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.
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 my 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.
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.”
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.”
During the heyday of Prohibition, the speakeasy districts of New York and Chicago became dazzling gathering places, filled with music, dance, and drink (as well as a few bullets, mind you), as did similar areas in the South, notably Beale Street in Memphis and of course the French Quarter in New Orleans.
In Jackson, Mississippi, it was the Gold Coast. Also known as East Jackson or even “’cross the river”, the Gold Coast comprised the area of Rankin County directly over the Woodrow Wilson Bridge at the end of South Jefferson Street. Though barely two square miles, its infamy was nation-wide.
In 1939, H.L. Mencken’s The American Mercury, published a rollicking account of the Gold Coast, “Hooch and Homicide in Mississippi”, by Craddock Goins. “There is no coast except the hog-wallows of the river banks,” Goins wrote, “but plenty of gold courses those banks to the pockets of the most brazen clique of cutthroats and bootleggers that ever defied the law.”
Goins cites Pat Hudson as the first to see the possibilities of lucrative gambling near the junction of the two federal highways (Hwys. 80 and 49) across the river from Jackson where before then there were only gas stations, hot dog stands and liquor peddlers. Then San Seaney began selling branded liquor at his place, The Jeep, which soon became a headquarters for wholesale illegal booze.
Others sprang up like mushrooms. The sheriff of Rankin County did his best to restore some semblance of law, but as soon as he cleaned out one den of iniquity another opened. Not only that, he was severely beaten and hospitalized for two weeks after one raid, and he simply bided his time until his term ran out. Goins reported that whites and blacks were often together under the same roof then, albeit shooting craps and whiskey on the opposite sides of a thin partition.
This lawlessness did not pass unnoticed in the nearby state capitol. Governor Hugh White, who in December of 1936 ordered National Guard troops into a business on the Pearl owned by one Guysell McPhail. Liquor was seized as evidence that the place should be shut down, but a Rankin County chancellor later dismissed the case, ruling that the evidence had been illegally obtained and at any rate the local authorities, not the governor, should handle law enforcement
The Mississippi Supreme Court later overruled the decision, but by that time liquor was flowing and dice were rolling. The governor bided his time.
In the late 40s, a thriving black nightclub culture was in place. Places like the Blue Peacock, the Stamps Hotel (the only hotel in Mississippi that catered to Negros) with its famous Off-Beat Room, The Blue Flame, the Travelers Home and others, where national jazz and blues acts performed. These establishments ran advertisements in The Jackson Advocate, including one that offered a special bus from Farish and Hamilton.
By 1946, Rankin county was paying the highest black market tax in the state., but these high times came to a crashing end one hot day in August of 1946, when Seaney and Constable Norris Overby met at place called the Shady Rest and gunned each other down. Others had been killed, of course—often that big-ass catfish you hooked turned out to be someone you hadn’t seen in a while—but this double homicide so inflamed public opinion that illegal operations never dared be so blatant.
In the 50s, black businesses withered in the backlash against Brown vs. Board of Education, and the Gold Coast became dominated by a white gangster named “Big Red” Hydrick, who brought area as securely under his suzerainty as a corrupt satrap. Red’s little kingdom withered with urban sprawl.
Beale Street is back–sort of–and the French Quarter will–Dieu merci!–always be the French Quarter, but the Pearl’s Gold Coast is gone, lost in a little enclave under the interstate, a puzzle of gravel, asphalt, and weathered walls.
“Taps” is a song you learn as a kid. It sounds simple, but it has to be perfect because everyone knows it.
The first time I executed it was prior to my joining the military. I was teaching in Louisville. A young Marine had died, and they called the high school, wanting one of the kids to come and play. The band director called me and said that he thought it required a little more finesse than a student would have, so I went and played. It wasn’t a month later that another young Marine was killed, and I played at his funeral as well.
You have to be calm and focused. At first, you want to execute it right because you want to play well. But the family will often come and speak to the bugler. And when you look into their eyes for the first time, you realize from that point on that it’s not about performance, it’s beyond that.
When I say that little prayer before I play it’s not for me. It’s for them.
Chief Warrant Officer Robin Crawford Mississippi National Guard
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.
If you were to travel back in time to Constantinople’s Taksim Square in the 1920s, you might hear the lively beat from Club Maxim. Inside, you’d likely find a black man in a top hat, perhaps with a pipe in his hand. He might just tell you, as he did one tourist, how he’d overcome “difficulties that would stagger the ordinary man.”
This would be Frederick Bruce Thomas, known later in his life as Fyodor Fyodorovich Tomas, the Mississippi farm boy who became a Moscow impresario and introduced jazz to Asia.
Thomas was born June 12th, 1872 to Hannah and Lewis Thomas, who owned 600-plus acres in Coahoma County, Mississippi. In 1886, a white planter took over their land. Against all odds, the Thomas family sued the planter, and in what must have been one of the few successful cases for black landowners at the time, the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled in their favor. However, the planter appealed and, under threat, in 1890 the Thomas family decided to leave Mississippi and settle in Memphis. In late October, 1890, just a few months after moving the family to Memphis, where he took work as a flagman for the railroad, Lewis Thomas was hacked to death in bed by a jealous husband.
A short time later, Frederick Bruce Thomas, who’d only known life in the South, hopped on the rails, first to Arkansas, then to St. Louis, Chicago, and Brooklyn. He went to Europe in 1894, and in 1899, after crisscrossing the Continent, mastering French, and honing his skills as a waiter and valet, he signed on to accompany a nobleman to Russia.
Thomas’s career in Moscow proved to be more successful than he could ever have imagined. He found no color line in Moscow, where he worked for ten years as a waiter, a butler, and a valet, before becoming assistant to the owner of Yar, the city’s most prominent café-theatre. The Sokolovsky gypsy choir performed there on a regular basis and their songs about their years as slaves likely reminded him of his own people’s story.
Yar was frequented by the bourgeoisie of Moscow and Frederick Thomas became the darling of the wealthy clientele. By 1911 he had earned enough money to open an entertainment garden, “Aquarium,” with the help of two Russian partners. In 1912, he rented a music venue in the city center called “Maxim” which very quickly became popular with wealthy Muscovites.
In Russia, Thomas was one of only a dozen blacks. With his résumé of jobs in the finest European hotels and restaurants, he had the three things he needed most: opportunity, access and know-how. Ironically, he also had history on his side. The African Abraham Gannibal had been seen as “the dark star of the Enlightenment” in Russia as far back as the 18th century, and his great-grandson, Alexander Pushkin, became an icon of Russian literature.
With his talent for booking musical acts from Western Europe, Thomas’ night spots, Aquarium and Maxim, became the spots in which to be seen (and from which to disappear) during Russia’s late imperial era. Black performers visiting from the States remembered, everything was “gold and plush” so that “you would sink so deep in carpets that you would think that you would be going through the door to the cellar.”
Frederick Thomas blossomed in Moscow. He obtained Russian citizenship, was married three times and had five children. Around 1914, he bought a dacha near Odessa and he also owned buildings in Moscow. An African-American immigrant from Mississippi, the son of slaves, had made a fortune in Russia.
But when the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917, Thomas found himself on the wrong side. His newly acquired wealth trumped his past oppression as a black man in the United States. He went to Odessa, but the city was evacuated in April 1919 by the French and British forces allied to the White Army. He managed to embark with his wife Elvira, his children and other refugees on the Russian ship “Emperor Nicholas” bound for Constantinople.
Arriving in the Ottoman capital, he hastened to the American embassy to seek help, or even repatriation to the United States. Officials at the embassy refused to recognize his American nationality and therefore refused to help him; his skin color undoubtedly played a decisive role.
Having lost all his wealth, Frederick Thomas started to do business again in Constantinople, like many Russian refugees. After three months, he opened his Anglo-American Garden Villa (the “Stella Club”) on August 31, 1919, with acts by “Mr. F. Miller and Mr. Tom.” Thanks to his new establishment’s success, he rented the basement of the Magic cinema with gardens in Pera in 1921, and transformed it into a jazz and night club. He named it “Maxim” in memory of Maxim in Moscow which had allowed him to start his career in the entertainment world. Harry A. Carter and the Shimmie Orchestra to headlined the first season, 1921-22.
Though opening “Maxim” left Thomas on the verge of bankruptcy, business at last started to pick up. After the First World War, you had been an American tourist looking for a good time in Constantinople, you probably would’ve been directed across the Golden Horn to one of the popular Russian-Western, European-style “cafés chantant,” where you could order a drink (outside of Prohibition), sample the finest cuisine, listen to all kinds of music and dance.
Despite the economic and political upheavals of the crumbling Ottoman Empire, Frederick Thomas succeeded in making his establishment the most popular place in the city. He was the first person to import jazz to Turkey, and its popularity among the city’s natives and swarms of well-heeled tourists consolidated his success and made him rich once again. All those who remained of the Stanbuliot bourgeoisie, along with the English and French soldiers occupying the capital, hurried to listen to jazz at Maxim. Thomas became known as the “Sultan of Jazz.”
It’s astonishing that a black American who’d left the U.S. in 1894 and became a Russian citizen in 1914 was bringing America’s greatest music to the other side of the world by hosting black jazz bands in Constantinople before Louis Armstrong had even joined King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band. But Thomas had already done similar things for the tango in Russia, and whatever obstacles he had to overcome as a Russian refugee. Ottoman Turkish had no word for Negro. Thomas told those who visited his clubs “he was ‘conservatively rated to be worth at least $250,000,’ which would amount to $10 million today.
Then, during the first years of the Turkish Republic, business began to decline. Foreigners and a large part of the bourgeoisie had left the city, while embassies and their staff began to be transferred to the new capital, Ankara. Frederick Thomas plunged into debt. Unable to pay his creditors, they had him put in jail and seized his nightclub, which they renamed “Yeni Maksim”.
Frederick Thomas was never to recover. Although his skin color was of no concern to the Turks, he could not avoid dealing with the diplomats in the American Consulate General in Constantinople, or with their racist superiors in the State Department. When he most needed their help, they refused to recognize him as an American and to give him legal protection.
Abandoned by the United States, and caught between the xenophobia of the new Turkish Republic and his own extravagance, Thomas fell on hard times, was thrown into debtor’s prison, and died in Constantinople on July 12th, 1928 at Pasteur Hospital in Taksim. Forgotten by the Americans, Russians, Stanbuliots and all those he had entertained throughout Europe, Fyodor Fyodorovich Tomas was laid to rest at the Protestant Feriköy Cemetery in Istanbul, far away from the “most Southern place on earth.”
(Thomas’s biography, The Black Russian, by Vladimir Alexandrov, was released by Atlantic Monthly Press in 2013.)
Many Mississippians have become famous in the world of music as well as in the world at large: B.B. King, Muddy Waters, and Jimmy Rogers, not to mention Elvis Presley, but one Mississippian who is a titan in the sphere of 20th century music will likely never become known outside of a select group of musicians and musicologists for whom his works constitute a mind-boggling landmark in musical composition and theory.
In all honesty, as a somewhat tone-deaf wordsmith I can’t even begin to encompass the achievement of Milton Babbitt, which to the best of my understanding (another admittedly modest attribute) lies in that arcane area of human intellect where music and mathematics merge, a slope of Parnassus I’ll never attempt, much less scale. Perhaps my fellow laymen might be sufficiently impressed to know that among his many, many awards, Babbitt received a citation from the Pulitzer judges in 1982 “for his life’s work as a distinguished and seminal American composer”.
For all that his work was of the most esoteric nature and his accolades are of the highest order, Milton remained a down-to-earth sort of man, fond of baseball and beer, and like any good Southern boy (he claimed Mississippi as his home), ate grits every morning of his life when he could get them.
In a 2000 interview with Jason Otis of The Northside Sun, Babbitt said that his father moved to Jackson from Omaha where he was a mathematician at the University of Nebraska because C.W. Welty, Eudora’s father, made him an offer that according to Milton, “he couldn’t refuse. My being born in Philadelphia was the result of the fact that my mother was a Philadelphian and she would always go back to be with her parents when her children were born. So I and my two brothers were born in Philadelphia, but we all grew up in Jackson. My parents and a brother are buried there. Jackson was my home”
Two years later in an interview with American Public Media Babbitt said, “My early musical influences began in Jackson, Mississippi. Here I grew up, of course, and my first musical influence came from a violin teacher with whom I went to study at the age of 4. She gave me a violin, and as I practiced, I thought, this is exactly what I’d like to be doing in music—don’t ask me how or where—although I wasn’t really all that excited about the practicing. If you want an anecdote, I’ll tell you one. My teacher was a lovely and sophisticated woman who had studied with Leopold Auer.”
“I know you Yankees think that if you grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, you went around in bare feet, but we lived in a very cultivated crowd. Our public school was very sophisticated, and we were taught how to speak English in a very special way, because we were told that we were the last bastions of high culture. It was a little bit of that that brushed into everything. Anyway, my teacher, Ms. Hutchison, said one day to me, ‘Well, if you’re really interested in playing the violin, why don’t you see if this is the kind of music you might play?’ And she gave me the violin part of the Mendelsohn Violin Concerto, which I took home. Now this was a violin concerto that I had never heard performed; we didn’t have an orchestra, and remember records were very far and few between, so we didn’t have a record of the Mendelsohn Violin Concerto either. And I thought that if this was all that a violin concerto was, why couldn’t I write one of my own? So I started writing something I called ‘Violin Concerto for a Single Violin.’ I could’ve been very chic; I could’ve called it ‘Violin Concerto for Solo Violin,’ but I wasn’t that mature yet.”
“The truth of the matter is, after my experience with the violin concerto, I suddenly realized that the violin didn’t get you very far socially. Nobody really wanted you to play this damn solo violin. So I went to the local band director, the man who ran every band in town, the lovely, lovely Italian who didn’t speak very much English, but who had a very good musical background. Let me tell you, this is America, so I might as well tell you how he got there. He got to Jackson, Mississippi, from one of the smaller towns in Italy by virtue of a beautiful Mississippi girl who went to Italy to study voice—what else? That’s very American. She brought him back to Jackson where she thought he could be a big important person. Well, he was, relatively speaking. So I went to him, and I said I wanted to study the trumpet. And he said, ‘Why do you want to study the trumpet?’ I named all these jazz people of whom he had never heard who played trumpet or cornet. He said, ‘Look, you’re obviously interested in music. Play the clarinet because when you play band arrangements they have the violin parts, and you’ll learn a great deal about music, and you’ll learn a great deal more music that way.’”
“So I agreed and I took up the clarinet. That became my primary instrument. I played the clarinet and eventually saxophone. All throughout high school I played in every kind of band, everything from an imitation Guy Lombardo to an imitation Ben Pollock, which means, you know, the range from what would then be called popular music to jazz. My early influences, however, I must tell you, were largely in popular music—all kinds of popular music. And you’ll be amused to know that while I was in Jackson, Mississippi I never heard a note of country music. The country people are out there, but we’re not country people. We didn’t hear any country music. We never heard any blues either, though the blues virtually originated in Jackson, but that was not us. It didn’t have anything to do with race—by the way, that’s a great mistake—it had to do with education. We went to Davis School, which, well, you want me to tell you an anecdote about that? I’ll tell you because it involved somebody else who came from Jackson, Eudora Welty, with whom I grew up. Her father was the president of the insurance company of which my father was the actuary and vice president, so we literally grew up together. Eudora Welty went to the same public grammar school that I did, the Davis School, and you can guess which Davis that was: Jefferson Davis, of course. So anyhow, the story was that [Eudora] would go down to the ladies room where the students were in their little stalls, and our English teacher, Ms. Granbury, would come down there, and if she heard a single grammatical mistake in the conversation among these stalls, she would immediately tell them, ‘Go to my office when you have done what you have to do here.’ They would be reprimanded and disciplined.”
“So much of what we are is what we were,” Babbitt told Otis. “I spent my time in Jackson hearing and playing music that I would not have heard if I had grown up anywhere else. Jazz musicians from New Orleans would come up from the river and I often used to play with them on Saturday nights. Our music teacher didn’t play records for us because there weren’t any records to play. We learned to read music and to play music and to listen to music. It was extraordinary. It’s not the kind of musical education I would have gotten in New York, but then I was exposed to a great deal of jazz and popular music that I might not have been exposed to elsewhere.”