Ignatius vs John Pela

“A small and sallow figure whose shorts hung clumsily in the crotch, whose spindly legs looked too naked in comparison to the formal garters and nylon socks that hung near the ankle,” resplendent in a red beard, besotted by the milk of human kindness—and perhaps feeling not a little guilty—stands on the porch of the Reilly home ready to provide some comfort to Irene Reilly. Patrolman Mancuso had found out that Irene couldn’t afford the a $1000 fine for drunk and destructive driving he’d given her.

Mancuso looked at the Plymouth and saw the deep crease in its roof and the fender, filled with concave circles, that was separated from the body by three or four inches of space. VAN CAMP’S PORK AND BEANS was printed on the piece of cardboard taped across the hole that had been the rear window. Stopping by the grave, he read REX in faded letters on the cross. Then he climbed the worn brick steps and heard through the closed shutters a booming chant.

 Big girls don’t cry.
Big girls don’t cry.
Big girls, they don’t cry-yi-yi.
They don’t cry.
Big girls, they don’t cry… yi.

 While he was waiting for someone to answer the bell, he read the faded sticker on the crystal of the door, “A slip of the lip can sink a ship.” Below a WAVE held her finger to lips that had turned tan. (p. 33)

The “chant” Mancuso hears is the refrain from “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” is a song written by Bob Crewe and Bob Gaudio. Originally recorded by The Four Seasons, “Big Girls” hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100 on November 17, 1962, and spent five weeks in the top position. The song—along with the movies that Ignatius sees at the Prytania—provides an important signature for the novel’s time setting. Mancuso follows Irene into the kitchen and they commiserate over coffee and donuts. Soon enough, they begin to discuss Ignatius.

“He’s out in the parlor right now looking at TV. Every afternoon, as right as rain, he looks at that show where them kids dance.” In the kitchen the music was somewhat fainter than it had been on the porch. Patrolman Mancuso pictured the green hunting cap bathed in the blue-white glow of the television screen. “He don’t like the show at all, but he won’t miss it. You oughta hear what he says about them poor kids.” (p. 35) “Oh, my God!” Ignatius bellowed from the front of the house. “Oh, my heavens! These girls are doubtless prostitutes already. How can they present horrors like this to the public? What an egregious insult to good taste. Do I believe the total perversion that I am witnessing?” Ignatius screamed from the parlor. The music had a frantic, tribal rhythm; a chorus of falsettos sang insinuatingly about loving all night long. “The children on that program should all be gassed,” Ignatius said as he strode into the kitchen in his nightshirt. Then he noticed the guest and said coldly, “Oh.” (p. 36)

Most of us will recognize “the show where them kids dance” as “American Bandstand,” but in New Orleans, in November, 1962, the popular local edition of was “The John Pela Show.” Pela was a staff announcer for local station WWL-TV who in 1961 took over hosting duties of the show originally titled “Saturday Hop.” Featuring a studio full of New Orleans teenagers dancing to the latest pop hits, and with groovy, era-appropriate graphics—including a stylized riverboat–setting the mood, the live, hour-long dance party originated from the WWL studios every Saturday a must-see for NOLA teens in the day.

Ignatius maintained an extreme opinion.

“The ironic thing about that program,” Ignatius was saying over the stove, keeping one eye peeled so that he could seize the pot as soon as the milk began to boil, “is that it is supposed to be an exemplum to the youth of our nation. I would like very much to know what the Founding Fathers would say if they could see these children being debauched to further the cause of Clearasil. However, I always suspected that democracy would come to this.” He painstakingly poured the milk into his Shirley Temple mug. “A firm rule must be imposed upon our nation before it destroys itself. The United States needs some theology and geometry, some taste and decency. I suspect that we are teetering on the edge of the abyss.” (p. 37)

After a tumult with Irene, Ignatius retreated to his room.

He slammed his door and snatched a Big Chief tablet from the floor. Throwing himself back among the pillows on the bed, he began doodling on a yellowed page. After almost thirty minutes of pulling at his hair and chewing on the pencil, he began to compose a paragraph.

Were Hroswitha with us today, we would all look to her for counsel and guidance. From the austerity and tranquility of her medieval world, the penetrating gaze of this legendary Sybil of a holy nun would exorcise the horrors which materialize before our eyes in the name of television. If we could only juxtapose one eyeball of this sanctified woman and a television tube, both being roughly of the same shape and design, what a phantasmagoria of exploding electrodes would occur. The images of those lasciviously gyrating children would disintegrate into so many ions and molecules, thereby effecting the catharsis which the tragedy of the debauching of the innocent necessarily demands. (p. 40)

Considered the first female writer from the German-speaking lands, the first female historian, the first person since antiquity to write dramas in the Latin West, and the first female poet in Germany, Hroswitha (c. 935–973) was a secular canoness at Gandersheim Abbey In Lower Saxony. She has been called “the most remarkable woman of her time”, and an important figure in the early history of women. Hroswitha’s six short dramas are considered to be her most important works. Ignatius’s conjuration of Hroswitha likely stems from her position of a dramatist, with the medieval stage providing a parallel to a televised dance floor, making  her somewhat of a patron saint of public performance. She’s an interesting choice for his appeal, since Tool most certainly would have been aware of Hroswitha’s reputation as a proto-feminist, which jars somewhat with Ignatius’s position as an ultra-conservative Catholic:

“I do not support the current pope. He does not at all fit my concept of a good, authoritarian pope. Actually, I am opposed to the relativism of modern Catholicism quite violently.” (p. 45)

Finally, don’t recoil at Ignatius’s dire punishments for (presumably) innocent teenagers. Ignatius is a medievalist, and however diminished by contemporary horrors, the Middle Ages were brutal and cruel. Ignatius is following the script.

Malaco: Goin’ with the Flow

Mississippi is famous as home to many of the most celebrated musical artists of the last century, but few know that Mississippi—and more specifically Jackson—was home to at least three  renowned recording companies: Trumpet, Ace and Malaco Records. The Trumpet and Ace labels have long since passed into legend, but Malaco Records, founded by Tommy Couch, Mitchell Malouf, and Gerald “Wolf” Stephenson, is still making music on Northside Drive in Jackson.

“The basic story for Malaco was that we loved R&B music,” Wolf said. “Tommy is from the Muscle Shoals area, and he grew up with all those guys who became big in the recording industry there. When he came to Ole Miss, he started booking bands for the fraternity parties to make extra money. He graduated the semester ahead of me, moved to Jackson and talked his brother-in-law Mitch Malouf into continuing the booking agency. The name Campus Attractions was what he had used, but someone else was using that name, so he and Mitch tossed various names around until his mother-in-law suggested they combine the two names Malouf and Couch into Malaco.”

“I moved to Jackson and we continued our friendship,” Wolf said. “Tommy wanted to open a recording studio, so it started out here in 1967. The first success that we had was with Groove Me by King Floyd out of New Orleans in 1970. The next thing we had was Misty Blue with Dorothy Moore in 1976. In the early 80s, we were the beneficiary of a big downturn in the music business; Stax went out of business, Columbia Records pared back their artist roster,” Wolf said. “TK Distributors in Miami, who distributed our products, went out of business and all of a sudden we had to become an independent record company to get our records out. At the same time, lots of other labels cut back their roster. The artists who were doing blues and R&B didn’t have anywhere else to go, so they showed up here. We could record a record, get it manufactured and get it out, and they could call up anytime day or night. We were a small, close-knit group, so it worked.”

“Z.Z. Hill was our first big hit with Down Home Blues (1982). That was probably the biggest blues/soul album that had ever been released to that date, and here we were, a little bitty company and it cost us $8,000 to do the whole project. That song just exploded. That was like a magnet to all those other folks who were out there. His success brought Johnnie Taylor, Little Milton, Latimore (stage name of Benny Latimore), Bobby “Blue” Bland, Tyrone Davis and Denise LaSalle. We were at the right place when everybody else was cutting back.”

“We started with gospel in 1975,” Wolf said. “The Jackson Southernaires were a very hot group nationally. The thing about gospel groups back then and now, too, is that they had to be able to take some of their records when they went out on the road to sell them off the stage. And for the Southernaires, being with ABC Records, headquartered at that time in LA, it was hard for them to get the records on a timely basis. Again, they got caught in the cut-backs, too, and we were close by, they showed up, and that put us on the road to being successful in gospel music for a number of years.” But a dramatic downturn followed. “I never expected the record industry to get this bad,” Wolf said. “Piracy and counterfeiting have destroyed the industry. The computer has been a double-edged sword; we’re able to do so many things we couldn’t do before, but it also allows people to devastate your intellectual property rights.”

Burton Doss, Director of Information Technology at Malaco, said, “We had a bad time with the bootleggers; not so much the downloaders, who have hurt us some, but the bootleggers, in our industry, are really hurting us, but Malaco is adapting. Instead of fighting change, we have to embrace it by reaching out with new ventures, anything we can possibly do to reach our audience. We are signing a lot of P&D (pressing and distribution) deals in which the artists themselves do all the marketing and promotion, and we manufacture the product and place it in the major chains. A lot of the larger record labels won’t sign these artists who might only sell 250,000 to 500,000 units; well, we’ll have a party if we sell that much. So we’re signing these P&D deals in urban music,” Burton said. “We also have a lot of gospel artists who are unhappy with their labels who are coming to us to manufacture their product and get it out for them.”

“We have just signed a deal with Heavy D, from Heavy D & the Boyz, who was a big rapper in the 80s and 90s. He has a new album out called Vibes, a reggae album that was nominated for a Grammy Award this year. Lionel Ridenour, who has come to us from Arista Records, knew Heavy D and has a lot of good connections in the music industry. He called up Heavy D, who told him he wasn’t happy where he was at and wanted to look into something else, so Lionel said why don’t you come over to Malaco? We’ve also signed this guy named Ludy out of St. Louis, a rapper in the 90s. And we’ve signed a deal with B-Hamp. He’s got this song called Do the Ricky Bobby which was written up by Entertainment Weekly. When you think of Malaco, you think of the Mississippi Mass Choir, Johnny Taylor, Bobby Bland, so this is different, it’s new territory for us, but we’re excited.”

“We have the largest gospel music catalogue in the world, very good traditional gospel and new artists as well,” Burton said. “We have the Mississippi Mass Choir, Dorothy Norwood, the Georgia Mass Choir, a lot of quartets; we just did an album on the Soul Stirrers, who back in the day were the Soul Stirrers with Sam Cooke. Our catalogue business, meaning our repertoire of copyrighted songs, is very strong. We license a lot of songs to movies and other venues. We continue to grow the new business into new avenues. One avenue that we’ve started is that we’ve started an online radio station. Chances are, if you were to turn on the radio, you’re not going to hear blues or Southern soul. So we’ve started our own station, which is 24 hours a day, world-wide, southernsoulradio.com.  You can hear the song, download it from iTunes and click to buy the album from our Malaco website. We want to make Malaco the one-stop shop when you think of blues, gospel or Southern soul.”

Mose Allison, Jr., V.P. Ferguson, and the Cool World at Ole Miss

Unforgettable to his contemporaries, a will-o’-the-wisp to others, Verell Pennington Ferguson III is often described as Mississippi’s first beatnik, a gleeful and strident nonconformist at Ole Miss and points beyond. V.P. Ferguson has become a legend to many, a status fully justified by his utmost legacy, Days of Yoknapatawpha, a “memoire/timeplay” written at the urging of a friend in the publishing business who told him to “Recall the old days, Faulkner still alive, and you managing the cultural life of Oxford with la main gauche while beating time with the other for your various and assorted bandsmen.”

The section reproduced here, entitled “7th Movement: Mose Allison and the Cool World: Ole Miss—1949-50”, describes V.P.’s first encounter with another legend, Mississippi jazzman Mose Allison, on the campus of the University of Mississippi on a winter’s day in 1949. It is only a fragment of an astounding manuscript, full of humor and insight and populated by some of the most famous people of mid-20th century Mississippi. Deepest and most profound thanks to artist, gentleman, and bon vivant Johnny Hayles for his perceptive, indefatigable research, considerate advice, and unmitigated generosity.

It was a lovely day in early January—at zero degrees centigrade—where a sun-filtered mist, breaking down at ground level, enshrouded the campus in a crisp, ashen whiteness. Shortly after lunch, about 14 hours, the Ole Miss Grill was overflowing with permanent grill-hounds, many of whom considered class attendance as secondary activity, if not outright torture, and of course the classic défilé of bewitching doe-eyed gazelles—and long-stemmed greyhounds.

The in-house jukebox was playing “Greeneyes” (“those cool and limpid”: Jimmy Dorsey, Bob Eberly and Helen O’Connell). Nobody could be unhappy around here, I reflected, as I duly parked the nervous little Ford in front, then wandering through the University Post Office for a quick mail check before floundering into some serious grill-hounding myself. Hardly inside and seated before cherished breaded veal cutlets with Roquefort, I was warmly heckled by “Fish” Salmon, the powerhouse quarterback, and Douglas “Little Abner” Hamley, a star linesman from Lake Charles, Louisiana, both inveterate Damon Runyon wits. “Yeah, that’s it, dad. Hang up the gloves, man, hang up the gloves! You’ll never make it, V.P. Ferguson!” (They were both right.)

Both faces gleefully pointed out a large black and white press photograph thumb-tacked onto the adjacent campus bulletin board before I sniffed out the source of my public shame. It was that jinxed photo again! Maybe the Tombigbee Sage was right after all: “People are no damn good!”, which, unfortunately, down in Columbus, hadn’t stopped the Sage, now the Hook, both of whom read the Memphis press, to roundly snigger at my latest public nemesis. The large, inopportune photo in question was untimely taken a short while back during the Golden Gloves Mid-South Tournament of Champions staged at Memphis, where, to say the least, I was engaged in a real “down-home slug-out”. The caption read: “Ole Miss’s V.P. Ferguson heads for a hard seat—before coming off the canvas to take a unanimous decision.” It was, and I did. Salmon and Hamley got all torn up. Mysteriously, someone even paid for my breaded veal cutlets.

However, feeling called upon to explain, I “thrusted home” like the grill-hound Cyrano that I was. “When that George T. Billy from Fort Smith, Arkansas pummeled me around my flat-topped head, I saw a grandiose colored flash, like a purple ball of fire, and ricocheted off the canvas. But without a count, mind you: a crew of cameramen flashed on me like I was the real Richard Widmark in a fast-paced, Grade B thriller: but when, in turn, I fire-stormed good old George T Billy to the canvas, at least twice, not a flash bulb went off. That’s the shabby popular press for you: but it couldn’t happen around here. You all ball-player grill-hounds are coming down with hamburger guilt, a Freudian jock strap transfer blaming the other goof folks whenever you “lose the big game”. In the Ole Miss/Quo Vadis/S.P.Q.R. show, none of you gladiator ball jocks are ever photographed all strung out on the ground, or worse, like poor fighters! Those AA/PR men around here are better paid than foreign agents!”

My lost dog act played out better than expected. Both Manley and Salmon invited to smuggle me into the jock strap steakhouse tonight for still another seared slab of fabulous Texas longhorn. The Richard Widmark act was not without merit, and grill-hounding had become an art. Abandoned at the corner side table for a quarter of an hour or so, I fondly reflected that outside of my romantic, geo-pantheistic idée fixe of canoeing down legendary waters, I entertained the lingering dream of creating another dance band. Not a big orchestra; the on-campus, well-rehearsed “Mississippians” were far beyond me for a class, but a high voltage jazz combo operating with about 6 or 7 Damon Runyon characters like myself—sunbelt hard cats living out the life adventure in rhythm, fervor, and soul. Leaving the table and the pulsating Ole Miss Grill, I had it: “The Let It Roll Band”—it was as sure as death and taxes.

Returning to the ’32 Ford Roadster, I adroitly placed a pair of powerful binoculars, canoe paddle, and a copy of Philip Wylie’s Generation of Vipers up behind the front seat. Having read the innovative intriguer, (The Mom, Apple Pie and Baseball Flap I was relieved to discover that among other bourgeois nightmares, I had happily escaped what Wylie allegedly described as The Dreadnaught Syndrome: there’s no good old Mom, the catalyzer of the All-American Square, in the new family Buick off to the supermarket to load up on more burger meat and tons of ketchup.

That was heady stuff, attacking good old Mom, burger meat and ketchup was tantamount to Jack the Ripper slashing Saturday Evening Post covers. Curiously enough however, seen from another angle, Wylie’s fevered, Freudian, matriarchal fiasco humorously backed into certain of my reflections concerning good old George, and Miss Milly T. Billy, the archetypical bird-brain hicks. But intellectual macho was already démodé, if not effete, and Wylie might be heading for unnerving trouble with the ladies, including a new race known abouts as “Jane the Beards” pulling on line from corporate board rooms to backwater togetherness. As for the common man’s Richard Widmark, I liked Philip Wylie, apple pie and baseball. As for good ole Mom, whom I had nothing against, end even visited on occasion, she dutifully machined through the University of Virginia Law School at Charlottesville, as did my sister Betty, belatedly becoming an excellent professor of commercial law in that elegant state, but my existential good taste remained beyond reproach: I was raised by the Wizard and “belonged to Ole Miss”.

Once the daydream drifted off, I leisurely opened up the small rumble seat on the fast back, fumbling around with some unread novels, river maps and assorted outdoor gear when I saw it: the vast spinach greenness wearing Tallahatchie County license plates—kept coming and coming, finally docking beside my modest little ’32 Ford Roadster, imposing as it were through the sun-filtered, ashen whiteness. I saw that all of that long greenness belonged to the latest model Chrysler New Yorker—a veritable limousine de ville: the driver, flashing a generous smile, sprang out as if he was making a homecoming landfall. (He was.) If the eyes were the windows of the soul, the stranger, looking out on the world in blue electric, extolled instant intelligence.

And there he was, an authentic sunbelt hard cat of medium build, cinnamon hair worn in a brush, a classic, sensitive face, and moreover, decked out in cool, California/Vegas togs: Bordeaux red cardigan, with polished brass buttons, snug-cut butter yellow shirt with oversized buttoned-up collar, worn over full rich lemon trousers, a hand-crafted Aztec beaded belt, and ankle-length high desert boots. While the long spinach greenness had little in common with the California Special, there was, however, an irrefutable linkage to the Damon Runyon world, as I reflected for an instant that we both solicited the same mail-order West Coast tailor. But it was an illusion. Upon second glance I realized that the unknown creature momentarily appreciating my roadster was hardly inspired by hip advertisements in hot rod magazines. While flashing the same “Culver City style”, his “threads” were obviously more refined, and several cuts above mine.

As usual, my Richard Widmark act was spontaneous: “Man, with a cruiser like that, you must need a harbor pilot! But the next time you cool in with all that lovely greenness, please extend me the grace of not docking alongside my little ’32 Ford. You make me insignificant.” The colorful character fleeing across the street toward the Vardaman-Longstreet dormitory complex flung an arm high in the air: “Don’t panic, dad! Energy of that class commands a lot of respect!”

Room address in a suede gloved hand, I, in turn, wandered across Grill Street to the Vardaman-Longstreet in hopes of ferreting out a few high tension elements for the on-coming “Let It Roll Band”. Although someone said “third floor right”, it was irrelevant—I picked up on the solid jazz sounds even before entering the building. Arriving at the moment of truth, I peered through the half-opened doorway into a blue-bulbed inner sanctum at what was surely the cutting edge on the cutting edge, where six or eight sunbelt hard cats, all dressed in California/Vegas togs, were solemnly planted around a scratchy record player listening to hardcore bebop. I rapidly spooked out the pilot of the long spinach greenness, a proselytizer, if not a high priest of la nouvelle vague (New Wave jazz). I hesitated a moment until he recognized me, smiled and waved me into the inner sanctum, where, by happenstance, I entered into a new dimension. That simple gesture, although coming from the same Damon Runyon world, portended a certain esoterical attitude, engendering, as it were, a colorful lifestyle of its own. I was altogether intrigued.

The stranger was called Mose Allison, Junior, from Tippo, Mississippi, a lovely, lost corner in fecund Tallahatchie County, where he was raised in an affluent plantation family. Upon first contact, however, in front of the Old Miss Grill, by the strange mystique of instant enlightenment, I somehow realized that Allison was world class talent, (I was not wrong) and indeed honored to have made a brilliant new friend. The comfortable, blue-bulbed dormitory room, spatially limited, cluttered and strewn out pell-mell with the banalities of quotidian existence, took on the allure of an urban ritual where bohemian characters from the 4th dimension gathered around a record player instead of a fire, listening, as it were, to fascinating far out new sounds.

When the frenetic record, re-played several times, finally ended, Allison, ardently searching for another in the stack, paused, and looking up with a smile, announced my modest entrée to no one in particular: “Ah! It’s the California Special back on the scene: We were listening to Dizzy Gillespie’s “Things to Come”. Did you pick up on it, dad?” I was at ease. My Damon Runyon background was well anchored: “Oh yeah. That’s frantic stuff, man! But outside of my collection of Stan Kenton and Herman’s Jimmy Giuffre thing, “Four Brothers”, sadly enough, I don’t know a lot about New Wave jazz.” Someone on the far side of Allison allowed as to how it was called bebop.

“Sure. Yeah, man, I know, the image is colorful enough, but somehow obscure. At any rate, let’s face it New Wave jazz has outgrown show business. In fact, it’s no longer dancefloor stuff. It’s moved into the concert hall where it really belongs.” Concluding my rather off-hand reflection, the relative silence rippling across the blue-lighted little room of sunbelt hard cats was my no means an admonishment, but rather heralded a warm, on the spot friendship which was to endure for years, or as it were, if Mose Allison was an ace proselytizer and high priest of New Wave jazz, seen from a certain angle, I was a defending knight, or an engagé as the French would have it.

Among the six or eight, there was Bill “Big Jay” Katz (after Big Jay McNeely, “Deacon’s Hop”-1948, etc.), a hard-driving tenor saxophone player from New York City tall, well-groomed with burnt, desert sand hair, matching eyes and a disarming, soft-glowing smile. John Earn MacDade, a hip, bushy-haired ace Mississippi trombone veteran—and blithe spirit, avoiding all physical effort whenever possible, championed the “L.A. hard look” and could have just wandered off Hollywood and Vine in a lime green cardigan, tomato red shirt with oversized, buttoned-up collar, worn over pleated, black velvet slacks and Aztec moccasins. Thomas “Bunky” Lane was a romantic, slender-built mystic with raven-hazel hair worn in a tall bush cut, whose sensitive, near melancholic face and deep chestnut eyes reflected the inner fire of an introverted intellectual. Lane, an ethereal alto saxophone player and biology major, normally dressed in black or blue double-breasted suits and dark Windsor ties, possessed the ultimate, if not indefinable talent: a musician’s musician, playing New Wave jazz with a relaxed, full-blown richness inspired by the beguiling tenor sax, Stan Getz (“Early Autumn” with Woody Herman-1948), Lennie Tristano, Dave Brubeck, and the Modern Jazz Quartet, Lane, “The Mystic” readily measured up to any avant-garde, mastering a style which had just begun to be called “Cool Jazz” (1948-55).

As for the creative brilliance of Mose Allison, Jr., out in the surrealist world of good ole George T. Billy, amid a myriad of bucolic squares, he was light years ahead of the scene, ,and moreover, he knew it. But for the ongoing moment, however, he allowed as to his recent Tallahatchie county homecoming: “I was discharged from the army a short while back, where I was in training with special ski troops out in Colorado Springs, the fabulous Far West—real Nirvana! But I picked up all those hip threads in Denver, man, a mountain paradise a mile above sea level. Someday I’ll make that scene again!”

Suddenly John MacDade (Hollywood and Vine) and “Big Jay” Katz got all torn up, which apparently had little to do with Allison’s hip Denver togs. By the time Lane “The Mystic” chimed in, I knew in my bones what was coming. (It did.) “Say, Man, aren’t you the fighter cat in that action photo over at the campus grill?”; “Yeah, man, the one where Widmark is going through the ropes, head first!”; “Yeah, man, he’s the cat. The whole campus has spooked that photo. In your case I would either sign it, or take it down! You’re playing out a no win scene, man!” Somehow I was happy, if not mollified. “A good sense of humor was the escape valve of humanity.” Good musicians were my chosen people, an idée fixe—happily following me into old age.

“Okay, you cats! So I suffered an inglorious scuffle—but I don’t plan to make a lifetime of it! In fact, that purple ball of fire convinced me how right I was to take up the slide trombone. It’s easier on the jaw!” The scene shifted into another direction as Mose Allison spooked out an amusing intruder. “It’s Mister Coffee Nerves—the phantom nerve ball of the corridors! Coming to rain on all the hard cats about all this degenerate bebop music!

Allison, possessing a spark-jumping, electric wit, apparently enjoyed riding super-squares like Mister Coffee Nerves, distant outsiders going far beyond mere Squaredom into an anti-bourgeois dimension, which seen from a certain point of view, was a negative form of hip. Mister Coffee Nerves, ostensibly a precursor to Sal Mineo (Plato in Rebel Without a Cause) dressed in impeccable buttoned-up tweeds, gave the impression of tortured precocity: a chubby, cherub-faced little enigma, with the pink, stubby fingers of a child strangler, and who had been thrown out of an impressive number of tony prep schools on strange and obscure charges, including “ghoulism”, whatever that entails. Mister Coffee Nerves professed to being a self-styled nerve grater, sand papering the nerve endings of even the most comatose victims with astonishing success. Flashing his dead fish smile, Mister Coffee Nerves entered the inner sanctum with customary flair: “Gentlemen: or should I more fashionably say “sunbelt hard cats”? I suppose that all of this bebop monkey music has softened your brains: it was inevitable.”

Mister Coffee Nerves, pausing for effect, lit up a super perfumed, long, rainbow-colored cigarette and gleefully moved into action. “Perhaps you should like to receive with me some good old “down home” Dixieland. Why not Louis Armstrong? Yes, that’s it. “When the Saints Go Marching In”! Good for the soul, you know, and a bit of Doris Day. Good, bitter-sweet for broken hearts. And of course Harry James. That “crying trumpet”! Ah! A good ole circus man, Harry! Gentlemen, excuse me, I mean hard cats, this decadent bebop can only lead to catatonic schizophrenia, or worse! You had better repent and go back to ragtime! Rudy Vallée is great!”

The super square had talent. Nobody could be that outrageous by happenstance; one had to work on it, which he did. The triggered ubiquitous reaction readily proved that point, nearly driving MacDade, H&V and Big Jay Katz, among others, up the walls. Coffee Nerves listened on in ecstasy. “Most of those old-style cats were greatmechanics, man, but they played themselves into a dead end!”; “You’re cool, dad. That “crying trumpet” cat plays good B.C. (*Before Christ) horn, but in A.D. (*After Dizzy) he sounds like he’s changing a flat tire!”; “You’re a hard can, man! And that D.D. chick (*Doris Day) sings like a melting river of chocolate at the Lonely Hearts Club!”

Mister Coffee Nerves, fawning over a certain Pavlovian success, fired up another rainbow-colored cigarette, and came up with his best dead fish smile ever, although somewhat askew, on the spot; one wondered how a lone cigarette could be charged with so much perfume. Shortly thereafter, Mister Coffee Nerves, freezing on the dead fish smile, took leave of the bebop inner sanctum, as usual, in super-square flair. “Well, gentlemen, if you’re please excuse me, as those “hipsters” say down in good old rockabilly, ‘See you laters, alligators!’” Pulling hard on the rainbow-colored cigarette, the chubby, cherub wandered off down the corridor to bug a couple of itinerant Jehovah Witnesses passing through to save Ole Miss from abject heresy and assorted Devils. But destiny can be cruel even for fevered missionaries, Mister Coffee Nerves would see to that. In the worst case scenario, the naïve zealots, disillusioned, would certainly be losing face, if not faith.

Back in the inner sanctum, where even the ace proselytizer was a bit slack-jawed, the sunbelt hard cats returned to normal, playing “Night in Tunisia”, “Manteca” (Dizzy G.) and “The Chase” (Wardell Gray/Dexter Gordon) not without a last reflection: “Man, I fell you, that Mister Coffee Nerves is really a twisted little cat!”; “Aw, yeah, dad, he’s warped 360 degrees! And there’s no exit!”; “Yeah, man, coffee nerves is all strung out with an eerie talent for negative genius!”

Bobbie Gentry’s Cherry Cookie Bars

This recipe appeared in Bayou Cuisine (1970) and was credited to Edith Streetner of Greenwood.

Bobbie Gentry was born Bobbie Lee Streeter July 27, 1944, on her paternal grandparents’ farm near Mantee, Mississippi. Her father, Robert H. Streeter, lived in Greenwood, Mississippi. Bobbi Lee Gentry moved to California in 1957 to live with her mother and stepfather.

Bobbie graduated from Palm Springs High School. She changed her name to Gentry after seeing the 1952 film Ruby Gentry, starring Jennifer Jones and Charlton Heston. Likely Edith is Gentry’s stepmother, who writes, “Bobbie’s favorite recipe that she has loved since she was a little girl, and I always made them for her when she came home.”

These are two-in one cookie bars. They have a rich, buttery cream-colored layer below and scarlet cherries, coconut, and nuts in the layer on top.

Sift together 1 cup plain flour and 1/4 cup confectioner’s sugar. Cut in 1/2 c. butter until mixture resembles coarse meal. Press mixture firmly into the bottom of an ungreased 11×7 or 9×9 inch pan. Bake in a moderate (350) oven for 10 minutes. Sift together 1/4 c. plain flour 1/2 tsp. baking powder 1/2 teaspoon salt and 3/4 c. sugar. Add 2 eggs lightly beaten, then fold in 1/2 c. maraschino cherries, finely cut, 1/2 c. grated coconut, and 1/2 c. chopped nuts (walnuts, pecans, or almonds). Spread over a blind crust and bake in a moderate (350) oven 30-40 minutes. Cool and cut into bars or squares.

The Roots of Mississippi Blues

In March 2014, Jack White’s Third Man Records and John Fahey’s Revenant Records released the second and final volume of its limited edition box sets, “The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records”. The first volume, issued in November 2014, documented Paramount’s origins as a furniture manufacturer (1888) on a Michigan river to nationally-distributed recording company (1917) that came to immortalize the names of Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Alberta Hunter, Ethel Waters, Ma Rainey and Fats Waller, among many others.

Paramount began its “race record” series in 1922 with a scattering of vaudeville blues by Lucille Hegamin and Alberta Hunter. These recordings quickly became a profitable sideline for the company, and when Blind Lemon Jefferson was discovered by a Texas record dealer and became Paramount’s stellar recording artist in 1926, Paramount shifted its focus to Southern blues, folk and spiritual music. This second volume of “The Rise and Fall” documents the label’s brief but incalculably influential final period between 1928 and 1932. These recordings established the foundations of Mississippi blues, the Golden Age of Gospel (1945-58), the swing bands of the 1940s, and documented a treasure-trove of sound that defies classification. In the introductory narrative to the art book included with the box set, Scott Blackwood asserts that Paramount “caught sounds more representative of the quality and variety of America’s vernacular music in the 1920s and ‘30s than anything being done by the Library of Congress or anyone else.”

Blues authority Edward Komara agrees. “The Library of Congress folk music division did not begin until 1928, and the Lomax father-and-son team (John and Alan) embarked on their first field-recording trips of consequence in 1933, one year after Paramount had closed. In the late 1930s, Alan Lomax recognized the Paramount 78s as relevant to the kinds of folk music sung and played before 1933. Furthermore, when Harry Smith compiled the Anthology of American Folk Music sets in the early 1950s for Folkways Records, he used quite a few of Paramount’s recordings. So for a lot of blues and a fair amount of other music before 1933, listeners will only find them on Paramount.”

Mississippi blues are first mentioned in Charles Peabody’s “Notes on Negro Music” in the July-September 1903 issue of “The Journal of American Folk-Lore”. He described the music, which he heard near Clarksdale, as “…weird in interval and strange in rhythm; peculiarly beautiful.” Around the same time, at a train stop in Tutwiler, W.C. Handy first heard a Delta slide guitarist playing and singing “Goin’ Where the Southern Crosses the Dog.” With the celebrity of Blind Lemon Jefferson, and building on the work of J. Mayo “Ink” Williams, who had marketed Paramount’s recordings to African-Americans through the company’s large mail-order operation, the label soon discovered a gold seam in the Mississippi Delta by way of H.C. Speir, who owned a furniture store on Farish Street in Jackson. Speir was Paramount’s premier talent scout in Mississippi. While the company was building its new recording studio in Grafton, Michigan in 1929, Paramount sent Speir’s recent discovery, Charley Patton, to the studio of Gennett Records in Richmond, Indiana, where he cut 14 sides that established Patton as the “Father of the Delta Blues”. The year 1928 heard the first notes of a swan song for Paramount, but in the years before its demise in 1932 the label produced some of the most coveted recordings in the brief history of wax; a staggering playlist of 175 artists, including Skip James, Son House, Tommy Johnson, Geeshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas, The Mississippi Sheiks and scores of others.

The recordings on Volume Two span 800 newly-remastered digital tracks, all of them on a specially-programmed USB app, and 96 of the best on 6 vinyl LPs. Blues recordings comprise the lion’s share of this content, 580 tracks of blues, or 74% of the 800 tracks; 108 tracks fall into the category of sacred music, the rest, some 112 tracks, are of white dance or country/hillbilly music. Some defy classification, such as those of early southern fiddler D.D. Hollis performing songs that he had learned as a boy in the 1860s and 1870s and the sides by ukulele players Small and Hayes. Komara notes that among the tracks on the second Paramount set that Mississippians should know are Charley Patton’s “Pony Blues”, “Spoonful Blues,” and “High Water Everywhere”; Son House’s “My Black Mama”; Willie Brown’s “Future Blues”; Skip James’ “I’m So Glad” and “Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues”; Geechie Wiley’s “Last Kind Words Blues”; and Elvie Thomas’ “Motherless Child Blues”, but that is only scratching the surface. The LPs are pressed on label-less alabaster-white vinyl, each side with its own hand-etched numeral and holographic image; also included in the set is a first-of-its-kind music and image player app containing all tracks and ads, housed on custom metal USB drive.

Almost at par with the recordings are the printed materials included in the box set, two genre-definitive large-format books: a 250-page hardcover art book and 400-page field guide. The key words here are “genre-definitive”, since the bulk of information they contain as well as the level of scholarship and research they represent is with the exception of contributor Alex van der Tuuk’s Paramount’s Rise and Fall (Mainspring Press, 2003) the most complete and authoritative work thus far on the Paramount Record label. The art book is a sumptuous compilation in terms of both text and images. Blackwood’s narrative in Volume Two, a preface and 10 chapters, covers the label’s “final, furious push … a push for a kind of immortality, it turned out, though no one involved would have deigned to even dream of such a thing.” Blackwood, it should be noted, was nominated for a 2015 Grammy for his narrative in Volume One and this companion piece, as poetic as it is informative, scattered with images of performers and company personnel, should be savored and studied as a masterful assessment of the declining arc of an American musical and entrepreneurial phenomena. The 115 pages of plates include an astounding range of advertisements (over 90 from The Chicago Defender), labels on 78s, letters, invoices and other ephemera. The field guide though stark by comparison is nonetheless just as impressive with 400 pages of artist bios and portraits as well as the full Paramount discography.

The collection is housed in a handsome polished aluminum and stainless steel Machine Age-style cabinet, upholstered in sapphire blue velvet. As Revenant owner Dean Blackwood elaborated in a December 2013 interview with Downbeat magazine, “The Rise and Fall of Paramout” leaves the world of box sets far behind. “Boxed sets are a ghetto, limited by their category. We didn’t want to imitate a form, but to achieve the form itself. It’s more like a piece of furniture, or a first edition book.” In order to achieve the form of a piece of furniture, Third Man and Revenant risked lowering the priority of the recorded music to equal standing with the visual and tactile materials, an appropriate gamble for Paramount Records since after all the label’s owner was a furniture company that rolled dice and came up with sevens.

Though Mississippi blues, Delta blues in particular, are globally recognized as America’s premier contribution to world music, the vast majority of the genre’s devotees in the state who canonize its artists and exploit its legacy have never heard its essential sounds. Komara asserts that there is “no better primer of early Mississippi blues (Delta and elsewhere) than what you have access to in the second Paramount set.” At $400, “The Rise and fall of Paramount, Volume Two” exceeds the budgets of many if not most people, but these recordings should be a serious consideration for any Mississippian who has an abiding love for the blues or Mississippi music in general, particularly those with an eye for stylish packaging. This set is also recommended as an essential addition to libraries in the state whose patrons would utilize it as a resource for entertainment as well as education.

Lillian McMurry: Godmother of the Blues

These days it’s difficult enough to think about a turntable at all, much less to think about one as a piece of furniture. But in the middle decades of the 20th century, they became mammoths.

These record players (for that’s essentially what they were, hi-fi or stereo) came in all sorts of styles to match your other furniture, too: Mediterranean, French provincial, Queen Ann, you name it. Furniture stores sold these primitive behemoths as well as recordings themselves, and it’s through the furniture business that Lillian Shedd McMurry, a former secretary and law student, fell down a rabbit hole and into the land of the blues.

According to her nephew, recording artist John Webb (“Wilder”) McMurry, “My Uncle Willard, Lillian’s husband, and his family weren’t real musical folks. They all had furniture stores. Willard and a furniture store, my dad, Webb, had a furniture store, and my uncle Carl had Super Furniture Market in Jackson. Willard’s niche was used furniture stores and he would buy the pre-existing stock out of a bankrupt store and get it going again. So there was some stock in a hardware store Willard had bought on Farish Street that included 78s of black music, what would have been called “race music” at the time. Lillian had a lot of get-up-and-go, had played the piano early in her life and was interested in music. But she knew nothing about blues or secular music.”

Lillian selected a record and put it on the turntable The record she chose was Wynnie “Mr. Blues” Harris’s “All She Wants to Do Is Rock”, and according to an interview with Living Blues magazine in 1986, what she heard changed her life. “It was the most unusual, sincere and solid sound I’d ever heard,” she said. “I’d never heard anything with such rhythm and freedom.”

“So Lillian,” Webb continued, “being enterprising, set the rest of the records out on the counter and they sold like hot cakes. And she began to get more involved.” Lillian acquired more records and began selling them on a full-time basis. She made trips to New Orleans and Memphis to bring in more recordings and eventually the couple converted the hardware store into a record/furniture store called Record Mart-Furniture Bargains.

The store specialized in blues, gospel and what was then called “hillbilly” music. Between walk-ins and mail orders the business began to thrive. “The Record Mart became a very big mail-order business,” Webb said. “I didn’t know until recently how big a deal that was.” It wasn’t long before Lillian got the idea to record her own material using local talent. Lillian and Willard McMurry became the founders and owners of the Diamond Record Company, which released records on the Trumpet label. “God, I didn’t know what I was getting into,” Lillian said later.

What she was getting into was a pioneering position in the roots music recording industry. The label’s first releases were gospel recordings by the St. Andrews Gospelaires, a 3-piece jubilee group from the Enoch Grove Baptist Church, and the Southern Sons, who were the most popular and influential gospel groups performing during the early 50s in the Mississippi Delta. McMurry made many trips to the Delta to sign up talent, and on one she signed up a “harp” player who called himself Sonny Boy Williamson. Sonny Boy Had garnered a devoted following through his appearances on “King Biscuit Time” over station WFFA in Helena, Arkansas.

McMurry signed Sonny Boy to a contract in December, 1950. She did not learn until years later that his real name was Alex “Rice” Miller. Miller had appropriated the name of another highly-regarded harmonica-playing blues singer because he had once been convicted of stealing a mule from a neighbor. He had whitewashed the mule, which was a sure disguise for the animal until the next inevitable Delta downpour. With McMurry riding herd on him, Sonny Boy Williamson (II) turned out a string of blues standards, including “Eyesight to the Blind”, “Nine Below Zero” and “Red Hot Kisses”, written by Lillian herself. Sonny Boy also wrote a tribute to McMurry’s car, which was recorded as “Pontiac Blues”.

Edward Komara, former head of the Blues Archive at the University of Mississippi, said, “The main thing I remember about Lillian McMurry is her toughness, which was a combination of a low tolerance for bullshit and a lion-taming instinct. This toughness was not something she had to develop while running Trumpet. She may have well had it since birth. She was also born with a pageant-quality beauty, as evidenced by the published photos of her in her 50s, taken during the Trumpet years. But musicians and record industry people alike learned she was much more than a pretty face.”

However she came by it, Lillian McMurry’s toughness became a key asset in the rough-and-tumble world of the independent record business. Sonny Boy Williamson, her biggest star, was hard-drinking, cantankerous and prone to drunken brawling. Williamson also carried a knife and a gun and freely used profane language, but only once around Lillian. Legend has it that when Williamson began cursing in the studio one day, Lillian told him to leave. When he refused, McMurry took his own gun, which she had taken the precaution to relieve him of, marched him outside and sent him on his way. A much-humbled Williamson returned a couple of weeks later, and McMurry took him back in.

According to Webb, McMurry had problems with other artists as well. “She had Elmore James under contract, but Elmore had problems sticking to it. At one point, she got a tip-off and had to go to Canton to bust up a recording session that Elmore had no right to do. There’s actually a tape recording of a telephone conversation between Elmore and Lillian where he’s asking about coming back, and she said, ‘Well, Elmore, would you stand hitched?’ meaning would he honor a contract. But he never followed up on it.”

Elmore James’s only Trumpet recording, “Dust My Broom”, became a nation-wide hit and a classic in the blues repertoire. “She and Willard were visiting with my parents when I was in high school or junior high, and she was sitting there in the front room and I was dashing out the door with a vinyl copy of “Tommy” by The Who. And she said something like, ‘Oh, I thought the rock opera was an abortion,’ or an abomination or something like that. And I left thinking, ‘Well what does she know?’ but later I realized they recorded HER song wrong. She cut the original ‘Eyesight for the Blind’ but they did it in a minor key with a whole different feel and melody.”

But the Trumpet label was short-lived. Even with such brilliant talent stock as Jerry McCain, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup and Willie Love, competition with labels having deeper pockets eventually proved to be too much. According to blues aficionado Dr. Woody Sistrunk, “One of the biggest reasons Trumpet ended was that a large record distributor in Texas went broke. And back then, it was not cash for sale. A lot of business was on credit, especially as records became hits. If a record became a hit, you had to get it to a pressing plant, and no one had a pressing plant except for the big labels. You had to have it pressed, and if you didn’t get paid by your distributors, or one-stops as it were for stocking juke boxes at the time, you simply didn’t have any money to pay them off,” Sistrunk explained.

“At the very end of Trumpet, Sonny Boy Williamson was the biggest artist that the label had. His contract was traded to Buster Williams’ Plastic Products in Memphis as a trade for some of the label’s debts,” Sistrunk said. “Williams then turned over Sonny Boy’s contract to the Chess Brothers with options, who in turn picked up Sonny Boy and ran with him.”

After only five years (1951-56) in the business, this was Trumpet’s last note. “That was it, except for another $50,000 that Lillian and Willard had to absorb, which they did strictly through hard work,” Sistrunk said. “A lot of people don’t realize how important their studio was. Many of the records were cut at the old State Furniture Company at 211 State Street on the corner of State and Pearl. For a long time, they would cut records in the back room on Sunday afternoons with someone else’s equipment. But by 1954, they had a studio at 309 Farish Street where they were cutting a number of things. That was another big expense during 1953-54, and that set them back some as well.”

Lillian McMurry was a scrupulous businesswoman, a meticulous bookkeeper and obsessive when it came to royalties. “For eight years, I maintained her Trumpet papers at the Blues Archive,” Komara said, “and she never let a single detail slip by. She fought hard and successfully for the artists whose financial estates she assisted. She continued until her death to assist her Trumpet recording artists, scoundrels though they sometimes were. She demanded honesty and got honesty and delivery of contracted promises from them during the recording sessions, and in return she made sure they received what was due.”

Vitrice, Williard and Lillian McMurry in the 1980s (image via “Trumpet Records: Diamonds on Farish Street”, Marc W. Ryan)

“She knew about artists’ egos and she protected them, plus she knew about artists’ sufferings and made sure they all got paid,” Sistrunk said. Vitrice McMurry Rankin, Lillian and Willard’s daughter, said, “Mom was always a strong-willed and fierce person who fought for what was right, treated the musicians with a great deal of dignity and fought for their rights. She was incredibly cagey, and could deal with copyright lawyers on a level of legal think so that she was able to win most of the suits she brought. “

“She was actually close to graduating from Jackson School of Law when she met my Dad and got married, which seems untypical of her that she wouldn’t have gone ahead and finished school,” Rankin said. “She had that kind of steel clamp of a mind that could handle thousands and thousands of legal ramifications and technicalities and argue to the death. I think some of the settlements she got were just to get her off their backs because she was so utterly relentless in her pursuing of these people who did so much bold-faced thievery. She would tend to spend $10,000 to make $10,000. Who knows ultimately if financially it was worth it, but ethically it was, because so many people were vindicated.”

But McMurry’s upstanding business ethics were often sorely lacking in other recording business personalities of the 50s. And the demise of the Trumpet label may have been in part to unscrupulous machinations on the part of other record labels. “Lillian told me that there were some people who wanted to press her out of the business,” Sistrunk said. “And one big label allegedly said, ‘If you stock her labels, we won’t let you stock ours.’ This was a big label, and every jukebox carried this label, and it seemed pretty ugly.”

After McMurry got out of the music business, she still maintained a studio. According to Sistrunk, “’From the Bottom’ and a lot of the later Sonny Boy Williamson songs were recorded there, and she was the one ‘at the knobs’ when Earl King did ‘Those Lonely, Lonely Nights’ for Ace Records. ‘Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woofie Flu’ could very well have been recorded there as well.”

The impact of the Trumpet label on American music has been profound and lasting. “You can’t describe Trumpet’s contribution to music history strictly within a blues niche,” Sistrunk said. “You’d have to describe it in terms of the music of Mississippi that was not being recorded, that being gospel with the Southern Sons Gospel Quartet, that being Lucky Joe Almond, Jimmy Swan and all the other hillbilly artists and that being Sonny Boy Williamson and Willie Love with the blues.”

“All of those folded together are basically what made rock-and-roll as we know it. It’s all incredible.”

Charley Pride’s Baked Beans

As DA of Lafayette County in October, 1962, my father refused to sign a subpoena on the federal officers who guarded James Meredith at Ole Miss issued by a local grand jury for “disturbing the civil peace.”

He loved country music. He was raised on the likes of Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family and Roy Acuff; by the time I was ten, I knew damn near every one of Hank William’s songs by heart, and plenty of Loretta and Ernest as well. He also came to like a young singer named “Country Charley Pride” after hearing Pride’s first release in January 1966, “The Snakes Crawl at Night”.

Country music in the mid-1960s was–and largely still is–very much a white venue, so when my mother bought him an 8-track tape of Charley’s songs for him to listen to while he roared around in his new Mustang, she replaced the cover with one she made herself, something he wouldn’t look to hard at, a picture of a cowboy hat or something.

Then there came a day when they were driving somewhere or the other, and Daddy was singing along with Charley, and Momma  turned to him after the song was over and said, “Jess, did you know he’s black?” He snorted and said, “Oh, Barbara, don’t be silly. He’s a country boy from over in Quitman County.” Then she showed him the original label on the tape.

“Well, I’ll be damned,” he said.

Soon after that, Charley made headlines as the first black entertainer on the Grand Ole Opry since DeFord Bailey in 1941, and of course, Jess Jr. told everybody he had been listening to him for years.

Here’s Charley’s’s recipe for Sweet and Sour Baked Beans, which he probably got from a roadie. I found this recipe in Mississippi’s VIP Recipes. This cookbook was published by Phillips Printing in the Jackson area to support a local school; there’s no date and no mention of the school’s name, but the other 42 contributors include John Grisham, Faith Hill, Archie Manning, Walter Peyton, Jimmy Buffet and Mary Ann Mobley.

It’s nice to know our people help one another out even when they’re not at home.

Charlie Pride’s Sweet and Sour Baked Beans

8 bacon slices, pan fried until crisp, drained and crumbled
4 large onions, peeled and cut in rings
½ to one cup brown sugar (more if you like beans on the sweet side)
1 teaspoon dried mustard
½ teaspoon garlic powder (optional)
1 teaspoons salt
½ cup cider vinegar
1 one pound can green lima beans, drained
1 one pound can dark red kidney beans, drained
1 one pound can New England-style baked beans, undrained

Place onions in skillet. Add sugar, mustard, garlic powder and vinegar. Cook 20 minutes, uncovered. Add onion mixture to beans. Add crumbled bacon. Pour into 3-quart casserole. Bake in moderate over at 350 for one hour. Makes 12 servings.

Eggs Birmingham

This old egg-and-bread dish goes by many names. At my childhood table, it was known as eggs-in-a-basket. Later I found it was hens-in-a-nest, toad-in-the-hole by Brits, and one version simply called egg toast. But when I published a recipe for eggs-in-a-basket some time ago, the actress Susan McPhail pointed out that, “Tennessee Williams calls them ‘Eggs Birmingham’ in Baby Doll.”

Well, I’ll be damned (I thought). You’d think growing up less than 200 miles from Birmingham (Alabama), I’d know of eggs Birmingham; moreover, you’d think a Southern food writer with a degree in literature would have found this blip on his radar decades ago. But no. Fortunately, I happen to know a lot of people—like Susan—who are smarter than I am, which is bruising to my self-esteem, but provides me with some assurance of being well-informed, or at least the comforting illusion thereof.

Baby Doll (1956), produced and directed by Elia Kazan and starring Carroll Baker, Karl Malden and Eli Wallach, was shot on location at the Burrus House near Benoit, Mississippi, which at that time was in a state of considerable decay. Williams wrote the script, which was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay (Kazan claimed in his autobiography that Williams was only “half-heartedly” involved in the screenplay), drawing from his previous works 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, a 1946 one-act play that Williams referred to as “a Mississippi Delta comedy, and The Long Stay Cut Short, or, The Unsatisfactory Supper, a moving short drama about the turning out of an old servant, published in 1946 along with 4 other one-act plays in American Blues: Five Short Plays.

In 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, Jake, a middle-aged, shady cotton gin owner with antiquated equipment burns down the mill of the Syndicate Plantation, a rival in the cotton business where Silva Vicarro serves as Superintendent. Vicarro, who knows what happened but cannot prove it, gets revenge by raping Jake’s young and voluptuous but childlike and naïve wife Flora.

The Long Stay Cut Short, or, The Unsatisfactory Supper, depicts the story of Archie Lee and his Baby Doll Meighan (parallels of Jake and Flora in 27 Wagons Full of Cotton) who are reluctantly providing a home to Aunt Rose, an elderly relation who has been passed around among the family to house. An “unsatisfactory supper” cooked by Aunt Rose, who neglected to light the burner under the greens she’d put on the stove earlier. She offers to make eggs Birmingham to appease him.

ARCHIE LEE. What is eggs Birmingham?
 AUNT ROSE. Why, eggs Birmingham was Baby Doll’s daddy’s pet dish.
 ARCHIE LEE. That don’t answer my question.
 AUNT ROSE. (As though confiding a secret.) I’ll tell you how to pre- pare them.
 ARCHIE LEE. I don’t care how you prepare them, I just want to know what they are.
 AUNT ROSE. (Reasonably.) Well, Son, I can’t say what they are without telling how to prepare them. You cut some bread-slices and take the centers out of them. You put the bread-slices in a skillet with butter. Then into each cut-out center you drop one egg and on top of the eggs you put the cut-out centers.
 . . .
 ARCHIE LEE. (Roughly, his back still turned.) I don’t want Eggs Bir- mingham.
 BABY DOLL. He don’t want Eggs Birmingham and neither do I. But while we are talking, Aunt Rose-well-Archie Lee’s wondered and I’ve been wondering, too. . .
 AUNT ROSE. About what, Baby Doll?
 BABY DOLL. Well, as to whether or not you’ve—made any plans.
 AUNT ROSE. Plans?
 BABY DOLL. Yes, plans.
 AUNT ROSE. What kind of plans, Baby Doll?
 BABY DOLL. Why, plans for the future, Aunt Rose.

Rose, in despair, with characteristically Williamsian pathos, rushes to the yard to gather roses in an approaching storm: The blue dusk deepens to purpleand purple to black and the roar comes on with the force of a locomotive as AUNT ROSE’S figure is pushed toward the rose-bush.

In Baby Doll, “Aunt Rose Comfort” offers to make Archie Lee (Karl Malden) “my Eggs Birmingham” when he rejects her undercooked greens. Vaccaro (Wallach) offers to hire her to cook for him in her home and make eggs Birmingham for him there, a much more humane fate for Rose, but a move designed to needle Archie Lee, who asks, “Anything else around here you wanta take with yuh, Vacarro?” insinuating Baby Doll herself.

Armand Coullet, Mississippi Impressario

On Saturday, March 17, 1951, the stage of Jackson’s Civic Auditorium supported a cast of players the likes of which never had nor never since has tread the boards in the capital city. As the very Devil himself, Charles Laughton led Agnes Moorehead, Charles Boyer and Sir Cecil Hardwicke in a surprisingly successful enactment of Shaw’s “Don Juan in Hell”. The review in Sunday’s Clarion-Ledger (“‘Don Juan in Hell’ a Big Hit Here”) states that the Jackson audience was thrilled with “Agnes Moorehead’s amazing transformation from a woman of 77 at death to a lady of 27 in Hell”, adding that “Laughton stated categorically that he is not ‘the beefy bird of comic strip fame.’”  One year later, a Time magazine article stated that the production’s tour had amassed gross profits of over $1M.

The Jackson performance was engaged by a man who recognized not so much a shy hunger in the city as an earnest yearning not only for literature, but for music, for lights, for the engaged delight of people in a body; the laughter, the suspense, the applause: the man, Armand Coullet, provided Mississippi’s capitol with over three decades of dazzling entertainment.

According to Jackson historian Harry Brown, “About a decade after H. L. Mencken declared the South ‘The Sahara of the Bozart’, Armand Coullet arrived on the Jackson scene to do something about it. He quickly established himself as the city’s resident Frenchman, a position he proudly made the most of and which of course carried a certain primacy in cultural affairs. Mr. Coullet was actually from Algiers. but that was certainly close enough to the Riviera for Jackson society of the day. Eventually he became the town’s foremost impresario, bringing notable entertainers and productions not only to Jackson but to other cities in the region. The Coullets—his wife Magnolia was an accomplished vocalist as well as being Chair of Foreign Languages at Millsaps, and his son ‘Tink’ went on to the Broadway stage and beyond—were welcome in the very highest social circles, and Armand was a highly valued addition to any gathering. He naturally had an approving and charming eye for the ladies, but of course all with courtly decorum.”

Camille Saint-Saëns

Armand Coullet was born in 1899 to a well-to-do French family that had relocated to Algeria shortly after France conquered the North African country in the early 19th century. His father was a French civil servant. He attended public schools in Algiers, graduating from the French Government School of Topography. He also graduated from the Ecole Nationale des Beaux Arts with the Premier Prix in violin, conducting and orchestration. Advanced study in conducting and orchestration was completed with composer and conductor Camille Saint-Saëns, and and was later assistant to Saint-Saëns as concert master of the North African Symphony Orchestra.

He continued his violin studies in France at the Conservatoire de Paris; when Armand completed his musical training, his father and mother, Eugene and Marguerite, presented him with a fine violin made in 1667 by Francesco Ruggieri, who served as an apprentice in the workshops of Stradivarius. Coullet played first violin in the Opera House in Algiers for two years and directed his orchestra in the city’s leading hotels. He also served three years in a field artillery unit of the French Army during World War I.

Coullet came to the United States in 1924. In an interview fifty years later, he recalled, “The only thing I had was my violin and $27, but I had the world by the tail. When I got off the boat, there was an agent standing there who sked me in French if I played the violin. He gave me a job right there on the spot with the Boston Little Symphony.”

As concert master of the Boston Little Symphony Orchestra, Coullet traveled with the Chautauqua Tours, and for the next several years, he conducted his own orchestra in various New England resorts and spent a year as first violinist in the Roxy Theatre Orchestra in New York City. He first came south with various road shows and located at Palm, Beach, Florida with his own orchestra. He opened and directed the Academy of Music in West Palm Beach, with a faculty of 12 and an enrollment of 140 students. While in Palm Beach, Coullet regularly heard residents’ complaints about the town’s lack of theatrical offerings. Together with a local theater owner and three partners, Coullet contacted New York producer Lee Shubert and convinced him to send a touring company of “George White’s Scandals” to Palm Beach. The show was a hit and Coullet was bitten by the promoting bug. The itch would last the rest of his life

The devastating 1928 Okeechobee hurricane that practically destroyed West Palm Beach ended Coullet’s career there, and he went back to New York. While there, Hazel Chisholm, who was then working for Jackson radio station WJDX, called him to come to the city. When he arrived in the Jackson, he gave his two weeks’ notice his first day at the station. “I saw the town and thought, ‘Oh, my God,” Coullet recalled fifty years later. “It was so primitive. They had streetcars being pulled down Capitol Street by mules. I knew the town had potential, but potential was for the future. I wanted to leave immediately.”

But he was persuaded to stay, crediting his decision to the kindness of his employers. It was 1928, and in those days radio stations provided their own music. Coullet conducted a 14-piece orchestra for WJDX. He originated special instrumental and vocal programs in classical, semi-classical and popular music. He also met a young lady, Magnolia Simpson, from Madison, Mississippi, who was later to become Mrs. Coullet. Magnolia, Mrs. Sarah. B McLean, and Coullet broadcast every Sunday afternoon from the old Century Theatre the highly successful “Rice Dream House” program, sponsored by Rice Furniture.

Fellow musician and ofttimes traveling companion Muller Adkisson remembers, “During the Depression Armand played violin in the WPA orchestra and he said that’s what kept them going, what put food on their table. He had married Magnolia at some point in there. She taught both voice and Latin at Millsaps College. Later she taught German. WJDX’s original studio was in the Lamar Life building in one of the upper stories under the clock tower. Later when the Heidelberg Hotel added the upper six stories to their 12-story building, they added two stories that weren’t accessible by the elevator. WJDX moved there.”

In 1935, Coullet was instrumental in organizing the Jackson Symphony Orchestra and in 1937 he originated the All-Star Series (now a part of the Jackson Music Association). Coullet also found a theatrical vacuum in Jackson similar to the one in West Palm Beach so he again contacted Schubert, who persuaded New York agencies to place Jackson on their lists; it was a natural stop between Memphis and New Orleans, he reasoned with them.

“Because of union rules traveling shows could only travel so many miles a day,” Adkisson said, “so Armand was often able to bargain them down, get shows here, even though Jackson audiences weren’t that big and couldn’t afford the big shows. But often because of the rules somebody would call him up and say, ‘We have to have a show in Jackson, what can you pay us?’ And he got a lot of good shows here that way.”

His first Broadway production in Jackson was “Blossom Time” in 1935. Coullet later said, “(Being an impresario) might sound romantic and fascinating to some people, but it is hard work and full of worry.” After swinging the deal to bring “Blossom Time” he said he got the stage hand bill and it scared him so much he almost backed out.

Many names headlined his shows through the years: Tallulah Bankhead, Helen Hayes, Ethel Barrymore, Nelson Eddy, Jeanette McDonald, Bette Davis, Grace Moore, the Don Cossack Chorus, Bob Hope, Marion Anderson, Eva Le Gallienne, Joseph Szgeti, Fritz Kreisler, Richard Crooks, Albert Spalding, San Carlo Opra Company, NBC Opera Company, James Melton, Gladys Swarthout, Signumd Romberg, Nadine Conner and Guy Lombardo. His encounters with famous performers were brief, and he said, “you’d have to see them more than I do to feel that you know them.”

For over three decades, Armand Collet Associates sponsored shows in 15 cities and 12 states and across the South from El Paso to Birmingham, but beginning in the mid-1980s, Coullet limited himself to the presentation of Broadway theatre in Jackson and only a few other Southern cities. Included have been: “Hello, Dolly!”, “Fiddler on the Roof”, “Man of La Mancha”, “Zorba”, “My Fair Lady” (which ran for seven weeks), “Mame”, “Cabaret”, “1776”,  “Your Own Thing”, “I Do, I Do”, “George M” and a sneak appearance by Mantovani and his Orchestra. Coullet said he considered bringing the Beatles to Memphis in 1966 the crowning glory of his career, but his role in the Fab Four’s appearance at the Mid-South Coliseum can’t be substantiated.

“The big ones carry me,” Coullet once said, referring to smash hits such as “My Fair Lady” and “Hello, Dolly,” but he had his share of bombs. His biggest bust as a promoter was “Cabaret,” here. Coullet considered Grace Moore and Liberace his most glamorous stars. Liberace sold out twice.

“Armand always said how surprising it was to think of the large number of elderly women who came to Liberace’s performances,” Adkisson said. “It was a matter of sex appeal, or what they thought was sex appeal, since of course he was gay. Anyway, Liberace would invite the women in the audience to come backstage after the performances, and he’d wink and mug, and say, ‘Oh, what is your name, darling?’ and the woman would say like ‘Mary’ or something and Liberace would go, ‘Oh, my dear Mary!’ or something. Armand said the first time Liberace appeared in a city he might make a little money for his appearance, might even lose a little, but Liberace would come back two years later and the promoter would make a big profit. That was Liberace’s modus operandi, that he could tour successfully all over the country because he felt a responsibility to the local promoter. Armand had Liberace here three times with sold-out houses. The little old ladies would like up and Liberace would take an hour or more to schmooze with them.”

Even after decades living in Mississippi, Coullet retained his French accent. “It’s the one thing I’m stuck with and can’t lose,” he once said. “I’m not trying to lose it. It’s my natural way of speaking. You must realize that when I first came to this country, the only words of English I knew were ‘yes’ and ‘no’. I had to learn English by myself. I would read the newspapers and, when I found a word I didn’t know, I would write it on a little piece of paper and tack it on the wall. I’d see the word every day until I learned it, then I’d take it down. By that time, there would be 10 or more new ones.” Muller Adkisson recalls that when Coullet promoted shows in New Orleans and south Louisiana, he would give the promotional commercial in English, and then he would give it in French. “Of course people flocked to the shows because they loved hearing the promotions in their everyday speech. ”

In his last published interview, in May, 1977, the 79-year old Coullet, preparing for an upcoming season which was to include the touring company of the Broadway production of Welty’s “The Robber Bridegroom” as well as “My Fair Lady” and “Same Time Next Year”, said, “In this business you can’t slow down. If you slow down, you’re dead. It took me 40 years to build up the following I have. There’s no retirement for an impresario. I’ll be retired when they put me in a pine box. Sure, I’ve slowed down a little with age, but not so you can tell. You can’t kill a good Frenchman.”

Coullet died New Year’s Eve, 1983.

Coullet (r) with Nelson Eddy

Ars Voces: Eric Stracener – Playing for a Song

My dad and my brother played guitar, but I didn’t start playing until I was a senior at Millsaps, when I was doing an honors thesis that was driving me crazy. I was a huge music fan, but I’d never played anything. I was also writing things like any silly English major in college taking creative writing classes. I’d always liked music as much as or more than I did literature, and songs are easier to write than novels.

I grew up in Mobile, where my oldest and best friend, Will Kimbrough was a professional player, an original song-writing guy from the age of 16 on, an unbelievable record freak. And he was touring! He was our conduit for stuff like The Clash and The Jam; not as much punk as sort of punkish rock-and-roll. Not that I’d call The Clash punk; to me they’re the greatest rock-and-roll band ever. We were lucky there because one guy could change the field.

I’d been in a punk band in Mobile, “Joe Strange”, and I wrote songs then. We weren’t bad; we were okay. But I started playing on stage again when I was in school in Oxford. Law school was so boring, and I was around people who were so incredibly different from me. I was seven years older than most of them, for one thing, and they were all a bunch of Republican yuppies, who with a few exceptions just bored the shit out of me. So I hung out with the quirkier people in Oxford, and I think I wound up there for a reason.

I started writing songs because I knew I was never going to be a hot-shot guitar player; I couldn’t play “Stairway to Heaven”. I knew I was never going to be in a band because I was a great this or that, and I wasn’t going to be just another white dude playing in a blues band, I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to play “Mustang Sally”. I didn’t want to be hustling money for playing stuff that I had no business playing, so I didn’t, and for better or worse, this is what I started doing.

When I turned 30 my good friend Eileen Wallace sent me a book she made: she’d made everything, the binding, the paper, the cover. I started writing things in that, and I’ve never stopped. And I’ll tell you, the voice memo function on an iPhone has changed the way I write songs. Now if I’m doing something else, something boring, just driving, or maybe watching a game, I can hit the voice memo, and mumble some stuff, and keep it to work on later. It helps. You know how this is as a writer; it comes, and you only catch a tiny portion of it in the net. My favorite songwriter, Richard Thompson, carries a notebook with him everywhere. It just ups the odds of not losing something important.

When I’m writing songs just for me, as opposed as to for a band or someone else, I always tell myself they have to be okay just to play on an acoustic in front of people. Maybe that’s folk music; I don’t know. If they work like that, it’s okay because a lot of the time when I’m playing, it’s solo. I like to perform; it’s thrilling to play solo, but it’s kind of scary. I mean, it’s just you out there on the tightrope. It’s easier for me to play in front of 100 people I’ve never met than in front of 10 people I know. Denny Burkes is the best musician I know, so if I’m playing in front of Denny, it’s different. It’s like reading some of your stuff at a writer’s workshop instead of reading to a bunch of students. But I like it.

I can’t sing too great, I’m an okay guitar player; nobody’s going to ask me to be a singer in their band. The reason I play and sing is so that I can do my songs. I think once you find the way you get stuff out, if you find it, whether it’s building model planes or whatever, you’re lucky. I’m lucky in that I can write for myself; I don’t have to please anybody else. I don’t have a record executive breathing down my neck, so I can write whatever I want whenever I want. I think music is moving more away from a business and more into an avocation because anyone can make a record now, and hardly anyone can make any money because it’s all free. In a weird way, it’s going back to what it was like for people in the early 20th century when on Saturday nights people played music and traded songs just for the art, for the fun of it. That’s why I do it; I’ve made hundreds of dollars!

I’ve put out two albums. Neilson Hubbard produced the first two; Will Kimbrough will produce the next one. When I get into conversations over what I’m going to do, I always have people who’ll tell me, ‘Well, you need to market yourself; you need to do this, you need to do that …’ and I keep thinking, ‘Okay, why? So I can do what?’ Right now it makes me incredibly happy that I have people covering my songs; I can’t get a bigger compliment. I’ve gotten weird reviews from places like Holland and Belgium, but I think most of that is people see you’re from Mississippi, and they’re like ‘Yeah, yeah, Mississippi!’

I have some songs I’ve been working on for years. “Her Grief is a Man” came easily, out of a difficult situation. Some songs are from personal experience, some are just flat-out, straight-up fiction. I don’t know how that happens. I’ll be on a run, say, and the cadence of the run determines the meter of the song; it just starts. A lot of them start on the guitar. Inspiration is fleeting, but you can up the odds by picking up the guitar and playing one every now and then. You’ve got to work a little bit. If someone covers one of my songs and sends me a bunch of money, great; I’ve had some calls about songs being placed on television, and that hasn’t happened yet, but if it does, it’s great. I do want to make records, and it’s driving me crazy that I’ve not put one out in five years. I love “Leaves of Tennessee” and I have a few more I like very much in this batch. By my standards, it’s going to be a very good record, but it costs money and takes time, and I’ve had things to happen in my life which have made finding the money and time to make a record a relatively low priority.

My daughter, who is the best critic I have. She’ll come in, and I’ll be playing something, and she’ll ask, ‘Is that yours?’ ‘Yes,’ I’ll say, and usually she’ll go something like, ‘Meh,’ but the other day, I’ve got a new one that I just finished, and I heard her humming the chorus. And that’s when you know that it’s a hit; a hit is a hit, whether it hits your house or hits the world. People respond to a good song. What I think is my best stuff, some people don’t. There’s a song of mine called “Levee” that I thought was pretty good; I was trying to write something different, a two-step, and I’ve heard a lot of people tell me that’s the best thing I’ve ever written.

What I hope that means is that the more I write, the higher the bar is raised and that my weaker songs in the next batch will be better on average. And that’s a great thing.