1930s Automobile on a Misty Day

Interview with TennJim on Living in the Rural South During the Great Depression

This was previously published on creativeconnectionarts.com and has not been edited since 2006.

“Interview with a Tennessee Native”
“Interview with Tennesse native :The cultural landscape of Tennessee from a once poor,  white man’s perspective”
by Angela K. Mack (c) 12/06(This man who wishes to remain anonymous is from  Murfreesboro, Tennessee and was born in 1934. He recently retired as a V.P. General Manager of a fortune 500 company.)  He is also a musician.   Check out his country music here:  http://www.soundclick.com/bands/default.cfm?bandID=698443

Angela:   I have written a scholarly in depth article about peonage/sharecropping in the south.

“TennJim”:  Angela,  thanks for the article. Having grown up in the rural south during the depression, I can attest to the validity of your essay. Sharecropping during that period resulted in forced indenture as you so aptly put it, however, the alternatives to both african-americans as well as uneducated caucasians were not too attractive. History will substantiate that the basics of life in the agrarian south was hard to come by. Unless you had access to land on which to grow food, there was little option available to prevent starvation. That meant for basic survival, you needed access to land. That was only available by renting land from existing landowners, purchasing land for yourself, or entering into an agreement to “sharecrop”. The more enterprising individuals would rent the land from a landowner who was facing eviction from his farm for overdue taxes. Then they would solicit credit from the local seed company to plant their crops, paying back the cost of the seeds as well as the rent on the land when the crop was harvested and sold. After a successful first year, they could recycle their portion of the seed for next years crop. Remember, cotton gins typically retained half of the cotton seed as their “toll”. The only drawback to this rental system was the initial cash required to rent the land. That led to the option whereby the tenant could rent the land for 50% of the crop returned to the landowner.

I remember seeing a large african-american family of 8 coming to my Grandfather’s farm in 1943. The family was homeless and had no money for food or shelter. The father of that family ask my Grandfather if he could live in an old shack we had behind one of the barns. My Grandfather gave him rights to live in the house and use a large plot for a garden. In return, he allocated a 40 acre field to his family on which they were to plant a cotton crop, work it and harvest it. 50% of the crop would be given to my Grandfather, the remainder was theirs. My Grandfather provided the seed, mules and plows, gave the family garden seed and equipment and let them have milk, eggs, etc. from the animals on the farm. The women of the sharecropping family were expected to help out with the preservation of food from our garden, help with the butchering of pork and beef and some other chores. The 40 acres produced around 60 bales of cotton which were worth around $2,000 back then. The sharecropper had $1,000 in cash at the end of the year. The family that we had were frugal and made most of their clothes or bought them from “rummage” sales. They preserved enough food to carry them through the winter with some small exceptions. After about 3 or 4 years, they were able to move out and get a small farm of their own. I even remember my grandfather selling them some calves to get them started.

So, yes, the servitude referred to is accurate. There were a lot of large landowners who did take advantage of the plight of the freed blacks to create an environment of forced servitude. I was friends with a large plantation owner’s son in Tunica Mississippi. I have seen first hand the Plantation Store charging $10.00 for a $2.00 pair of work pants, $5.00 for a $.50 sack of sugar, $1.00 for a 5 cent pack of garden seed, etc. and “putting it on the due-bill”. Also, I’ve seen this same landowner cheat the sharecropper out of their half of the crop by showing a gin-ticket that only produced half of what the crop really made. Then after extracting the ginning toll, instead of the share cropper getting $1,000, they only received $500. After extracting the Plantation Store bill, the sharecropper was left owing $500…meaning he had to work another year to work off his debt. Keep in mind, most of these sharecroppers (black and white) were illiterate so it wasn’t hard to mislead them.

Both scenarios happened. Some were fair and honest, some very unfair. Maybe that’s why blues music came out of some of those unfair situations. They represented the hopelessness of the social systems prevalent on some plantations.

Angela:  Wow. Fascinating stories. I like first hand stories the best. It sounds like your grandfather saved this family. I take it that you owned a plantation? Would you mind telling me what state you grew up in? I am fascinated with understanding the south during this time period. You brought up something that I haven’t heard much of……those plantation owners who WERE fair and helpful. Why do you suppose some were fair and some not? Human nature?

“TennJim”:  I grew up in Tennessee. My Grandfather was a Doctor and had acquired land over the years, some as payment for his services, the rest as an investment. As the depression deepened, all of my relatives moved to the farm. Jobs in the cities just weren’t available and we all had to eat. My Grandfather was a very strict man and demanded everyone work. I remember chopping cotton right beside some of those sharecroppers. Don’t misunderstand, I wasn’t treated the same as the African-Americans, but I was expected to carry my own weight when it came to the work.

I knew a few land owners who were fair. Most went to the same church as my family and we would talk about the general economic conditions after church service. Often the conversation would center around the labor needed to harvest the year’s crops and where that would come from. My Grandfather knew that to get the temporary labor from “town” when September came, he would need to be known for fair play. There was a very developed line of communications between the sharecroppers and the itinerate workers who lived in town and eked out their living by doing odd jobs for shopkeepers. Every Saturday night the entire “black” community would gather along a section of town that was considered “their area” and chat about the week’s events – both in town and on the farms. Since there was typically a shortage of temporary laborers at harvest time, the available workers would go to the farms that were known for fair practices.

The largest plantations had sufficient workers in most cases to handle their harvest, and thus were not dependent on the temporary labor pool. That meant they could be less fair in their dealings, hence, the conditions I described above.

I had an uncle who ran one of the stores where the “black community” would congregate on Saturday night. I remember when he died and we had to inventory his store, we found deeds to large parcels of land in shoeboxes at the back of the store. Apparently, he loaned money to landowners during this depression era and they had given him the deed to their property as collateral. If we had pursued this collateral, it would have created critical economic problems for the small town. I remember my Grandfather burning those deeds to make sure no one ever tried to repossess the lands. There were also several “due-bills” to the African-Americans, some over 20 years old. Again we just burned them.

Angela:  What disparities were there in how you were treated and the African Americans were treated? Did they ever get together and sing or play music?

“TennJim”:  Disparities. I remember one Christmas eve when another Uncle came by our house. Now this Uncle was one of the “unfair” landowners. He had a little “black” boy with him. This child was dressed in a Tuxedo and was carrying my Uncle’s whiskey jug. My Uncle would offer the adults in my family a drink and tell the little boy to give them the jug. Then he would have the little boy take a drink from the jug. Everyone would have a big laugh. I remember feeling sorry for the child but knew that because he was black, there was nothing I could do. I also remember that the school bus that carried the white children to school would stop right at the front gate to our farm. There was no bus for the black children. They had to walk around 4 miles to get to school. Most of the black children just gave up and quit school. Every year at harvest time, the black schools closed for “cotton-picking” season. The schools would be out for around 4 weeks while all of the black children would help with the cotton picking. Remember, the cotton pickers could earn 1 cent per pound for picking cotton. The more family members you had picking, the more money you made. The white schools would stay in session except for the last week of the harvest season. That’s when we had the county fair and school would be out for that. I remember the bus depots with their “white” and “colored” bathrooms, drinking fountains. It was only a couple of years ago that the local Doctor’s office eliminated the “colored” waiting room.

Angela:  What denomination were you a part of?

“TennJim”:  I was and still am a Southern Baptist. Services on Sunday use to be an all day event. Families would bring a covered dish to one of the homes and in the summer we would have a big spread on tables in the yard. Most of the time, the “black” sharecropper families would assist in the preparation and serving of the food. When all of the “white” families had eaten, the “black” families would help themselves to the leftovers.

Angela:  Did you have a phonograph? If so, what types of music did you listen to? Did you know any white musicians?

“TennJim”:  My Father had made a Victrola phonograph in shop class in High School. One of those crank up types. We had a large collection of 78 rpm records, many of which I still have. A lot of them were blues (mostly “Stomps”), some country (Jimmie Rodgers” and a few “jazz” – foxtrots. The one song I remember playing over and over was Hobo Bills Last Ride by Jimmie Rodgers. It was interesting that a little later in life I met and played with the Carter Family. Mama Maybelle had played on the same recording session as Jimmie Rodgers in Bristol when he recorded his first records. I later met and played with several “country” music people…Chet Atkins, Hank Williams, Sr., Ernest Tubb, and lest I forget, Johnny Cash and Elvis…

I do remember hearing some old African-Americans sitting on the porch of the Plantation Store on Saturday night. One would be playing an old Stella guitar using a broken “coke” bottle neck for a slide, one a harp and maybe one would have a washboard or nail keg to provide the percussions. I was enamored with the sound of the blues, even though it was inappropriate for me to hang around them. I remember my Father telling me one day, “Son, you have been hanging around those “darkies” so much you’re beginning to turn black yourself…just look behind your ears”. Of course he was referring to the fact that my face needed washing, but the insinuations were there at any rate.

Angela:  This information is extremely helpful. What blues records do you have? Do you have any Paramount records? If so, which ones?

“TennJim”:  I’m not sure which records I have left. They are in Atlanta where my Mother lived until her death last month. I remember we had Al Jolson “Sonny Boy”, numerous Jimmie Rodgers, a song “Grandfather’s Clock”, “Memphis Stomp”, “St. Louis Blues”, and a bunch I can’t remember right now. I’ll have to get my hands on the records and I’ll let you know. If I remember, most were either “Victor” labels or “RCA”.

Angela:  The music you heard them play as a child is so typical. And you are a musician too? What do you play?

“TennJim”:  I am somewhat of a musician…or at least use to be. I play guitar, mandolin, fiddle, upright bass and piano. My instrument of choice is acoustic guitar though and when I was doing session work for various labels around Nashville and Memphis it was with the acoustic guitar…although I do believe I have the honor of playing the first Telecaster on stage at the Grand Ol’ Opry.

Angela:  Did the African Americans in your area have phonographs? Would you let them listen with you?

“TennJim”:  I don’t recall any African Americans having a Victrola when I was growing up. Most didn’t even have a radio. On Sundays, I remember after church when we were having Dinner in the front yard, I would sometimes play the Victrola. The african-americans who were there would listen. But, the most interesting thing I remember was when Joe Louis was fighting Billy Conn for the Heavy Weight title and the fight(s) were on the radio, the black family who lived on our farm would gather outside our window to listen to the fight. They would be rooting for Joe Louis to win, while we would be for Billy Conn…Joe of course won.

Angela:  Was your church all white? What church did the African Americans go to?

“TennJim”:  Oh definitely the churches were segregated. The church I attended as a child didn’t really integrate until the 90’s. I’m not sure if they would have turned away an African-American, but I’m sure some of the old timers would have frowned upon a “black” person entering the congregation. Even though I grew up in a rather unbiased family, we were taught that “separate but equal” was not to be questioned. The African Americans had their own churches, predominantly Baptist and Methodist. Usually they were a small one-room structure located in the section of town set aside for the “black people”. Much the same for their schools. No indoor plumbing, just an outhouse out back. And the one thing I remember about the churches and schools, every one had a baseball field. That was the only sport that we integrated during the 40’s and 50’s.

It wasn’t until 1954 or 1955 that the white kids were allowed to really enjoy “black” music. When Little Richard, Fats Domino, The Platters, et al were just getting started, it was considered inappropriate for white kids to go to concerts where these acts were playing. I still remember the church sermons about how this “devil music” is going to destroy our morals.

Angela:  You have been the most helpful. You have no idea how important this information is. It’s one thing to read about it, but another thing to hear personal stories.

“TennJim”:  Of course it brings back lots of memories. As you may have noticed, the Church keeps coming up in my posts. Church was our escape from the day to day realities of life. The music of the church has always influenced our lives and contributed to the way we intrepret music. From the blues singers I’ve talked to over the years (and I’m 72 this year), most attribute their musical talents to the church.

As many of you know, I was a session guy in Nashville, primarily with RCA. When the musical industry began their shift to Rock and Roll, I went to Memphis to see what connections I could make in the studios there. That’s where I met Sam Phillips and the whole stable of blues artists he represented. As I’ve said in another post somewhere, Dewey Phillips was responsible for the marketing arm of Sun Records. Black music was played on WDIA (I believe that is the right call letters). White music on WHBQ along with other stations, but Dewey was with WHBQ. Without Dewey playing the black artist’s music on WHBQ, I still don’t believe the success of the blues artists would have reached the prominence that it did. That’s just my opinion.

Angela:  You said, “It was only a couple of years ago that the local Doctor’s office eliminated the “colored” waiting room.”  Was this place in operation as a segregated facility? My God…………..

“TennJim”:  No, the facility was integrated. No one really enforced the waiting rooms, it was just that the facility didn’t remove the signs. And most of the African American community still adhered to the signs even though they weren’t enforced. I assume that it was a “comfort” factor for them.

I was thinking last night about how the general public viewed the race issues in the 40’s and early 50’s. I made some references to the “Black Area” of town. In my hometown of Murfreesboro, Tennessee the section of town set aside for the general non-caucasian population was in the flood plain of the Town Creek. Every year in the spring, you could expect the creek to flood at least once. That area was known locally as “black-bottom”. The people who lived there were predominantly african-american but there were a number of “white-trash” families living there as well. The general public viewed both of these social levels as equals and when it came time to hire temporary field workers, farmers would use the caucasians as well as african-americans on an equal basis. The section of town that became the hangout for the African-Americans on Saturday night was known as “mink-slide”. I’m not sure of the origin of this nickname, but it probably related to the color of the mink…predominantly dark skinned. I remember listening to the “Boll-Weevil” song…

“Farmer said to the boll weevil
whatca doin’ here on the square.
Boll weevil said to the farmer
Got a great big family there…
Just lookin’ for a home…
Just lookin’ for a home.”

The black population weren’t permitted to congregate on the town square. If an African-American was caught on the square, he was arrested. “Mink-Slide” was located about a block off of the square and there was an imaginary boundary where they could come to. So, in the context of my home town, the song made sense. The boll weevil was viewed as a metaphor for the African American people and the farmer was wondering why he was on the square.  Just another tidbit.

Angela:  Anything else?

“TennJim”:  remind me of the significance of the Illinois Central railroad to the blues music in Mississippi in the 30’s and 40’s. As I said in one of those posts, my Father in Law worked as a contract heavy equipment operator for the I.C. during those years. They were building the tracks and trestles through the Delta and worked and lived along side the African-American “tie-gangs” who were laying the track and crossties. Most of these workers were ex sharecroppers who were trying to escape the peonage situation found on the plantations. In most cases, they had moved to Memphis and found they couldn’t live there without a permanent job. With the expansion of the railroad from Chicago to New Orleans and the movement of industrial products from the Steel Belt to the growing South, jobs were available from the railroad. These displaced African Americans would get a job with the railroad and work (sometimes along side the inmates from Parchman) to complete the expansion and upgrading of tracks. Occasionally a few would catch a freight train north to Chicago thinking that was a better place to live than Memphis.

As I said in that earlier post, my Father in Law would tell of stories of hearing these “Negroes” playing their instruments and singing their blues songs at night. Again, as an escape from the realities of the hard life they were living. He also would tell of the “darkies” having to buy their own tools from the Company Store (which was just a converted box-car). Again, like the plantations, the store charged higher prices for their goods and would put them on a charge system which left the worker with little or no real cash after they settled up their bills. So, in effect, the railroads were contributing to the peonage system. Guess that’s why they were still “Singing the Blues”…

Angela:  How has the African American music that you heard as a child influenced your playing?
Do you have elements of that in your music?  And the whole hillbilly era/stage…………what do you know of that?

“TennJim”:  I had to really think about your question, “How has the African American music that you heard as a child influenced your playing?”. I tried to remember if I even thought of the music as African American. In all honesty, the answer is no. I didn’t know there was such a thing as African-American music or any other “race” related music. All I remember is that when I heard Al Jolson sing Sonny Boy, I enjoyed it. Same with W. C. Handy’s St. Louis Blues. I really didn’t connect it with any specific race.

Most of the music that influenced me has some basis in both African-American as well as Appalachian Mountain Music (Which I prefer to “Hillbilly”). I believe that both styles have some roots in Irish Jigs and Irish Folk Songs. It’s just that the Delta blues incorporated the “shout” used by the field hands on the plantations in their development of the “call and respond” style of the blues while the Appalachian Mountain Music kept pretty much to the style of the Jigs and Folk songs.

It’s interesting to look at some parallels of the growth of the two genre’ of music. Sharecropping or peonage created the environment that led to the delta blues. Of this I have no doubt. The pain, despair, longing for freedom and the hope of one day escaping that condition lives in most of the Blues songs. In the mountains of West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina the European immigrants, the Native Americans and numerous runaway slaves toiled in dark, unsafe coal mines working for the “man”. Like their African American counterparts on plantations in the delta who were indentured by the sharecropping system, these people were indentured by the company store and the large coal companies who used them to line their own coffers. Instead of the Delta juke joints, this group of people would gather at a local church to sing songs of pain, despair, longing for freedom and the hope of one day escaping the life in the coal mine. In both styles, the simple acoustic instruments were the choice for the music…Began with the fiddle playing jigs and lullabys, accompanied by banjo’s and guitars, usually for church or local dances.

As I said earlier, my Grandfather on my Father’s side of the family was a Doctor and Landowner. My Mother’s side of the family were from Appalachia. My Maternal Grandfather was a blacksmith in the Coal Mines of Eastern Kentucky and East Tennessee. His roots were from Wales and Native American. My maternal Grandmother was Irish and I still remember her singing Irish tunes when I was very young. My maternal aunts and uncles were musicians. When we would get together for family reunions, everyone would play their instruments and sing. So my largest influence was from the mountains.

Electricity didn’t arrive in the East Tennessee mountains until TVA was created under FDR. Exposure to music was limited to church, social events, and if you were fortunate enough to have a battery powered radio, the Grand Ol’ Opry broadcast every Saturday Night on WSM Radio. So other than the music that was handed down from generation to generation by family members, you only knew what you happened to hear on the radio broadcasts. Since battery power was valuable, you didn’t get to hear much of that.

Living so close to Nashville during my younger years and having been exposed to the mountain music and the Grand Ol Opry on Sat. nites, it was natural that my music leaned that direction. I still didn’t connect the blues to the appalachian music until I met the Carter Family. Listening to Mama Maybelle Carter talk about her relationship with Jimmie Rodgers and how he had come from Mississippi with his experiences and exposure to the African American music of that area, coupled with their mutual experiences with the railroad, that I began to put two and two together. I realized that some of the songs I had heard from the sharecroppers on our farm contained the same feelings of despair and hope that I was hearing in some of the music coming from the coal mining communities of Appalachia. I realized just how important the railroad was to the possibility of escape to those in the sharcropping dilema as it was to the coal miners of appalachia. The only way out of the mountains or the delta was on a freight train headed north.

So, does my music relate to African American music. Indirectly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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