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Saturday, August 4, 2012

A report on Natchez 1932

Natchez, Mississippi, 1932 -- Two years ago we were in Natchez on a business trip.  My husband, looking out of the hotel window, called my attention to an amusing sight.  

Rumbling down the middle of Main Street was a wagon pulled by an old horse.  The reins hung loose along his back and he threaded his way through the traffic at a lazy gait, an ancient straw hat set rakishly on his head.  

The negro driver was fast asleep, slumped down in his seat with his mouth wide open.  The wagon was loaded with large boxes of nationally advertised food products.  What matter if they reached their destination after an hour or so delay?  Even time moves slowly in Natchez.

"How would you like to live in Natchez?" Bill asked, laughing, and I said I'd love it.

That was in jest, of course, but after two years here we are.

~ Sue Brown Hays

I ran across this delightful description of Natchez a few days ago when I was handed a letter written by a Mr. Bill Hays of Baton Rouge, who was trying to find a descendant of my uncle Balfour Miller.  Sometime in the 1930s, Mr. Hay's father owned and operated a tire store in Natchez for about a year.

 "When we lived in Natchez I was about a year old," said Bill, Jr.  "My parents rented a house in town. They both noticed the house had unusual noises from time to time.

"Being from old houses, and as they were in Natchez; they told one another it was merely a ghost. They even named her 'Anna Belle.'

"There was a trap door in the hall which went to the cellar. When my father had to work late, Mother would put the rocker over the hole and rock me until he returned."

After a year or so Bill's father returned to a job with Goodrich Tire Co.  

"As we were leaving Daddy opened a small door to the cellar to find it had been recently occupied by a couple of bums.  He said he told the landlord who did not seem to be concerned.  

"I remember them saying that old house must have been a duplex.  They just never knew it."

Mrs. Hays was a writer, and wrote a mystery novel set in Natchez in the 1940s called Go Down, Death.   I found a copy of the book online and am so looking forward to reading it.

Also included with the letter was a cute poem Mrs. Hays had penned around 1932.    It was written on Eola Hotel letterhead, where she was staying while her husband traveled out of town with a tire company.

I have a feeling I would've liked Mrs. Hays, and hope she had fond memories of the Eola and Natchez.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Building Dreams for a Song

When the band Chicago released Color My World in 1971, I was in 9th grade.  The languid cadence of the piano introduction was captivating and beautiful.  It’s been called the most famous major seventh chord in the history of music, and it was — bar none — the best slow-dance song of my generation.

 One day in study hall I heard that chord being played on the baby grand piano down in Coach Parker’s classroom.  I went to see who was playing.

It was a new kid – a shy young boy with jet-black locks that hung down in his eyes as he played, totally lost in the music.  His name was Tommy Polk, and he’d picked the song out by ear.  Feeling out of place, not knowing anyone and not having an athletic bent, Tommy found refuge and release and friends through music. Who doesn’t want to hang with the kid in the band? 

“I was never good at sports,” he says. “I was always on the sidelines and never got any recognition. When I was about nine I took a guitar to class and played. Everyone noticed. I was not on the sidelines; I was not overlooked or ignored. I was hooked.”

When he was old enough to drive, he took his guitar to a secluded spot on the bluff where he would sit in the shade, the river a wide, shimmering ribbon down below with the flat, Louisiana delta beyond.  He started writing songs — the first of hundreds.

Tommy would make music his life. In that little classroom in this quiet little town his journey had only just begun.  He moved to Nashville in 1979.  In 1981 he began working at a boutique music-publishing company co-owned by one of Britain’s most successful songwriters, Roger Cook, and Canadian-born Ralph Murphy.  Between them they had written huge hits, such as, I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing; Long, Cool Woman in a Black Dress; Here Comes that Rainy Day Feelin’ Again; and Half the Way.

Under Cook and Murphy, Tommy learned about music publishing, foreign publishing, performing rights, copyrights, song plugging, signing writers, catalog acquisition, demo recordings and record production.

“When I left for Nashville in ‘79, I had written a hundred or so songs at that point. I thought I was going to be the biggest thing since sliced bread,” he says shaking his head. “Wrong!  It would be another 200 songs before I got my first substantial cut.”

In 1989 Tommy signed with Warner-Chappel Music Publishing where he stayed for four years, after which he remained as a signed songwriter, as well as with various publishing houses in Nasvhille, including EMI, Hamstein, The Farm, OMG/Acuff Rose. He also has extensive catalogs at other publishing companies including Sony Tree.

Some of Tommy’s hit songs include Look What Followed Me Home by David Ball; He Feels Guilty to Me by Bobbie Cryner; I Don’t Want You to Go by Carolyn Dawn Johnson; the recently released Beyond My Broken Dreams by Eden Brent; and Willing to Crawl by Johnny Neel, which was featured on HBO’s True Blood in 2009.   He’s even written songs for Irma Thomas and Bobbly Blue Bland.

“I loved what I was doing,” he says.  “I couldn’t wait to get up in the morning.  It wasn’t work; it was play.”

Then somehow things changed. 

“I don’t know,” he says.  “It seemed like the music business had become more cutthroat. People were downloading music off the Internet, which really hurt financially, both for me and for everyone else.  Even the music changed. Performers were writing their own songs rather than using songwriters.  A lot of people were out of work.  Perhaps I changed, too.  It just wasn’t as much fun anymore.”

So Polk switched gears, opening a one-of-a-kind B&B in Clarksdale, Mississippi, called Shack-Up Inn with a couple of business partners. 

“We moved some sharecropper shacks onto my cousin’s cotton plantation and just fixed them up enough to be livable.”

They were simple, rough shacks, the kind where the original old blues players wrote and performed their music — people like Son Thomas, John Lee Hooker, Robert Johnson, Lead Belly and others.  It was a huge success. 

“People wanted the blues experience,” he said.  “And they came from everywhere — England, Germany, Japan and the United States.”

It dawned on him that Clarksdale had become a music-tourist destination. He discovered he liked the hospitality business and opened three more.  He decided to move to Clarksdale permanently and bought a house for his mother there. 

When he came back to Natchez to sell his mother’s house in Vidalia, he looked around and realized he didn’t want to cut all ties to his hometown.

“Natchez is really one of the most beautiful towns in the world,” he says.  “So I bought another shack to use as a B&B and called it ‘Shantybellum.’  I figured I could hire someone to run it here and have a place to stay when I came to visit.”

Shantybellum reflected in the bottle tree
While restoring the house, though, he decided he really wanted to come home for good.  So he stayed, eventually selling the B&B’s in Clarksdale and going to work as a consultant for the town of Ferriday under Mayor Glenn McGlothin, a musician, himself.

“I took Glenn to Clarksdale to show him what we’d done.  He loved it.  And told him that with Ferriday’s musical heritage, I bet we could do the same thing here.”

Jerry Lee Lewis museum
Photo courtesy of The Concordia Sentinel (used with permission)
Will Haney
Ferriday is home to some remarkable music history.  Double-first cousins Jerry Lee Lewis, Mickey Gilley and Jimmy Swaggart are native sons.  For years Haney’s Big House, which burned in 1966, had been a feature attraction on the Chitlin’ Circuit, hosting such notable African American entertainers as B.B. King, Moms Mabley, Redd Foxx, Ray Charles and Bobby Bland.

After witnessing smokestack industry pass up Ferriday as a place to do business for years, McGlothin agreed on a new economic development plan focusing on tourism and music tourism combined with a healthy dose of cultural-heritage tourism.

Frogmore Plantation
Building on tourism assets already in the area like Frogmore Plantation, the Lewis Family Museum, the Delta Music Museum and the Arcade Theater, they got grants.  The plan called for:

·      The renovation of a burned-out shell of a building into an open-air venue called Rockabilly Plaza, which would also function as a farmer's market/music venue and arts center for youth, and with original artwork/murals on exterior walls.

·      The renovation of a deteriorating railroad property into the Haney’s Big House Music Hall to include a large, fully covered outdoor stage for festivals and events. 

·      The partial restoration of an underutilized railroad building to be leased as a private club.

In addition, Ferriday began hosting an annual songwriters workshop at the Arcade for local songwriting hopefuls, bringing many of Tommy’s Nashville co-writers to teach about the business and craft of music.  Ferriday also created and hosted the annual Soul Survivors Festival, honoring Will Haney and Haney’s Big House and the musicians associated with Haney’s from the 1940s until its destruction in 1966.

Playing air guitar on a cane at the Soul Survivors Festival
It was an uphill job.  McGlothin had to deal with water issues and his own health issues as well.  But they persevered. On May 22 at the third-annual Soul Survivors Festival, McGlothin presided over a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the new Will Haney’s Big House Music Hall and Jerry Lee Lewis Rockabilly Park and Plaza, the renaming of First Street to Pee Wee Whittaker Avenue, the naming of Will Haney Circle and the placement of seven historic markers downtown honoring Ferriday’s past and people.

As McGlothin’s mayoral term comes to a close, Tommy is looking ahead.  He hopes to continue working as a consultant in the area.  He’s even going back to songwriting.

“I’m playing with a local band in Natchez called Back Roads,” he says.  “I’m also beginning to write again with two of my Nashville cowriters on Skype and putting lyrics on prerecorded tracks sent as mp3 to me. High-tech Tommy songs.”

He looks back on his time with McGlothin in Ferriday fondly.

Mayor Glen McGlothin, left; Tommy Polk, right
“I am so glad Glenn asked me to come aboard. For four years now I've been able to focus on music, even bringing Nashville friends and cowriters down to Ferriday, and working on downtown development projects that I am so proud to have been a part of. 

“In researching Haney's for Ferriday I learned that three of the headliners during its heyday would record some of my songs. I loved learning that.  Who would’ve guessed it?

“We will leave our babies behind for the next administration to nurture and grow Ferriday into a music destination. The ball is in their court. I wish them well.  They have a tremendous tourism opportunity.  I hope Mayor-elect Gene Allen will make the most of it.”