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Letters to Planet Slade: November ‘09

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Murder Ballads
Secret London

October 12, 2009. Bill Hudson writes: “Reading your story on Hattie Carroll, I came across the part in which you mention Don West. Don was a good man and I went for many years to his folk life center because Pete Seeger told me about it. In 1996 I was asked to be the director of the festival there, which was a joy to do.
    “I did enjoy reading your very detailed stories. It's always nice to know where the songs really came from, as I've been singing Frankie & Johnny and Stagolee for years. I will bookmark your site.
    “Off the subject if you go to you can see what we are doing down in the Gulf Coast and maybe soon West Virginia for the school kids. If you come to the USA and you are in Virginia, give me a heads- up. There is a load of music in these hills.”

Paul Slade replies: In retrospect, I may have a been a little harsh on Don West, who simply had the misfortune to find his Hattie Carroll song competing with an absolute masterpiece from Bob Dylan. It must be like finding your own hobbyist painting has been hung next to the Mona Lisa, and knowing it's going to suffer by comparison from that day on.
    I'm glad you enjoyed my essay, and I hope you find some other stuff on the site to interest you too. I'm having a great time writing it.

[Bill's group, The Hudson Brothers, had a handful of US chart hits in the 1970s, and went on to star in their own network TV show. He was married to the actress Goldie Hawn from 1976 to 1980, and their daughter Kate Hudson became a movie star in her own right. Bill's Feel Good Tour project travels round the Katrina-devastated areas of Louisiana and Mississippi, playing music and distributing free instruments to the schoolchildren there.]

October 13, 2009. Jerome Clark writes: “I'm reading your superb piece on Hattie Carroll's murder and its aftermath (for which many thanks, by the way), but I must correct an error. Nothing called ‘Joe McCarthy's Committee on Un-American Activities’ ever existed.
    “Yes, there was a Senator Joe McCarthy, notorious for reckless charges against (mostly falsely accused) subversives. And there was a House Committee on Un-American Activities, which investigated domestic espionage, Communist Party USA members, and alleged Communist sympathizers as well as fascists, the Ku Klux Klan, and other groups on the far right. As a US senator, McCarthy was in the wrong legislative body to occupy a position in the House of Representatives. He conducted his dirty business out of the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations.
    I seem to have a small side-line correcting people on the disconnection between McCarthy and the House Committee on Un-American Activities. The last guy I corrected was the Florida singer-songwriter Ronny Elliott - a very smart, well-read guy otherwise. Elliott conflates the two in Red Rumor Blues on his Jalopypaint CD. In short, you're hardly the first.”

Paul Slade replies: I'm glad my error didn't spoil your enjoyment of the piece. One of the problems of writing about all this stuff as a Brit is that I'm not as familiar with the detail of America's political structure as I probably ought to be.
    A few years ago, I visited the Jimmy Carter Library in Atlanta and chanced on a primary school class of children being given a civics lesson by their teacher there. She split them up into all the constituent parts of the US government and had them argue an issue out by voting within each group and then sending delegates from one to the other to show how the various bodies all fitted together. I slipped in quietly at the back, and actually managed to learn quite a lot!

October 28, 2009. Susan Pace Hoy writes: “Your article on my grandfather was most interesting. It has made me question so many things about Harry Herbert Pace and Black Swan Records.
    “Interestingly enough, he did pass for white, although my father Harry H. Pace Jr took this information to his grave. We never knew anything of our father's family. I was raised as white and never knew anything different until two years ago, when a family member discovered Jitu K. Weusi's essay The Rise and Fall of Black Swan Records. My father had one sibling and she is still living. She kept it a secret until one of my cousins handed her the story of this incredible man - her father. Only then did she finally admit they had promised never to tell that they had passed for white.
    “What pushed my grandfather over the edge when he fought such a battle against the white record companies for so long? Was it the brutality and violence of race back then? Or was it because he just got tired of it all and knew he could pass and raise his children as white?
    “You mentioned John Johnson and I have read his book Succeeding Against the Odds. Johnson was a very successful African-American and started Johnson Publishing (Ebony magazine, Jet etc). He credited much of his success to my grandfather giving him his first job, mentoring him and so on. Through a friend I was able to speak with Lerone Bennett Jr, who co-authored this book. He told me that Johnson expressed regrets that Pace's children and grandchildren were ‘lost’ to the tradition and would never know the trials, challenges and triumphs of a great American story.
    “It has been a roller coaster ride these past two years with this discovery, and I am still trying to put all of the pieces together. I am grateful that I finally know the secrets my family has kept buried for so long. That's why I truly was moved by your article, and the knowledge you obviously have on this story. I am embracing it - along with my brother, Peter and his son Eric. Through writers like yourself, we hope to put together the pieces again and not be ‘lost’ as Johnson expressed it. I think this is a story that is worthy of being told.”

Paul Slade replies: Thank you so much for getting in touch. It's lovely to hear from a member of Harry Pace's direct family.
    My understanding is that Pace, who had spent his whole life fighting to improve black people's lives, often under the most trying circumstances imaginable, found the plans for demonstrations attacking his integrity extremely hurtful. He must have felt that his own people were turning on him in a very ungrateful and even spiteful way. And, yes, as you say, he had other options, so if the black community didn't want him, and he had the chance to secure a better life for his family elsewhere, who could blame him for taking it?
    Pace's generation believed black people's cause could best be advanced by promoting what they called "the talented tenth" of their own community - those educated men and women of achievement who would excel so much in their chosen fields that even the most bigoted whites could not deny their worth. By the time he reached Chicago's white suburbs, though, a more militant attitude was gaining ground, and I think that may explain why younger employees from Supreme Life turned against him. It's all very sad, particularly for someone who fought as hard to succeed as your grandfather did, and accomplished so much with his life. He was a remarkable man.
    If I could say Harry Pace was one of my ancestors, I'd be extremely proud of that fact, so I'm glad to to know I might have played some small role in helping your family reclaim its heritage.

November 11, 2009. Eric Pace writes: “My Aunt Susan shared some correspondence she had with you, and I decided I would also reach out to you.
    “When I stumbled upon your article I was taken aback at first by the Paramount picture of my Great Grandfather, which I had never seen before. My father, my aunt, and I have been researching Harry Pace for about three years now, and it is always exciting when something new comes to light.
    “Secondly, I was very intrigued by the way that you understood Harry Pace, as it seems that most people who write on him borrow heavily from assumptions and conclusions made by other authors. It was refreshing to read your comments mixed with the many quotes that bring Harry Pace, Black Swan, and Pace & Handy Music Company to life.
    “I wanted to let you know that I am interviewing some individuals concerning Harry Pace and Black Swan in NYC this coming week. I would very much like to interview you as well, but you live in London, correct? I really enjoyed your article and your website is GREAT.”

Paul Slade replies: I'm delighted that you enjoyed my piece, and that you're working to bring Harry's story to a wider public with your documentary film. His tale certainly deserves to be much better known than it is.
    As you say, I live in London, but if there's anything I can help you with via telephone or e-mail, please just let me know. I'm planning to visit the States early next year - probably January or February - so maybe we'll get a chance to meet up then.


Message board round-up

As usual when I post a new essay, I tipped off a few message boards that Hattie Carroll was now there to be found. If you've any interest in following the (sometimes very short) discussions that resulted, you'll find them linked below.
One interesting subject that came up this time was the question of how much responsibility – if any – a songwriter has to get his facts right when basing his work on a real-life event. I'd suspected while writing the Hattie Carroll essay that most of my own views on this subject sprang from my training as a journalist, and the message board discussions do seem to bear that out. Most people joining the discussion couldn't see what all the fuss was about, but anyone who had a journalistic background themselves – like the guy on the MySpace thread - seemed to worry away at it just as much as I had.
One of the best old-school editors I ever worked for would linger in the office long after the rest of us had left on press day, checking the final page proofs one last time for himself before letting the issue go. He would have already seen the proofs half a dozen times by that point, and they would have been checked by a full staff of perfectly competent journalists and sub-editors too. So was that last check really worth the trouble for the odd occasion when it actually turned something up?
When I asked him this question, the editor explained that he'd persuaded himself any factual error he allowed to slip through the production process would cut a day from his life, and that it was this belief which gave him the energy to make that final check when all he really wanted to do was go home like the rest of us. Once you get an idea like that rammed into your head, it tends to stay there.
While we're on the subject of message boards, some of the ones I've been using are starting to get a bit antsy about self-promotion. The moderators over on The Straight Dope, for example, wouldn't let me post a link there, which makes it far more difficult for anyone interested to find their way over here. I can understand why moderators worry about this, because without some sort of restrictions their boards would presumably turn into nothing but a long list of people's own websites. Sturgeon's Law dictates that 90% of these would be rubbish, and the message board in question would be ruined as a result.
Readers placing a link to a website they've genuinely enjoyed, however, is an entirely different matter, and that's where you guys come in. If you see anything on PlanetSlade which you think deserves a wider audience, please do consider posting a link on any message boards, social networking site or “best of the web” sites which you may use. Nobody pays me anything for writing this stuff, so my only motivation to keep the fresh essays coming is the thought that a reasonable number of people are reading them. You'd not only be helping me out by spreading the word, but acting in the best traditions of enlightened self-interest too. Thanks very much.

BBC Radio 2: Folk & Acoustic

Harmony Central


Mudcat Café


The Never-Ending Pool,com_fireboard/Itemid,22/func,view/id,65784/catid,6/

The Straight Dope

EXcited eXperts eXude eXtreme eXhilaration

On Stagger Lee
“Very entertaining.” - Sunny Boy, KDHX St Louis.

“Another great article.” - Richie, Mudcat.

“The Stagger Lee article was great! Well done, my friend.” - Flapjax, Metafilter.

On Frankie & Johnny
“Great story.” - Khrysso Heart,

On Secret London
“One of the best you can find on the web.” - Peter Watts, Time Out London.

On London's Treasure Hunt Riots
“I highly recommend reading the whole thing.” - Mike Arauz, Mike

“Whoa. Thanks for sharing this story!” - Astrocrabpuff, Community Live Journal.

“Great piece.” - Andrew, Mike

“Interesting subject!” - KJcachers, Groundspeak.

“This is a great story.” - English Profi, Mike

“How fascinating! Thank you for writing about it.” - Amanda Hardy, via PlanetSlade.

On The Necropolis Railway
“Very, very cool. I recommend this highly to others with an interest in the macabre.” - Choie, The Straight Dope.

“Interesting essay. Thanks.” - Jenny, moderator, QI.

“Very interesting article!” - StGermain, The Straight Dope.

“Fascinating!” - Mike Stenhouse, Friendfeed.

“Nice Article.” - Johnny LA, The Straight Dope.

“Interesting essay.” - Posital, QI.

“Fascinating subject.” - Aruvqan, The Straight Dope.

On Black Swan Blues
“A wonderful article.” - Steven, Nightlines.