By Scott Rockwood
It’s a balmy Midwest morning in July 1925. You board the Pullman Dixie Flyer with your band to travel the Nashville, Chattanooga, and St. Louis rail line south toward Pensacola. Teddy Spencer has his violin, Mack Cormac his sax, Michigan Kennedy his kick and snare drum, hi hats and a ride cymbal, Ted Cormac has his trumpet, Beaver Tompkins his banjo, you have your 1918 Gibson L-4, and Barrelhouse Charley is the pianist.The Dance car has a Weber upright and Barrelhouse has a good ear and a few tools to put it moderately in tune; “uneven temperament” he calls it. For the next few days, as the train beats its hypnotic rhythm along the tracks, you and the band are the entertainment for the changing cast of passengers that come and go at the stations in Birmingham, Montgomery, Evansville, on south. You play fading Ragtime hits like Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag”, and you know a few W.C. Handy numbers like “St. Louis Blues” and “Memphis Blues.” You play a hot Foxtrot or two. Barrelhouse worked up small ensemble versions of Sousa’s “The Gladiator” and Gershwin’s “Rhapsody In Blue.” Of course you know a few Len Spencer songs like “Arkansas Traveler,” but you also dabble in this new music from bandleaders in New Orleans like Buddy Bolden and Freddie Keppard, who’s developed a sound so unique he won’t let anyone record it. Folks are calling it Jazz. You played a few gigs during Mardi Gras back in February and were amazed by the Fletcher Henderson Band with this young trumpet player named Louis Armstrong, who played with a feel so deep you’d never heard anything like it, so you and the band have been dipping your toes in that mysterious Mississippi Delta Swing too.
In Pensacola, you and the band hop on a Cessna Sternwheeler to travel east along the coast and through the Choctawhatchee Bay to the bustling port town of Santa Rosa Beach. From there you all carry your necessities and instruments, except for Barrelhouse who helped Michigan with his drum hardware, along the sandy paths cut through saw palmetto, long leaf pine, and swamp, around fresh water lakes with alligators, to the tiny little village of Grayton Beach. You see sand so white it looks like snow, water so blue it looks like sky, and dunes taller than the local post office with Sand Live Oak twisting out in scruffy canopies. There’s an open jam tonight at The White Elephant, Grayton‘s general store and dance hall, and although the band is booked as the house entertainment for the rest of the week, you think you might sit in tonight, meet some locals and play a few songs. There’s a little cottage near the “Wash-A-Way” house for sale that has you thinking you might stay a little longer. Sitting on the porch with your Gibson and a warm lager you picked up at a speakeasy in St Louis you try to decide what the first song you play in paradise should be. Maybe Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues”, or Trixie Smith’s “My Baby Rocks Me With One Steady Roll,” or maybe you’re going to sing the chorus of a song that you learned from a blues man just recently paroled from Sugar Land, about another train, that says wherever it’s headed it’s glory bound. “Let the Midnight Special shine its light on me, let the Midnight Special shine its ever-lovin’ light on me”.