On Texas, old newspapers, race music, and two black lives that shaped the history of civil rights
Part 2: The Higher Musical Calling
Most people have heard of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, canonical English poet and laudanum addict. Far fewer know the life and work of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Coleridge-Taylor was a black composer, London-born, his mother a white English woman, his father a doctor from Sierra Leone. The father, frustrated by his inability as a black man to rise higher than a subordinate position in an English hospital, left the family when Samuel was young, went to Africa and never returned. Samuel was raised by his mother. His English schoolmates called him Coalie, according to profiles that ran years later in the London press. They would “taunt” the “keenly sensitive” boy, who “suffered extremely” from the abuse. They once set his hair on fire “to see whether it would burn.”
He had a violin that he carried around “as a girl carries her doll.” One night he was out walking around with it, stopping now and then to play marbles on the sidewalk, and he passed by a well-to-do house. There was a fire in the parlor, a glow in the window, and he could hear music. One of the people inside saw him staring and noticed what he was carrying. They called him inside. At first he was shy, but when two of the men in the group began to play a violin duet, he pulled out his instrument and leapt in, so effortlessly that “all present marveled.” The man who owned the house, Joseph Beckwith, took him on as a student and taught him for more than a decade.
He emerged as a violin prodigy, whose performances—on that instrument and on the pianoforte, in churches and at curated “smoking sessions” in aristocratic houses—drew admiring notice in the English press, sometimes including mention of his having proved “a young gentleman of colour,” other times not, or unaware of it. He performed multiple works by Edvard Grieg, a Romantic composer who’d turned to the folk songs of his Norwegian ancestry for fresh melodic ideas.
Coleridge-Taylor’s own compositions start showing up around 1892. Church songs, at first. “Break Forth Into Joy” and “Oh! Ye That Love the Lord.” Christmas anthems, composed for hire. Derivative but “well-written,” said the Guardian. Then came a soprano solo piece, “Zara’s Earrings,” subtitled perhaps with quiet irony, “A Moorish Ballad.” Next he set one of Byron’s poems to music, and finally, succumbing to the weight of his name, he set Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” claiming later that it had been only when the poet’s grandson Ernest Hartley Coleridge had read it to him over tea one afternoon that it “sang its way into his brain.”
As the century waned, Coleridge-Taylor waxed. The composer Edward Elgar voiced admiration and opened doors for him. Somebody called him the African Mahler. His Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast sold hundreds of thousands of copies and was staged as a ballet. He and his wife, a pianist named Jessie Walmisley (a white woman from a notable family who’d fought the couple’s marriage to the bitterest end), had a son together and named him Hiawatha.
Black newspapers in America paid a lot of attention to Coleridge-Taylor between 1897, when he first rose to international notice, and his premature death in 1912. He died of pneumonia (he’d smoked incessantly). He collapsed in an English train station. The Indianapolis Freeman said that he may have enjoyed “more distinction than any known to any other member of the race.” Many viewed him as a kind of miraculous bodying forth of the famous “Dvořák Statement” on black music, which had been uttered precisely as Coleridge-Taylor made his debut. Antonín Dvořák is of course the celebrated Czech composer. He lived in America for a while in the 1890s and during that time took on students. One of his charges was a Southern boy, white (we assume) but enamored of the black songs he remembered from childhood. The boy taught a few of these “real negro melodies” to Dvořák, who went wild for them. Dvořák started having his students go to minstrel shows and take notes. He told a newspaper interviewer that “in the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music.”
This sentence—this Statement—resonated powerfully in the bosom of black America, a community seeking forms to express its freedom. Serious people were starting to say that the “old negro songs,” which had both entertained and sustained them through generations, might also be art, that perhaps “the Afro-American,” as the Chicago Broad Ax put it several years later, “is destined to become the true artist.”
The importance of Coleridge-Taylor—whose music can still give pleasure a century-plus on—isn’t just that he was half-African in his DNA, but that he thought of his music as spiritually black. He wasn’t, in other words, just following Dvořák in the sense of, Here I am, the black composer you predicted would come, but instead following the method of Dvořák, who himself had based many of his pieces on old Bohemian folk songs, and of Edvard Grieg, the favorite composer of his youth. Coleridge-Taylor saw that he had rare access to a similarly deep well of melodic material in his own heritage. Often he even sounded like Dvořák, in interviews, saying things on his American tours such as, “I intend to do all in my power to call attention to this splendid treasure of melody which you have.”
That was nice, but also a little patronizing. As had been Dvořák’s original Statement, for that matter. You have all that you need here to make great music! Really? You sure we don’t just have, you know, great music? Black journalists and critics picked up on this problem. A fascinatingly tortured, admiring, competitive, frustrated response to Coleridge-Taylor made by the black theater critic Sylvester Russell ran in the Indianapolis Freeman in 1905. Coleridge-Taylor had spoken (to another publication) in favor of ragtime but lamented that in Europe “the only idea of ‘rag time’ is that associated with a ‘coon song’ and that is unfortunate, for one thing is certain, and that is the coon songs in this country are ‘bad.’”
Well, maybe. Russell, the black critic, sort of liked some coon songs. After all, “[Bert] Williams and the late [George] Walker”—a black vaudeville duo, blacks who performed in blackface, famous for their hit “Bon Bon Buddy. The Chocolate Drop.”—were known to have “delighted kings and queens and touched the hearts of all with their ‘peculiar minor’ cadence.” 1] Nor were Williams and Walker as simplistic in their theatrical methods as one could be forgiven for assuming. The following note is from Karen Sotiropoulos’s Staging Race. It refers to the original 1907–09 production of Bandanna Land, the musical from which “Bon Bon Buddy” derived: “The story is about African American realtors putting one over on white folks. Preying on white fears of a black-owned, black-controlled public space, the realty corporation opened an African American amusement part and ‘organized a big noisy negro jubilee to raise such Hades that the people bought them out’ at an inflated price.” In 1909 George Walker had a small stroke onstage while singing “Bon Bon Buddy.” It was the first sign of the advancing syphilis that killed him two years later. Another singer who helped make “Bon Bon Buddy” famous? Mamie Smith, first African-American blues singer on record. Here’s the only recording we could find, by the white vaudevillian Billy Murray, 1908." class="modal_link" data-modal-class-name="no_title">1
Russell’s defense of coon songs in the face of Coleridge-Taylor’s dismissal is on one level a you-don’t-get-it defense of a pop form, a reaction we might recognize and sympathize with as post-moderns, but it’s also something subtler, and more worth noticing, a very quiet subversion of something Coleridge-Taylor is trying to get away with chronologically, or temporally. The composer had said, Here is the modern, here is now, this art music, these “compositions.” You have your “songs,” which are the past, and they’re wonderful, etc., but they aren’t what we can call “serious” music. Perhaps with effort and training, we can make serious music out of them. Or rather, I can. You’ll go on having your “songs.” And it’s excellent the little move Critic Russell makes. He takes out just a few tiny words, but the gulf he opens is vast. Coleridge-Taylor had told the interviewer, “In fact your coon songs are not real negro songs at all; they are concert hall caricatures.” Russell says: “Yes, coon songs are real negro songs; they are concert hall caricatures.” In other words, we go to the concert hall, too. This culture lives, it’s not waiting to be song-collected. It talks to itself as well as up and out, has a cheek to put its tongue in.
Russell also says—he can’t resist, and who’d begrudge him, here was this well-bred English guy (Coleridge-Taylor gave concerts at Eton) telling American blacks what their artistic inheritance meant—he says, “Listen again.” You think you know, but maybe you’ve never heard the real thing. What you call our “low” music isn’t always low. “[W]hat does Mr. Taylor know about the genuine jubilee songs?” Russell asks. “Has he ever heard the original class meeting-room tunes of the Christian daughters of slavery? If he has not we have wisely led him into the higher musical calling of a heavenly trance.”
Russell was being hard on Coleridge-Taylor, who loved and made a profound study of black Southern music (as well as native African styles). In the 1890s SCT even wrote a piece—“A Negro Love-Song,” later re-titled, “African Love Song”—that musicologists consider a candidate for “first blues song.” Granted, there are about ten candidates, and the problem is unsolvable, but the “Love-Song” does have a recognizably bluesy sound and structure, especially in spots, and it uses quite emphatically the flatted third and seventh (“blue notes,” we call them). It was popular too: the Times of London called the appearance of African Suite, the larger opus to which the “Love-Song” belonged, “the unique event in music in the last generation,” and described the “Love-Song” itself as “a revelation of melodic charm and strange, changing harmony.” Yes, Coleridge-Taylor was borrowing from black American songs he’d heard, here and in England. He was taking those anonymous tunes (for as Chicago’s Broad Ax had it, “America’s Afro-American songwriters are unknown”), and he was making “compositions” out of them. But he was really listening.
In Washington, D.C., a group of prosperous blacks, “musically and professionally trained” African-American singers and players, got together and formed a Coleridge-Taylor Choral Club. This was in 1901. They started arranging concerts. The idea was not to perpetuate SCT’s works per se (though they did perform some of his songs, including “Negro Love Song,” which shows up sporadically in their song lists) but to “elevate” the race, musically and otherwise, and to keep the old songs alive in a respectable form. It was an amateur version of a Fisk Jubilee Singers concert (Coleridge-Taylor had always adored the Fisk singers), but with an avant-garde tinge.
These clubs started popping up around the country: Chicago, San Francisco, Oklahoma City, Louisville—most places with a community of middle-class blacks to speak of had a Coleridge-Taylor society. But nowhere apart from in D.C. itself was the club more active than in Houston, Texas, where it became known as “the South’s premiere and best balanced musical organization.” At first it was the club billing itself that way, but eventually others said similar things. “Best balanced”: they were tame. If you wanted to hear black music and not risk the kids overhearing that blue stuff, or just liked old-fashioned songs, or wanted to show support for the black community by attending a high-profile and society-sanctioned event, you could go to the Choral Society show. The clubs entertained upwardly striving and to varying degrees upwardly mobile blacks for fifteen years.
The Houston club developed relatively late in the lifespan of the Coleridge-Taylor wave. 1921: By then the composer had been dead for about a decade, and the taste or at least the enthusiasm for his music had faded. His daughter, Avril, was the one more likely to be talked about (her music received some early praise). In Houston, however, the conditions were different. The concentration of talent and sheer interest in music were at peak levels, for one thing. But perhaps most essential to the club’s popularity and longevity was the man who founded it—not the original founder in D.C. but the local one, a remarkable person named Clifton Frederick Richardson, or C.F., as he signed himself.
Richardson was college-educated—at Bishop, in Marshall, Texas. He’d grown up in Marshall. His father was a former slave from Mississippi, a railroad worker and coach-cleaner, his mother and sisters washerwomen. He was the youngest and only boy in the family. He distinguished himself in school, and as a smart local black youth was not so much admitted as absorbed into the town college, which had existed for about thirty years at that point. He graduated when he was seventeen. He must have known he wanted to go into newspaper work, because he double-majored in journalism and printing, and founded the college newspaper, the Louisiana Watchman (strange name for a college newspaper in Texas, but Marshall was close to the border—they were keeping an eye on Louisiana). Clifton eloped with a glamorously beautiful preacher’s daughter, a mulatto girl named Rubie Leola Rice, called Ruby Lee. They moved to Houston—Robin Street, the Fourth Ward, a block or two from the Loves—and started their own family. They raised three sons. 
Richardson was self-avowedly “militant.” He used the word and lived it. On his draft card he identifies his race as Ethiopian. He established the first NAACP chapter in Houston, but the old-guard blacks, fearing that Richardson’s fiery leadership would end with their all being barred from important civic jobs and benefits, tried to squelch it. They went to the NAACP and asked that Richardson’s application be declared illegitimate—they would quietly submit their own application, and become the new “founders,” by sleight-of-hand. The NAACP didn’t go for it, to its leaders’ credit. They stuck by Richardson. The old guard had no choice but to join with him, in “the spirit of team play.” Richardson, who like many a literary-minded newspaper man before him indulged a weakness for alliteration (especially when he was feeling fiery), called these black elites “Huns of ebony Hue,” but he knew how to work with them. He knew that blacks excluding blacks from their own committees aided no one and had given foes a vital weakness to exploit. In Houston he acted the part of an “ecumenical radical” who worked with anyone but remained openly on the side of blacks and the poor. He got away with it because his people had his back. It was a role C. N. Love had inhabited to a large extent before him, and indeed, in the long view, Richardson was destined to become the closest thing Editor Love ever had to a son or successor.
Like Love, Richardson worked in both black Republican politics—as a Black and Tan (no black-Lily-Whiteism schism for him)—and journalism. For a while he was employed as a printer, then as a night-watchman at a white newspaper. Through a connection he got himself hired as an editor at the black-Baptist Western Star, moving from there to the Houston Observer, where he started to write and make his name.
In 1919 somebody at the Observer made lewd remarks about Ruby Lee. Richardson hadn’t stood for that kind of talk even when they’d been young and foolish. He would drive off other boys without even asking her first (this had “nettled” Ruby Lee at the time, but she later confessed to a reporter that “she liked it”).
Infuriated by the disrespect, Richardson quit the Observer to start his own paper. Thus was born the Houston Informer, first black Houston paper to rival the Freeman, the Freeman’s inevitable and only worthy foil. Ruby Lee suggested the name. Her son recalled that she used to cook green-apple cobbler in a square pan, and the scent would bring neighborhood children to the door. “[T]his columnist’s spouse,” Richardson later wrote in his elliptical style, “has stood by this writer during both fat and lean periods.”
In one of his columns, Richardson tells the story of the Informer’s beginnings, vividly albeit with relentless alliteration. “[W]hen this paper set sail upon the sea of journalism,” he wrote in 1925,
its premature and untimely death was not only prophesied and predicted by the wise-acres, know-alls and knockers, but many of these ebony-hued, pusillanimous pussyfooters and spineless, conniving, envious and ‘jackassical’ bipeds immediately laid insidious and infernal plans to put the Informer out of business; and to accomplish the desired ends these cowardly and cringing enemies and evil-doers sought to enlist the assistance and cooperation of the whites to ‘kill the Informer and run Richardson out of town.’ … What did the Informer say or do during those years to make it such a despised and rejected publication? Why did a clique of Senegambians try to put the paper and its editor ‘in bad’ with ‘de white folks?’
Richardson thought it was because he made trouble. And that wasn’t a boast, he did. He fought for blacks to have modern schools (not “one brick school [that was] antiquated”), as well as good water and sewers (some black neighborhoods in Houston didn’t get those until the late Sixties). He fought for black teachers to make an equal salary and for the police to hire more black patrolmen. He fought lynch laws. He fought the Klan. In 1920, when the Informer was only a year old, he antagonized them by threatening to publish a “certificate of donation” that revealed the name of a financial donor to the KKK, a man who’d signed himself J. M. Hodges. Richardson let them know that he had the receipt in his possession. The Klan, “fearing an expose of their sinister operations,” raided the paper’s office on Prairie Avenue “and carried off files, subscription books, local and foreign advertising books and the paper’s edition, printed and ready for distribution.” But Richardson escaped and managed to smuggle out extra copies. This drove them crazy. They told him to discontinue the paper or they’d kill him. For a time the Informer did shut down. Richardson was “guarded day and night by city authorities.” It was said that a hit of “several hundred thousand dollars” had been taken out on him, a threat that hung over his head for three years. He would get notes with a skull-and-crossbones on them, warning that “at a definite hour he would be taken out and lynched.” He started carrying two Winchester pistols with him at all times. Ruby Lee refused to leave his side. She said she would rather die trying to protect him than live powerless to do anything. The couple never knew which to fear more, the Klan or the cops, or the collusion between the two. There were assassination plots. Their sons were jailed. Years later the Pittsburgh Courier reported that,
When the Klan was breaking up a former Klansman who was suing the order testified there were three plans by which they intended to kill Richardson. One was to lure him to a lonely building and cut him up into small pieces and each member of the organization take a piece for a souvenir. Another was to throw him in quicksand and there would be no tale to tell. The last, and the one which they actually tried to carry out, was to arrest him and have his trial in Wharton, 65 miles from Houston. The plan was two deputies were to lead Richardson to the courthouse door and somewhere in the crowd would be concealed klansmen with guns. The two deputies were to stumble and fall and leave Richardson standing alone, then he would be shot down in cold blood by anonymous persons. But Richardson foiled that. They subpoenaed him all right to appear in court in Wharton, but he got two good lawyers and paid them well to find out why he should leave Houston and go to Wharton and be tried. The lawyers found he didn’t have to go, and that was all that saved him.
One day the cops arrested him for not having stopped his car when they’d yelled, “Hey!” They confronted him in a garage, one officer “flourishing his revolver like a desperado in the wild west picture shows,” and threatened to shoot him for resisting arrest. They “would have killed him on the spot,” according to an article that ran in the Dallas Express, “if a hundred Colored folk had not been attracted by the racket as possible witnesses.” The cops took him to jail, where “policemen from every nook and corner rushed out at the news of an ‘educated nigger’ to jeer and jibe and mock and insult and beat him… . The defenders of society then did the nastiest, most unreportable swearing in the face of his wife.”
His son, C.F. Jr., interviewed in 1975, remembered that “they vandalized his office several times. They blocked him to borrow money. [Couldn’t] have any credit [at] all. He could more or less live with that.”
One day he was walking across the courthouse lawn in Houston, and his hat was shot right off of his head. “He went to his grave with a v-neck scar right here where they took thirty-five stitches in his head.”
In 1929 a young black reporter from Harlem, the Arkansas-born Floyd J. Calvin, author of “Calvin’s Digest” (a syndicated opinion column), traveled to Houston at Christmastime and got himself invited to turkey dinner at the Richardsons’ house. He paid special attention to Mrs. Richardson, whom he described as “the finest and best of negro womanhood.” She made a point to speak admiringly of her husband, of “Cliff,” and how she’d always known he was the one. They called him a hero now, she said, but he’d been “a ‘spunky’ fellow even in his early days.” (Calvin turns aside to remark to the reader: “How times do change! Twenty years ago they called it ‘spunk.’ Today they call it ‘It.’ Cliff had ‘it,’ yes sir.”)
They were sitting in the parlor, and Mrs. Richardson turned to young Floyd Calvin and told him a story of a night many years before, when the police had stopped the two of them, her and Cliff, out for a night on the town. Richardson was used to the treatment, but not when Ruby Lee was around. He mouthed off. The cops beat him, then drove them, husband and wife, to the station. “Perhaps [I] saved his life,” she told Calvin. Her memory of that night deserves quoting as a lost moment in the early history of civil rights:
[W]hen an officer sneaked up behind her husband and drew back to strike him in the head with a gun, she screamed and grabbed the officer’s arm. Mr. Richardson whirled and the blow struck him in the face. A tense drama was staged at the station. Richardson, lying on the floor with blood gushing out of his forehead and Mrs. Richardson kneeling over him, begging him not to die. He was thrown in a cell without medical attention and the wife was refused a telephone to call a doctor. She got on her knees and begged, suffered kicks, pinches, being spat upon, and all manner of verbal insults but she stayed right there until one cracker police was so moved that he let her use the phone. The policemen were trying to find a gun on Richardson but Mrs. Richardson had slipped it out of his pocket and put it in her bosom. One policeman suggested that they search her, but another said no, she didn’t have anything. Mrs. Richardson was praying that they wouldn’t search her. Mrs. Richardson got out of that scrape without weakening, which she had sworn not to do … she would not be a coward. And their sons have been trained to shoot straight.
As in the case of C. N. Love a generation before, it was Richardson’s agitation on the voting issue, or what he brilliantly called “the citizenship question,” that most infuriated his enemies (that and his open opposition to the Ku Klux Klan as a black man in East Texas in the 1920s and ’30s). Around 1921, he joined with none other than Editor Love himself to end the white primaries once and for all. They co-authored a pamphlet titled, Shall the Negro Vote? Too different perhaps to be friends, they made natural allies. Numerous strategies were tried. At one point, Richardson requested an absentee ballot and tried to sue the office that wouldn’t give him one (it provided a different target). Another time, black voters were urged to write in Richardson’s name on a ballot for a local election (county chairman) in which he’d already been barred from running.
He held out as a Republican until 1932. That was a long time for an impatient man. A lot of folks made the switch in ’32—it marked, for one thing, the first presidential campaign of FDR, who more than any American politician set in stone the notion of the Democrats as the party for blacks. Also in that year, Miriam “Ma” Ferguson ran for governor of Texas. She was a Democrat but vigorously anti-Klan. Richardson switched parties to vote for her. It’s extraordinary when you think about it. Blacks fled the party that had freed them from slavery, that had formed in part to free them, and they started doing so within little more than a half-century of the war. It wasn’t the same party anymore, and hadn’t been for a generation. Richardson, in announcing his decision to jump, reminded readers that some white Republicans, in Texas anyway, had even begun to wonder if freeing the blacks had been a good idea. In fact, the Republican then running against Ma Ferguson in the gubernatorial election, Orville Bullington—the man Richardson found himself being asked to vote for and support—had stated three years earlier, before a packed hearing in Dallas, “that he thought the amendments giving the negro the right of suffrage should be repealed.” Richardson wrote to Bullington personally, asking him to deny or retract the statement, but Bullington never replied. The party of Lincoln and Grant, the party of Cuney, the party of C. N. Love—it was time to abandon ship. Richardson took the step with professed regret. “[B]ut the interests of my race transcend my personal interests,” he wrote, “and I never knowingly take a stand detrimental to my people.”
In 1931, the two great black Houston papers, Richardson’s and Love’s—the Informer and the Freeman —merged into one, the Houston Informer and Texas Freeman. Both Richardson and Love were squeezed out as a byproduct of the merger. Love departed gracefully into some kind of invisible semi-retirement. But for Richardson it didn’t go easy. They had to force him. There were rumors—of an embezzlement charge, at one point.
When it devolved into a power struggle, he was betrayed by someone he’d trusted. Early in the Informer’s existence, he’d brought on and encouraged a young teacher and journalist named Simeon B. Williams, or as the man signed his pieces, Simbee (sometimes Cimbee). Like Editor Love before him, Simbee represented himself in the paper with a cryptic symbol. Bernadette Pruitt, in The Other Great Migration, describes it as “a gruff European dressed in Late Middle Ages or early Modern period clothing.” He carries a hobo’s bindle.
Simbee’s journalism is weird. He was a black man writing in blackface:
Deer Gus: Can’t rite innything dis weak es I’m is ridin’ towards de Eas’ es fas es litenin. I’se uv de ’pinion dat me an de missus wood spin de summah wid hour chilluns an granchile in lil ole Nu York Sitty an de Ampyre stait. S’long, Gus: I’ll rite yer soon. Ta, Ta! Enroot—an I had sum time in Saint Looey Madam Cimbee is showin’ me up on dis trip!
Richardson had essentially created Simbee, but when the Depression hit and the Informer began to implode and the players turned on one another, S. B. Williams did not stand with his mentor. He voted his 15 percent stock, which Richardson had given him—had gifted him, in fact—with the opposition. “Williams had been with him some twenty years,” Richardson’s son told the interviewer. “All of them kicked the old man out.”
Richardson tried to start over, but he was done. “That’s what broke his health,” his son said, “trying so hard to establish, to get re-established.”
He didn’t live to see the white primaries fall. Editor Love did, but not his protege and former competitor. It seems an injustice. Cliff and Ruby Lee should have walked up to the booth with C.N. and Lilla in ’44 to cast their legal votes, Lily-Whites and Black and Tans, hand in hand. But Editor Richardson died young, at forty-six, of uremia. His kidneys frosted over. Malaria is mentioned as a factor on the death certificate—a mosquito may have felled the lion. The Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Choral Club sang at his funeral.
It is comforting somehow to know that during all of those years, through all of those battles, he had remained in place as president of his beloved Choral society. The club was a constant feature of well-to-do black social life in Houston. They hosted annual festivals. They sang at prominent black funerals. They sang in white and black churches. They did charity shows—for a negro hospital, for victims of the 1927 flood, for the “papering-painting fund” of Bethlehem Negro Day Nursery. They played Negro Day at the 12th Annual Valley Fair Week in Brownsville. Sometimes they did all-request shows. Sometimes they participated in glee-club competitions. They played the East Texas Chamber of Commerce Convention Meeting in Port Arthur and the Chamber of Commerce Parley in Bryan. They played Houston’s City Auditorium. They performed on the radio in Houston, KPRC. That broadcast featured the club’s leading soprano, Mrs. H. M. Middleton:
Their musical directress was also their pianist, Mrs. P. O. Smith:
Their concerts almost always started at 8:30 sharp. As a rule the audiences were racially divided in carefully prescribed ways that tinker with our expectations of the old blacks-in-the-balcony socio-spatial arrangements of Southern theaters. One advertisement specifies that the box seats are reserved for “members of the race,” from among the city’s black “business and professional leaders,” who would “grace these boxes with the conventional ‘box parties.’” Meanwhile whites were given the entire parquet—the main part of the floor under the balcony section, at the rear of the auditorium—the worst, but also the most discreet seats in the house. The blacks were above having parties while the whites—who had paid more for their tickets—concentrated below, but not directly underneath. That would have been beyond the pale, even for what were among the most liberal white audiences one could assemble in the South at that time (white folks with an interest in black culture, if in many cases a polite one). Sometimes the audience would be divided right down the middle, like at a wedding. Write-ups of the shows often boasted of how many “white friends” had attended.
By Richardson’s own description, the club did “Negro jubilees, spirituals, folk songs” and other “old-time songs of the South,” with “the musical interpretation and shading so characteristic of trained colored singers.” The club contained within itself two separate male quartets, who would come forward and sing together as an octet, or in alternation. Richardson was in one of the groups. He sang bass. They did “Moments of Musical Mockery.” A review said that, “In keeping with the custom prevalent on Dixie Plantations, these male singers are accompanied by a guitar.” They could do a perfect imitation of a steam calliope, an old novelty instrument, a steam-powered pipe organ that was almost like a musical train car, you could roll it up to the crowd at a fair and blast songs at them. Richardson did the low note.
It would be nice to know what he thought of the “race records” that today retain such a power to fascinate. Like most of the other black newspapers of that era, his Informer ran hundreds of advertisements for the 78s that OKeh, Columbia, Vocalion, Brunswick, and other labels were putting out. Most striking among these images are a series of pictures made for OKeh by a totally unknown artist named William Troy. We noticed his name in the corners of a few of the ads and tried to learn something about him, but he proved bafflingly elusive. There is a William Troy who was a creative director at several successful Manhattan advertising agencies, likely the same man.
(One fact about Troy: he designed the interior of a penthouse in New York belonging to the notorious Ivar Kreuger, “the Match King.”)
As iconic as the race-record ads have become, we know that many of the black editors who first ran them deeply resented having to do so. The artwork was imposed on them by a white-owned advertising agency (the W. B. Ziff company) and almost never supplied directly to the papers. The rules were that if you wanted ads, you worked with Ziff, and if you worked with Ziff, you ran what he gave you. This included the cartoon ads for blues songs, which offended not just the editors but many readers as well. No ads were considered more distasteful than Paramount’s. It is noteworthy (indeed impossible to miss) that among the more than two hundred race-record ads printed by the Informer between 1925 and 1931, only four or five are for Paramount, and most of those are for local hero Blind Lemon Jefferson. It appears that Richardson didn’t want the Paramount ads, that he drew a line there. Or else the company didn’t consider Houston to be as fertile a market as others. That hardly seems possible.
In a remarkable article that we do not find mentioned or cited anywhere—although it was reprinted in at least two other African-American papers at the time (including the widely read Pittsburgh Courier)—a black newspaper actually spoke back directly to the race-record phenomenon, and in particular to Paramount. This editorial appeared in the Chicago Whip in 1925:
The New York Recording Laboratories, producers of Paramount phonograph records, each week insult the members of the black race with their dirty and groveling records. Last week they offered for the choice of our people a record that is calculated to appeal to ignorant, superstitious and southern traditions. It was an insidious song styled the “Graveyard-Bound Blues.” White people are more superstitious than black people and they fear the graveyard and the dead more than we do, but they feel and believe that we are a “child race” and that they can get us to buy records portraying fanaticism, fear, superstition and ignorance. When they tire of that they use licentious and degrading selections hoping to appeal to the brute sides of our natures. The Paramount records are doing us as much harm as Thomas Dixon’s book, “The Klansman,” and are spreading a deadly propaganda against us through the world of music. Sooner or later we will decry the evil genius of such concerns and view them as they are—cold blooded exploiters who play on our delicate emotions and tender sensibilities.
Strong stuff. An important perspective to bear in mind, for lovers of that music. Also super uptight and reverse-reactionary-sounding. And unfair toward Ida Cox’s “Graveyard Bound Blues,” a song that is not about graveyard voodoo at all, but about a woman who kills her straying lover and regrets it. “And then the dead wagon rolled up with a rumbling sound,” she sings. “It took my man away, and it was graveyard bound.”
There’s evidence that Richardson took a more “ecumenical” view of pre-war black music, a reminder that we shouldn’t hope for homogeny, of opinion or taste, among even the tight-knit group of these early black editors. The SCT Club’s song lists show a healthy mixture of high and low pieces. More to the point, when Ida Cox herself came to Houston a few years after that anti-Paramount editorial appeared, with her band and her “10 dancing pippins,” the Informer ran a special ad to announce the concert:
As for Mrs. Richardson, she didn’t sing, not for people, but she rarely missed a Coleridge-Taylor Club show. She sat in the front row, in a reserved seat. She lived into her late seventies, never remarried. (New husband? Cliff would rise from the grave waving pistols.) She died of a brain hemorrhage in 1967. She and her husband are buried side-by-side in the same cemetery as Editor Love and Lilla. They are all in Acres Homes, in Paradise. Selah!