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 teen 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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Olden Circus Topped Baseball for Athleticism at Cairo, Illinois

Twenty-Fourth in a Series

By Matt Chaney, for ChaneysBlog.com

Posted Friday, August 31, 2018

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

Baseball served as tonic enjoyment for Americans following the Civil War, rising in appeal across divisions of race and class. The Cincinnati Red Stockings of professional baseball became national darlings, winning 80 straight games over challengers like the New York Mutuals, Philadelphia Athletics and New Orleans Southerns.

The Red Stockings generated news coast to coast, building audience for the team and sport. Other cities responded, producing fully paid baseball clubs to rival the famed “Red Legs,” such as the White Stockings in Chicago. But Cincinnati’s team was household name, made by newspapers and magazines, and those mass media capitalized, churning out stories and illustrations. By time the Red Stockings finally lost, an upset at Brooklyn in 1870, fans were consuming reports nationwide. Stunned by defeat of the invincible team, readers were hooked on baseball’s daily drama. Scribes hailed it The National Game.

Amateur teams attracted hopeful players along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, where the Red Stockings had thrashed clubs of Louisville, St. Louis, Memphis and New Orleans. “Baseball is becoming the rage with our old and young boys,” observed The Bulletin at Cairo, Ill., confluence of the rivers. Nearby along the Ohio, in Massac County, “cockfighting and baseball are Young America’s amusement.”

Baseball games in Cairo streets constituted a nuisance, already, banned by city officials. Vacant lots filled with players in warm weather, for games typically segregated but sometimes mixing whites and blacks. Ball clubs of both races organized in the tri-state flatland, men’s teams of name like the Deltas and Shoo Flies, with junior squads for boys. Young males were mindful of pro baseball and the Red Stockings, dreamy symbols, and some aimed for the big-time level. But baseball remained crude in form, from equipment to playing fields.

Many Cairo kids and adults aspired for careers in amusement of a different order: the conventional entertainments of drama, music and circus. And local products were working in show business, on stage and in management. Some Cairo talents would realize that old cliché, fame and fortune, or former if not the latter.

Cairo in the postwar offered theater clubs and instructors, schools of music and dance, gymnastics and equestrian classes, even training in trapeze, the crowd favorite introduced by Jules Léotard.  Athleticism was an asset in each focus, obviously, and paramount for circus, where spectators demanded “break-neck gymnastics” of performers.

“Sports of the ring” drove circus entertainment. Fans clamored to see acrobats fly fast and high, including child daredevils, on floor, horseback, high wire and trapeze. And Cairo audiences witnessed the best.

Henry Magilton, American superstar of bareback tricks, tumbling and trapeze, showed at Cairo with Spalding and Rogers circus. Later Magilton was paralyzed of a 25-foot fall in London’s Alhambra Theatre. DeHaven’s circus at Cairo featured the Hanlon brothers, famed acrobats on trapeze and horseback. The Siegrist brothers appeared—Louis, Toto, and boy William—in their “phenomenal gymnastic groupings” for Batcheller and Doris. The Leslie brothers performed “graceful and daring double trapeze” in Rothchild’s circus. And “leaper” Frank Gardner vaulted into “a double somersault over four camels and one elephant,” stealing the show in Cole’s circus at Cairo, The Bulletin reported.

Maggie Claire of Cole’s was tough to top as “Queen of Air” on the “flying rings.” A brilliant talent, Claire debuted in Memphis vaudeville as a child contortionist in 1867. She appeared at Cairo in 1880, going up on ropes above 50 feet, grasping rings by hands and feet, twirling and flipping to band music, no safety net below.  Decades later she confessed: “Cold chills sometimes run over me [in retirement], when I think of my daring, and, especially, the ease with which I performed. It wasn’t work, it was mere play. My happiest hours were those when I swung high over the heads of my audience.”

In the big top at Cairo, Maggie Claire “captivated all present,” a scribe recounted, adding “her dangerous and quick movements, at so great a height, stamp her as an altogether superior artist.” During a quarter-century of performances, thousands of ascents in tents and theaters, Maggie Claire fell four times with each mishap due to rope malfunction. Her final drop was 44 feet to floor, causing hip dislocation and brain concussion among injuries, which ended her career.

P.T. Barnum brought breath-taking aerialist “Zazel” to Cairo, Rossa Matilda Richter, the Paris teenager on American tour. Barnum collected name performers by the dozens for his massive circus, and ZAZEL! dominated advertising in illustrations and text for 1880 shows. Richter was a pioneer “human cannonball” but likewise an elite athlete, climbing like a spider, unshakable on high wire. Thousands in a big tent fell silent as Zazel reached the darkened ceiling, crest line of the canvas. There she pranced and danced across a wire, frolicking child-like, toting a pink parasol. Suddenly Richter launched away, midair in her “eagle dive,” timing a half-flip on descent to bounce safely off net.

“She is on her feet again in an instant to perform the crowing act of her feat,” a newspaper recounted. “She enters the muzzle of a large cannon suspended over the ring, and is ejected from its mouth with a loud report and a smell of powder, rising some 20 feet in the air and landing in the net about 50 feet from the cannon. This act concludes the [entire] performance, which is certainly the best that Barnum has ever prepared.”

A child performer relied on lithe body and confident mindset, steely emotion, for circus success. Some kids couldn’t cope but many reeled off cold-blooded feats then smiled, mesmerizing crowds, charming all. In 1876 small acrobats were prime acts for Howe’s circus at Cairo. Little Willie Dorr was billed as “The wonderful child gymnast… who throws fourteen consecutive double somersaults.” Brothers Frederick and Willie O’Brien were hyped as “only 6 years old… the finest actors on the trapeze ever seen in America.”

Equestrian skill ranked highly in the delta, and thousands of enthusiasts converged at Cairo to see marquee circus riders and steeds. Children on horseback commanded spotlight, such as the Stokes sisters for C.W. Noyes. Beloved little riders Ella, Emma and Katie Stokes, of the legendary circus family, displayed cunning, dash and flash at Cairo. Noyes’ circus also featured a boy who stood out among men on horseback.

“Master Woody Cook is a prodigy,” declared The Cairo Bulletin, following an exhibition. “Although a mere lad, he is entitled to rank among the first equestrians and gymnasts of the period. He is the only boy living who throws a double-somersault.” Cook popped stunts atop horses speeding round the ring, turning 25 forward flips and 5 back flips on one ride, according to Noyes agents. “A standing challenge of $10,000 that Woody Cook, a mere boy, is the best bareback somersault rider in the world stands unaccepted,” the circus boasted. A Cairo newsman saluted kid Cook as “a miracle of agility, fearlessness and daring.”

Equestrian star Lizzie [Marcellus] Stowe first appeared at Cairo around age 12, with the Dan Rice Circus. She worked in the area for a decade, training and performing, until death with her husband and children aboard a steamboat in 1882. The tragic young woman had been “in early life a pupil of the renowned Dan Rice, and under the name of Lizzie Marcellus she won renown as one of the best female riders in the country,” reported The Bulletin.

Rice was expert in the somersault or flip on horseback, and he instructed riders in technique, but didn’t teach the first female to accomplish the feat. She was Mollie Brown, “Pearl of The Arena,” who drew a fan mob at age 19 in Cairo, starring for the Batcheller and Doris circus. “Superb,” The Bulletin gushed of Brown, reviewing the show. “The crowd at the circus… was the largest we ever saw anywhere at an afternoon performance. It is estimated that over 3,000 people were present. At night the immense canvass [tent], which the posters say seats 8,000 people (but which will not seat over 5,000) was jammed and crammed full.”

“The city was literally crowded yesterday with country people. Commercial Avenue and Ohio Levee were thronged with them.”

Adult equestrians were mainstay of the circus, most anticipated by Cairo audiences. In 1880 Barnum brought female riders Lizzie Marcellus, Emma Lake (“Side-Saddle Queen”), and his Parisian import Eliza Dockrill, known worldwide for gymnastics across the backs of horses, racing four and six at once. Barnum paid huge salary to “Madame Dockrill,” who headlined his shows for years, and contracted her husband as equestrian director.

Men riders shone in circuses at Cairo, led by masters James Robinson, C.W. Fish, Sam Stickney, Levi J. North, James DeMott, Frank Melville—and versatile Dan Rice, gifted horseman, gymnast, comedian, singer and dancer.

Rice, native of New York City, first landed at Cairo with a circus in the 1840s, preceding the Lennox showboat. During the 1870s and ’80s the aging celebrity often made home of the local area, conducting business in southern Illinois and Missouri, but also distancing from mounting creditors and his estranged wife, in-laws back in Pennsylvania. Rice had been America’s most famous entertainer in his prime, and a columnist mused that boys confused near mythical “Old Dan” with the biblical hero in Book of Daniel.

Some delta folks weren’t laughing though, the anti-circus parents, preachers and others. They seethed, contending children should be taught that circus and icons like Rice were false idols propagating sinful behavior, evil.

The Bulletin countered, charging hypocrisy on part of the circus critics, churchgoers, primarily, otherwise prone to praise team sports—baseball and tackle football—for so-called Muscular Christianity. Editorial writers scoffed: “The weather permitting there will be another game of base ball played in the Fifth Ward on next Sunday, and also a game of football. The whole to be concluded by a rousing fight. These kind of amusements are becoming very fashionable, and yet our good Christian people do nothing to prevent them.”

“We do however maintain that pugilistic encounters should not be put down upon the list of recreations. Several Christians also called upon us to say they had prayed for the reformation of the base ball men, but to little effect.”

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 ‘n’ Roll. 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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Showbiz Landed at the Missouri Delta and Cairo

Twenty-Third in a Series

By Matt Chaney, for ChaneysBlog.com

Posted Friday, August 10, 2018

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

Team sport became break-through amusement of the Victorian Era, captivating millions, amassing public crowds across Europe and North America. Athletics as entertainment were moving beyond circus rings and gymnastics halls, onto marked fields and courts. Team games were played and watched as social events, and by 1900 football spectacle was the American ritual of fall season, a thrilling collision sport in grand setting.

Heroic tackle football forged men from boys and warriors from wimps, according to advocates led by politician Theodore Roosevelt. Youths were influenced immeasurably, and in southeast Missouri a newspaper commented, “We once thought that we would like to be a preacher, a fiddler or a soldier, all rigged out in military togs, in order to gain the admiration of the women, but now we see that we were mistaken in all. The star performer on a football team is the thing.”

But music and theater still boasted more players than football in flatland Missouri, special entertainment culture. Homegrown musicians sprouted in the delta, more arrived by river, rail and trail, and audiences would materialize from timber, sandy ridge and slough. This area was remote, infamous for floods and earthquakes, but also significant in arts since antebellum days. Song, dance, comedy and drama—those constituted local tradition in Bootheel Missouri, for all ages, unlike football yet.

Show business literally washed up here, performers and companies, landing from the great rivers during the 19th century. Regional lore included Nelson Kneass, early pop musician said to have arranged his hit Ben Bolt on a steamer moving through southeast Missouri and southern Illinois, likely in latter 1847. Thomas F. Lennox and his “floating theatre” played the Bootheel landings in 1849, on an only sojourn down the Ohio and Mississippi. And Cairo, Ill., emerged as hub of circuses and showboats prior to the Civil War, then afterward boomed as an entertainment showplace. Cairo, companion delta city to southeast Missouri, hosted American and international stars of circus, theater and music.

The song Ben Bolt roared back to popularity in the late 1890s, featured in the hit play “Trilby.” Bootheel musicians learned the Kneass classic by ear and—for those who could read notes—sheet music. Humming and whistling, they worked out Ben Bolt on banjo, piano and cornet, impressed with the melody’s ragtime form, a contemporary sound embedded long ago.

Community building, meanwhile, progressed as well as possible in southeast Missouri and the delta southward, dominated by river frontier.

In the 1900 census, for Missouri population in eight delta counties, less than 100,000 people lived amidst a thousand square miles of flatland and marsh. Levee-building continued on a learning curve for engineers, regionally and worldwide, while drainage canals were just underway in southeast Missouri. Logging companies swept through a million acres of virgin timber, first taking trees 30 inches thick, double the diameter of normal harvests. A hundred rail cars shipped daily with logs and cut lumber, loaded of white oak, black oak, walnut, cypress, red gum, and beech, among prime woods for markets worldwide.

“Empire builder” Louis Houck laid small railroads where supposedly it couldn’t be done, inspiring marshland Missourians at outset of the 20th century. Houck, a lawyer and writer in Cape Girardeau, valiantly pushed tracks in every direction from his hometown along the Mississippi. The Houck lines freed Cape Girardeau and Caruthersville from river isolation and opened up Kennett, a post formerly marooned on far side of Little River swamp.

The Houck family indulged music, and elder Louis added a ballroom to his Elmwood mansion in Cape County. “The young folks had a fine time at Elmwood last night,” reported a local paper on Dec. 23, 1899. “Some of the old folks took part in the dance. Even Mr. Houck, who is supposed to be devoting all his time to the railroad business, got out on the floor and danced.” Brass bands greeted Houck aboard the inaugural train into Kennett and Caruthersville, and he relished their salutes.

Population of Cape Girardeau, the old French bluff settlement at northern edge of the delta, fortified by Spanish a century ago, stood at 4,815 people. Downstream in southeast Missouri, New Madrid counted 1,489 residents and Caruthersville had 2,315. The Kennett population was 1,509, Malden’s was 1,462, and Poplar Bluff, surging at intersection of rails and trails in the western lowlands, gateway to Ozark hills, totaled 4,321 citizens. Sikeston, located in heart of the Missouri delta, often surrounded by water, mustered 1,077 in population at turn of the century. Charleston tallied 1,893 in the year 1900.

East of Charleston and Bird’s Point, across the river, Cairo population reached 12,566 in the new census, including about 5,000 Afro-Americans. A few thousand “country people” inhabited the vicinity around Cairo, a township with flood protection to envy.

Commerce and population had mushroomed during the latter 19th century, juiced by entertainment business and related capital. Cairo held a cosmopolitan air in rural surroundings, due in part to multi-ethnic citizenry, but particularly for transient population from the rivers and railroads, estimated high as 200,000 visitors annually.

Cairo, at confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, resembled Little New Orleans for aspects besides traffic flow and show business. Cairo occupied an earthen bowl like New Orleans, sitting within jaws of a watery wrench, as a newsman described. Cairo relied on a high ring levee system and water pumps against threat of disaster, like New Orleans.

In turn, Cairo reflected the towns of southeast Missouri, even served as mother city, having weaned several of those communities for survival in the frontier. Cairo remained a regional lifeline for goods, services, markets and jobs. And southeast Missouri shared flatland with Cairo, if separated by the raging Mississippi. Cairo was different than typical Illinois country, starting with elevation from sea level. From Cairo and southernmost Illinois, fronting the great rivers, the rest of the state was uphill. Delta Missourians could relate.

Moreover, Cairo was regarded with respect in southeast Missouri, contrary to much of Illinois. Delta Missourians thought of Cairo as their own metro, and many savored the glittery entertainment sector. Group excursions to Cairo ranked with trips to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, for popularity around southeast Missouri. Cairo had it all for show: riverboats, theaters, dance halls, circuses, outdoor concerts, street players, saloons, gambling rooms, race tracks, fairs, baseball, football, boxing and more amusements.

Cape Girardeau groups enjoyed riverboat excursions to Cairo, chronicled in local papers. “August Shivelbine visited Cairo last week with Mr. R.E. Gannon and he had a good time,” The Cape Democrat reported in 1896. “Cairo, he says, is a live town.”

***

Thomas F. Lennox won American acclaim as an actor and comedian during the 1830s and ’40s. The Scotsman Lennox was renowned for stage characterizations of Rob Roy MacGregor in tragedy and satire. Lennox met misfortune and debt as a theater owner, but the indefatigable optimist renovated a steamboat in Cincinnati and hired actor-musicians to travel the big rivers.

The revolutionary Lennox showboat resembled Noah’s Ark, and he steamed southwesterly on the Ohio “with a full and efficient company,” according to an advertisement. Lennox hired more players downstream, in Kentucky and Indiana, notably young Lafayette “Yankee” Robinson, a future circus star and owner who would mentor the Ringling brothers in Wisconsin.

River travel was always risky but this trip posed further perils such as winter flooding. Most disconcerting, a cholera plague covered the southern Mississippi Valley. People were sick and dying aboard riverboats while paranoia gripped shorelines, of dread contagions.

At Cairo, Ill., mounted cannon served warning, guns fixed along the wharf to prevent boats from dumping cholera sufferers and corpses. The Lennox showboat reached Cairo, or Mouth of The Ohio, around Jan. 1, 1849, apparently without illness in the troupe.

Cairo was a busy, dirty, rough settlement, perpetually damp for seep water’s pooling behind levees, with a few hundred permanent residents and transient waves. Along the Ohio River, many businesses and households occupied wood barges moored to the bank. A cavernous “wharf boat” offered lodging, food, alcohol, gambling and more. In this period circuses landed on other side of the Mississippi, at the Missouri clearing known as Ohio City, to perform and camp.

At nightfall scores of watercraft turned in at Cairo landing, crowding together amidst the flotsam piles and boat wrecks. At dawn a wave shipped back out, but in winter 1848-49 many travelers halted here, with the Mississippi closed northward, blocked by ice gorges, and fear of cholera southward.

Lennox had his own concerns, in face of financial collapse. While stage critics were impressed by the Lennox showboat thus far, “business along the route in the Ohio river towns had been bad,” by one account. Lennox had built the boat primarily on credit in Cincinnati, and now lenders were calling in notes.

The Lennox steamer left Cairo on the Mississippi, trekking southerly along the river stops of southeast Missouri, Kentucky, western Tennessee. Boat traffic was considerable in daytime, crowded in the tight bends, ranging from huge steamers to dinghies. The freighters ruled, obviously, but retail watercraft bobbed about, jockeying to haul goods and services such as groceries, clothes, footwear, hardware, nails, lumber, wood-sawing, tin-mending, blacksmithy and entertainment. Competition for cash and barter was stiff at riverside in southeast Missouri, an outback where serious folks weren’t foolish with their resources.

Lennox had difficulty paying show permits at landings along the Mississippi, and his Cincinnati creditors exerted pressure from afar. The steamer was often impounded by local authorities who removed the throttle valve, recalled Yankee Robinson, singer and dancer. “Business was not very good, and at many places we showed, the boat was tied up for debt,” Robinson said decades later. “But we managed to extricate ourselves until we reached Memphis.”

Police seized the floating theater on the Memphis wharf in early February 1849, according to news reports. Lennox was “unable to pay the past due installments on his venture,” The Memphis Public Ledger later confirmed. “The creditors took possession of the boat, and the [Lennox] company was put ashore out of money and disconsolate.”

But as Lennox lost possession of the showboat, he helped found Memphis theater. The Lennox troupe in Memphis—“The First Legitimate Theatrical Company,” observed The Public Ledger—adopted a vacant church as stage and crowds paid nightly for a premiere run into April.

Lennox relished gate success but only briefly, for he died that October, possibly of cholera in Memphis. [Cause of death wasn’t clarified in historic news reports retrieved through electronic search at time of this posting.] Lennox’s newfound business partner had just recovered from a cholera bout when he succumbed. A widow and children survived the showman.

Cincinnati friends of Lennox were crestfallen, having believed, finally, “his prospects were fair to amass fortune for his family.” An Enquirer editorial stated, “He was a man much respected by all who knew him. Alas, poor Tom, he has made his last exit.”

Music and theater carried forth in the riverine wilderness Lennox helped to crack open. Showboats multiplied in his wake on the Mississippi, utilized by American circuses in their golden age of the latter 19th Century. Excursion steamers surged in popularity, for pleasure trips lasting hours or days, offering dance music foremost. Land theaters and opera houses were erected at feasible locations, as marsh levels fell in the northern delta through human invention.

Lennox’s familial legacy came to include children and grandchildren who excelled on the American stage, and a son who followed him in everyday gallantry.

Thomas Lennox, as a young actor in 1842, witnessed a girl sink in churning waters at Baltimore. Thomas threw aside his hat, “leaped into the falls, swam over, and by a skillful dive” rescued the child. She was able to walk home, The Sun reported. In 1878, St. Louis telegraph operator George Lennox reflected his late father, bravely volunteering to enter the quarantined disaster zone at Vicksburg, Miss.

Yellow fever had wiped out wire operators, news reporters, doctors, nurses and river pilots, among officials at Vicksburg, where a journalist reported, starkly, “the unacclimated who come here will take the fever and probably die.” And a telegrapher from St. Louis did die quickly, after one week at Vicksburg, but his name was C.M. Carr. George Lennox was also stricken but survived, “lying very low” for weeks until released to return home upriver, where his recovery continued.

In show business the Lennox family came full circle at Cairo, Ill., where a family member arrived as comedy headliner in 1882. Walter Lennox, Jr., was performer-manager of the “My Partner” hit troupe from New York. The late Thomas Lennox had once passed through Cairo, a penniless thespian with unknown players, his theater boat in hock. Now his grandson rolled into Cairo by train, enjoying first-class coach among stars of American comedy, to perform in the elegant Grand Opera House.

Cairo had come a long way itself in showbiz, having arrived as an entertainment hotbed of the Midwest, staging great performances regularly.

Matt Chaney, writer and consultant, is compiling a book on historical song and dance in the Missouri delta, tentatively titled From River Music to Rock ‘n’ Roll. 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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Hot Dancing’s Popularity Overwhelmed Churchmen a Century Ago

Twenty-Second in a Series

By Matt Chaney, for ChaneysBlog.com

Posted Sunday, July 8, 2018

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

In memory of rockabilly drummer Al Jordan, Hayti, Missouri

As dancing’s popularity exploded during the 1880s and ’90s, driven by rhythmic beats of jazz, ragtime music and string picking, the morality debate rose again in America. Churches had long forbidden dancing by members, with Methodist officials notoriously hard-line, but resistance to doctrine grew fierce as the 19th century wound down.

Protestant and Catholic congregations argued over dancing, some split apart, and preachers were physically assaulted in Missouri and Oklahoma Territory. Newspaper commentators derided the spectacle, blaming staid old church officials. “Foolish clergy,” opined The Kansas City Star, dismissing no-dance commandments as passé, out of touch with “overwhelming” public sentiment. The paper proclaimed  “the edict of the priests and elders must be modified to conform to modern ideas.”

The Methodist Church also condemned liquor, playing cards, theaters, Sunday baseball, racetracks and more so-called amusements. Offending members supposedly faced expulsion unless exhibiting “real humiliation,” but even church leaders disagreed on particulars.

“All Christendom is divided on the question,” a pastor said of behavior selectively targeted for condemnation. “I do not believe that it is always wrong to go to a theater or play cards. If you forbid a horse race, why not forbid a football game… This amusement law is a dead letter. You cannot enforce it.”

Controversy at turn of the century shook Methodists in Bird’s Point, Mo., the lively river landing and rail head across from Cairo along the Mississippi. The young women’s choir fell into “general disruption” after a hymnal practice, 1900, because some members danced when ragtime was struck up on the piano. “It is said that a number of the sisters threaten to withdraw from the membership and start a church of their own,” reported The Cairo Telegram.

Dance advocates sought reform at the upcoming Methodist convention in Chicago, but having addressed the assembly before, they’d surely lose again, predicted a Missouri paper. “Again and again the question… has come up, but innovators could never move the great law-making power in the church,” The Springfield Leader and Press editorialized. “Are dancing, card-playing and theatre-going real sins, or not?” When the Methodist delegation acted as usual, voting to uphold the anti-amusements edict, resolute that dance and such were Satan’s ways, critics only carped louder.

“It is amusing to watch the developments of the crusade against dancing which has been inaugurated by a few cranks during the last year,” stated a newspaper commentary in 1901. “It is too bad that the people who find fault with society did not live during the [Puritan] era, when the young people found all their joy in gloom.” The piece appeared on the op-ed page of The Caruthersville Democrat, in Pemiscot County of the Missouri delta, where music and dance were indulged by the majority of folks, religion notwithstanding, based on this author’s extensive review of local newspaper coverage.

Quality music from good to great was available practically every night in Pemiscot County, among communities and back roads, along place names like Pascola, Game, Mound, Kinfolks Ridge, Rowland’s Mill, Cottonwood Point, Chute Sixteen, Free Silver and Gayoso. Dancers jammed floors in homes, halls and saloons, on riverboats and outdoor platforms.

“Ed Chagle had a ‘Big Doings’ at his house over on the bayou last Saturday night,” a Democrat correspondent reported from Steele, near the county border with Arkansas. “There was music and dancing and plenty to eat… every boy and his best girl was there and all enjoyed themselves, owing to the geniality of the host.”

Nearby, “young people of the Trainor mill town gave [Persimmon] Hill a call and made some nice music. The performers on the violin were John Smith and Huett Yarbro. There were three guitar pickers, Mrs. Donie Alexander, Miss Claudie Trainor and Miss Carrie Ferguson.”

This was still Swamp-east Missouri, with dry conditions most desirable for music events, but people were hardly deterred by bad weather short of flooding and severe storms. On one winter night, for example, merrymakers slogged through the elements from every direction to a dance in Braggadocio. “The boys report a good time and plenty of mud,” read a dispatch.

Memorable Caruthersville gatherings were hosted by Mrs. M.H. Hudgings, a doctor’s wife, such as a party that offered guilty pleasures in judgement of churchmen. “The evening was most pleasantly passed in playing cards, conversing, listening to sweet music and dancing,” The Democrat reported. “A tarpaulin was spread upon the sitting room carpet and some very remarkable feats of dancing were performed thereon. The crowd was jolly and did not mind a few bumps or trodden toes.”

A dance hall opened for lessons and events in Caruthersville, operated by teacher Susie Moad and her musician brother, Albert “Jop” Moad. Their brand of proverb stood posted: On with the dance, let joy be unconfined. Susie Moad soon married Elmer Hazel, talented local musician, and the couple began their family of future performers.

Showboats were an institution on Pemiscot shores, delivering professional artists for a half-century, after being introduced on this river stretch by circuses and other interests. The music was first-class, commonly, aboard the “floating theaters” that lined up at Caruthersville, delta town uniquely elevated on a firm bluff. “The time of the showboat, the circus and theatre companies is at hand…,” The Democrat announced in September 1904, “all with greater attractions than ever before known, all with new performers and new songs and new dances and new guff to draw the crowd.”

The showboats included French’s New Sensation series of barges and steamers, legendary for decades, along with the Cooley-Thom watercraft, Emerson’s fully wired Cotton Blossom, “studded with hundreds of electric lights and flaming arcs”—and, in 1911, Markle’s mammoth Goldenrod, entertainment palace of the rivers.

Newspapers chronicled much of the local music culture, publishing staff reports, reviews, and promotional advances and advertisements. Texts sometimes lacked basic details. “A showboat, owned by a firm with an unpronounceable name, landed here Wednesday and drew great crowds two nights,” The Democrat noted on Sept. 27, 1901. “They carry a fine band and make an excellent street display. The show itself is said to be fair. There is another showboat up the river which will be here shortly.”

Riverboat excursions were preferred by dancers. A Caruthersville group hit the wharf on a summer evening in 1902, while the moon burst silvery over the Mississippi, and rushed onto a barge in tow of the steamer Hock White. The pilot “pushed from the bank” on an angle, steering his flotilla past dangerous shallows and timber wads, to reach the main channel and drive upstream. “Good music was furnished,” a reveler reported, “and as the lights of the city vanished in the distance, a lively two-step [beat] announced that dancing was to be the chief feature of the evening.”

The excursion plan changed, causing “much regret,” the scribe recounted, “when, as we neared Gayoso, we discovered the barge had sprung a leak and dancing would have to be discontinued. The party took refuge on the Hock White [and] Capt. Shepard headed homeward, where we arrived at 11 o’clock, having spent two hours most pleasantly.”

For prime music on land at Caruthersville, big-top circuses offered orchestras and street bands. And star entertainment appeared regularly after 1900 in the opera house and other facilities, with so many performers traversing the area for the great river, ferry crossings and railroads.

Black entertainers wowed audiences, such as the Georgia Minstrels, famed since the Civil War, along with Allen’s New Orleans Minstrels and the Georgia Smart Set Minstrels. Good vaudeville shows were packed, particularly for the music and dance acts, and early blues artists came through, like young singer Gertrude Pridgett, someday famous as “Ma Rainey.”

Local club rooms were hot music venues of the early 1900s, featuring extraordinary performances and “exhilarating” dancing. Among stage highlights, the Optimus and Elks clubs hosted musical giants in the making, like black pianist John William Boone, the Missourian renowned as “Blind Boone.” William Christopher “W.C.” Handy was a regional draw, his genius apparent in Caruthersville, as delta bandleader and composer to become known as Father of The Blues. Dance crowds were talented, skilled, with couples and individuals showing off, capturing their own spotlight “in the whirl of dreamy waltzes, lively two steps and quadrilles,” by one account.

But the mirth angered moralists who opposed dancing, alcohol and saloons, gambling, silent movies, Sunday amusements, further debauchery. “As soon as revival meetings open, then the dances begin to flourish,” The Pemiscot Press observed.

Similar information came from McCarty community, where evangelistic revivals were lowly attended next to a farm dance that attracted the crowd. “We are quite sure there were not any of our neighbor girls there, for they don’t go to dances anymore, we are proud to say,” attested a female correspondent, obviously a traditional Christian, who confessed: “but we know of a few boys around here who went.”

“Hereafter, we hope while there [is a revival] so near, the dances will be postponed, and everybody attend the meeting and get the old-time religion, so you won’t want to go to dances.”

Americans were “amusement mad,” a preacher remarked in northern Missouri, cracking that ministers might compete by singing ragtime and telling jokes. In Columbia a college professor characterized dancing as “unchristian movement” among aroused, amoral participants. He said dancing had “many more friends than has Christianity,” adding, “Drunkenness and the whole round of vices emanate from the modern ballroom.”

YMCA leaders spoke at State University in Columbia, courtesy of the Athletic Department, urging students to avoid dancing. These messengers of Muscular Christianity told young males to enjoy divine sport instead—like collision football. At Normal College in Cape Girardeau, the president foiled a dance party off campus by restricting female students to their dorm, locking them in for the night.

Churches reemphasized bans on dance throughout southeast Missouri, at Doniphan, Sikeston and elsewhere. “Pastors of Dexter churches have put on a vigorous war against waltzing,” stated a news report. “The town is much wrought up over the agitation.” Protestant and Catholic clergy decried the “sheer devilization” of ballrooms and halls in a book titled Immorality of Modern Dances. The Baptist journal Word and Way editorialized from Kansas City, blaming dance as elemental in societal trend “to lower moral and religious standards.”

The Caruthersville Methodist Church brought in Memphis evangelist G.A. Klein for a week-long revival. Addressing dance obscenities, Reverend Klein “made plain the evils of this amusement, particularly because of the indiscriminate mingling of the sexes, and [he] quoted strong testimony of the effects such had upon both men and women, and the ruined lives that often resulted.”

Crusaders of the Missouri Bootheel gained a loud ally in editor-politician Harvey E. Averill at Caruthersville, when he took over The Pemiscot Argus, “knocker” newspaper. As the Methodist General Conference summarily rejected reformists in 1908, 1912, 1916 and 1920, Averill cheered in print, condemning dancing and more abominations in his midst, namely Pemiscot County.

Averill, a county native and supporter of Prohibition, enraged many by branding Caruthersville “A Wicked City” in the regional press. Averill alleged illicit gambling and alcohol sales were sanctioned by town leaders who partook, and he printed names. Averill scoffed at the notion Caruthersville needed saloons for a strong economy, much less 10 taverns in a municipality of 4,000 people.

“Of course we have a wide-open city, and prosperity is seen on every street corner,” Averill sneered. “Of course the city could not exist other than as a ‘crossroads’ without the saloons which are supporting it. Of course these conditions are very pleasing to the entire citizenship of the town. Of course, of course.”

“Caruthersville has been made notorious for a long time by its saloons.”

Averill exhorted church hierarchies to enforce dance bans. “Every church member who dances should be given the choice of withdrawing from the church or giving up the dance,” Averill commented in 1916. “So long as there is any temporizing with this violation of the church ordinances, just so long will the dance hall draw away the young people from their church duties and, in many instances, will finally result in ruined lives.”

“The pulpit that does not condemn dancing evidently approves it.”

Perhaps most local clergymen did support dancing, tacitly; undoubtedly, Pemiscot County’s general populace embraced it.

“Dancing seems to be the go in this vicinity,” a scribe reported from Game community. “There was [a party] at Mr. Bennett’s Friday night, and another one will be at Liddie Cummings’ Wednesday night.” At Tyler landing, folks wanted “dancing and more dancing,” noted a Democrat correspondent. “Some dance all night long, and then have to hurry to get home for breakfast.” At Willow Pole Bridge: “If there is anything they like down here better than dancing it is more dancing, and then some of the boys have to take their [hangover] to the doctor next day.” In a grove at Caruthersville dancing platforms were “most popular” for a barbecue with two bands; the crowd “danced and sweated… sweated and danced.”

And racial prejudice of a white minority couldn’t silence fine music for the accepting majority after a “moving picture show” at Pascola, Pemiscot County, on a Saturday night in 1917. “It seems that some of the boys objected to music being furnished by negroes, but the crowd was in favor of a dance, and dance they did.”

Futility of the anti-dance movement deflated crusaders following World War I, nationally and locally. Schools everywhere had adopted dance instruction for PE classes, including at Caruthersville and at Hayti, hometowns of Averill. Defiant churches of various faiths were ignoring bans to endorse dance for members. Catholic parishes in southeast Missouri held benefit dances and picnics, and had for decades. Southern Methodists had largely abandoned the old decree on amusements.

Dancing’s popularity had blown upward another level, opined a critic at end of the war, citing  return of military personnel as impetus. Additionally, automobile transportation and the failure of alcohol Prohibition, quickly apparent of the federal law, were major factors. Phonographs, for record music in home, hall and theater,  contributed to the dance craze.

Moreover, this was the halcyon era of excursion riverboats, impacting dance in southeast Missouri, bringing waves of great music and players. Black bandleader Fate Marable, whose ensembles featured rising jazzmen like Louis Armstrong , was mainstay on the Streckfus excursion steamers landing at Cape Girardeau, Bird’s Point, New Madrid and Caruthersville.

Anti-dance rhetoric was the butt of jokes by 1921, when Averill printed a final shot at dancing heathens and cowardly clergy, as he saw them in Pemiscot County. “Unless the church ceases its attitude of complaisance with the sins of dancing and card-playing among the members, just so long will [transgressions] continue to flourish, to increase, and to lead astray hundreds of the younger people who are trying to pattern their lives after those of the elders.” Averill sold his newspaper soon after and didn’t return to journalism until years later, in Oklahoma.

In 1924 the Methodist General Conference finally dropped its rule banning members from dance, cards and theaters—with a caveat, of course. “The church no longer specifically forbids its members to dance, play cards, or to go the theatre, but bans instead ‘amusements which cannot be enjoyed in the name of the Lord Jesus,’ ” The Boston Globe reported.

National debate fell quiet then dormant, but anti-dance crusades would revive again, over future moves on the floor, like the “jitterbug,” and future music, rockabilly. Southeast Missouri and native artists would be in middle of it all.

Matt Chaney, writer and consultant, is compiling a book on historical song and dance in the Missouri delta, tentatively titled From River Music to Rock ‘n’ Roll. 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

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Averill, H.E. (1909, June 24). A wide open town. Pemiscot Argus, Caruthersville MO, p. 4.

Averill, H.E. (1909, July 1). ‘The most popular form of amusement.’ Pemiscot Argus, Caruthersville MO, p. 4.

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Jazz Great Jess Stacy Lived the Highs, Lows of Showbiz

Twenty-First in a Series

By Matt Chaney, for ChaneysBlog.com

Posted Thursday, June 28, 2018

Copyright ©2018 for historical arrangement by Matthew L. Chaney

By the 1950s jazzman Jess Stacy cut an inspiring but cautionary figure for the young musicians of his native southeast Missouri. The famed pianist, once headlining with the biggest bands in grand halls, had dropped to booking his own solo gigs at little bars around southern California.

Personal setbacks had affected Stacy, two failed marriages and fiscal loss as a bandleader, but the impact development was decline of “big band” swing music since World War II, for jazz players like him. A critic commiserated, noting the startling demise of such names as Jess Stacy, Harry James, Gene Krupa, Teddy Wilson, Lionel Hampton—their becoming “musty, forgotten” in pop culture.

The piano bars of So-Cal had become Stacy’s lot, his steady money, playing in places like Steak-Out, Sip ’n’ Surf, Parisian Room, Electra Lounge, Holiday House, Ivory Tower, and Pepy’s Roman Room. A tiny box ad in The Los Angeles Times announced: “Nightly—World’s Greatest Pianist, JESS STACY at the RADAR ROOM.” Stacy played college fraternity parties and the Motor Sport Lounge on Ventura Boulevard, a joint in Van Nuys with no cover charge.

A news columnist felt pity, watching the graying legend perform alone at a restaurant opening: “And the man at the piano, of course, is Jess Stacy, who in the ’40s reigned as the best of them all, ranking first in four straight Downbeat polls (1940-43) and a member of such remembered organizations as the bands of Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and Bob Crosby. His piano solo of Sing, Sing, Sing, recorded at Goodman’s 1938 Carnegie Hall jazz concert, is an example of swing piano at its finest,” Wally Guenther reported in lament for The Los Angeles Times.

Stacy actually didn’t mind the lifestyle, for a while at least, and the story theme of fallen music giant, circulating about him, wasn’t wholly accurate. The Stacy starlight still burned nationally and abroad, retaining power through swing fans everywhere. His music continued to sell records, famous entertainers continued to cite him as role model, and he continued to work in movies, radio and the new medium, television.

Reserved, soft-spoken, Jess Stacy relished aspects of leaving the limelight, done with far-flung travel in particular. He’d finally settled into a good marriage, turning 50, and bought a nice cottage in the wooded Hollywood Hills, on high ground with space to raise fruit trees. He played music in small venues, often five to six nights a week, similar to his coming up in rural Missouri and Illinois.

Stacy dutifully learned sing-along melodies for piano-bar patrons, even if avoiding choruses and eye contact from his stool. Stacy never sang and didn’t smile often during a song, focusing instead on the piano keys, fingers rolling, and bar audiences generally left him alone those early years in southern California. The entertainer impressed locals, including a tough crowd at Motor Sport Lounge. “Magic music… Jess Stacy,” saluted Larry Lipson for Van Nuys News.

“Personally, I like playing as a single,” Stacy said during the period. “Some fellows can’t do it; gets ’em down. For me, though, it seems easier—a lot easier—than band work. I don’t do so bad, either. Been working 49 weeks out of a year.”

Jim Goldsborough was a So-Cal youth who soaked up local jazz of the Fifties and early Sixties. Goldsborough shared his father’s affinity for former big-band players both native and transplanted. “For music lovers, it’s hard to imagine the access we had in those days,” he later recalled, as columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune.

“There was a fall rushing season at UCLA when one fraternity had Hoagy Carmichael playing live in its living room, another had [Bobby] Troup by the pool, another had Bobby Short, another had Jess Stacy. None of them could have earned more than $150 for the gig, but the beer was free.”

Recently Goldsborough recounted seeing Stacy at “a joint on Highland in Manhattan Beach called Cisco’s, where I went with my dad to hear him in 1958, I believe… Cisco’s was right across the street from another joint called Pancho’s and both had piano bars. I had Benny Goodman’s ’38 Carnegie Hall album with the fantastic improvised solo by Jess on Sing, Sing, Sing, the one where Jess is so hot that Benny cries out ‘Yeah, Jess’ as he gets going, and Gene Krupa is riffing behind him all the way; a truly beautiful piano solo, legendary, really.”

“Cisco’s was not exactly the Hollywood Bowl, so Jess was just hanging on in those days, but I remember that my dad and I both loved his style of playing. He was still playing great stride and was a very engaging man.”

The music profession was souring for Stacy, however, by that date at Cisco’s. His big-time prospects were drying up and bar crowds becoming less tolerable.

Relations stood broken with powerful Benny Goodman, leader of numerous bands and talents since the 1930s, including Stacy over multiple periods. Goodman seemed the only one to make major cash among them, anymore, for all the music spanning decades. Stacy and Goodman parted acrimoniously in 1955, once again, during production of a movie on Goodman’s life. “Nobody seems to know how it started, but famed piano-pounder Jess Stacy and Benny Goodman almost came to blows over at Universal,” reported Hollywood columnist Edith Gwynn.

Meanwhile, Stacy began to dread work at piano bars. “I could see the writing on the wall when TV came in,” he later remarked. “Some guy at the bar would say: ‘Stop playing, we want to listen to the fights.’ ”

“TV began keeping the nicer people at home, and I came to feel those piano bars were snake pits. I had to walk around the block six or seven times every night to get up enough courage to go in. While I was playing, somebody would put a nickel in the jukebox…”

Stacy had been paid to make music since 1920, at age 16 in Cape Girardeau, Mo. He’d lived the dream of so many peers, yet came to question what it really meant. Now Stacy had to consider a normal job in his advancing age, without résumé and skill for much in an everyday vocation.

Back in Missouri, a longtime friend could empathize, Raymond F. “Peg” Meyer, Stacy’s first bandleader when they attended Cape Central High School. The two had entered riverboat jazz together, performing for excursion bands aboard steamers plying the Mississippi in warm weather, and they had a great time for a few seasons. Then Meyer declined the boats to stay home, get married, teach band and sell instruments; Stacy strove onward to achieve musical heights, place his name in lights, but also live the lows.

“Jess clearly reached the top of his profession,” Meyer wrote for his 1989 book, Backwoods Jazz in the Twenties. “And in spite of the fact that he has played with some of the most famous bands in American history… he never forgot his playing days with Peg Meyer’s ‘Melody Kings.’ In a recent letter he remembered all of the good times he had playing with my group, and he stated that he believed the greatest mistake in his life was in leaving Cape Girardeau.”

“Fame does not always produce happiness in an individual’s life,” Meyer noted, “but this is seldom realized until in maturity or retirement.”

Matt Chaney, writer and consultant, is compiling a book on historical song and dance in the Missouri delta, tentatively titled From River Music to Rock ‘n’ Roll. 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

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Stories From River Music to Rock in the Missouri Delta

By Matt Chaney, for ChaneysBlog.com

Copyright ©2018 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

Matt Chaney is a writer and consultant in Missouri, USA, who is compiling a book tentatively titled, From River Music to Rock in the Missouri Delta. For more information visit www.fourwallspublishing.com.  Email: mattchaney@fourwallspublishing.com.

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

Twentieth in a Series

By Matt Chaney, for ChaneysBlog.com

Posted Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Copyright ©2018 for historical arrangement by Matthew L. Chaney

In early July, 1960, a peach-colored Cadillac traveled south through Pemiscot County, Mo., along U.S. Highway 61. At Hayti the Caddy pulled up to gas pumps outside Gwin’s Café, and Elvis Presley and two buddies got out, causing but a stir in the little town.

“Elvis was here,” local columnist Verna Hampton reported a week later. “Friendly, good-looking and polite, he chatted with [Gwin’s] attendants on generalities.” A worker wanted his children to meet Presley, requesting a few minutes’ leeway, and the singer-actor obliged. “While waiting, he and his companions drove across the street for lunch at the Dairy Queen, then back to the station.”

Presley was arguably America’s biggest celebrity, taking a break from Hollywood, but Hayti folks were used to seeing him pass through, especially around Gwin’s and the highway intersection. Elvis, with his Memphis home 95 miles south, once played the B&B Club in Pemiscot County, legendary roadhouse of early rock ’n’ roll. Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins still appeared locally, among name players.

Moreover, great performers had appeared in this Missouri river country, tucked within curling bends of the Mississippi, since the 19th century.

***

Circuses and showboats exhibited along the river shore of Pemiscot County, Mo., during the Victorian Era, with local newspapers publishing Amusements sections by turn of the century. “This place has always been known as a ‘river show’ town,” declared The Pemiscot Argus in Caruthersville, 1910, while additional landing spots for entertainment included Gayoso, Tyler and Cottonwood Point.

Caruthersville hosted big-top events such as Howe’s London Circus, Markle’s Floto Shows, Sparks Circus, Menke and Coleman’s Hippodrome, and Wallace Circus. The Ringling Brothers Circus set up across the river at Dyersburg, Tenn., and ferries provided transport for Missourians.

Showboats visiting Pemiscot were the essential historic lot, ranging from New Sensation flat barges and tugs of A.B. French to W.R. Markle’s Goldenrod luxury steamer.

The Goldenrod was hailed as river wonder for its Caruthersville debut in 1910. “Never since the beginning of the show business on the river has a show boat so tremendous in size been seen,” proclaimed a review. “Its beautiful outside appearance is set off by the front entrances with its plate glass doors and mirrors, all studded with thousands of electric lights and flaming arcs.”

French’s New Sensation presented “first-class” variety shows with two dozen performers, a journalist reported, describing the program as “a short play, or, perhaps, a minstrel scene as an introduction, followed by an olio of signing, ventriloquism, slack-wire walking, sleight-of-hand feats, dancing and trapeze performances.”

French avoided metropolitan areas and larger towns for his floating theater. “The cities usually have amusements of their own, but the little hamlets scattered along the bank of the river have no pleasure beside an occasional singing school,” he said in 1889. “Wherever there is a church or footpath there must be a more or less scattered settlement, and anything in the nature of a novelty coming to one of these places will be advertised by word of mouth through a radius of ten miles in the course of a day.” French fired a cannon from his barge to alert potential customers of a vicinity.

A large showboat like Markle’s broadcast its arrival with a calliope, or “steam piano,” for extraordinary amplification. “No other music has the long-range effectiveness of that of the steam piano,” The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported. “It penetrates into the faraway hills. It percolates through the thick woods of the bottoms. The farmer’s boy hears it, and the farmer’s help. ‘The show boat’s come!’ they cry, one to another, and they are very glad.”

“Played in the city street, [a calliope] makes only discordant and strident noise. But played on the river—ah! Is there any music so sweet as that?”

“We couldn’t think of doing business without the calliope,” said W.P. McNair, captain of the New Era showboat, in 1905. “The steam piano brings the crowd. It carries all the way from five to ten miles. Few can resist its seductive strains.”

***

Steam calliopes blasted the river valleys for a half-century before bandleader Fate C. Marable, a black pianist from Paducah, Ky., lent jazz and ragtime to the pipe melodies. “Fate Marable, the demon calliope artist [is]… generally conceded to be the premier harmonic tooter of the Mississippi,” The Rock Island Argus and Daily Union saluted in 1912.

“There are calliope players and then more calliope players, but when Fate allows his fingers to wander dreamily over the brass keys all lovers of ragtime sit up and take notice.”

Marable, to become recognized as “one of the important figures in the dissemination of jazz,” hired New Orleans masters like Louis Armstrong for his orchestras on the Streckfus Steamers line. Armstrong, cornet wunderkind, left New Orleans for the first time with Marable, heading up the Mississippi on the excursion steamer Sidney in spring of 1919.

Armstrong performed his breakout trumpet solo at the Caruthersville wharf, Pemiscot County, Mo., according to recollection of Verne W. Streckfus. The milestone possibly occurred May 23, 1919, on the first visit to Caruthersville for 17-year-old Armstrong, but period newspapers didn’t confirm in a recent electronic search. Streckfus management resisted star recognition for musicians, and only the bandleader Marable was mentioned in reports and advertisements available from 1919 to 1921, during Armstrong’s three seasons traveling on riverboats.

But this American music was epic, unmistakably. Modern analysts concluded that the black youth nicknamed “Satchmo” by Marable, the kid marked by parental neglect, juvenile crime and racial segregation, stood as the jazz genius of single-most impact. And Armstrong was gifted in bridging racial and cultural differences of audiences, for his trumpet sound, enthusiasm and humor.

“His arrival on the excursion boat scene found him near the start of his long career as a crossover musical entertainer, and he was then a timid young man, as yet unsure who he was,” observed author William Howland Kenney, for his book chapter “Louis Armstrong and Riverboat Culture” of 2005. “But even he could not ignore his amazing talent, so Armstrong gradually discovered the courage to confidently project an image, one at which American audiences marveled in the 1930s and 1940s.”

“Much of Armstrong’s unusual persona came from his childhood of extreme poverty and limited education, but his past also found encouragement in the process of his migration to the North and his subsequent chasing after the gigs. He and his jazz, even the partially tamed jazz that he played on the excursion boats, took some of its optimistic spirit from an important link between music and movement. Like the blues, jazz is a form of culture that readily travels,” Kenney wrote.

“Jazz may have been invented in New Orleans, but its new context on the Mississippi and the Ohio and in the major river cities changed it.”

In 1920 Caruthersville and southeast Missouri buzzed over Marable’s “Palmetto Jazz Band,” marquee act on the mammoth steamer Capitol. The old showboats might’ve attracted three or four hundred for a landing performance, but a water ride with Marable’s band would top the mark. “The dance fans of this community will be given a real treat on Tuesday, September 28, when the new steamer Capitol comes to Caruthersville for a moonlight dancing excursion under the auspices of the Junior Chamber of Commerce,” touted The Democrat-Argus. “It is next to impossible to keep your feet quiet when you hear Palmetto Jazzerites play the popular dance numbers.”

The night lived up to hype and Armstrong was surely brilliant, if unmentioned in dispatches. “Almost 600 people attended, there being a large number from nearby towns in the crowd,” the Caruthersville paper noted in a glowing review. “The jazz experts manufactured scads of harmonious concatenations for the edification of the onlookers and the generous use of the jazzes and the whole big party set themselves diligently about the work of enjoying the occasion.”

“It was a real moonlight affair, for once, for a big moon rode majestically through the heavens while the big boat no less majestically plowed the bosom of the mighty Father of Waters.”

Decades later, Cape Girardeau jazz legend Raymond F. “Peg” Meyer reflected on his colleague Fate Marable. Meyer’s first jazz band in southeast Missouri had featured pianist Jess Stacy, reared in Malden and Cape Girardeau, who went on to fame with Tony Catalano, Benny Goodman and Bob Crosby, among bandleaders. Meyer and Stacy worked for Streckfus Steamers in the 1920s, and Meyer lauded Marable for the “best excursion boat orchestra I ever heard.”

“Louis Armstrong, Baby and Johnny Dodds and many others who became nationally known played with his group,” Meyer wrote for his exquisite book Backwoods Jazz in the Twenties, 1989. “Fate Marable’s orchestra performed what I call riverboat jazz. It was not Dixieland. I am pleased that today he is beginning to be recognized by jazz lovers around the world as the ‘King of Riverboat Jazz.’ ”

***

Marshes were drained, forests were cut, and roads constructed in Pemiscot County, Mo., finally, during the early 20th century.

Population boomed, peaking at 46,857 in 1940, having quadrupled over four decades. Poor blacks and whites arrived in waves from the Old South, tenant farmers and sharecroppers, seeking betterment in the flat, reclaimed acreage. The former Swamp-east Missouri had assumed proverbial status, as yet another “promised land,” although mechanization was already trimming manual jobs. Indeed, this was the last frontier for traditional Southern agriculture.

Black blues musicians and white country pickers multiplied in Pemiscot County through the Depression Era and World War II, and the honky-tonks and roadhouses grew thick, especially along new federal Highway 61.

Bootlegging was wide-open along Sixty-One from the “state line” border zone north to Hayti, with repeal of Prohibition only legitimatizing a portion of the market. Illegal gambling and prostitution were rife in the county with police and public officials on the take. A citizens group denounced the political corruption, vice and underage drinking. A newspaper reported “roadhouse and dance-hall establishments being run ‘outside the law’ and mushrooming in cities along the highways in Pemiscot County.”

Music was clearly top choice in entertainment for the northern delta masses. Song and dance went along with alcohol in most effective fashion for any joint or gathering. And street drugs of Bootheel Missouri were led by marijuana, cocaine, “speed” and painkillers. Morphine was available, especially at state line, in tablet and injectable forms.

Lethal violence was constant, considered a byproduct by the good-timers of Pemiscot County. Prejudice influenced many conflicts but the overriding force just amounted to mean, rough people—dangerous individuals of any color, male and female, too high on booze and dope, always ready with weapons.

The scene was magnet for talented musicians who saw prospects in Pemiscot besides farming. Blues artists came up from Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi. Early on Gertrude Pridgett passed through, known as “Ma Rainey, and Albert “Sunnyland Slim” Luandrew, Robert Johnson, Johnny Shines, David “Honeyboy” Edwards, and Eddie Boyd.

The storied roadhouse Club Casablanca, known for great music and bloody assaults, sat on the Missouri side of a gravel road at state line, west of the concrete arch where Highway 61 crossed into Arkansas. Electronic bluesmen frequented the concrete-block hotspot run by James “Dizzy” Vance, Memphis native and former Negro Leagues baseball player, during the joint’s heyday following World War II.

Casablanca headliners included guitarists Chester “Howling Wolf” Burnett and McKinley “Muddy Waters” Morganfield, along with trumpet man Willie Mitchell and keyboardist Isaac Hayes. In summer 1949, Vance met Riley “B.B.” King at WDIA Radio in Memphis and booked him for the club.

“I remember I paid [King] $35 a night, and the audience went wild that first night,” Vance told Blytheville writer Ron Russell in 1973. “We must have had 400 people in here by the time they had heard of him. B.B. still calls every now and then, just to keep in touch and see how things are going.”

“There were others…,” Russell recounted of name players at the Casablanca: “Bobby (Blue) Bland, who later went on to star at New York’s Apollo Theatre; Jimmy Reed, who rose to the top of the charts with his recording, Take Out Some Insurance On Me Baby, in 1957; and equally prosperous Little Milton and Bill Harvey.”

“And then there was Hank Ballard, who with his Midnighters created the twist while doing one-night stands in the Casablanca and similar Mid-South nightspots almost a year before Chubby Checker made it go.”

King, speaking with author Sebastian Danchin, recalled meeting guitarist Earl Hooker in “Club 61” at the Missouri border during 1952. When the bar closed B.B. and Hooker joined other musicians to jam; “we played all night; we just sit and played,” King said. “That was my first time meetin’ him, and from then on, we was friends the rest of his life.”

Bluesmen appeared at Caruthersville, including B.B. King, Howling Wolf, Earl Hooker and pianist Joe Willie “Pinetop” Perkins. Accounts lacked venue details, but Caruthersville was notorious for black juke joints along the riverfront, in the clapboard “Tin Town” section on both sides of the seawall, with place names like Jump Spot, Cotton Club and Sportsman’s Hall.

Droves of white performers hit Caruthersville and companion town Hayti, meanwhile, many already packing star names in “hillybilly” and “western” music, associate movies. Singing cowboys appeared locally such as Buck Jones, Tex Ritter and Zeke Clements, of radio and film fame.

The traveling troupes of Grand Ole Opry in Nashville were major draws. Appearing locally were Minnie Pearl, Ernest Tubb and The Texas Troubadours, Uncle Dave Macon, The Wilburn Family, Louvin Brothers, Roy Acuff and The Smoky Mountain Boys, Tommy “Butterball” Page, “Little” Jimmy Dickens, and Ferlin Husky, native of southeast Missouri, along with Don Helms.

Opry idol Lloyd Estel “Cowboy” Copas, “The Country Gentleman of Song,” was big in Pemiscot County. Copas appeared with his band The Oklahoma Cowboys at the Caruthersville Armory in 1953, a decade before his fatal plane crash with Patsy Cline and Hawkshaw Hawkins in western Tennessee.

A great local favorite was Eddy Arnold, dashing guitarist and singer, the RCA Records sensation of manager Tom Parker and Pioneer of the Nashville Sound, per the 1997 biography by Michael Streissguth. “Smiling Eddy Arnold” first won fans in southeast Missouri through his early radio broadcasts from Jackson, Tenn., and St. Louis. In the mid-1940s Arnold packed shows at the Caruthersville Fairgrounds.

Tex Ritter’s strong following spanned decades in Pemiscot County, beginning with his movies and promo stops in Caruthersville during the Depression. Local crowds turned out on steamy July 31, 1959, to see the aging celebrity paraded through Hayti and Caruthersville under threat of thunderstorms. “Tex sang his famous Boll Weevil song and a few other numbers,” reported a local correspondent.

“The young hung on his every sounding word, and gathered around afterwards to have him autograph scraps of paper.”

***

Elvis Presley’s local shows notwithstanding, the first rock ’n’ roll event to attract thousands in southeast Missouri was likely Caruthersville’s centennial celebration in June 1957. Fairground stages featured four young musicians from Sun Records in Memphis: Carl Perkins, with his hit song Blue Suede Shoes; Jerry Lee Lewis, of Crazy Arms; Warren Smith, Rock and Roll Ruby; and Billy Lee Riley, with Flying Saucer Rock and Roll.

The cast were regular performers in Pemiscot County, at venues like Zanza Club and Joy Theatre in Hayti, and the B&B Club in Gobler. The area crawled with more rock pioneers, rockabillies, on local shows by Narvel Felts, Matt Lucas, Charlie Feathers, Eddie Bond, Travis Wammack, Hayden Thompson, Carl Mann, Joe Keene and many more.

Modern country performers appearing in Pemiscot were led by Harold Jenkins, or “Conway Twitty,” and the multi-talented Charlie Rich.

Drummer Al Jordan, native of Gideon, Mo., toured with Felts, Twitty and Rich, among stars. In 2017 Jordan discussed music history in the region and particularly of Hayti, where he retired. “Elvis used to stop here in Hayti all the time,” Jordan said, setting up personal anecdote about Gwin’s Café at the highway, circa 1960.

“Right after I first started music, we went in there one night after we’d played in an old place, and I sat down in a booth where they had a little sign there, said, ‘Elvis Presley sat here.’ I took a napkin, wrote on there and stuck it over, said, ‘Al Jordan sat here.’ ”

“My little sign didn’t last long.”

Matt Chaney is a writer and consultant in Missouri, USA. For more information visit www.fourwallspublishing.com.  Email: mattchaney@fourwallspublishing.com.

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

Nineteenth in a Series

By Matt Chaney, for ChaneysBlog.com

Posted Friday, February 2, 2018

Copyright ©2018 for historical arrangement by Matthew L. Chaney

In the movement toward a recognized “American music,” purely native and nurtured, no factor was greater than the abolishment of slavery through civil warfare, freeing four million blacks in the South.

“Emancipation brought new forms of discrimination and oppression for blacks, but it also permitted a self-expression that was not available under slavery,” observed musicologist Bill C. Malone. “Post-Civil War blacks eagerly sought forms of musical assertion that were uniquely their own, and they experimented with all types of instruments.”

Thousands of freedmen were seasoned musicians, ready-made, having performed for pay while enslaved, and they led the Afro-American surge in arts and entertainment of the postwar. A band of ex-slaves hit success quickly on tour, the Georgia Minstrels from Macon, Ga. They drew packed audiences, whites and blacks, for song-and-dance shows in the North, Midwest, and in the United Kingdom.

Fans of American minstrelsy clamored to see “bona fide negroes” instead of stale “white imitators” in blackface. White minstrels were fading for pop music, and many transferred to opera and other work. Chicago raved over the Georgia Minstrels, their “rare ability” on stage at Smith and Nixon’s Hall. “This excellent troupe of real African minstrels, which opened to so large and enthusiastic an audience on Wednesday night… gave another inimitable performance,” The Tribune noted on Sept. 22, 1865.

“They are genuine colored men, needing no aid of burnt cork to give the tawn, and have all been slaves within the year. In view of this fact, their performance is something wonderful,” a critic stated. The Afro-Americans achieved “depth of feeling and precision of execution which would do honor to a company of [musically] educated white men who have made a specialty of negro minstrelsy for years.”

Afro-Americans of music, dance and comedy changed show business in the latter 19th century. A few became major headliners, national stars of minstrelsy, vaudeville and burlesque. But black music and style thrived at the American grassroots, local level in community and neighborhood.

Segregated society stood everywhere, North, South, East and West, but blacks played and starred in brass bands, string bands, and the increasingly popular cornet ensembles.

Newspapers touted black musicians, if Northern song publishers ignored them, and talent was boundless along the great rivers. Afro-American players and bands lined the Mississippi, appearing at Dubuque, Alton, St. Louis, Cape Girardeau, Charleston, Bird’s Point, Cairo, New Madrid, Caruthersville, Osceola, Memphis, Helena, Natchez, Vicksburg, Baton Rouge, Donaldsonville, LaPlace and New Orleans, among landings.

The Bluff City Cornet Band of Memphis, “colored musicians,” attracted all colors at a political rally in July 1878, reported The Daily Appeal. The band played from a grandstand for political speakers, overlooking a sawdust pad on smooth ground, 50 feet in diameter, set under canopy of tall trees. “The surroundings—the clear space covered with sawdust, and the inspiring strains of music—suggested intoxicating dances, and the effect upon the young people and many of the old ones present was very marked.”

Innovative blacks pushed music toward a genuine American brand—“the larger quest for a national music,” observed Malone—which was anticipated globally, what for the cutting-edge U.S. repute in disciplines from sciences to humanities. “This quest, of course, was not new but had been pursued at least since the days of Lowell Mason [church hymnist], who had sought to create a music that would represent America’s distinctiveness while also winning the respect of the world,” Malone wrote in historical treatise, his book Southern Music/American Music.

“Implicit in this search was the belief that a true national music must embody native American material—that is, that it must rest upon an indigenous folk basis.”

In 1876 America remained in musical incubation, typical for a nation at centennial age, said a German symphony conductor. “I hardly think that its composers have been developed yet,” Hans Von Bulow told a Chicago reporter. “There has been some music of a good class written by Americans, but the time for deep and thorough American music has not yet come. America is one of two young nations on earth; Russia is the other. This is an age of receptivity, not only in music but in art, and after the age of receptivity comes that of productivity.”

“It is not a matter of this century but of the next. But the time will come.”

Musicians progressed, notably south, where “jazz horns were on fire along the Mississippi delta in the ’80s,” per one account. Delta players were improvising, particularly the blacks, by “ragging” song fragments on cornet, trombone, clarinet, piano and strings. Audiences grew across racial lines for rhythm variations and syncopated melody, counterpoints and overlays among artists, sounding throughout the flatland.

Subsequent legend held that Southern musicians understood the term “jass” or “jaz” by the Civil War, but historians later could not confirm. Regardless, delta players from Cairo southward rolled on jazzy method, meaning “to speed things up” for dance rhythm, “swing” beat on banjo, piano and horn.

“On wind instruments in New Orleans negroes created their own technique of performance with strange and poignant effects, tone qualities, colour, and new harmonies based on continuous conscious deviation from pitch—things which no text could possibly teach because it never existed before,” an analyst surmised in 1946.

***

Early horn players in New Orleans faced backlash from newspapers. “We do not wish to find fault…,” carped a Times-Picayune editorial in 1837. “But the brass of certain players in the St. Charles Orchestra is very annoying. Does not Mr. Fallon see that the trombones and trumpets of his band are too noisy?”

Damn their critics, brass players kept up the racket, and The Times-Picayune conveyed exasperation in August of 1838. “There is a real mania in this city for horn and trumpet playing. You can hardly turn a corner that you do not hear some amateur attempting, in a perfect agony, to perform his devotions to the God of Music. A [citizen] remarked to us yesterday that he… earnestly desired to see the last trumpet.”

Fat chance, quieting New Orleans for music and events like a novel celebration, based on French les carnaval, to become known as Mardi Gras. “A lot of masqueraders were parading through our streets yesterday…,” The Times-Picayune reported on Feb. 8, 1837, “and excited considerable speculation as to who they were, what were their motives, and what upon earth could induce them to turn out in such grotesque and outlandish habiliments… Boys, negroes, fruit women and what not, followed the procession.” The newspaper panned “harsh and discordant music” of this “Cowbellion” parade, dismissing its “noise and tumult.”

Local writers also sneered at a dance wizard managed by P.T. Barnum: John Diamond, “break-down” specialist and the white rival of “Master Juba” William Henry Lane, sensational black performer in New York City.

Diamond, an American teen celebrity through Barnum promotions, dominated New Orleans entertainment during his week’s run at the St. Charles Theatre in February 1841. Fans lined up for shows, audiences reflecting the “Kaleidoscopic” city in ethnic diversity and class structure, to see a white youth greased black, dancing “Ethiopian.”

Times-Picayune critics were bemused by Diamond’s success and popularity. They discounted him, huffing about European entertainment as “legitimate” achievement and little else.

Malone related: “The music audience in the South, as elsewhere in the United states, was very early divided between people who clung to the idea of music as a formal, academic art which could only be appreciated by an educated elite, and people who thought music was an informal, emotionally perceived expression of the masses.”

New Orleans critics were disgusted that Diamond drained theater attendance elsewhere for Italian opera, German symphony and English drama. New Orleans should be ashamed, critics suggested, practically “waiting for another visitation from Master Diamond.” So he obliged a month later, returning in triumph for another smashing stand at St. Charles Theatre.

The New Orleans press softened on mirth-making, had to, given the cosmopolitan cityscape unfolding, more than 100,000 people from worldwide. Arts and entertainment constituted civic priority with song and dance beheld reverently. “New Orleans was peculiarly situated to receive music from many places in the world,” Malone noted. “Throughout the century New Orleans was known for the breadth and variety of its music.”

The peoples included English, Irish, Italian, Chinese, French, and Spanish—the latter largely Creoles, many with African blood—along with Greeks, Germans, Poles, Hebrews, Arabs, West Indians and American Indians. “New Orleans is a world in miniature, subdivided into smaller commonwealths, in every one of which distinctive traits of national character are to be seen, and the peculiar language of its people is to be heard spoken,” The Times-Picayune reported in September 1843.

Socio-economic class ranged from the affluent to poor, with the latter concentrated in slums along the river levee. Cultured elites, including Creoles, rode in chauffeured carriages while poor folks walked, such as country whites—“Hoosiers, Wolverines, Pukes and Corn-crackers,” The Times-Picayune decribed, continuing: “The Negroes are scattered through the city promiscuously; those of mixed blood, such as Griffes, Quarteroons… showing a preference for the back streets of the First [Ward] and part of the Third Municipality.”

The paper urged that visitors stroll New Orleans streets during evening to “encounter as much novelty and as great a diversity of national character” as anywhere. A weekend experience was Congo Square, public commons fringing the French Quarter, where blacks gathered in music and dance to form “poetry of motion.”

“There is Congo Square, a right-angular patch, covered with a green sward, of some six or eight acres, bordered round by a few stunted trees, and intersected by gravel paths,” The Daily Delta described of a Sunday in September 1846. “The sun has slackened the intensity of his midday rays… the Parish Jail frowns sullenly hard by, and the bell of the old Cathedral summons the faithful to vesper devotion.”

“The scene and situation might not be considered… as well calculated to create or keep alive boisterous mirth. But the hundreds of negroes of both sexes there assembled are too engrossed with the amusements of the hour to devote a thought to anything else.”

Drums and accompaniments broadcast the sharpest sound in the outdoor setup, likewise producing cadence most effective for African-rooted syncopation. The drummers overlaid each other—and competed—in loud, spirited beats, tones and flurries, banging, knocking and slapping surfaces with hands and objects. Castanets fashioned of cow rib made “bone music.” Other musicians followed the lead of percussionists, typically on a Sunday evening at Congo Square.

“There are, first, two fellows each astride a cask, beating with all their might a half-dressed sheepskin that is fastened on by wooden pins over the end of it,” reported The Daily Delta. “Then there is a fellow beating an oak log—another is strumming a monster banjo, some vocal performers are assisting—but above them all is heard the clear and lively rattle of the bones.”

Writers at Congo Square witnessed black fiddlers, fife players and tambourine players. Cornet blowers unleashed in “the clangor of trumpets,” blasting across the plain.

Dancers made action everywhere on the grounds, in groups, by families, couples, singly. A spectacular gathering materialized in June 1845, thousands of blacks in sound and movement, drawing attention of The Times-Picayune, which headlined its report “Scenes In Congo Square.”

“Rude instruments of their own contrivance, the like of which we have never seen before, were being played on Sunday last with a zeal that showed the enthusiasm of the performers, while sets of dancers were shuffling and breaking down upon the green sward with an earnestness that knew no tiring… they danced and sang away, merrily enough, until the going down of the sun.”

Improvisation was trademark of black musicians and the string instruments struck note variations and syncopation. Early forms of ragtime and blues were heard by mid-century, if not yet identified as such. “The roots of ragtime lay in Afro-American dance music, in the fiddle-and-banjo music of the plantations marked by the rhythmic accompaniment of foot stomping and hand clapping,” Malone observed. Plaintive, bluesy melodies were “emerging from the tradition of field hollers, work shouts, and spirituals.”

“Emancipation brought a new freedom to articulate grievances and desires, and it also permitted black music to develop in something other than a communal setting.”

“It’s the fact of the abolition of slavery that made jazz music possible,” intoned Wynton Marsalis, New Orleans native and modern jazz master. “It came from a consciousness of those who are outside of something—but in the middle of it. These are people who are American in the realest sense, but they’ve been denied access to recognition as Americans. But that doesn’t alter the fact that they are American, and the fact that they have access to all the information that Americans have access to.”

New Orleans resounded in horn-blowing. Military instruments were readily available across the city, a federal stronghold, and black talent loaded the many marching bands. “You have musicians playing their horns; they have all these instruments that are left over from the Civil War,” said Marsalis, co-producer of Jazz: A Film by Ken Burns in 2001.

“Military instruments and the trumpets are played in a militaristic style, bom-bom-bom-bom, bah-bah-bom-bom… Then all of a sudden instead of playing in a straight military style, on a hymn or a beautiful melody, now they’re imitating the sound of the people in church-singing. They have the vibrato at the end of the note. They’re shaking notes: they play Do-o-o [long vowel]… De-e-e, De-e-e… Bu-u-u.. De-e-e,  Lu-u-u, De-e-e…Then the music gets another power and feeling.”

“In the way that profound things almost always happen, a thing and the opposite of that thing are mashed together,” Marsalis said. “Now you have the people getting the spiritual sound of the church, and they’re also getting that secular sound, of the blues. And the musicians who could understand both of those things, and put both of them in their horns side-by-side, so they could represent that angel and that devil… that was the ones that could play.”

***

Throughout the 1890s so-called experts groped to identify an “American music.” Some claimed white minstrelsy was the genuine brand while others anointed black spirituals. Some argued Protestant hymnology was native music; others declared the distinction for massive choral gatherings of the Northeast, 20,000 voices together as one, multi-ethnic, singing to heaven, but rather contrived as the real thing. American symphony was nominated despite hopelessly duplicating the Europeans, its perpetual default.

Meantime, ragtime music and “the blues” broke out along the great rivers, and jazz method gelled in the delta.

Piano ragtime was transcribed for sheet music by composers, finally, to document their style and simultaneously ignite a dance revolution. Moreover, supporters proclaimed ragtime established American music, unmistakably, and the world was agreeing. Syncopated masterpieces like “Maple Leaf Rag,” by Scott Joplin , Afro-American composer in Sedalia, Mo., fairly setted the debate.

“Now you may go anywhere along the Mississippi River from St. Louis to New Orleans—at Cairo, Memphis, Natchez—anywhere that negroes congregate among the cotton bales or drone away the summertime among the grain wharves, and you will hear the rag,” attested Charles E. Trevathan, white composer, journalist and Tennessee native.

“Sometimes it is slow, mournful, wailing; sometimes it swings sensuously; sometimes, when the gin is in, it is wild, half barbaric; sometimes it takes on that shu-sha of the buck and wing [dance], quick, sharp, staccato and dangerous to the Christian heel which deems dancing a sin.”

“The rag is by no means a musical clown,” Trevathan continued. “Its peculiar rhythm fits the wail and the sob of melody quite as well as the sugar heel shakes; it all depends upon the manner of expression. Rag is rhythm. It has nothing to do with the melody. It is simply a time beat, which is not march, schottische, waltz or anything but rag. But it makes some homely tunes delightful. You might call it broken time; time with joints in it; but time which is perfect in that the beats are true to the measure.”

“Artists say one may put two colors close together and between them produce the effect of a third. The dropped note isn’t lost… Rag goes on doing that for you. Giving you cues and suggestions until the melody is done.”

At New Orleans the musical improvisation was so prevalent, so fantastic that Joseph A. Decuir patented a machine to strike piano notes on paper instantly. A music critic hoped Decuir could further adapt his “Harmonigraph Music-Recording Device,” with its connecting rods to key strokes, for instruments like trumpet, to  capture “happy extemporization [and] exquisite melody” of the artists.

New Orleans newspapers still missed prophets in their midst, namely the black pioneers of jazz to pass largely unknown until turn of the century. Greats like trumpet genius Charles “Buddy” Bolden were only heard yet in Crescent City, mesmerizing listeners in parks, halls and bars, without press.

New Orleans newspapers didn’t embrace jazz greatness on their beat until about 1930, concluded Donald M. Marquis, modern biographer of Bolden. But Times-Democrat scribes were certainly impressed in 1896, for their report on Madri Gras, even if still labeling the exquisite, local American music as “discordant.”

King Rex’s “royal yacht” arrived at the river wharf jammed with hundreds of steamboats, officially opening Fat Tuesday on the 18th of February. “There was a sound of music…,” reported The Times-Democrat. “The floats of the King were in readiness, and as the Monarch… with his staff disembarked, they were brought into position, and the royal personages were snugly ensconced in the gilded seats and surrounded by their glittering escorts, and then the band played on.”

“There was a clattering of horses’ hoofs upon the stones of Canal Street, a cloud of dust, a hurrying mass of spectators… a score of cymbal clangors and trumpet blowers, and the procession moved up the avenue, while the sounds of a hundred hands made the air resonant with discordant music.”

“It was a magnificent day,” the paper pronounced, “and there was nothing left to wish for.”

Matt Chaney is a writer and consultant in Missouri, USA. For more information visit www.fourwallspublishing.com.  Email: mattchaney@fourwallspublishing.com.

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Music and Social Mores in Swamp-east Missouri

Eighteenth in a Series

By Matt Chaney, for ChaneysBlog.com

Posted Saturday, January 13, 2018

Copyright ©2018 for historical arrangement by Matthew L. Chaney

Flat, soggy southeastern Missouri was a reputed no-man’s-land in 1860, with scant population across 4,000 square miles: “Financially a dead country,” described W.B. Wood of Sikeston settlement, west of the Mississippi River.

The Missouri delta, of little elevation and comprised largely of the state’s Bootheel corner, stood as “tangled wildwood whose grounds seldom or never saw the light, being covered in summer with the growth peculiar to swamps, and in winter with water from 6-inches to 6-feet deep,” Wood wrote. Quinine with coffee or food was the daily dose to prevent malaria in this region, “one of the most unhealthy climates in the United States… with many physical difficulties to meet.”

“Surely no country could have been much worse.”

But settlers came, nonetheless, struggling mightily to clear forests for the rich alluvium underneath, sediments washed-in from the continent over time. American “Swamp-east Missouri” developed slowly for habitation and commerce. Modest farms and communities congregated along higher points of sand ridges arcing north-south through the plain.

Sikeston occupied Big Ridge, sandy bank of legend spanning a few miles wide, a hundred long in southeast Missouri, standing perhaps 20 feet above water in driest conditions. The fertile uplift carried south from Cape Girardeau through Scott and New Madrid counties, to the Mississippi River, then in broken segments through Pemiscot County into Arkansas.

Big Ridge had been traversed for thousands of years, by beings running, walking, crawling, slithering.  Wildlife forged trails and humans followed, bringing their wheeled contraptions. In 1541 explorer Hernando De Soto followed the sand bridge and Spaniards later named its trace path “El Camino Real.” Ultimately, this “King’s Highway” became delta roadbed for U.S. Highway 61 through southeast Missouri and northeast Arkansas.

Railroad tracks pushed into the great delta jungle at outset of the Civil War. The line from Bird’s Point, Mo., river landing opposite Cairo, Ill., was laid 12 miles westward to Charleston settlement then 14 more to Sikeston. Cairo was river-and-rail hub of the American West, at mouth of the Ohio, and transfer steamers ferried train cars across the Mississippi to and from Bird’s Point.

By 1880 Charleston and Sikeston were established railroad towns, humming on agribusiness, if just clinging to parallel sand ridges, yet imperiled of riverine wilderness and human elements.

John B. Huffman arrived at Sikeston as a child in 1884, when his family relocated from Kentucky. The term Swamp-east Missouri was accurate, Huffman later affirmed. “There was that old saying, as [the climate] was very unhealthy then—chills and fever and malaria so prevalent—[that] ‘It required two bull frogs to exist during one summer, and one must be a doctor.’  There were no good roads [and] almost impassable streets when there was rain, snow or sleet.”

Sikeston was industrious though, maintaining population around 500 despite frequent flooding, Huffman recalled. The railroad levee and rickety bridges, linking the outside world, sometimes washed away. But rail bed, bridge and track were always replaced and commerce continued at Sikeston, led by shipments of corn and lumber.

Extra trains were required to haul corn from “Sikeston Ridge,” as the area was increasingly known, and sawmills processed an array of hardwoods, including white oak, beech and cypress in premium demand. Other local business included banking, medicine, newspapering, butchering, bakery, dry goods, poultry, general merchandise, millinery, furs and hides, blacksmithing, saddle and harness, livery and stable, and hostelry.

Most Sikeston youths attended church regularly while the school prepped them for higher education, according to Huffman. “Boys and girls did not graduate in baseball, football and basketball in the [1880s],” he wrote decades later, chronicling local history and families for The Sikeston Standard. “There was such strict discipline at school, they were compelled to learn.”

For fun boys did play baseball, filling vacant lots, among activities, and girls joined them at the local roller-skating rink. Sikeston youths enjoyed milkshakes, lemonade, candy, and churned ice cream at the drug store. But adults forbade them to enter a saloon or pool hall, unlike at bustling Cairo. Sikeston parents kept watch on anyone’s kid, in a place “so small that everybody knew everyone—and his dog,” Huffman recalled.

Unforgiving nature loomed everywhere about the sand ridge. Bears and panthers stalked people in the timber, where a big cat chased a woman to her home. Chicken coops on Sikeston’s fringes were raided by wolves, coyotes, cats and minks. “The woods were from Main Street near the Methodist Church building and ran north… I was bitten by a snake in the woods in 1884 or 1885,” Huffman wrote, adding the story of his brother’s brush with a serpent.

The carpenter brother was roused from sleep one night, while working on a “swamper house” out of town at water’s edge. The young man felt contact by something: “he struck a light and found that a big water moccasin had crawled in bed with him,” Huffman recounted. “Snakes were trying to creep into swampers’ homes.”

In boyhood Huffman and pals spied clusters of snakes along the railroad levee and likewise at their favorite lake to swim. “A snake den of at least 75 reptiles was on one side near the bank. We were in the channel, 200 feet [away],” he wrote.

Standing water was constant at Sikeston Ridge. “The swamps just below the hill east [of town] were so dense, and the water stood so deep on either side, it didn’t look like the land could ever be drained,” Huffman wrote.  “One could drive a pump [in earth] by hand in 30 minutes. Just a sledge and drive the pipe in about eight feet, [and] there was an ample stream of swamp water so foul that it was not fit for a hog to drink.”

“There was nothing but swamps north and south, except just a few cleared patches of land ranging from 40 to 160 acres. None near the railroad.”

The water bred a billion flying insects, giant mosquitoes in particular. When Morehouse sprang up along the railroad, a sawmill stop west of Sikeston, its namesake governor made a cursory appearance, drawing a crowd from miles around. But the celebration featuring Gov. Albert P. Morehouse didn’t go well because of swarming mosquitoes and itchy stings.  “Morehouse [settlement] was… just a wide swath cut out of the swamps,” Huffman recalled. The governor spoke but everyone “had to fight the mosquitoes all the time. It was difficult to eat the barbecue dinner on account of the mosquitoes.”

Human threats were dreaded most at Sikeston Ridge, amidst the delta outback. The violent Wild West began in Missouri, as America understood, and the Swamp-east sector was notorious, “a favorite hiding place for criminals and desperadoes,” per one account.

Anarchy reigned during the Civil War, with the region invaded by clashing armies under Union Brig. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and Confederates like Jeff “Swamp Fox” Thompson. Guerrillas attacked the founding family of Sikeston, robbing and lynching John Sikes. His wife cut down the rope as the hangmen departed, saving Sikes, but he was murdered in the postwar, late 1867, after a fight between drunks in his store.

Occasionally the James Gang rode down into southeast Missouri, committing robbery, ducking undercover in the hills and marshes. But while law and order were strengthened in northern Missouri, and Jesse James eventually assassinated, southeastern Missouri remained sanctuary for villains.

In May 1881 a band of marauders terrorized Big Ridge from New Madrid to Sikeston, on rampage some 20 miles. They shot multiple citizens, including a child and a sheriff’s deputy who died of wounds. Posses pursued the gang through swamps into the Ozark foothills, where another lawman succumbed to gunfire. The publicized manhunt attracted a thousand armed riders, and the rogues were finally cornered near Piedmont town. Gunshots killed two gang members while one was hung by vigilantes.

Police apprehended two surviving suspects and secreted them to St. Louis to avoid lynch mobs. The pair ended up hanging, anyway, executed by the state before a Bootheel crowd of 5,000 in July 1881, according to news reports.

Swamp-east Missouri continued to be regarded as “uninviting, ugly and defiant… with few to praise it and fewer optimistic enough to believe that its future might hold something of promise,” observed writer Louis La Cross. But closer consideration could teach differently, revealing beauty and bounty in a forsaken frontier. Conspicuous signs were giant trees, bright flowers and juicy berries in the wild, and crops of 90-pound watermelons, thick corn ears, and huge cotton bolls.

Aesthetics of nature shone in the Missouri delta, inspiring those who got beyond initial impression or shock. John James Audubon never forgot his unplanned indoctrination to Swamp-east topography during winter of 1810-11.

Ice buildup on the Mississippi halted Audubon’s keel-boat group on the Missouri shore between Cape Girardeau and future site of Cairo. Audubon, budding naturalist and painter, pitched camp with a dozen French Canadians in Missouri’s Tywappity Bottom, a formidable timberland interspersed with water, prairie and pathways.

“Everything around us seemed dreary and dismal,” Audubon recorded in journal, “and had we not been endowed with the faculty of deriving pleasure from the examination of nature, we should have made up our minds to pass the time in… hibernation.” The party found abundant game and wood supply, and unbridled land to explore.

Young Audubon was enchanted by the delta in snow cover—tree lines, surface contours bared in grey winter—and he spent six weeks “very pleasantly,” observed latter historian Louis Houck, for his account of the famed ornithologist in Tywapitty. “No white man’s cabin was within 20 miles of this camp. But for Audubon this was a delightful place,” Houck reported. “He rambled around in the woods, found the Indian trails and the lakes of the neighborhood.”

Audubon studied “habits of wild animals, the deer, the bears, cougars, raccoons, and turkeys and many other animals,” Houck noted, “and he also drew [illustrations] by the side of the great campfires.”

Audubon made music at fireside, too, playing flute in accompaniment of a comrade on violin, and men danced. Thereafter, on occasion, Audubon fondly mentioned “Tawapatee” and his winter sojourn in southeast Missouri.

Seventy years after Audubon at Tywappity Bottom, Maud Rittenhouse was a precocious teenager nearby at Cairo, river port that fostered arts and entertainment. Young Maud reveled in the Cairo environment of 6,000 residents, thousands of visitors weekly. She scoffed at critics of her flatland home. “Every rickety old house looks familiar and sweet, every tree an old friend,” Rittenhouse wrote in diary, 1881. “I was born here and have lived here and can never do ought but love our dear ugly Cairo.”

Rittenhouse, someday to be a best-selling author, was touched by delta beauty in her youth. Even when the rivers flooded, threatening levees circling Cairo, forcing groundwater up into homes, the adolescent Maud saw positives. Cairo, for her, covered in seep water by day, assumed Venetian romance under moonlight. “I can scarcely express to you the lovely time we had last night. The moon full, the water just rippling lightly, the skiff large and light,” Maud recorded for a boat ride over submerged streets in March 1882.

“There was a barge of musicians floating, too, and the clear notes of the guitar and cithern [harp] rang dreamily over the water, and the singing was very sweet. It was delicious floating off under the locust trees, past the new white church with its tall spire reflected in the water.”

“Verily, we are a modern Venice.”

Cairo certainly verified human progress in the postwar delta, serving as commercial model and flagship for regional upstarts Charleston and Sikeston. “The rapid strides Cairo is now making towards her ultimate destiny—the vast central emporium of the United States—irresistibly enhances the importance of this part of the state,” a commentator declared in The Charleston Courier.

And Missouri folks heard sweet musical sounds same as Maud, none better in America, emanating from Cairo and the great rivers. The anti-rants of church preachers and congregations, condemning devilish melody and body movement, were often ineffective.

Mississippi County, Mo., embraced song and dance, especially the young people. Music performances began at river shoreline across from Cairo, a stretch of landings, ferry boats, railroads and structures collectively known as Bird’s Point, or Birdville, among names since the Europeans. Bird’s Point hosted huge gatherings with music, having done so since circus showboats and floating theaters prior to the war.

“There will be a barbecue and picnic at Bird’s Point today,” the Cairo paper announced Friday morning, July 2, 1869. “The Missouri belles and beaux will be there in force, and wherever they assemble there is going to be first-class enjoyment.”

Big parties occurred regularly in Mississippi County from Bird’s Point west to Charleston, Mo., across bottoms like Tywappity of Audubon yore. People from multiple states were drawn to Deal’s Grove at Charleston, where publicized picnics and barbecues featured sport, music, dancing and alcohol. Excursion steamboats and trains transported crowds to and from the Swamp-east wilds, for shindigs in clearings like Deal’s. Revelers heard touted “party music” and “charms for the savage ear” from exceptional local players, white and black, on cornet, fiddle (violin), banjo, guitar, piano and more. The vocal talent, so good, could startle listeners.

Indoor music venues increased around southeast Missouri during the latter 19th century, across hills and flatland. The trend was so-called opera houses, opening in various form at communities such as Cape Girardeau, Commerce, Benton, Sikeston, Charleston, New Madrid, Malden, Caruthersville, Kennett, Poplar Bluff and Doniphan.

Expansion of saloons and dance halls in Charleston spurred rise in illicit gambling and alcohol-related problems, including peace disturbance, injurious accidents, and murder. Sikeston saw similar developments, farther west on the railroad and further isolated than Charleston. And thus a pious Sikeston government, national evangelism and temperance movement converged to stamp out local sin in the 1880s.

Revivalist fervor swept the town, led by “shouting Sikeston Methodists,” Huffman recalled. “About 11 or 11:30 o’clock one night they made such a terrible noise, shouting, screaming and hollering, that this writer, the little 6- or 7-year-old boy, fell out of bed, scared almost out of [my] senses, and my father had to dress and take me over to see the sights.”

“Old-time Methodist women and men were shouting and rejoicing and turning over benches, and [the church] looked like a battlefield. Two women fell out of the screen-less windows. They got hold of my younger sister Hattie… they beat her in the back so much, she was afraid to go back for two months.”

The debate led to merciless violence, typical of tempest in Swamp-east Missouri. In 1886 a saloon keeper at Sikeston, enraged over exorbitant tax on his business, beat-down a Methodist pastor in public. Angry citizens pondered “mob law” for the perpetrator, according to news reports and Huffman’s account. The hapless bar owner fled from Sikeston Ridge, returning home to Cairo.

John B. Huffman became a popular evangelist in the 20th century, speaking at Christian revivals, traveling worldwide from home in southeast Missouri. Huffman didn’t approve of sexy dancing and alcohol for anyone, much less young people, convinced these produced negative outcome.

But in 1946—about the time a boy named Elvis Presley began visiting relatives at Sikeston—the pastor known as Elder Huffman didn’t join modern crusaders against “lewd” music and dance.

“I never danced in my life… but I am just living my own life, and realize this is a big world, populated by all kinds of people,” Huffman wrote for the Sikeston paper, “and [Americans] have a right under the Constitution to live the kind of life they want. What any man or woman does is not my business.”

“I must attend to my own business, and let all others pursue their uneven tenor through this veil of tears.”

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Matt Chaney is a writer and consultant in Missouri, USA. For more information visit www.fourwallspublishing.com. Email: mattchaney@fourwallspublishing.com.

Showbiz Hooked the Kids of Cairo, Illinois

Seventeenth in a Series

By Matt Chaney, for ChaneysBlog.com

Posted Thursday, December 14, 2017

Copyright ©2017 for historical arrangement by Matthew L. Chaney

Following the Civil War, the children of Cairo, Ill., experienced an array of heroic models to emulate, including celebrity Americans and Europeans.

The community of 6,000 residents was remote yet strategically located at confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, serving as intersection for a transient multitude from nationwide and abroad. Cairo kids encountered steamboat pilots, locomotive operators, military officers, civil engineers, politicians, doctors, authors, poets, philosophers, teachers, preachers and athletes, among intriguing types.

Figures of “show business” were powerful symbols for a Cairo youth, regardless of the kid’s socio-economic class, race, gender. Stage-struck children were common, given the influence of Cairo’s entertainment choices and glittering performers, ranging from circus to theater. Show organizers, talent scouts and news writers were regulars around town, juicing showbiz atmosphere.

The circus captivated Cairo kids. “No less than eighty-six youngsters white and black, male and female, were, at one time today, in full chase of the circus bandwagon,” The Cairo Bulletin reported on Nov. 18, 1870. “Their object was to hear the musicians in red coats ‘blow.’”

Cairo kids witnessed America’s grandest circuses, including the shows of Spaulding and Rogers, P.T. Barnum, Cooper and Bailey, C.W. Noyes, John Robinson, and Dan Rice. When a circus was due at Cairo, children gathered at the Ohio levee and railroad depot, turning somersaults and handsprings, popping handstands, singing and dancing.

All ages anticipated arrival of Dan Rice’s circus boat on a Saturday morning in September 1869. The steamer’s calliope organ boomed across the flatland, pumping music from miles out, and folks hurried to the Cairo wharf and immediate shorelines of Missouri and Kentucky. “The steamer Will S. Hays, with banners flying, and giving out strains of delicious music, sailed into port this morning with Dan Rice’s… circus on board, under the special management and direction of the irrepressible Dan himself,” The Bulletin reported.

Performers strode off the boat, down the gangplank; horses were led off and caged animals unloaded. Circus workers and levee roustabouts hauled equipment for show setup. “The canvass was soon spread at the corner of Poplar and Tenth streets, an eager crowd eyeing the operation, in delightful anticipation of the sights and sports of the afternoon and evening. While we write [at the newspaper office], the shouts of a delighted multitude reach us from the cover of the canvass.”

The big-top tent seated 5,000 spectators, with more tickets for standing room. Boys with no money plopped down outside, peering underneath tent flaps for “a thrilling glance at the horses’ hoofs as the animals lope around the ring,” the paper described. “Other youngsters find small rents in the canvass, not larger perhaps than a finger would fill… They tell [their] eager companions gathered about that they can almost see the clown; that they did see a man in spangles; that the bass drum stands in full view.”

Circus personnel and exotic animals posed a spectacle by merely shipping through Cairo. “Col. Robert Stickney, the famous bareback rider, arrived here from Memphis with a large circus yesterday, and had his menagerie wagons and other circus paraphernalia strung along [the] Ohio levee, with the intention of have them forwarded by rail to Pana, Ill., where he intends to give a show,” The Bulletin reported.

“Among his curiosities he had a horse—a hump-backed horse—that was about as intelligent as man could make him… At the command of Col. Stickney, he walked backwards, knelt down, sat on his haunches and stood up and walked around on his hind legs. The cages of the wild beasts were standing just below the stone depot on Ohio levee; some of them were open and were surrounded by a large crowd of curious spectators.”

Circuses visited Cairo year-round at the southernmost tip of Illinois, parking massive, domed barges and more showboats at the wharf and on Missouri landings across the Mississippi. Circus trains and special cars often parked along tracks circling this railroad town. Performers wintered in the area while show managers restocked talent and revamped programs. Watercraft and equipment were stored and repaired, new parts shipped in. In springtime circus outfits organized and launched from Cairo while others opened show seasons at the locale.

Cairo anchored northern end of the delta trough, flatland stretching south to the Gulf of Mexico, draining major rivers of the interior. National railroad and wagon routes intersected at Cairo, with Missouri situated across the Mississippi River and Kentucky across the Ohio. Cairo boosters proclaimed their tri-state vicinity as the navigation head for water, rail and trail through the continental heart, “a gateway between the Northeast and Southwest.”

The Barnum circus and accompaniments, arriving by some 150 railcars, attracted enough humanity to cover the little peninsula of Cairo Township. “There were people of all sizes, shapes, sexes and colors, who came from all around us,” the newspaper reported. “The trains were all full, the [railcar] transfer boats ditto, the ferryboat was crowded at each trip, and our streets were full of farmers’ wagons loaded with produce and children. The great Barnum took everything in, and no doubt departed with a snug sum of money.”

Circus was only a facet of amusements in Cairo. Dramatic productions had been popular since the floating theaters of troupes like the Chapman family, and stage venues on land had been established during wartime, when federals strengthened Cairo levees and installed pumps to reduce seep water.

Headliners of American drama, including Kate Claxton and Lawrence Barrett, played Cairo venues in the 1870s. Sol Smith Russell and Katie Putnam, former precocious players locally, were renowned in comedy and song. Russell was a Missouri native, Putnam of Chicago, but Cairo proudly claimed the youthful stars. Russell and Putnam headed major troupes touring under their names, with each boosting Cairo’s theater reputation by appearing regularly.

Variety format led river entertainment, with requisite sex appeal, and audiences loved Putnam, always applauding for encore. In Cairo and throughout the delta, Putnam enjoyed sold-out runs for “her exquisite songs, dances, and her unrivalled banjo solos,” per an advertisement. She adorned herself with diamonds and rubies on stage.

The market embraced performers such as Andy McKee, a comic and “breakdown” dancer. “Andy McKee first appeared professionally in 1865 at Cairo, Illinois,” author Edward Le Roy Rice noted in Monarchs of Minstrelsy. “Mr. McKee’s success was so pronounced with his eccentric dancing that he had little trouble in obtaining other variety engagements in Memphis, New Orleans, Cincinnati and St. Louis.”

Illinois historian Roy Stallings concluded that Cairo competed mightily with Chicago in western theater. “In the post-Civil War period, amidst a general revival of drama in the United States, southern Illinois, and Cairo in particular, were beginning to develop their own brand of drama culture… Cairo was as important a center to southern Illinois and points farther south, as Chicago was to its surrounding territory. Cairo was not only immune to Chicago’s brand of drama, but she developed a drama that was more influential and more widely distributed than that of Chicago.”

“Southern Illinois’ own heritage was blended into the drama of the showboat, giving way to the age of the theatrical halls, and finally reaching the zenith of development in the last twenty years of the century,” Stallings wrote for Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society.

Showboats and fledgling theaters coexisted along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, with the Cairo area long a center of floating entertainment. And that wouldn’t change for generations yet, well into the 20th century, as long as extreme southern Illinois and southeast Missouri remained swampy delta frontier. “The showboats had come into being to serve a region where civilization had been slow to penetrate, especially where… the social niceties of living were retarded by the environment,” wrote historian Philip Graham.

Famed performer Dan Rice remodeled a steamboat in the area, owned by Cairo pilot A.J. Bird, for their partnership’s launch of a show craft in 1880. Rice disavowed circus as passé and wasn’t much enthused about staging dramatic productions on the new showboat, in his speaking with a Kentucky newsman.

Rather, said Rice, native of New York City, his mission was to educate and to elevate “the people along the great Mississippi and its tributaries—to music.” Perhaps Rice was dishing more trademark hyperbole, or was indeed an aging performer, as critics alleged, out of touch with his time and place.

Because fine music already resounded in the delta, from Cairo south to New Orleans, progressing toward greatness.

Children of Cairo sensed achievement ahead for their rural, unique community, and teen Maud Rittenhouse identified entertainment as essential culture. The talented schoolgirl kept a diary of her life in Cairo during the latter 19th century—a vivid narrative to become an American bestseller, titled Maud. In 1881 she wrote excitedly of the new opera house in town.

“Three years ago people said all the hateful things they could about Cairo. Now they’re lavish in their praises…,” Maud crowed, “we are altogether citified.”

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Matt Chaney is a writer and consultant in Missouri, USA. For more information visit www.fourwallspublishing.com. Email: mattchaney@fourwallspublishing.com.