Part 15: Women, Sid Grauman, and Hillbillies.
To refresh, in the last blog we skipped ahead to when 21 year-old Alma Anderson shot herself in the heart in a bar in Wilmington. She'd been my father's wife for six years at the time of her death, but there's evidence that he'd married the next woman without actually divorcing Alma. In his journal, he has a separate sheet where he lists the women he was with while married to Alma Anderson. I snapped a picture of it.
I knew my father as a very impulsive person, and his journal shows that he was always running from one place to another, starting new relationships with women, sometimes having multiple relationships at the same time. My whole life, Dad smoked cigars constantly, and ate too much. He was obsessed with food, and consumed large amounts of sugary foods, often baking pies, cakes, and cinnamon rolls to have around the house. He would stay up for hours working on his Encyclopedia of Folk Music, and other manuscripts, exhausting himself. We moved over 15 times before I turned 18 years-old, and he moved so many times before I came along it's hard to count. Compulsive behavior like this sometimes goes hand in hand with people who have survived childhood trauma and abuse, and knowing what Riley endured explains his behavior. When I went to pick up my father's long lost boxes, Larry Bastian, the man who stored them for a few months, looked me in the eye and said to me, "You have to understand your father better."
Last year, when I retrieved the boxes from Larry's storage unit, I thought I knew my father extremely well, even things a kid shouldn't know about a parent. I knew his childhood was filled with trauma. I believed I knew him better than anyone. Larry was right, though. There was a lot more.
If you clicked on the link a few blogs back about the box car girls and boys, a website that tells the tale of some of the 250,000 teenagers that rode the rails as a way of finding work or simply as free transport, you'll see the hardships they endured, including beatings by the "yard bulls", cops that worked for the railroad. Some of the "bulls" had nicknames, because they were basically sadists and murderers that got a pay check from the railroad. People riding the rails passed along life saving tips---'watch out for "Yermo Red", or "So and So Slim"'. Sometimes these murdering cops would throw a hobo off while the train was moving. Victims lost legs because they fell under the wheels. I'm sure my father witnessed beatings and mistreatment riding the rails, and may have had a beating or two himself.
Yesterday, I had a long talk with my half-sibling, Leslie. Her mother, Joanne, would've been Riley's fourth wife. (We're not sure if the marriage was legal.) My half-sister and I talked about the trauma Riley endured as a kid. Leslie confirmed something that she was told by her mother: that Riley said that he was gang raped at the Industrial School for Boys at Rocky Mount.
We're in the midst of the #MeToo movement, but men still have trouble speaking about the traumas they've endured. I want to take this time to speak directly to my readers. If you've been assaulted, either as a child, or an adult, here are some resources: One is a book called "Trauma and Recovery" by Judith Herman, another book called "The Body Keeps the Score" by Bessel Van Der Kolk. Here's organization that helps men who have been sexually assaulted, The Bristlecone Project. You can also look up the work of Dr. David Lisak, Ph.D, who studies the impact of child abuse on adult men.
I've typed out Riley's journal pages relating to this time, in bold and italics below. In this part Riley looks back on his early years in the 1930s. Remember, he wrote this journal later in life, not at the time. He's writing about the 1930s. Alma is still alive, but who knows where she is? North Carolina, for sure. Maybe living with her dad?
Riley writes about his first experience not getting credit for his work. Sounds like Bluebird was taking credit for things that they shouldn't have. I hate that. The music industry was known for taking advantage of artists, and I wish that the Ken Burns Country Western Documentary would've focused on that a little more. The music industry deserves to be shamed. One thing that gets me fired up is people who take credit for the work of others. I think the Hidden Brain show should have credited me for all my research! It kind of stung me that they presented the story as if they did all the foot work. I guess I wasn't smart enough at the time to insist on credit...
Anyway, here's Riley, writing about his early years in the late 1930s:
Group traveled to Charlotte to record for RCA's Bluebird label. Recorded 8 sides. I wasn't smart enough at the time to insist on credit, but that was then. All Recording companies took advantage of "hillbilly" artists in those days. Just ask Pete Cassel, Bradley Kincaid, and Fisher Henley (and his Aristocratic Pigs).
So did radio stations. Performers made whatever money they could from personal appearances, especially in places like Columbia, Greensboro, S.C. In larger centers, stations controlled earnings through "Artist Bureaus." (More about this type of control and exploitation later.)
Of course in those early years Nashville was not the force it is today. The National Barn Dance (WLS) in Chicago was far more important. There was also Renfro Valley, Wheeling, W. Va, Shreveport and New Orleans, La., Cincinnati, Oh., St. Louis, Mo., etc.
In 1937 I went to California. I felt the need to explore new possibilities. Sid Grauman saw me perform at a theater and agreed to be my agent. He got me bookings up and down the coast and obtained work as an extra in several low budget movies. My act on stage consisted now of imitations of Joe E. Brown, Ned Sparks, Amos n' Andy, Lum & Abner, plus others as time went on. I met a lot of well-known actors, directions and producers, but nothing important happened.
In 1939, at age 21, I gave up Hollywood. The war in Europe was heating up and so I decided to hit the road. I performed my way to San Diego and across the Southwest to New Orleans. There I decided to see a little of the world. That, of course, requiring more money than I had. I signed on the SS Del Valle, a freight-passenger ship, as a cook. The job took me to Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina. It was a great experience despite the threat of German U-boats.
On that trip I thought about my future. I had often written songs and poems, but was never satisfied with the finished product. I analyzed songs written by others, and began to understand what made a good commercial lyric. I decided to make-up a new name and go to Chicago and get back into the business. After a brief visit to Wilmington, N.C. to visit family, I went to Chicago-- home to The National Barn Dance and the Suppertime Frolic. It was there I met Red Foley, The Hoosier Hotshots, Karl & Harty, the Prairie Ramblers, Lulu Belle & Scotty, Patsy Montana, Doc Hopkins, Bob Atcher and Bonnie Blue Eyes, Hugh Cross, etc.
Trade Journals referred to all these people as "Hillbillies." I didn't like it.
There's something so profound about reading my father's notes about his life, especially the handwritten one in the photograph below. Here, Riley expresses deep regrets about what happened to Alma. I see from what he wrote that he seems confused, even as a full grown man. He's unable to imagine how devastating it would be to be a woman in the 1930s, in a small town in North Carolina, abandoned by her husband for several years.
I should have let her come to me in California. Maybe we both would have done better? I wish I could apologize to her and ask her why--- why she found life that unbearable.
Thanks again to my half-siblings Leslie, Richard and Marion for being so open and sharing information, including photographs, letters, and memories. Thank you to my mother for helping me fact check the past, and to my sister, Lisa, for remembering and sharing details. Thank you, David, my wonderful husband for being a proof reader. Thank you Monte Jewell for your advice on books for survivors of trauma and sexual assault.