“Blind Empires” and “Deef Judges”
I don’t know why I keep thinking of the Grand Rapids Convention unless the lousy deal the “Okies” got in that city reminds me of a similar streak of bad luck that overtook my ball team, the “Bluejacket Boosters,” during my boyhood days at Bluejacket, Indian Territory.
Back around 1910 I got me up a ball nine that was a stemwinder—beat every team in the country until we began to run into a bunch of blind empires. Of course, I was captain of the team, played first base, batted in the clean-up position and drove in practically all the runs just like Lou Gehrig. I was also conceded to be the world’s greatest baritone even in those days of good barbershop quartets and splendid baritones. Well it was my custom just before the beginning of each home game, after the Bluejacket Silver Cornet Band had wound up its concert (I was director of the Band, too) to get three other stars of our ball nine who, with me, made up our quartet and gather around home base and rip off three or four numbers. We always wound up with “When It’s Apple Blossom Time in Normandy” and “Cuddle up a Little Closer.” We made it a practice to throw our arms around the empire sort of friendly-like while singing.
After these preliminaries it was a foregone conclusion that the “Bluejacket Boosters” would likely win the ball game. And by giving the fans a Band Concert, some good quartet singing, and winning the ball game (and incidentally I usually knocked one or two home runs during the game) very few ever asked for their 25c back. But we ran into trouble when we started going away from home to play Welch, Narcissa, Fairland, Vinita and other teams. The empires in these towns were just as blind as bats and had absolutely no appreciation or understanding of good music, whatever. All of which brings me to the subject of the deef quartet judges that were on duty when the Okies performed at Grand Rapids.
The Okies sang in the first preliminary and from all unbiased reports went over big with the audience. But just to show you how incompetent and prejudiced the judges were, one of them came rushing over to me after the quartet had finished and said: “The Okies have certainly won one distinction. They have the honor of being the first quartet eliminated in the contest.”
Well, I couldn’t understand it all until I made some inquiries about the judges and their background. I found out one was a lantern maker from somewhere upstate New York. The continual hammering and picking away on them tin lanterns, they say, has simply made him as deef as a board. Then there was an Irishman—Reagan I think was his name—from Philadelphia or somewhere, (wonder whatever became of that guy), who was an electrician by trade. I found out a fuse blowed out ten or fifteen years ago and busted both his ear drums and he had not heard a sound since. Another Judge they told me was a doctor of some kind from Illinois. Now this Doc person wasn’t stone deef, he was just terrible hard of hearing. But he might as well have been deef. The Okies popped up a few little simple chords to him and he just booted them all over the infield. We figures we might as well been singing at some old ladies’ home.
So I keep thinking which is worse, blind empires or deef quartet judges. I don’t know, but I’m disgusted with both.
Hoping you are the same, I am
The Harmonizer – May 1944
Jim Wiley and OC Cash
“Owen, how did you get started on this quartet singing business? Who was the first barbershopper you can remember?” I have been nagged to death with these and similar questions during the last few years. I bet if I have been asked those questions once, I have heard them two or three times at least. Well, they are fair questions—important ones—and my public, if any, will get fair, truthful answers if it reads beyond this paragraph, which is doubtful.
My first school teacher was the person that got me started out on the right track. It just goes to show if you amount to anything in this life you have to be surrounded early in your career by proper influences, associate with the right kind of folks, and have the benefit, in your younger, formative years, of wise counsel, and an exemplary pattern or precept of conduct. Jim Wiley, my first teacher, filled the bill. He was the kindest, most affectionate and, in many ways, the most remarkable man I have ever known. And he knew harmony up and down, backwards and forwards. He exerted a tremendous influence on my life and kindled in me the ambition to become the “World’s Greatest Barber Shop Baritone.”
In the fall of 1897 my dad hitched up our two ponies, old Tom and Kate, to a covered wagon, put Mother, Sister and me in it with all our belongings, and left our little farm in Chariton County, Missouri, bound for the Land of Promise—the West. On arrival some weeks later at the little frontier post office of Catale, Coo-Wee-Scoo-Wee District, Cherokee Nation, Indian Territory, Dad set us up in a rather comfortable log house on a farm rented from an old Cherokee Indian, who had taken possession of quite a large tract of land in that vicinity. No one then owned any land in the Cherokee Nation. The Cherokees had been forcibly moved to the Indian Territory from their former homes in Georgia and other portions of the South and turned loose in this practically uninhabited country to shift for themselves, to settle upon, claim and defend any land they chose. They were not in a very good humor about it either. Years later the land was divided up and allotted or patented to individual Indians, preference, so far as possible, being given those who had established homes, to retain the land selected and improved by them.
Well, in 1897 my sister and I were 3 and 5 years old, but we were much brighter than the average children of that day or this, and Dad thought it time for us to start to school. He was in favor of education. He believed it was a good thing if not overdone. I stopped mine in time to please him. So as soon as we got settled Dad began to promote a “subscription” school among the squaw men, the few white settlers and the more progressive and friendly Indian families. There were no schools in the Territory then except in a few of the towns. Dad sold the idea to some of the neighbors and the men of the community soon had a log school house built and ready for business. Strangely enough no one had thought about a teacher for the school. The “Territory” in those days was settled by the Cherokees, horse thieves, outlaws, ex-convicts, adventurers and vagabonds of varying degrees of cussedness. It had never occurred to Dad that anyone smart enough to teach school would certainly have sense enough to stay out of this part of the country. So he was up against it in finding a teacher for his pretty, new, log school building.
One day, though, Dad went over to the store and post office at Catale, which was run by an old frontiersman—Fay Beard. “Fay,” he said, “What are we going to do about a teacher for our school?” “Never thought of that,” Fay replied, “I’ve been here since the railroad come, but I don’t remember of ever seeing or hearing of a teacher of any kind in the Territory.”
A Frisco freight train had just passed and two tramps had been kicked off at the water tank. They had drifted into the store and were warming themselves before the big, pot-bellied stove in Fay’s place. One of the tramps manifested a noticeable interest in the conversation between Dad and Fay. As Dad started to leave the tramp approached him and said that he was a teacher and would like to spend the winter in the Territory and teach our school. That was Dad’s introduction to my hero—Jim Wiley. Well, Dad didn’t have much education but he knew a thing or two and did not want to be imposed upon by an uneducated or unqualified teacher. So he interviewed Jim, examined him thoroughly, inquiring carefully into his qualifications. Finally he asked Jim, “Do you believe the world is round or flat? We are liable to have some trouble over that,” Dad said, “because some of the folks around here think it is and some think it ain’t.” “Well, Mr. Cash,” Jim said, “I can teach it either way.” “That’s good enough for me,” volunteered my dad. “Get up behind me on my horse and let’s go. You are hired.”
Dad brought this unexpected guest home with him that night for supper and Mother just raised the very devil because he had not telephoned her in advance, so she could have the cabin spruced up and a salad and dessert prepared. Jim lived with us for nearly two years and
became the idol of the kids and the leader, wise counselor and source of education and culture for the community. But he never told us about his family, where he came from or anything of his past life. I remember he used to hold my sister and me on his knee before the fireplace in the evening while Dad was doing the chores and Mother was getting supper, and tell us stories about a new fangled contraption that recently had been invented called the “horseless carriage.” He showed us pictures of one that actually ran. On rainy days he would carry my little sister to school on his back. It got so that after every heavy dew Sister would contend that it was too muddy for her to walk and after a prolonged and serious argument, Jim would finally give in and tote her to school. Forty-eight years later I think I learned why Jim was so fond of us kids and so kind and affectionate toward us.
Well, one day at school in the spring of 1900, two United States Marshals, resplendent, as these officers always were, in large white hats, blue serge suits, silver stars denoting the authority of their office, high boots and a brace of pearl handled six-shooters dangling from wide cartridge belts, drove up to the school house in a buckboard, came in and held a brief, whispered conversation with Jim. After a little while Jim came over and patted me on the head, told me to be a good boy and eat my cornbread and milk when Mother told me to, then stooped down and hugged and kissed my sister and went out the door with one of the Marshals. The other officer remained behind for a moment and told us, “Now children, you all go on home and tell your parents there won’t be no school this afternoon or tomorrow or the next day. Everything will be all right though, don’t be worried, Mr. Wiley is just going away on a little trip.” We never heard of Jim again. We never knew what happened, why they took him away or where to.
It all created a lot of excitement in the neighborhood and some lousy, low-lifed gossip started the rumor that Jim had escaped from the Illinois Penitentiary and had come direct to the “Territory” to hide out. But nearly fifty years later I proved beyond a doubt that this was a malicious lie. Jim didn’t escape. He served out his sentence. In fact he served out four terms in the Joliet penal institution before coming down to the “Territory” to live with the Cash family. And he was a model prisoner too, never give nobody no trouble as far as I have been able to determine. He was just a fine guy.
Well, sir, it sure was lucky for the old school house that these officers came for Jim in the nick of time, for me and Wolf Ratlinggourd, my Cherokee playmate (he was a lead singer) had planned on burning the damn thing down and going fishing that very afternoon.
From time to time during the intervening years since 1900, whenever my family got together we always talked about Jim, wondering what crime or crimes, if any, he had committed, where he was and whether he was still alive. Shortly before my father died in August, 1944, he told me many things about Jim I had forgotten and I determined right then to find, if possible, the answers to the questions that had kept alive, for the past forty or fifty years, our curiosity about this mysterious, yet likable person. Remembering the rumored escape from the Illinois Penitentiary, I wrote Mr. Joseph E. Ragen, Warden of that institution. Mr. Ragen spent several days digging into Penitentiary records more than a half century old to get the facts. It appears Jim was first convicted, when a boy in 1882, of forgery, and was convicted of the same offense and served three additional sentences, four altogether, in the same penitentiary, being discharged the last time in the fall of 1897. He was out of the penitentiary only a few months between sentences and within a month or two after his final discharge he was teaching our school.
Marion H. Allen, Circuit Clerk, Monmouth, Illinois and Mr. W. K. Richardson, an attorney of Galesburg, Illinois, each made quite an investigation for me concerning three or four of Jim’s trials and convictions. Records were meager but Mr. Richardson searched the files of local newspapers and found several stories about Jim’s troubles. One story dated 1895, telling of his last conviction, mentioned his children. Undoubtedly, he thought of them fondly many times as in the azure haze of a Cherokee twilight, he gazed into the glowing embers in the fireplace of the humble Cash cabin. (Now that’s literature, that lick.) In one newspaper article it said “The prisoner is personally rather a fine appearing man, with keen eyes and pleasant address.” That is an accurate description of Jim as I remember him.
This forgery habit seems to have been chronic with Jim, but I am sure he never meant no harm. Likely that was the only way he could collect his wages. Employers were terribly overbearing and arrogant in them days. And, too, he undoubtedly was convicted on perjured testimony, and his attorney probably was very young and totally inexperienced.
Now at this point in the narrative I can just see rowdy old Cy Perkins rare up on his hind legs in the back of the Lodge Hall and shout, “What the hell has all these bore some details got to do with barber shop harmony? Let’s sing a song. Hells bells!”
Well, it has this to do with it.
There was not much entertainment down in Coo-Wee-Scoo-Wee District, Cherokee Nation, back in ’97. Folks couldn’t run over to the Honky Tonk, after they knocked off work at the war plant, for a short beer and listen to Bing singing “Don’t Fence Me In.” So the long winter evenings after school with only a coal oil lamp to provide the “bright lights” made Jim a little restless. So he got all the folks in the neighborhood together at the school house one night and proposed to hold night school two nights each week without charge to anyone. Everybody in the neighborhood, full bloods, bandits, grandfathers, grandmothers, and mothers with babes in arms, came and he asked them what they wanted to study. The first choice was “figurin’.” Jim didn’t give them no second choice. He just simply announced that it would be singing the second night. So we had our big attendance and our only community social affair on Friday nights at singing school. Jim put the folks through all the regular singing school tricks, taught them hymns and patriotic numbers and I remember two popular songs, “Two Little Girls in Blue” and “After the Ball.” That’s where he squeezed in a little harmony—on those popular songs. But his harmonizing really showed up at the end of each session when he started his “Bong, Bong, Bong, Bong” exercises, taking a bass note first and then progressing up the scale in true barber shop style and having each group hold its note on the chord. Of course some smart aleck will say that Bing done that in “Going My Way.” Well, maybe he did, but Jim done it first.
After the singing was over and the various families started back to their cabins, it sure sounded might pretty in the crisp, frosty air, to hear those “Bong, Bongs” rolling out over the hills. Dad was an old fox hunter back in Missouri and he said it reminded him of old Drum, Speck, Red and Sue his favorite fox hounds. “There goes the Bankheads or that’s the Ratlinggourds” he would say as the various groups opened up across the valley, just ‘Bonging’ away like all git out.”
Old Jim would be about 80 or 85 now, if living, and I sure would like to see and talk to him. Can’t get any trace of him. If any of the Illinois brothers are related to him, recognize his picture, or know where he is I wish they would let me know. I’d like to bring him to the next Convention and have him lead the singing. He is a much better director than Frank Thorne or John Hanson, and, better looking too. If I find him I would like to ask him why them Marshals took him away. I know he never done nothing, but I’m curious to know what them bums thought he done.
I’ll never forget the time Jim let me ride up behind him on our cow pony, “Shorty,” going over to Catale for some sugar and coffee one morning. We ran right onto the boys as they was hanging Ike Sellers. But that story will have to wait until later. But Ike was hanging there with his eyes all bugged out, kicking and thrashing around something awful. It sure was a badly botched up job and the boys were so ashamed of it they always denied having anything to do with it.
Hoping you are the same, I am
The Harmonizer – May 1945