Knoxville’s Ida Cox sings the blues

April 17, 2008

Singer Ida Cox wrote the immortal “Wild Women Don’t Get the Blues,” but her fans have the blues over the lack of attention she has received over the years. She rose to fame in the late 1920s and sang in the famous From Spirituals to Swing concert in Carnegie Hall in 1939. Unlike many of her contemporaries, such as Bessie Smith or Ma Rainey, Ida wrote many of the songs she sang. She moved to Knoxville in 1949 and mostly sang in churches, although she stepped out of retirement in 1961 to record one last album for John Hammond with saxophonist Coleman Hawkins and trumpeter Roy Eldridge. She died in Knoxville in 1967.

Jack Neely of Knoxville’s Metro Pulse has written about her, most recently this week, calling her “the best-known jazz or blues vocalist who ever lived in Knoxville.” Four of her albums are for sale on iTunes, so you can go there and hear this remarkable singer. Here’s some rare footage of her on YouTube.

This blog is part of a much larger website, also entitled Tennessee Guy, that contains travel and cultural information about Tennessee. Visit it here.

Rogersville’s African-American heritage

March 8, 2008

In the days of segregation, Tennessee’s Black communities had their own school buildings, which along with churches served as centers of community life. While many of these small-town structures fell into disrepair or were torn down after school districts integrated, some survive and have taken on new life as museums that provide a glimpse into all-black eduction.

The most prominent such school in East Tennessee has to be the Green McAdoo Cultural Center in Clinton. Rogersville has its museum in the Price Public Community Center and Swift Museum.


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Fort Negley visitor center opens

December 14, 2007

According to the Tennessean, the long overdue visitors center for Nashville’s Fort Negley opens on Saturday. Located south of downtown–Map of 534 Chestnut St Nashville, TN 37203-4803, US–and the largest Civil War site in the city, the name Fort Negley might as well be short for Fort Neglected.


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Ike Turner: 1931-2007

December 13, 2007

Ike Turner, whose role as a founding father of rock ‘n roll became overlaid with his image as all-time abusive husband to Tina Turner, died yesterday at age 76. Ike played piano on “Rocket 88,” recorded in Memphis by Sam Phillips and now deemed the first rock ‘n roll record. The New York Times has the best obit I’ve seen so far.

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New old cookbook from Chuckey Mountain

November 21, 2007

The day before Thanksgiving, The New York Times had an interesting piece on Malinda Russell, a Tennessee African-American woman who published a cookbook in 1866 entitled Domestic Cook Book: Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen.

The cookbook is remarkable for two reasons: first, being published by a black woman just a few years after slavery was abolished, and for the kinds of recipes offered to readers. There’s none of the “soul food” commonly associated with black cooking–collard greens, fried chicken, and chitlins–in this cookbook, which has high class sounding dishes such as rose cake and sweet onion custard.


Photo from The Janice Bluestein Longone Culinary Archive at the
William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan

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Memphis’s Ford family financial base

November 2, 2007

One of the significant African-American Memphis landmarks that ought to be on tourism maps is the N. J. Ford & Sons Funeral Home, at 12 S Parkway West. In the days of segregation, the funeral business was one of the ways of accumulating wealth in black communities, and few families have made as much of a funerary enterprise as the Fords.


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Pondering Pulaski: Contemplating the Klan

October 30, 2007

Drove from Kingsport to the Jack Daniel’s distillery today, then headed west on U.S. 64 bound for Memphis. We stopped in Pulaski to get a photo of the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan, and therein lies a tale.

In the days following the Civil War, this nefarious organization was allegedly conjured up by six bored Confederate veterans on Christmas Eve of 1865. The story (at least among white Southerners) goes that the young men really meant no harm in creating an organization with weird names and costumes. Covered with sheets, they pranced around on horseback on winter nights and just happened to notice that their actions scared the superstitious former slaves in and around Giles County.

Yeah. Right.

Somehow baser elements took hold of the Klan (again according to white gentry) and transformed it into a terrorist organization that ruled much of the Reconstruction South and was led by none other than Nathan Bedford Forrest, former slave merchant and tactical genius for the Confederacy. When he saw that Klan lawlessness might bring more Federal troops to the South, he disbanded the Klan, but, alas, it has never really died.


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Ernest Withers, photographer of Black life, dies at 85

October 16, 2007

The Memphis Commercial Appeal brings the sad news that photographer Ernest Withers has died at age 85. Quoted in the article, Memphis Brooks Museum of Art director Kaywin Feldman said, “Ernest Withers is internationally recognized as one of the most important American photographers of the 20th century. Not only did Withers capture iconic images of the civil rights movement, but he also produced important photographs of the Negro Baseball League, Memphis musicians and daily life for African-Americans in Memphis. We are proud to have almost 200 of Withers’ photographs in our permanent collection.”


Photo of Elvis and BB King  © Ernest C. Withers courtesy of Panopticon Gallery, Boston.

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Opining on Fisk

October 4, 2007

I’m in today’s Tennessean with an op-ed piece on Fisk University and its sad efforts to sell the Steiglitz Collection of art to an opportunistic Wal-Mart heiress. The piece makes the point, expressed here earlier, that Fisk should get out of the business of being a college, sell the art for $100 million or so, and use the proceeds to support the work of up and coming African-Americans in a wide variety of fields.

When I began teaching at Harvard in 1979, female students were still admitted in name only to Radcliffe, although none of the ones in my classes in any way thought of themselves as “Cliffies.” During the time I was there, Radcliffe grew into the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, and, last year, its president  became the first female president of Harvard.


NAACP state convention this week in Jonesborough

September 16, 2007

As related by this article in the Johnson City Press, the Tennessee state convention of the NAACP will take place this week in Jonesborough. The oldest town in Tennessee at first seems an unlikely choice; relatively few black folks live in upper East Tennessee compared to Nashville or Memphis. The organization, however, rotates its annual conventions among the three Grand Divisions of the state, and locals made a strong case that their active chapter deserved to host everyone else.

Jonesborough has more than its share of African-American history. The article quotes Tour promoter Linda Poland, who says. “I’m sure they’re coming here due to our history, beginning in 1820 with the Elihu Embree anti-slavery newspapers like the Emancipator, carrying through the cholera epidemic of 1873, when Dr. Hezikiah Balch’s work really turned the tide on the epidemic and through the Warner Academy to educate the children of former slaves. We’ve never had a plantation economy and we were progressive before our time,” Poland said.