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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