Of a lost deli, conditions of surrender, grassy plots, coffee smells, and an unforgotten blues record
by Jack Neely
I never got to write a eulogy for one of my favorite Knoxville institutions, Harold’s Deli, about which I’ve written several times before. Knoxville’s only kosher deli was there in the same location, little changed since 1948, until a series of unfortunate and unexpected developments this year, beginning with 86-year-old Harold’s injury in a car wreck, did it in. I was out of town when they announced they were closing in July; even afterwards I had some faith in rumors that it might be back quickly. I withheld the eulogies.
If Harold’s is destined to be reborn, it won’t be soon. The new owner is amenable to the idea, but says the building needs major work first. If it were to reopen, it seems unlikely they’d be able to assemble the same staff, which was one of the reasons people went there.
We’ll miss the place hard, for what it was, for the bagels and lox and matzoh ball soup and pastrami on pumpernickel and Dr. Brown’s sodas, and for the fun people who worked there, Big Sam and Steve and Sandy and Harold himself. We’ll miss it as a rare gathering place for old and young, conservatives and liberals, Northerners and Southerners, Jews and Christians, not to ignore a few infidels, who somehow all found reasons to be chummy when they were inside that charmed place for a plate of eggs on a Saturday morning.
We’ll also miss it for the exception it represented in this fickle city that has never shown much patience for longtime traditions.
One of these days I’ll share my e-correspondence from the Confederate Flag column. A few weeks ago I pointed out the irony that there was a Confederate-flag controversy in Maryville in 2005. During the actual Civil War, Maryville was not only an overwhelmingly Unionist town, but also the former home of Sam Houston, one of the South’s most outspoken ridiculers of the Confederacy.
None of my respondents seemed much interested in confronting Sam Houston, or in discussing Maryville’s history. They launched a general barrage of Confederate artillery, unaimed mortar fire. I was, more or less, shelled.
I couldn’t make sense of all of it, but several arguments can be summed up as “the Confederacy had nothing to do with slavery and slavery wasn’t that bad anyway.” The Confederacy’s apologists have their own rules, their own eccentric ways of interpreting history that I have to admit I don’t understand. Some were more polite, or more thoughtful, than others, but hardly any of them addressed specifics of my column. Specificity and coherence aren’t as important as speed and volume. Getting there, as General Forrest said, “the fustest with the mostest.”
The fact that many of them—the overwhelming majority of the pro-Confederate response, in fact—came from out of state illustrates part of my original point. Preserving symbols of Confederate heritage may not be top priority for the leadership of Maryville High. But I’ve learned there are folks in Virginia and Georgia and even California who think it damn well should be.
There was only one complaint about an error of fact; I referred offhand to the “unconditional surrender” of the Confederacy.
The Confederacy did not surrender unconditionally. Some say it didn’t surrender at all. The Confederacy’s armies surrendered. Its government was completely dismantled; its leadership fled its capital; some of its leadership fled the continent. Its president and vice president were imprisoned, and many of its adherents lost their rights to vote and hold office. Many lost their rights to private property. Its people were subjected to martial law, many of them for a period much longer than the Confederacy existed.
Few defeats in modern history have been more complete, in terms of the obliteration of a government and the subjugation of the defeated people. But no, they didn’t surrender.
As one UT professor friend of mine explained, Lincoln didn’t ask for a surrender. Accepting a surrender would be acknowledging that the Confederacy had been a sovereign nation, not just a feverish mob, as Sam Houston had called it. Lincoln was a lawyer, and knew a slip like recklessly accepting a surrender could cause problems down the road.
Several weeks ago I wrote about the weird coincidence that our two remnants of one of Knoxville’s most prominent citizens ever, Governor and Senator Robert “Our Bob” Taylor, are both sets of concrete steps leading up to flat, empty plots of grass. One is the site of his old mansion, which has been a vacant lot for almost 20 years. The other, just a few blocks away, is his empty burial plot at Old Gray; his family exhumed the grave in the 1930s for reburial elsewhere.
A few weeks after that column appeared, I found a list of some 25 “Principal Places of Interest” in Knoxville, as civic boosters saw them in the year 1920. One was the Home of Our Bob. The other was the Grave of Our Bob. Now both these old tourist attractions are steps leading up to empty grassy patches.
I can’t guarantee that a great many would-be tourists are disappointed.Bob Taylor was Tennessee’s political equivalent of Elvis a century ago, but his crowd-pleasing appeal has diminished with the years.
After I wrote about the coffee aroma we’ll miss after JFG leaves, and the fact that there had been poetry written about that smell, my friend Wes Morgan reminded me that Cormac McCarthy refers to it in his most Knoxvillian novel, Suttree , when the title character, emerging from the riverfront into the city, notices “a burnt smell in the air compounded of coalsoot and roast coffee.”
After JFG moves to Sutherland Avenue, we won’t be able to find downtown by smell.
And I got an unexpected note from Nottingham, England, about the Brunswick/Vocalion St. James Hotel recordings of 1929-30, about which I wrote back in the spring. It seems some blues scholars in Britain know all about these records cut on Wall Avenue. Some have even researched the Arcade Building Fire that was the subject of one song by Leola Manning.
There’s special interest in one singer, blues guitarist Will Bennett, said to be from Loudon, who recorded two sides at the St. James in 1929, including an especially early version of the blues standard, “Railroad Bill.” (“Railroad Bill he was a mighty bad man / Kill anybody that he think he can.”) I’ve since learned that early Knoxville recording appears on a few compilations—including one called The Blues Roots of Bob Dylan.
If anyone knows anything about Mr. Bennett, I’d be interested to hear from you.