A few years ago, I wrote a feature about Ida Cox, the legendary blues singer and songwriter who wrote the classic “Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues.” A rare film of her performing it near the end of her career, ca. 1945, has just recently surfaced on YouTube. That’s the good news; have a look.
She spent the last 20-odd years of her life living quietly, almost secretly, in a house on the corner of Louise Avenue and Parham Street in East Knoxville, content to let the New York jazz world believe the rumors that she was dead, as impresario John Hammond stubbornly sent out search parties trying to find her. She lived there in 1961 when, finally found out, she went to New York to make her last record, and only LP, Blues for Rampart Street, a genuine classic, with the Coleman Hawkins Quintet.
She’s the best-known jazz or blues vocalist who ever lived in Knoxville, and still enjoys an international following. Since I wrote the story, it leaked out on the Web, and about once every few months I’ve gotten queries from visitors, sometimes Europeans on personal blues pilgrimages of America, for directions about how to find her grave at New Gray, or her modest house in East Knoxville.
I recently heard from neighbor and blues champion Michael Gill that sometime, apparently earlier this year, Ida Cox’s house was torn down. I went by to check, and yes, it’s just a spot of rubble near Five Points with a bit of walkway left. A sign in front says “American Dreams/Zero Down.” I don’t know what the problem was; most of the houses in her neighborhood are still there, and occupied.
I don’t know who owned it, or whether they knew of the house’s significance, and I guess now it doesn’t matter. The Patton Street Church of God, at which Ida Cox sang in the choir, was torn down many years ago during Urban Renewal, as was the Gem Theatre, where she performed as a young woman. She died at Baptist Hospital in 1967, and it’s likely to be torn down before long, too. All that will be left of her time in Knoxville will be the one small, flat stone at New Gray that’s inscribed “Mother.”
A more positive epilogue to other spirits of her era is in evidence at Maryville College Thursday evening. If you get half a chance, have a look at the Carolina Chocolate Drops, who are playing at MC’s Humphreys Court Thursday at 7 p.m. At press time, they’re also expected to do a noontime show before that at WDVX’s wonderful Blue Plate Special, which seems too cool to have lasted as long as it has. (This is Knoxville; isn’t some brickhead in a suit supposed to have found a way to shut it down by now?)
The Drops are a rare young African-American banjo-and-fiddle string band, and demonstrate real historical respect for the criminally overlooked Piedmont blues styles, but also bring a good deal of new life to it, partly through the spark of a frontman more beautiful than any original Piedmont Blues band ever boasted: talented banjoist Rhiannon Giddens.
They regard the Carolinas as home, but their name and some of their ’tude is inspired by the Tennessee Chocolate Drops, an early group that included mainly Howard Armstrong, Carl Martin, and Ted Bogan. Based in Knoxville in the late 1920s and very early ’30s, the jazzy string band performed live on local street corners, on radio station WROL, and cut a couple of sides for Brunwick-Vocalion at the St. James Hotel near Market Square. The hotel was torn down about 35 years ago, but you can hear the original Tennessee Chocolate Drops, and read more about the wild mix of performers who recorded at the St. James, on a well-organized website, lynnpoint.com/st_james. (Come to think of it, the site of those legendary recordings is on the same block as, but just around the corner from, WDVX’s studios). The spirits of those original Drops were well summoned by the Carpetbag Theatre’s recent musical production, Between a Ballad and a Blues.
The Carolina version is making waves, after some national press (Rolling Stone called them “dazzling”) and a gig on A Prairie Home Companion last year; they’re fresh back from a reportedly successful tour of Europe.
A few weeks ago I raised the question of why one of our best theaters, the Clarence Brown, endowed and named for a major Hollywood director from Knoxville, no longer shows films. I got a note from an erstwhile projectionist who assures me that Clarence Brown Theatre has never ceased showing films, at least not by any official decision on the part of the drama department. They have no problem with showing films, still have equipment to show films, and they still by policy make sure each live-drama set will accommodate the theoretical lowering of the movie screen, if the need arises. They say it’s up to the student-run Film Committee to make the request, and they just haven’t done so lately.
There’s still a film committee. They don’t show nearly as many films as they used to, when they did something like four a week—a couple of oldies, typically, a recent release, and a foreign film. And when they do show films, they show them all at either the University Center or the Alumni Memorial building, which included a big screen and projector in its renovation a few years ago.
I’ve heard from a lot of folks out there who’d like to see an annual Clarence Brown Film Festival, but the idea to honor UT’s biggest single donor, and arguably most successful alumnus, in that way needs some initiative from UT and, of course, some kind of funding. Brown’s multi-million dollar gift is earmarked specifically for UT’s live-drama programs, leaving no room for film preservation projects, conferences or festivals, or anything that celebrates his own career.