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It's funny just how hard a man can fall, when he get to thinking one woman has got it all - Blind Arthur Blake, Chump Man Blues

Author Topic: Jaybird Coleman life - as told by brother Joe  (Read 6378 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.

Offline 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 btasoundsradio

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Re: Jaybird Coleman life - as told by brother Joe
« Reply #13 on: May 17, 2006, 01:02:46 PM »
Charlie is the Father, Son is the Son, Willie is the Holy Ghost

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?

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Jaybird Coleman life - as told by brother Joe
« Reply #15 on: May 21, 2006, 01:50:33 AM »
I have now located my copy of Cather's 1999, self published pamphlet Tracking Down a Legend: The "Jaybird" Coleman Story. Much of it is essentially what he wrote in 1962 but how he ends this new piece of writing I found interesting:

"Early in 1950, Jaybird became ill. His brother took him to the Negro ward of a local hospital, but the singer died before he was even admitted. I inferred at the time that Joe did not particularly want to talk about his brother's death. He did tell me that Jaybird was buried in Bessemer's Lincoln Memorial Gardens with a veteran's tombstone. Sometime after my visit with Joe, I was able to find the grave and photograph it. Joe's delightful wife, Lizzie, owned the only known photograph of "Jaybird" taken at Ft. McClellan during the First World War. I purchased the rights to the photograph from her and printed it as part of a copyrighted story in the September 1962 issue of Music Memories. When I reread the article to prepare this booklet, I was privately embarrassed at how bad the writing was (and, in one or two places, how the article bordered on the patronization which passed for racial "moderation" in 1962 Birmingham). But I was just a fresh-faced kid.

That was twenty-eight years ago. There was no archives department at the local library; there was no Birmingham or Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame; there was no Alabama Music Hall of Fame Museum in the Tri-Cities. Just a kid, tracking down a legend. And trying to build a bridge between black and white."

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Jaybird Coleman life - as told by brother Joe
« Reply #16 on: May 20, 2013, 04:39:04 AM »
Given that it's Jaybird's birthday today thought I'd give this a bump for all those who may not have been members back in 2006. Well done Pat Cather for locating the brother.

Offline iantonionni

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Re: Jaybird Coleman life - as told by brother Joe
« Reply #17 on: May 20, 2013, 06:55:05 AM »
Thanks, well worth the bump!

Offline frailer24

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Re: Jaybird Coleman life - as told by brother Joe
« Reply #18 on: May 20, 2013, 02:05:24 PM »
^ I second that!
That's all she wrote Mabel!

Offline thickpete

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Re: Jaybird Coleman life - as told by brother Joe
« Reply #19 on: May 20, 2013, 03:06:27 PM »
I found that fascinating - thanks very much. I'm also very interested in additional info on the white power structure/KKK and Southern organized crime as it intersected with the Black entertainment/vice worlds from the 1890s-1960s. Reading of the wayward soldier at Fort McClellan had me wondering if that base had its own accompanying sin city like Fort Benning farther North had the legendary Phenix City. Always interested in anything on this subject - thanks!
« Last Edit: May 20, 2013, 03:08:00 PM by thickpete »

Offline Bunker Hill

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Re: Jaybird Coleman life - as told by brother Joe
« Reply #20 on: May 21, 2013, 01:33:22 AM »
Thanks, well worth the bump!
Pleased it was of interest.

In my formative years here (2005-2009) I posted a goodly number of arcane items such as this, having been originally scanned for folk researching articles, books etc. With more and more items finding their way on to the web, such postings became increasingly redundant.

Once in a while there's been a need of such -  the three part Little Hat Jones back in March.

Offline jostber

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Re: Jaybird Coleman life - as told by brother Joe
« Reply #21 on: May 22, 2013, 11:04:01 AM »


Thanks, a great article! Anyone has a link to this photo, it seems like it has disappeared?


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Offline btasoundsradio

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Re: Jaybird Coleman life - as told by brother Joe
« Reply #23 on: January 28, 2018, 08:37:45 AM »
Repost from many moons ago, stolen from 78 Quarterly.
Charlie is the Father, Son is the Son, Willie is the Holy Ghost

Offline jostber

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Re: Jaybird Coleman life - as told by brother Joe
« Reply #24 on: February 12, 2018, 11:54:13 AM »
Thanks for reposting the photo. This place is named in tribute of Jaybird:

Collaborators behind The Jaybird seek to ?bring people together? - ironcity.ink

http://ironcity.ink/neck-of-the-woods/crestwood/collaborators-behind-the-jaybird-seek-to-?bring-people-toget/


Offline mtzionmemorialfund

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Re: Jaybird Coleman life - as told by brother Joe
« Reply #25 on: February 25, 2018, 02:45:56 AM »
Coleman was a very popular musician around Birmingham and Bessemer, Alabama. His recording career, by comparison, was perhaps a modest success. In 1950, the military veteran passed and his grave received a marker from the federal government. Some years back it became dislodged from the burial site and forgotten in an abandoned section of Lincoln Memorial Cemetery in Bessemer, Alabama. We plan to remedy the situation this summer. To support our effort, please visit: www.mtzionmemorialfund.org

Produced by the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund
www.mtzionmemorialfund.org


Photos and Film: Brett Bonner
T. DeWayne Moore
Executive Director, Mt. Zion Memorial Fund