Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Bessie Smith's Alabama Connections

Although she was born in Chattanooga (April 15, 1894, was the date given by her family), the great blues singer Bessie Smith had Alabama connections. Let's investigate.

Smith's father William and mother Laura are listed in the 1870 U.S. Census as living in Lawrence County, Alabama. Five children were also living in the household, including two teenagers, Bloney who was 15 and Fannie, 13. Also listed were Eveline, Gabe and Paralee who were 9, 6 and 4. Both parents and the three younger children were all born in Alabama. Paralee was probably the only one not born a slave The two teenagers were born in Kentucky according to the census. 

Although his occupation was listed as "minister of gospel", William had to work as a farm laborer on the former Owen plantation. Bloney and Fannie were also described as farm laborers. Laura's occupation was given as "keeps house." 

Sometime before Bessie's birth, the family moved to Chattanooga. William died there in November 1899 and Laura in April 1903. By that time 8 children including Bessie made up the family. Two of her brothers died at a young age. Smith's family tree is incredibly complicated; you can see a listing here. All except Bessie, Bloney and Fannie were apparently born in Alabama.

After the parents' deaths, older sister Viola raised the younger siblings. Bessie and brother Andrew became street entertainers to raise money; she sang and danced and he played the guitar. Before long Bessie appeared on the African-American vaudeville circuit. In their book The Original Blues: The Emergence of the Blues in African American Vaudeville, authors Abbott and Seroff describe her performance on the bill at the Bijou Theater in Bessemer on October 3, 1911. 

Brother Clarence had gone to work with the Moses Stokes travelling troupe and in 1912 arranged an audition for Bessie. Since the troupe already had a great blues singer, Ma Rainey, Bessie was hired as a dancer. 

Bessie's talents soon led to greater things, and by 1923 she was under contract with Columbia Records. Her first recordings were "
Gulf Coast Blues" and "Downhearted Blues". Clarence Williams played piano. The record sold 750,000 copies that year alone. Her recording career continued with great success until the Depression devastated the industry. Smith never stopped performing until her September 1937 death from injuries received in a car wreck in Mississippi. Her grave in Philadelphia remained unmarked until 1970. 

Bessie Smith probably performed in Alabama many times, and no doubt her records sold well in the black communities of the state. A slight change in circumstances might have made her a native as well. 

We can claim the "New Bessie Smith", Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton

Photograph taken in 1936 by Carl Van Vechten 

Source: Wikipedia

This stamp was issued on September 1, 1994

This HBO film starring Queen Latifah as Bessie premiered in 2015. I recently watched this biopic and enjoyed it very much. 

Friday, June 16, 2017

Finding Alabama in New York State

These AlabamaYesterday wanderings often take me to some state connection far away, and this post is another example. I recently stumbled across the town of Alabama in Genesee County, New York, so let's see what's going on there. 

Incorporated in 1826 as Gerrysville, the area took the name "Alabama" two years later. That 19th century account previously linked claimed that the word means "Here we rest." The place had almost 1900 people counted in the 2010 U.S. Census, a figure that has remained about the same since 1840. According to Wikipedia, "sour" spring water available in the town was bottled as medicine in the 19th century. Two hundred people a day were said to visit the three main springs during their heyday. The Spring House Hotel served visitors until it burned in 1914. Alabama is now located in the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge.

In New York state, towns are a primary municipal corporation operating the main functions of government within each county. There are 932 towns in the state. Each town can have within it boundaries villages and hamlets or some portion thereof. Communities within Alabama include the hamlet of South Alabama and the former hamlet of West Alabama. 

This arrangement produces such businesses as Alabama Archery, Alabama Holley Farm, and the Alabama & Basom United Methodist Church. There is also the Alabama Hotel; their wings were praised by Spiro T. Agnew during a 1968 presidential campaign visit. 

How this town in New York acquired the name of a state only nine years old [eleven if you count the Alabama Territory] remains a mystery. The territory and state were named after the Alabama tribe of Creeks who lived in the southeast until moving into Texas in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The tribe's name was interpreted to mean "Here we rest" until the 1920's. At that time research by Thomas Owen, director of the Alabama state archives, demonstrated that the word was a combination meaning "vegetation gatherers." 

An 1897 newspaper article "Towns Named after States" listed "Alabama" in New York and Wisconsin. I guess I'll have to investigate Wisconsin next. 

An extensive historical timeline for Alabama Town can be found here.

These businesses are located in Basom, a community in Alabama Town. 

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Birmingham Photo of the Day (57): East Lake Bathers

Seeing old photographs I always wonder "Where are they now?", or, in examples this old, "Whatever happened to them all?"

The photograph below was taken by Oscar V. Hunt [1882-1964] sometime in the early 1900's. The shot is one of hundreds he took in the Birmingham area over the years; you can see many of them here.

East Lake Park, originally developed as a private facility in 1886 by the East Lake Land Company, became a city park in 1917. The one hundred acres have featured many attractions over the years, including a hotel, golf course, dance pavilion and theater. The lake was created when Roebuck Creek and Village Springs were dammed.

In December 1888 the body of eight year-old May Hawes was found floating in the lake. Her father Richard was tried, convicted and executed for the notorious crimes that also included the murder of her younger sister Irene and his wife Emma. May's spirit is said to haunt the lake

Although taken less than 20 years after that event, these people seem to have no worries about crime. They have probably gathered at the request of the photographer; based on squinting and eye shading, they are looking into the sun. One young man on the lower right is looking down at the water. And what's up with that kid in the front row center? Is he crying or yelling or just making a funny face for the photograph?

In the background a man is heading away from the group, perhaps not wanting to be photographed. Just to the right of the Bath House is a man with his arms outstretched, perhaps seeking attention. Who is the figure in white between him and the Bath House? Two or three other people can be seen in the upper right on the shore also behind the fence. 

There don't seem to be many women in this photo....

Friday, June 9, 2017

On the Shores of Weiss Lake, mid-1960's

Sometime in the mid-1960's my parents and dad's parents bought a lot together on Weiss Lake in Cherokee County. The lake spreads over 30,000 acres in both Alabama and Georgia and was created by Weiss Dam which Alabama Power completed in 1961. The dam and lake are named after a company engineer, Fernand C. Weiss.

At the time there was little development around the lake, and dad and pawpaw proceeded to build a cabin on their property. Since he was retired, pawpaw did much of the work, and dad would go down on weekends to help and bring supplies he purchased. I remember the place as somewhat spartan but comfortable. Younger brother Richard and I had fun exploring the shoreline and surrounding woods.

After a few years the property was sold, and I've never been back. I'm sure the place has changed a lot and probably features the kinds of lakefront development so popular and profitable everywhere. You can see some contemporary photos here.

Below are a few photos taken on one of our trips to Weiss Lake along with some comments. The pictures were probably date 1966 or 1967.

For more information on the dam and lake, see Douglas Scott Wright's book, A History of Weiss Lake [History Press, 2008].

Here I am on the road trip to the lake, looking nerdy!

That seems to be younger brother Richard hanging out on and under the pier .

Here I am with Junior, who belonged to a next door neighbor. He was a very friendly dog.

A nice view of the shoreline

Dad must have joined us for some rock throwing.

Here's mom with Junior

Dad photographed us in a moment of pretended contemplation. That's the cabin in the background. Here you can see not only that cool hat but the cool socks I'm wearing 

Another shot of the cabin with our Chevy station wagon in the background

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Elegy for a Small Pelham Bookstore

Back in 2015 I did a couple of posts on bookmarks and business cards related to Alabama bookstores. In the second one I included a card for Betty's Books in Pelham. Mostly a used paperback store, Betty's Books opened sometime in the 1990's. I remember visiting once before the store relocated to a small commercial area across U.S. 31 from its original place. Seems like I went to the new location once as well.

The store changed ownership and became Books Etc. I visited that incarnation several times and always found something to buy. The place was small but packed with goodies. Unfortunately, Books Etc has recently closed, and I'll miss knowing it's there when I want to stop by.

Son Amos worked at that Food World, which opened in 1974, during part of his high school years. Eventually the store closed, and a few years ago was replaced by a Mi Pueblo Supermarket.

The sign says "New and Used Book Exchange" but most of the inventory was used books  and those were mostly trade and mass market paperbacks. The store did have large selections of classics, westerns, science fiction, and horror in addition to the usual contemporary fiction and romances. 

At one time Books Etc also occupied the storefront to the left of this photo, but I started going just after the owner had given up that space.

Unfortunately, I totally missed that "Big Sale"!

Friday, June 2, 2017

Alabama Highway Map Cover from 1973

I've done a lot of map posts on this blog, and there's a reason for that--I love maps! Back in March I did a couple of posts on "Some Alabama Highway Map Covers" using mostly official maps from the state highway department in my collection. Those are the free maps you can pick up at state welcome centers and rest stops. 

The oldest one in my collection was an example from 1976. Recently I explored a consignment shop here in Pelham and came across this one from 1973. I thought I'd post it here.

The map has a theme of "Alabama Has It All", something Governor George Wallace explains in his message on the back cover. There's also a quaint template for a stamp and address; I guess the highway and tourist departments would mail them on request and not have to use an envelope.

I wonder when the earliest of these maps was issued. If you know, leave that information in the comments!

This map was modestly priced, but I didn't buy it. Can't collect everything, you know. 

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Yes, There's a Booth for That Art

For more than 50 years my mother, Carolyn Shores Wright, has been painting, mostly in watercolor. Her subjects have ranged from many types of birds including hummingbirds to landscapes, flowers, and still lifes. She's also had a long-running series "Bird Life" featuring birds in humorous--and human--situations. You can see many examples on Pinterest. You can follow her on Twitter too: @CShoresInc 

Mom's had success selling both originals and licensing rights, so her art appears on many things from prints to greeting cards, coasters, pillows, sun catchers, Franklin Mint plates, bookmarks, and mugs and much else. As I noted in a recent post, we found one of her licensed pieces in a shop in Manitou Springs, Colorado. In 1994 we took the kids to Disney World. The first shop we entered at Disney Marketplace had several prints of mom's art hanging on the walls. These encounters have been frequent over the years.

A few years ago we opened a shop for mom's work on ArtFire, and subsequently on Etsy, two online sites for the sale of arts and crafts. Dianne also sells her original jewelry on the ArtFire site. 

Recently we've opened two physical locations in Pelham, Alabama, at Encore Resales and Vintage Interiors. These are reminiscent of the booths mom operated at art shows for many years across the Southeast. However, these booths last longer than just a weekend!

The booths feature prints and other licensed items with mom's work and Dianne's jewelry. Just recently we've added some work by my nephew Ashley Wright, a Birmingham attorney. 

More comments are below the photos.

Here's the booth as it currently looks at Encore. 

Those two oyster prints are Ashley's. 

Here's the booth at Vintage which gives us lots of room for hanging items. We also have space for some non-art items and furniture.

Ashley's oysters are also available here, both framed and unframed. 

For years mom did the painting and matting, and dad made the frames. 

And here's mom at an art show booth in Huntsville in November 1991. For some years she did a weekend show in late January at Brookwood Village mall in the Birmingham area, and I remember taking the kids to see her on Friday night or Saturday.