Part Seven: Riley's Cowboy Act (& Fact-Checking)
As a kid, I called my father "Riley." I was allowed to call my parents by their first names, or Mom and Dad. Sometimes in this blog, rather than call him "Dad" each time, I'll refer to him as Riley. Remember, he took his middle name and made it his first name sometime in the 1930s. His first stage name was "Lanky Bill" when he performed in black face with other teenagers. After that, he took on dozens of pen names and stage names, and...I'm not sure what his other names were used for. I just found a new one the other day with help from Claire Boynton, who has helped me organize my father's writings and all the other information I've been compiling the past 20 years or so, blending things in with Dad's missing boxes.
The name Claire found was "Rebel Okum." News to me! We Googled it, nothing comes up. Here's Claire, researching and finding good stuff. She's awesome.
I'm putting together pages on Riley's childhood based on things he told me, letters he wrote me, the detailed journal I found, and other biographical information he passed along.
I've typed them into this blog, trying not to change the way he wrote the notes, (in italics and bold below) as an example of what he kept track of, what he felt was important. It's a long list, but you can see how he kept track of so much. For someone who didn't finish 5th grade, it's amazing the history and events he catalogued, the curiosity he had, and the vast amounts of information he consumed. I love how he goes through each year of his life, whether he has personal memories to record or just random historical notes. Below, Riley looks back to ages 4 to 8, when things seemed to be less dramatic in his young life:
Oct. 21, 1922: No memory 4 yrs old
Floyd Shepard was born on Jan 13.
Calvin Coolidge was elected President of the USA.
Oct 21, 1923: 5 yrs old. Vague, uncertain memories.
I knew how to read before attending school. Had memorized parts of the bible to impress grownups.
Marbles, playing cowboy, drawing Easter Egg hunt, sack races, horse & wagon and chickens in back yard.
Bessie Smith, King Oliver, & Ma Rainey made their first recordings.
Oct 21, 1924: 6 yrs old. Vague memories
Started school at Cornelius Hornet Grade School.
Mother walked me to school that first day.
FATS WALLER made his first recordings.
Records were made acoustically: artist performed directly into a large conical horn with the sound activating a stylus which cut its impressions into a thick wax disc.
Oct. 21, 1925 7 yrs old. Some memories. 2nd grade
Louis Armstrong with Hot Five made first recordings. Duke Ellington had an orchestra, Washingtonians.
On Sept 3, the SHENANDOAH, first American rigid airship, built at Akron, Ohio, was totally wrecked in an equinoctial storm over Ava, Ohio; its commander and 13 others were killed.
Oct 21, 1926 8 yrs old Some memories
3rd grade; pretty blonde teacher
Red Nichols' Five Pennies made first recordings.
On May 9, Commander Richard E. Byrd and Floyd Bennett, U.S. Navy, took off from King's Bay, near Spitzbergen, and reached the North Pole; they circled it and returned.
In June: 170, 000 Catholics from all over the world flocked to Chicago for a week of solemn observance during the EUCHARISTIC CONGRESS held in the city.
Gertrude "Trudy" Ederle became the first woman to swim the English Channel.
Sept 17-18: A West Indian hurricane struck Miami, Fl. and the adjacent coast; it wrecked the ornate Venetian residences, hurled ships and yachts into the streets, left a trail of 370 killed, and caused property damage of ONE HUNDRED MILLION dollars. The Florida boom, one of the economic signs of the times, collapsed.
As discussed in an early blog, Zedoc, Riley's father, was a Primitive Baptist, a world view that didn't quite fit in with my father's early ambitions. In the journal he sent to me in 1987, he recalls the struggles in his youth, and not fitting in at home.
Another thing Dad told me that I never forgot, is that when he was a kid, people thought he was much older than he really was. By the time he was 13 years old, he looked 19 or 20. I wonder now if that perception, that he was older, added to the severe punishment that came his way, which I'll discuss in the next few blogs. I knew from hearing my father's stories about his past that his uncles on his mother's side were cruel to him. Now, through his journal entries, I've learned that his uncles distilled whiskey. It seems that they weren't just mean, they were mean drunks. The worst.
Riley told me a story a few times throughout my childhood. He said that when he was 11 years old, that a circus show came to town, and cowboys were featured. Riley was captivated, and he ran away from home and joined up with the troupe. He wanted to be a cowboy, too. After a night, he was found out, and his dad came to take him home. Here's a snap shot of the story he had the PR folks include in his songbook from Peer International Corporation in 1946:
Here's more of Riley's journal and the trouble to come:
I hated school. It was boring. I attended first Cornelius Hornet Grammar school, then Hemmingway...I was also in trouble. Wanted more attention than I got, I suppose. For a long time, a woman named Lenoir lived with us. First name forgotten, but she had a son who was a policeman in Los Angeles.
Mr. Croaker, a grocer on the corner and, later, on opposite corner.....
Puppy--I tried to sell. Head-crack on curb while playing. Evelyn and Marie Sessoms, who lived two blocks away on 4th. Fighting William in backyard. Bicycle...delivering groceries. Learning to skate. First day of school...Cornelus Hornet...Boy killed by ice-truck...Greenfield Park...Circus parade...Jack Hoxie...Medicine show on vacant lot...
The discovery that my father had a "head-crack" on curb while playing made me think about how things went down hill for him after that. I wonder if the head-crack came before he ran away from home and joined up with that circus. Below is a snippet of the journal he sent to me, detailing his desire to perform:
I cried when I first heard the "Hidden Brain" podcast last year, it was so wonderful to hear the way it all came together. Best of all, the "Hidden Brain" crew were kind to my Dad in the story they came up with, and I felt profoundly grateful for that. I'm not picking on the podcast, rather confronting how hard it is to fact-check a story on a deadline and a tight budget. Frankly, accuracy means more to me, for them it was one of many shows they produce, for me it's my history, my father's history.
Telling a compelling story is important, and they did that, but now I need to correct something. Here's from the transcript, where Shankar Vedantam discusses Kevin Coffey, a writer I introduced them to:
"VEDANTAM: Music historian Kevin Coffey tracked Riley down about a decade ago. Riley, at the time, was 89. He would die a year later. Kevin was interested in preserving the stories of old-time country Western performers. He thought Riley might be worth profiling."
Kevin Coffey is a writer who reached out to me after a hillbilly website put us in touch back in 2008. Kevin isn't a "music historian" but rather a writer and researcher who focuses on the time in history when hillbilly music was making the transition to early country western. Kevin contacted me to see if I could get my father to agree to an interview. When I first asked my father to talk to Kevin, he was cranky.
"Coffee isn't a real last name," he growled.
"What do you mean? Don't be so paranoid." We were on the phone, so I could make an exasperated face without him seeing it.
"Coffee isn't a name. It's not a real name," Dad bellowed.
"Dad, it's a real name."
"Bullshit. I know a made-up name when I hear one."
"Ok. Maybe you do, but I have a client with that last name. It's a real name. It's not like coffee, like cup of coffee. It's spelled C-O-F-F-E-Y." I spelled it out and then added, "just so you know."
"I don't know shit about this guy, that doesn't mean anything. This guy-- who is he? I don't know anyone named Coffee."
I drew in a deep breath. "Dad. It's a real name. I'm telling you, he's real. He's a writer. Just talk to him, he's not after anything but career information."
In the phone call, I managed to get Dad on board, and to be less suspicious of Kevin. The two men ended up having a long talk which Kevin recorded and kept all these years. Kevin was kind enough to send the taped interview to the "Hidden Brain" producers, and they used parts of the taped interview with Riley on the show. I'm grateful that this interview between my father and Kevin happened back in 2008, because there is no other interview with my father on tape, or at least that I've come across.
The next blog will deal with Riley's next journal entry. He writes he was sent to a psychiatrist in Kinston, which would have been a dramatic step back in 1929. What were psychiatrists like back then? What would happen to a kid sent to one? I will also discuss what Riley did that got him in such hot water.