Chapter Six: Art Out of Adversity



The Legacy: Art out of Adversity

 Trans- Brazos Blues, better known as Texas Country Blues were born in the hot Texas sun, where legions of bloodstained fingers pulled countless tons of cotton from an endless sea of prickly stalks. When you combine the dismal social environment of the average cotton farm worker with his relentless workload on a cotton plantation, you can only have respect for those who endured and fought back with something as innocuous as music. It had started with singing work-songs that recounted their plight, their humor, and their enduring Faith. This kind of peaceful protest was tolerated and even encouraged by the White crew bosses, who supervised and barked from the backs of fly-swarmed mules, whips and guns ready. It was believed that the music kept the pickers calm, steady and strangely satisfied. Little could they have imagined that they were witnessing the birth of an internationally significant music phenomenon.

“Blues” is an enigmatic term, and there is some debate about what it meant. Some believe it was an abbreviation of “blue devils,” an Early American colloquialism which referred to hallucinations supposedly seen while one was drunk;  Blues was an allusion to the fear and confusion caused by them, which often led to mental depression afterwards.  But this was as much a White term as anyone’s. Blue was also the color associated with “Yankees,” or more properly Federal military uniforms who brought Emancipation during the Reconstruction years after the Civil War. The “Blue” was the good guys… and yet just as symbolic of broken promises and dreams once touted by the Federal Government.  Later that duality was sealed as it became the common color of police uniforms. Thus blue was the color of Emancipation and yet to some the color of state sponsored oppression. “Blues” had a double edge, even a multiplicity of perceptions, an African version of yeng and yang that served every purpose to control and oppress the Black man, and to set his soul free.

The quickly evolving “Race” music swept the cotton blackland like a prairie fire, and became the favorite pastime, an acceptable if not secret form of rebellion. It was an instance in human history of a nearly pure art movement. Not only because it was a genuine release, funneled into rhyme and melody, but because there was almost pure freedom within it.  Soon there were songs passed down the valley about fights, lovers and sexual exploits. After Emancipation, the songs were able to be transmitted from county to county and from river to river at a much faster rate, and the music grew exponentially.

If the rivers were the communication lines of this new art form, the railroads were the paths of distribution. It was an underground movement, fed by natural corridors, and yet hidden by segregation. Field workers would work all week and then head to town on Saturday to shop and hear the latest tunes offered by buskers on the street corners. Blind Lemon Jefferson, perhaps the earliest known blues recording artist from Texas, served as an early messenger of the movement, as he travelled up and down Blues Valley, wherever the pickers were getting paid, singing for nickels and dimes. He ranged from Dallas and Ft Worth down to Hearne and over to Centerville, and even down in the southern Brazos Valley. His songs like “Jack O’ Diamonds” and “Please Keep My Grave Clean” became blues classics.

Because of numerous social and cultural paradigms enforced by the dominant White culture, many unfortunate psychological forces were at work, and there were few positive conclusions to inspire and provide self respect. Many Blacks were the literal offspring of their masters, and were obviously half-blooded. They were soon recognized as physically attractive, even superior physically, and these “High Yellows” or “Mulattos” were considered the most serious threat to White supremacy. Because of their White characteristics, Mulatto women were most likely to be accepted outside of the Black community, and just as likely Mulatto men were apt to be killed out of jealousy or fear. Many former slave owners wished to erase the indiscretions of their youth, and reasoned that half-White children were inconsistent with the Southern caste ideal and should be eliminated. Handsome, fair skinned, slightly curly haired young mulatto men were a favorite target of sexual accusations and KKK lynchings.  In fact the executions only cemented the idea that these light-skinned types were something powerful and special. During this era, a racial hierarchy was born based on lightness of skin, which still haunts Blacks today.  Many themes of blues songs were based on this monumental issue.     

Perhaps not coincidentally, “blueing” was a liquid used during the clothes washing process to make off-colored cloth look whiter; a popular chemical whitener used by an overpowering White culture, where whiteness and purity and desirability were considered synonymous. If blue could wash stained linens and make them acceptable, surely “blues” could wash their troubles and make a dark existence tolerable.  It was an enigma they were born into…

“All Negroes like the blues. Why? Because they were born with the blues. And now, everybody have the blues. Sometimes they don’t know what it is. But when you lay down at night. Turn from side of the bed to the other. And can’t sleep, what’s the matter?  Blues got you.”                    Huddie  “Leadbelly” Ledbetter


                     State Senator James H. Washington was elected during Reconstruction times.

So Blues may not only have meant sorrow, but paradoxically a sort of daily cleansing as well. Blues were a tangle of repressed emotions, and the therapeutic unleashing of them. Blues were a catharsis for African Americans, a washing of their souls with tears and tunes and lyrics from the depths of their broken but resilient hearts. Blues music provided an outlet to spill their guts, and a place to find them. A forum for resistance, and yet a source for courage to endure another day in the endless cycle of the Texas cotton farm.

Blues came of age during the early 1900’s, when unschooled Black children still languished in the turn-rows until they were old enough to carry a hoe. Born in 1895 near Navasota, Mance (Emancipation) Lipscomb, was one such child, who performed his first songs with his father, a popular Brazos bottom fiddler, by the age of fourteen. Mance bassed behind his father with the old guitar his mother had acquired from a wandering gambler when he was eleven. This was a life changing gift, his most prized possession, and the beginning of a Texas legacy. But Mance would spend years learning songs and playing for dances in and around Washington, Brazos and Grimes Counties, and his talents would never be known outside of Blues Valley until he was old.  It was the flamboyant if not meteoric career of a famed Grimes County neighbor, Texas Alexander, that would soon mark the beginning for local blues history.

Texas Alexander was born in Jewett, Texas but was raised by his grandmother Sally Beavers in Richards, in Grimes County Texas along with his brother Edell and their cousin Willie Mae Proctor. He spent much of his latter life in Grimes County as well, calling Richards home until his death.  Born Alger Alexander on September 12, 1900, by 1923 he began to sing at local gatherings and was discovered by pianist Sammy Price. Soon Alger became one of the first bluesmen to make it as a vocalist, cutting records as early as 1927 for Okeh Records in New York.  Texas Alexander had such talent and promise as an entertainer that the record company provided the country’s best musicians as accompanists, and put him in the finest transportation of the day… his very own car.

Okeh Records had high expectations for Alger, and hired the legendary Lonnie Johnson to back him up on guitar. Later he was teamed up with Eddie Lang. He belted out his lyrics in the style of the old southern field hands, and helped to preserve the slave traditions of work songs and field hollers.  He was also recorded in San Antonio and Dallas studios, backed instrumentally by Dennis “Little Hat” Jones, Carl Davis, and later the Mississippi Sheiks and other “who’s who” Blues musicians at the time. In fact nearly all of the people who played with Texas became blues greats. When travelling by himself, he was known as a peer of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s, who was from the northern end of the Navasota Valley near Wortham, and he performed with him often in the legendary Dallas “Deep Ellum” district.  Texas Alexander was a true “Star” all during the Great Depression, while most of his race lived in relative poverty.

Yet in between gigs, he still worked as a railroad section hand, and was considered a powerfully muscled he-man by anyone who met him. Local people around Leon and Grimes Counties remembered him as a short, very dark little man, with a very tender voice and an open smile. He was married but his first wife died. Living and working on the railroad track in Richards, Alexander could hop a train and make a gig in Dallas in just half a day. This was the accepted if not only feasible mode of travel for early bluesmen.

Texas travelled all over Texas on the blues circuit until appearing one day in the autumn of 1927, at a picnic in Normangee. His cousin Sam “Lightnin’ Hopkins, then just a boy, remembered that he stood up in the bed of a pick-up truck during a sandlot baseball game between the boys of Normangee and Leona.  As he began to bellow and sing from the bowels of the earth, everyone’s attention was drawn to the parking lot. Soon the ball and the bat were dropped, and the crowd gathered around the local vocal sensation. Hopkins remembered his stunning wheels for a Black man in those days, “the longest, old ugly car,” a new Cadillac, which they rode around to gigs in, when he got old enough.  Lightnin’ Hopkins got his first pay for playing the guitar as a teen-ager while backing up Texas Alexander in little Texas towns like Crockett, Grapeland, Buffalo, and Centerville.

This scenario was repeated many times during Alexander’s career. Thomas Shaw, Ruby Doke, Dan Lewis, his cousin’s Joel Hopkins and Frankie Lee Sims, and Alger’s brother Edell all did a stint as Texas Alexander’s guitar man. By 1934, they thought they were ready for the big time, and Texas, nineteen year old Lightnin’ and a harmonica player named Billy Bizor set out for Houston to light up the blues scene. But they broke up when Texas was recruited to record again, this time in Ft. Worth with the Sax Black Tams. The dynamic string duo of Willie Reed and Carl Davis also recorded with him, helping to create perhaps his best releases ever.

Now in his prime, in 1935 Texas Alexander teamed up with another Texas prison blues legend, J. T. “Funny Papa” Smith, known then as “Howlin’Wolf,” (the original one) and they toured together for several years. Smith had done time in Huntsville, for murder, and this may have been the most explosive and dangerous couple of entertainers to ever take the stage at once. The music had to be primo in such circumstances.  And audiences dare not express any negativity either. Mysteriously, Smith fell off the blues radar after that, and was never seen again.  It has always been assumed he was thrown back into prison.   

In 1939, Alger Alexander recruited a young sideshow guitarist while singing his way across Oklahoma. Only twenty years old, Lowell Fulson said good-bye to his family and struck out for the adventure of a lifetime,that ended up being the beginning of his own blues odyssey. Fifty years later he told a British blues magazine his story, which had long since been lost to the winds of west Texas.  Lowell candidly spoke of his mentor, of the path they shared for a very formative year of his life, and the nature of his partnership with one of the fathers of Texas blues.

Fulson may have left us with the most informative first hand memories of the most elusive legend of Grimes County; Little, seemingly insignificant facts and observations that finally help make Texas Alexander more than a blur in our past.  Even though they are the faint recollections of a big-eyed kid as he accompanied a blues superstar, they may teach us valuable insights to the enigmatic bluesman who left us little else to go on.

Alexander had been married, to a second wife and was living in Leon County, in Normangee, Texas. Word on the street in Ada, Oklahoma was that the husky Texas blues star was a wanted man. But he was deliberate and polite, and acted like a man with a mission. Fulson had just picked up the guitar, in fact his uncle’s, and had earned a chair at the local sideshow in Ada, when Texas Alexander swaggered in one day and offered him a substantial raise to follow him to west Texas. The young guitarist must have had a promising sound, but the veteran vocalist was never picky about his musicians, having been known to carry a guitar wherever he went in hopes of finding a decent musician who could accompany him at the next gig.  “You can make at least ten dollars a night going with me,” he bragged in a commandingly deep voice. That was good money in those days.    

Fulson was smitten and soon they were in west Texas, cruising in Alexander’s big new car, on tour with a lady blues singer known only as “Bessie.” She was passed off facetiously as “Bessie Smith,” but Fulson’s faint description of her seems to fit the ghost of another Texas blues phantom, Bessie Tucker, who was as free a spirit as ever haunted the dives and juke joints of Texas. The young musician never asked questions, and did not even suspect any kind of relationship other than music business, and soon the mysterious woman named Bessie was gone, and the two were soaring the landscape in search of an audience and another day’s meal.  According to Fulson, they never had trouble finding either.

Fulson remembered Alexander as a solitary man, brooding and almost non-communicative, except when it was time to sing. Then the stocky singer came to life, and he became a different person, glib and confident, and took command of the room. He was fair with the young musician, but never indulgent, and doled out cash as it was necessary. He seemed to think he was protecting Fulson from wasting his share. But there was little for a young Oklahoma Negro to do in the Texas desert anyway, and plenty of pitfalls in an unpredictable landscape of hardship and racism. “He was like a father, a bodyguard,” explained Fulson.  Alexander always warned him to mind his own business and stay in his room. Hopping from one strange place to another, Alexander seemed to be preoccupied and detached, and Fulson began to long for home cooking. Finally he was picked up by police for loitering, and put in jail, and Texas came after him like the wrath of God… “You’ve got my boy in there… my boy. I’ve come to get him out!” The Police were glad to oblige.  Only later would Fulson figure out that Texas had risked arrest himself to free him.

But too soon the ride of a lifetime was over, and authorities took Texas Alexander to jail.  In 1939 Alger was convicted for murdering his second wife and sent to prison. Little could young Lowell have known that Alexander was on one last tour while he evaded arrest.  The history is very fuzzy here, but Fulson explained that Texas had found his wife with another lover and killed them both with a hatchet. He never saw Alexander again, but Lowell Fulson became a Texas blues guitar legend in his own right.

Texas Alexander went to prison and served around three years for murder at the Ramsey Unit.  Like Huddie Leadbetter, aka “Leadbelly,” Texas used his music talent to gain favor with the Warden and ultimately obtained a parole by the Governor. Getting out for good behavior had drawbacks, especially if you had a hard time behaving. By 1942 Texas was back in prison, probably for violating the terms of his parole. Here again, the records are a bit fuzzy, but Lightnin’ Hopkins explained that Texas had released a vulgar song which embarrassed those who had arranged his release, and he was put in jail for a song called the “Boar Hog Blues.”

If this is true, then it may be the only recorded incident when a man was sent to prison for singing a song. This is especially intriguing since Alexander’s life reads like a missing persons bulletin, laced with murders and suspicious disappearances. Yet it took the White authorities an allegoric song about a boar hog to get them really mad.

The song was full of supposedly erotic and suggestive phrases, and was banned from radio play. But Texas continued to perform the song, especially when pressured for it. In a strange tangle of small town intrigue, some old home town enemies from Jewett were in Dallas and successfully conspired to get Texas arrested, perhaps for public lewdness. He is believed to have served another year, and perhaps more in prison, as his cousin Lightnin’ Hopkins explained, for “singin’ them bad songs,” and then beaten severely and released. When he arrived at Hopkins’ home, “…He couldn’t get in without crawlin’ in.”

Still, Texas Alexander remained stoic, fearless, devotedly loyal and driven to perform. Most of the next nine years were spent on the streets in Houston sealing his fame, performing with cousin Lightnin’ Hopkins, who by then was claiming the undisputed title of “King of Texas Blues.” They were known to spontaneously begin performances on street corners or while riding in buses, singing for tips just like the good old days. Houston legends say sometimes they would board a bus and start playing, and the passengers would quit getting off of the bus, and the bus would just cruise around… except to stop for beverages. In 1950 Texas made one last record in Houston, under the Freedom label, accompanied by Benton’s Busy Bees.

Long since attributed to Robert Johnson, who also recorded in Texas and had known him, one of his recordings, called Crossroads, may have been written by him, as he grew up in and near Leon County, where there actually was a community named Crossroads. Made famous by Robert Johnson, his song is considered the essential blues song of all time. Texas Alexander also recorded a song in 1928 about the House of the rising Sun, an establishment in New Orleans that made the Animals famous in 1964. It had been reasoned by some music critics that they found inspiration for their rock classic in his crude recording done thirty years before, and perhaps drew from others as well as they combined it with Matty Groves, an English folk song. Whether or not he wrote or just recorded it, Texas joins an impressive list of American musicians that have some claim in the song, including Bob Dylan, Roy Acuff, Glen Yarborough, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and a host of Kentucky folk singers. But to his credit, he was the first, and most likely, his was the most authoritative.

His cousin Lightnin’ had hit the big time without him, in a move that he never got over.  Texas began to tour with Melvin ‘Lil Son” Jackson.  Albert Collins, another Leon County blues legend and distant cousin, met him right before his death at a family reunion picnic in Leon County. He would be the last of this remarkable family blues dynasty to make music history. Another distant cousin, Milton Hopkins plays guitar for Texas Johnny Boy, a blues band in Houston, making this family the truest “First Family” of Texas Blues.

But the good old days had gotten up and went, and Alger found himself suffering from a terminal case of Syphilis. He went home to Grimes County to wait out his painful demise.

Texas Alexander died in obscurity in Richards in 1954.  The newspaper never even mentioned his passing. He was buried in an unmarked grave in the Longstreet Cemetery just across the county line, in Montgomery County. Today, there is almost no trace of this man, his life or his music, other than some obscure Internet websites. There is only one known photograph of him in existence, and it is a very poor one. Because of his tragic mistakes and crimes, his groundbreaking career in American blues was almost buried with him. Few people in Richards, Texas have ever heard his name, and even fewer around Blues Valley where he lived and sang. Yet in spite of his flaws and local obscurity, several albums of his music have been released in Europe. Blues collectors in England are quite familiar with Texas blues, and one of its first Texas bluesmen, and recognize his name thousands of miles from where he learned and plied his trade.

The old 78 records that he released in the 20’s and 30’s bring impressive prices on Internet auctions, and his works have been rereleased as CD’s.  Regardless of his tragic life, his songs have afforded him lasting fame and immortality. Somewhere in the world, right now, someone is listening to him sing the blues. Perhaps across the ocean, and decades later, in a foreign land, the memory of Alger Alexander has found a measure of grace.
Even more discomforting than the background of blues is the relationship between Blues and men and prison. Mance Lipscomb always stayed on the right side of the law, but readily admitted “The best ball players, best dancers, best songsters- best anything went to penitentiaries.” So many bluesmen had done time in prison that it appears to have almost been a rite of passage. The most famous inmate was “Leadbelly,” who did time in several prisons in Louisiana and Texas. 

Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter in Angola Prison.

Huddie“Leadbelly”Ledbetter was born in Louisiana, but soon found himself working in the northeast Texas cottonfields after his first stint in Louisiana’s Angola Prison. He became well known in Texas as a “busker” or street musician and a bronc buster, as he got married and settled down, occasionally working the Dallas “Deep Ellum” Blues scene with young “Blind Lemon” Jefferson.

But “Leadbelly” had lots of trouble with women and his temper and thus the law. Although he never had trouble charming prison wardens with his songs, it would be his deadly assaults that would lead one Northern Black newspaper to headline his story with “Two Time Dixie Murderer Sings Way To Freedom.” This accomplishment was due in no small part to the efforts of Professor John Lomax of the University of Texas, a dedicated music historian who relentlessly searched out original sources of Folk music, and who ultimately discovered a Gospel and Blues goldmine in Southern prisons. Lomax spent countless months tracking and recording “Leadbelly” and his contemporaries, capturing such prison nuggets as “Irene” and “Midnight Special,” later covered by John Fogerty of Credence Clearwater Revival. “Leadbelly” was his star performer, and was hired after his release to drive him around and assist in extracting the ore from inmates in several states, who eagerly unleashed their riches.

The Trans-Brazos Valley prison culture was a perfect network for a music movement, and “Leadbelly” is believed to have influenced many aspiring musicians in the various prisons where he did time, and probably taught many of them what he knew about playing the accordion and guitar. Inmates like Moses “Clear Rock” Platt, James “Iron Head”Baker, Smith Casey and Pete Harris sang about “Black Betty,” the prison patty wagon, and “Uncle Bud” Russell, the man who drove it, delivering an estimated 115,000 men to their just reward.
Alger “Texas” Alexander killed his wife in 1939 and spent five years in prison in Paris, Texas.  He too was able to get sympathy through his music and got released early.

Like his older cousin, “Lightin’ Hopkins” also did time, and wrote songs about prison life, with tributes to the prison personnel there.  Hopkins’ “Bud Russell Blues” helped to make the Huntsville Prison driver a living legend. In the 60's J. B. Smith, a noted bluesman and lifer in the TDC, also sang about doing time and Bud Russell while incarcerated at the Ramsey Unit in Sugarland, Texas.  At least four Blues songs mention him by name.  Many more prison jewels made it into the mainstream. In 1950 the Weavers recorded “Good Night Irene” and it became a hit single. In 1956 Lonnie Donegan made the Top Ten in Great Britain with “Rock Island Line.” That was just the beginning, as Texas Country Blues began to shape the hope of American Civil Rights as well as American music history.

Blind Men & Blues... & Musical Twists of Fate

Most music lovers are aware of the connection between blindness and musical talent. Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles are just two contemporary links of an amazing chain of blind entertainers that have sung their way to fame. There have been some white blind singers, but for some reason most of them have been black. One of the very first was “Blind Tom,” a slave child from Columbus, Georgia. Blind Tom was probably an autistic savant, having never been given a lesson, and unable to read or write or even speak clearly, but somehow began to bang on his master’s piano and duplicate any song he had heard. After the Civil War he was taken to New York where he thrilled and amazed the masses. Blind Tom performed in Navasota in 1876 and 1895.  The charm and enigma of his career was so touching that many whites found sympathy and inspiration in his story.

A Texas humorist of the time noted, “Blind Tom plays 7000 pieces on the piano. He is accompanied by a kind-hearted man who sees that nobody else takes advantage of Tom…”

Such an impression was made by Tom that in 1954 Maureen Chinski felt compelled to include a few paragraphs about Blind Tom in her history of Navasota, called the Bluebonnet Book. This is quite a feat, since she never found space to mention any of Navasota’s lawmen, the White Man’s Union, The assassination attempt of Sheriff Scott, the race battle in Millican, or Navasota’s blues history, or in fact any other Black people.  It is true that she died suddenly in the middle of the manuscript. Perhaps she was saving the best for last.

The first and most famous blind Blues man was Blind Lemon Jefferson of Couchman, near Wortham, who raised the bar for proficiency among the blind performers. He would stand somewhere on the railroad tracks in Hearne or Fort Worth or Dallas and crowds would materialize out of thin air. They would put nickels in his cup and encourage him to play for hours. 

 Blind Lemon became a household word in the Texas cotton bottoms, and an inspiration to others like himself. His popularity led to a musical trend, and suddenly every blind Black child had hope of usefulness and even fame. This led to a whole generation of blind musicians throughout the South, who found the blues a perfect genre to share their stories of struggle and visions of deliverance. And being blind, they were afforded a certain mercy , like that shown to Blind Tom, that made them untouchable.

Gospel-Blues man Blind Willie Johnson was born in the Brazos Valley near Pendleton but spent most of his life in Marlin and Temple, humble cotton towns that would be surprised that they were once home to a world famous guitarist that today has almost cult status, with admirers like Eric Clapton and Duane Allman.

A bungled robbery attempt left Walter Dixon of Somerville with few options. A shotgun blast during the ill-fated hold-up ended his sight and ability to work, and began his period of redirection in the penal system.  Known in Chicago as Blind Arvella Gray he was “discovered” playing for quarters on street corners. With the help of locals he cut his own record and a place in blind Blues history. 


No comments:

Post a Comment