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.

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