Twenty-Eighth in a Series
By Matt Chaney, for ChaneysBlog.com
Posted Tuesday, January 29, 2019
Copyright ©2019 for historical arrangement and original content by Matthew L. Chaney, Four Walls Publishing
H.R. Lovelace’s new radio was malfunctioning at his home in Charleston, Mo., approaching midnight on Dec. 8, 1922. The set produced only static and hum, and Lovelace wanted to hear jazz from station WIAR in Paducah, Ky., 43 miles away over delta flatland. Time was running out.
Loveless determined the problem was faulty antenna grounding, which wouldn’t be fixed in cold windy darkness. An antenna had to be improvised indoors, quickly. A few WIAR listeners used bedsprings for backup reception, including a guy in Pennsylvania, but Lovelace chose copper wire instead, a spool of D.C.C., double-cotton covered. He rushed through the house, wrapping the beige line around chair posts and wending to the receiver. He hooked in the replacement “aerial” and tuned to 360 meters, electro-magnetic wavelength for WIAR, and hit live music immediately.
The jazz horns came in clear and amplified, music from studio by Hillman’s Orchestra, top black group in Paducah. Lovelace jotted a note to WIAR: “Your dance program heard around 11:45 fine. Also caught some conversation. Heard some young fellow asking a young lady for the next dance, and I could also hear the movement of feet.”
The dance broadcast was among earliest in radio, with WIAR among the South’s initial stations, transmitting long distance through open airwaves. Paducah radio reached nationwide and into Canada, Cuba, generating 100 watts from the lower Ohio Valley. River jazz and ragtime hooked listeners. “Syncopated harmony, mellow as the Kentucky moonlight… from broadcasting station WIAR,” the station promoted at Christmas 1922.
Radios were multiplying across the delta of southeast Missouri, southern Illinois, western Kentucky and Tennessee, amounting to a few thousand sets. Folks tended their radio contraptions like gardens, harvesting entertainment from “the circumambient ether.” Young and old tinkered day and night, adjusting tubes and antenna get-ups to catch distant stations.
“It is a novelty—in some measure a fad, perhaps—but undoubtedly there is much pleasure to be derived from listening in on the inspiring programs which come from far-away cities—music rendered by the best orchestras or vocalists,” remarked O.W. Chilton, newspaper publisher in Caruthersville.
Music over the airwaves was transcendent, dissolving distance and isolation for audience. “The wonder of radio has never failed to intrigue me,” waxed T.H. Alexander, Nashville columnist. “Each night I tune [in] with a new thrill as the stations march by with their gay music, floating in the air like banners… Turn the dial and rescue the faint music. It booms in, maybe from New York, Los Angeles, Chicago.”
Escape through entertainment wasn’t novel in the northern delta, still a marshy basin although populating rapidly. Circuses, showboats and excursion steamers were mainstays while theaters, dance halls and honky-tonks dotted the sandy ridges. Automobiles were proliferating along with leisure drivers, and in summer motorboats plied the rivers, toting sunbathers to sandbars. But the radio experience could be private and homebound, affordable and peaceful, unlike outings that posed risk in these parts, especially for armed drunks.
Pioneer Paducah radio lasted less than a year under two owners, the Rudy merchant family and Evening Sun newspaper. But WIAR aired long enough to imprint broadcast entertainment of America.
Businessman J. Henry Rudy was station founder, a “wireless” enthusiast before radio broadcasts reached town in 1920, from Pittsburgh and Detroit, elsewhere. By then Rudy’s Department Store blasted phonograph music through upper-floor windows along Broadway. Rudy’s Store staged concerts such as W.C. Handy, recording star and “Father of The Blues,” with his incredible Memphis band.
Paducah radio—“Rudy’s Station”— debuted with live music on Saturday, July 15, 1922, from third floor of the store. The Kentucky Jazz Band performed, fittingly, local black group originally assembled by Fate Marable, star bandleader of Streckfus steamers. Milestone programming besides jazz blowers included pop artists, string pickers and gospel singers, long before similar radio in Chicago and Nashville. For bands with a beat on WIAR, dancing couples sashayed about the studio, inspiring musicians and listeners. The WIAR “truck radio” patrolled streets, making musical loops along the Ohio riverfront and foothills of town.
No single performer attracted audience like Joe Mangrum, age 70, concerto violinist, country fiddler, and blind since infancy. A Southern great, Mangrum’s moribund showbiz career was revived on WIAR, launching his course to the future Grand Ole Opry. At Paducah in 1922, his star was arisen through the synergy of radio and olden country music. “Blind Joe” Mangrum was suddenly chic, a dean of “old-time fiddlers” blowing up in popularity.
Paducah radio was onto something. “How’s the Bluegrass Country?” a listener card greeted from New York City. “You are putting it on Broadway.” Another fan wrote WIAR from Kansas, requesting “more of that old-fashioned Southern music.”
Hot jazz was a given for radio marketing but hillbilly music, as to become known, would prove the wellspring for epic broadcasting. Indeed, banjos filled radio air gaps on election night 1920, for the landmark broadcast by Westinghouse station KDKA in East Pittsburgh.
“Commercial potential had never been totally absent from southern rural music, but the radio provided a means of immediate and widespread exposure far more advantageous than any medium yet created,” observed modern musicologist Bill C. Malone, author of Southern Music, American Music.
“If some people rejected hillbilly music because of what they considered its crassness, others may have gravitated toward it because it represented to them an image of an older and simpler America, and an alternative to the frenetic dance music of the Twenties.”
In the early 1860s at Dresden, Tenn., two local boys were a curiosity together, palling about town. One was black, a slave, William Alonzo Janes, leading around a white kid, Joseph Mangrum, who was “blind as a bat.” As Joseph stumbled in step, William took his hand. The kids didn’t care about their differences because they had fun, especially sharing music. William played banjo, Joseph violin, and each shed his burdens in song and dance, their mutual passion.
Mangrum was a musical wunderkind by age 9 and accomplished at 12, per accounts. He taught himself violin and memorized songs by ear, with no formal instruction. “I remember the first piece I learned to play,” Mangrum would say. “It was Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing. I learned to play Listen to the Mocking Bird by following a mocking bird across the square at Dresden.”
In 1935, a few years after Mangrum’s death in Nashville, William A. Janes discussed his late friend, and slavery, during a newspaper interview in northern Illinois. For the 85-year-old Janes, his native west Tennessee stood in memory, the towns and plantations, low hills and bottoms across the Mississippi from Bootheel Missouri. Dresden was the seat of Weakley County, where the delta’s eastern rim met uplands. It was key crossroads for well-traveled routes northward, some 65 miles apiece, leading to Cairo, Ill., and Paducah, Ky. Armies ranged over the area during the Civil War, Union and Confederate, along with marauding gangs.
Janes described “dread, fear and wonder” of human bondage in his youth. “My life prior to emancipation of the slaves was experienced by the majority of boys who had both a master and a taskmaster. I worked in the cotton fields. We grew tobacco, hemp, flax, peanuts and yams.”
“The constant grind of toil; the conduct of the whitecaps or ghost riders, as they were called before they became known as the Ku Klux [Klan]; the dread of being sold away from our loved ones and acquaintances, terrorized and intimidated,” he said. “The rebel and Confederate guerillas… added no small amount of fear in me. But through it all I emerged whole and free.”
“When it came to the song and dance, we were there! The white children would join us in the dance, to music furnished by the singers and ‘patters.’ Occasionally we had the luxury of a five-stringed banjo, a mighty orchestra in its day.”
Janes and Mangrum performed music together in the postwar then took divergent paths. Janes moved on to Kentucky then Illinois, farming and playing music—a standout violinist he became, too, inspired by his friend.
The name Blind Joe Mangrum—or “Mangum” as commonly misspelled—became legend. “He is a most excellent musician, and can justly be styled a prodigy,” The Memphis Appeal stated in 1882. Nashville columnists and correspondents heaped praise, anointing Mangrum as violin virtuoso of west Tennessee, “greatest master in the South,” among reviews.
“His Mocking Bird is acknowledged by competent critics to be the finest thing they ever heard.”
Mangrum performed with “Fiddling Bob Taylor,” Tennessee politician whose musical campaigning caught national attention. Taylor charmed state voters to win the gubernatorial election of 1886, defeating his brother Alfred, also a string player. Governor Robert Taylor was a folk hero for many, “Our Bob,” with fiddler Blind Joe part of the lore.
“Mangrum… is undoubtedly a genius,” declared the Jackson Clarion-Ledger in Mississippi, 1894, about the time the musician turned 40. “His lost sense [of eyesight] seems to have been given entirely to touch and ear. Besides being a skillful performer he is a composer, and his productions have given delight to many.”
Mangrum preferred operatic and classical pieces, but folks raved over his country fiddling, and he was supremely confident in old-time songs. One night at Jackson, Tenn., Jenny Day’s Southern Hotel, circa 1900, Mangrum listened to hoedowns of a young man with fiddle. When the novice melody segued into Arkansas Traveler, Mangrum interjected.
“Boy, let me show you something,” he said, “breaking down” on bow and violin.
“And he played that old classic as I never heard it before,” a witness remembered, adding: “So long as Mrs. Day lived and Joe went to Jackson, he had a free room and a meal ticket in the Southern Hotel.”
Jenny Day was among guardian types for Mangrum in the Mid-South, enabling him to travel, maneuver and rest. Likewise friends and relatives cared for him in Illinois, Arkansas and Mississippi. The families were often affluent, hosting him for days, weeks or months.
Yet in middle age, the sightless man needed others to lead him around and interpret information. Mangrum declined offers to tour Eastern cities because expenses wouldn’t pay for family or friend to accompany him. Blind Joe relied on people whose voices he recognized, with familiar ground under foot.
Homey sanctuaries grew fewer for Mangrum at turn of the century. He bounced among jobs and locales, living for periods at Union City, Tenn., Cairo and Paducah, showing up at the latter in 1906. “Mr. Mangrum is well-known in Paducah, where he has spent several years of his life at various times,” a scribe reported. Blind Joe himself was impressed with new streets and sidewalks in town: “No more high steppings, bumps and loose plank culverts to trip you up,” he complimented.
The musician played for coins on streets, for meals at churches, and, sometimes, for lone listeners in nickelodeons. Friends and relatives urged Mangrum to accept gainful employment somewhere, befitting his talent. News writers pleaded same, and a Cairo paper admonished locals for failing to support Mangrum at nickel shows, forcing his departure from town. Mangrum twice headed for St. Louis, agreeing to major gigs supposedly permanent, only to leave both shortly. A reporter noted “this maker of melodies knows no real resting place, for like a gypsy he visits many places.”
Mangrum’s dilemma even made fiction of a novelist friend, Annie Somers Gilchrist. The writer was known for devising characters of stark resemblance to acquaintances and family. Violinist “Blind Joe Mangrum” was a figure by name, hardly fictionalized as the man himself, in her story The Night-Rider’s Daughter. The setting was Union City and Reelfoot Lake in the west Tennessee bottoms, across the Mississippi from New Madrid.
In the novel Mangrum was houseguest of Squire Lomax, Mrs. Lomax and son Algernon at their lake farm. One evening the family desired music and Algernon fetched Joe from upstairs. “Footsteps on the carpeted stairs were heard descending—some steady, some uncertain and hesitating,” narrated Gilchrist.
Algernon led Joe by hand into the parlor, for hearty greetings from the squire. Joe was seated, provided his violin and bow, and Mrs. Lomax accompanied on piano. Gilchrist continued in the passage:
Every note of The Mocking Bird was exquisitely rendered. Wonderful trills, staccato notes, and legato strains pulsed out on the starry October night… When the last wonderful phrasing died on the air, a deep breath heaved from the massive breast of the ’Squire. After an impressive pause, the lady said:
“Joe, you are a genius, a wonder. Why don’t you go starring and make a future for yourself?”
“I don’t want to go among strangers unless my brother or some of my near friends would go with me. My blindness—“
“I understand, Joe; but Ole Bull, for all his great fame, couldn’t play with you. I’ve heard him; he couldn’t draw such strains from the violin as you drew tonight.”
He bent his head, and said in a low voice:
“Thank you, Mrs. Lomax. Shall we play the Serenade?”
“Not unless you want to, Joe,” said the ’Squire. “Let’s keep The Mocking Bird in our souls tonight. The Serenade will drive him away. Suppose we all retire.”
His wife closed the piano, Algernon put the violin in its case, and, while his parents vanished into an adjoining room, he led the blind musician upstairs to his apartment.
The novel was written as real Joe Mangrum apparently got the break everyone hoped for. He signed a vaudeville contract to tour Southern cities, reportedly for $200 a week, commencing in spring 1909. Newspapers of at least three states applauded the development.
“Mr. Mangrum has been generous with his gifts and has made no attempt heretofore to commercialize his ability,” commented The Louisville Courier-Journal. “He has spent most of his life in a comparatively small radius of country, playing for charity entertainments and for the delectation of his friends. In his limited field, however, he has delighted thousands of people with his playing, and all who know him have confidence that his venture in vaudeville will prove successful.”
“In the event that his Southern trip, which is something in the nature of a tryout, should show satisfactory results, he is promised booking on the Eastern circuit.”
Mangrum lit up Montgomery, Ala., wowing audiences of the Theatrical Club and the Majestic Theatre. At Little Rock, crowds turned out at the Majestic and Elks Club.
“Joe Mangrum, a blind violinist, is of the kind usually seen at advanced prices,” reviewed The Arkansas Democrat. “He has the technique and the execution. His playing is perfect, containing melody, harmony, volume, and touch… a wizard with the stringed instrument.”
“Mr. Mangrum plays with much expression and got several encores,” added The Arkansas Gazette. “Blind Joe Mangrum was received with great applause.”
Then news coverage stopped cold. Mangrum’s vaudeville tour had ended quickly as begun, for whatever reason. Soon the blind artist was back in west Tennessee and Kentucky, seeking livelihood and refuge.
Writer and consultant Matt Chaney is compiling a book on historical song and dance, tentatively titled River Music and Rockabilly in the Northern Delta. For more information see the ChaneysBlog page “Music History and Legend of the Missouri Delta.” For information on Chaney’s previous books, visit www.fourwallspublishing.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Vocal Artists are on WIAR Program for Week; Stations Far Away Send Greetings. (1922, Dec. 12). Paducah Evening Sun KY, p. 1.
Warmly Welcomed. (1891, May 21). Nashville Tennessean TN, p. 2.
Weather. (1922, Dec. 9). Paducah News-Democrat KY, p. 1.
When You Wake Up on Christmas Morning, You Might Find a Radio Set in your Stocking. (1922, Dec. 22). Paducah Evening Sun KY, p. 1.
WIAR will Offer Music Treats to “Fans” this Week. (1922, Dec. 11). Paducah Evening Sun KY, p. 1.
Will Give a Concert. (1905, Oct. 6). Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 3.
Will Take College to Farm. (1925, Oct. 15). Caruthersville Journal MO, p. 2.
Wingfield, S. (1980, Aug. 6). Station Break? Not at PAD. Paducah Sun KY, p. 10.
Wired Wireless Newest Thing in Radio World. (1922, March 25). Cairo Bulletin IL, p. 1.
Want Blind Joe to Broadcast. (1926, Jan. 15). Paducah News-Democrat KY, p. 2.
WSM to Put on Barn Dances Tonight during Test Period. (1926, Jan. 30). Nashville Tennessean TN, p. 1.
Yaarab Temple’s Big Oriental Band Plans Tacky Party. (1925, Feb. 15). Atlanta Constitution GA, p. 48.