Rebel Angel, A Memoir. Chapter Three

Chapter Three: Neither-Handed

J. O. Curnutt, my maternal grandfather, bought me a typewriter and a stack of newsprint when I was 12 and told me to “get to writing.” A veteran of the First World War, he had met Tallulah Bankhead and claimed to have rocked baby Judy Garland in his lap.

He had also “known” the two women who accused the Scottsboro Boys of raping them on a train from Chattanooga to Huntsville. Wilburn Vest, my father, had attended the trial in Decatur and considered Judge Horton, who had overturned the guilty verdict (at the cost of his own political career) to be a hero.

Besides my mother, the two men had little else in common and openly disliked each other. J. O. considered baby food a waste of money and simply fed me portions of his own plate which he had prechewed. He dipped snuff, smoked Camels and expected me to play baseball wearing an old mitt made in about 1920, the padding long since worn away. He tried to get me to cut a quarter-sized hole in the pocket so I could “feel the ball’ when I caught it. I could already feel it. It still makes my hand sting to think about his fastballs.

Some people are righties, some are lefties, some are ambidextrous. I was neither-handed, equally clumsy with either paw. I learned to catch the ball only to protect my nose from the sharp line drives he would hit in my direction.

It was J.O. who sent me down to the city jail to see my first Yankee. He told me they had caught one and he was probably peering through the windows bars right now. “What do they look like?” I asked him.

“Make him say ‘mayonnaise,'” he instructed. “They can’t pronounce it.”

If Yankees were a novelty, Huntsville’s small town isolation was to be short-lived. Europeans were pouring into the area to work in the space program at Redstone Arsenal. The small town once known as Twickenham went from a population of perhaps 8,500 to over 100,000 in just a few short years.

My father, poorly equipped for the space age, went down to Birmingham to look for work as a body and fender man. He took my little brother Mike with him and rented a duplex apartment less than a mile from Tuxedo Junction. One night he was roused from a deep sleep by the Mike’s cries from his crib across the room. The house was on fire. Both of them escaped alive, thanks to Mike, but the disaster seemed emblematic of Wilburn Vest’s luck in life at that stage. He worked a series of hellish low-paying jobs, including a brief stint at a rubber plant, a literal inferno.

We didn’t know any of the Europeans. Somehow our small world remained intact while being swallowed by a much larger one. The universe for me still consisted of the town, with its buses and newsstands, and the country, with its bobcats and serpents and horrific scenes of women wringing the necks of chickens, the spurting headless fowls running in circles around me. I preferred the town.

In these years my grandmother, a great singer, would sometimes take me to church with her. I would sit beside her in the choir and black out all the whole notes in the hymnal with her pen while the Rev. J. Vernon Rich preached. One Sunday morning he took as his text the proposition that “America is a godless nation.” His proof was a Bible verse — and the fact that we were not bombing Moscow that very day.

I imagined Russian children sitting in school with their heads in their desks to protect them against thermonuclear war, as we had been taught to do at West Clinton Elementary.

Horrifying as Brother Rich’s views were, I remember mainly the wonderful cadence of his delivery. He was an absolute spellbinder, with none of the unctious snivelling and fake sobbing of a Pat Robertson or a Jimmy Swaggart. He never wept over sinners, he thundered over them. I was delighted to discover that he was still alive many years later when he showed up to preach my mother’s funeral in 1976. He told the assembled mourners that my mother and he had seen a ghost together when he last visited her in the hospital.

My mother had often claimed to have seen the ghost of my grandmother, who had died of heart disease in 1956 at the young age of 54, but not before buying me a piano, an ancient H. P. Nelson upright grand.

The piano arrived just as I discovered other kinds of music far different from anything I had heard in church or at home. On New Year’s Day in 1953 my next-door neighbor told me that Hank Williams was dead. I had never heard of him. Following my pal over to his house, I listened to “Why Don’t You Love Me Like You Used to Do” on his radio.

I thought it sounded like the way the feedstore smelled. (Years later I would reconsider this view and determine that it sounded more like the way beer tasted.)

Then came “Tutti-Frutti,” and everything changed forever. I still think hearing Little Richard for the first time was far more important than, say, the first fumblings at sex. What could possibly have compared with the wildness of that performance? “A-wop-bop-a-lu-bop-a-lop-bop-bop” came out of the literal silence and seemed to ignite the very air around the radio. And then that scream before the sax solo … suddenly all I ever wanted to do was to be able to scream like that.

I hadn’t yet heard Archie Brownlee, probably the first man ever to scream on a record, and the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi. But I would hear them soon, and the Five Blind Boys of Alabama as well, as I twirled the radio dial in search of more screaming and discovered the local Black station. It was the sound of freedom, freedom from all the Baptist repression and segregation and the feedstore smell and everything uncool.

I understood that some of it came from churches, but not churches like mine. Nobody but J. Vernon Rich screamed in my church. I didn’t know about night clubs and juke joints and the gay black chitlin’ circuit.

“I know you got to move,” sang the Blind Boys, and I surely did. By the eighth grade I was being asked to leave school dances because my style of dancing involved too much “shaking.”

Meanwhile, my mother was taking me to “all-night singings” in Birmingham, where I could hear the Blackwood Brothers, the Stamps-Baxter Quartet and, above all, the Statesmen, who had the “blackest” sound of all the white gospel groups. So closely did the Statesmen copy some of the arrangements of the great black groups of the day that white audiences sometimes muttered openly against them. There were no screams, but their version of “Get Away Jordan” was, I thought, one of the greatest gospel renditions I ever heard — until I finally stumbled across the legendary recording of the same song by Dorothy Love Coates and the Original Gospel Harmonettes and understood where it all came from. Then I heard “Stand By Me,” another Statesmen favorite, performed by the Five Blind Boys of Alabama, and it was all over.

I still think the Statesmen were a fine group and that their early recordings ought to be released on CD, especially the ones on their own label that were sold at concerts, infinitely superior to the watered-down Nashvillized versions later released on RCA Victor. The Blackwood Brothers made some great records, too, until a 1953 plane crash killed half the quartet.

With rock and roll coming in one ear and gospel the other, I didn’t know where to put the bluegrass music my father would sing along with in the car on night trips. He could make that high lonesome keening sound Bill Monroe was famous for, and it, too, captivated or repelled mainly by its sheer wildness. My mother couldn’t stand it.

Interesting that bluegrass accelerated the beat of country music at roughly the same time bebop was propelling jazz into faster and faster playing. (But if it’s really acceleration you really want, listen to Little Richard’s “She’s Got It.”)

The music industry responded to it all by desperately churning out Pat Boones and Fabians and Bobby Vintons. Some of it was pretty seductive to a wayward youth. Boone’s attempts at Little Richard songs were too ludicrous for words, but his “Anastasia” and “April Love” were masterpieces of weirdness.

Before I knew it I was playing both rock and gospel. My first band was called The Secrets. We dressed in black and wore masks onstage. At our first show, in a Hartselle movie theater, a white audience squealed downstairs while a black audience screamed and boogied in the balcony. Neither audience had ever heard live rock and roll music.

Nor had the theater owners and managers. In Albertville we opened for “The Girl Can’t Help It” and weren’t even allowed to see the movie because we “nearly caused a goddam riot.”

At a high school dance near Paint Rock we came out of the gym to find the world covered in snow, turned the wrong way out of the parking lot, and wound up somewhere in Tennessee, out of gas and freezing.

Our lead singer, a couple of years older than the rest of us, was charged some years later with the homicide of a young woman he was said to have killed in a blackout. He told people he had no idea whether he had done it.

In one of the gospel groups I toured with, the Glorylanders, was a man who had done prison time for church robbing. He was one of the few gospel performers I knew who ever talked about anything but sex.

On these tours I met some real characters. There was the original Chuck Wagon Gang, featuring Sister Rose, out of Texas. There was Wally Fowler, the Don King of Southern gospel music. And then there was a man named Albert S. Williams.

Williams had been the piano player for the Stamps-Baxter group and had written a couple of important quartet songs. He had also done time in Alabama’s Kilby Prison for selling (with no plan for ever delivering) aluminum awnings. They let him go early after he organized a prison choir and wrote a little book called “I Found God in Prison.” “You do what you have to do,” Williams explained. At his shows he would play the piano and “testify” about his prison experience, inviting the audience to compare him with Peter and Paul. Later he would scan the audience for young men to his liking. The S. stood for “Silly,” he told me.

David Vest writes the Rebel Angel column for CounterPunch. He is a poet and piano-player for the Pacific Northwest’s hottest blues band, The Cannonballs.

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Previous Installments of Rebel Angel: a Memoir by David Vest.

Chapter One: I’ll Never Get Out of this Band Alive

Chapter Two: A Blind Mule and a Box of Medals

DAVID VEST writes the Rebel Angel column for CounterPunch. He and his band, The Willing Victims, have just released a scorching new CD, Serve Me Right to Shuffle. His essay on Tammy Wynette is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on art, music and sex, Serpents in the Garden.