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Interview: Jimmy Rout all about Memphis, Blues, and Juke Joints

Learn about the rebirth of Beale Street, whiskey, blues, and juke joints in Memphis from Shelby County Historian Jimmy Rout.

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Show Notes

It's always great to chat with someone who love to share information about their town. Jimmy Rout (Shelby County Historian) had a chance to see the rebirth of Beale Street in Memphis and he is going to take us around the town that was and the town that now is. We'll hear about W.C. Handy, Boss Crump, and even Old Hickory makes an appearance in a tavern in Memphis...or did he?

Enjoy these subjects:

  • Working for Beale Street - the rebirth of the street
  • The soul of black community was Beale Street
  • WC Handy sees Beale Street for the first time
  • Pee Wee's Saloon at Cigar Counter - Mr Crump
  • Ragtime from WC Handy
  • Juke Joint and the origin of the term
  • They are a sanctuary
  • Belle Tavern - laying out the city of Memphis over drinks
  • Rowdy River Town
  • Prohibition and 600 saloons (+300 more)
  • Mr Tate's shotgun shack - best Juke Joint in town
  • Still around
  • Hernando's Hideaway - Juke Joint and Dive
  • Alex Tavern
  • Earnestine and Hazels (near where MLK killed)
  • What was Beale Street's feel in the 1920s? So busy
  • Yellow Fever and Irish and Black
  • Drinking in whiskey because it is safe
  • EH Crump's ties to Whiskey
  • Saloons as polling places
  • Tennessee Ouster Law
  • The King Maker
  • A fifth of bourbon

And we talked even more and you can hear that second part of the interview, by becoming a member of the Whiskey Lore Society, for as little as $5. Just head to patreon.com/whiskeylore and enjoy the benefits and extra content I provide to those awesome people that support this independent podcast.

Listen to the full episode with the player above or find it on your favorite podcast app under "Whiskey Lore." The full transcript is available on the tab above.

Transcript

Additional cleanup to this transcript to be completed by the weekend.

yeah okay stuff stuff we learned yeah yeah stuff we learned from this from craziest people yeah exactly all right so so let's talk a little bit about because you said that you actually worked for Beale Street and getting some of that history out yes I started out when I graduated from college I wasn't I was a communications theater major and so I knew I wanted to do something that allowed me to to be a part of not just be in an office at night a desk and my family our family friend was the developer of Beale Street John Elkington okay and so I told him I said you know I love to do things I love to plan things and do things and he said well come work for us for the summer which ended up being for three years so I was the assistant marketing director for Beale Street and at that time Beale Street had been open three years there was the Rum Boogie Cafe that had just opened and a few other places on Fridays and Saturday nights in order to get blues musicians to play on this new Beale Street yeah I would go to the bank and get 300 worth of 20 bills and I would go up the street to where there was a retirement home still there just past that church and I would say I'll pay you twenty dollars to play blues on Beale Street wow so that because it was all fresh and new yeah beautiful new cobblestones new buildings you know in order to get musicians to come back to Beale Street what year 84 85 okay okay yeah and 81 is really when it started the renovation started and the new buildings were the the backs of the buildings were all done because the facades are all are all historic yeah but it has it does have a great a great history Beale Street was really the the soul of the Black Community in Memphis and the musicians particularly and the first two blocks were really the businesses and and the immigrants a lot of the Jewish families in Memphis had businesses there are also pawn shops and there was a the great influx of our Chinese population chop suey was down there a restaurant called chop suey and they had several laundries were down there and it really was a very ecumenical society of immigrants a real melting pot and then WC Handy talks about how he when he came here and he was just he was the son just first generation out of being his parents were slaves so you know he came here and it was like he sees Beale Street and Pee Wee’s Saloon was on Beale Street and Pee Wee had come to Memphis in the 1880s as a ten-year-old boy hobo off of a train and dirty and muddy and W.C. Handy talks about it in his book how he got off the train and he went to the bottoms gave so bottoms which is where Beale Street's built over and he just did a little spit bath cleaned himself up and then he found a little crap game and he had 10 cents and he was playing cards and craps and he won enough money to be able to go get a hotel room that night for 75 cents or whatever and then he cleaned up and he would gamble every day and then he finally he got a job and by the 1910 I think it was he owned a saloon on bills wow so yeah and it is nice it is yeah were they were they gambling in there was the gambling along with him you know now I've not heard there was but you and I both know anytime you've got alcohol and you've got men who are bored you're going to have a little wagering going on yeah I'm sure in the background there always was but it did become a I guess because it was where it was on Beale Street or maybe it was the largest it's where all the blues musicians tended to hang out you know one thinks nowadays after hours where do bands go right they have to unwind so I've always been reading the stories about Pee Wee's Saloon I'm kind of imagining that's where those musicians went when they unwound at night and W.C. Handy says that it was at the cigar counter because he sold cigars there too at the cigar counter is when he wrote out the Memphis Blues oh wow it was right there on that cigar counter and and that song actually has another title it has Mr. Crump's Blues or Mr. Crump yeah he wrote it and he was not really a proponent of Mr. Crumps but Mr. Crump was a big promoter himself and anytime you know your name no matter if it's good or bad just got your name out there yeah yeah it was so it was originally Mr. Crump's blues but then it was later changed to the Memphis blues okay and wc didn't invent of course the blues right but he was the first to publish he he came up through Mississippi he was from Alabama Alabama yeah but there was a an area because ragtime would have been the music that was popular I guess and and I as I understand it he had some he was actually at the world's fair and in 1893 and was a musician and likely he was playing ragtime music at that time but we have to remember as I said he's just first generation from the slaves so he had that ragtime and all but he had to have heard at home some good negro spirituals you know so music was probably ingrained in that whole Mississippi Delta florence Alabama is also where Sam Phillips by the way is oh okay who discovered Elvis but the whole Mississippi Delta all those blues is you know Clarksdale Clarksville all those places down in there the Crossroads and all they all kind of come from you can you can if you close your eyes and think about it you can hear the people in the fields at the end of the day and they're tired and they're communicating singing those black negro spirituals and then as the decades go by and they gain their emancipation and then they're going and picking up other all of that musical heritage all stems back from those negro spirituals and in their and in the churches yeah so it's just a rich area full of a music history so one of the terms that I'm following here is the term juke joint yes and the idea of the juke joint as I understand it goes all the way back into slavery that that was kind of the they were collecting places for the slaves to have their time away from their their toil and how that all evolved I mean is that what's interesting is we take these words like that or we take those concepts and then we kind of forget that they have this an origin origin exactly that that that goes all the way back because you'll see juke joints in movies and they're you know sometimes they're out in the country but then you'll also hear people talking about them like they were in town and this was just kind of like a a regular bar and they're more like a prop in that situation yeah almost like it's just a character or a prop yeah well you know when I think about juke joints I think exactly like you said they evolve because they're a sanctuary they're a place you can go forget about the day forget about the family forget about the job forget about the problems you just relax and in many cases it helped to have a little whiskey to help relax and we all know what happens when we have a little whiskey conversation sing-alongs music you wanna dance and so the juke joint really became a place where all inhibitions were gone you could be yourself where there was no master telling you what to do no wife telling you what to do right nothing it just was a place to be you I think nowadays I look at the parallel nowadays I think it's what we call dive joints you know when you want to go to a dive why do you want to go because you don't want to worry about wearing the right clothes you don't want to worry about barbecue sauce on your shirt you just want to relax yeah yeah absolutely so did that come into the city at all it did and you've got to remember Memphis Memphis is on the river so Shelby County was founded Shelby County largest county in Tennessee Memphis the largest of our seven municipalities was on the river great commerce 1819 is when it was chartered by the state after the indian secession they bought the chickasaw lands and one of the the great tavern whiskey stories is that the founding fathers Andrew Jackson and John Overton and James Winchester met in a bar Belle Tavern and they laid out the city of Memphis well the only problem with that is none of the three founders was ever in the city at the same time and in 1819 the Belle Tavern wasn't even in existence yet wow yeah now the the Irishman patty mar that had the the the Belle Tavern he was here in like the 1814s he had a boarding house and so very possibly one of them stayed there and all but but we were a rowdy river town so you can imagine in the 1800s those boats coming up and down the river they were not what you call the country club set so as they would come off the river who knows how long they've been on that river they'd come up the first thing they'd want to get their wages what do they want to do they want to drink you know so Memphis always had a lot of of bars and places where you could go to find things to drink and Belle Tavern was one of the ones that was there for a long time in Downtown Memphis and as as time continues to go on by the time that Prohibition comes at 1900 there were like 600 of these places where you could go to get a drink wow you know now whether they were all legal or whether they were not right you know you had to imagine and then it's it's I was reading recently about the Prohibition is that once the the national Prohibition went in 300 more were were discovered because everyone's want to just kind of do it because you can't do it right yeah just tell somebody you can't drink what are you gonna do you're gonna go drink you know so so I think Memphis has always been a lively town yeah so I would I would imagine that we don't have chronicled perhaps all the little the most interesting juke joints or dives but there had to be a lot of back rooms backs of stores backs of theaters after a theatrical production where people were enjoying and it was their job joint their individual I do have a lady who who's now in her 80s and she recently told me that her first job when she was 18 or 19 years old in the in the late 60s she worked at a hospital in in the rural Shelby County called Oakville Hospital and that on Friday nights behind the hospital there was a row of about seven shotgun buildings they had been shotgun houses but there was a man Mr. Tate she said I lived in one of those houses and she said you could be assured that on Friday night after our shift we'd go down there and it was like being she said in the best little juke joint she said we could all relax after a busy week and we could all have a little bite and have a little nip and have a little dance so here again juke joints they're away a sanctuary a place to escape and be yourself yeah so anything that we would see these days I mean is this what would be the last juke joint we probably would have seen in this area or about what time probably did they fade away or do we still have them but they're kind of commercialized well we do still have them there's a couple whose course their names escape me at the moment but there's a couple of them right now there's a great and that I've noticed that that juke joints too I think they had a transition when country music started to come into mainstream because you have a lot of juke joints that are all country themed okay so do you really call them juke joints or are they country dives it's the same principle yeah you know but it's a different musical theme there the thematics are different there's a great one called hernando's hideaway isn't that great I was going to say there was a song called her name there was and there is as we do historical research on that place for a historical marker it's a 50 50. did that lead into the name because it was in the movie yeah or that it's on hernando road and people used to use it so perhaps it was an influence and all it's a great dive it's a great juke joint it's still got the low ceilings and it's still packed with cigarette smoke even in this day and age and you can smell your feet stick to the floor it's great and there's always good live music and it's from people that you love the music but you've never heard of the recording artist you know because they're not a recording artist yeah they're just an individual and then there's a lot of we're a university town we've got some great universities here so there's a lot of taverns alex tavern near rhodes college here great you know after 11 o'clock at night you'll find great live music and the whiskey is flowing and the lights are dark and and it it's more like what a juke joint would be and then there's some who just kind of one or two of them that are around because it's important you have one and it's a commercial success and that's why they do it yeah one of the more interesting ones is called ernestine and hazel's and it's just south of where we are here at the Peabody Hotel in South Maine not too far from the Lorraine Hotel where Dr. King was assassinated ernestine in hazel's was across the street from a train station our union station and it was a brothel and it was owned by two I think they're two sisters ernest and hazel and you know they'd come downstairs you'd have your juke joint and then upstairs there were other pleasures you could partake it's still it's still alive and going not the upstairs portion but it still is a great weekend place where you can see all sorts of an eclectic crowd and a great jukebox it doesn't have live music but it has a great jukebox great greasy hamburgers great whiskey and draft beer and it's a it's a good place to be so juke joints are very important very very important I think they're a release yeah for for humanity so would you say that Beale Street in say the 1920s and and 30s probably more so the 20s when it was legal and you could you could have it out front was closer to the juke joint types of establishments or closer to like for instance when I go out to a jazz club and it's you know you'll be drinking scotch there it's there's a it's a more almost trying to be up more upper class kind of a thing what was Beale Street's feel back then I think bell street was not that that high end I think that there were clubs there was Club Handy there was the Palace Theater there were some that in the earlier parts of the evening sure yeah they were you could take a date and there might be a black band there might be a W.C. Handys band there or some other band might be there and it would be a nice a nice cordial place you could take a date and you could have a great time and then as the evening progressed there was activity up until the wee hours of the morning the stories you can read people still walking the streets of Beale Street in the 20s and 30s as if it was 12 o'clock noon because it was so busy so you have to imagine is it because maybe people were getting off work they come for the latter part of the shift but it's always been colorful so probably the most enjoyable time of Beale Street would be at the evening time when it was more the juke joint feeling yeah but it wasn't but it but it did have the nice places where you could take a date and have a nice evening out and maybe if you had a fun date she'd want to stay till the latter part of the night and enjoy the juking in the joint right so the other thing about Memphis that I just learned I didn't know a lot about the the back history but there was a Yellow Fever epidemic here three three okay and a lot of that was based around the fact that they didn't really have a good water system here and people were drinking out of the Mississippi River and how good is that going to be and and oh no I've never tried it yeah so I'm not sure about sewage and the rest it's probably not the greatest in the world and and it really changed the makeup of the people of Memphis because the upper class moved out because they could afford to and not just the upper class so we did not have a drainage system and and the the guy oso bayou it kind of ends at Beale Street so and so as things were built they filled in the Bayou and of course it was built on top of it and it wasn't so much I don't think drinking from the river as disposing of right the the the sewage and all the waste into the community and they still remember they didn't realize mosquitoes were where the transmission for it when you've got a river which has little tributaries the Loxahatchee River and the Bayou and then you've got other standing sewage waters you're going to have a problem with that what happened during the Yellow Fever Memphis was really settled by a huge amount of Germans we had a great influx of Germans and they brought in wonderful theater and opera and wonderful thing engineering and doctors and architects some of the earliest ones and then we had a great italian and influx but when the Yellow Fever came they fled okay not to come back yeah so Memphis really their trajectory as really maybe a high end nice east coast version on the Mississippi River it left when when the great immigrants who came from from from the from Europe and they knew the great opera story opera houses and all and then of course being in the Delta after emancipation all of this works 1870s our last epidemic of the Yellow Fever we were a huge congregating city for all of the emancipated slaves because we were so close by you know and so we still had a great amount of some families that stuck it out who were able to go out in the country during the Yellow Fever and come back but yeah the demographics in it change and remember too during Yellow Fever and before you drank liquor and whiskey because it was safe yeah that was a great reason to you know and so things changed a little bit after that but but no we've always had a great diverse period and I always wonder what would have happened if the Yellow Fever hadn't come with our great immigrant population Memphis was what the second biggest city in the it was it was busiest before the war and it was the busiest after the war we kind of were you know we seceded the last to secede and the first to get back into the union because we're kind of on that middle people say well Tennessee's not the south and I said well it's strictly not the north you know so kind of where is it now so we were spared lots of destruction but but yeah it's we were saved a lot and and we had a lot of union soldiers who have some there's some great union stories in diaries about them going to the juke joints and drinking here and down the camps yeah there's always whiskey well this area was also heavily Irish very much the whole police department was Irish which was so I can draw some correlations between New York and how Tammany Hall ran in New York and it sounds like there was a bit of that kind of the spoils system and and the rest going on here as well patronage and and all of that and so this is where we get to a guy named Boss Crump so Edward H. Crump talk talk a little bit about how he came up and what and his ties to whiskey because because it's a very interesting it is a story yeah so he came he was born in Holly Springs Mississippi and it's interesting we as you and I have talked today kind of like that the Delta the heart of the Delta is said to be in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel because anybody who's everybody comes to the Peabody I now believe that all roads lead to Memphis no matter where you are in the world all roads leave to Memphis so Edward H Crump was from Holly Springs Mississippi ironically the same place Ida B. Wells was from okay as we've spoken earlier about Ida B. but he came to Memphis and was a young businessman and ingratiated himself with realizing there was change and opportunity here and ran for public office and in in the night the early 1900s and he did run but then as Prohibition came around saloons played a big part in elections because they were polling places also so you could get your ballots there and fill your ballot out well now if you're a politician like E.H. Crump yeah whoa whoa whoa I got a lot of people who go to the bar they're my friends they vote for me you know if we don't have liquor to drink where am I gonna make sure I get my votes you know so he he wasn't against it he wasn't for he just kind of turned his his back on it well he was having a bit of a political robbery with the the governor at the time Malcolm Patterson and Malcolm Patterson it was just he was a thorn in his flesh Crump was and he thought I'm gonna what can I do I know what I'm gonna do and he got the legislatures the legislators at the time to come up with what's called the Tennessee Ouster Law and what it says was for there's a couple of different categories but one of them is if the elected official does not enact the laws of the state the federal the local they can be ousted from office it passed the legislature and lo and behold they accused Mayor Crump of not enforcing the Prohibition laws well he wasn't going to enforce them so as they came down to let him know you're about to be ousted he he resigned from office oh okay with like a year left in his term and I think that's probably and these are all this is an assumption but you think about it so if you're humiliated if if you want to call it humiliation if you thought darn it he got me how do I keep from doing that I'll develop a power base but I won't be elected and that's exactly what he did he became a king maker okay but the Tennessee Ouster Law kind of came out of Prohibition and and I really had not known until a couple of weeks ago when you and I were had taught that saloons were such a big part of the balloting system yeah which makes perfect sense yeah yeah maybe we got to try it now you know well we talk about our forefathers and and I'm going to build an episode around this one of these days I remember reading a book on James Madison and James Madison one of the things he didn't really appreciate when he ran for congress was that he had to go out to the polling places and promise alcohol to people and back then they used to just vote open they would say who they were voting for yeah so you hand them a a a cup of whiskey on their way out when they say you and so all of a sudden people are seeing that and everybody's coming in voting for you so yeah now the same lady I told you about who told me the juke joint story Miss Mary Mitchell she's a wonderful she's a historian a black historian and she lives in orange mound which is the oldest African-American dedicated neighborhood in the united states of America it was created and built and designed just for blacks by blacks in 1919 she tells me the story about when her father in the 40s when they would get she'd get him by the hand and he'd say uh we got a I got a call I got noticed that my shipment's in and down at the grocery at the sundry store you know they were just blue-collar working black folk they didn't have no shipments coming in they'd go down there and Mr. Crump's deliveries were there a fifth of bourbon for every man in the polling place and you'd go pick up your bourbon and you'd come back and say she said she remember she asked her dad daddy why is Mr. Crump giving you liquor he says because he wants me to vote for him she said she would say are you going to vote for him just because of that and she'd say I can remember he'd look down at me and he'd say you know nobody knows who a man votes for when he's when he marks that ballot well what he didn't know is probably that the trump did yeah they tallied everyone and they kept little cards and all that but here again he was buying the whiskey and he'd buy watermelons I mean it just would depend but yeah you could you get the votes so the alcohol and saloons they were really really an important part of the voting process which makes sense if you think about it when communities don't have early on particularly 1800s they don't have a lot of money they may not have a big fancy courthouse as they've just started they don't have big churches being like where do people congregate they're always at a bar at a saloon yeah so it makes it makes sense when you think about it do

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