JOOKIN' in the 'Burg

By STAFF REPORTS,

Rock ‘n roll has long been considered the bastard child of America – fathered and mothered by blues, country, and gospel, born of the swinging hips and fevered shouts of countless fish fries in every crook and cranny of the country. 

Were rock ‘n roll to have a birth certificate, you’d expect the birthplace to be listed as Clarksdale or Memphis or New Orleans or Detroit—or countless other sites – including Hattiesburg.

Hattiesburg?

The claim lies largely in the hands of the late Graves brothers, a foot-stompin’, gospel-singin’, blues playin’ sibling duo from south Mississippi.

Born in Meridian in December 1909, Lee Moise “Roosevelt” Graves and his brother, Uaroy, began playing area “jook joints” in the early 1920s and were known for mixing secular and sacred material during their live performances – including regular performances in front of Lott’s Furniture Store on Front Street in Laurel.

A write-up in The Frog and Blues Annual (2009) explained the draw to the furniture store.

“Lott Furniture received all its merchandise on train and the train depot was the first landmark in Laurel. You can imagine travelers and workers getting off the train and hearing Roosevelt Graves singing and playing across the way in the middle of the busiest part of Laurel.”

Those performances were often so popular that the audience at times blocked the road and sometimes attracted the attention of the local police, who often stuck around to enjoy the music rather than bust up the large crowds.

The store’s owner, Reuben Lott, never seemed to mind because his theory was that large crowds in front of the store often translated into large numbers of people who came inside to buy furniture.

By 1929, the two brothers – who were both nearly blind – were recording under the name “Blind Roosevelt Graves and Brother” for Paramount Records.

Blues researcher Gayle Dean Wardlow, a blues historian and author whose book “Chasin’ That Devil Music: Searching for the Blues” was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2006 as a classic of clues literature, even suggested their 1929 recording “Crazy About My Baby,” “could be considered the first rock ‘n’ roll recording.”

In July 1936, while performing at a church in McComb, Jackson talent scout H.C. Speir spotted them and arranged for them to come to Hattiesburg to record at the Hotel Hattiesburg – then located at Mobile and Pine.

For the session they were joined by the local piano player Cooney Vaughn and the trio were billed on record as the Mississippi Jook Band. 

In all, they recorded four tracks at Hattiesburg for the American Record Company including “Barbecue Bust,” “Hittin’ the Bottle Stomp,” “Dangerous Woman,” and “Skippy Whippy.”

In 1992, noted blues historian Robert Palmer wrote about those recordings in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock ‘n’ Roll.

Webb Wilder, a musician and filmmaker with his own Hattiesburg roots picked up a copy of the book when he moved to Austin to begin his musical career.

“Rock Begins,” one of the first articles collected in the book, lends Hattiesburg’s claim some weight.

Written by Palmer, the article states that rock’s roots came from the “rocking and reeling” style of ecstatic singing found in the “maverick Sanctified and Holiness churches, where guitars, drums, and horns were as acceptable as the pianos and organ, and more easily afforded.” About the Graves brothers, he says, “Their ‘Barbecue Bust’ and ‘Dangerous Woman’ featured fully formed rock and roll guitar riffs and a stomping rock and roll beat.”

“I used to say, ‘Well, it’s the birthplace of rock ‘n roll,’ “ said Wilder. “That phrase is not in the article, so I’m wondering if I’m guilty of starting that.”

Wilder said that the book gave him a means to plumb rock ‘n roll’s history. “I read that Pete Townsend was into Eddie Cochran, so I’d go find what that was all about.” 

Palmer, perhaps most famous for his 1982 book Deep Blues: A Musical and Cultural History of the Mississippi Delta, makes an enthusiastic case for the Mississippi Jook Band as the beginning of rock ‘n roll’s origin story, but the tracks themselves perhaps bear the strongest evidence.

On “Barbecue Bust” Vaughn lays down a boogie worthy of what Jerry Lee Lewis would do decades later, as Uaroy Graves bangs away on tambourine and plays some surprisingly rocked out kazoo solos while brother Roosevelt’s locomotive guitar shuffle and near-feral vocal wailing cinches the claim. This track has the single-minded force of early rock ‘n roll—that nervous, hormonal rush. Never before nor since has a kazoo sounded this dangerous.

The Melotone label for “Dangerous Woman” (serial number HAT 141) categorizes the song as “hot dance” for piano, tambourine, and guitar. Vaughn’s stride piano licks take center stage on this number. Uaroy’s tambourine and Roosevelt’s guitar find that transparent perfection of a rock ‘n roll rhythm section, that place where it is so intrinsic to the recording that it almost disappears. The best moment comes near the end after Vaughn’s piano solo when Roosevelt hollers out, “Well?” It’s like he’s aware something new has just happened but doesn’t know what it is.

While singling out the Mississippi Jook Band, Palmer asserts a number of less-definitive origin stories for rock ‘n roll, one of which is a John and Alan Lomax recording of the old gospel ring shout “Run Old Jeremiah” in a tiny Louisiana church in 1934. Among its spellbinding exhortations can be found, “Oh my lordy / Well, well, well / I’ve gotta rock / You gotta rock.” He describes the Lomaxes’ shock at finding such an old piece of folk music still being practiced while remarking, “But they had also stumbled onto the future.”

A key characteristic in Palmer’s analysis of rock ‘n roll’s roots in Southern church music is that “It was participatory; often a song leader would be pitted against an answering chorus, or a solo instrument against an ensemble, in call-and-response fashion.”

Palmer asserts, “In a very real sense, rock was implicit in the music of the first Africans brought to North America.” It’s an important lineage to acknowledge. Language and culture were the only thing slaves could bring with them from Africa, and their musical rhythms and practices fused with Western religion, giving birth to gospel which begat blues which then begat jazz and rock ‘n roll. That river of song runs so deeply through the collective musical history of the United States and, through its cultural influence, the musical history of the world, it is difficult to map exactly where any of that river’s tributaries begin.

When asked if any amount of evidence can establish a definitive birthplace of rock ‘n roll, Wilder said, “I’ve learned the hard way that music and art is subjective; so I guess the answer is no, you can’t really draw a line in the sand. People are going to have opinions, and I’ve always had ‘em!”

Whether these are the first rock ‘n roll songs, they are definitely rock ‘n roll, a loud collective sound that speaks to the primitive urges in all of us, the you and me against the world that spurred a thousand love affairs, the same rush that makes you rev your engine to the radio, even if it’s just in the Whole Foods parking lot. 

Rock ‘n roll is Roosevelt Graves hollering “Well?” after a tumult of rhythm, one person left to be the answer to the world’s clattering question.

Hattiesburg may or may not be rock ‘n roll’s birthplace.

But that old recording of the Mississippi Jook Band ripping through “Barbecue Bust” leaves little doubt that this central Mississippi town has contributed more than a few strands to the music’s DNA.

Special thanks to A.V. Cook and Country Roads magazine for contributing to this story.