I’d heard about the chance of thunderstorms that night, but I wasn’t thinking about the forecast when I stepped out onto the sidewalk into a wet wind. When the thunder broke and it started raining, hard, it was too late to turn back to the office. I’m not sure a structural engineer would vouch for the logic of what I did next, but I began to run toward the oldest building on Gay Street. The old brick hotel that houses the Bistro has been there, after all, for almost 200 years. It survived the Civil War, the flood of 1867, the Cyclone of 1880 that blew down the nearby Gay Street Bridge, the fiery Saturnalia of 1893, the earthquake of 1913, the riot of 1919, a couple of cholera epidemics, a pulmonary plague or two, some fatal shootings, and uncountable political tempests. Nothing is permanent, but the old Lamar House seems it.
But I’d hardly gotten another block before it rained only harder, and the crazy wind was shifting, and turning my umbrella inside out. It turned over barrels and blew cardboard down the street. The air seemed electric, and it was easy to picture those heavy newspaper boxes hurtling down the street like bowling balls. There’s a certain degree of fear that’s fun, and I was just beyond it. I ducked into the bank cloister near the swamped rowboat man statue, and watched stuff fly by. One of the things I saw fly by was Cynthia Markert, the accomplished artist, known for her wistful flappers on plywood. I outweigh her by 75 pounds, but she was more determined than I was, charging down the sidewalk against the wind, fixed on the lights of the Bistro, more than a block ahead. She shamed me into joining her. It was like nothing so much as wading into ocean waves, but I caught up and—not quite completely soaked—we made it in the door.
Walking into the door was like changing channels. Inside that warm room of dark, ancient brick was a friendly, casual scene from one of those dreams where you suddenly see people you knew a long time ago: a dozen people I knew well, and a dozen more strangers, drinking wine and talking and watching a small string-jazz band I knew well, Kukuly and the Gypsy Fuego. Kukuly Uriarte, the Peruvian-by-way-of-Buenos-Aires bandleader, plays Django-style jazz guitar, mostly on old standards from the ’30s and ’40s, plus a few Latin American numbers, mambos, tangos, bossa novas. Her band is variable, but this night it was a quartet, with a couple of unfamiliar players, including a young trumpeter.
At the bar I ordered a Marble City, as I tried to dry off a little and reconsider the bus schedule. I was talking to Bill McGowan, just back from a few months working in a used-book store in Guatemala, when a guest vocalist, Sonja Spell, whom I’ve gotten to hear too rarely, got up from her table joined the band for a song.
“In 19 and 30, in the beginning of the year, so many people was made sad…” I’d heard only two bars before I had to excuse myself from the conversation. In my whole life I’d heard only one performance of that song, on one obscure 78 recording, made more than 80 years ago. Its plaintive lyrics detail a couple of horrific murders, like that of a woman “found with her throat cut / from ear to ear.” That night, Sonja sang it with a deep, solemn voice.
“Who’s doin’ this murderin’ no one knows, but the good book says you’ve got to reap just what you sow.
“Cause Satan is so busy in Knoxville, Tennessee.”
The song’s original singer was the woman who wrote it: Leola Manning was a young East Knoxville cafeteria worker. She worked at the old Mountain View School on Dandridge Avenue, a murder scene mentioned in the song. Accompanied by a jazz pianist and a guitarist, she recorded “Satan is Busy in Knoxville,” and five others, at the St. James Hotel on Wall Avenue, during Vocalion’s recording-studio experiment there in 1929-30. Among the others she recorded was “Laying in the Graveyard” (“Good mornin’ dead man”) and another bluesy dirge based on bad news in the paper: “The Arcade Building Moan” was about the 1930 fatal apartment-building fire on Union Avenue.
Known for most of her adulthood as Leola Ballenger—her husband Eugene Ballenger may have been the guitarist on “Satan”—she lived another six decades, mostly in Knoxville, devoting most of her energy to church work. The St. James project, which straddled the stock-market crash, had been a financial failure, and her recordings were nearly forgotten until some, including “Satan is Busy in Knoxville,” materialized on an Austrian compilation in 1993. The singer died in Knoxville about a year later, and probably never heard about it. Later, her six sides appeared online through lynnpoint.com’s efforts to make the St. James sessions available. Now some of her songs are on YouTube. Leola’s more famous now than she was for most of the 20th century.
“Satan is Busy in Knoxville” has gotten around among musicians, too. I’ve been told the manic local hillbilly vaudeville troupe known as Boozehound Gandy Dance has also worked up its own trademark version of it.
But Kukuly had learned about the song through her sometime associate, multi-instrumentalist Brandon Beavers, the musical polymath who gave her a CD of the St. James sessions recordings. Kukuly was born sometime after 1980, but favors music from the 1930s. She calls it “pure.”
“It is possible to be nostalgic for something you haven’t lived,” she says. “When I heard this song about Knoxville in the 1930s, I had to do it.” Her friend Sonja learned it, too, and they happened to try it out together for the first time just as I tumbled into the old Bistro chased by a crazy March storm.