Sunday, April 15, 2018

The Father of the Father - Prince McCoy Revealed in Photo

Newspaper article from October 2017

Even the father of the blues received
inspiration and tutelage from somewhere.
Nobody is calling Prince McCoy the grandfather of the blues, but if he influenced W.C. Handy, commonly called the “Father of the Blues,” then a good case can be made that this one-time janitor at the Bowman Gray School of Medicine is indeed a key player in the development of an American art form that helped give birth to rock ‘n’ roll, country and about every popular music form.

Today, in his childhood home of Greenville, Miss., McCoy will get a historical marker on the Mississippi Blues Trail, joining a roster of some of the most revered artists in all of American music, including Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Elvis Presley, John Lee Hooker and of course, Handy, who is credited with taking the blues to the mainstream with his compositions “St. Louis Blues,” “Yellowdog Blues” and “Beale Street Blues.”

Handy was an orchestra leader who played polished show tunes and marches. Though he was exposed to the blues in the late 1800s, he had what music historians call an “enlightenment” to the power of that music in the early 1900s.

In his 1941 autobiography, Handy wrote about playing a dance for white people at a courthouse in Cleveland, Miss. At one point, some people in the crowd asked Handy to play “some of our native music.”

Handy gave it a shot, but the crowd was not satisfied and asked instead if a local band could play, according to Jim O’Neal, a researcher for the blues trail.

A trio of ragged-looking musicians took the stage, led by a guitar player who Handy described as a “long-legged chocolate boy.” They commenced to rock the courthouse with a style of music that had the crowd dancing and tossing silver dollars at the stage in appreciation.

Handy stood on the sidelines amazed, not just at the music’s raw power, but the ecstatic reaction from the crowd. The scene, and others, convinced Handy that the music deserved a wider audience, O’Neal said.

“That showed him the beauty of primitive music,” O’Neal said. “It was not for the art of it, but for what it could do to a crowd.”
Early clue

The trio was left nameless, but Handy researcher Elliott Hurwitt has found at least four unpublished manuscripts of Handy’s autobiography that identify the “long-legged chocolate boy” as Prince McCoy, a popular band leader in the Mississippi Delta at the time.

For unknown reasons, McCoy’s name was stricken from the published autobiography, relegating him to obscurity.

Hurwitt’s discovery, which he made in 2006, has rekindled interest in McCoy. A historical marker at the site of the courthouse dance in Cleveland was unveiled in 2013, mentioning McCoy’s impact on Handy.

But for all his influence on Handy, little is known about McCoy.

“Basically, he’s a phantom at this point,” Hurwitt said.

He was born Prince Albert McCoy in Louisiana in 1882 and moved to Greenville, Miss., with his mother. At some point, he became a musician, leading an orchestra that played dances, civic functions, and even the Alabama-Ole Miss football game in 1910.

In 1927, he left Mississippi for Winston-Salem and married the former Carrie Young of Chester County, S.C.

He and Carrie first show up in the city directory in 1934, where he listed his occupation as a musician, living on East Eighth Street. O’Neal’s research shows that he played with an eight-piece orchestra that traveled with Maxey’s Medicine Show, entertaining the crowd with vaudeville songs.

“This was a big show on the scale of the larger minstrel shows with a fleet of vehicles carrying people around,” O’Neal said. “It was a free show, and Maxey would make his money trying to sell tonics to the crowd.”

O’Neal found one advertisement of the medicine show playing in Boston, giving McCoy, a product of the segregated South, a chance to see the country.

Around 1943, McCoy left music as a professional pursuit and became a janitor for the Bowman Gray School of Medicine, a position he held for several years. Late in life, he moved to Blair’s Rest Home on East Fourth Street, and died on Feb. 4, 1968, at the age of 85. He and Carrie, who died in 1962 at the age of 62, had no children, and no relatives have been found.

McCoy is buried at Evergreen Cemetery off New Walkertown Road, with his simple, nondescript grave marker engraved with the words: Prince McCoy, 1882-1968. The other day, it was mostly covered in fallen leaves and twigs and a film of sandy soil.

The Mississippi Blues Trail and Hurwitt are among those hungry for information on McCoy. He never published or recorded music, so there is no trail of documentation that could give glimpses into his musical career. There are anecdotes from Handy’s band that the music that McCoy played that night in Cleveland may have prompted Handy to record “Memphis Blues,” one of Handy’s biggest hits. But those recollections are murky and unverifiable, Hurwitt said.

It’s not even certain that the music McCoy played that night was the blues. McCoy was, after all, an orchestra leader, making it perhaps more likely that he was playing ragtime that night, and not the blues.

“(Handy) does say that McCoy’s band played a type of downhome music that influenced him and allowed him to see working-class black music as a source of material worth adapting and arranging and playing commercially,” Hurwitt said, “and that’s very big stuff.”

Looking for information on McCoy, O’Neal contacted the Winston-Salem Journal last week hoping readers might provide some information on McCoy or unearth a photograph that would, at least, put a face to a musician whose contributions have been lost to time.

Earlier this week, a librarian at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center’s Coy C. Carpenter Library flipped through stacks of company newsletters in search of McCoy and came across a photo from the January 1951 edition of Baptist Hospital News.

The frame was crowded with black men and women, most likely custodial employees, at a hospital Christmas party. Two women stand in front of a punch bowl, holiday trimmings at its base. A bald, bespectacled man towers over the crowd, a violin case tucked under his left arm. He is, indeed, long-legged.

The caption for the photo identifies him as someone who “proved his ability as a violinist for the occasion.”

It was Prince McCoy.

UPDATE - Winston-Salem Journal - January 6, 2018.

Alma Peay’s memories of Prince McCoy are somewhat hazy. After all, she was a young child of maybe 4 or 5 years old when she lived next to him in a duplex between Patterson Avenue and Chestnut Street in the 1950s.

A picture of the tall, bespectacled man that ran in the Winston-Salem Journal in October stirred her memories.

“I remember him playing fiddle,” said Peay, adding that he was quiet and kind.

Not much is known about McCoy, who died in 1968 at the age of 85. But music historians are hungry for information on the violinist, who set aside a professional music career to work as a janitor at Bowman Gray School of Medicine for several years.

The day the story ran in the Journal, the state of Mississippi erected a historical marker in Greenville, Miss., honoring McCoy’s contribution to the blues. The marker is part of the Mississippi Blues Trail, whose honorees also include B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf and Elvis Presley, among other musical pioneers. McCoy is credited with exposing W.C. Handy, the Father of the Blues, to the primitive style of music that was popular among working-class black people in the early 1900s.

Handy took the blues to the mainstream, which eventually led to the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, making McCoy an important footnote in America’s cultural history.

In his 1941 autobiography, Handy recalled seeing a “long-legged chocolate boy” in Cleveland, Miss., playing a raucous style of music that rocked the house. Unpublished manuscripts of the autobiography, discovered by Handy researcher, Elliott Hurwitt, indicate that the musician was McCoy, a popular band leader in the Mississippi Delta at the time.

That makes McCoy of considerable interest to blues scholars.

The problem is that they know so little about him. In an interview in October, Hurwitt called McCoy a “phantom” to researchers.

The trail on McCoy turned cold after he moved to Winston-Salem from the Deep South, in the late 1920s. He married Carrie Young, formerly of Chester, S.C., and worked as a musician before taking on steadier work as a janitor at what is know known as the Wake Forest University School of Medicine.

The blues trail folks in Mississippi hadn’t been able to find any photos of McCoy and no known recordings exist.

At the request of the Journal, librarians at the Coy C. Carpenter Library at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center scanned their records and came across the only known photo of McCoy from a company newsletter in January 1951. McCoy towers above several fellow employees at a Christmas party for the black employees, a violin case tucked under his left arm, indicating he had been part of the party’s music program.

Peay saw the photo and story in the Journal and recollected the tall, soft-spoken man who used to play his violin on the front porch of the duplex that the McCoys lived in, next to Peay and her mother and grandparents.

The McCoys and the Peays attended First Baptist Church, then on the corner of Sixth and Chestnut streets.

In December, Peay viewed a film that someone in the church made to commemorate the groundbreaking of its new home on Highland Avenue, on Jan. 26, 1947. It is remarkable footage, showing streams of churchgoers in long coats and hats, dressed in their Sunday finest on a cold and misty winter day. The sharp-eyed Peay spotted McCoy, playing in a small orchestra outside the site of the new church, a violin propped against his chin.

Unfortunately, there is no sound to the footage.

Peay watched the film again recently, with Rev. Paul Robeson Ford, the church’s new pastor.

As she watched people file out of the church and onto the sidewalk, she pointed to the ones that she knew. When the camera panned to McCoy, Peay identified the young clarinet player in front of him as Christine Hedgley, the daughter of the church’s pastor at the time, Rev. David Hedgley.

She is now Christine Hedgley Johnson, who lives in Santa Fe, N.M., after a long career with the U.S. Public Health Commissioned Corps. In the film, she was about 11 years old, and was a student at 14th Street Elementary School.

“In the black community at that time, if you played an instrument in the school band, you automatically played in the church band,” Johnson said last month.

She knew McCoy as a reserved man who played jazz gigs with local black musicians, including Harry Wheeler, a legendary band director at the old Atkins High School.

“Most of his music was outside the church. White people paid for him and his band to play gigs, their graduations and receptions and stuff like that,” Johnson said. “He did a lot of music for the doctors when they had receptions and Christmas parties.”

McCoy died on Feb. 4, 1968, at the age of 85, with his contributions to the larger world of music unknown until last year.

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