***For a guy who died 55 years ago, local hero James Agee still gets his name in the press a lot. He was best known in his own short life as a movie critic, and he makes a cameo in A.O. Scott’s provocative essay in the April 4 New York Times, about the future of published movie reviews in the new world of the Internet. “Maybe criticism mattered once, but the conventional wisdom insists that it doesn’t any more,” Scott writes. “There used to be James Agee, and now there is Rotten Tomatoes.”
***My column about Mr. Harry Royston, the street vendor who introduced tamales to Knoxville in 1887, about 80 years before Knoxville’s first Mexican restaurant, caught the attention of Robbie Jones, a well-reputed historian in Nashville, who did a little genealogical investigation. His research clears up a question that started nagging me as I turned in the column, and which has also been noted by another reader. The Knoxville obit said Royston was from Greeneville, with four E’s. Was it a coincidence that Greenville, Miss., with three E’s, is famous for tamales? I wondered if the obituary, hastily written as most are, might have confused the two towns.
Jones found evidence that Royston was born a slave in Greene County, Tenn., in May, 1860 (which means Royston was not 55, when he died in Knoxville, but almost 57). “In 1870, Harry’s family is in Nashville’s Edgefield neighborhood,” Jones writes. “His father was named Ratt or Roth, his mother Jane. By 1887, Harry’s in Knoxville working as a peddler, as a street vendor by 1891. He married Mamie Chapman in Greeneville on June 9, 1891.”
Jones proposes that Knoxville should host a Tamale Festival, a prospect I heartily endorse. But after our bacon, barbecue, and biscuit celebrations, we’re going to have to eat salad the whole year just to survive all our festivals.
***As you walk around Gay Street this Saturday, you will overhear a random fop, his nasal membranes barely restraining his amusement, say, “I can’t believe they have an opera festival in KNOX-ville.” If you take a swig of Chianti every time you hear a remark of that nature, you should think about taking the bus home.
True, for most of the 20th century, an opera festival weekend on Gay Street would have seemed pretty hard to contemplate. But as wonderful as the Rossini Festival is, Knoxville Opera didn’t introduce the idea. By the early 1880s, Knoxville was hosting extravagant “Music Festivals,” held every spring. Touting itself as “the little Paris of the United States,” Knoxville emphasized European opera above all else, concentrated around Staub’s Opera House, which was on the southeast corner of Gay Street and Cumberland. Significant stars of opera and classical music from New York, Philadelphia, and Boston would take the train to Knoxville for a pleasant weekend of music, some of it outdoors at Chilhowee Park. Even if Knoxvillians didn’t always have the patience for a whole opera—these festivals were mostly composed of portions of operas, individual arias and acts—they loved the singing, and turned out in the thousands.
Knoxville’s music festivals may have left a surprising and thoroughly unintended legacy.
Some older Knoxvillians were skeptical of the Music Festival. Back then, opera was believed to inflame the passions of hot-blooded youth, and they weren’t crazy about their youngsters putting on European airs. In May, 1883, some older folks staged a sort of anti-opera counter festival, featuring some down-home fiddle music on an afternoon at Staub’s when there were no sopranos scheduled. It’s the earliest example of country music being played on a public stage I’ve been able to find.
***A little more than a year ago, I wrote about an old concrete-arch bridge, on Weisgarber between Papermill and Kingston Pike. Built in 1915, it was one of the first projects by the Luten Bridge Company, a Knoxville-based company that was significant in the development of the concrete-arch bridge. I’m not sure my elegy got to anybody important; the bridge is gone now, replaced by a broad, safe, modern, and unhistoric one.
***There’s a new biography of outlaw Harry Longabaugh, The Sundance Kid, by Donna B. Ernst. Naturally, not to say obsessively, I scanned it for references to Knoxville’s favorite Wild West outlaw—Longabaugh’s more-violent colleague, Harvey Logan, aka Kid Curry—who was once an involuntary Knoxville resident. In jail on Hill Avenue for a year and a half after shooting a couple of cops in a Central Street saloon.
I was not surprised to find it doubly befuddling. In the book’s appendix is a recently discovered 1912 article from a Buenos Aires newspaper. It purports to be a belatedly published interview with Sundance, who claimed that Logan was involved in a bank robbery in Nevada in 1902. By all accounts, Logan spent that entire year in jail in Knoxville, before escaping in June, 1903.
The article itself may be suspect. But there’s a more intriguing, to me, reference from two other Buenos Aires newspapers, crediting Logan for taking part in a bank robbery there in December, 1905. The author assumes it’s an error, because Logan was presumed to be killed, by suicide, in the course of a shoot-out in Colorado in June, 1904. But there were questions about the identity of the man who was killed at Parachute even at the time, and this reference to Buenos Aires newspapers articles in 1905 is not the first published mention I’ve seen suggesting Logan survived to live in South America with his old compadres after his supposed death.
They were outlaws. It wasn’t their job to live lives that make linear sense to students of history.
Longabaugh prefaced the memory with the apt and almost poetic observation, one that suggests why outlaws are such a challenge for historians: “Days and dates cut no figure with us, summer and winter are the only periods of time that we take notice of.”