Sunday, March 29, 2020

Starkloff Saved St. Louis during the Pandemic of 1918

St. Louis Post Dispatch - July 9, 2006

The 1918 flu is the subject of "The Great Influenza," an award-winning history written by John M. Barry and published in 1994. 

Although the book mentions St. Louis only in passing, Barry said in a recent phone interview, "St. Louis was a very interesting place in 1918. Now it's being studied to see what we can learn - whether the city had aggressive leadership or just plain luck." 

Luck? William Stanhope of St. Louis University's School of Public Health says St. Louis was lucky, but not in the sense that the Spanish Flu merely brushed against the city in random fashion. 

'This city was incredibly lucky," says Stanhope, whose research has delved deeply into the city's flu response. The reason for St. Louis' luck: "It had a hard-nosed health commissioner - and it had a mayor with the guts to back up the health commissioner." 

Disaster in Philadelphia 

Stanhope thinks the Spanish Flu originated in Asia. Barry thinks it started closer to home, in southwestern Kansas, as a mild flu in the spring of 1918. 

In Barry's book, American soldiers bound for the battlefields of World War I carried the flu to France. Most experts agree that in Europe, the virus mutated into its killer form. Then it recrossed the Atlantic on naval ships, hitting the Eastern Seaboard in early September 1918. 

The flu came ashore in Boston, New York and, most hurtfully, in Philadelphia. In fact, in dealing with the flu, Philadelphia became a model of ineptitude. "They were tardy in everything they did," says Stanhope. 

Through ignorance, wishful thinking and a readiness to cave in to civic and business pressure, Philadelphia's leaders took a business-as-usual approach. The population paid dearly. 

For example: That city's movers and shakers had long planned a war-bond parade for Sept. 28. The spectacle was expected to draw a crowd of hundreds of thousands downtown - a ground zero for the flu. Even so, nobody in City Hall could muster the backbone to call it off. The crowds filled downtown Philadelphia. 

"And three days later," says Dr. William Kincaid of the St. Louis Health Department, "you couldn't find an empty hospital bed in all of Philadelphia." 

Today, Kincaid is what Starkloff was in 1918 - St. Louis' top health official. And back in September 1918, despite wartime censorship that tended to mute bad news, Starkloff sniffed out what was heading across America toward St. Louis that September. 

Mostly, the flu rode with soldiers and moving south and west from post to post, base to base. All accounts of the flu note that soldiers and sailors clustered in the age group that was hit hardest - people in their 20s and 30s. 

Typically, flu tends to kill the very young and the very old. The typical flu tends to spare young adults, whose immune systems work at peak efficiency. But the Spanish Flu hit the other way. 

When this alien species of flu invaded the lungs of a young adult with a strong immune system, that system went berserk in an effort to override the virus. "It set off a chemical cascade," says Stanhope. "People got acute respiratory distress syndrome - 'white lung' - and they died." 

In the fateful fall of 1918, Starkloff took pains to keep in touch with the Army doctors at Jefferson Barracks, then a bustling post of 6,000 soldiers. And sure enough, the flu seems to have arrived here on troop trains pulling into Jefferson Barracks. 

'A monster in a cage' 

On Oct. 1, 1918, the Post-Dispatch reported that nationwide, flu had infected 72,000 soldiers and sailors - no surprise, given the crowded barracks of that era. The same day's paper reported that officials at Jefferson Barracks were tight-lipped about the flu situation here. 

But nobody can keep a lid on news that ugly. On Oct. 4, Jefferson Barracks conceded that the flu had struck down 500-plus soldiers - one in every 12 on the post. 

Before long, the flu spread beyond the post's gates. A headline for Oct. 5 read, "Family of 7 Here Ill With Influenza." 

Starkloff pressed the mayor to take action, but Kiel straddled the issue. Although the aldermen got a bill giving the mayor emergency powers, Kiel said that using those powers would be premature. 

Things got worse over the weekend of Oct. 5-6. By Monday, Oct. 7, Jefferson Barracks had 900 sick soldiers, and in the city, 115 civilians were ailing. That same day, Starkloff rounded up the city's elite for a head-banging meeting in his office. Afterward, Kiel issued an emergency declaration that eventually: 

• Closed all schools. 

• Shut down theaters. 

• Barred public gatherings, such as banquets. 

• Shuttered churches. 

• Stopped dancing in hotels and cafes. 

• Suspended hospital visits. 

• Kept children from their playgrounds and library reading rooms 

• Canceled conventions. 

• Closed streetcars to straphangers. 

• Put a pox on Halloween. 

Before long, judges were suspending trials, Washington Louis universities were cancelling football games, and debutantes were putting weddings on hold. But by mid-month, the flu had stricken almost 3,200 St. Louisans, 69 of them fatally. 

(Among the dead was U.S. Rep. Jacob E. Meeker, R-St. Louis, a former Protestant minister who just 11 months before had divorced his wife. On his deathbed, he married his secretary.) 

Despite the deaths, Starkloff took grim comfort in the fact that the fatality rate was relatively low for St. Louis, then a city of 779,951. 

On Oct. 18, he noted that flu had killed just 2.85 St. Louisans out each 1,000 population. In contrast, Starkloff said, Chicago's rate for the previous week was 10.25 - and for the current week, 12.99. 

Still, a backlash built up. The Women's Christian Temperance Union groused that although schools and churches were closed, bars remained open. Retailers complained that Starkloff's rules were hurting business. Archbishop (later Cardinal) John Glennon leaned on Starkloff to reopen churches, albeit restricting worshippers to every other pew. 

Starkloff stood his ground. "The wisdom of this order has been proved by the small percentage of influenza infection in St. Louis," he said on Oct. 24. 

He had an ally in Kiel, who told Starkloff: "I don't want anyone to die. Therefore, I shall support you." (Kiel's counterpart in Kansas City fired his own activist health commissioner. In the end, Kansas City's death rate reached 7.1 - more than double the rate in St. Louis.) 

Another ally of Starkloff was Dr. Ellsworth Smith, president of the St. Louis Medical Society. On Nov. 1, Smith said, "We have got a monster in a cage. The question is, should we let him out and see if we can catch him again?" 

one last surge 

Starting Nov. 9, Starkloff imposed a four-day closure of all establishments except those "supplying sustenance, medical attention or the conduct of the war." Starkloff said the order "will have the effect of making every day appear like Sunday." It all but made downtown a ghost town. 

Although the order was to last four days only, St. Louis University's Stanhope theorizes that Starkloff meant it to last four days if it worked. Otherwise, it would last longer. "But the federal government torpedoed Starkloff," Stanhope says. The government said the broad rule was hampering the war effort, even though the war was rapidly ending. 

On Nov. 11, the Germans signed an armistice. That day, Starkloff let a downtown dry-goods store sell American flags to clamoring customers - but only if the clerks stood on the sidewalk outside the store. 

Within days of the armistice, schools reopened and the ban on dancing disappeared. On Nov. 18, Starkloff lifted the last vestiges of his closing order. 

Late in the month, the infection curve nosed again. Starkloff again closed and banned children from theaters. (Kirkwood took the school-closing notion further, closing Sunday schools as well.) But at month's end, St. Louis registered Case No. 20,000 since the emergency order of Oct. 7. 

The spike continued into December. Things hit a gruesome peak on Dec. 11, with 85 deaths from flu and pneumonia, a one-day record here. (The one-day record in Philadelphia: 759, on Oct. 10). 

On the plus side that same December day, 950 St. Louisans were reported cured, with only 534 newly infected. The disease seemed to be on the downward slope. 

Indeed, at year's end, the Spanish Flu simply petered out. In the week of Dec. 8 - 14, it killed 502 people, the worst week here. But in the week of Dec. 29-Jan. 4, the death total from flu and pneumonia fell to just 16. 

Stanhope says that after infecting more than 31,500 St. Louisans, the flu had finally worked its way through the vulnerable population. "It ran out of steam - out of new victims," he says. 

A civic milestone 

Nine decades ago, death at a young age was vastly more common than it is today. And the carnage of WW1 made early death an everyday fact of life. 

Maybe that explains why press accounts of the flu in St. Louis bore such a bloodless tone. On Dec. 10, the Post-Dispatch used three sentences of just-the-facts-please prose to tell about a cluster of heartbreak: 

"The bodies of Mrs. Clara Breunig, wife" of Anton Breunig, 2585West Hebert Street, her son, Edward, 5 years old, and her daughter, Dolores, 4 years old, all of whom died of influenza. will be forwarded to Hermann, Missouri, for interment 

"The boy died at 4:45 a.m. Friday, the mother at3:30p.m. Friday and the daughter at 3:15 p.m. Sunday. An older daughter, Agnes, and a 6-month-old baby are ill with influenza at St. Mary's infirmary." 

But Stanhope and Kincaid insist that without Starkloff's stubborn stand, the paper would have had to run page after page of such poignant prose. 

After Starkloff died in 1942, St. Louis renamed City Hospital in his honor. But right up until Max C. Starkloff Memorial Hospital closed in 1985, most St. Louisans kept calling the place “City Hospital.” 

Today, a city health clinic at Lemp and Shenandoah avenues bears Starkloff's name. Stanhope thinks Starkloff deserves more. 

"Butch O'Hare was a pilot from St. Louis and got a Medal of Honor in WWII and had a big airport in Chicago named for him," Stanhope "I'm not certain that on that scale, only a small health clinic Starkloff is equal.” 

To Stanhope, Starkloff was a towering hero in the war against the Spanish Flu—and now is winning national recognition as such. Stanhope says that in St. Louis, Starkloff's story "should be every bit as much a part of civic pride as the 1904 World's Fair or the Gashouse Gang."

Friday, March 27, 2020

Rochester Blues Artist: Joe Beard

Joe Beard
A club in Chicago. A jam session. It's 1967, maybe '68, and Joe Beard is playing a John Lee Hooker song, "Sallie Mae."

"There was a guy standing at the bottom of the stairs," Beard says. "He had one of his arms in a cast. Watching every note I hit. And after I'm done playing, he comes up and says to me, 'Where did you learn to play like that? You play that better than John Lee Hooker.' I said, 'I learned it from John Lee Hooker.'

"And he says to me, I am John Lee Hooker.'"

A lot of guitarists probably learned a few licks by listening to John Lee Hooker records, but Hooker didn't turn up at their shows. Beard is a cool blues star in that cosmos. The music, and the historic musicians who created it, have been drawn to his modest gravitational pull.

There was B. B. King, before Beard himself ever thought to pick up a guitar.

And Albert King. "Albert King liked nobody," Beard says. "Nobody could deal with Albert King. He and I were best of friends.''

And Little Milton, "he didn't socialize well with people," Beard says. Except Beard.

And, "Bobby 'Blue' Bland, every time he was in the area, I'm the guy he wanted to open the show for him."

And Buddy Guy. Beard toured with Guy and Junior Wells a lot. When Guy played Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre at last year's Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival, Beard was hanging out backstage. Guy called him out, and they played Gambler's Blues together. "He wanted me to do more," Beard says. "But I didn't want to."

Joe Beard, a mild-mannered electrician from Rochester, says no to Buddy Guy, perhaps the biggest
name of living bluesmen. Duke Robillard, Ronnie Earl, Luther Allison - Beard knows those guys. Or sadly, in many cases, he knew them. A world of blues. How Beard got there, he confesses, "I really don't know myself how that happened."

Beard is Rochester's neighborhood blues legend, living right off Genesee Street. Maybe you'll see him eating breakfast with his brother Jim at the nearby Chili Family Diner, everyone there knows him. Or you'll see him getting his hair cut at Nels on Ball's Barber Shop, at Columbia and Jefferson avenues.

Beard joins the Rochester Music Hall of Fame on Sunday. He, classical composer Sam Adler, Gary Lewis of Gary Lewis & the Playboys, are the members of this sixth class of inductees to have lived to see it happen. DJ Roger McCall, Penny Arcade owner Greg Sullivan and Blood, Sweat & Tears trumpeter Lew Soloff are fine, fond memories.

They'll be serenaded at Sunday's celebratory concert at Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre by, among others, Blood Sweat & Tears singer David Clayton-Thomas and Paul Shaffer, the former band director for David Letterman and a good friend of Soloff. Lewis will perform, so you get to hear "This Diamond Ring" from the source. And Beard plays as well, accompanied by two of his blues-guitar sons, Chris and Duane. They, and Beard's daughters Celestine and Lorie, were the counterweights that kept Beard's life in balance.

"I enjoy music more than anything in the world," Beard says. "But the kids came first." 

Beard learned this long before he ever picked up a guitar.

He was born in 1938 in Ashland, Mississippi. A start in life that's almost a blues cliche, but that was Depression-era America. Beard was the last of 11 kids, and by the time he was 6 years old his father was a widowed black sharecropper who drank hard. Beard's father didn't play guitar, but a lot of the guys who did came around at night. "They would come to get drunk and entertain themselves," Beard says.

That included Floyd Murphy, a few years older than Beard, and Floyd's brother Matt, who was Beard's age. Both guitarists. Floyd went on to play with many of the greats on the Memphis blues scene. Matt "Guitar" Murphy ended up in Chicago, joining with all of the big names there, although a lot of people remember him as playing Aretha Franklin's husband in the film The Blues Brothers. "Him and R.L. Burnside were best of friends," Beard says. So Burnside would show up as well, a young guy who decades later would emerge as an electric country bluesman whose career included opening a tour for The Beastie Boys.

And Nathan Beauregard, a blind guitarist and singer who no one paid much attention to at the time. "When I was a child, I used to lead him around to the house parties and fish fries," Beard says. "I was his eyes." Beauregard was one of those old bluesmen rediscovered in the 1960s by dogged music enthusiasts, and given a chance to perform and record the music before time ran out.

Beard grew up in this cauldron of the blues, but he never picked up a guitar himself. His mother had died of a heart attack, and with all of the booze around the house and erratic parenting he was getting passed around among his older siblings.

He was 11, in 1950, when he followed his brother Jim and sister Sarah to Memphis.

That didn't get him away from the blues, of course. Memphis is the blues.

Sarah started dating a young radio DJ and promising bluesman who was playing a regular gig at The Roosevelt Lake Club. The guy's name was Riley, but he went by B.B., and one day he treated Sarah and her young brother to dinner at a downtown Memphis rib restaurant. Beard broke a front tooth on a rib. "It didn't hurt until I was 20," he says. "It's the only tooth I've ever had pulled. I blame B.B. King for that."

Despite being around B.B. King and the Murphys, who leaped into that Memphis scene as well, Beard still wasn't playing guitar, although he was developing some opinions on the blues. "I really didn't care for his style that much," he confesses of King.

And something else was holding him hack. "I was a sickly kid," Beard admits. His legs swelled with no explanation. And he once dropped into a coma for about eight days. "To this day, no one has ever told me why," he says.

In 1956, the 17-year-old Beard, three of his brothers, and Sarah and her husband, moved to Rochester to open a franchise in the prefab-brick exterior company they'd been working for. Beard did make a quick return to Memphis after a few months to marry the girl who had lived next door to his sister, and brought Mary back to Rochester with him.

He was starting a family, and Rochester's hold on Beard solidified. Strong Hospital solved the mystery of the swelling in his legs: bad circulation.

Over time, Beard and his brothers went out on their own, Beard Construction. Joe was the electrician. Ishmael, the carpenter. Walter, the painter. Willie, the plumber. Jim, the mason. 

And it was only when he got to Rochester that Joe Beard started playing guitar. He picked it up naturally, having marinated through those early years in the sounds of the Mississippi Delta, and then Memphis with B.B. King.

Joe and Mary had settled in on Troupe Street in Corn Hill, a thriving community of black culture. Clubs and businesses lined both sides of Clarissa Street, including the local legend, The Pythodd Club. One night in 1965, Beard met a young soul singer and guitarist named John Ellison. Just another guy standing outside of a Clarissa Street liquor store who wanted to start a band. "He didn't want a job, he didn't want to work, he just wanted to play music," Beard says. So he bought a Gibson bass, and with drummer Lincoln Day they were a trio. Playing the clubs on Joseph Avenue, and the K&T Tavern and BK's Lounge with Bobby "Blue" Bland and Albert King.

"John was singing James Brown, all of this stuff," Beard says. "I enjoyed playing the music, but I really didn't like the music. I was into Lightin' Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, people like that." 

Nevertheless, they tested themselves in Chicago. Playing the clubs, and jam sessions with Sonny Boy Williamson and Muddy Waters. Yet one night at the 3030 Club, "they really wasn't into what John was doing," Beard says. "So he said to me, 'Why don't you do some of the Jimmy Reed stuff?'"

Jimmy Reed. An influential electric bluesman of the day. "It was like a brand-new audience," Beard says. "It was like they were waiting for it to happen."

From there, "I had opportunities," Beard says. "But with four kids .... "

He remained close to the blues, literally. By 1964, Beard and his wife had moved to the other side of Corn Hill, to Grieg Street. The old man with a bottle of wine sitting on the porch next door spotted Beard with a guitar one day and asked about it. Beard didn't know much about him, except he was also from Mississippi and had some stories about long-ago bluesmen like Charlie Patton. The old man turned out to be Son House. Like Nathan Beauregard, the white-blues fans tracked him down that year after decades of anonymity, and House's career enjoyed an exhilarating revival.

Beard was playing bass in 1971 with Friends of the Blues, a band that featured Rockin' Red Palmer on blues harp and vocals, and a teenage guitarist named John Mooney, who grew up in Honeoye Falls but dropped out of high school to play the blues. It was Beard who introduced Mooney to House, who became a blues Yoda to the kid. Today, Mooney might he the most Son House-sounding of modern bluesmen, with the big voice and twangy National Steel guitar. That's how the blues gets passed along.

Being self-employed, at least Beard could get away some. Chicago and New York City, mostly. He toured with Guy and Wells in the mid-'80s, including a show at Red Creek in Henrietta. Road veterans such as Luther Allison would book a show here on Saturday and stay around to join Beard at his regular Sunday-night gig at the House of Blues at Jefferson avenue and Clifton Street.

Bluesmen hanging out with Beard, that was a common-enough occurrence. Matt "Guitar" Murphy came to town and stayed a while. Albert King spent a week with Beard, hitting a club at Village Gate Square. No one recognized King, listening as a local band played King's "Crosscut Saw."

"Joe you hear that?" King exclaimed. They'd just butchered his song, he said. Except King phrased it in the more-colorful language of a bluesman.

There's a consistency in the 79-year-old Beard, he's grounded. This summer, he and Mary, the woman he brought back with him from Memphis, will celebrate their 61st anniversary.

"Everybody knew Albert King was a mean, evil guy," Beard says. With his relaxed persona, Beard was there to steady him. A Bluesman whisperer. That was his role among these often out-of-control souls. But there's only so much a man can do. There was the night at a club in Rhode Island, on the road with Guy and Wells.

"Junior was drunk," Beard says. "Instead of him doing what he's hired to do, he started talking about all of the expensive rugs on the stage. After the show, we go in the hack room to settle up. The club owner sets aside a pile of money for Buddy, and one for me. Then he says, 'Junior Wells? I ain't giving him a dime.' 

"I'm glad I never let myself go in that direction," Beard says. "I'll have a glass of wine. But a lot of the older guys believed if they didn't get drunk on liquor, they couldn't play. That's the way they thought. Buddy Guy, Junior Wells-that's what they did."

Beard was the cooly elegant sideman, his 6-foot-4 body in its familiar three-piece suit, sometimes smoking a cigarette out of a holder. It wasn't until 1990 that he released his first album, No More Cherry Blues. Six years later, Ronnie Earl & the Broadcasters and saxophonist David "Fathead" Newman backed Beard on Blues Union. "Noooooo, ahhhh don't like chicken, but ahhhh own a big fat hen," he moans in the opening seconds over an ambling, twangy guitar.

Noooooo, ahhhh don't like chicken,
but ahhhh own a bigfat hen.
You know she cackles
for me, but she lays for the other men.

Now that is a blues record. Beard goes back to that night at Chicago's 3030 Club to play a Jimmy Reed song on the album; Beard's singing is a lot like Reed, relaxed yet emotion-laden. And on Blues Union Beard also reaches back to that night John Lee Hooker told Beard he played "Sallie Mae" better than John Lee Hooker. "He told me, 'If you ever go into a studio, record that song for me,"' Beard says. And he did so, for Blues Union.

Beard released For Real two years later and Dealin' in 2000, both with Robillard and Muddy Waters harmonica player Jerry Portnoy.

So recording-wise, Beard was a late bloomer. From that early trio that grew out of a conversation outside of a Com Hill liquor store, Ellison got off to a much-quicker start. He wrote and sang the lead on "Some Kind of Wonderful" in 1967 with a The Soul Brothers Six, and has lived well off the royalties after others recorded it, including Grand Funk Railroad. 

Lincoln Day was not so fortunate, "He died of an overdose," Beard says. 

Son House's drinking was legendary. Jimmy Reed was a major influence to The Rolling Stones, but he was raging alcoholic, a life that likely prevented him from becoming a major figure in blues history. That's the blues, the life on the road, the temptations at hand while playing the clubs. "Everything you think you want is there," Beard says.

He wanted something else.

"I knew from Day One I could never be a Matt Murphy or a B.B. King," Beard says. "Everybody picks up a guitar and the first note they hit is B.B King. That's a one-time guy. B.B. King, Freddie King, Albert King, there won't be no more. Buddy Guy said to me, 'You're the only guy that don't want to be a B.B. King. A Freddie King.'

"No matter how had you are, be yourself. I'm not getting onstage to be somebody else."

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

The Unearthed Headstone of a Rock N' Roll Legend

© Robert Birdsong
Jackie Brenston—the singer/saxophone player who, along with Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm, recorded the epic 1951 hit “Rocket 88,” the first ever No.1 hit on Chess Records, which some scholars consider one the first recorded rock ‘n roll songs—was thought to have been buried in an unmarked grave at Heavenly Rest Cemetery in the small hamlet of Lyon, just outside his hometown of Clarksdale, Mississippi. According to his obituary in the Clarksdale Press Register, Brenston suffered a heart attack and died at the Kennedy V.A. Hospital in Memphis on December 15, 1979. Reverend X.L. Williams presided over his funeral at Damascus M.B. Church on December 23, 1979, and the Delta Burial Corporation, of Clarksdale, subsequently buried the World War II veteran in the military section of Heavenly Rest Cemetery.[i] Living Blues magazine editor Jim O’Neal, who conducted two interviews with Brenston in the 1970s, visited the burial site shortly thereafter and photographed his temporary grave marker—a small metal plaque displaying a card on which someone typed his death date and his name, “Mr. Jackie Brenston.” Until recently, it was believed to have been his only grave marker.

© Jim O’Neal 1979
Having recently assisted the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund in the unearthing the long lost military headstone of eminent blues fiddler Henry “Son” Simms, Clarksdale native and local historian Robert Birdsong developed a renewed sense of determination in the winter months of 2014/2015. He never thought such a discovery was possible. He had spent much of his spare time digging through county records, scrolling through old newspapers, and traipsing through overgrown cemeteries in search of the unmarked graves of his blues heroes, but his exhaustive efforts had amounted to only a single discovery—the unmarked grave of Big John Wrencher, located not far coincidentally from the headstone of Simms at Shufordville Historic Cemetery in Lyon. The seemingly impossible discovery of Simm’s headstone, indeed, transformed Birdsong’s dismay into energetic optimism, activating his expectant quest to find the supposed unmarked grave of Jackie Brenston.

Armed with biographical knowledge and a local obituary, he visited the late Myrtle Messenger, caretaker and manager of Heavenly Rest Cemetery, who directed him to the section reserved for the military. Birdsong inspected the veterans’ graves and noticed several interesting gaps in the rows of markers. Believing that some of the open spaces might be the result of markers sinking into the earth, he procured a long probe and started penetrating the ground in suspicious areas. It did not take long, much to his delight, to find an unidentified object under the surface. Utilizing his reliable shovel, Birdsong excavated the flat, metal headstone of an army private who had served in World War II. His eyes widened as he read the raised letters at the top, which spelled the name “Jack Brenston.” 

© Jim O'Neal 1979
While the birth date on the marker, August 24, 1928, corresponds with the date recorded in his army enlistment records, Brenston’s date of birth has been the subject of some debate.[ii] In a 1974 interview, Brenston told Jim O’Neal and Amy van Singel that he was born on August 24, 1927—the same date as the marker only a year earlier. His obituary in the Clarksdale Press Register, however, lists his birthdate as August 15, 1930.[iii] O’Neal suggests a potential explanation for the discrepancies in his lengthy obituary for Living Blues, in which he argues that Brenston falsified his birth date to qualify for the armed services in 1944.[iv] A survey of secondary scholarship supports O’Neal’s theory in revealing the prevalence of false information volunteered by enlistees during World War II. A deeper analysis of his military enlistment records and personal interviews, moreover, suggests his mother, Ethel Brenston, likely falsified information to enlist her problematic teenage son in the military. 

Jackie Brenston (c. 1952) 
Brenston was admittedly unruly in his youth; he ran away from home several times in the early 1940s. With the nation embroiled in the bloody carnage of World War II, the rebellious fifteen-year-old returned home from his most recent escape attempt and volunteered—much to the delight of his mother, who, Brenston recalled, had to provide guardian approval for her underage son—to enlist in the army. The military, by law, did not accept anyone under the age of seventeen, but some scholars have pointed out that “underage enlistment was relatively common” in the 1940s.[v] Brenston claimed to have served for over three years in the 82nd Airborne, but the Department of Veterans Affairs recorded his enlistment date as January 10, 1946, and his release date as December 18, 1946, which amounted to less than one year of service. Considering that scores of “underage recruits” managed to enlist “through elaborate schemes, cleverly altered documents, and with assistance from military recruiters and parents,” Ethel Brenston likely volunteered her uncontrollable son for military service, perhaps even with the help of recruiters, who knowingly falsified his enlistment records. It remains difficult to discern, however, the exact length of time Brenston spent in the military during the 1940s.[vi].

After unearthing and placing the small, flat military marker of Brenston back on top of his grave, Birdsong realized it was especially vulnerable to souvenir-seeking tourists, many of whom flocked to Clarksdale each year to visit local clubs, attend festivals, and visit historic sites. He, therefore, contacted Coahoma County Coroner Scotty Meredith, who operates a local monument company and previously donated the headstone for Big John Wrencher, and talked him into mounting the military marker on top of a granite base. Never thought to have existed, the military headstone of Jackie Brenston now sits securely atop his grave in Heavenly Rest Cemetery. The burial ground, which awaits its turn to receive a historical marker on the Mississippi Blues Trail, also contains the unmarked grave of saxophone player Raymond Hill, who performed alongside Brenston in Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm.

© Robert Birdsong

i] “Jackie Brenston Burial Sunday,” Clarksdale (MS) Press-Register, Dec 21, 1979, 2A.

[ii] Jackie Brenston, interview by Jim and Amy O’Neal, November 11, 1974, “Subject File: Jackie Brenston,” Blues Archive, University of Mississippi.

[iii] “Jackie Brenston Burial Sunday,” Clarksdale (MS) Press-Register, Dec 21, 1979, 2A.

[iv] Jim O’Neal, “Jackie Brenston,” Living Blues 45/46 (Spring 1980): 18.

[v] See Melinda L. Pash, In the Shadow of the Greatest Generation: The Americans Who Fought the Korean War (New York: NYU Press, 2012), 230 note 4; and Colin Campbell, “For Some Veterans, Underage Enlistment is Point of Pride,” The Baltimore (MD) Sun, Nov 10, 2013, [accessed March 29, 2015].

[vi] Joshua Ryan Pollarine, “Children at War: Underage Americans Illegally Fighting the Second World War,” thesis, The University of Montana, 2008, p.2.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

I Shook Hands with Nathan Beauregard

By Dave Wood
(originally published as "Twisted Spine Tom Straightens Out" in Sailor's Delight November 3, 1982)

It was Friday afternoon in Mortician's Crotch, Alabama, (there is no Mortician's Crotch, Alabama) so of course, it was raining fish (it has never actually rained fish anywhere and never will, thus evidencing that this story is fiction). The sun hung low and a little to the left. On Main street an old man was picking his teeth. 

"Gimme the green set in the pickle jar behind the safety razor", he told the pawnbroker. 

He handed over a dollar and, due to the fact that the teeth were a half a dozen sizes too big left the store with a broad and beautiful smile upon his face; As he started to cross the street he heard and saw a car approaching. It was a black Ford sedan with New York plates, Dixie cups and flying saucers. At the wheel sat a young man with steel-rimmed glasses, a chin a little obscured by what may have been steam or the promise of a beard, and a faded blue sweatshirt which bore the legend “I SHOOK HANDS WITH NATHAN BEAUREGARD - MEHPHIS 1968 " 

As the car drew level with the old man it stopped and the young driver leaned out of the open window and spoke. 

Excuse me,” he said, “I’m looking for a blues singer.” 

Sunday, March 22, 2020

The First Blues Memorial in Mississippi - 1976

The Clarksdale (MS) Press Register July 29, 1976.
By Ken Faulkner

On the morning of July 28, 1976, a small group of residents in Tutwiler gathered at the park where the town railroad station once stood to honor an event that changed the course of the life of the American composer W.C. Handy. By his own account, Tutwiler was the place where he discovered "the blues." As part of the national Bicentennial Celebration, the National Music Council selected 200 national music landmarks. Tutwiler was selected as one of those sites. In a brief ceremony, a couple of white women--the president of the Mississippi Federation of Music and the Mississippi coordinator of the Bicentennial Parade of American Music--presented a plaque to the white mayor of the town of Tutwiler to commemorate the event. 

I know the Yellow Dog District like a book 
Indeed I know the route that Rider took 
Ev'ry cross-tie, bayou, burg an' bog 
Way down where the Southern cross' the Dog 

"One night at Tutwiler, as I nodded in the railroad station while waiting for a train that had been delayed nine hours, life suddenly took me by the shoulders and wakened me with a start. A lean, loose-jointed Negro had commenced plunking a guitar beside me while t slept. His clothes were rags; his feet peeped out of his shoes. His face had on it some of the sadness of the ages. As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of a guitar. The effect was unforgettable. His song, too, struck me instantly."

"Goin' where the Southern cross' the Dog." 

Thus W.C. Handy describes the moment when he first became aware of the value of the Negro folk music which he later adapted and popularized as "The Blues." Prior to that moment, Handy had been a band director and composer of the more traditional types of music popular around the turn of the century — waltzes, two-steps, etc. 

He now is known throughout the world as the “father of the blues." Handy, who lived in Clarksdale from 1903 to 1908, then moved to Memphis and Beale Street, traveled throughout the Delta playing at both white and black dances. He is still remembered by a few people. 

Dr. T.F. Clay, at 90 one of the oldest residents of Tutwiler, remembers dancing to Handy's music as a young man. "In those days every time a new store opened they would have a dance, and Handy played at many of them. But he didn't play the blues then, he was living in Clarksdale. He didn't start the blues until he went to Memphis." 

"He would come down on the train with his band and they would play all night. He'd get maybe $40 or $50, not like today with bands getting $500 or more. Handy moved to Clarksdale and the Delta at the invitation of another black man, S.L. "Stack" Mangham, who was mail clerk at the old Planters Bank and a member of an all-black band called The Knights of Pythias. Mangham had heard about Handy from a friend and invited him to Clarksdale to direct the hand. 

"I came to know by heart every foot of the Delta, from Clarksdale to Lambert on the Dog and Yazoo City railroads. I could call every flat stop, water tower and pig path on the Peavine with my eyes closed," Handy relates in his biography, The Father of the Blues. 

Joe Campassi, who at 83 is still energetic and alert, remembers his good friend W.C. Handy quite well. Campassi knew Handy both in Memphis and Clarksdale. "He was one of the finest men I've ever known," he relates, and is proud of his copy of Handy's autobiography with a personal note from the author. 

"In those days, everybody who knew him called him "Fess." 

"We were both working at a saloon called Pee Wee's on Beale Street in Memphis when Handy wrote the Memphis Blues. But then it was called ‘Mister Crump.' We were having an election for Mayor and Handy was hired by E.H. Crump to help get in the votes All the candidates had bands, but Handy wrote this song 'Mister Crump' and Crump won the election. He later changed the name of the song to "Memphis Blues". It was the first. 

"I was young in those days, 1910, only 16, helping manage Pee Wee's saloon, and selling policy (a gambling game also known as Louisianna Lottery).- "I moved back to Clarksdale later, but Handy would still come down to play for dances, and we would get together." 

Handy later moved to New York. When he wrote his autobiography, he thought of his friend, Joe Campassi, and sent him a copy. 

Mrs. G.T. Thomas, who lives at 504 Sunflower, won't confess her age, but she remembers Handy too. She came here in 1910, after finishing at Alcorn College, to teach in the black school. She knew Stack Mangham well, and through him, met Handy. 

He lived near the old "Brickyard" on Lincoln Street, I think. He and his wife. They had a son here in Clarksdale." 

"I remember going to some of his dances," she said. "Then I married Mr. Thomas, and he was a strict Baptist, so I didn't go to dances anymore." 

Although Handy moved from the Delta and Beale Street, he never forgot the place where the course of his life changed and returned frequently to renew his friendship with the area. 

Handy was born in Florence, Alabama in 1873. He left home at 16 against his father's wishes to pursue a life as a musician. After traveling with a number of roving bands, he settled in Clarksdale from 1903 to 1908, then moved to Memphis. He later moved to New York where he helped establish a music publishing company. He died in 1958.