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

Twentieth in a Series

By Matt Chaney, for

Posted Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Copyright ©2018 for historical arrangement by Matthew L. Chaney

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

“My little sign didn’t last long.”

Matt Chaney is a writer and consultant in Missouri, USA. For more information visit  Email:

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

Nineteenth in a Series

By Matt Chaney, for

Posted Friday, February 2, 2018

Copyright ©2018 for historical arrangement by Matthew L. Chaney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matt Chaney is a writer and consultant in Missouri, USA. For more information visit  Email:

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