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Author Topic: Jaybird Coleman life - as told by brother Joe  (Read 4993 times)

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Offline Bunker Hill

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Jaybird Coleman life - as told by brother Joe
« on: May 10, 2006, 12:54:04 PM »
In 1962 Pat Cather interviewed Coleman's brother, Joe, and wrote about it in the September 1962 issue of Birmingham, Alabama's Music Memories. In 1968 this was reprinted in Blues Unlimited booklet, Backwoods Blues, 1968. I've scanned and reproduced this below. (More recently, 1999, Cather self published an 8 page pamphlet entitled, Tracking Down a Legend: The “Jaybird” Coleman Story)

Birmingham Blues
By Pat Cather

The Story Of Jaybird Coleman

Jaybird Coleman, whose real name is Burl C. Coleman, was born in Gainesville, a dusty South Alabama town, in the year 1896. His parents were poor Negro sharecroppers, and he and his three brothers led a hard early life. From his parents and other Negro farmers and laborers, he learned many a folk song and field cry. These and his hard early life moulded his blues style.

When Burl was about twelve, someone gave him a harmonica. He learned how to play and to play well. His parents encouraged his musical interests, as they wanted him to become rich and famous so that he wouldn't have to work his fingers to the bones making the measly wages of a sharecropper.

The boy joined the army at the beginning of W.W.I, and was stationed at Fort McClellan in Anniston throughout the entire war. It was here that he developed his blues singing into a unique personal style. With his voice and harmonica, he often entertained the other soldiers, and was very popular with them.

At Fort McClellan, he earned the reputation of being very independent. In fact, he was so unmindful of the strict army regulations that his superior officers gave him the nickname of "Jaybird," The name stuck.

After being discharged from the Army, he returned to Gainesville for a brief period of time, and then, with his younger brother Joe, moved to Bessemer, Alabama, where he made his home.

His reputation as a good singer and harmonica player became well known in Bessemer and Birmingham, and he was popular with both white and colored, and became well known with both races.

Jaybird made his living with his music, and entered no other profession, to speak of, throughout his entire life. Although he was best known as a blues singer, both he and his wife, Irene, were accomplished spiritual singers, and Jaybird attended Church regularly.

By 1925, Jaybird was the most popular singer in Alabama. Only Bessie Smith gave him any competition when she did a show here. Wherever Jaybird sang he attracted a large crowd. Around Bessemer, he was known as the Pied Piper of the Blues, because when he started playing his harmonica, you could hear it three blocks away. People would stop what they were doing to follow him. Soon, if he kept walking and playing, there would be hundreds of people following him.

Money meant very little to Jaybird, therefore he never held onto it long. Whether he spent it or gave it away made little difference to him; just so he got rid of it. Coleman used to say, "I want to get rid of my money as soon as I get it, because if I died with money in my pocket, my wife might spend it on another man"' Even if he wasn't money mad, he was never broke two days in a row. If one day he found that he had no money, he would borrow $5.00 from Joe. That night he'd go into a bar or theatre and start singing. He would take his big derby hat off his head and put it on the bar or a table. After entertaining for an hour, he'd come out with that hat full of tips. He'd then go to Joe's house and tell him to take all he wanted. Jaybird knew he could get more anytime he wanted to.

By the people who knew him best, Jaybird has been described as a friendly but independent sort of man, who could get along with anybody. He didn't have an enemy in the world. Joe told me that Jaybird didn't know how to get mad at anybody. He didn't drink too much, but liked to smoke big cigars. -

In 1926, Jaybird began his recording career by making five sides for the Starr Piano Company (Gennett), 1820 Third Ave. North, in Birmingham. These sides included "Trunk Busted - Suitcase Full of Holes (Reckon A Match Box Will Hold My Clothes?)", "Man Trouble Blues", "I'm Sick An' Tired O' Tellin' You to Wiggle That Thing," "No More Good Water,' and "Mill Log Blues." Although these records were popular and sold in large numbers, Jaybird never got paid for making them. However, they did serve a twofold purpose of spreading his reputation throughout the country and of preserving his great blues style. Shortly after these records were released, the local K.K.K. began acting as his manager and he made a tour of the larger Southern cities.

When he returned to Bessemer, he and a few fellow musicians formed the famous Birmingham Jug Band. Jaybird played harmonica and would sometimes double on jug. Joe Williams, the famous blues singer, was also with the band for a while. Jaybird's sister-in-law, Lizzie Coleman, and her singing group, would sometimes use the band to accompany their spirituals. By the way, Lizzie is still living and she still sings with a moving voice.

The depression had begun to take effect on Birmingham. It hit and hit hard, but Jaybird kept singing and playing. He was working with different Jug Bands and between his singing and playing he found plenty of work.

On June 15, 1930 Jaybird made his last solo record. It was a Columbia record of "Man Trouble Blues, and "Coffee Grinder Blues." Although Columbia intended a pressing of a little over 1400 copies, only a few were made because Jaybird and Columbia officials disagreed over the recording fees. According to Joe, Jaybird didn't want to be taken advantage of again so he blocked the sales on this record, and this explains its extreme rarity. "Coffee Grinder" was Jaybird's favorite blues and Joe says it was his best. It is a real shame that so few copies of this record were made.

Jaybird's style of singing was quite unique. He would sing one verse of a blues, then he would play the same verse on the mouth harp. (Editor: I got this information second hand from Joe Coleman. To tell you the truth, I have heard none of Coleman's records, but I would think he was similar to George "Bullet" Williams, whom I have heard on an Origin LP.) Today, he is one of the highest rated exponents of the country blues style by all of the major country blues collectors.

Early in 1950, he became ill. Joe took him to a nearby hospital, but there was nothing they could do. Jaybird was dead on arrival. Joe does not remember what he died of, but that is really unimportant. He now rests in the Lincoln Memorial Gardens, a Negro cemetery, with a Veteran's tombstone.

We are very fortunate today to have a few recordings of Jaybird's great singing style, but we are not so fortunate as to have them in High Fidelity. However, we feel sure that they will be reissued for the many blues collectors to listen to, study, and profit from. Along with his contemporaries. Jaybird gave America a unique folk music, straight from the hearts of the American Negro. If these fabulous records of the past are not again made available he style will die, just as the singers themselves. A man cannot live forever, but if his work is preserved, he will be remembered for many years after his death.

[The standard photo we are all so used to seeing of Coleman at Ft. McClennan. Ala., during WW1 was supplied by Joe Coleman to Pat Cather - BH]

Offline Slack

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Re: Jaybird Coleman life - as told by brother Joe
« Reply #1 on: May 10, 2006, 01:08:29 PM »
Really enjoyed the article Bunker -- thanks again for posting these!

You gotta love Jaybird's attitude towards money... what an existential life!

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Jaybird Coleman life - as told by brother Joe
« Reply #2 on: May 10, 2006, 01:15:35 PM »
No problem, it's all out there somewhere if one knows where to look. :)

"Existential life"? I like it, I like it.

Online Johnm

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Re: Jaybird Coleman life - as told by brother Joe
« Reply #3 on: May 10, 2006, 01:16:42 PM »
Hi Bunker Hill,
I would like to second John D.'s thanks.  The article is fascinating.
All best,
Johnm

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Jaybird Coleman life - as told by brother Joe
« Reply #4 on: May 11, 2006, 09:56:23 AM »
Actually folk it should be me thanking you. If it wasn't for topics raised reminding me of long forgotten literature which in "the dark ages" I would drool over in wonder and amazement there would be nothing in my cerebral databank to spark recollection to post at WC. :) ;D ::)

Offline frankie

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Re: Jaybird Coleman life - as told by brother Joe
« Reply #5 on: May 11, 2006, 10:07:33 AM »
Sorry for the "me too" post, but thanks for this, BH!

But this just strikes me as amazingly weird:

Shortly after these records were released, the local K.K.K. began acting as his manager and he made a tour of the larger Southern cities.

???

Offline Slack

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Re: Jaybird Coleman life - as told by brother Joe
« Reply #6 on: May 11, 2006, 10:48:02 AM »
Sorry for the "me too" post, but thanks for this, BH!

But this just strikes me as amazingly weird:

Shortly after these records were released, the local K.K.K. began acting as his manager and he made a tour of the larger Southern cities.

???

I figure Bigotry does not preclude profit motive (speaking of KKK that is).  The appeal for Coleman might be the body guard escort he got for his tour of the south.

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Jaybird Coleman life - as told by brother Joe
« Reply #7 on: May 11, 2006, 11:08:10 AM »
I figure Bigotry does not preclude profit motive (speaking of KKK that is).  The appeal for Coleman might be the body guard escort he got for his tour of the south.
You've got it in one. I think in W J Cash's Mind Of The South (Knopf, 1941) it cites examples of the KKK cashing-in on the popularity of lesser-known black entertainers. For obvious reasons the Klan weren't overt about such 'patronage" but essentially put out the word not to lynch or run out of town those concerned. If folk are interested (and it is that book) I'll scan and post the relevant bit.

Offline dj

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Re: Jaybird Coleman life - as told by brother Joe
« Reply #8 on: May 11, 2006, 11:42:25 AM »
I'm certainly interested.

Offline Slack

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Re: Jaybird Coleman life - as told by brother Joe
« Reply #9 on: May 11, 2006, 01:32:43 PM »
I'd be interested too.

Offline Chezztone

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Re: Jaybird Coleman life - as told by brother Joe
« Reply #10 on: May 14, 2006, 11:34:09 AM »
Yes, Bunk, thanks loads for uploading that article. That interview with Jaybird's brother is the source of the belief that Jaybird played with the BJB. I don't doubt his brother's word. But I (and many others who have listened to the tracks) still aren't convinced that it is Jaybird -- or Big Joe Williams either -- playing on the BJB's recordings. They may have played with a different incarnation of the group, or just not been there the day of the recordings (although that band on the recordings sure sounds tight and long-rehearsed, not a pickup group by any means). Cheers, Chezztone.

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Jaybird Coleman life - as told by brother Joe
« Reply #11 on: May 14, 2006, 12:20:13 PM »
Oh yes, I think the belief that both Coleman and Williams played on the BJB recordings was debunked several decades ago. I recall one commentator of the 70s writing that it was highly likely that they might have played in A Birmgham jug band but not THE Birmgham Jug Band. Problem is the received wisdom is still being perpetuated in the written word. ;D

On the question of the Klan managing black entertainers, I've looked in Cash's book and it's not there, my problem is I have so much material on (and about) black history it's gonna take me time to locate the reference.

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Jaybird Coleman life - as told by brother Joe
« Reply #12 on: May 17, 2006, 10:27:05 AM »
Existing as I do in somewhat of a timewarp I'm out of touch with blues research of the past decade. Can anybody say if the photo that was given to Pat Cather (see below) is still the only one published or have there been others, or even any from Chicago Defender record advertisements?

Offline powerlinehorizon

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Re: Jaybird Coleman life - as told by brother Joe
« Reply #13 on: May 17, 2006, 01:02:46 PM »

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Jaybird Coleman life - as told by brother Joe
« Reply #14 on: May 17, 2006, 11:38:20 PM »
Thanks, never seen that before and obviously the same man.

Where was that "published"? Web?