Category Archives: Civil Rights

The New Colossus

Hi there folks, I’m doing something different this week. The tale of Dorothy Kilgallen goes on a short pause till I get a chance to review what I still had to cover about John F Kennedy, in the light of day. I still need to speak a little on why some people wanted a sitting president dead – but the worst president in America’s history coming down with Coronavirus – still clearly ill despite his claims otherwise – gives me reason to pause. I don’t do this out of deference for Trump, I just don’t want to release something that could be misconstrued as an allegory for or against the old bastard, when it’s not.

Laugh not dear reader – I wrote Willie the Wimp and his Cadillac Coffin well before the murder of George Floyd. I meant no overt political commentary. It was just a fun story about a couple of larger than life characters that have fascinated me for many years. In the wake of Floyd Mayweather jr’s generous donation of a gold coffin to the Floyd family, Alt Right shit-posters began commenting on their forums. Imagine my joy at an email from WordPress telling me I was trending, several thousand clicks in a few minutes. Then imagine my disgust when I found out why Willie the Wimp was being shared by folk like that … Their comments for the most part ran along the lines of ‘this is why black people should not be allowed to have money’… though in language I don’t feel at ease repeating in this post.

Yeah, I’m being a little overly cautious. Everything is political at the best of times, more so right now. This week please permit me to be overtly so.

In the weeks leading up to the American election I have no doubt many bloggers, podcasters and YouTubers will release content about previous American elections – to directly comment on the coming election. I had a note in my scrapbook – The Election of 1876. America, I fear you’re staring down the barrel of a repeat to that constitutional crisis this year – Trump’s Alt Right militias ‘observing’ the ballot boxes has the stench of the Southern militias employed by the Democrats (Non-American readers, broadly speaking the two parties swapped positions on a couple of things since 1876). Tampering with post boxes, the restriction of places to cast your ballot in Texas etc. it all seems all too familiar already. Mark Chrisler beat me to the punch on this week’s episode of The Constant. He does the story far better than I ever could. Also, as an American his critique should carry more weight for you all. Anything I say, however well intentioned, I am some interloper from Hobbitland after all.

All the same, Americans I urge you to vote early, vote Biden – and be very vocal in your demands that Donald Trump be removed from office when – if he hasn’t popped his clogs from the great plague of 2020 – he refuses to leave office.

All that said, I suppose I should write something historical with the rest of this post?

Let’s talk about the statue the French gave the USA, why I think it’s intended meaning is a noble one… and why I think the meaning subsequently placed on the statue by the followers of the poet Emma Lazarus is not only also permissible on this occasion, but truly aspirational.

The statue being constructed in France, 1884.


This week’s tale starts at a private home in Versailles, France. The date, June 1865. The French jurist, poet, historian, and anti-slavery activist Edouard de Laboulaye called a meeting of fellow abolitionists to his home. An extremely vocal commentator against slavery, and a big fan of the Union who had written three books on the USA – Laboulaye was ecstatic at the news the Union had won the Civil War. Slavery was over. Decency had won. At the meeting he proposed the construction of a giant statue in honor of the USA’s great achievement.

Based on the Roman figure of Libertas, ‘Liberty Enlightening the World’ would symbolize an America Laboulaye hoped would finally be a nation of equals – having thrown off the British crown in 1776, and now slavery in 1865. It would serve as a symbol of friendship between the two nations. Thirdly, Laboulaye hoped the fervor for democracy and freedom would strengthen the resolve of his own nation to, once and for all, cast off their own despot. For context, France’s first President was a man named Charles-Louis Napoleon Bonaparte. The nephew of the more famous Napoleon, he decided he really didn’t want to leave office, so proclaimed himself King in 1851, hanging in there till 1870.

Laboulaye famously brought the sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi on board. With a proposed deadline of 1876 – the centenary of the Declaration of Independence. Planning began. France would build the statue, the USA would construct the podium. Work, however would not start on the statue till 1875 – Bartholdi bringing in Alexandre- Gustave Eiffel and Eugene Viollet-de-Duc to help with the framework. While it’s believed Bartholdi based Lady Liberty on his own mother, I’ve also read he recycled sketches for a statue proposed for the Suez Canal but never used. It is possible her face is in fact Egyptian. Given where I’m headed I like that idea. The statue wouldn’t be completed in Paris till 1884. It was then packed into over 200 crates and shipped off to the USA.

On the American side, construction was much slower. A site was chosen on Bedloes Island – a former fort for the Dutch, then quarantine station for smallpox sufferers, then summer house for the Scottish Earl of Cassilis, and most recently, Fort Wood – which withstood British attacks in the war of 1812. The star-shaped walls of the fort would mark out the shape and position of the podium itself. Beyond this, work was slow. Public interest in the statue was very limited, not helped no doubt by the Jim Crow laws enacted in the post 1876 South, and lynchings making an absolute mockery of the statue’s raison d’être. Had The New York World’s Joseph Pulitzer not put his weight behind the project it would have fallen completely flat. Auctions, crowdfunding campaigns and exhibitions were put on to get the money together. In 1883 an exhibition was put on, showing various plans for the statue, and containing dramatic readings of poetry written for the occasion. Mark Twain and Walt Whitman wrote for the exhibition, as did 34 year old poet Emma Lazarus – a former student of Ralph Waldo Emerson who was on the rise. Her piece, The New Colossus, was something else.

Emma Lazarus

As a child of Sephardic Jewish immigrants, and a strong advocate for the Jewish refugees arriving in America at the time, having fled the pogroms of Eastern Europe – Lazarus had a very different take on the significance of the statue that would greet those on their way to be processed through Paris Island.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Her moving poem, as exquisite a Petrarchan sonnet as anyone ever wrote, struck a chord with a number of literary types. They felt it gave a purpose to the giant edifice. This is not to say they were racists, dismissing the original meaning; just the newspapers in America never mentioned the purpose of the statue in their coverage. Without that meaning the statue must have seemed a massive folly to all. A lot of writers and their milieu clicked with Lazarus’ interpretation. So it was immortalized in a plaque in 1886 and America never looked back right?

Not exactly. When Grover Cleveland opened the landmark in 1886, Emma Lazarus’ poem garnered not so much as a mention. While Lazarus’ work won the hearts of other writers, she went more or less unnoticed by the general public. Emma Lazarus would pass on, most likely from Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1887. She was only 38 years old at the time of her passing. Her obituary never mentioned The New Colossus. The meaninglessness of this giant folly did not escape African American press either, one writer in the Cleveland Gazette stating

“Shove the Bartholdi statue, torch and all, into the ocean until the ‘liberty’ of this country is such as to make it possible for an industrious and inoffensive colored man in the South to earn a respectable living for himself and family … The idea of the ‘liberty’ of this country ‘enlightening the world,’ or even Patagonia, is ridiculous in the extreme”

In 1901 Georgina Schuyler, a friend of Emma Lazarus, was thumbing through a book of poetry in a bookstore – when she came across The New Colossus. It struck her not only did her work need immortalizing, but Lady Liberty needed the rehabilitation such a poem would provide. Once a symbol of hope, equality and liberty for all, then really of nothing in particular save maybe a little jingoism, re-christening the statue a ‘mother of exiles’ seemed a really good thing. As Laboulaye hoped the statue would move his Frenchmen back towards liberty, Schuyler no doubt hoped for a kinder, more welcoming America. After two years of campaigning the plaque, bearing the poem, was attached to the base of the statue.


Statues are more hagiography than history, in my humble opinion. They capture spin. They are erected for a specific purpose. Sometimes that purpose is as horrid as the subject – monuments to Confederate General, and KKK Grand Wizard Nathan Bedford Forrest an example of a statue being erected as a clear threat to the African American community – ‘stop demanding your civil rights, or we will have to resurrect this asshole’. Sometimes a statue is put up out of toadyism – the myriad statues of Queen Victoria of Britain built on her 50th and 60th jubilees prime examples. Occasionally it really as simple as a wish to honour someone – a proposed statue to New Zealand suffragette Kate Shepherd, planned for the grounds of our government buildings an example of this. I personally love all the proposed meanings for the Statue of Liberty, but feel they are aspirational goals at best at the time of writing.

While we’re discussing immigrants, rest in peace Edward Van Halen (1955 – 2020); a half Dutch, half Indonesian kid whose family arrived in America in 1962 with little more than $50 and a piano. It is easy to present Eddie as proof positive the American Dream is achievable; he would revolutionize the electric guitar, sell over 60 million records and have a hand in some of the best rock music of the late 70s and 1980s. When interviewers cared to ask him, he also spoke candidly on his childhood. He attended a mixed race school where black kids were segregated from the white mainstream. As a Eurasian he was counted as black and bullied by the white kids – in one interview he recalled feeling like an animal in a cage. His classical musician father Jan struggled to find the kinds of jobs available to him in Holland, and spent years working lowly paid janitorial jobs. The family were too poor on arrival to rent their own place, so the four of them had to cram into a single room in a house co- tenanted by two other immigrant families. Eddie became wildly successful but his tale is undeniably also one of opportunity denied by mainstream America for not being ‘one of us’.

The ‘Last of the Guitar Gods’, Edward Van Halen.

Please America, get out and vote. Be kind to one another. Value diversity, and right the wrongs of your past. I’m stepping off my soapbox – Normal service will resume on this channel next week.

On the right to breathe…

Hi readers, I really feel the need to write a little something off script, right up front on the blog today. Yesterday I sat at the table and wrote, and wrote and wrote. First I began sketching out the final blog in this short rock and roll series (I will probably do a few more of these, just as everyday tales, just in the mix). I had something in mind where I wanted to talk about Sam Phillips and the roster of mostly white Rockabilly acts he produced – and to touch on some of his views on race and music, and how ridiculously condescending they look now – but I think his heart was in the right place. Well, I think the thuggish murder of an African American man by a white police officer – and eruption of righteous anger across America gives a pretty good indication as to why that is a terrible idea. I dread to think of the emails stating “WTF Simone, are you trying to tell a fairy tale of faux progressive race relations while our country is burning?”. Ditto any tales of the white rock and roll impresario, civil rights activist, and all round good guy the reverend Johnny Otis. Definitely not a good time to be telling stories of how the dustbowl played in to the rise of Oakies, Arkies and various other displaced folk creating the Hillbilly Boogie which blared out of many a roadhouse in the pre rock and roll era.

I also penned, and binned a piece discussing just why Edouard de Laboulaye proposed the construction of the Statue of Liberty – spoiler alert, he was an abolitionist who was proud the USA had finally outlawed slavery. He probably believed the USA would adopt something like ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’. This piece quickly escalated, America you let Mr Laboulaye down horribly. I walked through many, many, many examples of this – from the 1892 lynching of Tom Moss, a black grocer in Memphis who dared to open a store when a white man was also a grocer; to Robert Charles – a black man minding his own business in a mostly white suburb of New Orleans, which escalated into a desperate gun fight against a white mob. To the ‘red summer’ spate of lynchings across the USA in 1919, which cost over 250 black lives because black men dared to step up in formerly white job and keep the economy going during World War One; and racists everywhere saw that as theft. On to the 1919 Haynes report, which noted the lynchings of over 3,000 black Americans between 1889 and 1918, and that local authorities were often compliant, even occasionally involved in these actions. On I went, discussing the early years of the ‘great migration’ where well to do black residents were bullied out of nice, middle class homes, while the police stood by. When one recent arrival to Detroit, the doctor Ossian Sweet, received constant threats and intimidation police did nothing. When Dr Sweet fired in self defence on a violent mob encircling his Garland Street home, they were very quick to act then – charging the poor man with murder.

I went further, discussing murdered voting organizers like the Rev. George Lee and Lamar Smith – to young boys and men who dared speak to white girls like Emmett Till, or Willie Edwards Jr- Edwards, by the way was mistaken by four Clansmen for another black guy who was dating a white girl in Montgomery, Alabama back in 1957. I talked of the assassination Medgar Evars, the 1963 bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama which killed four young girls- Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley – who were little older than my niece ….. and on, and on, and on. Paragraphs of horror after horror. USA there are too many atrocities, too much blood on your hands, too many black lives lost, and families left grieving.

Look, dear reader; if you are an American reader of mine I presume you are not some racist with a hankering for lynchings – you’re probably a caring, intelligent progressive who is appalled by the murder of George Floyd. Hell, some of you may be caring, intelligent conservatives, equally horrified by the murder? Any invective by me is like a teacher yelling at the kids in front because the kid at the back is behaving like an asshole. Just know that I, like most decent people the world over, am horrified at the actions of Derek Chauvin, yet again infuriated with the tweets from the orange fascist ruining your nation, fully in support of the protestors (though worried as hell for you with all that tear gas, rubber bullets, and a killer pandemic out there).

Mostly, I am at a loss as to how I, halfway across the world, can do any little thing to show my support. The writer and activist Eldridge Cleaver once stated if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. Who doesn’t feel that just a little right now?

Back to the rock and roll series, this Thursday I’ll put together a Spotify playlist covering a load of songs that predate what we traditionally consider rock and roll, with a brief explanation on why I think they important landmarks.

The sincerest form of flattery… a bonus tale

“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness” – Oscar Wilde.

Hi all, FYI I held off writing this bonus episode till early in the week. While this tale reveals an injustice which happened all too often in the postwar music business, there are elements to this bonus tale I don’t have my head around as much as I would like. For one I don’t feel the most comfortable around the position of written music in the era in question – oh by the way we’re talking about covers today. Written music still made up a sizeable percentage of music sales in the 1940s and 50s. The songwriters often wrote in the hope that multiple artists would pick up their work, and release their own arrangements of it… much more so than a songwriter today, who will often write with a particular artist in mind. In 2020 songs are usually associated with a single artist, and it has been that way for decades. Songs often weren’t in the 40s and 50s. It only seems fair I state this up front.


The other element I feel uncomfortable working around is how, exactly you designate one song a tribute (i.e. Elvis records Lonnie Johnson’s Tomorrow Night), another a rip off (i.e. The Diamonds cover of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers Why Do Fools Fall in Love). I think it is fair to say some covers are better than others. Elvis, for example, covered a lot of songs – and on most of them he brought something new to the table. There was also an authenticity to the work of the King, and a respect for the original artist. I don’t know his work well enough to say for certain he never released a cover within weeks of the original artist – tracks like his cover of The Drifters Such a Night came seven years after the original. Even his cover of Carl Perkins’ Blue Suede Shoes came six months after Perkins version. There just seems something very different with releasing a note for note copy within weeks of the original, with the express purpose of stealing its thunder.

Give me Scottish witch trials, Chicago mobsters or Victorian era conmen I feel pretty confident – but this topic takes me a little out of my wheel house is all I’m saying. But now I have said that….


Our tale starts today in Los Angeles, California in late 1948. Albert Patrick, a record executive at a small rhythm and blues label called Supreme Records, bought the rights to produce a song called A Little Bird Told Me. The writer an acclaimed songwriter and arranger named Harvey Brooks. They soon went about producing a catchy ear worm with an R&B piano, handclaps on the backbeat, and the vocal talents of Paula Watson – an African American R&B vocalist and piano player newly arrived from Mobile, Alabama. The song, at first, proved a wise investment – it shot up to the top of what was then called the ‘race music’ charts (now the R&B charts). What proved especially pleasing no doubt would have been A Little Bird Told Me also entered the far bigger, and largely white pop music charts. The song was an exceedingly rare case of a black artist on a small, black owned label having a hit song in the white channels – well exceedingly rare until around 1956 in any case. The song rose through the charts till it hit number 14… then it died away just as dramatically.

The song’s trajectory was stalled because Decca records, a large label mostly making safe pop records – largely white music for a largely white audience- had been paying attention. They quickly realized if they made a sound-alike version – copied the formula, the jaunty R&B piano, hand claps, the backing vocals – and put an attractive young white woman out front – they would have a huge hit on their hands. They may not capture the fire of the original; the singer may not be as good as Ms Watson – but they had the bigger label, far more connections, and a society more willing to buy music from the white artist. Evelyn Knight’s cover, released within weeks of Paula Watson’s went to #1 with a bullet, staying on the charts for 21 weeks. It killed the momentum of the original.


Supreme records took out a lawsuit against Decca. While they could not claim copyright of the song, they felt comfortable they could claim rights to the arrangement of the song. When the case went to trial in 1950 the courts sided with Decca – you cannot copyright an arrangement. This was bad news for Supreme records, who were broke at the time, and soon after shut their doors. It was not the worst of news for Paula Watson, who had, in the interlude signed up with Decca herself – but it was awful news for a number of early rock and roll groups and singers, who may have broken bigger, and sooner – had some judge not set a precedent which allowed major labels to relegate their work to the trash heap with their inferior, but far more privileged cover versions. The examples are numerous, but let’s discuss a few.

The Chords ‘Sh-Boom’ is an often cited example, not least of all because the early Doo Wop song was on track to become the first rock and roll song to hit #1 on the pop charts. Sh-Boom (some of you may know it as ‘Life Could Be a Dream’, but Sh-Boom is it’s real name) was written by the members of the black, Bronx based group themselves – and released in 1954. It shot up both the R&B and pop charts – until the Canadian pop group The Crew-Cuts cut an insipid, watered down version of the song. With all their advantages, their cover killed the Chords original just as it hit #9 in the charts. Their cover went to #1, and stayed in the pop charts for 20 weeks. Despite being, by far, the better version – the Chords version would miss out on sync opportunities in movies and television until the 1990s.

The Crew-Cuts were one of a number of white acts preying on black artists. They would go on to make inferior versions of The Penguins ‘Earth Angel’ (mentioned in last week’s bonus episode), and Gene and Eunice’s Ko Ko Mo (I just wish I had the time to talk about this song, dozens of artists covered this song, including Rosemary Clooney’s sister and the actor Andy Griffiths – it was HUGE – it is now forgotten). Of course Pat Boone was another serial offender; ripping off songs by Fats Domino, the Flamingos, Ivory Joe Hunter, Big Joe Turner… and most famously Little Richard.
And then of course, there was the LaVern Baker v Georgia Gibbs feud.

LaVern Baker was a popular R&B and early rock and roll singer from a family of blues and gospel singers. She had come to national prominence in 1953 with the torch song Soul on Fire, released on Atlantic records. Her first big hit, however, would be Tweedle Dee, an up-tempo piece with a Latin feel to it. The song is dumb, but Baker’s performance elevates the track to something truly listenable. Tweedle Dee crossed over to the pop charts, reaching #14, to be knocked off the charts by white former big band singer Georgia Gibbs note for note cover of the song. Gibbs version, released by the then much larger label Mercury records, shot to the top of the charts. To add insult to injury Gibbs had hired the same arranger and musicians Baker had used for her version. She had tried to hire her audio engineer, Tom Dowd also, but he demurred. Baker was furious at the gall of Gibbs, more over the lost opportunities – more the airplay and lost exposure, than the lost sales (which she estimated at $15,000 in 1955 dollars). She went all out to ensure no rip-off artist ever did that again.


First, Baker carried out a publicity stunt meant to embarrass Gibbs. After booking a long distance flight, Baker took out a life insurance policy for the journey. Who was listed as the beneficiary on the policy? Georgia Gibbs of course – If the plane went down and LaVern Baker died, Baker let all in sundry know, Gibbs’ career would die a horrible death too. Second, she approached Michigan congressman Charles Diggs Jr, asking congress to look to pass a law banning note for note copies of other peoples’ records. All indications are congress looked into the issue, but decided it was out of their purview to do anything about it. What she did do however, in publicly embarrassing Gibbs and rallying congressmen to the cause, was to make it suddenly very uncool to just steal another artists act like that. Gibbs would go on to record one more dodgy knock off cover – this time Etta James’ answer record The Wallflower (retitled Dance with me Henry) before swearing off stealing R&B artists music. She kept her word for two years. Lavern Baker had another single, Tra La La, which was flying up the charts – so Gibbs copied it note for note. Her version bombed. The listeners were buying Baker’s disc for the B side, a great rock and roll song called Jim Dandy – today’s attached song.

I’ll do another one of these Tales of Rock and Roll next week – probably the final of these for a little while. IF the Batavia series doesn’t capture the imagination as I hoped it would I’ll have a look at running another short Thursday series… Please love Batavia though, you have no idea how many hours I spent on it. See you all next Tuesday for the final episode of Tom Horn. – Simone.

Goodnight My Love – a bonus tale.

To tell this tale of rock and roll I feel I need to tell another short tale first. Context is everything.


On the 2nd September 1957 a group of nine black students, chosen by the Arkansas branch of the NAACP attempted the radical act of going to school. Their destination, Little Rock Central High School – a formerly all white school established in 1926. Only a few years earlier, on 17th May 1954, the US Supreme Court overturned a ‘separate but equal’ ruling established in 1896 via Brown v Board of Education. The case they overturned, Plessy v Fergusson established even an ‘Octoroon’ (someone with 1/8 African American heritage, 7/8 European) named Homer Plessy could be barred from the white compartments on a train so long as the black compartments were nominally equal. This ruling legitimized a state of apartheid in American life for over half a century. The Brown case established, around schooling, but in the same way as Plessy relating to all aspects of life – separate but equal is never equal, and put a sizeable sector in American society at a huge disadvantage. Some southern states particularly fought bitterly against the ruling, and by 1957 the order to desegregate the schools had yet to be challenged.

How did first day of school go for the Little Rock Nine? Terribly. Eight of the group car pooled in. Elizabeth Eckford, whose parents did not have a phone, missed the memo and walked in by herself. The photo of her walking in all on her lonesome – surrounded by screaming white people is one of many sad indictments of racism among some white Americans in the civil rights era. The nine arrived to find Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus had ordered in the National guard to block them from entering.

Elizabeth Eckford and assorted racists.

The incident escalated. Federal justice Ronald Davies began legal proceedings against the Governor. US President Dwight D. Eisenhower stepped in to ensure the nine would go to school. On the 20th September Governor Faubus was legally forced to call the guard off. On the 23rd September the nine tried again. This time they were escorted past 1,000 white protesters by a police guard. When the protesters began rioting, the Little Rock Nine were led away from the school. On the 24th Eisenhower ordered in 1,200 military from the 101st Airbourne to protect the nine, and on 25th September they finally made it through their first full day at Little Rock Central High. The tale of the schooling of the Little Rock Nine is one of bullying and harassment, though one of the teens stuck in there till graduation day.


Keep this tale in mind as I share with you another tale from Little Rock Arkansas, 6th February 1960. Those brave nine broke new ground, but they hardly cured Little Rock of such malignant racism.

Mr Easy, Jesse Belvin.

Now… let’s talk about Jesse Belvin. Many of you may not have heard of Mr Belvin – and that is absolutely understandable – cultural amnesia really is the norm and the stars we remember the rare exceptions. It is worth knowing however in 1960 Jesse Belvin was a star on the rise, billed by RCA, his record company as the ‘Black Elvis’. He had several successful years of writing and performance behind him – and had squandered much of it by selling his share for money up front. He had a song which topped the R&B charts with an earlier duo, a songwriting credit on the song with which all other Doo Wop classics are measured, and, in my opinion, the most beautiful lullaby ever written – used by Alan Freed to close his radio show and covered by dozens of artists. His history is labyrinthine, but let’s see if we can run through it in a paragraph or two.

Having started right out of the gates in 1951 with a gig as the vocalist for fellow Jefferson high school alum and legendary saxophonist Cecil ‘Big Jay’ McNeeley’s R&B act Three Dots and a Dash – Belvin saw some early success with ‘All the Wine is Gone’ – an answer record to Stick Mcghee’s ‘Drinkin’ Wine Spo-dee-O-dee’. The track did respectably in the R&B charts but by 1952 Belvin had gone solo, with the decent but non charting ‘Baby Don’t Go’. Restlessly he abandoned his solo act to form a duo with Marvin Phillips, known as Marvin and Jesse. The two scored a #2 hit on the R&B charts in 1952 with ‘Dream Girl’. It is also at this time that Jesse got together with Gaynel Hodge and Curtis Williams, formerly of the popular R&B vocal group ‘The Hollywood Flames’ and co-wrote the song which would become the archetype for almost all doo wop ballads. He would be drafted into the army before Hodge and Williams were to see any success with the song, under the moniker The Penguins.

The song, Earth Angel, would sell five million copies for the Penguins… twenty million records when you count the slew of cover records of the song – but the Penguins would be cheated of their royalties by their record head Walter ‘Dootsie’ Williams, who refused to pay the group a cent for breach of contract. Jesse Belvin, however would successfully manage to sue Dootsie (Dootsie himself a particularly litigious lawyer by trade) for some share of the royalties on his release from armed service.



Upon his release from the army, Jessie Belvin was a dynamo – constantly developing new musical projects. Writing and performing for whoever would have him – and on occasion waiving his rights to various songs for a quick couple of hundred dollars in pocket now. He would occasionally get together with Marvin Phillips, who was now performing as ‘Marvin and Johnny’ with a rotating roster of Johnnys. He recorded with a group called The Californians, having a minor hit with ‘My Angel’, The Sheiks who charted with ‘So Fine’, The Cliques whose ‘The girl of my dreams’ also charted. The Gassers whose ‘Hum de Dum’ didn’t do a lot – which is a shame. I think the song has so many great hooks – even if it is one in a line of knock offs of Gene and Eunice’s Ko Ko Mo. With the Saxons he charted with ‘Is it true’. He provided backing vocals on The Shields ‘You Cheated’ one of an extremely small number of songs from this era where a song released by a white artist on a major label was stolen by a black group on a small label – and the black group ended up having the bigger hit. My touchstone on all things rock and roll, Andrew Hickey stated in his episode on Jesse Belvin the above list is not even half of what he was involved in from 1954- 58.

Of course Jesse Belvin also had a solo career. As a solo artist he released a diverse, interesting portfolio of songs – but the song he has become best known for was 1956’s Goodnight My Love – a smooth ballad, a lullaby really – which has gone on to be covered by everyone from Paul Anka, to Gloria Estefan, Evanescence’s Amy Lee, to Los Lobos. Harry Connick Jr to Aaron Neville. The song did very respectfully – #7 in the R&B charts – but Goodnight My Love earned it’s place in the great American songbook after the famed DJ Alan Freed made a ritual of using the song to close his radio show. There has been controversy over whether Jesse sold his share of the songwriting credits or not to record producer John Marascalco. Marascalco himself was a talented songwriter who penned a number of classic rock and roll songs, including last week’s bonus episode song (Little Richard’s Rip it Up), but a story persists Belvin sold him the co-write needing just $400 at the time.

It was in the midst of this period that Jesse met his wife Jo Ann. Far more business-minded, Jo Ann Belvin began to focus Jesse on a career path set to bring him greater success – and to finally step up as the star he deserved to be. The new Jesse Belvin was to be a smooth balladeer in the mold of Nat King Cole. He was to focus on one project only and follow through accordingly. The major label RCA jumped at the opportunity to work with Jesse, however saw his path slightly differently. He was the ‘Black Elvis’ he could croon, he could belt out rockers as well as anyone. Besides being extremely talented and charismatic he was the likeable face they needed to break into an untapped market of white teens in – dare I say it – horrendously racist towns like civil rights era Little Rock Arkansas.

And so it was that Jesse Belvin found himself on a tour of the South, alongside Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson and Marv Johnson – an all black roster, on what would be billed as ‘The first rock and roll show of 1960’.



There is a great deal of speculation about exactly what happened on 6th February 1960 at Little Rock’s Robinson auditorium. What can be said for certain was Little Rock was little changed, if changed at all, in the few years since the Little Rock Nine. There were protests over their arrival, and allegedly death threats made against the performers. The show that night was likely played to the first integrated audience in the town’s history, further enraging the town’s racists. There is an unverified line in this tale, which states the Belvins were increasingly concerned this tour was going to end badly and were ringing Jesse’s mother daily – where normally they would touch base one or twice a month.
The show was allegedly stopped twice due to groups of white protesters throwing glass bottles down from the mezzanine and fighting with black concertgoers– though if local police managed such incidents, they failed to keep any records. However bad the show was, at the very least it is fair to say the night was unpleasant, and jarring.

The claim has been made that racist elements in the town tampered with the performers vehicles. This may be true – Jackie Wilson had car trouble which caused him to run late on his way to Austin, Texas after the show. There is no evidence of tampering on the black Cadillac carrying the Belvins, guitarist Kirk Davis and their driver Charles Shackleford – but this is because there is NO evidence preserved from the crash scene, no notes, photos – if a report was ever filed it is long lost to history. A bystander claims the police officer at the scene exclaimed their back wheels had been tampered with. There was a rumour someone may have slashed their tyres. At the end of the day we just don’t know what happened – thanks to, at the very least, lazy or incompetent police work. At most horrendously racist and complicit through their inaction.

Jesse and Jo Ann Belvin.



What can be said for certain is the Belvins’ black Cadillac, on its way towards towards Hope, Arkansas, collided head on with another vehicle. Jesse and Shackleford were killed instantly, while Kirk Davis was badly injured. Jesse, it appears, had attempted to shield Jo Ann, possibly saving her life in the immediate aftermath. Jo Ann Belvin was taken to hospital, badly injured, but still alive. Not believing Jo Ann had either insurance, or the money to pay for her treatment, hospital staff left her on a gurney -refusing treatment until Jackie Wilson arrived. Wilson convinced the staff he could cover the costs of treatment, however at this stage Jo Ann had been left for hours to die. Wilson himself had lost precious time getting to Austin due to his own car troubles. When he arrived to find the Belvins had yet to show up, he first called Jesse’s mother, then doubled back till he found out what had happened. Jo Ann would too pass away days later, leaving their two young children orphaned. Within a few weeks of their passing rumours spread throughout the town that tyres had been slashed that night. Those whispers reached a high enough pitch that newspapers got wind of them and reported that the Belvins and Charles Shackleford had in fact been murdered. Was there a thorough police investigation into the scuttlebutt? As if you even had to ask… of course there wasn’t.

Jesse Belvin is by far my favorite member of the 27 club, and it breaks my heart that I can make that statement about him.

Hazel Scott; the rise, and tragic downfall of a phenom.

Little girl
Dreaming of a baby grand piano
(Not knowing there’s a Steinway bigger, bigger)
Dreaming of a baby grand to play
That stretches paddle-tailed across the floor,
Not standing upright
Like a bad boy in the corner,
But sending music
Up the stairs and down the stairs
And out the door
To confound Hazel Scott
Who might be passing!

Langston Hughes- To Be Somebody

Hi everyone welcome to the slightly prolonged blog only run of Tales of History and Imagination. Apologies to the podcast followers – COVID-19 threw my productivity into a tailspin for a little while. I am approximately three weeks behind schedule – hence four more short blog episodes. I got feedback from one friend I should not try to make them too happy or upbeat – apparently my horrible history topics are preferred – but I hope you all understand I’m not writing a jot on plagues or any other kind of pandemic for a little while. I don’t see being topical about something which is giving many others (myself included) much anxiety as in any way beneficial right now. I got a message on the Facebook page a month ago asking if I had anything planned for Womens’ History Month this year (I hadn’t) and if so who was I thinking of writing about. Today seems as good a day as any to right my wrong by not dropping any Womens’ History Month material this year and talk about the incredible Hazel Scott.

Born June 11 1920 in Port of Spain, Trinidad; it is safe to say Hazel Scott showed prodigious talent from a very young age. There is a story that one sunny Trinidadian day then 3 year old Hazel’s grandmother was looking after her while her mother took a break. Putting the child to bed she sang Hazel a hymn, then feeling tired herself took a catnap of the couch. She was awoken minutes later by Hazel, seated at her mother’s piano, vamping through an arrangement of the hymn. The child had never, that anyone was aware of, sat at the piano before – had never taken a single lesson – but had hour upon hour watched her mother giving piano lessons to children in the neighborhood. She had acquired the ability to play a musical instrument in much the same way children acquire languages – through observation. It has to be said however, even at this young age Hazel could play with remarkable feel and dexterity. By the age of four Hazel’s mother relocated to New York with her child phenom.

Another tale often told in relation to a young Hazel Scott is how she was ‘discovered’. The tale goes that one day at New York’s famous Julliard School of music the school’s founder, the conductor Frank Damrosch, was shocked out of his chair by an awful rendition of Rachmaninov’s Prelude in C# min. Enraged, Damrosch slammed his office door and stormed over to the rehearsal room, ready to give the errant student a piece of his mind. On his way to the room he surmised the problem was those wide interval stretches you need to play Rachmaninov. Where an octave was required someone was playing a sixth – a few keys shy. When he got to the room he found eight year old Hazel, tinkling the ivories. On having a talk with the child it soon become apparent to Damrosch the only thing stopping this child from nailing the difficult piece was she needed to grow those hands a little.. to stretch a few more keys. Before long she would be attending the famed music school, learning all she could from Frank.

Frank Damrosch, founder of the Julliard School of Music.

As a young adult Hazel Scott would go from strength to strength. At 19 she was rocking out at Greenwich Village’s Café Society – an integrated bar (where both black and white patrons were welcomed) whose patrons included poets, movie stars, politicians – anybody who was somebody. She had an act that became known as ‘Swinging the Classics’ which would work as follows – Hazel would take a classical piece, playing it completely straight – then she would start to add a little swing to the beat, and a healthy dose of jazz improvisation. Her performances were dizzying in their virtuosity, and completely unique for their time. She was soon on the bill with a number of major artists of her era and a regular at Café Society. Fast becoming an A lister herself, she rubbed shoulders with all the A Listers. She met and fell in love with Adam Clayton Powell Jr, the first African American congressman in America’s North East. The two would marry in 1945.

Hazel Scott and Adam Clayton Powell jr.


At this point in her life Hazel was doing very well indeed – pulling in around $75,000 a year – around a million in current dollars. By the early 1940s she had begun to appear in the movies. Like Lena Horne, she refused to ever portray a negative stereotype of the like Hattie McDaniel would make a career at. No maids, no stock minstrel characters, no savages. More often than not she would play herself – which she did in several films, first for MGM, then Colombia, then Warner Brothers. She was active in the Civil Rights movement – Besides becoming an agent of change in Hollywood (in her refusals to be presented as a negative stereotype she paved the way for other black actors to do the same), she refused to play segregated venues. At one stage she caused an uproar in Austin Texas, when she found a venue she was booked for had blacks only and white only zones. The situation became violent when she refused to perform, and the Texas Rangers had to escort her out for her safety. Hazel Scott later told Time magazine “Why would anyone come here to hear me, a Negro… and refuse to sit beside someone just like me?” In 1949 she would file a lawsuit against a diner in Pasco, Washington who refused to serve her on account of her skin colour. Her lawsuit would serve as a precedent for later lawsuits in Washington state barring establishments from refusing service to African Americans.


In July 1950 – to some this was Hazel Scott’s crowning achievement – she became the first African American to have her own television show, The Hazel Scott show. A 15 minute, live to air piece for the Dumont Network – Scott would showcase her talents on the piano. It was very popular, but would only run for three months. We have the House Un-American Activities Committee to thank for that – and for the unravelling of Hazel Scott’s remarkable life and career.

Senator Joseph McCarthy.

To sum up the HUAC in a few paragraphs, particularly to the uninitiated, does seem a big task – suffice to say much of the world had been in a state of massive disruption in the decades prior. If we are to draw a line in the sand at the Great Depression and point to how President Franklin D. Roosevelt instituted the New Deal – a veritable ‘alphabet soup’ of legislation aimed at looking after the welfare of Americans; stimulating growth via massive infrastructure schemes, a safety net for all who needed it, a program of taxation which made the wealthy pay their fair share and Government ownership of certain essential industries – you get a sense the USA was going through a massive change in the way they did things. With FDR came a change in mindset, as often there is at important historical junctures. Much of the USA became a little more utilitarian – concerned in the greater good and happiness of all. The New Deal would remain the strategic blueprint for America through Democrat and Republican presidents alike right up till the Neoliberals scrapped it in the 1970s. The other important juncture was World War Two.

Geopolitically, the war placed the USA and USSR at the top of the pile, and into a dangerous rivalry with one another. On a personal level, a postwar USA was booming – leading to increased urbanization, among other changes – but one change which those who had fought overseas and those who had sacrificed at home during this long, hard era – were no longer willing to put up with the inequalities and discriminations of the older ways. This time saw a huge rise in unionism, in the civil rights movement, feminism, LGBTQI+ rights, a rise in counter culture movements like the Hells Angels. The rise of youth oriented culture like rock and roll. As much as the HUAC, McCarthyism – named after the Democratic Senator for Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy – may have had some genuine concerns over communist infiltrators now the postwar landscape had made the two blocs bitter rivals – their witch hunts were as much a knee jerk reaction to a rising call for a better standard of life for all Americans. Look, this is reductive, but I did say I’d cover it in two paragraphs.

Back to Hazel Scott. In July 1950, just as her Television career was starting off, Hazel was named on a list of possible subversives. A decade earlier she had played at a charity fundraiser at Café Society for a local member of the Communist Party, who had run for a seat on the New York Council. The chances of her getting called up before the HUAC were slim, but Hazel was never one to back down from oppressors and demanded to speak with the committee. As Americans they had freedom to believe what they wished, and freedom of association. That she was not a communist, and barely knew the candidate is neither here nor there, she was horrified at the gall of these conservative, populist snolligosters daring to ruin the lives of so many Americans, and drag the USA back into a regressive, discriminatory age. She would stand up to them, because somebody had to.

Sadly this tale does not have a happy ending. Not all tales do. Hazel Scott destroyed her career by appearing before the HUAC. The TV show was cancelled. Her movie roles dried up, the concert venues got smaller and smaller. Her marriage to Powell broke up. For a while she moved to Paris. She would continue to make a living out of her talents, but in no way at the level she used to. She would suffer depression and attempt to commit suicide twice. She would eventually die of pancreatic cancer in October 1981.

If I had chosen to do a piece on Women’s History Month, Hazel Scott would have been my choice. She had a preternatural talent which brought joy to millions. She used her platform to help make significant change in the lives of others. She was a role model for many young African American kids wishing to be entertainers. The story of her downfall is a travesty, an unsightly blot on the American landscape often overlooked for bigger, more shocking cases. For such a shining light she has become ephemeral in the passage of time, and that too is wrong. Take a second to honour Ms Scott in the video, borrowed from YouTube below.

Podcast Episode 5: Simone’s Christmas Carol

This Tale is a script for an episode of the Tales of History and Imagination podcast. Click here for the episode

Hi all welcome to Tales of History and Imagination, my name is Simone. Merry Christmas to all who are tuning in around the time I am releasing this. I want to start this cold open with a bit of a tale in it’s own right.

Having left this a little late I began to write this episode on the 10th December 2019, not intentional but there is a tale around that date I absolutely must share with you. You see on 10th December 1905, a far more accomplished writer than I will ever be found himself in a vaguely similar situation.
The writer, a man named William Sydney Porter, had quite a life story of his own. From 1891 to 1894 Porter worked as a teller and book keeper at a bank in Austin Texas, till he was accused of embezzlement. He wouldn’t be arrested for the crime till 1895, and at his first opportunity jumped bail and fled to Honduras, where he struck up a friendship with another fugitive; ex lawyer turned train robber, turned – sometime later in his life – silent film actor Al Jennings. While in Honduras Mr Porter wrote a book, and coined the term Banana republic. Porter had hoped his wife, Athol, and daughter Margaret would come and join him and all would live happily ever after– but Athol, suffering from tuberculosis, had become deathly ill. Porter returned to the USA, to be by his wife’s side, and comfort his daughter if the worst happened. Athol died in September 1897, and William was found guilty of embezzling $854.08 and sentenced to five years prison at Ohio Penitentiary- on March 25th 1898.

While locked away he turned to writing short stories, to provide for his daughter. He wrote under a few pseudonyms, but the one which stuck has many possible origins – the most likely tale though – he was reading through the society pages of a newspaper and he just stole some rich guy’s name and threw a single initial in front of it. When he was released from prison William Porter was, though known by his pseudonym, crazy popular, and the New York World – Joseph Pulitzer’s paper – we have mentioned the World in Ignaz Trebitsch Lincoln and the blog piece on Nellie Bly – they offer Mr Porter a job. His job, to write a short story every week, without fail. Well this week he is hours from deadline with nothing, sitting in Pete’s Tavern, Manhattan, and drowning his sorrows. Luckily William is one of the world’s great people watchers, and he catches a glimpse of a young, loved up couple.
When I think of this couple my mind takes me to Bon Jovi’s Living on a Prayer, and Tommy and Gina. They are young, they are poor. They are in love – they will get by. I have to wonder just a little if William cast back to his own experience with the departed Athol, and just how, in hindsight that played for him. Would his own life be different if he had let love, not greed, guide him? Whatever the case three hours later he had his story. The writer of course was one of America’s greatest short story writers, O Henry. The story, The Gift of the Magi – an exquisitely written gem of a tale, and one of the great Christmas tales of all time. If you haven’t read it before I won’t ruin it for you – but I love Jim and Della, the tale’s protagonists – and you should really make the time to read it at some point this season. It will seem real familiar – everyone from Glee, to Sesame Street to Jackie Gleeson’s The Honeymooners has borrowed the premise. O Henry, on the drop of a hat turned out a beautiful, sad, somehow uplifting tale from the working class in the city of four million- giving voice to the often voiceless, dignity to poverty – and reminding us, the reader that if you have your one true love, then nothing else matters.

Meanwhile it is the 11th hour at the beach house – and I am doing what I do best, running the memory banks for the quirky tales often left out of the history books. O Henry wrote a Christmas masterpiece – I’ll be happy with a Gremlins 2, to be honest with you. Join me today folks as I share a short tale from Christmases’ past. Welcome to Tales of History and Imagination Series 1 Episode 5: Simone’s Christmas Carol.

[Theme Music – Ishtar’s The Enemy Within]

So, the next tale I want to look at today is the way in which Christmas made a legend, a hero for an oppressed people – the kind of man of whom tales would arise of battles against a repressive regime, and even the devil. A man worthy of song. This song, however is not ‘O Holy night, the stars are brightly shining.’ It starts ‘The night was clear, and the moon was yellow, and the leaves came tumbling down.

This tale is set on Christmas day 1895, in St Louis Missouri- a teeming city of around half a million and rapidly growing. From what I have read St Louis seems a rather dynamic, yet bitterly divided city at the time – while Missouri was on the union side of the American Civil war, opinion was strongly divided among pro secessionists often backed by those concerned an abolitionist USA would see the end of their cotton packing industry… and the pro union forces – which included a large number of African Americans in the state who would fight for the union in the war, and a similarly large number of progressive thinkers who had fled Germany in the wake of the year of failed revolutions, 1848. During the early stages of the civil war were two notable incidents, the first was the Camp Jackson affair in March 1861– where a pro union militia led by Captain Nathaniel Lyon arrested a group of pro secessionist troops. While marching them back in, they were met by an angry mob. When Lyon’s men opened fire on the mob, killing at least 28 civilians and injuring dozens more, the subsequent public outcry almost pushed Missouri towards secession. In May 1861 further violence broke out when a group of pro slavery locals attacked the Union 5th Regiment in St Louis, leading to a gunfight where six people were killed. While public shows like this lessened several social history articles record many a family were divided over the civil war, making for some tense dinner table conversations.

Captain Nathaniel Lyon.


Being on the border of union and confederate states St Louis in particular would pick up a great many African American refugees from the civil war, former slaves left homeless and looking for new opportunities. Now being the gateway to the West, a hub where a lot happened, the city was booming post war. It may not surprise you however not all opportunities were open to all. To highlight the segregationist nature of the state – itself a former slave owning state, one only needs look at the education system in St Louis. The first schools for black children were opened in 1820, and promptly burned down. In 1845 the state banned schooling for black children, so a number of brave teachers set up schools on river boats, as the river was a kind of no mans land where legislators would have no say on anything. Educational segregation was still in force at the time this tale was set in. One could also point to the segregation in housing in the area. As ex slaves flooded into the growing city they were blocked from the white neighborhoods, and largely found themselves crammed into the blacks only slums. 85 percent of the black inhabitants were crammed into an area approximately 2 percent the size of the city, and at around the time of this tale the legislators were taking measures to bar black people from living in areas then 75 percent white or higher. separate? Yes. Equal? When is it ever?. St Louis was a place of much discrimination and segregation, where opportunities existed aplenty for a certain sector of the city. It was also a place of racial tensions, and inequality, and rife for it’s own folk hero.

So… it’s Christmas 1895. To borrow again from Mr. Lloyd Price in 1958, rock and roll singer of such songs as Lawdy Miss Clawdy and Personality, the night was clear and the moon was yellow… and the leaves came tumbling down.


On this night, two men were in a heated conversation. Often the legend has it they were shooting dice, though the truth seems they were discussing politics at the Bill Curtis Saloon. One of the men William ‘Billy’ Lyons was a 25 year old levee hand. He worked loading and unloading boats as they came into dock. He was also allegedly a dangerous underworld figure in St Louis. The other man, Lee Shelton, aka Stack Lee, in some tales he was tall – but prison records had him at 5 foot 7… or Stag Lee, because he was always ‘Stag’ perpetually a loner, and eventually ‘Stagger Lee’ – was very much an underworld figure. Though a carriage driver, Stagger Lee was a well known pimp and gambler in the area. Often he would pick up well to do white male passengers and convince them to drop by his club and gambling den The Modern Horseshoe Club, or spend a little time with one of his girls. He was active in two networks. One was the Macks – a group of extravagantly attired pimps. Picture if you will on the night in question Stagger Lee is wearing a black dress coat covering a high collared yellow shirt and patterned red velvet waistcoat. Gray, striped slacks, pointy toed shoes, rings galore on his fingers. A cane with a glistening gold cap on it, and, most importantly to this tale, a white Stetson hat- it’s hatband embroidered with an image of ‘Lillie’ one of his girls. I’m not one to say in 1895 Stagger Lee was the height of sophistication but his bling certainly gave the impression he was doing pretty well for himself.



The other network Lee Shelton belonged to was a sporting club with close ties to the Democratic party, known as the 400 club. The 400 club professed to be established for the betterment of young black men, and had a strict policy governing their members’ morals- yeah I know – Stagger Lee was, according to some sources I’ve read, one time president of the 400 club. At the age of 30 he co-owned a few bars, lived in a large brick house far away from the slums, and was on the way up. In a city full of opportunities, forbidden to most black men, Lee Shelton was willing to climb the crooked ladder to power, influence and prosperity. So what was it that happened?

If you are to go by most of the songs, Lloyd Price’s included, Stagger Lee and Billy were gambling, and Lee lost. Not only did Billy Lyons take his last dollar, but he took his beloved Stetson hat, the very symbol of his prosperity. Lee goes off and gets his revolver and shoots Billy Lyons. You don’t mess with a man’s hat after all. The truth is a little different.
Now the real story is the two men, apparently former friends but now bitter rivals, came across each other at Bill Curtis’ Saloon. They had a few drinks together that night, and talk turned to politics. Now as much as Stagger Lee was a staunch Democrat, Billy Lyons was an equally staunch republican. The two men had been talking and drinking for some time when talk became heated. Lee was the first to lose his temper, denting Billy’s hat, a derby. Billy responded by grabbing Lee’s Stetson off his head. Lee pulled his 44 caliber Smith and Wesson and demanded the return of his hat. Lyons pulled out a knife saying quote


“I’m going to make you kill me”.

Lee first pistol whipped Billy with the butt of his gun, and when that had no great effect, he shot Billy in the stomach. Stagger Lee calmly retrieved his hat and walked out of the Saloon. Billy Lyons would die of his wounds the next day. This was one of five murders that day in St Louis, and on the face of it nothing terribly out of the ordinary. Lee was caught, tried, sentenced to 25 years. The authorities let him out in 1909 but he was soon back inside, and would die in prison in 1912 from, the disease of this podcast episode, tuberculosis.

So how the hell does this guy become a folk hero you may ask? We’ll get to that. First, yes, he does become a folk hero.

Within two years of the killing it is noted black workers employed in what can only be described as extractive labour – backbreaking work in the fields for far too little pay like picking cotton- were singing a line holler in honor of Stagger Lee the length of the Mississippi. That year, from Kansas, word of a song on Lee by a “Prof Charlie Lee, the piano thumper” appeared in a local paper. His legend spread via oral tradition, all the way till 1910, when folklore expert and musicologist John Lomax got a written copy of “The Ballad of Stagalee” from a Texan woman named Ella Fisher. Various songs on Lee spread, as did Prison Toasts, poems lionizing the subject for his badassery. In 1923 Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians made the first recording of a Stagger Lee song. They would be one of over 400 acts to record a song about the man. I mention Lloyd Price because of the versions I have heard his would have to be my favourite – but it is also noteworthy because his was the first to go to the top of the charts, hitting number 1 on the Billboard hot 100 in February 1959. It was out over Christmas 1958 but at that point languished around number 51 – and nothing was going to boot …… Alvin and the Chipmunks, from the top spot. In legend Stagger Lee had become an outlaw; all the women wanted him, all the men wanted to be him. He took no crap from nobody, not least of all the white man. He lived by his own credo. He was stylish, cocky, successful. The segregationist rules of the white man meant nothing to him. Tales of Stagger Lee went as far as telling how when he died St Peter turned him away from heaven as they don’t want no gamblers here, so he went down to hell and beat down the devil, proclaiming himself the new boss here. Other tales had him fight a duel with the outlaw Jesse James, gave him the power to transform into animals. One even claimed he caused the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

When the Blaxploitation films of the 60s and 70s needed a cool, tough, amoral lead or anti-hero the Stagger Lee archetype came to the fore, perhaps the two most famous examples are the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks – John Shaft of 1971’s Shaft, and Youngblood Priest, the pimp and drug dealer gone straight in 1972’s Super Fly. Even pro wrestling borrowed from the archetype – Both Koko B Ware and the Junkyard Dog – two of the biggest stars of the Rock and wrestling era borrowed the Stagger Lee moniker at some point in their career.

But why the hero worship? Well I think it is often fair to say people may not always get the heroes they deserve, but, touch wood – they often get the heroes they need at that time. Those of you who read my blog will have maybe read my piece on Tanna Island in Vanuatu and the cargo cult of John Frum. Now there is an element of magical thinking in the Frum tale, the American soldiers came in with thunder and lightning, flying birds, magical talking boxes, and more importantly cargo – manna from heaven. They needed a savior from the cruel plantation owners, the ships trawling the pacific blackbirding off their men to South American plantations – and the soul destroying, extractive labour they were subjected to. A messianic army officer promising to save them, and to restore life to a golden age of cargo for all must happen – and if it wasn’t going to happen by itself the people would think John Frum into being. Similarly one can imagine the same kinds of thought processes in Czechoslovakia during World War Two. As in the tail end of my podcast on Spring Heeled Jack, the Czechs resurrected the Spring Heeled Jack archetype – particularly the strain that popped up in the Aldershot Barracks incidents – in the character of Perak, a demonic prankster who regularly owned the occupying Nazi soldiers for sheer bedevilment. Similar things could be said for England’s Robin Hood under the evil King John, Switzerland’s William Tell under the thumb of the Holy Roman emperor and it’s cruel administrators like Mr Gessler, Australia’s Ned Kelly- and any number of bank robbers in the Great Depression – Dillinger, Machine Gun Kelly, Bonnie and Clyde… the list could go on for days.

One does not have to imagine too hard how a downtrodden group of people, repressed through various means – centuries of being chattels through to disenfranchisement, discrimination and subsistence wages – might look at the guy who climbed the crooked ladder to prosperity and lives life by his own rules, no matter how bad he is, and see something heroic. Stagger Lee Shelton may have been a pimp and a cold hearted murderer but to many he is the guy who stuck it to the man.

Ok, I did have a plan to tell a couple of short tales but this one did get away from me a little. I’ll save those other tales for later, like a miserly parent who hides Christmas presents in the attic for the kids’ birthdays. Thank you for tuning in (or reading, blog readers). I wish you all peace, love, happiness and all that other good Christmas stuff. On the blog page, http://www.historyandimagination.com I will leave links to Lloyd Price’s Stagger Lee and an Amazon link to some O Henry. Season’s Greetings all, I’ll be back on the podcast in a few weeks’ time. I’ll drop a blog post next week. Music by Ishtar, whose first incarnation back in 2001 cut a cover of the Eagles track Please Come Home for Christmas. It has yet to surface, so we’ll lead out with their 2012 demo of ‘Space Radio, as we always do. Enjoy the holiday season.

The Gift of the Magi
by Amazon  Digital Services  LLC
https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0082Z3S3G/ref=cm_sw_em_r_mt_dp_U_LBR-DbPX9QNVK

Nellie Bly: the heroine who took on a mad-house.

“I would like the expert physicians who are condemning me for my action, which has proven their ability, to take a perfectly sane and healthy woman, shut her up and make her sit from 6 A. M. until 8 P. M. on straight-back benches, do not allow her to talk or move during these hours, give her no reading and let her know nothing of the world or its doings, give her bad food and harsh treatment, and see how long it will take to make her insane. Two months would make her a mental and physical wreck.”

Nellie Bly, ‘Ten Days in a Mad House’ (1887).


In 1885 an ‘anxious father’ of 5 unmarried daughters wrote a letter to the Pittsburgh Dispatch desperate for advice, and worried about how his girls would cope out in the big, bad world without men to look after them. The paper replied in an editorial piece from their columnist Erasmus Wilson entitled ‘What girls are good for’. So, according to Wilson what are girls good for? Not a lot. In his diatribe Wilson decried working women as “A monstrosity”, stating the only place for a woman was in the home. He lambasted parents of working women for allowing them to enter the workforce, and suggested perhaps America should follow China’s 2 millennia long practice of some parents drowning female babies. If you imagine that even in 1885 such an exhibit of he-man woman hating misogyny would get some heat, you would be correct. A mountain of letters of complaint to the editor came flooding in. One in particular, an anonymous piece signed “lonely orphan girl” stood out for it’s remarkably direct and persuasive use of language, even if, allegedly, the riposte broke many grammatical conventions. The letter never got published, but so impressed managing editor George Madden that he wrote an open letter inviting the writer to come see him, all the same. The next day a 20 year old woman named Elizabeth Cochran, a former trainee teacher at Indiana Teacher’s college who had to drop out to help her mother run a boarding house, arrived at the office. Madden offered her a job as a reporter, which she took unhesitatingly. Cochran took on the nom de plume Nellie Bly, a name she borrowed from a minstrel song written by “Father of American Music” Stephen Foster.


Bly wrote for the Pittsburgh Dispatch for a few years, covering the lives of working women, the poor of Pittsburgh, and for some time official corruption and wealth inequality in Mexico; but looking for bigger opportunities, she moved to New York in 1887. That year she approached Joseph Pulitzer’s ‘The New York World’ (yes, that Pulitzer, of the prize… if you recall the mountebank Ignaz Trebitsch Lincoln also wrote for them on occasion) wanting to report on the lives of poor immigrants in the Big Apple. While the New York World was not at all interested in that story they did have a challenging job for Nellie Bly, if she felt she was up to the task- infiltrate the remote, secretive Blackwell Island insane asylum. As she would a to a number of big challenges in her life, Bly took up the challenge.

Joseph Pulitzer.

On 22nd September 1887 Nellie Bly came up with a plan to get herself committed with the least amount of collateral damage. Under the guise of a young out of towner looking for work, she booked herself into a boarding house for working women, then began to act one part paranoid, one part clinically depressed, one part retrograde amnesiac. She, in turns, acted ‘mad’ till the boarding house owners called for two police officers to come over and take Nellie away. The police arrived and took her, first, back to the station, then second before the kindly Judge Duffy, who took some convincing to send Nellie to Bellevue hospital for examination. At Bellevue, Nellie easily convinced the doctors she was “positively demented” and beyond help, after a short examination by a couple of what passed for expert doctors at the time. While at Bellevue you get the first sense of a few things she would find at Blackwell Island later – but more of that in a second.
She was soon sent off to the asylum.

In her ten days in the asylum, Nellie Bly uncovered a litany of horrors and mistreatment. First there was the ubiquitous chill – Although the asylum was freezing cold (she references this several times including talk on seeing others skin going blue with the cold) the staff refused to turn on the heat or provide sufficient clothing to keep inmates warm. Second, the long hours of sitting around in a main room; unadorned and overcrowded, on backless benches (six people crammed onto five spaces) – where one dare not speak, or move around for fear of abuse from the staff. Third the food sounded absolutely Dickensian. Bly describes on their arrival to the island the sickening stench coming from one particular building,

“We passed one low building, and the stench was so horrible that I was compelled to hold my breath….” This turned out to be the kitchen. Bly goes on stating she
“…smiled at the signboard at the end of the walk: “Visitors are not allowed on this road”. I don’t think the sign would be necessary if they once tried the road, especially on a warm day”. She goes on to describe inedible food, soups which were little more than water, blackened (possibly moldy?) bread, rancid butter.

It was clear from Bly’s description of bathing conditions the inmates were not bathed enough, and when they were, they bathed in ice cold water, were scrubbed by the same few flannels and were dried off with the same few towels – this included inmates with untreated sores. The inmates were also dressed in the same clothes for up to a month at a time. Adding to the horrors, sleep for any decent length of time was out of the question – the noise of the nurses moving up and down the hallways at night reverberated like they were in an echo chamber. If that didn’t wake you, then he nurses opening the door to look in – having to turn a heavy, noisy lock each time to do so, was bound to wake you up. Speaking of those doors, they were death traps, should a fire break out. All individually locked, with no safety to unlock all the rooms at once should an emergency occur, there would be no chance of getting anyone out alive if the worst happened.


That Bly comments that, in her opinion, many of the women incarcerated are as sane as herself one might choose to accept, or dismiss as they see fit. Certainly in some of her conversations it seems clear some of the inmates were suffering from, at most, depression or anxiety. Some you do question if they are suffering from anything besides being trapped in an asylum. Bly mentions of a French inmate, Josephine Despreau, who appeared to have been locked up over a misunderstanding, and who did not have enough English to defend herself. A Sarah Fishbaum, who was locked away on the word of her husband, after she either flirted with or had an affair with a man other than her husband. She mentions a German maid by the name of Margaret, who was locked up after getting into a fight with co-workers who had deliberately messed up a floor she had spent hours scrubbing. What does seem pretty obvious is both the unprofessionalism of the doctors (one gossiping with the nurse in front of Bly, asking if she had read the newspaper articles on her case, in front of Bly), and of their great disinterest in helping, or even properly assessing their inmates.
The nurses are disturbing in other ways, Bly reporting of their propensity to act violently towards the inmates. She mentions one case where “an insane woman” was dropped off to the island, and the nurses greeted her with a beating. When a doctor noticed the inmate’s black eye the nurses claimed the beating must have happened before the inmate arrived. Then there was the case of Mrs Cotter, to quote Bly

“One of the patients, Mrs Cotter, a pretty, delicate woman, one day thought she saw her husband coming up the walk. She left the line in which she was marching and ran to meet him. For this act she was sent to the Retreat. She afterward said:
“The remembrance of that is enough to make me mad. For crying the nurses beat me with a broom- handle and jumped on me, injuring me internally, so that I shall never get over it. Then they tied my hands and feet, and, throwing a sheet over my head, twisted it tightly around my throat, so I could not scream, and thus put me in a bath tub filled with cold water. They held me under until I gave up every hope and became senseless.”

After ten days she was rescued by her colleagues at the New York World. She would record her experiences of Blackwell Island in a six part expose, which would later be compiled into a book, ‘Ten Days in a Mad House’. The uproar over the treatment of the inmates would lead to a grand jury investigation, which led to an overhaul of the asylum.

Bly would go on to write several similar exposes in her career, taking down sweatshops, corruption in jails, and bribery from lobbyists; though perhaps today is best known for having taken on the challenge of following in the footsteps of Jules Verne’s Phileas Fogg (Around the World in Eighty Days, 1873), documenting her circumnavigation of the globe in just 72 days. Nellie Bly would retire from journalism in 1895, after marrying the wealthy industrialist Robert Seaman. When Seaman died in 1903 she took the reigns of his factory, but would return to journalism in 1920. Elizabeth Cochran, known to the world as Nellie Bly, star investigative reporter, would herself pass on, from pneumonia, January 27th 1922.