Portraits from Jelly Roll’s early travels
1905 – Spring 1923
by Peter Hanley

PORTRAITS FROM JELLY ROLL’S EARLY TRAVELS
Introduction   Porter King   Frank Rachel   Henry Lider   Kudos

INTRODUCTION

When Jelly Roll finally left New Orleans about 1908 or 1909, he set out on a journey that took him to almost every state in the United States and a few adjoining countries as well. The story of his travels, as he told it, is peopled with fabulous characters, and it has been my task to write portraits of twenty-five of them in this second part of the series. There is a considerable body of evidence about these people available from contemporary newspapers, and from books published over many years. I have also endeavoured to introduce documentary evidence from primary sources wherever it has been possible to do so. I have followed my usual practice and quoted all sources in detail.

2002 Peter Hanley

PORTER KING

“A marvelous pianist now in the cold, cold ground”

King Porter Stomp is one of Jelly Roll Morton’s earliest compositions, and it is also one of his finest. Morton claimed that he wrote the piece in 1905, the year when he travelled down on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. Whether it was written in 1905, or a few years later in 1907 or 1908, is a matter of some contention. Despite its early composition, it was not published until the Melrose Brothers issued it in Chicago in 1924. The inspiration for the piece, or at least for its name, was Porter King, an early pianist greatly admired by Morton.

On his first recording made for the Library of Congress, Jelly Roll played and sang Alabama Bound and told of some of the pianists he met on the Gulf Coast in those heady days:

“Of course, I wrote this tune while I was in Alabama about the year of 1905, when I was about twenty years old. I was considered very good amongst my friends, that is so far as the writing period, and I’ve always had a kind of a little inkling to write a tune at most any place I would ever land.

“Of course, we had King Porter around there, that is, I mean Porter King, the man that King Porter Stomp was named after. He was considered a very good piano player. And of course, we had King, I disremember his name, I think his name Charlie King, another piano player around there. Baby Grice was another one that was supposed to be good. . . . That was all in Mobile. Baby Grice was from Pensacola, Florida. Then we had another one around that was supposed to be very good from Florida also. His name was Frazier Davis. And Frank Rachel was supposed to be tops when it came down around Georgia.

“But somehow or another most all those boys kind of felt that I had little composing ideas, and always tried to, that is encourage me to play some numbers. That is, write a number, I mean. So that’s why I wrote Alabama Bound.”
[AFS 1638-B]

Jelly Roll had great pride in his compositions, and, in 1938, none more so than King Porter Stomp. On the first version he played for Alan Lomax at the Library of Congress in May 1938, there were also comments from him which were caught by the Presto portable recorder, and which, as always, were enlightening:

King Porter was the first stomp, or the first tune with a name stomp wrote in the United States. . . . Of course, I tell you the fact about it, I don’t know what the name stomp mean myself. There really wasn’t any meaning, only that people would stamp their feet, and I decided that the name stomp would be fitted for it.

“Of course, this tune, I was inspired by the name from a very dear friend of mine, and a marvellous pianist now in the cold, cold ground, a gentleman from Florida, an educated gentleman with a wonderful musical education, far much better than mine. This gentleman’s name was Mr. King — Porter King.
[AFS 1639-A]

He seemed to have a kind of a yen for my style of playing, and, of course, he particularly liked this type of number that I was playing. And that was the reason I named it after him, but not Porter King. I changed the name backwards and named it King Porter Stomp.

“Now this tune become to be the outstanding favourite of every great hot band throughout the world, that had the accomplishments and qualifications of playing it. And until today this tune has been the cause of many great bands to come to fame. It has caused the outstanding tunes today to use the backgrounds that belong to King Porter in order to make great tunes of themselves. . . .

“This tune was wrote the same year as Alabama Bound, in 1905. It was wrote the same time with another tune that I wrote. Of course, I never got any credit for it. Mr. Williams, Clarence Williams got the credit for it. It was You Can Have It, I Don’t Want It. Well, it went something like this. . . . There was no words, it was a lot of foolish words to it.”
[AFS 1639-B]

Morton recorded King Porter Stomp commercially on four occasions, three times as a piano solo, and on the other occasion with King Oliver as a cornet and piano duet. In addition, he recorded it twice for the Library of Congress, and made a private recording of it in Baltimore in 1938, all three as piano solos. His last known recording was a radio transcription of King Porter Stomp on 14th July 1940 (piano solo with drums) when he appeared on an NBC program with Henry Levine and the Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street. There is also a piano roll dating from 1924.

Strange to say, Jelly Roll never recorded a band version of King Porter Stomp and I have often wondered whether he fully realised its orchestral potential before others, such as Fletcher Henderson, certainly did. Be that as it may, Henderson and his orchestra made three fine recordings of the tune (1928, 1932 and 1933). Benny Goodman’s orchestra used Henderson’s arrangement when they made their hit recording of it on 1st July 1935. It was, in a sense, the theme tune of the swing era.

Searching for information on obscure early black musicians in census records and other primary sources is always daunting, and fraught with problems. You can never be sure that you have the right person, and quite often the information is very sketchy. One thing is certain: many persons in the early years of the 20th century did not particularly like their names in census and other official records and in city directories. Poll taxes and creditors were the obvious reasons.

A continuing search over the last eighteen months of United States Census records for 1900, 1910, 1920 and 1930 (the Twelfth to the Fifteenth United States Census) revealed that there were several persons named Porter King of adult age in Alabama and a couple in Florida. One person in particular captured my attention as the likely suspect for Jelly Roll’s Porter King. In 1900, he was residing in Fisher Alley, Fisher Town, a suburb of Mobile, Alabama, and was the sole occupant in the household. Unfortunately, the right hand side of the census sheet (including his occupation) was faded so badly that it was impossible to read accurately, but the readable side showed that he was male, black, single and born in March 1872. He was born in Alabama and it looked as if his father was born in Florida and his mother in North Carolina.
(U.S. Census 1900, Alabama, Mobile County, Mobile, SD1 ED114, Sheet 294A, Line 30, Census Date 1st June 1900, enumerated 1st June 1900, as Porter King)

The same person appears in the 1910 census at 604 St. Anthony Street, Mobile, between North Warren and North Cedar. This time he had a wife, Virginia, age 38, and his occupation was “Driver — Cab.” (U.S. Census 1910, Alabama, Mobile County, Mobile, 7th Ward, SD1 ED100, Sheet 4B, Lines 61-62, Census Date 15th April 1910, enumerated 20th April 1910, age 37 years) The Mobile City Directory has an entry for Porter King in 1891 at 159 South Warren Street (occupation, porter) and in 1892 at 111 Walnut Street (occupation, driver).

He was missing from the 1920 census but, surprisingly, turned up in the 1930 census in Chicago. There is no mistaking that it is the same person, because both he and his wife are recorded as being born in Alabama, and the ages correspond, within acceptable variations. Details of the census records for 1930 are:

Name (Sex Race)

Porter King (M N)
Virginia King (F N)
George F. King (M N)
Laura King (F N)
George F. King (M N)
Relationship

Head
Wife
Son
Daughter-in-law
Grandson
Age

56
56
24
18
6 months
Occupation

Porter — Drugstore




(U.S. Census 1930, Illinois, Cook County, Chicago, 5th Ward, Block 23, SD29 ED16-187, Sheet 32A, Lines 40-44, at 5341 Prairie Avenue, Census date, 1st April 1930, enumerated 23rd April 1930)

I had always thought that Porter King died in the early part of the 20th century and had implicitly believed the Blesh and Janis statement that he “was one of the greatest ragtime players in all the South.” [TAPR 181] That statement was made in the book without quoting any authority or source, and it is certain that neither Blesh nor Janis ever heard him play. The only support I can find is that Bill Russell wrote in 1990 that Charles Edward Smith had written to him in June 1940 and said that Jelly Roll had told him that Porter King was a famous exponent of Joplin rags, [OMJ 481] which is a long way from verifying the Blesh and Janis statement. Research produces some strange results at times and quite often shatters the illusions of the past created by writers who have never let fact stand in the way of a good story.

Jelly Roll said in 1938 that King was “a very dear friend of mine. . . . now in the cold, cold ground.” That statement implies at least two things to me. Firstly, King was a friend of long standing, because you do not make “a very dear friend” in the short period Jelly Roll was travelling on the Gulf Coast. It is probable that they kept in touch as King was shown in every census he was listed as being able to read and write, a pre-requisite for being “an educated gentleman.” Jelly Roll was a good correspondent as the Roy Carew letters, the statements from both his sisters and The Chicago Defender articles attest. It may even be that he encouraged King to leave the racial oppression of the South and go to Chicago. Secondly, the second part of the statement (“now in the cold, cold ground”) gives the death of King a more contemporary feel in relation to 1938, not something that happened many years before.

Well, I cannot guarantee that the Porter King above is Jelly Roll’s Porter King, but it seems to me that he probably is. I would have liked to have seen some reference to the fact that he was a musician rather than a driver or a porter, but I suppose he had to earn a living and support a family somehow, and may never have been a fulltime professional musician. The opportunities available to a black musician in the South at that time were few, little more than being a pianist in a sporting house or a performer on the vaudeville circuit if he was a more versatile entertainer. Such occupations may have suited others but may have been abhorrent to King. We have to ask ourselves what would Armstrong, Bechet, Morton, Handy, Clarence Williams and others have done for a living had they missed out on the opportunities that came their way, and remained in the South?

2003 Peter Hanley

FRANK RACHEL

“Supposed to be the tops when it came down around Georgia”

When Jelly Roll travelled to the Gulf coast cities and towns of the southern states of Mississippi, Alabama and Florida in the period from 1905 to 1910, he came across many pianists who were good players of both ragtime and the blues. He mentioned some that he remembered very well. Never one to hand out much praise, he must have been impressed by the playing of these men. One of the pianists he met in Mobile, Alabama during this time was Frank Rachel who was “supposed to be the tops when it came down around Georgia.” [AFS 1638-B]

Frank Rachel was born in Atlanta, Georgia in November 1885, and worked as a hand in a cotton factory there in 1900. He lived with his widowed father, two sisters and a younger brother at 141 Bowboard Street, Atlanta. All of the family were educated, at least to the extent that they could read and write English. They were a black family, and all were born in Georgia of parents also born in that state. Frank’s father was Frank P. Rachel, a sexton at a local church at that time. (U.S. Census 1900, Georgia, Fulton County, Atlanta, 4th Ward, SD5 ED65, Sheet 30A, Lines 15-19) The Atlanta, Georgia City Directory of 1889-1890 contained an entry for Frank Rachel; probably Frank’s father, whose occupation was listed as a drayman. His residence was located at 73 Randolph Street, Atlanta.

Frank Rachel was the pianist and leader of the orchestra at the newly opened Belmont Theater in Pensacola, Florida in the latter half of 1907, according to an article in “The Stage” section of The Indianapolis Freeman, dated 26th October 1907. The theatre was opened by William Benbow, well known throughout the South in the early part of the 20th century for his black vaudeville troupes. Frank was described as Prof. Frank Rachel and the article went on to say that he “and his orchestra is handling some clever music.” Will Benbow sent regards to a number of people, among them Billy Arnte, who was later to become the vaudeville partner of Mabel Bertrand (Morton). I could find no further records of Frank Rachel, the pianist whom Jelly Roll recalled as being “supposed to be the tops when it came down around Georgia.”

2002 Peter Hanley

HENRY LIDER

“All men are born equal, but they don’t die that way”

The American South has long been known for its violent attitude towards race, and its insistence on the racial superiority of White Protestants. Hatred and violence extended not only to Negroes but also to Jews, Catholics and foreigners. The ascendancy of the Ku Klux Klan, firstly after the end of the Civil War, and its later revival on Stone Mountain, Georgia in 1915, spread racial hatred throughout the South. The most violent act of these satanic southern mobs was the lynching of Negroes, those “strange fruit” which Billie Holiday sang about so tellingly.

A light-skinned Creole travelling about the Gulf Coast states in the early part of the twentieth century was bound to encounter such events. Young Ferd Morton did just that. He witnessed two lynchings in Mississippi and, but for good luck and quick thinking, may have been the victim of a third. Although Jelly Roll incorrectly referred to it as the second lynching, the first lynching he witnessed occurred in Biloxi, Mississippi on 10th November 1908. He described it to Alan Lomax in 1938 in a rather objective way, but the event must have been chilling and disturbing at the time.

“Later on in Biloxi I came in view of another lynching. This fellow, Henry Lyder, was lynched for attacking a white girl. Now you know yourself that a lot of these rapes is lies. But plenty of them is truth. In this case the people I talked to in Biloxi felt it was the facts. It seems most of the people in Biloxi, white and black, were satisfied; they seemed to think Lyder had really attacked the girl.” [MJR 143]

Lomax transcribed Henry’s name as “Lyder,” but it was also recorded as “Leidy.” (Thirty Years of Lynching in the U.S., 1889-1918, NAACP, New York, 1919, courtesy of Lawrence Gushee) However, the 1900 United States Census lists the name as “Lider.” The entry for young Henry and his family in Back Bay of Biloxi, Mississippi, on 9th June 1900 was:

Name (Sex Race)

Nancy Lider (F B)
Henderson Lider (M B)
Henry Lider (M B)
Viola Lider (F B)
Abaralla Lider (F B)
Rebecca Dorsey (F B)
Relationship

Head
Son
Son
Daughter
Daughter
Daughter
Born

July 1854
December 1878
October 1886
October 1890
June 1896
July 1893
Occupation

House keeper
Farm laborer
Farm laborer



(U.S. Census 1900, Mississippi, Harrison County, Back Bay of Biloxi, SD6 ED29, Sheet 5B)

Whatever the truth of Henry’s guilt or innocence, his constitutional rights entitled him to his day in court. Unfortunately, no one exercising authority in Mississippi at the time seemed to know or care about the constitution or the rights it assured all men and women, especially where Negroes and other ethnic groups were concerned. Even today, 213 years after its enactment, the Fifth Amendment still bears frequent repetition:

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war, or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

The fate of the victim in Biloxi is disturbingly reminiscent of the terrifying ending of that powerful yet moving short story by Langston Hughes called Home (from the collection The Ways of White Folks: stories by Langston Hughes, Alfred A. Knopf Inc., New York, 1934). The story is about a talented young Negro violinist, recently returned from success in Europe to his hometown in the South where he befriended an elderly white lady, only to meet the same fate as Henry Lider.

“Roy opened his mouth to reply when he saw the woman’s face suddenly grew pale with horror. Before he could turn around to learn what her eyes had seen, he felt a fist like a ton of bricks strike his jaw. There was a flash of lightning in his brain as his head hit the plate glass window of the drug store. Miss Reese screamed. The sidewalk filled with white young ruffians with red-necks, open sweaters, and fists doubled up to strike. The movies had just let out and the crowd, passing by and seeing, objected to a Negro talking to a white woman — insulting a White Woman — attacking a WHITE woman — RAPING A WHITE WOMAN. They saw Roy remove his gloves and bow. When Miss Reese screamed after Roy had been struck, they were sure he had been making love to her. And before the story got beyond the rim of the crowd, Roy had been trying to rape her, right there on the main street in front of the brightly-lighted windows of the drug store. Yes, he did, too! Yes, sir!

“So they knocked Roy down. They trampled on his hat and cane and gloves as a dozen men tried get to him to pick him up — so someone else could have the pleasure of knocking him down again. They struggled over the privilege of knocking him down.

“Roy looked up from the sidewalk at the white mob around him. His mouth was full of blood and his eyes burned. His clothes were dirty. He wondered why Miss Reese had stopped to ask about Sarasate. He knew he would never get home to his mother now.

“Some one jerked him to his feet. Some one spat in his face. (It looked like his old playmate, Charlie Mumford). Somebody cussed him for being a nigger, and another kicked him from behind. And all the men and boys in the lighted street began to yell and scream like mad people, and to snarl like dogs, and to pull at the little Negro in spats that they were dragging through the town towards the woods.

“The little Negro whose name was Roy Williams began to choke on the blood in his mouth. And the roar of their voices and the scuff of their feet were split by the moonlight into a thousand notes like a Beethoven sonata. And when the white folks left his brown body, stark naked, strung from a tree at the edge of town, it hung there all night, like a violin for the wind to play.”

2004 Peter Hanley

KUDOS


Dr. Edward A. Berlin (USA)
Prof. Lawrence Gushee (USA)
Peter Hanley (Australia)


Mike Meddings (UK)
Roger Richard (France)
Prof. Alan Wallace (USA)

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