A forgotten fire, remembered in a song
Early in the first year of the Depression, it
seemed as if everything in Knoxville was going wrong. The newspapers
were full of murders, robberies, prominent suicides. One prominent
businessman shot himself in his upscale Fort Sanders apartment.
Another whose downtown grocery was going into receivership left as
if for lunch, drove out to Bearden, and calmly walked into an
Late one cool
night that March, an explosion rocked Union Avenue, and an apartment
building burst into flames. Some people leapt out of second-floor
windows onto the sidewalk. A family of three died in their
apartment. The fire itself, one of the worst of its era, was also
one of the strangest.
battled the blaze, an enigmatic German razor grinder climbed to a
second-floor landing down the alley, collapsed, and stopped
A block away,
two weeks later, a young black woman walked into a white people's
hotel and sang a song into a recording machine as several
technicians from up North listened on headphones. When she sang her
song about that weird night, it may have been the newest song in the
world. She called it the "Arcade Building
Building and the peculiar fire that destroyed it are nearly
forgotten. Even local historians have been known to doubt that it
even existed. It's possible that no one alive remembers any of the
people who died in the blaze. But 75 years later, a song about them
still makes the rounds around the world.
It all happened
75 years ago, this confluence of events which would have been
unlikely anywhere but in an American city. Anywhere but in this
particular American city.
The St. James
Hotel was on Wall Avenue, in the short block between Gay Street and
Market Square. About 30 years old and constructed entirely of
concrete, it was advertised as Knoxville's first "fireproof"
building. It was an important distinction to claim in those days, a
stone's throw from the 400 block of Gay, which had recently suffered
the worst fire in Knoxville history.
Most of the time
the St. James was just a hotel, but for several months in 1929 and
early 1930, it doubled as a recording studio for a national record
label. The Brunswick-Balke-Collender Co. had been known for decades
for manufacturing pool tables, but in the 1920s became known as the
only record company big enough to challenge Victor. Their
subsidiary, Vocalion, was known for popular records on 78 rpm
shellac, especially blues records.
recording was still new in the 1920s, tastes were shifting rapidly,
and much of the new music in America-country, blues, gospel, and
jazz-was coming from certain regions in the South, especially New
Orleans, the Mississippi Delta, and the Southern
companies like Brunswick were keen to catch the best talents before
the competition did. Like National Geographic explorers, rival
record companies set up recording sites in various locations and
took in everyone they could.
In 1927, Victor
went to Bristol, where they discovered the Carter Family and Jimmy
Rodgers, who would both be popular and influential in the
development of country and popular music. In 1928, Columbia went to
Brunswick gave Knoxville a try. Knoxville was appealing to them
perhaps because the city was respected as a center for the
burgeoning country-music market. Even before the landmark Bristol
sessions, several Knoxville musicians like Charlie Oaks, George
Reneau, and Ted and Mac, had found some success with records made in
New York as early as 1924. In Knoxville, Brunswick found a good deal
more than country.
In the summer of
1929, several technicians from Brunswick's offices in Muskegon,
Mich., unloaded 1,600 pounds of recording equipment at the St. James
Hotel to make use of the soundproof studio run by WNOX, the popular
station that had been broadcasting from downtown Knoxville for nine
years, its signal strong enough in those less-cluttered days to
reach across several state lines.
who helped arrange each recording in Knoxville are remembered,
barely, as R. Chaff, H.C. Bradshaw, and W.J. Brown. The guy in the
booth was the musical director, Richard Voynow, who some sources
suggest was the one who prompted the Knoxville sessions. Voynow was
something of a celebrity in jazz circles. He'd been pianist with the
original Wolverines, alongside legendary cornettist Bix Beiderbecke.
He'd collaborated with songwriter/pianist Hoagy Carmichael, partly
credited for the popular song "Riverboat
Word got around.
Musicians came from all over to the hotel on Wall Avenue. During
that brief period, before Nashville had any reputation for music
recording, musicians from across the region, including several from
Middle Tennessee, traveled to Knoxville to make records at the St.
James. Among them was Nashville's biggest star, Uncle Dave
at the time, a crowded, noisy, exciting, grotesque, lively, filthy
place of electric trolleys and belching smokestacks, rednecks and
sophisticados in an uncomfortable transition between the booming
urban city with metropolitan pretensions it had been in its
Edwardian peak, and a mill town, which at its worst seemed something
like a giant refugee camp for the rural dispossessed and the
tax-resistant. The progressive movement that promised to rebuild
much of downtown in the 1920s seemed to be dying before it had fully
bloomed, and this new Depression seemed to stomp it flat. The only
obvious green shoots in Knoxville were musical ones.
already had a presence in town. Sterchi Brothers Furniture, then
touted to be the biggest furniture company in America, was
headquartered on Gay Street. Seller of phonographs and phonograph
records, Sterchi was a big supporter of the booming recording
industry. Sterchi's own Gus Nennstiel, an electronics expert, was an
agent for Brunswick's subsidiary, Vocalion.
they found a kaleidoscope of styles and genres-and, predictably, a
good deal of lunacy.
Brad Reeves, who
works at the Archive of Appalachia at ETSU in Johnson City, has made
a study of the St. James sessions. He cites ranking country-music
historian Charles Wolfe's research that the St. James sessions were
"the end of an era," the last of the on-location field sessions done
for a major recording label. Reeves has become so interested in the
St. James sessions that he's compiling all of the existing
recordings into a CD. He hopes he can find the financial backing to
make it commercially available.
compares the Knoxville recordings to other recording sessions in the
region, the landmark ones at Bristol in 1927 and those the following
year in Johnson City. Asked what makes the Knoxville sessions
different, he says, "The diversity. I couldn't believe how old-time
leads to gospel, then straight into jazz. And the sense of humor.
Some of them are quite funny."
During a period
of several months, a variety of bands, mostly white, walked into the
St. James. One performer, Uncle Dave Macon, the vaudevillian
banjoist who was one of country's first real stars, recorded there
on March 31, 1930, with his son. He was already famous. A few, like
the Sievers' family band, the Tennessee Ramblers, would go on to
moderate fame in popular-music circles. Most of those Voynow and his
men recorded wouldn't. More than half of them were country bands of
one sort or another, many of them with vaudevillian humor, but there
Many of the
young men who made their recordings at the St. James were talented,
and their work here is deservedly saved for posterity on CDs; but
the sensibility is something along the lines of a barnwarmer
attended by the Three Stooges.
You get the
impression that for these months, the St. James was a jolly
frat-house party of spirited musicians, mostly white, mostly male.
A couple of
early jazz orchestras recorded there, including Knoxville's biggest
big band, Maynard Baird and his Southern Serenaders, representing
their party standard, "Postage Stomp." Like most of the others,
their selections were a sampling of up-tempo songs they'd been
playing for years. The St. James recording of "Postage Stomp" made
it onto a Yazoo compilation aptly called Jazz the World
In an article
that emphasized the project's "Hill-Billy Music" recordings, the
"There was some Negro music, too." It was perhaps an understatement.
Chocolate Drops, an unusual black string-jazz band featuring
fiddler-mandolinist Howard Armstrong, was one. They played their
"Knox County Stomp," and another song called the "Vine Street
Rag"-which, through a misprint, was printed as "Vine Street Drag."
The Chocolate Drops would later be better known as Martin, Bogan,
and Armstrong, and were popularizing their eccentric version of the
blues around the world as late as the 1970s. Their St. James
recordings play a role in the early Terry Zwigoff documentary about
Armstrong, Louie Bluie.
And then there
was Leola Manning.
She was nothing
like anybody else who walked into the lobby of the St. James. An
East Knoxville cafeteria worker and aspiring evangelist of 25, she
was at the time struggling with a troubled marriage. She recorded at
the St. James twice, once near the beginning of the sessions, on
Aug. 28, 1929, and once near the end, on April 4, 1930. Her work
stood apart from everything else, almost as if she recorded her work
in a different St. James Hotel from the others, in a different era.
Her work was purer, more earnest, more urgent, more startling.
The first couple
of sides she cut at the St. James were religious songs done in a
gutsy blues style that may have startled the devout in 1930, those
who were used to hymns. "He Cares For Me," a slow, mournful number,
with syncopated piano and guitar accompaniment, seems to describe
the death of a child: "When the Lord called my baby, I could not
keep from crying / I could see that she was sick, but I could not
believe she was dying."
"He Fans Me" is
livelier, with a visceral ragtime heart. Some might have thought
they sounded more like nightclub music than church music.
memorable performances. It's not surprising that when she came back
to the St. James six months later with four more new songs, they put
her on the schedule.
Some of her new
songs were plaintive, distressed commentaries on current events in
Knoxville, and she sang them like a town crier. One, "Satan Is Busy
In Knoxville," seems to detail real-life murders.
and Thirty, in the beginning of the year, so many people was made
was out, earning his bread, no fear or troubles he had;
driving in the sun along the road
And a robber
jumped on his running board
this man nobody knows
But the Good
Book says they've got to reap just what they sow 'Cause Satan is so busy in
Satan, ominously, as "Say-ton"-and continues with a grislier
hours later, a colored woman her name was
She was found
with her throat cut
From ear to
ear below the Mountain View School...
View School was in East Knoxville, on Dandridge Avenue. Leola
Manning knew it well; she worked there.
She wrote all
the songs herself. She never called any of her songs "blues"; it
was, to her, a bad word, an unchristian word. One of her songs, "The
Blues Is All Wrong," is an up-tempo boogie-woogie piece that could
almost pass for early rock 'n' roll or swing. The lyrics sound a
little bit defensive, perhaps reflecting a typical reaction to her
all right, if you think it's wrong...
It's got the
blues tune, but the words are right...
They all sound
like blues, but not one of Manning's six songs was a love song.
"Laying in the Graveyard" seems to picture herself after death. "I
wouldn't mind dying, but I have to lay dead so long.... Good
morning, dead man; Mother, how do you do? / I've been so long in
this world without you."
The newest song
in the session was based on a tragic incident in the neighborhood.
Topical songs describing the news of the day were not unusual in
popular music. But one may be some kind of superlative for its era;
one of the recordings Leola Manning made described a tragic incident
that had happened only 15 days before she recorded her own song
As always, she
was careful not to call it a blues. She called it "The Arcade
Building was a zigzag block away from the St. James, on Union
Avenue. The quickest way to get there would have been to walk the
length of Market Square, along the farmwagons in the broad alleys on
either side of the Market House.
Refer to the
Arcade Building today, and chances are people will assume you're
talking about the better-known building over on Gay Street, the
Journal Arcade. Built in 1924, it was the handsome, modern, marble
home of the morning paper; its interior held an architectural
arcade, a broad interior hallway with doors on either side. To
confuse historians further, there was an earlier building called the
Arcade Hotel, which was located in the 500 block of Gay, about where
the Riviera Theater would later be built.
Building in the song was the least prominent of them all. Built
around 1910, it was a modest two-story brick building on Union
between Market and Walnut, broader than it was tall. Photographs of
it when it was not on fire are hard to come by. Originally it housed
small shops and offices in its lower floors-tailors, florists,
novelty stores, piano parlors, perhaps in an arcade setting-and
middle-class residents above. By 1930, the building was almost all
residential and not doing very well: 19 units, nine of them vacant.
Maybe it was the Depression, maybe it was the fact that affluent
residents had been leaving downtown for more than 20 years, but in
1930 downtown was coming to seem more and more like a place for
mainly working-class people, the ones who couldn't afford cars.
impressive how much you could squeeze into one block-offices, a
couple of apartment buildings-the Sprankle was the larger of the
two-and lots of retail. In that regard, this particular block had
something of a theme. The 400 block of Union was home to a shoe
store, a paint store, a cigar store, a cobbler, two restaurants, a
Western Union office, a real-estate office, a plumbing and heating
company, a bakery, the Union Milk and Grocery, and a poolhall. But
it was also the go-to block for all things tonsorial: the same block
hosted two barbershops, two beauty shops, and two barber-supply
One of the
barber-supply stores was run by a German immigrant named Carl
Melcher. Born in Solingen, Germany, a city no bigger than Knoxville
near Dusseldorf, he had served the German imperial government in
Africa. He had apparently moved to the United States shortly after
the World War, and had Cincinnati connections, but spent most of his
time in Knoxville. At 59, Melcher and his wife Helen lived in the
Virginia Apartments at the corner of Market Street and Cumberland.
They may have had a lonely life. They had no relatives nearby, and
neither spoke English well.
known as an expert mechanic and was, by some accounts, the best
razor-grinder in town. He also sold his own tonsorial supplies,
mixing hair tonic himself from mineral water and perfume. He also
had a reputation as a fire enthusiast, often chasing the sound of
sirens around town, even in the middle of the night.
cobbler Joe Badich, who ran his own shop next door to the
barber-supply store, didn't like Melcher much. Despite their
proximity, Badich and Melcher hadn't spoken to each other for two
years. Melcher may have had a reputation for skill, but Badich
suspected the razor-grinder wasn't getting much business. Melcher
was often seen standing out on the Union Avenue sidewalk, waiting
for customers. That March, he had only 20 bucks in the bank.
regarded him as "affable," Melcher struck some as an unhappy man; he
had told some that he expected to move back to Germany soon. In the
shaky democracy of Weimar Germany, the Nazis were rising to power.
On the evening
of Thursday, March 20, Herr Melcher did a few very peculiar things.
First, he cashed out his bank account, all 20 bucks of it. Then, he
ordered a 55-gallon drum of gasoline from Gulf Oil. It was late
arriving, and he telephoned in angry, opaque accents. When the truck
finally did come down his alley, Melcher asked the driver to help
install a spigot into the barrel.
At 8 p.m., he
walked into the Union Lunch. Despite its name, it was a three-meal
restaurant, open well into the evening. He asked proprietor Jim
Evras how late his place was open. Evras responded he usually stayed
open until about midnight.
to the restaurant two hours later with a cardboard box. He told
Evras to keep it until someone-not necessarily Melcher himself-asked
It had been cold
on previous evenings, but this night it was warmer, well into the
50s, a hint of spring. The movie houses of Gay Street were showing
some of the first talkies. The Girl Said No! with William Haynes and Marie Dressler,
was playing at the Tennessee. The Sky Hawk ("Laughing at Death/Thrilling the World")
was at the Riviera. Some theaters were still showing silents, but
the big houses advertised "All Talking."
By 2 a.m., the
Wilkerson family was probably sound asleep. Sylvester Wilkerson, 32,
was a former army recruiter who had recently retired from duty at
Fort Oglethorpe. He married a slightly older woman who already had a
son, Arthur Sharp, who was 16. The three lived together at the
The Union Lunch
had closed down for the evening. The 400 block of Union never
completely went dark, though, because there was always at least one
operator at the Western Union. This night, it was C.H. Nesbitt. When
it happened, he thought the boiler had exploded.
He ran outside.
The whole block glowed in lurid red. Broken glass was everywhere.
Badich's shoe store, Martinello's Beauty Parlor, Frazier's Barber
Shop, Melcher's place, and the whole Arcade Building, were all on
department was right there, nine engines, two ladder trucks, dozens
of firemen all over the block.
another, people leapt from the second floor out of the Arcade
Building. A woman jumped and got entangled in telephone wires. A man
jumped and landed on a passerby, a middle-aged man with an
One man lowered
a rope and nonchalantly climbed down. A travelling salesman who was
just staying at the Arcade was obliged to explain his preparedness.
"I've been carrying a rope in my suitcase for 25 years, waiting for
something like this to happen."
In spite of the
water hoses, the fire leapt around the block, sending cinders into
the air, skipping over some buildings to hit others. Much of the 500
block of Market caught fire. "A survey of the burned area teaches
the value of fireproof buildings," observed the Journal. "The
Arnstein Building stood almost unscathed while the fire surged
By the time the
sun rose on the smoking rubble of Union Avenue and Market Street,
they were calling it the worst fire in 20 years.
safely out of the Arcade except for the Wilkerson-Sharp family.
Their bodies were found in the ashes, charred and in pieces,
identifiable only by dental work and supposition.
victim's fate was much more peculiar. On a second-floor landing of
the Schriver Building, nearly a full block away and barely touched
by the fire, lay a portly middle-aged man. His hands were scorched
as if he'd held a live wire. His face was charred "to a crisp." He
turned out to be Carl Melcher, the German.
He was the
mystery of the week, and details of the gasoline delivery and the
mysterious package were soon all around town.
found that the package Carl Melcher left at the Union Lunch held
incoherent clues: some razors and scissors, apparently left by
customers to be sharpened. A checkbook and an account book for his
barber-supply business. A couple of insurance policies, life and
business. It seemed odd that the policies had expired months
Adding to the
mystery was the fact that about the time of the explosion, someone
with a German accent had called a taxi from Kern's Bakery, cursing
impatiently. Melcher had lived only three blocks away.
On Friday, April
4, 1930, Leola Manning was in the draped studio at the St. James
Hotel, singing into a microphone with her accompanist as four
technicians listened on headphones.
It was on one
Thursday morning, March the 20th day
I think it
was about two a.m., I believe I can firmly
The women and
the children was screaming and crying
that, they was slowly dying
listen, how the bell did ring
Arcade Building burnt down.
It was a song
she had written and presumably rehearsed with a pianist, in the last
The bell may
well be a reference to the Market House bell, which hung in its
belfry a stone's throw from the St. James. It rang an alarm during
major disasters of the late 19th and early 20th century. By the
mid-1930s, it had been retired, due to concerns about the safety of
the rickety structure that held it, but it may have rung one last
time that day in 1930. It's now on display at the square's south
I want you to
listen, listen how the bell was ringing
people fell to the ground
through the windows, ran down the stairways and out the
looking for safety, or they could not live no
Oh, it was
sad, sad, oh how sad
Arcade Building burnt down.
The song is in a
style which most music critics would call, with no ill intent,
firemen, they could not go home to eat
women with coffees and cakes kept them up on their
But the lord
saved Clyde Davis, death was so nigh
and his wife were separated by the fire
listen, how the bells did ring....
All the details
are journalistic in their accuracy, straight from the dailies. Then
she breaks out of the music in an ad lib, a little too shy to be
scat, as the pianist plays. "Play it! Oh, it was sad that morning!
Several people lost their lives when the Arcade Building burnt down.
What a moan in Knoxville!" Then, returning to singing, she repeats
the second stanza.
In her lyrics,
the singer was kind to Carl Melcher, giving him the benefit of the
doubt. But for a week, Carl Melcher was regarded as the arsonist who
had started the fire, an insurance scammer or a terrorist of some
sort. The speculation was entirely about his methods and motives.
Word was that he had set the fire with gasoline and set it off by
some kind of electric wire, which had gotten out of hand somehow,
and that he had hobbled down the alley in the direction of his
apartment and, for reasons of his own, had climbed the outside
stairs of a building to which he had no obvious connection. The call
to a cab was interpreted as a flubbed getaway.
showed that he had died of shock, not electrocution. There were more
odd details. The barrel of gasoline he bought was found in the
Clyde Davis, who
had leapt from the window onto a pedestrian, was certain the man was
Carl Melcher, at that time apparently unburned. Later, another
witness claimed that Melcher was actually on the scene helping the
firefighters move hoses.
rather hastily exonerated Melcher. He was reportedly buried at
Lynnhurst, in Fountain City. His wife Helen vanishes from the city
directories after that.
So does Leola
Manning, by that name, anyway. She appears in the city directories,
living on East Vine with her husband William Manning, a school
janitor. She works in the cafeteria at the Mountain View School in
She's listed as
living separately from her husband in 1931. Leola Manning last
appears in 1933, living on Doll Avenue, near old Five Points in East
Knoxville. Some researchers assumed that maybe she left town, as
many Southern black musicians did in the '30s, to try their fortunes
up North, in Chicago or New York.
Most of the St.
James recordings were forgotten. In 1982, perhaps to coincide with
the World's Fair, a vinyl record, Historical Ballads of the
Tennessee Valley, came
out. It included Leola Manning's "Arcade Building Moan."
Then, early in
the CD era, recordings of rarely heard American blues songs began
appearing on European compilations. One, called Rare Country
Blues, was printed by
Document Records in Vienna, Austria, in 1993, and claimed to compile
the "complete recorded works" of six under-recorded black musicians.
On the CD are all six of Leola Manning's St. James recordings.
"Manning, who sounded something like Memphis Minnie," reads the
liner notes of the Austrian disk, "was another off-centre artist who
recorded religious songs in a blues setting." (The notes also
speculate that the pianist heard on the recording is Chicago pianist
Charles Avery, a regular on some Brunswick records. Other sources,
including Joslyn Layne, of the All Music Guide, claim that Manning accompanied herself,
though her ad-libbed shout of "Play it!" in the "Arcade Building
Moan"-and "Play it, boys!" in "Satan Is Busy In Knoxville"-would
seem to make less sense if that were true.)
That 1993 CD
caught the attention of several high-profile musicians, among them
iconoclastic country rocker Steve Earle. When he came to town for a
show in the late '90s, Earle was interested in learning exactly
where the Arcade Building was. (When he asked this reporter about
the song, this reporter had never heard of it, or of the fire, or of
the Arcade Building itself.) Jazz pianist Donald Brown is also a fan
of Leola Manning's recordings.
Strange, a jazz and blues vocalist who has made some recordings
herself, heard the songs via a tape that Laurel Theater's Brent
Cantrell made for her in the '90s. She was entranced. "Her voice
quality is just different from all the black singers, Ma Rainey, Ida
Cox, Bessie Smith. It's like a trill thing. Her voice is cool,
lighter than the others."
around town asking, "Did you ever hear of a blues singer named Leola
At first, no one
she spoke to had ever heard the name. But near the end of his life,
musician Howard Armstrong-who had made recordings at the St.
James-visited the city where he had once made a living as a street
musician. He told her indeed he had known Leola. He knew her mother
better, but he did know that she had married a guitarist named Gene
Ballinger. But he wasn't sure what had become of her.
revisited some of her sources, revising her question. "Did you ever
hear of a blues singer named Leola Ballinger?" She had better luck
with that question. But as it happened, the first one who had heard
of her was offended by the question.
"One morning, I
woke up and said, 'Leola Manning, where did you come from and where
did you go?'" Having recruited thespian Linda Parris Bailey on the
quest, she went back to the Beck Cultural Center. The director
didn't know the answer, but a secretary did. "I knew Leola
Ballinger," said the elderly Ether Rice. "But she wasn't a blues
singer." She made it clear that she didn't approve of the blues, and
that it wasn't even something to joke about.
generations may think of "the blues" as a rootsy and fairly
conservative style, the subject of reverent festivals and PBS
documentaries. But to people of a certain age, those now over 75,
the word blues can still imply something off-color, or unholy, or
accomplished musician herself, meant no moral insinuations. She says
some of Leola Manning's recordings are technically, if not morally,
blues. A lyric is repeated, then followed with a rhyming line. "It's
the same stuff, the same chord progressions," she says. "But
paradox is one that Manning herself seems to deal with in the song,
"The Blues Is All Wrong."
that Leola Manning Ballinger didn't leave town after all. She died
here in Knoxville, more than 60 years after she made those records.
her well. On a hillside at the corner of Castle and Wimpole in East
Knoxville is a solid, white cinderblock building called the True
House of God. A sign reads, "Bishop B.J. Moore, Pastor."
Moore-in her church, the True House of God, in East Knoxville, she's
known as Bishop Moore-lives just over the hill. Her house is on one
of those ridgetop vistas in East Knoxville where the sudden view of
the sunset can awe strangers. She's about 70 now, and doesn't get
around as well as she used to, but she remembers Leola well. She
points to her in a photograph she keeps in her living room. Leola
was her mother.
Moore tells her
mother's story. "She was born in Chattanooga," she says. Her maiden
name was Ramey, and she grew up in a musical family; her own mother
brought her to Kentucky first, Middlesborough. Then to Knoxville
when she was a little girl." Moore thinks it was probably about 1910
when the Rameys settled in Knoxville. Leola Ramey was singing from a
very early age. Her mother was known in Knoxville as Mama Ramey.
"Around here, they got her mixed up with Ma Rainey," Moore laughs.
Mama Ramey and the great Georgia-born blues singer Ma Rainey were
Leola Ramey grew
up evangelizing, and never quit. "She started singing in a cornfield
in Park City. The projects is sitting on that place. Set up a tent,
had services, usually outdoors. She had a tent on Willow Street,
too, in the Bottom, they all called it." The western part of the
Bottom is now known as the Old City.
Knoxville, Leola Ramey got to know some more earthly sorts, like the
legendary jazz fiddler/mandolinist Howard "Louie Bluie" Armstrong
who cut a couple of sides at the St. James Hotel just before Leola
did. "He used to drive some for my grandmother," Moore says. "She
had a car, but couldn't drive." Armstrong was happy to oblige,
taking Mama Ramey around on various evangelical errands.
On his last
visit to Knoxville, the elderly Armstrong attended the True Church
of God-and, of course, the irrepressible Armstrong brought his
instrument. "He wouldn't leave Knoxville unless he'd seen me and
come to church. He played his fiddle-or violin-a lot of old songs."
Did he ever play
with the Rameys back in the day? "I imagine he did," Moore says.
"They had a little band at one time. My dad played guitar. Mom sang,
played piano. Mama Ramey sang. Mandolin, bass drum."
"Later on, she
knew the Swan Silvertones, when they were young," says Moore. That
black gospel band formed in Knoxville in the late '30s and went on
to recording success. Moore isn't sure whether her mother ever knew
East Knoxville's other, more famous, blues singer, Ida Cox, who
shared the then-unusual habit of writing her own songs; she moved to
Knoxville in the '40s and, in her last years, the jazz-age recording
star sang in the Patton Street Church of God, a church founded by
Mama Ramey. For 20 years they lived just a few blocks from each
other, and both sang in East Knoxville
"She had been
married to the Manning fellow," Moore says. William Manning was an
evangelist, too, and together they had five children. "She stayed
with him for a long while. But he was one of those
Christians who just had the name, but didn't carry the right stigma.
He preached, but didn't go practice what he preached. She divorced
suggest that it may have been during their separation that she made
the St. James recordings. Moore knows about the noir description of
killers on the loose in "Satan Is Busy In Knoxville," and the
specific description of the body found near the Mountain View
School, where Leola Manning worked.
"It did happen
somewhere back behind there. There was a wooded area back behind
Mountain View." Moore says her mother told her the killer was
finally captured, and she once remembered the man's name. "She'd
done told me about it, but it's gone out. Mother told me things I
thought I would always remember. But that's not so. You don't always
She does recall
her mother telling her that she was troubled about the state of her
city when she made the St. James recordings. "She believed God was
angry with the people because so much was going on."
Moore says the
unidentified boogie-woogie pianist, whose style has attracted some
attention from the musicians who listen to the record-and who the
Document CD's liner notes speculate was Chicago session man Charles
Avery-was actually her mother's friend Gace Haynes, who lived in
She called the
Arcade Building song a moan. "She wasn't singing blues," Moore says.
"She didn't want to be identified with that. Gospel was what she
sang. Blues wasn't representing the Lord like she wanted to
After her brief
and urgent foray into the secular world, Moore says, her mother
returned to evangelizing, and also found a man she could trust. His
name was Eugene Ballinger.
"My dad was
saved by her and her mother in Middlesborough, Ky.," she says. "He
played guitar for her." He moved to Knoxville with the Ramey family.
She's not sure when Leola married her father who, like Manning,
eventually worked as a janitor for the city school system, but the
city directories suggest it was around 1933. He raised the five
Manning kids, and soon added three Ballinger kids to the brood,
including Bobbie Jean, the oldest. Later he worked as a carpenter in
Oak Ridge during World War II.
"After that, my
dad and my mother evangelized on the streets. Went around
everywhere. Knoxville, Alcoa." Leola and Eugene Ballinger actually
founded a brick-and-mortar church in Alcoa, a House of God. "If I
give you the whole name, it's this long," Moore says. "It's still
But she kept
playing all around, often traveling: "Middlesborough, LaFollette,
Harlan, Harriman, setting up the church of the House of God. They
went everyplace. She did old-time street work. Go to a different
town and hit the streets. She loved street work.
"She went to
Vine and Central when it was blooming," Moore says. In her mother's
day, that intersection was the cultural heart of black Knoxville.
"She would pick these homeless folks up and bring them home. She was
always doing something for somebody else. She was a beautiful
person, a sweet person. A pure, a giving
to have had a reputation as a miracle worker. "She prayed for a
woman who had died and was covered up. The woman's walking around
today. She had been sick, died right there in the house. She's still
"My sweet old
boss, I called her. She loved people. Her mother taught her that.
Opened her home to any kind."
some of the songs her mother sang at her tent meetings, many of
which the singer wrote herself "Your Number's Gonna Fall After a
While," was one. Another went:
stranger don't drive me away/ You may need me
founded a real brick-and-mortar church in her hometown, though. "A
real church: she would have loved one," Moore says. "At the time,
money was tight. She just kept starting them up. A lot of home
services." She often preached at the chapel her mother founded, the
Church of the Living God.
down on Doll Street, one of several East Knoxville streets that fell
victim to urban renewal. "They ran us all off," says Mrs. Moore.
Leola Ballinger lived a little farther out, on Boyd's Bridge, when
she died. They had the service at Moore's church. Unlike most of us,
Mother Ballinger had an opportunity to write a cheerful farewell
message to her loved ones. It ends, "Farewell to life's challenges,
hello eternal life."
Moore has led a
challenging life in the years since her mother's death. Today she
walks with difficulty, and says she doesn't sing like she used to,
though she does play organ at her church. In the scrapbook where she
finds a picture of her mother, she points out a photograph of a
football player. "That's my baby, Phil," she says fondly. "He played
for Holston. He was killed down on MLK. Men were shooting from the
roof. He was a good boy. I told him not to go down there."
"So much has
gone by," Moore says. "Time don't wait on
"I was amazed
they gave this recording to me," Moore says of Nancy Strange's gift
of Rare Country Blues. She had heard her mother talk about the
session but had never heard the record. When "The Arcade Building
Moan" appeared on Historical Ballads of the Tennessee
Valley in 1982, and all
of her recorded work appeared on Rare Country
Blues in Vienna in 1993,
Leola Manning Ballinger was still alive. But she and her family
never heard of the releases.
"I didn't even
know it was still out there," says Moore. "I don't think Mother knew
how it went. She never did get nothing off it, never."
For the record,
neither did Howard Armstrong. Though he later went on to recording
success, he sometimes expressed bitterness about the St. James
experience. It's unclear whether anyone who made recordings there in
1929-30 was compensated. Reeves thinks none of the records were
marketed much. The Uncle Dave Macon session wasn't even released.
Warner Brothers acquired Brunswick in April 1930, the same month as
Voynow's last recordings of local musicians at the St. James Hotel.
The new company may have had different priorities, but it was
probably the Depression, more than anything, that spoiled the
chances of the St. James recordings. By the end of the decade, the
Brunswick label was a thing of the past. Brunswick went back to
making pool tables and, eventually, pleasure boats. That division is
now headquartered on Gay Street.
Brunswick probably never made more than 500 copies of the 99-odd
tracks they recorded at the St. James Hotel in 1929-30. They're
extremely rare, he says. Joe Bussard, the Maryland collector from
whom he obtained most of his own recordings, has a few. Reeves says
they may be too rare even to have a dependable price.
The solid old
St. James Hotel was torn down without much fanfare in the early
1970s to make room for TVA's sprawling headquarters campus; it was
said to be quite a tough demolition job. Its site is somewhere in
the vicinity of the TVA Credit Union.
Sprankle had hardly let the embers of the Arcade Building cool
before he began work on a new building to take its place, a larger
one known today as the Grand Union building. Today it's old enough
to look historic, and is occupied by offices of Home Federal Savings
works of Leola Manning, later to be known as Elder Ballinger, are
available on the web. More songs from her St. James sessions have
appeared on other compilations, especially on the Yazoo label: one
called Down In Black Bottom: Barrelhouse Mamas features "Satan Is Busy In Knoxville."
Another, Favorite Country Blues: Piano-Guitar Duets,
somewhat ironically, Leola Manning's thesis statement, "The Blues Is
Though it might
be an exaggeration to call them "classics," the recordings Leola
Manning made have been listened to more around the world in the 10
years since she died than they were in the 65 years before that.
"I wish I could
have met her," says Nancy Brennan Strange. "I always find out about
people after they're dead." She laughs. But to her, Leola's
different. "I feel this connection with her that I don't
those words just before looking at a document this reporter had
obtained showing Leola Manning Ballinger's birthday, Sept. 10. She
restrains a gasp.
birthday," she says.
fan in Knoxville, though, is surely Bishop B.J. Moore of the True
Church of God. "If the Lord let me live so long, I would like to
write a book," she says. "It would be an interesting book. There's a
lot of history here in Knoxville. People just don't know
24, 2005 • Vol. 15, No. 8
© 2005 Metro Pulse