1932: Final Tour For Jimmie Rodgers, Father Of Country Music

Details Surface of Lost Shows in Missouri and Arkansas

By Matt Chaney, for ChaneysBlog.com

Posted Thursday, August 15, 2019

Copyright ©2019 for original content and historical arrangement by Matthew L. Chaney, Four Walls Publishing

Issues confronted star musician Jimmie Rodgers at San Antonio in late 1932.

Rodgers, 35, someday known as Father of Country Music, faced waning record sales, property loss, marital discord and lethal disease. The yodeling string player was forced to hock his mansion and move wife and child into an apartment. Likewise he was losing to tuberculosis, often bedridden with breathing difficulty, bloody mucus and body pain.

Rodgers took off from Texas by Cadillac, anyway, pursuing cash work, show dates of any sort amidst Depression economy. He was bound for the Mississippi River Valley at behest of old friend Billy Terrell, for an interstate music tour to be his last.

That much we’ve known of James Charles Rodgers, retrospectively, and now additional details emerge through electronic search of historic newspapers in Missouri, Mississippi and Alabama.

Advertisements, reports and witness accounts of Jimmie Rodgers in 1932 —long buried within miles of microfilm—are becoming readily retrievable as e-search opens old news-pages. Advent of cyber search, in fact, already spurs revisions in so-called history, edits and corrections, for topics like American football.

Recently uncovered in music are portions of Rodgers’ farewell loop through western Mississippi, southeast Missouri and northeast Arkansas. Imagery is vivid when considering Rodgers in the delta, given new information to complement the biographical Jimmy Rodgers: The Life and Times of America’s Blue Yodeler [1979], by Nolan Porterfield, a college instructor of mine at Southeast Missouri State.

Early November, 1932, Jimmie and Carrie Rodgers reached his father’s house in Alabama. Aaron W. Rodgers was a railroad man retired at Geiger, his native community just inside the state line. Two decades previous, over in Mississippi, Aaron had secured son Jimmie’s job with the Mobile & Ohio at Meridian. The boy was 14, quitting school to labor around trains and track, and so marked was the art of Jimmy Rodgers. His music and performance oozed railroad culture, ranging from lyrics and visuals to his whistle imitations and a second stage name, The Singing Brakeman.

Jimmie and Carrie traveled on to hometown Meridian, where her three married sisters lived in the same block. They drove west from the Mississippi hills, down into the delta from Greenwood to Indianola, where he booked gigs at familiar venues. “Jimmie Rodgers has been visiting over his home state between his recording and regular theatre engagements,” reported the Indianola Enterprise, cheerily. “Jimmie takes his vacation by getting out and playing the dances in the towns among the people he knows and loves.”

In truth Rodgers suffered on that trip, badly as anytime since TB unleashed a lung hemorrhage eight years before. He’d been a hearty young man to that point, standing 5-foot-10 and 165 pounds, but subsequent, recurring  illness diminished his frame and fortitude.

Rodgers arrived at southeast Missouri in December 1932, resembling “a walking skeleton” for his first and only performances in the Bootheel. The visit began with ice and snow whipping over the bald, deforested flatland. “A strong north wind was blowing that seemed to drive the cold right into your bones,” recalled Robert E. Legan, writing decades later for the Malden Press-Merit.

Legan was 21, clerking in Miller’s Store at Malden on Dec. 10, 1932, a Saturday, when the living legend appeared about noon. “Jimmie Rodgers came in, bundled up in an overcoat with a hunter’s cap pulled down over his ears. He was shivering and said he could not get warm,” Legan recounted. “Because of the weather we were all standing around without very much to do and I think we all helped to wait on Jimmy. We sold him a pair of overshoes, a heavy sweater and a muffler. He put them all on.”

“Before he left I told him how much I liked his singing and his songs—especially Waiting For A Train. He thanked me and started out. He hesitated a moment and looked out through the glass door at the terrible weather outside. Then he shrugged his shoulders, turned up his coat collar and went out into the cold… ”

Seeing Rodgers go, his splaying legs and bony hips didn’t fill the trousers. “Time was running out,” Porterfield noted of the TB stage. “For him there was no long-range anything, as he knew all too well.”

Rodgers was in Malden with showman Billy Terrell, veteran Missouri talent and proprietor of popular comedy companies. Terrell once hired Rodgers for the Blue Yodeler’s first tour, straight out of Meridian. At Malden, Rodgers picked guitar and sang during matinee and night shows for Terrell under canvas, winter elements be damned.

“Billy had a big coal stove on each side of the tent, with the stovepipes going out under the tent flaps,” wrote Legan, who had adored and followed Terrell since boyhood. But Legan also grasped the dire context for famed Jimmie Rodgers, “down to traveling with a tent show.”

Packed houses savored the entertainment, stirred by Rodgers, renowned for his overriding optimism amidst hard times—embodying the essence of blues theme. “He could still sing,” Legan recalled in 1978. “His songs were of a natural melancholy nature and the sight of this emaciated, doleful creature, singing his heart out with his shining eyes, glowing away back in their sockets, just naturally drew compassion from the audience.”

“I will never forget him or his songs that somehow took hold of the common people.”

The tour of Jimmie Rodgers continued through southeast Missouri and northeast Arkansas. Scheduled performances are now documented at the Malone Theatre in Sikeston [Dec. 15-16, 1932] and the Ritz in Blytheville [Dec. 18-19], per news texts recently retrieved. The vintage advertisements and reports don’t mention Terrell, indicating Rodgers booked dates and provided promotional copy himself.

The Sikeston Standard reported “thousands of country folks have developed a taste for Jimmie’s particular talent, and his record of ‘packing ’em in’ is well-known wherever he has appeared in theatres outside of the large cities.” And this from the Steele Enterprise: “Jimmie is that same likeable fellow that he was when he sat high in the [train caboose], strumming the guitar and singing the songs that made him famous on both continents.”

Note that presently only a fraction of the region’s historic news-pages are available for electronic search. Rodgers possibly appeared elsewhere locally, with evidence yet uncovered. Anyone can review newspapers on microfilm for the month of Rodgers’ visit, representing localities like Poplar Bluff, Dexter, Chaffee, Cape Girardeau, Illmo-Fornfelt, Benton, Charleston, New Madrid, Portageville and Kennett in Missouri; Cairo in Illinois; and Blytheville in Arkansas. A host of indexes and microfilm editions are available through The State Historical Society of Missouri, website shsmo.org.

Regarding December 1932 in southeast Missouri, the news-pages available for modern search were published at Malden, Sikeston, Caruthersville, Hayti and Steele. See newspapers.com and maldenmuseum.com for more information.

***

Jimmie and Carrie Rodgers apparently returned to Texas by outset of 1933, where Porterfield picked up their trail again in his research. That January Rodgers played the Joy Theatre in Dallas then started a tour of Texas towns with showman J. Doug Morgan. “But Jimmie had ignored the elements and jeopardized his health once too often,” Porterfield observed. “While they were playing Lufkin during the second week of February, he collapsed and was rushed to Methodist Hospital in Houston.”

Family members traveled to his side. “Little, if any, hope is held for the recovery of Jimmie Rodgers,” reported the Chocktaw Plaindealer in Mississippi. After a month hospitalized, however, Rodgers rose again from sick bed, seeking work. “Money did not mean much to him personally…” Porterfield stated, “but now he was increasingly anxious about those he would leave behind, especially twelve-year-old [daughter] Anita.”

Rodgers scheduled recording sessions in New York for a $3,000 advance at completion. He boarded an ocean liner at Galveston, accompanied by personal nurse, and arrived in Manhattan on May 14. Rodgers cut some 10 songs in studio but his lungs hemorrhaged catastrophically at a hotel. He fell comatose and succumbed in his room on May 26, 1933.

“Jimmie Rodgers had not quite literally died alone, but it was very much the same thing,” Porterfield remarked. “To his family and friends, his death had been imminent for years, yet all of them were far away when the time came.”

Writer and consultant Matt Chaney is compiling companion books on Southern music. Tentative titles are River Shows, Jazz and Country Music in the Northern Delta: Legends of Song, Dance and Circus; and Rockabillies in the Missouri Delta. See Chaney’s page Stories from River Music to Rock in the Northern Delta. For more information, including Chaney’s previous books, visit www.fourwallspublishing.com.  Email: mattchaney@fourwallspublishing.com.

Select References

Do You Suffer From Painful Feet? (1928, March 2). [Advertisement.] Malden Merit MO, p. 5.

From Railway Boxcar To Stardom Overnight. (1932, Dec. 15). Steele Enterprise MO, p. 3.

Geiger, Panol And Gainesville Voters. (1928, May 2). Our Southern Home, Livingston AL, p. 4.

Ice And Cold On Weather Menu. (1932, Dec. 13). Sikeston Standard MO, p. 5.

Jimmie Rodgers, “Blue Yodeler,” To Be Stage Attraction Dec. 15-16. (1932, Dec. 9). Sikeston Standard MO, p. 1.

Jimmie Rodgers, Famous Singer, Coming. (1932, Nov. 24). Indianola Enterprise MS, p. 1.

Jimmie Rodgers, Yodeling Brakeman, Dies in New York. (1933, June 1). Kerrville Mountain Sun TX, p. 1.

Legan, R.E. (1978, April 27). Things I Remember About Malden: ‘Toby’ shows and Jimmy Rodgers. Malden Press-Merit MO, p. 74.

Like Your Music “Grand Ole Opry” Style? (1953, April 19). [Advertisement.] Nashville Tennessean TN, p. 71.

Little Hope Held For Recovery Of Jimmie Rodgers. (1933, Feb. 24). Chocktaw Plaindealer, Ackerman MS, p. 4.

Look Who’s Coming! (1932, Dec. 13). [Advertisement.] Sikeston Standard MO, p. 2.

Look Who’s Coming! (1932, Dec. 16). [Advertisement.] Sikeston Standard MO, p. 7.

Over The County. (1932, Nov. 9). Our Southern Home, Livingston AL, p. 1.

Over The County. (1933, March 1). Our Southern Home, Livingston AL, p. 1.

Peterson Purchases Home In Westland. (1933, March 23). Kerrville Mountain Sun TX, p. 1.

Porterfield, N. (1979). Jimmie Rodgers: The life and times of America’s Blue Yodeler. University of Illinois Press: Urbana and Chicago IL.

Ritz Theatre. (1932, Dec. 15). [Advertisement.] Steele Enterprise MO, p. 4.

Skelton, B. (1972, May 23). Meridian’s Jimmie Rodgers father of country music. Jackson Clarion-Ledger MS, pp. 27, 30.

Smith, B. [Dir.] (1930). Jimmie Rogers in The Singing Brakeman. Columbia Pictures Corporation: Hollywood CA.

Society. (1932, Nov. 38). Greenwood Commonwealth MS, p. 3.

Some Relief From Weather. (1932, Dec. 15). Caruthersville Republican MO, p. 1.

The Tactless Texan. (1933, June 6). Amarillo Globe-Times TX, p. 2.

Worst Ice And Sleet Storm In Years Visits This Area. (1932, Dec. 16). Malden Merit MO, p. 8.

 

1917 River Jazz: W.C. Handy and Fate Marable in the Northern Delta

Thirty-First in a Series

By Matt Chaney, for ChaneysBlog.com

Posted Saturday, June 8, 2019

Copyright ©2019 for original content and historical arrangement by Matthew L. Chaney, Four Walls Publishing

Cairo, Ill., remained a place of converging forces, of conflict and collaboration, creation, even as the old river town struggled in early 20th century.

New railroads and a bridge bypassed Cairo, crossing the Mississippi near Cape Girardeau. Paved highways were routed elsewhere, establishing automobile traffic through southeast Missouri and western Kentucky. Aircraft flew overhead but only stunt pilots landed at Cairo, marshy tip of southern Illinois.

River commerce had been reduced to barge freight and local packets, to showboats and excursion rides. Timber and grain drove Cairo industry but supplies were shrinking from southeast Missouri, booming itself through deforestation, draining and settlement of vast bottom lands. Bootheel crop farmers, burgeoning in number, stored and sold harvests through new elevators on their side of the river. Sikeston’s high-rise grain elevator, a concrete cluster of 12 towers, held 800,000 bushels.

Cairo was fading in significance, increasingly cut off in the northern delta. This confluence of great rivers, merge point of the Mississippi and Ohio, wasn’t so important anymore. Town population peaked at about 15,000 during the 1910s, outset of the First World War. Talk of Cairo as a budding metropolis was over, and meanwhile the pressing concern, as for a century, remained flood protection. Cairo’s survival had relied on federal aid and development since the Civil War. Only government could maintain the huge levees, river gates and pumps for repelling catastrophic river surges.

Entertainment and show business, and complementary vice, endured as Cairo’s consistent economy—and community pride or infamy, depending on perspective. Many citizens were fed up with the “live town” reputation.

“Cairo’s future depends, in one important sense at least, upon the people of the city themselves,” wrote John M. Lansden, attorney and local historian. “They cannot change its geographical features, nor its topographical features very much; but they can and should make it a place from which good and desirable people will not turn away.”

But Cairo always relied on show business and nightlife, even illicit gambling, said advocates. And brothels and unlicensed saloons were incidental problems, not a plague, they said. More outside folks were attracted than not for Cairo’s entertainment scene; positives outweighed negatives, advocates argued.

Local culture for performing arts was special, undeniably. Historic Cairo still attracted major shows and talent while nurturing young musicians, dancers, actors and comedians.

The circus was tradition for generations here, since Dan Rice and Spalding’s Floating Palace on the Mississippi. Circuses no longer wintered around Cairo but big shows visited into the 20th century, including Barnum and Bailey, Sells and Downs, Hagenbeck-Wallace, and Ringling Brothers. The modern circus arrived by railroad in the night, “awe-inspiring for the ease with which it flits from hither to yon,” remarked a columnist. “A circus carrying a thousand people and 500 varieties of fierce and fragrant beasts will slip into a town at 4 a.m. and by breakfast time will have set up 10 acres of tents and will have its calliope fired up.”

Showboat lore traced to the floating barges of Ludlow, Chapman and Lennox, and the steamer tug Banjo of Spalding, in period of early to mid-1800s on the rivers. The 1900s showboats, like predecessors, set up at Cairo wharf and across the way at Bird’s Point. Modern vessels were spectacles on water, a football field in length and electrically illuminated, led by Markle’s Goldenrod and Emerson’s Cotton Blossom.

Classical drama and opera waned in popularity but remained trademarks of Cairo, drawing enough regional audience to support major shows and performers. Famed Lillian Russell appeared here in twilight of her stage career, 1913. Cecille B. DeMille and Marguerite Clark made acting runs at the Opera House prior to entering silent movies, he as a director. Helena Modjeska, acclaimed tragedian, made a farewell appearance at age 67.

But the crowds turned out for song, dance and laughs, from stars like vaudevillians Lew Dockstader, Max Bloom and Al. H. “Metz” Wilson, showing at the Opera House.

Music was popular as ever in Cairo and the riverine delta. American genres had emerged, pure native styles with hot beats, along with technology like the phonograph player. Entertainment infrastructure expanded along automobile routes, adding live venues. And black artists impacted music in facets such as song composition, instrumentals, stage performance and marketing.

Pioneer blues singer Ma Rainey played Cairo, starring for the Rabbit’s Foot Minstrels, while soprano Matilda Sissieretta Jones visited on numerous dates, leading her Black Patti Musical Comedy Company. Jones was a songbird of range from grand opera to pop, known as “Black Patti” in deference to Italian great Adelina Patti. In 1911 Jones’ troupe advertised “40 Colored Comedians, Vocalists and Dancers” at Cairo.

The Smart Set Company packed showplaces in the South and North, from Cairo Opera House to the Lafayette Theatre in New York. The Smart Set was a “black vaudeville” institution for decades with lead men such as Tom McIntosh, Sherman H. Dudley, and the Whitney brothers, Salem Tutt and J. Homer Tutt.

In 1915 a “Negro Renaissance” was apparent in the arts. James Reese Europe, Afro-American composer and conductor, said contemporary spotlight trained on black performers because of “modern dances, and the consequent demand for dance music of which the distinguishing characteristic is an eccentric tempo. Such music usually takes the form of a highly syncopated melody, which in the early period of its development was known as ‘ragtime’ music.”

“Perhaps it is fair to say that the negro has contributed to American music whatever distinctive quality it possesses,” Europe said. “Certainly he is the originator of the highly syncopated melody so much in favor today [jazz].” Europe headed an association of black musicians in New York City, where they endured prejudice and royalties theft from music publishers but likewise dominated jobs for shows and dances. “Our negro musicians have nearly cleared the field of the so-called gypsy orchestras,” he said.

Jim Europe highly admired W.C. Handy of Memphis, the bandleader who composed early blues songs that burst barriers and captured mainstream audience, endearing white fans and black. Handy was a pioneer of American music whom dancers should thank for the fox trot, Europe said in Harlem, adding, “both the tango and the fox trot are really negro dances, as is the one-step.”

Handy stood revered in the lower Mississippi and Ohio valleys, already, and across the South.

“The Memphis Blues is known all over this country and its composer is almost as well known,” remarked a Nashville critic. “Down in Memphis town Handy reigns almost supreme at most of the dances, his music being the one big boast that the Memphians have.” An Atlanta paper saluted Handy’s band as “a Memphis musical institution.” A Texas advertisement touted “Dance Music That Will Make You Kick Back The Rugs.”

Atlanta reporter Britt Craig was struck that hundreds of whites turned out with blacks to see Handy’s band. “The variety demonstrated the democracy of ragtime,” Craig stated. “The applause that greeted the livelier ragtime numbers, especially The Memphis Blues, shook the rafters. Handy was compelled to render the Blues three times when he first played it, then later by special request.”

The self-effacing Handy credited blues music to multi-ethnic artists preceding him along the Mississippi: “Negro roustabouts, honky-tonk piano players, wanderers and others of their underprivileged but undaunted clan from Missouri to the Gulf.” A son of slaves, Handy drew inspiration from experience, his past of incidents and encounters. “There was what we called the folk blues,” he recalled. “It seemed to me I’d always heard them. Our people talked of ‘singing the blues,’ but that was just a phrase. Blues wasn’t written music then. There would be just a snatch of song among my people. It was music from the heart.”

Handy appeared frequently in the northern delta during the 1910s, particularly at Caruthersville and Cairo. He conceived a classic melody on visit to St. Louis, jotting notes in a riverfront saloon. A century later, the BBC recounted: “In 1914, Handy followed up Memphis Blues with his next hit… called St Louis Blues. It was even more popular and influential than its predecessor and it went on to become a jazz standard.”

As America was drawn into world conflict, W.C. Handy played Cairo on multiple occasions, with varying combinations of his Memphis players. The term “jass” or “jaz” was just surfacing in the northern delta. A reporter described the music, close kin of ragtime and blues, as “that peculiar brand of ultra-syncopation.” For longtime ahead, many would refer to jazz as ragtime, “raggy” tunes.

“A jass band is composed of oboes, clarinets, cornets, trombones, banjos and always a drum,” commented a New Orleans musician in 1917. “But the music is a matter of ear and not of technique. None of us knows music. One carries the melody and others do what they please. Some play counter melodies, some play freak noises, and some just play. I can’t tell you how. You got to feel jass. The time is syncopated. Jass, I think, means a jumble.”

Jazz was long heard in locales besides New Orleans, according to Elijah “Lige” Shaw, legendary drummer born in Tennessee south of Cairo, 1900. “We just called it music, not jazz,” Shaw recalled of boyhood in Jackson, Tenn., where he earned money dancing and playing drums in his father’s saloon.

“So this music, everybody says that this music comes from New Orleans, but that isn’t necessarily true, because I’ve been hearing it all my life and I didn’t know New Orleans existed. But it’s the same music as the older musicians that I would follow around as a little boy, getting a whooping every night for staying out because I was out and around where the musicians were.”

Shaw had 15 siblings and left Jackson as a teen, after his mother died. He landed at Memphis and in 1915 joined a network of musicians and bands supervised by Handy. Shaw toured at age 16 with the Dandy Dixie Minstrels, operating from Cotton Plant, Ark. The outfit played Cairo theaters and tent shows. “We’d make a different town every day,” Shaw said. “There was always excitement; every day you could count on a laugh and a change of scenery.”

Handy appeared twice at Cairo in 1917, when Columbia Records released his Jazz Dance Blues—“weird and super-syncopated strains… compelling call to the dance floor”—in national distribution. Handy ended each show with St. Louis Blues, packing the floor of dancers and ensuring encores. Cairo couples enjoyed modern dancing, controversial moves, some considered taboo, of names like the tango, fox trot, turkey trot, bunny hug, grizzly bear, shimmy and toe wiggle.

A modern dancer moved “with every part of one’s body”—alarming churchmen locally. Methodist minister Curwen Henley denounced dancing in “most ardent” fashion, reported the Bulletin. “I am set against the practice of dancing,” said Henley. “I do not believe in being a sanctimonious church member in Cairo and a dancer on the boat. The modern dances are of death.”

Reverend Henley had penchant for making headlines, including as a leader of the Anti-Saloon League. Illinois elders of the Southern Methodists assigned Henley to Cairo, where he admonished the community for “lawlessness and anarchy.” The pulpit firebrand equated locals to hedonists and vowed to fight evil “with every drop of blood in my veins.” Pastor Henley condemned Cairo for infidelity and divorce, alcohol consumption, dancing, gambling and more ills. Given Cairo alone, the “second coming of Christ seems near,” he cried.

Newsmen covered Sunday sermons of Henley, harvesting quotes that grabbed attention on frontpage. “Why should Cairo be the only open town for miles around?” Henley pleaded, championing the Temperance Movement for banning alcohol. “We are surrounded by dry territory; should we continue open so as to invite all the vile here? We will never build up our city that way. Shall we stay open just to be conspicuous?”

In spring 1917 Preacher Henley headed into a showdown. The Handy band was fantastic for dancers at an Elks party, thrilling Cairo generally, but dance opponents felt differently, and the annual picnic for Sunday schools was coming up. The gathering was multi-denominational and this year featured a river excursion aboard the palatial Steamer Saint Paul of the Streckfus Line. Many anticipated trouble with Henley around, since the boat offered dance tunes from bandleader Fate Marable and his jazzy players.

Marable pushed the issue straight away, on morning of the event, a May Saturday, by broadcasting calliope music from atop the Saint Paul moored at Cairo wharf. Gangplanks were opened and church picnickers came rushing. The side-wheel steamer was 300-feet long, wooden hulled, four stories tall, painted bright white with latticework from stern to bow. Tall black stacks streamed thin smoke as the Saint Paul got up steam for the excursion run. Launch was in a half-hour.

Marable, 27, refined pianist and master calliope player, hit notes on the steam organ like none other—“when Fate allows his fingers to wander dreamily over the brass keys all lovers of ragtime sit up and take notice,” gushed a river listener. And as 600 church people boarded Marable’s boat, toes were tapping and fingers snapping, especially among youths.

At a quarter past 9 o’clock, Marable left his calliope perch under the smokestacks. He headed downstairs to the second deck, with its 200-foot hardwood dance floor, to join his musicians. Marable was an Afro-American of light complexion and red hair, native of nearby Paducah, fronting a band of black players from his hometown. In final minutes until boat launch they played catchy melodies, snatches of their advertised “special dance program,” to stir the crowd.

Gangways were withdrawn onto the Saint Paul and moorings untied, ropes reeled in. Deckhands signaled up to the pilot house for departure. At 9:30 sharp the captain gripped the brass handle on the ship’s telegraph mount, a porcelain dial of throttle commands for the engine room. He pushed the dial from STAND BY to SLOW AHEAD, and engines fired below. At rear of the ship the big paddle wheel turned forward, churning water.

The Saint Paul pulled away from Cairo wharf, billowing dark smoke, horn blaring, and made a wide U-turn on the Ohio to point upriver. Straightening out, the pilot ordered steam power to FULL AHEAD; pouring on the coals, the boat glided toward picnic grounds 20 miles up the channel.

Marable’s band played loudly on the dance deck, and there was action. Many churchgoers would dawdle no longer. “Although they knew there would be objection, a large number of the young people succumbed to the lure of the music,” the Bulletin later reported, “and the magnificent dance floor was soon filled with swaying couples.”

But the band was interrupted, told to stop by churchmen, and Reverend Henley and Fate Marable came face-to-face. Marable wouldn’t relent, informing the anti-dance crusaders his band would continue, with or without couples on the floor. And music resumed.

“Instantly the floor was again filled with dancers, and several numbers were played with the same result,” the Bulletin reported. Henley and company halted the music, once again, but Marable remained determined to perform. Henley mentioned sacred songs as proper for the gathering, and, perhaps to his surprise, Marable agreed.  Now only hymns would be heard from the bandstand.

“For a while it was thought the dancers had been defeated,” the Bulletin relayed, “but first one and then another couple returned to the floor. It was found that music of hymns, when properly played by an orchestra accustomed to furnishing dance music, was just as good as ragtime for their purposes.”

Music and the fox trot rolled on. The nifty collaboration between Marable and churchy dancers had won out, their resorting to Bringing In The Sheaves and such. Preacher Henley fumed over the sacrilege, leading his disciples at edge of the floor.

“Charges of desecration were hurled at the dancers by the outraged objectors and many personalities were indulged in, but as long as the music continued, some remained on the floor,” the Bulletin reported. “They flung back a challenge to make them stop and told their criticizers they were bigoted and narrow-minded.”

“The [question of] dance or not to dance at a Sunday school picnic… was never settled.”

Reverend Henley was perturbed that night in Cairo. “No person truly a Christian can endorse or favor the dance idea,” he said. “The dance never builds character but destroys it. It never builds the constitution but undermines it.”

In 1918 Fate Marable and his steamboat musicians were billed as the Kentucky Jazz Band by Streckfus Steamers. The next year Marable retained only one Paducah musician, Boyd Atkins, while hiring a host of New Orleans players, including Warren “Baby” Dodds and teenager Louis Armstrong.

The group, known as Marable’s Jaz-E-Saz Band, toured the rivers on Streckfus steamers Saint Paul and Sidney. Armstrong performed his first trumpet solo from a boat at Caruthersville. Marable nicknamed the kid “Satchmo,” and decades later Armstrong credited the pianist “for lots of us youngsters getting a start.”

“We were the first hot band to come up on the boats and people thought we were really something out of the ordinary,” Armstrong said. “Baby Dodds used to play on the rims of the drums, y’know… we really had ’em jumpin’. Deedy, we used to make ’em swing.”

In 1918 Reverend Henley left Cairo, reassigned to Murphysboro by the Southern Methodists. Soon after he saw a cherished cause become federal mandate in the 18th Amendment, which outlawed the manufacture, sale and consumption of alcohol in the United States.

Prohibition of booze didn’t last. Jass did.

Writer and consultant Matt Chaney is compiling a book on historical song and dance, tentatively titled Stories from River Music to Rock in the Northern Delta. For more information, including Chaney’s previous books, visit www.fourwallspublishing.com.  Email: mattchaney@fourwallspublishing.com.

Select References

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Afloat With A River Show. (1895, July 28). Chicago Tribune IL, p. 34.

Al G. Fields Minstrels Will Drive Gloom Away. (1911, Nov. 22). Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 3.

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Stories From River Music to Rock in the Northern Delta

By Matt Chaney, for ChaneysBlog.com

Copyright ©2019 for historical arrangement and original content by Matthew L. Chaney, Four Walls Publishing

Feb. 16, 2017

Missouri Boasts Its Place in Rock ‘n’ Roll History

March 6, 2017

Rock ‘n’ Roll Thrived in Underworld of the Missouri Delta

March 16, 2017

1964: The Beatles Flee For Hills of Missouri

April 2, 2017

The Local Elvis: From Good Kid to Garbo in Rock Legend

April 27, 2017

The Missouri Delta Nurtured Rock ‘n’ Roll

May 6, 2017

Memphis Cast Delta Beacon for Rockabillies

June 3, 2017

As Rockabilly Fell, Musicians Adapted in Delta

July 22, 2017

1955: Elvis Effect Rocked The Missouri Delta

July 29, 2017

Memphis, Sun Records Integrated Music in Race and Genre

Aug. 9, 2017

Rockabilly Born of Boomer America

Aug. 12, 2017

1955: The Local Elvis in Missouri, Cut 2

Aug. 24, 2017

1956: Girls Mob Elvis from Missouri to New York

Sept. 14, 2017

The Delta Factor In Great American Music

Sept. 26, 2017

Pioneer American Pop Star: Nelson Kneass

Sept. 30, 2017

Steamboats Impacted The South Despite Quaky Start

Oct. 16, 2017

Entertainers Followed Rivers West and South

Oct. 24, 2017

River Music, American Music Prior to Civil War

Nov. 10, 2017

American Pop Music’s Bittersweet, Essential Beginning

Nov. 19, 2017

River Entertainment Illuminated Cairo in Desolate Delta

Dec. 1, 2017

Blacks Electrified Early American Music and Dance

Dec. 14, 2017

Showbiz Hooked the Kids of Cairo, Illinois

Jan. 13, 2018

Music and Social Mores in Swamp-east Missouri

Feb. 2, 2018

American Music: ‘Jazz horns were on fire along the delta’

Feb. 20, 2018

Music Legend from ‘Satchmo’ to Elvis in Pemiscot County, Missouri

June 28, 2018

Jazz Great Jess Stacy Lived The Highs, Lows of Showbiz

July 8, 2018

Hot Dancing’s Popularity Overwhelmed Churchmen a Century Ago

August 10, 2018

Showbiz Landed at the Missouri Delta and Cairo

August 31, 2018

Olden Circus Topped Baseball for Athleticism at Cairo, Illinois

September 19, 2018

Circus Spectacle Inspired Show Hopefuls at Cairo, Illinois

November 10, 2018

Delta Youths Gravitated Toward Music, Stage Stardom

December 29, 2018

1881: Song and Dance Rocked the Opera House at Cairo, Illinois

January 29, 2019

Pioneer Radio Aired Jazz and Country Music from Paducah

January 31, 2019

Radio Rolled Out Grand Ole Opry from Nashville

February 26, 2019

Jess Stacy Grew With American Music in the Missouri Delta

Writer and consultant Matt Chaney is compiling companion books on Southern music. Tentative titles are River Shows, Jazz and Country Music in the Northern Delta: Legends of Song, Dance and Circus; and Rockabillies in the Missouri Delta. See Chaney’s page Stories from River Music to Rock in the Northern Delta. For more information, including Chaney’s previous books, visit www.fourwallspublishing.com.  Email: mattchaney@fourwallspublishing.com.

AMA Doctors Favored Football in Historic Debates

By Matt Chaney, for ChaneysBlog.com

Posted Tuesday, May 7, 2019

I.  Introduction

II. AMA Confronts Brutal Football, Condemns Boys Game

III. JAMA Editor is Heavyweight of Football Debate

IV. Fishbein Sells Safer Football, Safer Cigarettes for AMA

V.  Conclusion

Copyright ©2019 for original content and historical arrangement by Matthew L. Chaney, Four Walls Publishing

American medical organizations are prone to fumble the issue of tackle football, to chop-block Hippocratic Oath, by shielding the injurious game from criticism and accountability—including for brain damage of players.

The American Medical Association was ally of King Football through recurring controversies of the 20th century. JAMA, prestigious journal of the AMA, protected the collision sport in debates from the Depression Era through Vietnam War.

During the 1950s and ’60s, AMA publications and rhetoric were overrun with authors and theorists of sports medicine. Their safety claims proved critical in preserving youth football from abolition.

Football friendliness of the AMA turned hypocritical in the 1980s, blatantly exposed. JAMA editor Dr. George D. Lundberg called for a ban on boxing, citing brain trauma, while simultaneously deeming the gridiron acceptable, including for juveniles. Lundberg, a closet football fan, argued that boxers intentionally inflicted TBI while gridiron harm was incidental, free of malicious intent.

The AMA convention backed Lundberg as critics responded from America and abroad.

“Their position is almost laughable,” Dr. Ferdie Pacheco, boxing physician and TV commentator, said in 1985. “I think people need to remember a few things about the AMA. It represents less than 50 percent of doctors in the country. It’s not a scientific [research] group. It’s a politically oriented lobbying group.”

“If the group really cared about safety in athletics, it would have picked on other sports—football, for starters… They picked on a flea when there are some real elephants out there.”

“The only problem the AMA encounters in this mission is one of discrimination,” stated Melvin Durslag, news columnist. “If, in the interest of life and health, it asks for the abolition of boxing, how can it explain auto racing and football?”

“In [an NFL] game the other day between Dallas and Philadelphia, Tony Dorsett was rammed head-on by a tackler clad in the conventional helmet of iron-like plastic. Tony was knocked colder than Duluth, Minnesota. Does the AMA feel this was helpful to his brain?”

Lundberg and AMA associates clung to their position into the 2000s, until overwhelmed by emerging evidence of brain damage in football players, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or “CTE.” Lundberg came to acknowledge mistakes, sort of.

“Over the years, many physicians have asked me why I was so avid in my condemnation of boxing and completely quiet about the hazards of American football,” Lundberg commented for Medscape.com in 2016. “After all, blows to the head damage the brain, whatever the sport and whether or not the person delivering the blow is paid. I have always considered the moral difference between boxing and football to be stark.”

“Until today, I have never answered those critics. I am biased. I have been in love with American football at least since Harry Gilmer led Alabama’s Crimson Tide to a 34-14 victory over the University of Southern California in the Rose Bowl on January 1, 1946… I never stopped loving the Tide. I was a skinny kid but I was fast and I could catch any ball thrown near me. Three broken arms later, I gave up playing.”

“So, my huge bias delayed confessing reality,” Lundberg continued. “Football blows to the head damage the brain. We now have so much evidence, both clinical and, especially, from autopsies… Just as in boxing, it is not only the knockout-defined concussions but the multiple, repetitive sub-concussive blows that tear small blood vessels and brain fibers each time the movable brain bounces around inside the rigid skull.”

Dr. Lundberg still believed boxing should be outlawed but amended his stance to endorse banning football for ages 12 and under. The former JAMA editor also still believed football officials, their repetitive pledge to devise safe contact sport.

II. AMA Confronts Brutal Football, Condemns Boys Game

By turn of the 20th century, football advocates had their talking points together for recurring debate over field brutality. In 1900, football’s latest “reform,” officials touted new rules, modern equipment, medical supervision, and trained coaches to instill “proper tackling.”

Officials and associates promised “safe football” would finally materialize, fulfilling the stated mission since 1887. They said common transportation killed more than the gridiron, citing accidents of horsepower, bicycles, boats and railroads.

Self-anointed “football experts” dismissed publicized death counts as inaccurate and exaggerated by newsmen. The experts conducted their own surveys and announced more research was needed, from in-house, to determine true risk and outcome of playing fields.

Football policymakers had stock claims for preventing “concussion of the brain,” rampant in their forwarding-colliding sport. Traumatic insanity of head blows, linked postmortem to microscopic hemorrhages of brain tissue, wrought mental disorders recognized in clinical literature. Some families and doctors, communicating in public, believed traumatic brain injury had spurred violence and suicide in their athletes of football and boxing.

To quell concern, football coaches and trainers hawked new helmets, their creations of patent leather and pneumatic rubber. Headgear was trial-tested on players, and promotional text for a leading model, 1900, stated: “The head harness was formerly of felt, but of late years a solid leather headpiece has been invented. It is made of the heaviest English oak-tanned leather… This headgear is ventilated and is made with a double crown to protect the entire top of the head; it breaks the force of any blow received.”

Personnel pledged “open play” and rules enforcement would eliminate cerebral concussion. The 10-man flying wedge had been banned years ago, they reminded, and smaller “mass” formations were under control.

Officials touted “low tackling” for headless hitting, teaching players to strike with shoulder and chest, eyes up, to avoid cranium shots. “The best way to learn tackling is with a dummy with head thrown to one side. That saves your head,” said Dr. R.C. Armstrong, coach-physician in Brooklyn, 1899.

Football advocates from all walks rallied for game preservation. They said criticism was groundless, repetitive, heard from jealous wimps with no grasp of manly sport.

Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, fervent football fan, railed against game adversaries. The rising politician and Harvard alum vowed his sons would play football and build character from injury experience. Roosevelt enjoyed the grandstanding, such as cheering from sidelines at games, highly visible, fist-pumping like a player he wasn’t in college. Shrewdly, Roosevelt reaped political capital in votes and favors, because millions loved football like him.

Anybody could claim anything, really, in defense of beloved football. Hardly anyone tracked the reform phases and failures in some 25 years of American blood-letting. Indeed, headless contact had been tried for a decade already, fixing nothing, along with more theoretical concepts.

Football spectacle was a national institution, economically, socially and ideologically. Casualties were acceptable price for the preferred entertainment, and many if not most physicians cared nothing of “football hurts.” Many had played the game.

In 1900 JAMA endorsed the football word of leaders like Walter Camp, who argued brutal play was isolated and “unsupervised,” existing only at small schools, clubs and sandlots. The AMA Journal qualified university football as milder than “gladiatorial combat” and poked at naysayers, editorializing: “Aside from its apparent dangers, which are probably less real than might be thought, it has its merits as an athletic exercise, and evidently demands more than mere muscle.”

“There is a chance for more thorough research into the effects of football on [human physiology],” JAMA stated, “but so far as the evidence is in, the particular charges made seem hardly justified.”

Football carnage continued, predictably, including for elite programs like the Yale juggernaut of Camp. Emergency response and trauma care were primitive, useless to save victims of severe brain bleed or spinal dislocation, among football damages. Infection ravaged injured athletes in this era before penicillin antibiotics. Football death occurred of bone fracture, organ trauma and skin laceration, sometimes years after mishap, for lack of treatment.

Today’s football by comparison—some five million players, majority juvenile—produces tens of thousands of bone fractures annually. Higher numbers of variously wounded enter surgery. Incidents of brain trauma, largely undiagnosed, likely reach millions. The contemporary American gridiron would kill and maim like warfare, massively, if relying on medicine of a century ago.

In 1902 JAMA staffers collected football reports and analyzed casualties. “Thus far the returns give 12 deaths, several fatally injured and over eighty seriously injured,” editors announced in December. “Among the serious casualties of the game this year we have fractured skulls, injured spines, brain injuries resulting in insanity, as well as broken legs, ribs, collar-bones, etc. To be a cripple or lunatic for life is paying high for athletic emulation.”

The AMA editors weren’t condemning football itself, just human factors. JAMA called for officials to revise rules, once again, and to ensure enforcement by field referees. Editors opined “it would seem that something might be done by those in charge of college athletics at least, to modify the roughness of the game and somewhat reduce its risks… brutality is utterly needless and deserves the severest condemnation and consign punishment.”

But brutality was not incidental of head-on football, only inherent. Danger element could not be attributed to inept rules, bad technique, poor coaching and medical response. Vicious hits and harm were DNA of the sport, explicitly. “It is a mere gladiatorial combat; it is brutal throughout,” said Karl Brill, Harvard All-American tackle who quit football. “When you are opposed to a strong man you have got to get the better of him by violence.”

“I fail to see where the gray matter in a man’s head is exercised at all, nor am I able to see how football is the intricate game some proclaim it to be. Neither do I see how the game can be reformed or remedied.”

JAMA editors detected no safe football in 1903 and expressed chagrin for officials. “The fatalities and injuries… were probably not more numerous or more grave than in recent years,” the journal editorialized. “While we do not wish to be considered as opposing legitimate athletic sports, we believe that in this particular game the human wreckage far outweighs the good resulting from three or four months of athletic exercise and training.”

JAMA editors still hadn’t given up on football. They commended the game’s instilling campus pride and spirit, along with “honest rivalry in manly sports and athletic exercises.” The Journal backed President Roosevelt in 1905,  who blamed brutality on “dirty” players and lousy referees, for his effort to cleanse football.  The “open game” was Roosevelt’s solution, and scores of colleges jumped the bandwagon, trumpeting presidential reform and “safer football.” This faction, led by Teddy’s alma mater Harvard, was merely bureaucracy to mushroom, become known as the National Collegiate Athletic Association, NCAA.

“President Roosevelt is to be congratulated,” JAMA editors declared. “It was his vigorous protest and personal intervention which, more than anything else, brought the football rules committee to its senses.”

Optimism flattened in 1907. The Roosevelt reform hadn’t reduced risk of football, but did inspire scary colliding in open field, injurious as mass scrums. Critics howled, charging folly for so-called Debrutalized Football. “The revised rules of the game have not fulfilled the hopes of the framers… speed and combination plays have proved almost as hazardous,” observed a newspaper scribe. “The ‘reformed’ game has been abruptly ended in smaller cities in which players have been seriously injured or killed.”

Roosevelt blamed college leaders and referees for failing to stiffen code against “unnecessary roughness.” The president insisted “there is no real need for considering the question of the abolition of the game.” He said malicious players were culprit, not wholesome collision football, although he wished it “less homicidal.”

The AMA was souring on hocus-pocus about reforming football. “It was hoped that the open game, introduced by changes in the rules, would take away much of the stigma that has attached to the sport because of accidents, but that hope has proved illusory,” JAMA editorialized. “The question that naturally arises is whether the game is worth the candle.”

Tackle football wasn’t worth it for boys, said critics who denounced “junior” play emerging at schools, clubs and sandlots. The anti-movement included college coaches and players who disavowed boys football—and doctors of the American Medical Association, chirping up from hinterland offices to organization headquarters.

The AMA and its Journal comprised the most powerful entity in U.S. medicine, and likewise stood suspect for heavy handedness in health and trade. The curious relationship with gory football lent credence to allegations.

AMA honchos, editors among them, ruled agenda-setting, finances, and group communication from the non-profit’s headquarters in Chicago. The setup smelled like administrative “tyranny” to Kenneth W. Millican, who critiqued medical industry in 1906.

The AMA posed “a formidable body” in national membership and societal impact, Millican observed for Medical Record. “It can be powerful for good or for evil; in which direction its influence will be cast will depend entirely upon the character of the few men who from time to time must inevitably control its destiny.”

Millican noted, or warned, that a handful of officials could act in defiance of AMA thousands. “Issues will crop up in which the few… will dictate one course, while the majority will prefer another.”

Junior football didn’t divide the association, at least not in 1907. That December the AMA Journal, under editor Dr. George H. Simmons, condemned contact football for juveniles. The editorial, titled “Football Mortality Among Boys,” began: “We called attention early in the season to the fact that deaths and serious injuries were resulting from football, in spite of the claims made that the new rules would give comparative exemption from the dangers of the unreformed game of three years ago.”

JAMA reported football produced 14 fatalities in 1907. Twelve of the deaths were of schools and sandlots, “by whom the new rules are not so carefully followed.” Regarding college football, editors would withhold “final judgment” until further consideration.

“There need be no hesitation, however, in deciding that football is no game for boys to play,” JAMA proclaimed. “Of the whole fourteen killed the ages averaged something under eighteen years; none was over twenty.”

Editors alluded to a football belief that players had but shelf life in the maw, often rendering youths “used up” before collegiate competition. “If football were to be prohibited for students under eighteen and this weeding-out process stopped, then surely there would be more deaths among the older players!” the Journal cracked.

“We may not be able to stop the game, even if it were desirable to do so, but we can prevent some of its evil results,” editors concluded. “It is clear that persons of delicate build or of immature development should not be allowed to engage in football. If we must have this gladiatorial ‘sport,’ would it not be better to adopt gladiatorial methods and have the game played only by fully-developed men who had passed a severe physical examination before beginning the course of training?”

The JAMA bomb invigorated foes of kids football—doctors, lawmakers, educators, parents, college coaches, players, journalists—on their crusade that fell short of establishing legal bans before World War I.

But AMA hierarchy wouldn’t threaten King Football again, for the century and beyond, child combatants notwithstanding. On the contrary, AMA brass and publications would demonstrate unseemly patronage for “youth football,” wholly inappropriate per medical standards and juvenile law, in time ahead.

III. JAMA Editor is Heavyweight of Football Debate 

Organized tackle football for boys and adolescents grew rapidly after World War I, expanding through the Depression Era at schools, clubs and parks. Casualties rose in relation. “Injuries on the football field are a major concern,” Pennsylvania doctors observed in 1937. “While there are about 70,000 college students playing football this fall, there are 700,000 high school boys.”

“Authorities of the game have endeavored to make it safer for the players,” added the medical society, noting historical failures. “Despite whatever may be done to minimize football injuries, there will be more than 70,000 injuries on gridirons of the United States this fall.”

Then medical sarcasm:

“Get that ball!”

“Hit that line!”

“Let’s go, team!”

Many skeptics of cleansed football turned cynical by the 1940s, and debate blew up in public. Juvenile participation was flash-point topic, football’s growth sector, and supporters dug in. Questions loomed regarding medical ethics, child protection and education policy in America. Many doctors proposed to ban tackle football for youths under driving age.

The fray drew star physicians of mass media, debating youth football. The three biggest medical names of print and radio proffered opinions: Drs. Logan Clendening and William Brady, syndicated newspaper columnists, and the AMA heavyweight, Dr. Morris Fishbein, Journal editor, print columnist, and recognized czar of the monolith association.

Dr. Logan Clendening analyzed tackle football from a medico-legal perspective, finding gross negligence, malicious disregard on part of game organizers. “What is the excuse for all this death, suffering and disability that compares with war?” Clendening posed, insinuating blame for medicine, government and education. “It doesn’t ‘make men’ as the coaches argue. It isn’t good sport. It has become one of the stupidest games on earth for the spectator.”

Clendening, who collected injury cases from newspapers, paid a clipping service for the 1941 football season. Thousands of casualty reports were harvested, immense news data for medical follow-up. “Note once more the preponderance of high-school injuries,” Clendening emphasized in his column, “which supports my contention that boys of high school are not physically matured enough to stand the gaff, at least until they are seniors.”

Clendening, proponent of forensic medicine, attributed 23 deaths to football in the year, including 14 schoolboys and 8 sandlot players. For disabling injury, he detected high rates. “The chances are one-to-four [a schoolboy] will receive an injury sufficiently serious to lay him up. The chances are one-to-five that he will receive a permanent injury that will last through life.” An estimated 1.2 million school days were lost by injured players every year.

Like many physicians, Clendening logically associated brain damage of pugilism, known as “punch drunk” disorder in literature, to the same likelihood for football colliding. “The condition is not confined to boxers, and may occur in football players or to anyone who receives a severe blow on the head,” he observed.

Dr. William Brady agreed, having linked brain damage to school football for years in his columns, since Harrison Martland’s microscopic study of deceased boxers. Brady had written for newspapers 35 years, a trailblazer among medical columnists. He regularly ripped boys football, inciting hate mail from schoolchildren and adults.

Brady challenged any ethical physician, acting objectively, to deem tackle football suitable for youths. Brady identified schools as football dens of bully recruitment, where faculty and students groomed boys to play. Anti-football administrators concealed sentiments from local football hordes, Brady alleged, and parents avoided interceding for sons.

“It is bad enough for college freshmen to attempt to train for football,” Brady commented in December 1949. “It is absurd and shameful to permit the ‘sports’ of the community to use growing boys of high school age as stooges in the football burlesque.”

“Football is a grown man’s game, and high school boys, even lanky ones, are not full-grown men.”

A national audience awaited Dr. Morris Fishbein of the AMA, his comments on school football hyped for release 24 hours after Brady’s from Chicago.

Fishbein was an impact leader of American opinion for three decades, a voice of reach rivaling the president’s in any year. Fishbein was known as editorial pen of various AMA publications he founded, and synonymous for JAMA. But Fishbein fame was culturally ingrained for his popular press. His syndicate columns ran weekly in newspapers and Reader’s Digest. His medical encyclopedias stood ready in countless homes, revered as gospel. Fishbein’s voice was heard through every radio on AMA broadcasts, and the indefatigable personality visited thousands of locales, a celebrity on speaking circuit.

Presumably Dr. Fishbein would judge collision sport for kids in medico-scientific manner, given his reputation and so much at stake. Presumably Fishbein of the AMA, trusted by millions, would act free of bias or politics favoring King Football. Presumably Fishbein was fully informed for his grid proclamation, having premiere access to football files, medical literature and contacts surrounding the sport. He had written extensively of football risks, ranking brain “concussion” as the game’s No. 1 problem.

IV. Fishbein Sells Safer Football, Safer Cigarettes for AMA

JAMA Editor Dr. Morris Fishbein knew Dr. Harrison Martland as colleague, having published the pathologist’s landmark study on “punch drunk” in 1928. Fishbein knew of “traumatic insanity” of the 1800s, or should have. Such brain damage was visible under microscope following the Civil War, in full autopsy of dead sufferers.  Dr. John W. Perkins characterized brain matter as egg yolk during injury, jolted by inertia, bashing into cranial walls. Perkins discussed “traumatic cerebral lesions” attributed to “old injury,” different than gross destruction of acute subdural hematoma. And Journal of the American Medical Association published Perkins—in 1896.

Fishbein witnessed a host of doctors link brain damage to tackle football after Martland’s boxing revelations, among them Irving S. Cutter, James A. Barton, Edward J. Carroll, Jr., and Ernst Jokl. A particular medical term was established in 1940, chronic traumatic encephalopathy—yes, CTE—coined by Drs. Karl M. Bowen and Abram Blau. Football referee Dr. Eddie O’Brien said excessive contact caused punch drunkenness. Coach Jim Crowley, one of the legendary Four Horsemen, reduced full-contact scrimmages for his Michigan State players, specifying “punch drunk” risk. Countless sportswriters made the connection.

Regardless, Fishbein himself would not associate traumatic brain disorder with football, not publicly, and microscopic autopsy wasn’t yet performed on a deceased player to impress him either way. Fishbein’s clout could’ve made that happen, his demanding football pursue obvious research in wake of  Martland findings—examining a) brain damage in deceased players and b) cognitive deficit in the living—but he kept quiet.

Fishbein identified mental illness as endemic in America but blamed “high-tension” society and factors such as child labor, which he labeled “a great menace to future citizens.” The possibility of a nationalized head-knocking dogma, perpetuated through rites like head-ramming football, sanctioned violence, wasn’t broached by Fishbein.

Dr. Fishbein also schmoozed around football types since his days at University of Chicago, then featuring great teams of Amos Alonzo Stagg. Fishbein had known late coach Knute Rockne, who joked to Collier’s about a punch-drunk lineman for Notre Dame. Fishbein was friend of George Halas, NFL owner and Bears coach who designed a football helmet. Fishbein welcomed doctors of fledgling “sports medicine” to JAMA pages, having published their articles and letters since taking over editorial around 1920. A socialite, Fishbein enjoyed football games even if dropped at his college alma mater.

During holiday season of 1949, Dr. Fishbein watched a high-school football game in Chicago then informed a reporter of his stance on juvenile participation. His comments hit news wires on Dec. 20, the day following remarks of Dr. William Brady.

Fishbein of the AMA believed tackle football should be preserved for the Boomer Generation, including juveniles. “The number of deaths and permanent injuries do not warrant the elimination of the game from a high school athletic program,” he said. “In reality, basketball and boxing are much harder on youths than football. I believe boxing should be banned in high schools.”

“Football, in my opinion, is not too dangerous a sport for high school boys.”

Fishbein parroted classic talking points of football advocates. He said play was safer because of rule changes, sound coaching, trained athletes, and, of course, modern equipment. Fishbein said plastic hard-shell helmets, joint creation of football and the military, were finally preventing head injury. “Formerly, helmets were actually a weapon,” he reasoned. “Now they are a protective piece.”

With Fishbein’s blessing, high school football counted as AMA Approved—a real trademark that was household cliché, recognized everywhere. The AMA granted its “seal of approval” to institutions, groups, products and services. Supposedly each was vetted for promoting health in some manner. Most significantly, every vendor or organization bought advertising in AMA publications, with collections payable to Fishbein’s office in Chicago.

AMA approval was displayed and broadcast everywhere, adorning medical schools, hospitals, practices, skin lotion, milk, food, cod liver oil, funeral homes and motorcycle helmets, among the array. Wheaties cereal was AMA-approved, “Breakfast of Champions,” as an advertiser with Fishbein.

Critics were legion with many from inside the AMA. Columnist Dr. Brady ridiculed the association for decades as a member, focusing his ire on Fishbein, bitter rival on issues like football and cigarettes. The two exchanged editorial putdowns, squabbling over scientific standards and news ethics, among topics. Brady honed in on dark “approval” business of the AMA, naturally.

“Doctors on the Make,” Brady headlined his national column in early 1950, following Fishbein’s overdue departure from the AMA. Brady had dropped membership a few years before. “I couldn’t stomach the way the nominal officers of the AMA permitted the dictator, now deposed, to insult them,” he stated.

Brady derided Fishbein as the “Great Pooh-Bah” formerly in charge of the “comic weekly” Journal. Brady charged corrupt trade and communication, “a racket whereby the American Medical Association ‘accepts’ and grants its seal of approval or acceptance to the thousand and one medicines, foods, gadgets, methods, processes and even patents. This racket beats any similar scheme of popular magazines as a means of assuring a huge advertising revenue.”

Cigarettes weren’t exactly AMA-approved, not explicitly. But Fishbein valued tobacco advertising for his Journal, exceeding $100,000 in annual revenue after World War II. Cigarette makers appreciated him likewise. The rhetoric of Dr. Fishbein, a public-relations specialist with medical doctorate, effectively shielded Big Tobacco—a JAMA cash cow along with drug companies—through controversy of the early 20th century.

Doctors increasingly recommended against smoking, citing potential risks and conservative ethic of Do no harm. Many were smokers themselves, one form or another.

In 1939 an expectant mother was advised to halt cigarettes by her physician, so she wrote a medical columnist for his opinion. Dr. George W. Crane answered in print, stating no definitive evidence yet existed of smoking’s harm during pregnancy. “On the other hand,” he added, “there is no clear-cut evidence to prove that use of tobacco may not exercise injurious effects on the unborn baby.” Dr. Crane affirmed the recommendation a pregnant mother shouldn’t smoke.

Dr. Fishbein rationalized differently in his column, lending benefit of doubt to cigarette use, not human health, in the matter of smoking during pregnancy. While Fishbein acknowledged harm to the unborn “seems certain” he attached the caveat: “Many additional studies, are required, however, to determine whether the harm is sufficient to prevent smoking in moderation by prospective mothers.”

And so it went according to Fishbein of the AMA, in a quarter-century of addressing tobacco use, until 1949. He didn’t deny risks but wouldn’t condemn the popular activity, always conjuring positives for smoking, always advocating more research. Fishbein suggested casualties were negligible with millions of adults puffing billions of cigarettes. He hit the fact thousands of doctors smoked cigarettes, right in sync with the focus campaign of Big Tobacco.

A blitz of cigarette advertising made buzz for the theme of doctors in love with cigarettes. Physicians in photos and illustrations were featured lighting up at work and leisure. “More Doctors Smoke Camels Than Any Other Cigarette” was a slogan indelibly stamped in American conscious of the period. Print pages, placards and billboards were plastered for years of ridiculous images.

Fishbein blamed excessive smokers for any harm documented. He maintained extremists grew ill for their own abuse of cigarettes and cigars. In contrast “safer smoking,” by the blossoming term, was an innocent pleasure for adults to indulge. Clinicians theorized smoking comforted users with beneficial “psychological effects,” Fishbein told audiences.

Fishbein said cigarettes in moderation could relieve anxiety and hunger pangs, or serve as mental stimulant. Fishbein advised smokers purchase only fine processed tobacco, avoiding the “hard, coarse, commoner varieties” that certainly didn’t advertise in JAMA. Fishbein quoted an expert who said, “Speaking generally, tobacco smoking in moderation is not injurious to grown-up people.”

While willing to reach for positives about cigarettes, Fishbein downplayed studies linking maladies of heart, lungs and circulatory system, always suggesting invalid research. “From the available evidence there is no ground for any startling announcement about smoking,” Fishbein proclaimed in his newspaper column.

He approached tackle football same as tobacco use, conservatively guarding the activity if not human participants. At end of 1949 Dr. Morris Fishbein was popular for his football stance, but charade of safer cigarettes hastened his demise at the AMA. Fishbein resigned under pressure, primarily for his nasty opposition to group insurance and subsidized healthcare. That battle pitted Fishbein, “Medical Mussoli,” versus President Harry S. Truman, and the doctor went down.

Fishbein also took heat for posing as cigarette scientist, with the besmirching JAMA and the organization. “The stately American Medical Association finds itself on the spot about cigarette advertising. Its official Journal accepts cigarette company advertising—but it finds the medical claims rather embarrassing,” editorialized the Des Moines Register.

Fishbein and the AMA were guilty of “ardent promotion of cigarette smoking,” Dr. William Brady decried in column. “To be sure, Doctor Fishbein is no longer in the saddle, but it remains to be seen whether the organization will regain the prestige the AMA enjoyed before it went commercial.”

V. Conclusion

In 1953 cigarette advertising was dropped by the AMA, which acquiesced to angry members, public pressure, and mounting conclusions of tobacco risk. The association abruptly denounced cigarettes as dangerous, and the convention in San Francisco unveiled “startling” new research. “A team of medical experts reported that cigarette smoking shortens human life… and definitely causes higher death rates from heart disease and cancer,” media reported.

But the association didn’t deviate on collision football, maintaining status quo. The group continued to endorse tackle football for children and adults, promoting “benefits of sound health.” Simultaneously, the Journal crusaded against television for concern of child viewers; doctors said “horror shows” likely posed “adverse medical and psychological implications” for kids. JAMA, pulling major press, called on the television industry to fund valid research on risks. Meanwhile the AMA still avoided confronting football for essential brain studies, three decades after Martland on boxing.

JAMA instructed parents to closely monitor television for content harmful to young minds. In stark contrast, regarding football, the AMA wizards told worrisome parents to back off, lest they damage male psyche of sons.

“To anxious parents of sons who want to play football, the best advice is—let them. No, that is not enough. HELP them to play it safely,” declared Dr. W.W. Bauer, AMA-Approved health columnist for newspapers. “When a high-school boy wants to play football, this cannot be denied him without possibly doing injury which may be worse than he is likely to sustain on the properly supervised playing field.”

“A great many parents base their apprehensions on an overemphasis of the hazards connected with playing football,” Bauer commented. “Between the ages of 15 and 25, when most of the football activity occurs, accidents to pedestrians and motor-vehicle fatalities of the same age group are 15 times as frequent.”

“The relative safety of the game, despite its reputation for roughness, should prompt parents not to interfere with the athletic activity of their boys including football.”

Dr. Bauer talked the timeless points and promises of grid safety, echoing again nationwide. Anti-concussion helmets, “heads up” tackling, everything was in the offing once more.

And more doctors preferred football than any other sport, based on quotes and testimony flooding multimedia. Promoting doctor approval was a page from King Football’s playbook, merely replicated of late by Big Tobacco.

JAMA was establishing trend for journals by stabling sport doctors and academics, including Allan J. Ryan, Augustus Thorndike and Fred Vein. The MDs and PhDs, specialists of newly formalized sports medicine, melded right in at association publications and confabs. Football was AMA-approved like never before.

Dreams, concepts, gadgets, experts—all came stylish again in America. Anything seemed possible in the Space Age, including safe smoking and safe football.

“Football can be a killer and a maimer,” JAMA intoned, “but for the player it is also a wholesome and valuable experience that—like life itself—can be made safer.”

Matt Chaney is an author, editor, and consultant on public issues in sport, specializing in American football. Chaney, MA in media studies, is a former college football player and coach whose books include Spiral of Denial: Muscle Doping in American Football, 2009Chaney’s study for graduate thesis, co-published with the University of Central Missouri in 2001, analyzed print sport-media coverage of anabolic substances in football from 1983-1999. Email him at mattchaney@fourwallspublishing.com or visit the website for more information.

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Jess Stacy Grew With American Music In The Missouri Delta

Thirtieth in a Series

By Matt Chaney, for ChaneysBlog.com

Posted Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Copyright ©2019 for historical arrangement and original content by Matthew L. Chaney, Four Walls Publishing

The Illinois Central Railroad stood famed for men and machines at outset of the 20th century.

Legends of “The IC” included a young attorney of the 1850s, Abraham Lincoln, whose representation helped establish the line. During the Civil War the railroad keyed Union victory westward, funneling troops, arms and supplies down to Cairo. In 1900 locomotive engineer Casey Jones died heroically on the Cannonball Run from Memphis. Casey sacrificed himself on IC Engine No. 1, slowing his train before collision with freight cars, saving passengers and crew, for immortality in song.

Fred Stacy was another storied engineer of the Illinois Central, heroic in his own right, of many friends, as characterized in newspapers. The personable railroad veteran resided at Bird’s Point, Mo., across the Mississippi from Cairo, where he also piloted a steamboat ferry for railcars.

Stacy had driven the first “fast through train” from Chicago to New Orleans; his IC Limited topped 80 miles per hour on runs, preceding the Panama Limited to become iconic. Stacy once helped foil train robbers, protecting a shipment of gold and currency from the World’s Fair in Chicago. Desperadoes attacked Stacy’s train at Centralia, but workers and passengers fought back. Stacy cracked one bandit with a wrench, knocking him from the train, and seized a pistol to join gunfire that scattered the others. Stacy and crew were awarded gold medals and IC stock for their bravery.

But questions confronted this railroad man after turn of the century, personally and professionally. Eyesight was deteriorating in his 40s, curtailing operation of trains, and driving the tug barge was dangerous, ferrying railcars over conjoined mighty rivers.

The channel between Cairo and Bird’s Point was a most perilous on the Mississippi, cut by rocks, currents and heavy traffic at confluence with the Ohio. Extreme weather conditions ranged from thunderstorms and drought to massive flooding and ice. Drowning victims were routine along Missouri shoreline, daily sometimes, corpses washed up or otherwise recovered.

The waters pounded Missouri’s banks, collapsing ground in acreage. Trains, wagons, buildings, people and livestock were deposited into Big Muddy. Railcars broke loose on earthen ramps to water, destroying track and crashing transfer barges. Periodically an incline caved into liquefaction,dunking everything with it.

Moreover, by 1904, Fred Stacy had a new family with younger wife Vada, who was 29 and pregnant. The Stacys were impoverished, dwelling in an old boxcar and pasture at merge of the great rivers near Bird’s Point. Hot summer dragged on and Vada delivered a baby boy on August 11, whom the couple named Jesse Alexandria Stacy.

Facts on the family at Bird’s Point would be scant for future accounts, but apparently neither Fred nor Vada considered the swampy vicinity of raucous Cairo as suitable for child-rearing. Vada, a professional seamstress and devout mother, certainly wanted to relocate. Decades later the son, musician Jess Stacy, discussed his parents in an interview with New Yorker magazine. Jess described Fred as gregarious, carefree: “he never worried, which was the exact opposite of my mother.”

Malden, Mo., was attractive to the Stacys, a town of 1,500 where Fred and Vada each had siblings. The mother and infant headed first to Malden and the father followed in September.

Malden was a key railroad stop on the Cotton Belt, some 65 miles southwest of Cairo across the delta. The blossoming community nestled around a sand ridge with decent elevation and no major river in sight. Meanwhile, back at Bird’s Point, the relentless Mississippi chewed and swallowed former home turf of the Stacys. Thousands of feet of earth dropped into churning water, taking the old boxcar and pasture; the area of “Merge Point” was dissolved, gone.

The Stacys lived poor but stable in Malden, nurtured by family network and friendships. Fred held jobs as a railroad brakeman and store salesman, and Vada built repute as a superior dressmaker while she expanded into clothing sales. Jesse, an only child, grew and worked odd jobs, earning from two bits to a half-dollar per day.

Jesse excelled in grade school and acted in plays, exhibiting flair for performance. “Neither of my parents was musical,” he would recall, “so the first music I heard was played by an old music teacher, from across the street, who knew things like Memphis Blues and In The Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.”

That music teacher was likely Elmore E. Mason, horn blower and bandleader, although a young man during his Malden tenure at beginning of World War One. Mason performed across the Mid-South when Memphis Blues was a song for youthful players, typically acquired either from ear or from sheet music printed by composer W.C. Handy.

E.E. Mason, native of the Missouri Lead Belt, played trombone and cornet for circuses, troupes and theaters. He founded orchestras and marching bands in the Bootheel, attracting crowds and publicity. Mason was a talented musician and educated instructor, adept in classical song, opera, folk, pop, and the hot new sound—jazz.

Jesse Stacy played snare drum in school and was recruited for Mason’s Military Band at Malden in spring of 1915. The drummer boy was 10 years old, joining Mason’s group for a big event at Caruthersville, live town on the Mississippi.

Boosters promoted Caruthersville as entertainment hotbed, calling it the new Cairo on Missouri side of the river. The town of 4,000 hopped with shows and events, drawing partygoers from near and far. Caruthersville boasted theaters, dance halls, saloons, club rooms, classic showboats and flashy excursion steamers. There were fine musicians, amateur and pro, in every bloom of American music, playing ragtime and jazz, blues and ballad. The local social whirl involved weekly dances, holiday picnics and balls, fairs, rodeos, circuses, carnivals and business conventions. Vice was readily available, too, notorious gambling and prostitution of Pemiscot County, on marshland border with Arkansas.

Jesse Stacy was wide-eyed at Caruthersville, marching for Mason’s drum line in the annual parade of a salesmen confab. Thousands watched him, in turn, but the kid wasn’t intimidated, performing with relish to cheers along streets.

“Jesse Stacy, drummer boy for Mason’s Military Band, made a ‘hit’ with the [conventioneers], spectators and citizens in general at Caruthersville,” reported the hometown Malden Merit. “Jesse is a manly and talented little fellow who is deserving of every compliment that can be bestowed on him. The band boys in general won the recognition of being a first-class aggregation, which is a compliment to Malden and their very able leader and instructor, Prof. E.E. Mason.”

Multiple musicians influenced young Stacy at Malden, such as Jeannette McCombs, teen housemate in foster care of Vada. The girl “had a piano, which was moved in, and she took lessons,” Jess Stacy said later. “I’d listen to her practicing, and then sit down and play what I’d heard by ear. When my mother caught me doing that, she said I should have lessons.”

Jesse began piano in Malden, but Vada fretted for his schooling post-elementary, among her concerns. She’d become primary income provider of the household, and largely so, after Fred’s failing eyesight halted his railroad career. Fred still worked sporadically for Sexton’s Store, but Vada found employment elsewhere, a new place, as Jesse turned 14 in summer of 1918.

The Merit reported: “Mrs. F. L. Stacy, one of Malden’s oldest dressmakers, has accepted a position in the alteration department at [Vandivort’s Store], Cape Girardeau, Mo., and would be glad to have her friends while in the city to call on her and see the new Princess Coats and Suits.”

Jesse Stacy accompanied Vada to picturesque Cape Girardeau, settled among bluffs overlooking the Mississippi, where he would benefit of “school advantages,” she told the Malden paper. And within months Fred joined the family at “Cape,” as regionally known, where he and wife would remain permanently.

Music was elemental of the old French town, capturing Jesse’s fancy, especially the dance beats resounding from river wharf up to hilltop college. “I took [piano] lessons in Cape Girardeau from Professor Clyde Brandt, and he had me playing Beethoven sonatas and Mozart and Bach partitas,” Stacy said in 1975. “I think it was then I realized that Bach was the first swing pianist.”

“I’m sorry now I didn’t practice more, but all I wanted was to play in a dance band and get the hell out of Cape Girardeau.”

Writer and consultant Matt Chaney is compiling a book on historical song and dance, tentatively titled River Music and Rockabilly in the Northern Delta. For more information see the ChaneysBlog page “Music History and Legend of the Missouri Delta.” For information on Chaney’s previous books, visit www.fourwallspublishing.com.  Email: mattchaney@fourwallspublishing.com.

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Radio Rolled Out Grand Ole Opry from Nashville

Twenty-Ninth in a Series

By Matt Chaney, for ChaneysBlog.com

Posted Thursday, January 31, 2019

Copyright ©2019 for historical arrangement and original content by Matthew L. Chaney, Four Walls Publishing

The radio show to become known as Grand Ole Opry was born Nov. 28, 1925, on newbie station WSM in Nashville—according to official version. But the show’s actual genesis appears to have occurred earlier, particularly the Nov. 5 broadcast from Ryman Auditorium.

A mass gathered in downtown Nashville that Thursday evening, for the annual Policemen’s Benefit. Many people came because of WSM, its old-time music and promotion of the event. Hilarious Uncle Dave Macon headlined with his banjo talent, and reportedly 6,000 fans jammed inside Ryman, hardly bigger than a dairy barn. A couple thousand remained outside.

The show began, carried three hours, and the crowd cheered throughout. “It was a miscellaneous program of music, instrumental, song and comedy…,” The Tennessean reported, “presenting a range from the finest touches in the classical to the old-time ‘break-down,’ and most ‘scientific jazz.’ ”

“Uncle Dave Macon [was] introduced as the ‘struttingest strutter that ever strutted a strut,’ either with his banjo, guitar or laryngeal equipment. Uncle Dave confessed to some embarrassment in being transplanted from a home far back in the country to the stage, without a big wood fireplace in which to expectorate and throw things. Some of the numbers presented jointly by himself and Mr. [Sid] Harkreader were: Turkey In The Straw, Sugar Walks Down The Street, Ain’t Goin’ to Rain No Mo’, Don’t Reckon Twill Happen Again, and Go Way Mule.”

“Both Harkreader and Uncle Dave kept the audience in an uproar.”

Dozens of telegrams reached WSM that night, lauding the Ryman broadcast, and within months the Nashville show was a radio phenomenon. The “WSM Barn Dance” stood listed in Saturday broadcast schedules of newspapers nationwide.

“Old tunes like old lovers are the best, at least judging from the applause which the new Saturday night feature at station WSM receives from its listeners in all parts of the country,” touted George D. Hay, show announcer. “Jazz has not completely turned the tables on such tunes as Pop Goes The Weasel and Turkey In The Straw.”

Uncle Jimmy Thompson was press sensation for WSM, an “old fiddler” at 80-something. “Uncle Jimmy made his first appearance a month ago and telegrams were received from all parts of the United States, encouraging him in his task of furnishing barn dance music for a million homes,” Hay promoted. “He puts his heart and soul into his work and is one of the quaintest characters radio has yet discovered.”

Uncle Jimmy, crusty and endearing, was a ready human-interest story, meeting reporters to discuss life and fiddling championships. And public challenges rose immediately for Thompson, from other old fiddlers, bristling over press claims he was America’s best. Mellie Dunham of Maine, 72-year-old winner of Ford fiddle contests in the North, openly questioned the validity of Uncle Jimmy.

From Nashville the radio star bit back. “If Mellie Dunham will come down here to this WSM station, I’ll lay with him like a bulldog,” growled Uncle Jimmy. “He cain’t beat me. Why, he’s only a youngster, 72. I was plowin’ in a field ’fore he was born.” Their tussle went no further, apparently, as Dunham didn’t visit the South on vaudeville tour.

But Thompson traveled to Missouri for a Midwest fiddling contest, aired on WOS radio Jefferson City. A Missouri fiddler won the listener voting, Daniel Boone Jones, topping Uncle Jimmy Thompson and other entrants. Reportedly 250,000 votes were cast in calls, telegrams and letters to the station.

“Hillbilly music” entered lexicon as latest label in country genre. Uncle Dave Macon wrote and recorded his “Hill Billie Blues,” declaring “I am a billy and I live in the hills.” The 1924 record was unprecedented for use of the term. Bands emerged bearing the moniker, including George Daniell’s Hill Billies of Atlanta and the Al Hopkins Hill Billies of Washington, D.C.

Hillbilly books and movies sold, and record sales exploded. “Hill-Billy tunes are the new fashion in popular songs this year,” a scribe reported from New York in 1926. “Along Tin Pan Alley the vogue is spreading.”

Novelist Rose Wilder Lane, author of Hill Billy, had researched in the Missouri Ozarks. “We live in such a complicated world that a distinct movement is on hand among thinking people to restore simplicity,” she said. “While I was collecting the material for my book, I spend a great deal of time with the hill folks of the Ozarks. I found among them what I believe to be the real folk music of America—the hillbilly songs. These songs go back to the time before jazz, or even negro music, was heard on this continent.”

“When I came out of the mountains, I found that the first hillbilly tune, The Prisoner’s Song, had reached Broadway.”

Hillbilly was also a slur against country folks, deployed by 1800s newspapers, for example, to attack Kentucky highlanders in print. During 1925 Tennessee turned into tempest with hillbilly derogatory a factor, over media hysteria for the Scopes trial that pit evolution theory versus Bible scripture. Hill folks were depicted in vilest terms nationally, and ridiculed at home by uppity Tennesseans.

Nashville elitists extended their hillbilly ire to “WSM Barn Dance,” appalled of that commotion seemingly from nowhere. Elitists had nurtured Nashville music for generations, seeding awareness and hopefully greatness for classic symphony and grand opera. They were still anticipating a homegrown Mozart or Patti when suddenly 1,000-watt WSM started broadcasting from an insurance building downtown.

The radio station dismantled Nashville’s musical foundation in weeks, decried the intellectuals, by broadcasting mere rubes, hillbilly goofs and noisemakers on the airwaves. And to the entire nation! Nashville had been dumbed and disgraced by WSM, wailed the elitists. Their chum local newspaper critic protested by ignoring the country radio show, as he extolled opera.

Hillbilly fans struck back everywhere, defiantly supporting the music revived on radio. And country people always had comebacks for high-brow types, insults. They made fun of stuffy opera, twanging the word as opery or op’ry since before the Civil War. The comic-strip philosopher Abe Martin, wry rube character, proclaimed, “O stands for opery, grand opery, you know. Nobuddy likes it, but a few have t’ go.”

The opera barb led to a lasting name for WSM’s country show, uttered by announcer Hay on Dec. 10, 1927, according to his recall and news evidence. That evening the Barn Dance cast waited in studio as a network opera concluded in New York, for NBC at top of the hour.

After changeover to local programming, Hay aired his particular remark on WSM, along these words: “For the past hour we have been listening to music from the grand opera, but from now on we will present the grand old op’ry.” No recording of the broadcast was cut in disc, but evidence of a new show title was published next morning—“Grand  Old Op’ry,” as capitalized within quote marks—by the Sunday Tennessean.

The name would stick and Grand Ole Opry rolled by 1930, entertaining national audience from Nashville. Music elites could cry in their grand opera. The WSM hillbilly show boasted a bona fide star of American music in Macon, 60, former banjo-picking wagoner in the hills around Nashville.

“Uncle Dave Macon has taken the air by storm,” Hay promoted earnestly from WSM. “His character is rich with humor and his folk songs seem to strike home.”

Macon, for posterity, “was one of the first country recording stars and was the single most popular performer on the first 15 years of the Grand Ole Opry,” observed historian Charles K. Wolfe. “He saw country music develop from an age of sawdust floors and kerosene lanterns to an age of Hollywood glamour, million-selling phonograph records, and nationwide radio broadcasts. His repertoire ranged from pre-Civil War folksongs to Eddy Arnold hits. But his individual songs were not so important as his manner of presenting them… he wanted to feel a kinship with all his fans.”

Eddy Arnold spoke of Uncle Dave in 1971. “He was a showman—now that was the first thing about him,” Arnold said. “He’d get up and dance and take his hat and beat it on his banjo and stand the banjo down on the floor, go around it… he would tear an audience apart.”

“I learned, by George, you’d better be a showman to follow him.”

In 1928 Uncle Dave was portrayed in a novel, garnering fiction immortality like his colleague Blind Joe Mangrum on The Opry. Mangrum had come to Nashville and WSM after career revival in Paducah radio, Southern tours and fiddle contests. He was helped around by Mary, his devoted wife of more than a decade.

“I play now better than I ever did,” Mangrum said in Nashville, his former haunt with Fiddling Bob Taylor, late governor and senator. “Many’s the night I have played all night for ‘Our Bob.’ There was a man who dearly loved music…. I wish Governor Bob Taylor was back here now. We’d show them what music is.”

“Uncle Joe was one of the dearest people I’ve ever known in my life,” Alcyone Bate Beasley later recalled, original Opry performer with her father, Dr. Humphrey Bate. “He had a sweet wife who came with him every Saturday night, Aunt Mary. Used to bring him up there and stay right with him.”

“Uncle Joe was a talented man. I’ll tell you what he played—he played so beautifully—he played Italian things, some of those things, you can almost see gondolas. He played a lot that did not really fit in with the Opry, but it was so fine.”

The historian Wolfe summarized: “Uncle Joe Mangrum represented The Opry’s deepest roots in nineteenth century music.”

Mangrum starred in the glittering Opry shows of 1931, accompanied by Fred Shriver on accordion. Performers included the Macons, Dave and son Dorris; Dr. Bate and Alcyone with the Possum Hunters; G.W. Wilkerson and the Fruit Jar Drinkers; Sid Harkreader; the Crook Brothers; DeFord Bailey; Theron Hale; and Paul Warmack and the Gully Jumpers.

In remote broadcasts the Grand Ole Opry hosted crowds of 2,000 in War Memorial Auditorium, and a local music critic finally showed up, Alvin S. Wiggers, to review a show. Wiggers had avoided the WSM hillbillies for five years, covering everything else musical in Nashville, imploring readers to support grand opera especially.

Yet when Wiggers laid his eyes on and opened ears to Opry performers, he was pleasantly surprised and a good sport about it. “It was a novel experience for the writer, who felt like he had just dropped in from the moon,” Wiggers confessed in The Tennessean, adding he “didn’t know there was so much musical talent in Nashville, and had never seen so many fiddles, guitars, banjos, harmonicas, and accordions before, all played by experts who had spent their lives in studying their chosen instruments.”

Listeners sent song requests by telegram from multiple states, impressing Wiggers, who critiqued the players in positive notes. “Dr. Humphrey Bates and his ‘Possum Hunters’ played Take Your Foot Out Of The Mud and other classics, and varied their playing with occasional outbursts of vocalism or a hand-clapping concerto,” Wiggers wrote.

“Uncle Dave Macon, with his unique personality, gates-ajar collar, gold teeth and goatee, received an ovation. His son Dorris assisted in Red Wing and Jonah And The Whale, and Uncle Dave’s shouting and prancing brought down the house.”

“Uncle Joe Mangrum, who in his 79 years has never seen the light of day on his violin, and Fred Shriver, on the accordion, played Golden Slippers very entertainingly.”

Mangrum would’ve been better known in the 1932, when WSM went “clear channel” on its own radio frequency with 50,000-watts power. But the musical great died of a heart attack in January. Opry stars led by Macon performed a melodious tribute to Uncle Joe on the show.

A newsman friend wrote of Mangrum in remembrance, William Valentine Barry, at Lexington, Tenn. “I can still say that in all my life I never have heard anyone play The Mocking Bird as Joe did… He loved his violin and all who loved it. He would sit for hours and play for one man who listened attentively.”

“We hear of harps in heaven, but I take it that with Joe, it will be his old violin, reincarnated and transported to the Celestial Empire.”

Writer and consultant Matt Chaney is compiling a book on historical song and dance, tentatively titled River Music and Rockabilly in the Northern Delta. For more information see the ChaneysBlog page “Music History and Legend of the Missouri Delta.” For information on Chaney’s previous books, visit www.fourwallspublishing.com.  Email: mattchaney@fourwallspublishing.com.

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Pioneer Radio Aired Jazz and Country Music from Paducah

Twenty-Eighth in a Series

By Matt Chaney, for ChaneysBlog.com

Posted Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Copyright ©2019 for historical arrangement and original content by Matthew L. Chaney, Four Walls Publishing

H.R. Lovelace’s new radio was malfunctioning at his home in Charleston, Mo., approaching midnight on Dec. 8, 1922. The set produced only static and hum, and Lovelace wanted to hear jazz from station WIAR in Paducah, Ky., 43 miles away over delta flatland. Time was running out.

Loveless determined the problem was faulty antenna grounding, which wouldn’t be fixed in cold windy darkness. An antenna had to be improvised indoors, quickly. A few WIAR listeners used bedsprings for backup reception, including a guy in Pennsylvania, but Lovelace chose copper wire instead, a spool of D.C.C., double-cotton covered. He rushed through the house, wrapping the beige line around chair posts and wending to the receiver. He hooked in the replacement “aerial” and tuned to 360 meters, electro-magnetic wavelength for WIAR, and hit live music immediately.

The jazz horns came in clear and amplified, music from studio by Hillman’s Orchestra, top black group in Paducah. Lovelace jotted a note to WIAR: “Your dance program heard around 11:45 fine. Also caught some conversation. Heard some young fellow asking a young lady for the next dance, and I could also hear the movement of feet.”

The dance broadcast was among earliest in radio, with WIAR among the South’s initial stations, transmitting long distance through open airwaves. Paducah radio reached nationwide and into Canada, Cuba, generating 100 watts from the lower Ohio Valley.  River jazz and ragtime hooked listeners. “Syncopated harmony, mellow as the Kentucky moonlight… from broadcasting station WIAR,” the station promoted at Christmas 1922.

Radios were multiplying across the delta of southeast Missouri, southern Illinois, western Kentucky and Tennessee, amounting to a few thousand sets. Folks tended their radio contraptions like gardens, harvesting entertainment from “the circumambient ether.” Young and old tinkered day and night, adjusting tubes and antenna get-ups to catch distant stations.

“It is a novelty—in some measure a fad, perhaps—but undoubtedly there is much pleasure to be derived from listening in on the inspiring programs which come from far-away cities—music rendered by the best orchestras or vocalists,” remarked O.W. Chilton, newspaper publisher in Caruthersville.

Music over the airwaves was transcendent, dissolving distance and isolation for audience. “The wonder of radio has never failed to intrigue me,” waxed T.H. Alexander, Nashville columnist. “Each night I tune [in] with a new thrill as the stations march by with their gay music, floating in the air like banners… Turn the dial and rescue the faint music. It booms in, maybe from New York, Los Angeles, Chicago.”

Escape through entertainment wasn’t novel in the northern delta, still a marshy basin although populating rapidly. Circuses, showboats and excursion steamers were mainstays while theaters, dance halls and honky-tonks dotted the sandy ridges. Automobiles were proliferating along with leisure drivers, and in summer motorboats plied the rivers, toting sunbathers to sandbars. But the radio experience could be private and homebound, affordable and peaceful, unlike outings that posed risk in these parts, especially for armed drunks.

Pioneer Paducah radio lasted less than a year under two owners, the Rudy merchant family and Evening Sun newspaper. But WIAR aired long enough to imprint broadcast entertainment of America.

Businessman J. Henry Rudy was station founder, a “wireless” enthusiast before radio broadcasts reached town in 1920, from Pittsburgh and Detroit, elsewhere. By then Rudy’s Department Store blasted phonograph music through upper-floor windows along Broadway. Rudy’s Store staged concerts such as W.C. Handy, recording star and “Father of The Blues,” with his incredible Memphis band.

Paducah radio—“Rudy’s Station”— debuted with live music on Saturday, July 15, 1922, from third floor of the store. The Kentucky Jazz Band performed, fittingly, local black group originally assembled by Fate Marable, star bandleader of Streckfus steamers. Milestone programming besides jazz blowers included pop artists, string pickers and gospel singers, long before similar radio in Chicago and Nashville. For bands with a beat on WIAR, dancing couples sashayed about the studio, inspiring musicians and listeners. The WIAR “truck radio” patrolled streets, making musical loops along the Ohio riverfront and foothills of town.

No single performer attracted audience like Joe Mangrum, age 70, concerto violinist, country fiddler, and blind since infancy. A Southern great, Mangrum’s moribund showbiz career was revived on WIAR, launching his course to the future Grand Ole Opry. At Paducah in 1922, his star was arisen through the synergy of radio and olden country music. “Blind Joe” Mangrum was suddenly chic, a dean of “old-time fiddlers” blowing up in popularity.

Paducah radio was onto something. “How’s the Bluegrass Country?” a listener card greeted from New York City. “You are putting it on Broadway.” Another fan wrote WIAR from Kansas, requesting “more of that old-fashioned Southern music.”

Hot jazz was a given for radio marketing but hillbilly music, as to become known, would prove the wellspring for epic broadcasting. Indeed, banjos filled radio air gaps on election night 1920, for the landmark broadcast by Westinghouse station KDKA in East Pittsburgh.

“Commercial potential had never been totally absent from southern rural music, but the radio provided a means of immediate and widespread exposure far more advantageous than any medium yet created,” observed modern musicologist Bill C. Malone, author of Southern Music, American Music.

“If some people rejected hillbilly music because of what they considered its crassness, others may have gravitated toward it because it represented to them an image of an older and simpler America, and an alternative to the frenetic dance music of the Twenties.”

***

In the early 1860s at Dresden, Tenn., two local boys were a curiosity together, palling about town. One was black, a slave, William Alonzo Janes, leading around a white kid, Joseph Mangrum, who was “blind as a bat.” As Joseph stumbled in step, William took his hand. The kids didn’t care about their differences because they had fun, especially sharing music. William played banjo, Joseph violin, and each shed his burdens in song and dance, their mutual passion.

Mangrum was a musical wunderkind by age 9 and accomplished at 12, per accounts. He taught himself violin and memorized songs by ear, with no formal instruction. “I remember the first piece I learned to play,” Mangrum would say. “It was Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing. I learned to play Listen to the Mocking Bird by following a mocking bird across the square at Dresden.”

In 1935, a few years after Mangrum’s death in Nashville, William A. Janes discussed his late friend, and slavery, during a newspaper interview in northern Illinois. For the 85-year-old Janes, his native west Tennessee stood in memory, the towns and plantations, low hills and bottoms across the Mississippi from Bootheel Missouri. Dresden was the seat of Weakley County, where the delta’s eastern rim met uplands. It was key crossroads for well-traveled routes northward, some 65 miles apiece, leading to Cairo, Ill., and Paducah, Ky. Armies ranged over the area during the Civil War, Union and Confederate, along with marauding gangs.

Janes described “dread, fear and wonder” of human bondage in his youth. “My life prior to emancipation of the slaves was experienced by the majority of boys who had both a master and a taskmaster. I worked in the cotton fields. We grew tobacco, hemp, flax, peanuts and yams.”

“The constant grind of toil; the conduct of the whitecaps or ghost riders, as they were called before they became known as the Ku Klux [Klan]; the dread of being sold away from our loved ones and acquaintances, terrorized and intimidated,” he said. “The rebel and Confederate guerillas… added no small amount of fear in me. But through it all I emerged whole and free.”

“When it came to the song and dance, we were there! The white children would join us in the dance, to music furnished by the singers and ‘patters.’ Occasionally we had the luxury of a five-stringed banjo, a mighty orchestra in its day.”

Janes and Mangrum performed music together in the postwar then took divergent paths. Janes moved on to Kentucky then Illinois, farming and playing music—a standout violinist he became, too, inspired by his friend.

The name Blind Joe Mangrum—or “Mangum” as commonly misspelled—became legend. “He is a most excellent musician, and can justly be styled a prodigy,” The Memphis Appeal stated in 1882. Nashville columnists and correspondents heaped praise, anointing Mangrum as violin virtuoso of west Tennessee, “greatest master in the South,” among reviews.

“His Mocking Bird is acknowledged by competent critics to be the finest thing they ever heard.”

Mangrum performed with “Fiddling Bob Taylor,” Tennessee politician whose musical campaigning caught national attention. Taylor charmed state voters to win the gubernatorial election of 1886, defeating his brother Alfred, also a string player. Governor Robert Taylor was a folk hero for many, “Our Bob,” with fiddler Blind Joe part of the lore.

“Mangrum… is undoubtedly a genius,” declared the Jackson Clarion-Ledger in Mississippi, 1894, about the time the musician turned 40. “His lost sense [of eyesight] seems to have been given entirely to touch and ear. Besides being a skillful performer he is a composer, and his productions have given delight to many.”

Mangrum preferred operatic and classical pieces, but folks raved over his country fiddling, and he was supremely confident in old-time songs. One night at Jackson, Tenn., Jenny Day’s Southern Hotel, circa 1900, Mangrum listened to hoedowns of a young man with fiddle. When the novice melody segued into Arkansas Traveler, Mangrum interjected.

“Boy, let me show you something,” he said, “breaking down” on bow and violin.

“And he played that old classic as I never heard it before,” a witness remembered, adding: “So long as Mrs. Day lived and Joe went to Jackson, he had a free room and a meal ticket in the Southern Hotel.”

Jenny Day was among guardian types for Mangrum in the Mid-South, enabling him to travel, maneuver and rest. Likewise friends and relatives cared for him in Illinois, Arkansas and Mississippi. The families were often affluent, hosting him for days, weeks or months.

Yet in middle age, the sightless man needed others to lead him around and interpret information. Mangrum declined offers to tour Eastern cities because expenses wouldn’t pay for family or friend to accompany him. Blind Joe relied on people whose voices he recognized, with familiar ground under foot.

Homey sanctuaries grew fewer for Mangrum at turn of the century. He bounced among jobs and locales, living for periods at Union City, Tenn., Cairo and Paducah, showing up at the latter in 1906. “Mr. Mangrum is well-known in Paducah, where he has spent several years of his life at various times,” a scribe reported. Blind Joe himself was impressed with new streets and sidewalks in town: “No more high steppings, bumps and loose plank culverts to trip you up,” he complimented.

The musician played for coins on streets, for meals at churches, and, sometimes, for lone listeners in nickelodeons. Friends and relatives urged Mangrum to accept gainful employment somewhere, befitting his talent. News writers pleaded same, and a Cairo paper admonished locals for failing to support Mangrum at nickel shows, forcing his departure from town. Mangrum twice headed for St. Louis, agreeing to major gigs supposedly permanent, only to leave both shortly. A reporter noted “this maker of melodies knows no real resting place, for like a gypsy he visits many places.”

Mangrum’s dilemma even made fiction of a novelist friend, Annie Somers Gilchrist. The writer was known for devising characters of stark resemblance to acquaintances and family. Violinist “Blind Joe Mangrum” was a figure by name, hardly fictionalized as the man himself, in her story The Night-Rider’s Daughter. The setting was Union City and Reelfoot Lake in the west Tennessee bottoms, across the Mississippi from New Madrid.

In the novel Mangrum was houseguest of Squire Lomax, Mrs. Lomax and son Algernon at their lake farm. One evening the family desired music and Algernon fetched Joe from upstairs. “Footsteps on the carpeted stairs were heard descending—some steady, some uncertain and hesitating,” narrated Gilchrist.

Algernon led Joe by hand into the parlor, for hearty greetings from the squire. Joe was seated, provided his violin and bow, and Mrs. Lomax accompanied on piano. Gilchrist continued in the passage:

Every note of The Mocking Bird was exquisitely rendered. Wonderful trills, staccato notes, and legato strains pulsed out on the starry October night… When the last wonderful phrasing died on the air, a deep breath heaved from the massive breast of the ’Squire. After an impressive pause, the lady said:

“Joe, you are a genius, a wonder. Why don’t you go starring and make a future for yourself?”

“I don’t want to go among strangers unless my brother or some of my near friends would go with me. My blindness—“

“I understand, Joe; but Ole Bull, for all his great fame, couldn’t play with you. I’ve heard him; he couldn’t draw such strains from the violin as you drew tonight.”

He bent his head, and said in a low voice:

“Thank you, Mrs. Lomax. Shall we play the Serenade?”

“Not unless you want to, Joe,” said the ’Squire. “Let’s keep The Mocking Bird in our souls tonight. The Serenade will drive him away. Suppose we all retire.”

His wife closed the piano, Algernon put the violin in its case, and, while his parents vanished into an adjoining room, he led the blind musician upstairs to his apartment.

The novel was written as real Joe Mangrum apparently got the break everyone hoped for. He signed a vaudeville contract to tour Southern cities, reportedly for $200 a week, commencing in spring 1909. Newspapers of at least three states applauded the development.

“Mr. Mangrum has been generous with his gifts and has made no attempt heretofore to commercialize his ability,” commented The Louisville Courier-Journal. “He has spent most of his life in a comparatively small radius of country, playing for charity entertainments and for the delectation of his friends. In his limited field, however, he has delighted thousands of people with his playing, and all who know him have confidence that his venture in vaudeville will prove successful.”

“In the event that his Southern trip, which is something in the nature of a tryout, should show satisfactory results, he is promised booking on the Eastern circuit.”

Mangrum lit up Montgomery, Ala., wowing audiences of the Theatrical Club and the Majestic Theatre. At Little Rock, crowds turned out at the Majestic and Elks Club.

“Joe Mangrum, a blind violinist, is of the kind usually seen at advanced prices,” reviewed The Arkansas Democrat. “He has the technique and the execution. His playing is perfect, containing melody, harmony, volume, and touch… a wizard with the stringed instrument.”

“Mr. Mangrum plays with much expression and got several encores,” added The Arkansas Gazette. “Blind Joe Mangrum was received with great applause.”

Then news coverage stopped cold. Mangrum’s vaudeville tour had ended quickly as begun, for whatever reason. Soon the blind artist was back in west Tennessee and Kentucky, seeking livelihood and refuge.

Writer and consultant Matt Chaney is compiling a book on historical song and dance, tentatively titled River Music and Rockabilly in the Northern Delta. For more information see the ChaneysBlog page “Music History and Legend of the Missouri Delta.” For information on Chaney’s previous books, visit www.fourwallspublishing.com.  Email: mattchaney@fourwallspublishing.com.

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1881: Song and Dance Rocked The Opera House at Cairo, Illinois

Twenty-Seventh in a Series

By Matt Chaney, for chaneysblog.com

Posted Saturday, December 29, 2018

Copyright ©2018 for original content and historical arrangement by Matthew L. Chaney, Four Walls Publishing

The Grand Opera House opened at Cairo, Illinois, in 1881, a spectacular showplace amidst riverine marsh. Fay Templeton headlined on opening night, teen singer and dancer, starring in the comic opera “Les Mascotte.” As the curtain rose “a large chorus of pretty and shapely girls in pink fleshings and short skirts pranced forth (in) a huge sensation” for the audience, a scribe would recount.

Maud Rittenhouse, schoolgirl actress, sat spellbound. “Oh! It was grand!” she recorded in diary. “Seated in that comfortable, spacious, lovely theatre with its blaze of lights, immense stage, artistic scenes, I couldn’t realize I was in Cairo until I looked around me and beheld the familiar faces… all the people in town, and many from abroad. Not a seat in parquet or parquet-circle, only a few in dress-circle, and some in gallery.”

Thirteen hundred spectators packed the auditorium trimmed in Victorian woodwork, ornamental plaster and crimson drapery. Gas-jet chandeliers, globes and foot lamps provided lighting, and acoustics were “perfect as everything else,” touted The Cairo Bulletin. There were 36 exits for fire safety. The brick building stood four stories, occupying most the 600 block bounded by Commercial Avenue and Railroad Street [later renamed Halliday Avenue]. The facility culminated a long drive of local supporters, their shared vision since the likes of Perry Powers and W.H. Morris, deceased showmen.

The Opera House joined theaters, halls, saloons, showboats and excursion steamers among stage venues of Cairo, pronounced Kare-Oh, amusement hotbed at juncture of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. The self-proclaimed “little city” counted 9,000 residents with a quarter-million visitors annually. During the 19th century this rural locale developed a brand of entertainment “more influential and more widely distributed than that of Chicago,” according to a modern analysis. American vaudeville flourished, variety shows for families, and burlesque thrived, too, despite opposition of churchmen and others.

Variety was staple entertainment combining song, dance, comedy and drama, or “mirth and pathos and music,” per a review of the Templeton performance. Variety was a series of short acts, related or not, in musical ditties, dance steps, laughs, acrobatic stunts and animal tricks—“A  Veritable Mardi Gras,” declared a show advertisement.

A troupe utilized variety for a fast-hitting program or for carrying melodrama from opening scene to climax. Companies touring Cairo included the Alice Oates English Comic Opera, Ada Richmond Comic Opera, Harry Webber in “Nip and Tuck Detectives,” the Milton Nobles Comedy Company, Wallack’s Comedy Company, Felix Vincent with Mollie Anderson, and Alf Burnett with Helen Nash.

Homegrown performers came back as American stars in the 1880s: Katie Putnam, banjo and dance maven, and Sol Smith Russell, singing comedian. Both began locally under the tutelage of Putnam’s mother, Mary McWilliams, actress and theater manager. Popular actress Minnie Maddern Fiske made a return of sorts, having been on stage in the womb at Cairo; her mother was actress Lizzie Maddern, who worked while pregnant at end of the war.

Tony Denier’s pantomime troupe presented his famed clown characters amidst theater spectacles of music, comedy and circus stunts. The company’s signature production, “Humpty Dumpty,” turned profit on multiple runs at Cairo. The Denier production came replete with orchestra, military band, wire walkers, jugglers, gymnasts and chalked-face mimes to accompany the star clown. Denier was Brooklyn-born and roundly skilled, authoring how-to books on theater and circus performance. He’d studied in France as a youth, immersed in circus culture and vaudeville of the Old World.

Female burlesque was considered sacrilege by some in Cairo, plain obscene by more folks. But city councilmen were unanimously in favor. They adjourned council meeting early on Thanksgiving Eve, 1876, rushing off to see Madame Rentz’s burlesque company at Atheneum Theatre. The Rentz women were American celebrities, “voluptuous” and “suggestive” on stage, according to reviews. M.B. Leavitt, later known as Father of Burlesque, managed the troupe on a triumphant tour northward from New Orleans.

Music, stunts, parody and satire comprised early burlesque, interspersing feminine imagery and erotica, when bare ankles and high heels were termed risqué. The Rentz Company cultivated renown as “scantily clad,” led by curvy star Mabel Santley, which meant low-cut blouses, knee skirts, frilly petticoats and bloomers, sheer stockings. Skin exposed below necklines was limited to arms and cleavage. Show-goers did know a madam burlesquer might wear short pants on stage, for a tantalizing prospect that risked her arrest. The theater wasn’t the circus, even at Cairo.

Cutesy, buxom burlesquers sang, danced, cracked jokes, shed tears on cue. They turned flips on stage, jumped rope, rode swings in titillating fashion, smiling and singing funny songs, making eye contact with men. “The girls” pedaled about on velocipedes—bikes on tall wheels—their butts perched atop tiny seats, swaying provocatively. They joined in leggy line for the “can-can dance,” patent high kicking to blaring brass and crashing cymbals. The audience watched every move, virtually male throughout, whistling and whooping.

The famed Chapman Sisters raised eyebrows for skimpy attire at Cairo, coming out in leotards and silk leggings. A local critic remarked “the costuming might seem objectionable, but there was nothing in the play that could be objected to.” Blanche and Ella Chapman were burlesque queens and showbiz royalty, having been reared in theater, learning to “act well, sing sweetly, and dance splendidly,” a scribe attested.

They also wrote well—at Cairo the sisters created hilarious satire of local life and personalities, assisted by their mother, legendary actress Julia Drake Chapman. As descendants of showboat and theater pioneers, the Chapman women drew on family river lore and contacts to present a zinging parody on Cairo. “It abounded with local hits, nearly all of which were loudly applauded by the audience,” The Bulletin observed. “It is a marvel how the troupe learned so much about Cairo in so short a time.”

The paper endorsed burlesque of the Worrell Sisters accompanied by comedian George S. Knight, but editors took exception with the May Fiske English Blondes. The Bulletin ripped Fiske’s cast of mostly bleached hairdos for selling “nastiness… verbal smut and shapely female ankles.”

Femme fatale Fanny B. Price caused the newspaper to suspend publication for threat of a labor strike. The young actress entranced gobs of boys and men, particularly along the rivers West and South. Males adored Price, penning letters and placing print notices for her at ports like Cairo, where 45 men publicized their names. Price was a tragedian player, “girlish” and “prepossessing” in appearance. She excelled in roles such as Parthenia, Greek maiden of myth, and Lady Macbeth. Bulletin pressmen were riled over missing her at the Atheneum on Thanksgiving, 1873; as they discussed skipping work, the editor canceled the paper’s printing instead, and the boys saw the show. Fans viewed Price as “chaste and pleasing,” and Cairo men fawned for decades, until finally she’d been married, divorced and remarried, living in South Dakota.

Price’s vocals and dancing rated from capable to superior, which was standard of top thespians appearing at Cairo. Mary Anderson, stage phenomenon from Louisville, succeeded Price as a hot ticket locally, accompanied by actor John W. Norton. Kate Claxton was a hit dramatist, hearing calls for encore. Lawrence Barrett and Englishman Frederick Warde were fantastic in Shakespeare portrayals, according to The Bulletin, while Robert McWade personified a classic Rip Van Winkle, truest to Washington Irving’s character.

But the paper also scolded readers over lackluster support for serious drama, a national trend. Critically acclaimed actors could go broke in the hinterland, such as Price’s stranding on occasion with her outfit. “Those were the days of fat parts and good notices, but no salaries,” recalled Roland Reed, former actor. Once, with the troupe stuck in Illinois, Reed turned to comedy, his forte, staging shows that paid train fare home for everyone.

With Old World convention on decline in America, classical drama had a problem for its dearth of fashionable music. In the delta and elsewhere, most Americans wanted popular music and stirring beats. People wanted song and dance—“leg ball, fantastic toes”—whether for watching or participating.

***

Famous persons often passed unrecognized in Cairo, Illinois, before photography’s mass dissemination. Luminaries were many in town during the latter 19th century, recognizable names like Susan B. Anthony, American suffragette; James Milton Turner, civil rights pioneer; James B. Eads, steel bridge master; “weather prophet” John H. Tice; burlesque icon Lydia Thompson; and Ben De Bar, actor and theater mogul. But most celebrities were unfamiliar at first glance around Cairo. Tell-all author Ann Eliza Young, internationally known speaker as the divorced Wife No. 19 of Brigham Young, was just another face off a train until introduced for her eager audience at the Atheneum.

Some celebrities were easily identified, however, for their images engraved en masse on news pages, magazine covers, show-bills and product advertisements. And alerts usually preceded such arrivals at Cairo, information publicized or telegraphed.

Locals gathered atop the Ohio levee in 1882 to await boxer John L. Sullivan, heavyweight champion, the Babe Ruth of Victorian sport. They watched railcars with Sullivan’s entourage cross the river on transfer barges, for re-connection on the Cairo side. The reassembled train chugged up to level tracks for layover and townspeople rushed private cars on beelines.

Kids and adults raced to see Sullivan, man and myth. “He was finally discovered near one of the windows of the Chicago sleeper, and after much solicitation and begging on the part of the crowd to show himself on the platform, he walked to the rear end of the car and descended to terra firma,” The Bulletin reported. “He was kept busy shaking hands with the crowd until the train moved out to Chicago.” Before departure the champ wired a St. Louis paper, rebuking the report he was “drunk and on a carousel for two days” in New Orleans. “Absolutely false,” decried John L. Sullivan.

The showman renowned as “Tom Thumb,” Charles S. Stratton, needed no introduction in Cairo, attracting crowds everywhere. Three hundred children attended a theater matinee starring Tom Thumb, Commodore Nutt and their wives, “The Lilliputian Quartette,” in song, dance and comedy. Rare few Americans were recognizable like Tom Thumb, for his mentions and likenesses pervading pop culture. William “Buffalo Bill” was another, the western scout turned entertainer.

Locals had heard plenty, read plenty of Buffalo Bill by the time his Wild West troupe arrived via railroad for a theater production. Cody was unmistakable stepping from the car, a dead ringer for his portraits plastered about on fences and buildings. An admiring mob trailed Buffalo Bill from train depot to ground floor of the Halliday Hotel. “It was really amusing to see men of all ages stand with hands in their pockets and open mouths, staring in mute wonder at the tall, finely formed, neatly dressed, long-haired, pleasantly faced hero of novels and of the plains… the exact counterpart of the fine engravings of him on the fancy bills.” Black and white kids filled the walk affront the hotel, boys aplenty. They jostled each other, peering inside for Buffalo Bill, “their eager faces against the large windows, expressing awe.”

Cody drew the biggest attendance yet at the new Opera House, upwards of 2,000 jammed in seats and standing space, children everywhere. Blacks filled segregated seating in the dress circle. Buffalo Bill’s western extravaganza featured musicians, dancers, American Indians and cowboys. Cody took spotlight for his marksmanship, shooting tiny objects around the stage while “holding the gun in many different positions,” recounted The Bulletin. Apparently no ricochet bullet reached the audience.

Future analysts would lambast such entertainment for racial and gender stereotyping, and firearms, endangerment, among issues. But all shades of people loved the content in real time, 1880s America, and many strove to perform on stage. Buffalo Bill’s western show electrified the Cairo Opera House in delta frontier. “When the curtain went down upon the last act, the house shook with wild shouts, clapping of hands and stamping of feet, and there was a general expression of the wish that the company would remain another day.”

“Yesterday morning about 11 o’clock, headed by a cornet band, [Cody] led his band of Indians picturesquely uniformed and on horseback through the principal streets. The sidewalks along the line of march were crowded almost densely with people, and the streets were alive with noisy boys. From here the company went to Evansville, leaving on the Wabash train.”

A western show relied on cowboy singers, fiddle scratchers and banjo pickers. “Western music” was sprouting in America with siblings variously labeled as cowboy songs, frontier melodies, rural music, farmer’s music, quadrille songs, folk ballads, plantation melodies—and country music, someday the umbrella classification.

“Country music” was characterized in winter 1887 by a newspaper correspondent in Illinois, reporting details of a sleighing party east of Decatur. Bobsleds and snow cutters fetched guests from town for evening rides overland, to the estate of farmer Bering Burrows. “There was [square] dancing in country style to country calling, and country music, and at 11 o’clock an old-fashioned country supper was served. After supper, dancing was resumed and continued until 12:30, when the ride home was commenced.” Horse-drawn sleighs zipped over the landscape, moonlit snow cover, returning folks home until 2 a.m.

The Cairo region was thick with country fiddlers and banjo pickers, white and black. Southern songs resounded, such as Dixie and Turkey In The Straw.

Henry Hart’s string band showcased his fiddling at square dances from Indiana to Missouri. Tom Lewis, multi-tasking musician, published a newspaper, played fiddle and poured drinks in his Gem Saloon at Cairo. Local bandleader Charles Wittig had sons and daughter in string ensembles, forming a fiddling family for dances and stage shows. Other top musicians heading string groups included Harry O’Brien, George Eisenberg, Lee Boicourt, Edward Dezonia, George Storer, A.L. Goss and Edward Lemon.

Transients proved good fiddlers in Cairo, like the stranger who grabbed up violin and bow at Carle’s Livery, “striking suddenly into the tune of The Arkansas Traveler, which he played in an astonishing manner.” Men paused in front the stable and danced jigs, including cops, attorneys, the mayor, a judge, doctor, editor, even preachers. They competed at toe twirls and Reuben Yocum won, court clerk, “going it alone and making four” on the dirt avenue. One morning a boy fiddler strolled Cairo, a “musical prodigy” about age 5, The Bulletin reported, accompanied by an unkempt man on second violin. Children gravitated to the wee musician, following him along streets in “admiration and envy.”

Banjo music was trademark of Cairo and Missouri landings since the instrument was established by African slaves and freemen. White minstrel Emory M. Hall performed a history lesson on stage, playing artifact banjos and songs in period progression since the 1700s. Hall began with a gourd banjo and its three strings on a stick, from the instrument class of cornstalk fiddle and sassafras bow. He concluded on his customized 13-inch Clarke banjo, “The Thunderer,” picking five strings on a fretted fingerboard. Hall had rigged together his first banjo during the Civil War, a cheese box with horse-hair strings, as Union drummer boy in Louisiana. “I made music out of the thing,” the Maine native said in 1898.

Hall played masterfully and knew music history better than professors, garnering repute as Paganini of Banjo, America’s “best twanger of strings.” A solo by Hall sounded “simply wonderful,” saluted an Alabama paper, “playing as he does the most difficult variations on favorite themes [like] Home Sweet Home.” In Memphis a critic raved: “He is to the banjo what Ole Bull is to the violin, eliciting… sweetest and most touching melody.”

E.M. Hall was among Chicago minstrels closely associated with southern Illinois, a group that included dancer Andy McKee and singing stepper Cal Wagner. Hall played Cairo under various managements, including J.H. Haverly, until his death of the disastrous theater fire at Chicago in 1903.

Minstrel Dick McGowan was also a superior banjo talent in Cairo, along with George Powers and Edwin French, a pair on par excellence with Hall. Actress Kate Partington picked banjo for encores at the Opera House, starring in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” as “Topsy” in blackface.

Afro-American banjoists picked ragtime and country melodies at Cairo before the Civil War, according to numerous sources of 1800s news coverage. Charles E. Trevathan was a white songwriter and journalist, native of west Tennessee bottoms along the Mississippi. In 1896 he surmised that ragtime originated “as a simple beat, but practice brought it to the dignity of a rhythm, weird, in no degree like any other musical expression, and intensely characteristic of the people who gave it birth. Now you may go anywhere along the Mississippi River from St. Louis to New Orleans, at Cairo, Memphis, Natchez… and you will hear the rag.”

Black troupes brought extraordinary banjoists, notably the Georgia Minstrels in various combinations. The Georgias put a “banjo orchestra” on stage, upwards of a dozen artists coming together before a steamboat backdrop, and strings were “made to talk.” The Bohee brothers, James D. and George B., were star pickers along with Dick Little, John H. Taylor, J. Locke Warwick, James Layton, C.F. Stanbury and Horace Weston. “The Georgias have no superiors and are favorites with the Cairo public,” The Bulletin emphasized, repeatedly.

American music pioneer James A. Bland headlined for the company at Cairo while introducing his popular songs from 1874 to 1881. Bland had grown up a free black in Washington, D.C., becoming a professional entertainer at 14 and later graduating from Howard University. Bland was multi-skilled as a composer, banjoist, singer, dancer and comedian. His classics Carry Me Back to Old Virginny and O! Dem Golden Slippers were among tunes he debuted with The Georgias, pleasing audiences across ethic lines. In Decatur, Illinois, the newspaper gushed over a “monster band concert led by the inimitable Bland.” Ford’s Theater in Washington proudly billed “The Great James Bland” in spring 1881, prior to his departure for Europe and international acclaim.

The Georgias stocked name performers like Tom McIntosh, Bob Height, William Allen and many more. Bar none the biggest star was Billy Kersands, hysterical song-and-dance man who ranked among highest paid during his prime, of any race. Kersands was tall, athletic and handsome, commanding spotlight anywhere, London and Windsor Castle notwithstanding.

“It is as much the ‘propensity’ of Mr. William Kersands to be funny as it is the propensity of men generally to eat and drink,” an English critic remarked. “The singing of… whimsical effusion and the comic expression of face caused roars of laughter. Mr. Kersands has equal talent as a dancer. There never was a more nimble fellow on ‘the light fantastic toe,’ and his imitations of an opera dancer were droll in the extreme.”

Billy Kersands played dates in the northern delta spanning five decades, with perhaps his last appearance in 1910, the Cairo Airdome. Kersands died in New Mexico, 1915, on a summer tour through desert towns by automobile.

Writer and consultant Matt Chaney is compiling a book on historical song and dance, tentatively titled From River Music to Rock in the Missouri Delta. For more information see the ChaneysBlog page “Music History and Legend of the Missouri Delta.” For information on Chaney’s previous books, visit www.fourwallspublishing.com.  Email: mattchaney@fourwallspublishing.com.

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Delta Youths Gravitated Toward Music, Stage Stardom

Twenty-Sixth in a Series

By Matt Chaney, for ChaneysBlog.com

Posted Saturday, November 10, 2018

Copyright ©2018 for historical arrangement and original content by Matthew L. Chaney, Four Walls Publishing

A striking appearance marked Cairo following the Civil War, progress, beginning with brick buildings rising on the riverfront. Troops and artillery had departed, and military influence faded. The Ohio levee no longer glinted “blue with the garb of soldiery.” The four-story St. Charles Hotel stood majestic, former haunt of General Grant, providing finest accommodations in the American interior. Many travelers were impressed, arriving at the storied little city of southern Illinois.

“This was our first visit to this famous place since 1844, and, of course, the change is great—indeed wonderful,” remarked an Indiana newsman. “Since then [Cairo] has spread itself greatly.”

Freedom graced the grizzled riverport and mirth manifested in music. A wide spectrum of song was heard, from symphonic to syncopated, opera to ballad, and multi-ethnic in origin. Cairo welcomed occupation by musicians and dancers, after wartime and clashing armies.

“No gunboats block the rivers… and from no source does that contemptible word ‘halt’ come to grate upon the ear, and send its shivering shock through every nerve of the body,” observed a Tennessee writer. “All around you may be seen peaceful symbols, and from every direction music rings out upon the passing breeze. This is as it should be.” A Cairo Bulletin editor felt at ease in late 1865, for “the delicious power” of song postwar. “Music has an influence for good—it soothes one’s feelings and inspires all the ennobling attributes.”

Life remained difficult at intersection of the Mississippi and Ohio, on border between North and South. In 1870 the Cairo population was 6,267, about one-fifth being Afro-American, largely freed slaves. The monthly “floating population” could top 20,000 transients from worldwide, on visits legitimate and otherwise. Meanwhile this was frontier landscape. People of every color, character and class confronted the forces daily, natural and man-made. Conditions could deteriorate quickly, get primitive. No one was immune to disease, injury or mortality, and there were casualties young and old. Death rate of crime and accidents alone could tally double figures in a week.

But greatness sparked here, too, for the simmering humanity and nature, in artful sound particularly. Pure American music was distilling in the delta, early renderings to become known as gospel, blues, ragtime, jazz and “country.”

Cairo boasted choirs, brass bands, cornet bands, string bands and full orchestras, performing outdoors, indoors and on riverboats. Strolling musicians played at street corners and building fronts. Incredible dancers appeared day and night, many amateur, “patting juba,” busting wing moves, jigs, toe spins, reels and waltzes. Dancing broke out anywhere except a church sanctuary.

Black and white performers exchanged ideas, techniques and respect, if hesitant to show together on stage. But dance crowds integrated publicly, despite friction that sometimes turned violent. Many whites persisted, fans of black artists unwilling to stay away, and likewise. Music dissolved differences like little else in segregated society, church notwithstanding.

Melody blasted off the rivers from calliope organs of steamboats, broadcasting for miles over water and flatland—“a free concert by steam!” touted a circus advertisement. Steam tooting was ambient noise of the delta, a native’s birthright, and Cairo folks critiqued calliope players along with pianists, violinists, banjoists, guitarists and horn blowers. The entire town heard a calliope player, who had better be good, as was the case on a holiday afternoon at the wharf.

Happy locals gathered atop the levee, dancing in approval. “The calliope of the steamer Silver Moon—a good one very skillfully played—gave the feet of every listener a twitching that very nearly produced a general ‘break-down’ all along the levee,” a newsman reported. “Such tunes as Black Crook, Rack-Back Davy, and Daddy, Dang It, Shove Along appeared to invite a regular ‘hoe-down.’ ”

Exceptional music was standard for Cairo tastes accustomed to the best of America and Europe. Famed white minstrels were acts locally, including George Wilson, E.M. Hall, Edwin French, George Primrose, Dick McGowan, Charlie Christy, George Powers, Billy Rice, Cool White, Johnny Bowman, Billy Emerson, Ned Goss and Jim Fox. McGowan opened a saloon, short-lived, but Bowman profited in ownership of a Cairo theater, the Comique.

Afro-Americans took over minstrelsy in the 1870s, thrilling Cairo audiences with stars like Bobby Kersands, Bob Height, Tom McIntosh, Burrell Hawkins, Billy Jackson, Sam Lucas, and the Hyer Sisters. The Bulletin raved over a celebrated troupe originally founded by slaves in Georgia. “Without fear of contradiction, the performance of Callender’s Georgia Minstrels, at the Atheneum last night, may be pronounced the best minstrel performance every given in this city… The performances are the most artistic, refined, and thoroughly enjoyable of any ever given here, and absolutely the best we ever saw.” The cornet players had opened entertainment with a street parade for local throngs, undoubtedly jazzing notes.

Excursion steamers boomed and musicians capitalized along the Mississippi and Ohio through end of the century. The publicized Afro-American names included King Hatcher and his Coachwhip Band at Dubuque; H.B. Hunter’s Cornet Band at Alton; the St. Louis Silver Quartette of F.S. Woodson; and the Cape Girardeau Silver Cornet Band. Gussie L. Davis was cutting-edge composer of Cincinnati, heading black ensembles. Louisville offered the Silver Cornet Band and Falls City Band, among notables, and cornet player W.C. Handy of Henderson directed brass for Mahara’s Minstrels.

In Memphis were the Bluff City Cornet Band, Bob Wardlow’s Conservative Colored Band, Sam Ager’s African Brothers Minstrels, and a hot troupe aboard the steamboat Pat Cleburne. Vicksburg had the Electric Band and Wesley Crayton’s Silver Cornet Band, while the Brierfield Cornet Band originated from the old Jefferson Davis plantation. Donaldsonville produced “two of the best colored bands,” known as the Crescent and St. Joseph’s.

New Orleans nurtured a mass of black artists and groups, with just a few examples in the Eagle Band of Buddy Bolden, the Excelsior Band, and the Lilliputian Cornet Band composed of children. Bolden, jazz pioneer on cornet, blew notes “heard across the Mississippi River when he was going right.”

Cairo sat at river crux of it all, cradling Afro-American musicians. Local players included the Phoenix Brass Band, Scott’s Saloon Minstrels, O’Brien’s Saloon String Band, and steamboat bands. The packet Tyrone moved freight and staged entertainment along its route from Cairo to Nashville, traversing the Ohio and Cumberland rivers. Performers black and white comprised the Tyrone crew, working together in shows and boat duties.

Steamer Tyrone was envy of the rivers, deftly mixing business and pleasure, and creed. At show-time the cast came “full force with comic and sentimental songs, jests, dances &c., &c., closing with Capt. Harmon’s inimitable trombone solo,” per an advertisement. When rival boats drew up, the band cranked Shoo Fly, popular tune.

The Tyrone struck rock and sank in the Cumberland, and a river journalist wrote in epitaph: “Steam-boating on her had been so constantly cheered with music, feasting and revelry that her career had been one continual scene of fun and gaiety.” This steamer submerged in “pellucid waters” wasn’t finished, however, for work or play. Salvage experts raised the wreck for repair at Paducah and the Tyrone resumed river freight and entertainment from Cairo, eventually a circus craft exclusively.

Cairo experienced an extraordinary black performer in Henry Hart, violinist and composer born a freeman in Kentucky, educated in the North. Hart passed through the northern delta during wartime, on his way to showbiz in New Orleans, and returned later a star. Hart was idolized by musicians, adored by audiences across racial lines. Fans discussed him simply as Henry, from East to the Rockies. “Mr. Hart’s sense of dance rhythm is known in many places,” a hometown paper understated. Hart, who would perform for three American presidents, played the Cairo area for decades as a resident of Evansville and Indianapolis. Hart spoke proudly of his “bloods,” fellow blacks in music, while keeping close friendships with whites like dancer Andy McKee, star of minstrel “blackface” who began at Cairo.

Henry Hart worked steamboats of the lower Ohio in the 1870s and ’80s, with talent such as Lucas, Joe Johnson, Jake Hamilton, A.A. Thomas, J.H. Ringgold, Cecil Sanders, J.T. Birch and John Lewis. Hart’s combinations covered musical spectrum from symphony and opera to the emerging beats of “rag” and “farmer” picking. For the Cairo following Hart presented string bands and small orchestras that utilized fiddles, banjos, guitars, bass and brass, adding variously harp, piccolo and drums.

“The excursion on board the Idlewild last night, from this city to Columbus, was a very pleasant affair,” The Bulletin reported in August 1875. “A goodly number of young people, sprinkled with a number of older and more sedate folks, were in attendance, and all enjoyed themselves. After the excursionists had partaken of a most excellent supper, the cabin was stripped of its furniture, and a splendid string band, headed by Henry Hart, took their places and the mazy dance began.”

In the same period “jubilee” vocalists revolutionized religious music. These Afro-American choirs propelled “spiritual” songs into pop culture. The plaintive, bluesy “plantation” melodies of slavery had appealed to Christian divinity for delivery to The Promised Land, but now the content hit glorious mass market. Pioneer gospel had been unleashed by Emancipation, and the world was patron through concerts, sheet music and more text. Printed lyrics sold newspapers and magazines.

Fisk University showcased the famed jubilee choir, institution founded for blacks at Nashville, but top singers abounded in the South. Cairo audiences heard the choir of Memphis State University, headlining a production of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” while jubilee vocalists flourished locally at the African Methodist Episcopal Church. “Those who attended the Plantation Concert, given by the members of the AME Church at the Atheneum [Theatre] last night, were lavish in their praise of the efforts of all connected with the affair,” The Bulletin reported in 1879. “The concert, which consisted of songs sung by the colored people in the days of slavery, proved a capital hit and was the best thing of its kind ever presented to a Cairo audience.”

The white Methodist Church hosted Philip Phillips,  evangelist of “sacred songs,” epitome of pulpit popularity. Phillips went beyond sing-song preaching, torquing his sermons and lessons with hymns in stanza and full. Phillips, “The Singing Pilgrim,” a favorite of late President Abraham Lincoln, “sang his way around the world and into the hearts of kings and heathens alike.” Phillips published a Sunday School songbook, selling it widely, and lent celebrity to a Cairo crusade of denominations that condemned song and dance deemed unholy by the churchmen. Phillips realized fulfillment besides spiritual at Cairo, pulling cash from concert and book receipts.

Harmonists were still huge with fans, “barbershop” quartet and such. Major companies showed at Cairo like the Peak Family and Berger Family, associates of P.T. Barnum, along with the Baker Family and The Alleghanians. But their line increasingly relied on variety accompaniment in bell ringers, harpists, horn blowers, dancers and comics. The Bergers scored with locals for the addition of Sol Smith Russell, youthful Missourian and Cairo theater product on track for the top in show business. The troupe also presented cursory Swiss clangers and a novel female orchestra.

Iconic repute preceded instrumentalists like slave-born Thomas Wiggins, “Blind Tom,” syncopating pianist and composer who mesmerized people for a decade at Cairo. The brilliant Wiggins, possibly an autistic savant, mimicked sound to perfection, including speeches, battle narratives, gunfire, animal cries and stormy weather. Although musically educated, Wiggins learned melody primarily by ear, in instants, memorizing thousands of piano pieces from concerto to ballad. Audience volunteers played piano for Blind Tom then he replicated exactly their snatches and songs, down to errors.

For syncopating overlay on piano, melody upon melody, the powerful Wiggins keyed three songs simultaneously, according to legend. “Of the excellent entertainment given by this wonderful person, we have but little to say…,” The Bulletin reviewed in spring 1875, “except that the performance of last night was fully up to his former efforts, if not superior. The audience was kept in a state of wonder and delight from beginning to end, frequently making the house fairly ring with their approval… whenever Blind Tom visits Cairo, he will meet with a most cordial welcome from our citizens.”

European violinist Ole Bornemann Bull came during bitter winter, drawing 500 to the drafty Atheneum. None was disappointed as the master lived up to hype, performing the best of symphony, opera, and ballad with improvised flurries. When the Norwegian covered Arkansas Traveler by request, fiddler style, folks really warmed to him. “Ole Bull smiled, and his fiddle went through the melody as though it was used to playing it every hour in the day.”

Hungarian violinist Ede Remenyi saw big crowds on his American tours of the 1880s, and a Cairo date was no exception, with many musicians in attendance. “The old gentlemen made the instrument speak to the audience in tones that visibly affected everyone in the house.” Jules Levy was another musician of international acclaim, performing on cornet, horn of favor at Cairo. “Our ear, in youth, was cultivated up to an appreciation of cornet music, and it was highly gratified last night by the blowing of ‘the greatest,’ ” saluted a Bulletin critic. “Our cornetists went into ecstasy over Levy’s playing.”

Levy, nonetheless, was second billing for the show—singer Adelaide Phillips was headliner, American great of opera. “A large and fashionable audience greeted Adelaide Phillips and her concert troupe last night. We have not the time to devote the troupe the attention their merits deserve… Miss Phillips has few superiors in [opera], if any, and she sang As The Years Glide By with a pathos that banished the smiles and invoked the tears of the audience.”

Local history of opera divas traced to Jenny Lind, “The Swedish Nightingale” who passed through on a steamboat with Barnum in 1851. The money Barnum paid the songstress, $250,000 for 150 dates in America, along with his shrewd merchandising of Jenny Lind items, left lasting imprint on the country. Youths were inspired while music elites pushed for an American to capture the opera world, dethrone Lind at top. Within 30 years opera singers frequented Cairo stages, male and female, including American standouts Emma Abbott, Clara Brinkerhoff, Imogene Brown, Marie Litta, and a songbird sponsored by AME congregations, Madame Bailer.

Cairo singers served stage support for touring professionals, leading several locals to shine right beside stars, no skill gap apparent. Headliner soprano Brown won the audience, but particularly for her accompaniment of W.H. Morris, Cairo insurance man by day who subbed for the company’s absent bassist. “Mr. Morris sang three songs with fine effect, receiving the long continued applause of the audience,” The Bulletin gushed. Morris, of the stellar choir at Church of The Redeemer, entertained regionally as baritone and humorist until his sudden death in 1879. Other local performers complemented touring pros on stage, led by Frank Howe, accomplished tenor; Annie Pitcher, a salaried church singer; and Walter McKee, cornet whiz, singer and choir director of the Methodist Church.

Youths were coming on. Soprano actress M. Adella Gordon stole spotlight at school productions, churches, and in the Grand Opera House. “Miss Adella Gordon… was really the feature of the evening,” a Bulletin critic concluded in 1883. “Although she was known to be one of the best singers in Cairo, the power and richness of her voice as developed on the Opera House stage was a surprise to her friends and the audience. It filled the house with melody without any apparent effort of the singer. Every verse and almost every turn of the song was applauded to the echo. For an encore Miss Gordon sang a beautiful little waltz song, Peek-A-Boo… Miss Adella scored a triumph in ‘Engaged,’ both in acting and singing.” Gordon also earned plaudits for calliope play, “one of the musical gems of the performance.” She later married a physician and the couple moved to New York and London. In the early 20th century their daughter born at Cairo, actress Ruth Bower, became noted internationally.

Litta, heralded diva, billed as “America’s Greatest Soprano,” hit Cairo only months before tragedy struck to inflate her legend. The young woman wasn’t Italian but actually Dutch Illinoisan, named Marie Von Elsner, reared at Bloomington and groomed for opera royalty. In one sense, Litta’s meteoric, short career signified the European dogma stifling American music and talent. The problem rested with Eastern society and industry, stuck on trying to do everything European better than the Europeans. Belief transferred to the West and South.

Von Elsner seemed a prime case, or victim profile. Her father, impoverished immigrant musician, saw rare gift in his first born. Benefactors surfaced round her in rural Illinois and the girl was sent to music conservatory, in Cleveland. She made the requisite jump abroad, studying in France through her adolescence, accumulating debt and favors owed in the process. On advice she swapped German surname for an Italian sounder, typical of opera aspirants, and took her crack at concert acclaim.

Litta was hyped by Paris handlers with their crony pressmen, and she was hired by the Strakosch Italian opera company for American tour in 1879. She arrived in New York under heavy fanfare, as latest native hope for opera, but Litta didn’t remotely perform like an American Jenny Lind.

Skeptics cried humbug. New York reviewers skewered her, led by nemesis critics of The Times and The Herald in Manhattan. A Buffalo critic called Litta “a perfect failure.” Even her name change was ridiculed. Maurice Strakosch placed Litta in lead roles but she faltered vocally and stunk for acting, critics huffed. The company parted with her after two seasons.

The New York Times bade Litta a parting shot: “As an operatic prima donna (she) could not expect to hold a leading position.” The Boston Globe intoned that “Marie Litta… is at home in Bloomington, Ill., where she belongs.”

She appeared at Cairo in 1883 a discard of big-time opera. Merchandise bearing the Litta name barely sold anymore, down to select Illinois towns. A small venue canceled her for lack of interest—in home state. An Illinois preacher denied sleeping through her concert, pressed by scribes. Litta was 26, failing in health, heading her own troupe, trying to meet payroll and expenses. She held debt notes of business creditors and old handlers, and as provider for siblings and her invalid mother. A small fortune had been frittered on wardrobe and diamonds befitting an opera goddess and family entourage.

A good Cairo crowd applauded the Litta opera company, calling for encores. The Bulletin lauded the fading star, if politely. Regardless, soon she died in Bloomington, reportedly for symptoms of neural degeneration, “chronic meningitis.” Opera queen Clara Louise Kellogg pledged benefit concerts to stall home foreclosure on the Von Elsners. Bloomington  residents raised thousands of dollars for a massive cemetery monument, declaring the genius and greatness of Litta in stone, rebuking her doubters to last.

In retrospect, Marie Von Elsner may have been better off in popular music, playing right at home, the American West. As she died young, variety song and dance swept the nation despite haughty elitists fixed on European convention. Perhaps the statuesque Von Elsner would’ve preferred frontier opera houses and riverboats, playing banjo, singing dance songs, flashing blonde tresses and pink stockings, hot steps, just showing off. Maybe she was never asked or felt right discussing it, either way.

Because Marie Von Elsner would’ve only been normal, gravitating to popular song and dance as a precocious young American. Girls and boys everywhere were pouring into variety entertainment, consuming, learning and performing.

In the northern delta of Cairo and southeast Missouri, the talent pool was exceptionally strong. Homegrown musicians of every focus were headed upward, the region’s first showbiz generation, laying path for more to come. And they could keep their own names.

Writer and consultant Matt Chaney is compiling a book on historical song and dance, tentatively titled From River Music to Rock in the Missouri Delta. For more information see the ChaneysBlog page “Music History and Legend of the Missouri Delta.” For information on Chaney’s previous books, visit www.fourwallspublishing.com.  Email: mattchaney@fourwallspublishing.com.

Select References

A Familiar Legend. (1874, June 27). Hickman Courier KY, p. 1.

A Local Reminiscence. (1877, Aug. 28). Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 5.

A Musical Family. (1884, Aug. 13). Nebraska State Journal, Lincoln NE, p. 8.

A Number. (1871, Jan. 14). Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 3.

A Serenade. (1865, Oct. 6). Cairo Evening Times IL, p. 4.

A Social Necessity. (1901, April 6). Indianapolis News IN, p. 24.

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Circus Spectacle Inspired Show Hopefuls at Cairo, Illinois

Twenty-Fifth in a Series

By Matt Chaney, for ChaneysBlog.com

Posted Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Copyright ©2018 for historical arrangement by Matthew L. Chaney, Four Walls Publishing

American circus industry shifted westward in the 19th century, resettling along interior waterways for rapid transit and national reach, among advantages. Modern historian Janet M. Davis, in her essay “The Circus Americanized,” observed that “geography of the Middle West permanently influenced the development of the American circus. Abundant, inexpensive, grassy pastureland and a convenient convergence of river systems that served as a gateway to the trans-Mississippi West made the region attractive to the enterprising showmen from the East.”

Following the Civil War, upstart showmen of the Midwest “permanently reoriented the center of the American circus industry away from the East.” Perry Powers, for one, focused on circus development after fire destroyed his theater and livery property at Cairo, Ill., junction of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.

Circuses and personnel converged around Cairo and Bird’s Point, associate Missouri landing, for strategic location “hugged” by rivers, crisscrossed by railroads. The area benefited daily of circus business, as “headquarters of navigation” during winter and launching pad for show season. Perry Powers organized his first circus in 1867, operating from Cairo.

The Powers Combination Circus boasted “first-class acts despite its small size,” observed Stuart Thayer, modern historian. “Tom Burgess, Willis Cobb, Oliver Bell, Don Santiago Gibbonois (John Fitzgibbons), Fred O’Brien, and Ed Schofield were on the roster. It also appears to be Frank Lemen’s first circus job. [Levi J.] North was again the manager. The circus traveled on a steamboat.”

But problems dogged Powers, age 40. On the business front, his show lost money while North’s son died on tour, likely of tuberculosis. In domestic life, Powers’ marriage was crumbling. He lost possession of the circus and was arrested in Chicago, for debt to North, famed equestrian. Downstate, Powers’ wife sued for divorce in Cairo.

He didn’t give up, determined to realize profit and spotlight as a showman. Powers opened a new theater in downtown Cairo, naming it “Palace Varieties,” and hired a stock company of minstrels. He opened a circus training gym for young males. Additionally, Powers was building repute as expert handler of circus animals.

Cairo Bulletin editors boosted this personable fellow known for resilience in face of adversity, who bought advertising besides. “Excepting ourselves we would as soon see Perry Powers make money as any man in town,” remarked the newspapermen. “He keeps the article in circulation—evidently earning if for the satisfaction of spending it again.”

Powers’ gym was an old stable converted for “flying circus.” Young males climbed ladders to grip metal bars and rings, from ropes hung at rafters, and swing about the room. They practiced release moves, twists, flips, with hopeful clutches and landings. On floor the acrobats tumbled and lifted weights for strength and conditioning. The Bulletin urged “every young man” to patronize the facility and didn’t mention whether injuries were mounting.

Powers incorporated circus spectacle, “sports of the ring,” for his theater productions, staging a “human cannonball” act and trapeze around music and comedy. And in those immediate years postwar, Powers could recruit top talent from local acrobats.

Cairo children trained variously in gymnastics, including free-lance tumbling and “turning” in streets, yards and barns. Schools offered formal instruction and athletes of upper grades were main attraction at a holiday variety show, performing “revolutions, motions, jolting, twisting, turning, bending, bowing and stretching,” the paper reported. “The boys were uniformed in red Zouave pants, white shirts and red turbans; the girls in black bloomer dresses and drawers, elaborately trimmed in red.”

Gymnastics and trapeze were hallmark of German Turner Societies in 19th century America, represented by a vibrant organization at Cairo. The Turners, titled after modern gymnastics founded in the “fader land,” established Turngemeinde clubs serving as “athletic, political, and social centers for German communities in the United States,” archivists would note.

River valleys of the American interior resembled fabled Rhineland country, impressing Dutch scouts, and they directed a mass of German emigration to Iowa, Wisconsin, Missouri and Illinois. Gymnastics facilities rose up as did grape vineyards. The Turners movement coincided with circus industry’s plant in the Midwest, influencing ring talent and stunts.

The Turners of Cairo practiced acrobatics indoors and out, and they showed for audiences on land and water, venues such as Scheel’s Hall, Flora Garden and excursion boats. The Turners presented children and adults in “gymnastic and trapeze performances of a daring and interesting character,” The Bulletin reported. A multipurpose facility opened downtown in 1875, at corner of Tenth and Poplar streets. The gym in new Turner Hall was “furnished with all the modern exercising implements… dumb bells, parallel bars, horizontal bars, rings, trapeze, ropes, sand bags, spring boards.”

German immigrant Conrad Alba was a local sensation, 20-something and muscular, drawing fans and press for Turner performances. “The horizontal bar exercises by young Alba were heartily encored… an exhibition of muscle, or strength of arm, altogether beyond the ordinary. The pyramiding by the Turners was also very good.”

Amateur circus developed locally, including a promising group of teenagers at Charleston, Mo., west of Cairo, led by the Danforth brothers. “Our Juvenile Circus Troupe,” the town paper headlined proudly, reviewing a capable exhibition of trapeze, gymnastics, trick-riding and strength displays by “the boys.”

Locals entered commercial entertainment. Leslie May performed on trapeze at the Atheneum Theatre in Cairo, and steamer pilot R.W. Dugan moonlighted as circus acrobat. An 11-year-old trapezist and rope-walker, Sidney J. Allen, joined French’s showboat New Sensation in 1879. Teenager Frank Herbert, a Turner talent, became a daredevil for Rice’s circus and Johnny Bowman’s variety troupe, outfits touring from Cairo. Herbert was stellar on the high rope and had to be, traversing over city streets and hall floors without netting.

Legendary rope-walker “Professor Leon” frequented Cairo, performing downtown on lines from rooftops. Professor Leon, whose birth name was Jesse Albert St. John, had crossed Niagara Falls by tightrope numerous times, famously toting a little nephew on his back. The maneuver was repeated at Cairo. “The rope was stretched from the roof of Dr. Wardner’s building to the roof of the Arlington House… perhaps 60 feet above the ground,” The Bulletin reported, “more than once the spectators were held breathless and trembling while Leon performed some of his most difficult parts.”

“When he started to cross on the rope with the little boy, Master Curtis Hackett, a child less than 7 years old on his back, an expression of fear and uneasiness was visible on the face of nearly everyone present. But Leon made the trip as easily as if he had been walking on a plank a foot wide, and the little fellow on his back seemed to delight in the undertaking.”

Females on high wire dazzled Cairo audiences. The amazing Zazel pranced and danced along at the ceiling of Barnum’s big-top, and Ella Zuela rode a bicycle, pedaling over wire for Coup’s show. Zuela starred at Cairo the night of Aug. 19, 1882; hours later, two trains of the Coup circus crashed together in southern Illinois, at Tunnel Hill. Ella Zuela apparently wasn’t hurt in the collision, but circus animals were rumored loose in woods north of Cairo.

The story was false, of escaped beasts, just another circus tale in circulation, like a Missouri report that flew nationwide in newspapers. Lions and tigers broke from cages during a street parade, scattering residents of a tiny town; big cats leaped onto a bandwagon and mauled screaming musicians, killing several—all a hoax, newsmen revealed on follow-up.

But said sightings of a giant alligator near Cairo weren’t easily dismissed. Locals claimed close encounters with a 20-foot gator, supposedly a circus escapee hanging in summertime water, Ohio River. One fisherman said the toothy reptile snapped prow of a skiff, and The Bulletin cracked “that alligator in the river in this neighborhood has had the effect of keeping all cautious boys out of the water.” A circus announcement excited folks, coming from Cooper, Bailey and Co., offering anyone $400 for live recapture. But nothing further developed of the alleged gator.

The Cairo area teemed with circus animals, anyway, verifiable anytime by eyesight. Exotic livestock and full menageries passed through year-round on steamboats and railroads. During the circus offseason animals were quartered in stables and pasture on the Cairo peninsula and Missouri shoreline, in Mid-South climate. During performance season animals were paraded through Cairo streets and displayed at the wharf and rail yards. There were camels, elephants, hippos, lions, tigers, bears, monkeys, horses, mules, alligators, crocodiles, hyenas, boars, porcupines, canaries and more specimens, with the majority trained for show.

Circus menageries dated locally to prewar appearances of Isaac Van Amburgh, “The Lion King,” famed American trainer, aboard the cavernous Floating Palace of Spalding and Rogers. Celebrity trainers and their livestock had frequented Cairo for generations, including Dan Rice and “Excelsior,” his great snowy white horse, along with Spencer Q. Stokes, Levi J. North, Sam Stickney and James DeMott.

And so Perry Powers, ambitious Cairo showman and liveryman, met trainers locally and on his travels, learning from all. He excelled in the care and training of animals for circuses like DeHaven’s, Rothchild’s and the Rice combinations. Many equestrians knew Powers, entrusting their horses with him, and he was friend of Rice and DeMott, periodic residents of the Cairo area. During wintertime Powers stabled the complete Rothchild menagerie for DeMott, manager of the circus. The Rothchild and Rice circuses launched tours from Cairo on train, boat and wagon, thanks in no small part to Powers’ presence.

But he still floundered overall as entrepreneur, for factors of his making and otherwise. Fledgling circuses folded which Powers funded or operated, and his training gym closed. A hireling musician swindled him, taking a bandwagon to Memphis for hock. Too trusting of customers at the livery, Powers leased horses and mules that weren’t returned, or paid for stock already stolen.

Powers invested pawn loan for an “educated hog” that didn’t pan for profit, and serious injury befell his second wife, an actress “knocked senseless” by a falling post. Powers purchased a fleet of used carriages from a railroad, envisioning his own omnibus line through Illinois and Missouri, but nothing materialized except the broken-down hacks. Expensive horses dropped dead on Powers, who surely lost money in thoroughbred racing as trainer and gambler, based on news reports.

“Perry Powers has met with another streak of bad luck,” The Bulletin announced. Then news turned dire in January 1878, when Powers fell stricken and died, possibly of yellow fever striking Cairo. His live-in nephew, a musician, assumed control of the livery business and married the widow.

And that sort of Powers luck came to mark local circus owners. Several Cairo men committed time and money—steamer captains, boat clerks, railroad personnel, an auctioneer, a lumberman, each on exciting venture—only to lose in circus prospecting.

On the performance side, circus sports were highly popular in Cairo and southeast Missouri throughout the late 1800s—for spectating. Youths still fantasized of ring glory but fewer pursued it. Rising team sports led by baseball and football attracted athletes while circus life increasingly drew criticism, particularly regarding young performers. Publicized issues included child endangerment, animal cruelty, low pay, evermore riskier stunts, and broken individuals. “It is a dangerous life to live, you may be sure, and a great many who follow it die young, while many are killed,” stated veteran showman C.M. Sherman, retired in Missouri, 1886.

“What mother would wish her son to be a professional rope-dancer or circus-tumbler—not to mention her daughter?” posed a national commentary, reprinted in Cairo. “Aside from the unnaturalness and debasing effect of a such a life, the ‘accidents’ to which even the best-trained and most experienced performers are liable are too frequent and of too sad a kind to be generally known. It is for the showman’s interest to keep [injuries] secret.”

Cairo saw casualties of circus stunts, in novice and professional acrobats. Tragically, local youths were crippled and killed. In the worst cases, William Bambrick, 20, died of a spinal injury from “excessive gymnastic exercises,” The Bulletin reported. Thirteen-year-old Charles Riley suffered strangulation by rope, becoming entangled while “doing circus acts” in a coal shed; companions of the boy panicked, “ran away,” and he perished.

Most Delta youths gravitated to show performance of less risk—song and dance—for their pleasure if not potential career. A few Cairo products were already famous on stage. “Cairo is a city… which good music is, of course, always a prominent feature,” The Bulletin editorialized in 1882. “Social entertainments and balls, both great and small, public and private, are the order of the day and night in Cairo… good music is desired—is a necessity, in fact.”

“Cairo…,” declared the paper, “has been prolific in its production of good musicians.”

Writer and consultant Matt Chaney is compiling a book on historical song and dance in the Missouri delta, tentatively titled From River Music to Rock in the Missouri Delta. For more information see the ChaneysBlog page “Music History and Legend of the Missouri Delta.” For information on Chaney’s previous books, visit www.fourwallspublishing.com.  Email: mattchaney@fourwallspublishing.com.

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