Your Weekly Pop: Race, Food, and Gospel Music in the Jim Crow South

Race, Food, and Gospel Music in the Jim Crow South

by Carrie Allen Tipton

You can pretty much gauge the spiritual and emotional health of the South by whom we allow to sit at the table. Or order from the diner. Or drink from the water fountain. Bifurcated food experiences, often mandated by law, pockmark our history: if you are white you eat and drink here; if you are Black you do not. It has often been that simple, particularly during Jim Crow. Even African American celebrities of the mid-twentieth century were not spared this indignity on their southern road tours. Not blues stars, not R&B legends, not even gospel singers.

If you read my last post, you know that Black gospel quartets were big business in postwar America. Radio broadcasts, recordings, and live shows by groups like the Blind Boys of Alabama, Swan Silvertones, Soul Stirrers, and others made quartets respected celebrities in African American communities. You didn’t have to be too religious to appreciate their vigorous improvisation, theatrical performances, and hopping arrangements of spirituals and gospel hymns. The postwar quartet style exercised profound musical and aesthetic influence over the architects of R&B, too, incubating talent such as Sam Cooke, James Brown, Lou Rawls, and Ray Charles.

One of the big ways that quartet fever spread in the postwar years was via the “chitlin’ circuit,” a route through southern towns traveled by Black gospel, R&B, swing band, and jazz musicians. (The very term “chitlin’” indexes race- and class-associated food traditions.) Quartets on the circuit sang a string of one-nighters at school auditoriums, churches, veteran’s halls, and civic centers. And because of de jure and de facto segregation, they did it all with abridged access to food and lodgings. Historian Jerry Zoltan, who interviewed the legendary Dixie Hummingbirds about their mid-century memories of the circuit for his book Great God A’mighty – The Dixie Hummingbirds: Celebrating the Rise of Soul Gospel Music, summarizes southern tours like this: “the roads were poor, the car unreliable, and around every bend lurked the threat of a racially charged encounter.” The efforts these traveling quartets expended to do a culinary end-run around Jim Crow were indelibly stamped in their minds, often coming up in interviews decades later.

As many older singers recall, one dining option, tinged with a smidgen of glamour even, were Black hotels or rooming houses, usually with a restaurant on the first floor. When I was researching Black gospel music in Augusta, Georgia, I heard fond recollections from older quartet singers about the now-defunct Red Star Café on the city’s former 9th Street. The Red Star, which rented hotel rooms on the second floor, served as a focal point for Black entertainers in town for shows at the Bell Auditorium, a major stop on the circuit. James and Arthur Abraham, Jr., longtime quartet singers, told me in 2008 about seeing midcentury powerhouse quartets like the Swan Silvertones, Sensational Nightingales, CBS Trumpeteers, and Dixie Hummingbirds bring down the house at the Bell, then head to the Red Star. It’s clear that the Red Star’s cultural footprint was large, imprinting the city’s vibrant mid-century Black musical landscape as much as the actual performance venues did. Similar institutions, such as Memphis’s infamous Lorraine Hotel, dotted once-robust Black economic districts across the South, especially in larger cities, and housed many a traveling quartet in the 1940s and 1950s.

Formerly the Red Star Café, the Palace Theatre is the only historic African American theatre structure still standing in Augusta, Georgia. Photo courtesy of Augusta Amusements.

Unfortunately, however, as gospel historian Horace Boyer points out in How Sweet the Sound: the Golden Age of Gospel Music, many Black café proprietors worked day jobs and didn’t open their own establishments until six p.m., leaving touring quartets hungry before shows. In those instances, the spirit and letter of southern segregation codes dictated that African Americans order at side windows or back doors of white establishments. Hostility typically greeted front-door entries. James Davis of the Dixie Hummingbirds told Zoltan he walked into a diner in Florida in the late 1930s “where I thought I could get a sandwich.” Workers asked him if he thought this was a “n—– joint,” then in a caricatured, exaggerated version of African American dialect, gave him mocking directions to “behind that railroad…that’s where they [i.e., Black establishments] are.” Percy Griffin, longtime lead singer of the Augusta-based Swanee Quintet, told me when I asked about his postwar touring years, “I’ve cried many a day of my life, being called a ‘n—-.’ I know what it’s like to not be able to stay in a hotel or get food.”

Given these exigencies, quartets fell back on convenience foods and processed meats, using the car as a makeshift dining room. Horace Boyer recounts that singers “stuffed suitcases with crackers, potato chips, pork rinds, peanuts, potted meat, sardines, and pickled pigs’ feet.” According to historian Bob Darden in People Get Ready! A New History of Black Gospel Music, bologna’s ubiquity on these tours acquired it the designation “gospel chicken.” The Dixie Hummingbirds even coined the phrase “I’m gonna check me out some chorus girls” to describe eating a tin of neatly-aligned sardines. Pilgrim Jubilees baritone Jesse Whitaker told historian Alan Young in his book on the group, “Those were rough days but it didn’t bother us. We’d get hungry, man, we’d have to find a grocery store, buy some bologna, cheese and crackers, what we could get. Groups today, they can stop anywhere to eat and sleep. We couldn’t. We had a rough time, but we didn’t let it bother us. We knew when we went down through there [the South] what to do and how to do, we didn’t let it rob us, it just made us more careful.”

There was an antidote for these traveling blues, which partly accounts for the perseverance of these quartets in grueling conditions: the grid of host relationships they forged with their southern African American fan base. Where the marketplace failed, this social network offered havens of home-cooked meals and modest lodgings. According to Sam Guralnick’s book Dream Boogie: the Triumph of Sam Cooke, the Highway QCs, the Chicago-based quartet with whom Cooke sang in his teens, were en route to Memphis in the late 1940s when their car broke down on the city’s outskirts. To the rescue came one Mrs. Annie Brown, who owned a rooming house across the street from LeMoyne Gardens, the city’s major Black public housing project. A neighbor remembers that the QCs “didn’t have any money, so Mrs. Brown just let them stay there. She fed her family, and she would feed all of them – I don’t remember how many there were, but there were quite a few!” The group stayed for weeks. When Cooke later began singing for the Soul Stirrers, his older brother Charles recalled that “this one man in Texas built a place up over his garage just for the Soul Stirrers, and his wife cooked for us and everything.”

Of course overtures of hospitality sometimes acted as cover for other sorts of invitations. Dan Taylor, the tenor singer for the Memphis-based Southern Jubilees in the late 1940s, told Guralnick “In those days you were always invited to dinner. And if one of the girls at a program took a liking to any guy in a group, it didn’t matter who it was—if she would say, ‘why don’t you come over for dinner?’ our line was always ‘well you know I can’t leave the guys.’ They got a lot of free meals that way and didn’t sacrifice any romantic associations.” (The womanizing rampant among many quartet singers has historically been a wink-wink-nudge-nudge secret in the industry, something Anthony Heilbut explores more extensively in The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times.)

The waters get deep here, a little too deep for a short blog post, but suffice it to say that the stories of these hungry quartets and how they were fed by their sisters and brothers bespeak a strong community with deep roots, stretching back many long years into the “invisible institution” of Black Christianity during the slave years. They hint at the social and cultural and ecclesial power of women in midcentury African American church life, the depth of which will probably never be sounded. They resonate with the centuries-old power of the Black church to make life for its constituency bearable, at times even good, in the context of institutional, systemic oppression within the most democratic nation on earth.

Stock phrases permeate Black gospel music practice, ready to be drawn on during the flashes of improvisation that define the genre. One of the most common, employed during moments of musical testifying, is “He put food on my table.” While at one level this works simply as a broad affirmation of generalized Christian belief in God’s provision, its meaning is also historically contingent, a poignant reminder of the specific woes of an actual people in a discrete time in a certain place. As the quartet genre peaked in popularity in the mid 1950s, the tide of Black suffering was beginning to crest over into the Civil Rights movement. Eventually, the comparatively few quartets active in later decades would no longer face legal discrimination on their tours. There’s a reason that the lunch counter sit-ins of the early 1960s attained that rare distinction of being both symbolic and effective: they highlighted the soullessness, the spiritual meagerness, the plain old cussedness of withholding food from folks. Denying African Americans meals was cultural shorthand, the nation eventually came to understand, for denying their humanity.