. I personally don’t know any blues picker better than Hopkins.
First of all, we’re not talking Austin Power’s shag here, we’re talking about popular dances! As a kid growing up in Greenfield, OH in the 1950s being able to jitterbug earned you just a little higher step on the socially desirable ladder. We waltzed, we foxtrotted, we twisted, we strolled, but those who were really cool jitterbugged and we jitterbugged differently than what we thought anyone else did.
You could, as we did, run home after school and catch American Bandstand and those Philadelphia kids just weren’t cool because they didn’t jitterbug as we did. Their steps just weren’t as smooth and crisp as ours and there wasn’t the refined coordination between partners like there was with us.
Hearing Greenfield people talk about how much they enjoyed the Midsummer’s Night on Midway events back in the early 2000s got me thinking negative things. People are always talking about there not being anything to do in a small town and then when something does happen, most don’t show up.
This was true in 1970 and truer today. I’d guess it is due to there being more recreational options and greater pressure on people’s free time. I don’t know about other towns but I suspect it isn’t much different.
Today marks the fourth day of Black History Month for 2019. As has been my custom I try to write about some aspect of the Black experience in America. Here’s my current offering. I hope you both enjoy it and learn a little of our nation’s history.
My father’s family was from South Carolina and during the 1950s I would occasionally spend a summer with them. Because of that, I became aware of Jim Crow or segregation laws. I never tried to understand these things and as a kid just accepted them as being, “the way things were.”
As an adult, I began to learn and question the truth and subsequently became a sometime student of Southern and Black History. This eventually led to an interest in blues music history and from this, I became aware of the Chitlin Circuit, a loose association of entertainment venues that catered to Black performers. Traveling the circuit meant Black entertainers needed services. They needed fuel and car maintenance, food, shelter, medical care and so much more that wasn’t easily found in a segregated America.