© Copyright 2000-2011 Alan White - All
Got The Blues For Chattanooga*
Part of map showing Alabama’s rail system in 1861
The already-mentioned gospel boat re-named CHATTANOOGA had run on the Upper Tennessee up to the end of 1920, but by January, 1921, she was part of the “Chattanooga-Decatur” traffic. There was also one packet boat named in the ‘City series’ of which there were many across the U.S. The CITY OF CHATTANOOGA was a stern-wheeler which operated from Chattanooga to St. Louis, Mo. Way states: “There were many delays and troubles in the vicinity of Muscle Shoals.” (36). This represented an almost impenetrable barrier for river trade from the lower part of the Tennessee River in Chattanooga and Decatur for instance, and places on the upper river such as Florence, Ala. and other destinations further north. One of these was the very important trading centre of St. Louis, visited by the CITY OF CHATTANOOGA. Let O.B. Bunce put it from a point of view in the late 19th. c. “Steamers navigate different portions, (of the river) but a succession of shallows and rapids in Alabama known as “Muscle Shoals”, bar vessels from its lower waters to the upper; and below Chattanooga exist serious obstacles to steamboat navigation, known as the “Suck” and the “Pot” (37). Nevertheless, determined companies took up the challenge in their quest for trade – and profit. Not all were successful as Way reports of the fate of a packet, the MARY BYRD ,which was built in 1866 and “Operated on the Tennessee River…Sank in the “Suck” below Chattanooga in 1870.” (38). This would have hardly been a unique event and all steamboats, packet or towboat, had to run the gauntlet if they were to stay in business. This of course would have included the boat Hound Head Henry purports to have travelled on, heading up to Chicago, on his “Steamboat Blues”.
As with the former MEGIDDO gospel boat, the “Suck” would take part in the on-going oral transmission process of both blues and gospel songs. Basically, because most of the arduous physical work on the Southern rivers was performed by blacks. Also because these jobs would be labour-intensive and therefore often accompanied by some form of work song; as has been noted by American and European travellers during the 19th.c. in their numerous writings. While Bunce only briefly describes the “Pot”, around 20 miles below Chattanooga, as a maelstrom which is quite capable of shifting “vast trees…in its fierce turmoil and swept out of sight” (39); he delivers a graphic scenario of the ”Suck”. He details how the boats were navigated or ‘warped’ through, before the coming of railroads using black labour (probably slaves – see illustration below).
The “Suck” is thirteen miles from Chattanooga and therefore the first great hazard steamboat crews would face. “This phenomenon is caused by a fierce little mountain current, called “Suck Creek”, which, in times of high water, brings from its rocky fastnesses [In this context a ‘fastness’ refers to an embankment, “abutment, shore, etc.” (40)]. such masses of debris that the river bed is strewed with bowlders, (sic) and a bar formed, which compresses the channel into a narrow, swift, and dangerous current. Thirty years ago (c. late 1840s-M.H.) the Government erected a wall some forty feet distant from the left bank, and, through the narrow passage thus formed, boats ascending the river are warped up by means of a windlass on the shore.” (41). At the time of his writing (c.1874) Bunce states that the government (presumably the state) “is now endeavouring to remove the obstructions and widen the channel, which at this point is narrowed from the average of six hundred feet to two hundred and fifty; and hence the novel and picturesque sight of a steamer struggling up against an adverse current by means of a windlass on the bank, with the songs and shouts of the labouring deck-hands, will soon be, even if it is not now, a thing of the past.” (42).
There was an alternative, for steamboats of the right size; the Muscle Shoals canal in Alabama. The idea of cutting a diversionary channel or canal by a river, with wooden locks and dams, goes back to at least the turn of the 19th.c. But it was 1828 before a project was discussed regarding “the improvement of the Muscle Shoals and the Colbert Shoals in the Tennessee River.” (43). Some 6 years later a canal was constructed but left un-improved “a length of the river both above and below the canal. This unimproved section was difficult, dangerous and very often impracticable of navigation, and therefore the canal was not used for commercial purposes and soon fell into decay.” (44) [However, a more precise account is given by steamboat historian James Lloyd much nearer the event, in 1856. “Steamboats of the first class ascend this river (i.e. the Tennessee –M.H.) as far as Florence, Alabama, which is situated on the north bank at the foot of the rapids called Muscle shoals, (sic) which are between Lauderdale and Laurence counties, Alabama…In 1840, a canal twelve miles long was built around the shoals, but unfortunately the locks were made too short to admit even the smallest steamboats that navigate that river; it was soon abandoned, and the channel has been filling up for the last fifteen years.” (45)]. It was to be nearly 40 years, in 1873, before Muscle Shoals was seriously considered by Alabama’s state legislature again. Although ‘provisions’ were made to re-build and enlarge the canal, due to the usual drawn-out political debates it was 1877 before work started. “In 1890 the canal was completed, at a total cost of $3,191,726.50 and since then the maintenance of the canal has cost an average of $600,000 per year. This is the canal now (1921) in operation in the Muscle Shoals district.” (46).
This was in the middle of this district
and known as “Big Muscle Shoals” being some 14 miles long compared to the total of
the whole of this river hazard which was 36 miles. Lower down the river was the
“Little Muscle Shoals” which was still untamed. Several meetings of a board of U.S. Army
engineers took place from 1889 to 1916 to improve this
section, without any results. However, out of necessity (?) when W.W.I was
enjoined by the U.S.A. “Two nitrate plants were constructed for Sheffield and
Tuscumbia in 1917…” (47).
This would account for Ida Cox singing about the “grandest bunch of soldiers
that you ever saw.” on her “Chattanooga Blues”.
The soldiers of the United States Corps of Engineers (USE) would still be there at Muscle Shoals for another 8 years. The first of the nitrate plants was inoperable (Dam No.1 at Sheffield, Ala.) due to faulty installations but No.2 opened at Tuscumbia, Ala. in 1918. U.S. president Woodrow Wilson “issued a letter to the secretary of war authorising the construction of dam and power house No.2 at Little Muscle Shoals for the purpose of furnishing power to the nitrate plant…Dam No.2, better known as “Wilson Dam”, was to be constructed in cooperation with the Muscle Shoals hydro- electric power company.” (sic) (48).
There were also plans to build another canal and a Dam No.3. But the Alabama congress baulked at the $10,000,000 requested by the bill before the Senate in February, 1921. Eventually, a series of improved locks and dams were include in the project and it was to be 1926 before the Wilson Dam finally opened – nearly 100 years since improvements at Muscle Shoals were initially proposed. Although Woodrow Wilson did not live to see this event – as he died in 1924, before Dam No.2 was completed.
It was in 1926, that the only blues recording with Wilson Dam in the title was released. Born in Birmingham, Ala. in 1893, singer Leola B. Wilson was a fine blues artist who travelled the South in tent shows with her first husband Isiah I.Grant, “born in 1886 in St. Petersburg, FL, and…a ‘baritone singer’;” (49). Leola’s maiden name was Pettigrew and used her initial spouse’s identity for her stage name, coupled with a childhood tag and became ‘Coot Grant’. When her husband died in 1920 she teamed up with a Jacksonville, Fla. pianist who she subsequently married. Wesley Wilson and Leola went out as Coot Grant & Kid/ ‘Socks’ Wilson. A team in the famous Butterbeans and Susie mould which would last for 50 years not only as singers but “dancers, actors, and comedians…” (50). But at this particular session Coot was teamed with the superb swinging sounds of Blind Blake – the giant of East Coast ragtime guitar. She sings of Wilson Dam as an opportunity to make some easy money from the workers on the dam, using her man’s prowess at shooting craps; a very popular black dice game in which 7-11 was a winning combination.
“ ‘Sound seven-eleven’, I hear my daddy cry. (x 2)
‘I need some money to buy some shoes for that baby o’ mine’.”
“Way down South where I wanna be. (x 2)
There is Saturday night payroll always waitin’ for me.” (51)
To get ‘way down South’ Ms. Wilson plans to ride the former Memphis & Charleston RR. which had become a part of the Southern in 1899.
“Train blowin’ from Memphis, gon’ stop at Birmingham. (x 2)
Keep goin’ straight through, down to Wilson’s Dam.” (52)
An even more rural sound is to be heard from one of the finest of all women blues singers, Lucille Bogan. Although born in Amory, Miss. she soon moved to Birmingham, Ala. or quite likely to Fairfield, one of the Magic City’s sprawling suburbs. [See Ch.2 in “Railroadin’ Some”. Ibid. For more on Lucille Bogan, Fairfield and the M. & O.. RR]. Like Coot Grant she was married twice (at least!) and recorded from 1923 to 1935. On meeting the superb blues pianist Walter Roland c.1933 they formed one of the most awesome and very moving musical partnerships in the world of the Blues. Ms. Bogan also wants her man to earn money for her, but she has her eye on getting him working for the USE “where they don’t work men so hard” and the jobs were less dangerous than some of the more usual ones ‘reserved’ for blacks in the early 20th. century; such as logging in the forests or “piney woods”
“I’m goin’ to Muscle Shoals to get my man a government job;
Say, I’m goin’ to Muscle Shoals, get my man a government job.
He wants to work on the lock an’ dam, where they don’t work men so hard.”
“They get men for the forest, and they workin’ along the Wilson Dam;
They get men for the forest, workin’ along the Wilson Dam.
Down in Muscle Shoals, Lord, 80 miles from Birmingham.”
“Put your arms around me, daddy, like a ring around the risin’ sun;
Put your arms around me, daddy, just like a ring around the risin’ sun.
If you make any money in Muscle Shoals, daddy, won’t you give me some?”
“On the Tennessee River was where they built the Wilson Dam;
On the Tennessee River, where they built the Wilson Dam.
Well, miles from harm an’ 80 miles from Birmingham.” (53)
The train again makes its appearance as a way of getting to Muscle Shoals, but unlike Coot Grant, Lucille intends to make sure her man gets on!
“He got his suitcase packed, an’ his trunk has all gone on;
He’s got his suitcase packed, an’ his trunk is all gone on.
Standin’ here with me, Lord, waitin’ on that train to run.” (54)
Another singer, Bertha Ross, sounds so remarkably like Lucille Bogan on her 1927 recordings, she may well be her! As well as recording her only session in Birmingham, Ms. Ross was accompanied by an Alabama ‘group’ called the Bessemer Blues Pickers which included Jaybird Coleman, Alabama’s most archaic harp-blower and vocalist. Down on Muscle Shoals apart from shooting craps or working ‘legit’ for USE, some women found a lucrative trade among the workers as prostitutes.
“Now, I’m goin’
to the river, Lord, gon’ work it up an’ down;
Ain't nothin’ on the lock an’ dam, women, I can’t get in town.” (55)
But despite the various above occupations offered by the construction of the Wilson Dam, soon after the end of W.W.I in 1918, the “nitrogen and fertilizer plant at Muscle Shoals…had become obsolete and was lying idle.” (56). This was largely due to political ‘dithering’ as has already been referred to. Although a proposal for a multi-purpose river basin scheme had been put before various government bodies through the 1920s, it was always knocked back. On two occasions by U.S. Presidents Coolidge and Hoover using their veto to block the bill. It was not until the election of Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933 that this scenario was turned around. Drawing on the ground-laying work of the far-sighted Senator for Nebraska, George Norris, and other leading figures, the Tennessee Valley Authority came into being. “Roosevelt endorsed the Norris proposal for multipurpose development, declaring that conditions in the Tennessee Valley offered an opportunity to set an example of planning for the whole country. Roosevelt’s election to the presidency resulted in the launching of an experiment in river basin planning as embodied in the Tennessee Valley Authority signed on 18 May 1933.” (57). Lucille Bogan doesn’t appear to have wasted much time getting her man down to Muscle Shoals when she recorded her blues on 20th. July – some 2 months later! Such is the general topicality of the Blues.
Also topical was the first blues record made about Muscle Shoals, near the start of 1922. Recorded by New Orleans-born Lizzie Miles who appeared to be inspired by the circulating news item at the time that auto magnate Henry Ford (of Model ‘T’ fame) was offering to “take over the old nitrogen plant after World War I,” (58). Or in writer Lynn Abbott’s much later words “to buy Muscle Shoals” (59). Ms. Abbott notes that the song by Lizzie Miles was written by pioneer barrelhouse/boogie pianist George Thomas [The song by Lucille Bogan has different lyrics, tune, and vocal approach – hence “New” in her title] from East Texas and quotes a snippet from the leading black militant newspaper the Chicago Defender at the time. “Mr. Thomas has sent copies of the song to Mr. Ford and has been in communication with him with a view to having the song used to boost the Muscle Shoals proposition.” (60). Henry Ford’s plans “touched off a migration which the New York Times compared to the gold rush of ’49.” (61). That is 1849, of course. Or as Gunther put it some 30 years later: “a real estate development began; property was sold at crazy prices…(and then)…the crash came, and paved sidewalks and lampposts (sic) still stretch into a deserted wilderness (in 1947)… Muscle Shoals is probably the only point in the world where you can shoot quail and other game from concrete pavements”. (62). Lizzie Miles with her rich vocals reflects this scene in typical blues-speak on what was her recording debut.
“Hurry papa, we must leave this town;
Got the blues for Muscle Shoals, that’s where we sure can get gold.” (63)
A train whistle is heard moaning amongst the band’s introduction as Lizzie sings to her man:
“We got to catch the evenin’ train.” (64)
adding yet another two people to the latter-day ‘gold rush’. About 10 months after Lizzie Miles’ offering came a bouncing piano solo by an 18-year old Fats Waller who recorded it in New York City for Okeh. This was followed by another popular vaudeville-blues singer, Edith Wilson, cutting the third vocal “Muscle Shoals Blues”, in 1924 on the Columbia label; accompanied by white guitarist Roy Smeck posing as “Alabama Joe” to conceal his racial identity (a common practice at the time). There was a final version of this small group of songs about Muscle Shoals and the Wilson Dam. This was from Tennessee’s fine harp blower, De Ford Bailey – but as with Waller this is a solo instrumental piece cut, in April, 1927 for Brunswick Records. Fittingly, in chronological terms, the last song about this topographical phenomenon was the superb collaboration between Lucille Bogan and Walter Roland; inspired by the birth of the T.V.A.
This project was simply the largest and most ambitious an undertaking by any U.S. government. Embracing 7 states and crossing all political boundaries and mixing government control with private enterprise, its overall aim was to “master this foaming Goliath”, as Gunther put it, that was the Tennessee River; draining an area of “42,000 square miles” (65). This being the equivalent to the total landmass of Englandand Scotland combined. The T.V.A. Act of 1933 called for rural electrification, new agricultural techniques, as well as “the maximum amount of flood control; …development of the river for navigation purposes;…reforestation;…(and) the economic and social well-being of the people living in the river basin.” (66). Not only the people living there saw much improved opportunities for more economic stability but also those passing through on packets, towboats – and the railroad. The latter was after all the instrument in getting the subjects of Ms. Miles, Leola B. Wilson and Lucille Bogan’s blues to Muscle Shoals in the first place.
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“Railroads, Steamboats, Chattanooga & the Lower Tennessee River”
The railroad did not come to the Tennessee Valley as a neat replacement for the steamboat – life of course doesn’t run like that, generally speaking. Steamboats were up and down the Tennessee and adjoining rivers well into the 1930s. But they had ceased to dominate their terrain by the beginnings of the 20th. century. Significantly, many towboats were transporting cargo that was for the ever-increasing extension of railroad building. The very lumber towed on the river was essential to the manufacture of freight and passenger cars, and also used for fuelling the many wood-burning locomotives still running around on the Southern rail systems. The GLADYS which was “Running in 1899…Towed lumber out of Decatur, AL.” (67). While the stern-wheeler DICK C. PAPE (built in 1910?) “Towed logs and ties out of (the) Tennessee River” until 1918. ‘Ties’ refers to crossties, or ‘sleepers’ in British parlance. The object that supported the twin iron/steel rails. Similarly, the HIBERNIA “towed cross ties and lumber out of (the) Tennessee River to Paducah.” (68). Many other towboats carried crossties, part of the railroad’s building blocks, out of not only the Tennessee but also adjoining streams such as the Cumberland and the Duck Rivers. These included the PETER HONTZ and the MARY A. ANDERSON. (69).
Just as essential to the railroad was the bed of ballast that the track and sleepers rested on. A myriad of companies had appeared by the early 20th. century including the Dixie Sand & Gravel Co. at Chattanooga, Tenn. and ran the T.R. PRESTON amongst others, as well as the Tennessee Valley Sand & Gravel Co. which ran the JAYHAWKER on the Tennessee in the early 1930s. (70). There was also the Sheffield Sand & Gravel Co. at the Wilson Dam No.1 which would have injected some money into the local economy, and partly compensating the failed government-owned nitrate plant from W.W.I If a gravel pit was not always on hand then often companies would have to send work crews to the foothills of nearby mountain ranges, including Lookout Mountain, to break up boulders to use instead of gravel-ballast. As Peg Leg Howell said in 1928.
“It take rock it take gravel to make a solid road. (x 2)
It takes a lovin’ fair brownie to satisfy my soul.” (71)
Howell, playing some soul-tingling bottleneck guitar equal to that of Charlie Patton, using the self-evident truth of his opening lines to strengthen the symbolism of his sexual desires. Howell who admitted, on his ‘rediscovery’ (in the early 1960s) picking up songs from anywhere, probably heard a guitarist thought to be from the Arkansas Delta-or his recording. Jim ‘Mooch’ Richardson had used a more explicit variation of this verse about a month prior to Howell’s “Rock And Gravel”.
“Takes rocks an’ gravel (to) make a solid road;
Take rocks an’ gravel make a solid road.
Take a great big engine (to) pull a heavy load.” (72)
Although B. & G.R. list Lonnie Johnson on a second guitar, I only hear one; and to these ears it sounds a lot more like Richardson. Any input on this discographical query would be more than welcome. Of course sand and gravel companies would normally dredge the river bed for this material, using specially equipped towboats.
From around 1900 railroads, such as the L. & N., “generally used…gravel or broken stone spread one foot in thickness over a space 10 feet wide.” (73). Other bases were used, for economic reasons, throughout the first half of the 20th. c. These included cinders, copper slag from furnaces, and chatt- or “metallic ore and rock” (74).
But once the railroad was established and operating, steamboats found a new source of employment – transporting the trains themselves (see p.2); at least until companies felt they could afford to build the necessary bridges. This was sometimes as late as the 1930s! Railroads often went into the steamboat trade themselves, the Illinois Central and Missouri Pacific among them. Another was the Nashville Chattanooga & St. Louis Ry. They sometimes utilised boats normally engaged in other duties such as towing ties. One of these was the WOOLFOLK. This was the stern-wheeler packet originally named CITY OF CHATTANOOGA (see p.5) and converted to a towboat in 1899. Named for “Montgomery cotton factor Joseph Washington Woolfolk” (75) who was not only into cotton but also railroad building. By 1887 he was president of the “Alabama Terminal and Improvement Company” (76). The WOOLFOLK “operated out of Paducah towing a railroad transfer barge…and in 1903, coal to Memphis for Paducah Coal and Mining Co….” (77). The N.C. & St. L. owned the GUNTERSVILLE and two versions of the HUNTSVILLE which were all “towing railroad transfer barges on (the) Tennessee River at Guntersville, AL.” (78).
Yet the railroad had been casting its long shadow over the steamboat trade as far back as the middle of the 19th. century. Even in a State like Alabama which had often been dragging its heels in adopting the ‘iron horse’; as Owen stated in 1921. From the time of Alabama’s admittance to the Union in 1819 as a State until the end of the Reconstruction Era in the late 1870s “…the political issue of public aid of internal-improvement schemes may be said to have remained the same…except for the substitution of railroad enterprises for river navigation projects about the year 1850.” (79) In fact the very first railroad in Alabama, (1832) was inspired by the ambition of its builders to find a viable alternative transport route which avoided Muscle Shoals. This was the Tuscumbia, Courtland & Decatur Railroad which had reorganised the earlier Tuscumbia Railway running since 1832 with horse-drawn vehicles. But largely due to the economic depression or ‘panic’ of 1837, the ultimate goal of reaching Memphis was not realised until a couple of takeovers down the line when the Memphis & Charleston included the pioneer railroad in its organisation. (see p.13).
Chattanooga was to embrace this changing attitude from about the same year when the State-owned Western & Atlantic RR. reached the city from Atlanta, Georgia. One of the earliest railroads in the U.S., founded in 1836, it was still referred to in the Blues of the 1920s, over 35 years after the W. & A. had been leased from the State of Georgia by the N.C. & St. L. In 1927, Peg Leg Howell again, here with the raucous fiddle of Eddie Anthony recalls a verse included two years earlier by Dora Carr and backed by Cow Cow Davenport, on a version of his famous “Cow Cow Blues”. Peg Leg & Eddie turn in a superb transposing of the Davenport piano classic.
“Some said the Southern, believe it’s W. & A., I’m-a gon’ get the first train that be goin’ out that way; Some said the Southern, I believe it’s W. & A., I’m gonna ride that first train I see goin’ that way.
Spoken: “The Dixie Flyer, boys.”
Unk. spoken: “You tell I’m a hobo ‘cos I got the Hobo Blues.”
“Train it left Cincinnati, goin’ to New Orleans;
Oughta seen your fireman stirring up gasoline. [This probably refers to the experiment of using oil-fired locomotives instead of coal in the 1920s. Only ‘oil’ doesn’t rhyme/scan with ‘New Orleans’ – Peg Leg Howell therefore employing some poetic license].
Oh! Train left Cincinnati, goin’ to New Orleans;
Oughta seen that fireman stirring up gasoline.”
Spoken: “The Dixie Limited, any kind of car.” (80)
The Southern, the W. & A. and the N.C. &
St. L. all served Chattanooga and the latter instigated a series of “Dixie”
trains; starting with the Dixie Flyer in 1892 and followed by the
Dixie Limited in 1913. Initially running between Nashville, Chattanooga and
Atlanta; with “through Nashville-Jacksonville Pullman Drawing Room Buffet
Sleeping Cars that operated south of Atlanta…” (81) and
with the collaboration of several other railroads into Jacksonville, Fla. When
the N.C. & St. L. leased the old W. &
A. two years previously in 1890, the line became known as the Lookout Mountain
Route. By 1899 the Dixie Flyer, via a passenger traffic agreement with
the Illinois Central “was extended to St. Louis and Chicago via Martin, Tenn.,
Fulton, Ky., and the I.C.RR.” (82).
With this development Chattanooga became a veritable hub for railroads.
A hobo like Peg Leg Howell (or a fare-paying passenger!) could reach major cities such as Mobile, New Orleans, Memphis, Birmingham, Atlanta, St. Louis, and Cincinnati. As Prince says “Chattanooga…offered the connections of the Southern Railway System and the Central of Georgia Ry. for various points over the entire South.” (83). The C.of G. having reached Chattanooga by 1905.
was Cincinnati, Ohio, which featured in several blues by Georgia singers
[Cincinnati had a thriving blues scene in the 1920s which
has been almost totally overlooked by historians with the notable exception of
“Going To Cincinnati” (A History of the Blues in the Queen City). Steven C.
Tracy. University of Illinois Press. 1993]; including at least 4 sides by Howell. The train he refers
to could well have been the Pan-American on the L.& N. Inaugurated in
December, 1921, “Trains 98 & 99” featured as a ‘crack express’ running from
Cincinnati via Nashville down to New Orleans. By the early 1930s the roar of
the train and its whistle were being recorded by local radio station WSM of
Nashville. Prince relates that this was a daily feature “except Sunday…through
the years up into the 1940s. If necessary, the following programs were
interrupted in order to bring through the actual live sound of Train No.99,”
However, the 2 recordings of “Pan-American Express” (Co unissued) and “Pan- American Blues” (Br 146, Vo 5180) by harp blower De Ford Bailey would seem to suggest a slightly earlier vintage; as both were recorded in 1927. Of course Bailey may have just heard the actual train (by then in operation some 6 years) which inspired his recordings. Interestingly, he also cut an unissued “Nashville Blues” and “Dixie Flyer Blues”; the latter which was issued, being on the flipside of Brunswick 146 and Vocalion 5180. A passenger could easily change in Nashville to the N.C. & St. L. for a short ride to Chattanooga.
But the importance of Chattanooga’s geographical location as regard trade and commerce with the rest of the country was realised from the earliest days of the W.& A. which although in that city by 1849 was not completely connected from Atlanta until the following year. South Carolinians and Georgians immediately recognised the trading potential of this new railroad outlet on the Tennessee River. “The citizens of Charleston and Savannah were quick to appreciate the importance of connecting their harbors with the productive districts of the interior, by railroads; and when these had penetrated their own States, the line, of equal importance to both, was extended through Georgia into Tennessee, connecting… Chattanooga with those cities.” (85). By 1890 two Chattanooga businessmen, Russell Sage and C.E. James, had incorporated the Chattanooga Southern to “service the coal, iron ore, and timber industries along its ninety-two miles, of main line track, which paralleled the Alabama Great Southern [The A.G.S. ran from Chattanooga to Meridian, Miss. and was merged with the Southern Railway in 1895] on the opposite side of Lookout Mountain.” (86). They got as far as Gadsden, Ala. just a few miles south-east of Guntersville on the lower Tennessee. This small railroad did not seem to be on any of the major companies wants list and after a precarious decade of many re-organisations it was “…reincarnated as the Tennessee, Alabama & Georgia Railway in 1911” (87). Its initials led it to being affectionately known as the ‘TAG route’, and “the Tennessee, Alabama & Georgia Railway remained independent,…through the first half of the twentieth century.” (88).
Some 50 years before the beginnings of the TAG route, the Nashville & Chattanooga RR. had been chartered in 1845 and gradually made its way towards Chattanooga. After reaching the summit of Raccoon Mountain “the N. & C. RR. dipped down in Georgia through the future station of Hooker before reaching the valley again at Wauthatchie, Tenn. Then skirting the river bank around the foot of Lookout Mountain, the new railroad finally arrived at its southern terminal in Chattanooga.” (89). The date when service was opened was 11th. Feb. 1854. An even more important date occurred in May, 1858, when the innovative east-west line, the Memphis & Charleston RR. reached an agreement with the N. & C. over trackage rights which allowed it to take its trains into Chattanooga. This connected railroads between Memphis and the Atlantic coast for the first time with the cooperation of the W. & A. and several other roads. Cline quotes a glowing report by John Stover: “At Chattanooga, the state-owned Western & Atlantic was to link the Memphis & Charleston Railroad with other lines running to Charleston and Savannah, thus forming a continuous chain of railroads between the Atlantic coast and Memphis.” (90). It was on May 31, 1873, after several mergers with other roads that the N. & C. was changed to the Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis Railway. (91).
Despite blues singers as diverse as Blind Willie McTell and Ida Cox alluding to the N.C & St. L., there are no recorded examples that feature the Lookout Mountain Route, directly. The nearest are the several sides featuring the Dixie Flyer, Dixie Limited, and on occasion the ‘Dixie Line’; by which name this road was also known.
And of course, it can be argued that as these trains ran under a ‘joint flag’ of six railroads, any of the other five could also be the subject of these particular blues references. As well as the N.C. & St. L. there was the Chicago & Eastern Illinois, the L. & N., Central of Georgia, Atlantic Coast Line and the Florida East Coast Railway. However, the ‘Dixies’ originated from the Tennessee road and it is the only one acclaimed the ‘Lookout Mountain Route’. The N.C. & St. L. took charge of these crack expresses from Nashville via Chattanooga down to Atlanta and is definitely the subject of Bessie Smith’s “Dixie Flyer Blues” in 1925.
Spoken: “Hold that train”.
1. “Hold that
engine, let sweet mama get on board. (x 2)
‘Cos my home ain’t here, it’s a long way down the road.”
2. “On that choo-choo, mama’s gonna find a berth. (x 2)
Goin’ to Dixieland, it’s the grandest place on earth.”
3. “Dixie Flyer come
on an’ let your drivers roll. (x 2)
Wouldn’t stay up North to save nobody’s soul.”
4. “Blow your
whistle, tell ‘em mama’s comin’ too. (x 2)
Take it up a little bit, ‘cos I’m feelin’ mighty blue.”
5. “Here’s my
ticket, please Conductor man. (x 2)
Goin’ to my mammy way down in Dixieland.” (92)
Apart from this Bessie Smith recording, Peg Leg Howell’s “Hobo Blues” and DeFord Bailey’s harmonica solo (see p.12), seem to be the only ones referring to the train started by the Lookout Mountain Route way back in 1892. Other blues by pianists Leroy Carr, and Turner Parrish, together with popular banjoist Papa Charlie Jackson would appear to have a Dixie Flyer of a different kind from a more northerly state, in mind. But that’s another story.
Blind Willie McTell could have ridden the Dixie Flyer from Chattanooga to Atlanta and by switching to another Central of Georgia train [That is to say another train rather than the Dixie Flyer which the C. o f G. took over in Atlanta] headed on down to his regular base in Statesboro, some 30 miles north-west of Savannah. Indeed, apart from his reference to Lookout Mountain on “Drive Away some 30 miles north-west of Blues” he mentions other locations such as Kennesaw Mountain on his raggy “Atlanta Strut” (1929) which is just south of Chattanooga. And as well as Atlanta on several sides, he also sings of Macon on his very moving “Dark Night Blues” (1928). These locations are all on the N.C. & St. L. From the same session as “Dark Night” came one of McTell’s most awesome (and there are so many!) performances, “Three Women Blues” on which he brags about all ‘his’ women including “a Memphis yellow”. (93). The N.C. & St. L. of course ran in a westerly direction from Nashville across Tennessee to terminate in Memphis. It would appear that the Lookout Mountain Route was one with which the singer was very familiar. Like Ida Cox, McTell surely sang at various times that he too had ‘got the blues for Chattanooga’. And it is deemed fitting to end this survey as it began; with a bluesman who was to Georgia what Charlie Patton was to Mississippi and Blind Lemon Jefferson to Texas – Blind Willie McTell, and Lookout Mountain. (but see Appendix ‘A’).
1. “Drive Away Blues” Blind Willie McTell vo.gtr. speech.
26/11/29. Atlanta, Ga.
2. Bunce O.B. p.56.
3. Ibid. p.52.
4. “Chattanooga Blues” Ida Cox vo.; Lovie Austin pno.
July-Aug. 1923. Chicago, Ill.
5. Blassingame J. p.400.
6. Ibid. p.401.
8. White Jr. J.H. p.581.
9. Bunce. Ibid. p.60.
10. Ibid. p.p. 60-61.
11. Way Jr. F. & J.W. Rutter. p.199.
13. “Florida Bound Blues” Bessie Smith vo. speech; Clarence Williams pno.
17/1125. New York City.
14. Way Jr. F. p.51.
15. “Mama’s Got The Blues” Bessie Smith vo.; Fletcher Henderson pno.
28/4/23. New York City.
16. Capes J. C.D. notes Frog. Vol.1.
17. “My Monday Blues” Jim Jackson vo.gtr.
22/1/28. Chicago, Ill.
18. Oliver P. p.73.
19. Ibid. p.75.
20. “Oh-Oh Blues” Bert M. Mays vo. pno. c. -/11/27. Chicago, ill.
21. Dixon R.M.W. J. Godrich. p.357.
22. Harris S. p.350.
23. Capes. Ibid.
24. “My Silver Dollar Mama” Hound Head Henry vo.speech; Cow Cow Davenport pno.
17/10/28. Chicago, Ill.
25. Harris. Ibid. p.144.
Blues” Hound Head Henry vo., vo. effects, laughing, speech; Cow
Cow Davenport pno. 9/8/28. Chicago, Ill.
28. Korner A. E.P. notes.
30. Way Jr. & J.W. Rutter. Ibid. p.39.
31. Way Jr. Ibid. p.383.
32. Ibid. p.83.
33. Poole G. L.P. notes.
35. Foscue V.O. p.99.
36. Way Jr. Ibid. p.90.
37. Bunce. Ibid.
38. Way Jr. Ibid.p.311.
39. Bunce. Ibid.
40. Roget P.M. & J.L. & S.R. p..156.
41. Bunce. Ibid. p.p. 61-62.
43. Owen T.M. p.1063.
45. Lloyd J.T. p.47.
46. Owen. Ibid. p.1064.
49. Vanco J.H. C.D. notes “Coot Grant & Kid Wilson Vol.1”.
51. “Wilson Dam” Leola B. Wilson vo.; Blind Blake gtr. c. -/11/26. Chicago, Ill.
53. “New Muscle Shoals Blues” Lucille Bogan (as’Bessie Jackson’) vo.; Walter Roland pno.
20/7/33. New York City.
55. “Lost Man
Blues” Bertha Ross (probably Lucille Bogan) vo.; Vance Patterson
pno. 5/8/27. Birmingham, Ala.
56. Gunther J. p.734.
57. Wilson C.R. & W. Ferris (Co-Eds). p.369.
58. Gunther. Ibid. p.744.
59. Abbott L. C.D. notes “Lizzie Miles”.
61. Sward K. p.p.128-129. (quoted by Abbott. Ibid.).
62. Gunther. Ibid.
63. “Muscle Shoals
Blues” Lizzie Miles vo.; unk. tpt.; unk. clt.;
unk. alt. sax.; unk. vln.;
unk.pno.; unk.train whistle effects.c. 24/2/22. New York
65. Gunther. Ibid. p.733.
66. Ibid. p.734.
67. Way Jr. Ibid. p.84.
68. Ibid. p.98.
69. Ibid. See p.p.157 & 182.
70. Ibid. p.121. & p.216. (and see list of companies).
71. “Rock And Gravel Blues” Peg Leg Howell vo.gtr. 20/4/28. Atlanta, Ga.
72. “Big Kate Adams Blues” Mooch Richardson vo.gtr. 27/2/28. Memphis, Tenn.
73. Herr K.A. p.369.
74. Ibid. p.378.
75. Cline W. p.174.
77. Way Jr. & J.W. Rutter. Ibid. p.243.
78. Ibid. p.88.
79. Owen. Ibid. p.1271.
Blues” Peg Leg Howell vo.gtr. speech;
Eddie Anthony vln. speech;
Henry Williams gtr. speech,.; or unk. speech. 1/11/27.
81. Prince R.E. p.151. (“N.C.& St. L.”)
83. Ibid. p.173.
84. Prince R.E. p.147. (“L.& N.”)
85. Flint H.M. p.343.
86. Cline. Ibid. p.167.
87. Ibid. p.p.167-168.
88. Ibid. p.168.
89. Prince. Ibid. p.6. (“N.C.& St. L.”)
90. Stover. J. Quoted in Cline. Ibid. p.40.
91. Prince. Ibid. p.18.
92. “Dixie Flyer
Blues” Bessie Smith vo.; Buster Bailey clt.; Charlie Green tbn.;
Fred Longshaw pno.; unk. train imitation; unk. whistle.
15/5/25. New York City.
93. “Three Women Blues” Blind Willie McTell vo.gtr.speech.
17/10/28. Atlanta, Ga.
Lynn. Notes to “Lizzie Miles Vol.1” (c.24/2/22-25/4/23). CD.
Document DOCD-5458. 1996.
2. Blassingame John W.
(Ed.). “Slave Testimony”. Louisiana State University Press. 1998.
(Rep.). 1st. pub. 1977.
O.B. Quoted in “Picturesque
America” (Centennial Ed. 2 vols.).
William Cullen Bryant (Ed.). Lyle Stuart Inc. New Jersey.
Jonathan. Notes to “Bessie Smith – The
Complete Recordings”. Vol.1.
Frog DGF 47. 2004.
Wayne. “Alabama Railroads”. The
University ofAlabama Press.
5. Dixon Robert M.W. John Godrich. “Blues & Gospel Records 1890-1943”.
Howard W. Rye. (4th. ed. rev.). Clarendon Press 1997.
6. Flint Henry
M. “The Railroads Of The United
States”. Arno Press. 1976.
(Rep.). 1st. pub. John E. Potter & Co. Philadelphia. 1868.
7. Foscue Virginia
O. “Place Names In Alabama”. The University of Alabama
Press. Tuscaloosa & London. 1989.
8. Gunther John. “Inside U.S.A.” Hamish Hamilton. London. 1947.
Sheldon. “Blues Who’s Who”. Da Capo.
March, 1989. (Rep.).
Alexis. Notes to “The Male
Blues-Vol.6.” E.P. JazzCollector JEL
10. Feb. 1960.
11. Lloyd James T.
“Lloyd’s Steamboat Directory & Disasters On The Western
Waters” Land Yacht Press. Nashville, Tenn. 2000.
(Rep. with new intro. by Gregory G. Poole). 1st. pub. 1856.
12. Oliver Paul. “Songsters & Saints”. Cambridge University Press. 1984.
13. Owen Thomas
McAdory. “History of Alabama & Dictionary Of Alabama Biography”.
(2 vols.). The S.J. Publishing Co. 1921. Chicago.
G. Quoted in notes to “Ed
Bell’s Mamlish Moan”. L.P. Mamlish
S-3811. Stephen Calt. Don Kent. Michael Stewart. c.1975.
15. Prince Richard
E. “Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis Railway”. Indiana
University Press. 2001. (Rep.). 1st. pub. 1967.
16. Prince Richard
E. “Louisville & Nashville”. Indiana University Press. 2000
(Rep.). 1st. pub. 1968.
17. Roget Peter Mark. John Lewis. “Roget’s Thesaurus”. Tophi Books. Samuel Romilly. 1988.
18. Vanco John
Henry. Notes to “Coot Grant & Kid Wilson Vol.1” (1925-1928). CD.
Document DOCD-5563. 1997.
19. Way Jr. Frederick & Joseph W.
Rutter. “Way’s Steam Towboat Directory”. Ohio University Press.
20. Way Jr.
Frederick. “Way’s Packet Directory,
1848-1994”. (Rev. ed.). Ohio
University Press. 1994. 1st. pub. 1983.
21. White Jr. John
H. “The American Railroad Freight Car” The John Hopkins
University Press. 1995. (Rep.). 1st. pub. 1993.
22. Wilson Charles Reagan & William “Encyclopaedia of Southern Culture”.
Ferris. (Co-Eds.). University of North Carolina Press.1989.
23. All discographical details from “Blues & Gospel Records” Ibid.
24. Correction/additions by Max Haymes.
25. All transcriptions by Max Haymes unless otherwise stated.
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There is a likely source for McTell’s ‘far-sighted’ reference to Niagara Falls in his “Drive Away Blues”. In November of 1940 the singer told Alan Lomax during a Library of Congress recording session that he played a lot of those “funny little shows” when recalling the travelling medicine show. While many of his peers/ contemporaries had cut their musical ‘teeth’ on this circuit Blind Willie gives the distinct impression he carried on playing for them for a far longer period – probably well into the 1930s. This would help supplement his income in the absence of a ‘hit record’. In his revised edition of the fascinating “Step Right Up”, Brook McNamara says in the 1995 preface that he made three additions to his original book from twenty years earlier. One of these was a medicine show act or ‘bit’ as he called it, known as “Niagara Falls”. This was one of the four “perennial favorites known to every medicine show performer and virtually every small-town boy of the early twentieth century.” (1). The author says that “Probably all four had their origins in the afterpieces that closed the nineteenth-century minstrel show.” (2). Most likely performed in blackface, the writer’s source was a “Carolina string band The Hired Hands” (3), who he saw perform it at the Smithsonian Institution’s Festival of American Folklife in 1981. This bit was performed by three men: a straightman, a heavy comic and a light comic. (4).
In the version quoted, the setting is a street corner and the straightman relates to the audience how he is not feeling too good because of an event that happened to him recently. Basically, a friend of his said he wanted to treat him to a vacation and pay his fare. “all the way”. (5). It soon turns out that rather than actually going on this vacation to the U.S./ Canada border, the straightman Homer ‘Pappy’ Sherrill, says he’s told by his friend that this will “be kind of an imagined thing” (6). After eulogising about the coolness of the breeze, the mist of the falls and “the water flowing over the dam” (7) his friend said to Pappy “ I’m gonna ask you to put this little thing called a radio funnel into the front of your pants, and I want you to imagine that you’re on your vacation.” (8). So, Pappy relates, “I did that and he let me have it – he poured a lot of water in my britches. I kind of got a little angry with him. He said, ‘Don’t do that, it’s all in fun. Get the next man that comes along, and have your laugh on him. So I’ve been waiting for the moment when he comes along, and…here he is!” (9).
In comes ‘Greasy’ who is the heavy comic and Pappy successfully tricks him with the Niagara Falls story. Pappy, in his turn, tells the unfortunate (and very wet) Greasy he can perform this bit on the next man that appears on the scene. This brings in the light comic, ‘Snuffy’, who goes along with the act. But strangely, even after pouring glass after glass into the front of his trousers, Greasy cannot see even a trace of damp on his intended victim. The latter who has been told to stare at a buzzing fly during this event to distract his attention, is finally asked by an exasperated Greasy “You don’t feel like you been to the falls? You don’t feel a little damp way down there in your bottom? (Snuffy replies) No, buddy, I been to Niagara Falls before!” (then) “Snuffy pulls a hot water bottle from his pants, into which all the water had been poured. Greasy and Pappy shout in surprise, and all make a quick exit.” (10). This was performed, with plenty of belly laughs and wisecracks all over the middle West and the South, including not only North Carolina but McTell’s home state of Georgia too. Blind Willie McTell could not have failed to be aware of this top medicine show bit called ‘Niagara Falls’ and it may have helped focus his mind when putting lyrics together for his “Drive Away Blues”.
1. McNamara B. p.138.
3. Ibid. p.xviii.
5. Ibid. p.200.
10. Ibid. p.206.
Brook. “Step Right Up”. University Press of Mississippi. Jackson.
1995. (Rep.). 1st. pub. 1975.
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As with many early blues there was a considerable amount of cross-fertilization with their hillbilly counterparts – and not always from black to white. Ida Cox’s “Chattanooga Blues” was covered by the Allen Brothers in 1927, still singing from the original female perspective; a not uncommon practice by blues singers also. (see Table 1).
1. Chattanooga Blues Ida Cox 1923
2. Chattanooga Blues Allen Brothers 1927
3. Johnson City Blues Clarence Green 1928
4. New Chattanooga Blues Allen Brothers c.1929
5. Chattanooga Mama Allen Brothers c.1930
6. Chattanooga Mama Allen Brothers 1934
Although Austin Allen, who probably takes the vocal, omits the ‘Lookout Mountain verse’, he does include variations of a couple of Ida Cox’s other stanzas. This included my dubious ‘float on the falls’ transcription. Strangely, Allen’s diction seems no clearer than that of the “Uncrowned Queen of the Blues”! At least here I am a little more sure of the last two words, ‘float’ is still muddied. Yet he appears to sing Ida’s lines word-for-word. The fact that the Allen Brothers (often known as “the Chattanooga boys”) were from Chattanooga probably accounts for their four versions of this song made between 1927 and 1934. I only have two of these, the other one being “Chattanooga Mama” from their last session. Taken at a far slower pace than their superb 1927 recording, this sounds quite lacklustre by comparison and omits all Ida Cox verses and still no reference to Lookout Mountain.
In the year after the Allen Brothers’ “Chattanooga” another hillbilly version appeared by guitarist Clarence Green. He uses Ms. Cox’s ‘Lookout Mountain verse’ plus the one including ‘float on the falls’. But Green, who gives an excellent performance, had even more problem with the blues singer’s diction than I did and mis-pronounces Chickamauga, to boot!
“Goin’ up on the Lookout Mountain, as far as I can see;
I’m lookin’ for the woman made a monkey out of me.
I came down to the depot in time to catch the cannonball;
Got the blues for Chattanooga, I will be back late next fall.”
“Down in Nicarauga (sic), as far as I could go;
Oh! The darndest bunch of soldiers that you ever saw.
On the Tennessee River, down below the lock an’ dam.
I bin lookin’ for my good gal, thinkin’ she might be Miss Brown.” (1)
I n between the above verses Green switches to the female persona, like the Allen Brothers, ands also changes the locale to Johnson City, Tenn. which was presumably his hometown; and where this recording was made. Wolfe notes that “Johnson City Blues” was “popular among east Tennessee musicians in the 1920s, often performed as “Chattanooga Blues”(hence the reference to ‘Lookout Mountain’)” (2). Adding, quite rightly, “Green’s interplay of voice and guitar is especially reminiscent of black performing styles of men like Mississippi John Hurt.” (3). Clarence Green didn’t attempt to ‘translate’ Ida Cox’s indeterminate phrase and instead inserted “as far as I can go” on this recording made the year prior to “Drive Away Blues” by Blind Willie McTell.
1. “Johnson City Blues” Clarence Green vo.gtr.
15/10/28. Johnson City, Tenn.
2. Wolfe C.K. p.15.
1. Wolfe Charles
K. Notes to “White Country Blues 1926 -1938”. (2 x CDs).
Roots ‘n Blues 01 -472886. c.1992.
2. Discographical details Ibid.
1. Fenn Harry Ibid. p.57. In O.B. Bunce.
2. Paramount Records?
p.109. In “78 Quarterly-Vol.11”. Pete Whelan (Ed./Pub.).
Key West, FL. 2000. p.109. Ibid.
3. N.C.& St.L. Ry. Ibid. p.56. In Richard Prince.
4. Cohn Lawrence
(Ed./Pub.). p.94. In “Nothing But The Blues”. Abbeville Press. New York.
London. Paris. 1993.
5. Cline. Ibid. p.13.
6. Ibid. p.42.
7. Fenn. Ibid. p.66.
8. Huddleston Duane. Sammie p.127. In “Steamboats And Ferries On
Rose. Pat Taylor Wood. The White River”. (New ed.). The University of Arkansas.
9. Owen. Ibid. p.1058.
10. Ibid. Ibid. p.1059.
11. Author’s collection.
12. Way & Rutter. Ibid. between p.p.166-167.
13. Harris. Ibid. p.251..
14. Prince. Ibid. p.61. (“N.C. & St. L.”)
15. ---“--- p.151. (“L. & N.”)
16. ---“--- p.157. (“N.C. & St. L.”)
17. ---“--- Ibid. p.155.
18. Cohn. Ibid. p.214.
Reformatted for the website by Alan White
Essay © Copyright 2005 Max Haymes. All rights reserved.
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