Category Archives: Missouri History and Legend

Jess Stacy Grew With American Music In The Missouri Delta

Thirtieth in a Series

By Matt Chaney, for ChaneysBlog.com

Posted Tuesday, February 26, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Radio Rolled Out Grand Ole Opry from Nashville

Twenty-Ninth in a Series

By Matt Chaney, for ChaneysBlog.com

Posted Thursday, January 31, 2019

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

The radio show to become known as Grand Ole Opry began Nov. 28, 1925, on newbie station WSM in Nashville—according to official version. But a broadcast weeks earlier held distinct markings of Opry genesis, retrospectively.

Thursday evening, Nov. 5, a mass of people gathered in downtown Nashville for the annual Policemen’s Benefit at Ryman Auditorium. Many had come because of WSM, for its old-time music and promotion of the event. Rising banjoist Uncle Dave Macon headlined, hilarious talent, and WSM would broadcast live. Six thousand fans jammed inside Ryman until doors closed on a couple thousand still outside.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Select References

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Albert Spalding A. K. Guest Artist on WSM Tonight. (1931, Jan. 4). Nashville Tennessean TN, p. 6.

“Artemus Ward Sees Patti.” (1861, Feb. 1). Vicksburg Citizen MS, p. 2.

Barry, W.V. (1932, Jan. 22) Blind Violinist Dead. Lexington Progress TN, p. 6.

“Blind Joe” Mangrum Dies in Nashville. (1932, Jan. 15). Paducah Evening Sun KY, p. 1.

“Blind Joe” Mangrum, Once Known Far and Wide as Violinist, Here. (1927, Feb. 14). Nashville Tennessean TN, p. 2.

“Blind Joe” Mangrum to Enter Vaudeville. (1909, May 16). Louisville Courier-Journal KY, p. 6.

“Blind Joe” Mangrum Sees How Paducah has Grown. (1906, Jan. 6). Paducah News-Democrat NY, p. 8.

Blind Joe Stirs Up Memories of Early Days. (1909, May 18). Montgomery Times AL, p. 1.

Blind Joe’s Music Pleases Radio Fans Far Away. (1922, Dec. 9). Paducah Evening Sun KY, p. 1.

Blind Violinist Artist Again for WIAR Radio Post. (1922, Dec. 29). Paducah Evening Sun KY, p. 1.

Bob Taylor’s Lecture. (1907, Oct. 31). Jackson Daily News MS, p. 5.

Coming Germanization of the Southwest. (1906, June 3). St. Louis Post-Dispatch MO, p. 58.

D.B. Jones Voted “Champ” Fiddler. (1926, April 19). Sedalia Democrat MO, p. 10.

Darrow’s Eloquent Appeal Wasted on Ears that Heed only Bryan, Says Mencken. (1925, July 14). Baltimore Sun MD, pp. 1-2.

Dennis, P.R. (2000, May). Music in Jackson, Tennessee: 1875-1917. Doctoral thesis in musicology, University of Memphis: Memphis TN.

Distant Stations Pick Up WIAR Music Programs and Ask for More Just Like It. (1922, Nov. 30). Paducah Evening Sun KY, p. 1.

George B. Daniell to be Buried Today. (1933, Sept. 26). Atlanta Constitution GA, p. 9.

Gilchrist, A.S. (1910). The Night-Rider’s Daughter. Marshall & Bruce Company: Nashville TN.

Grand Opera On Air Wednesday. (1927, Nov. 27). Nashville Tennessean TN, p. 26.

Green, S. (2019, Jan. 11, accessed). Blind Joe Mangrum. traildriver.com.

Hay, G.D. (1925, Dec. 26). Uncle Jimmy is feature at WSM. Nashville Tennessean TN, p. 17.

Hay, G.D. (1925, Dec. 27). WSM to feature old-time tunes. Nashville Tennessean TN, p. 17.

Heard Last Night on the Air. (1925, Dec. 15). Hartford Courant CT, p. 12.

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Pioneer Radio Aired Jazz and Country Music from Paducah

Twenty-Eighth in a Series

By Matt Chaney, for ChaneysBlog.com

Posted Tuesday, January 29, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Select References

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Another Big Program. (1907, June 9). Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 10.

At the Sign of the ‘Seven Seers.’ (1926, Feb. 2). Uncle “Mellie” Dunham. Cedar Rapids Republican IA, p. 1.

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

Twenty-Seventh in a Series

By Matt Chaney, for chaneysblog.com

Posted Saturday, December 29, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Delta Youths Gravitated Toward Music, Stage Stardom

Twenty-Sixth in a Series

By Matt Chaney, for ChaneysBlog.com

Posted Saturday, November 10, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Circus Spectacle Inspired Show Hopefuls at Cairo, Illinois

Twenty-Fifth in a Series

By Matt Chaney, for ChaneysBlog.com

Posted Wednesday, September 19, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Zuber, C.H. (1937, Feb. 28). Curtains down! Glimpses of former stages and stars. Cincinnati Enquirer OH, p. 6.

Zuber, C.H. (1937, March 21). Curtains down! Glimpses of former stages and stars. Cincinnati Enquirer OH, p. 64.

Zuber, C.H. (1937, June 6). Curtains down! Glimpses of former stages and stars. Cincinnati Enquirer OH, p. 70.

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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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.

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