Much has been written about the migration of Southern workers to Northern factories in the industrial expansion following World War II, but comparatively little has been done with an earlier phase of migration occurring between World War I and the Great Depression. By focusing on the oral history of one family, my own, in one Northern, industrial city, Muskegon, Michigan, I hope to explore the role of these Southern migrants as outsiders in a new community and trace their assimilation into the broader life of that community as it was reflected in their music and social dancing, both based on traditions brought with them and modified by the influences of other ethnic and regional groups in Muskegon.
First settled in 1834 by Louis Baddeau, a fur trader from Canada, Muskegon grew up on the south shore of Muskegon Lake on the west coast of Michigan. By 1837, the first sawmill was established on the shores of Lake Muskegon and the groundwork for a boom was established (Michigan History 1988:8). From 1853 to 1888, lumbering in Muskegon expanded steadily as the forests of the Muskegon Basin were harvested. The peak years of 1879 to 1888 saw an average of 650,000,000 board feet of lumber produced at the nearly forty sawmills surrounding Muskegon Lake (Glasgow 1939:28). By 1896, however, the number of mills had dropped to three, and the end of the lumber industry in Muskegon was approaching. In 1905, the last drive was made down the Muskegon River, and lumbering in Muskegon was at an end (Glasgow 1939:49). Beginning in 1890, a group of investors began a program of industrial development, drawing new industry to Muskegon and establishing an industrial area to the east of Muskegon called Muskegon Heights (Glasgow 1939:54). This "bonus plan" succeeded in drawing 14 new factories to Muskegon, bringing $4,185,000 in wages and $97,362 in taxes to the community (Harms 1987:15). The plan helped Muskegon weather the end of its first industry, logging, and "at a time when the nation experienced its second most severe depression, new industry settled in Muskegon and the town experienced a slight population increase" (Harms 1987:19). The promise of high-paying factory jobs brought immigrants from other countries, but it also drew significant numbers of migrants from other parts of America, particularly the South.
Many of the lumberjacks in the Muskegon Basin had experience in "the forests
of Maine, New York, and Pennsylvania" (Glasgow 1939:36). My great-great
grandfather, Edgar Strait, was born in Pennsylvania, moving to Michigan to work
in the timber towards the end of the nineteenth century. Edgar's son, Cliff,
followed his father into the woods at the age of nine.
GS: Well, when he [Cliff] was nine years old and his mother left, his dad took him and his older brother, three years older than him, and the three of them went into the woods. And where the loggers would go through and take the logs, then they cut firewood out of the tops of the trees. In four-foot lengths and piled up. And that's how he got started. (Strait 1993)Cliff left home at thirteen and spent the next several years working in lumber camps and also on farms across the upper Midwest. In 1915, while working at a farm in Iowa, Cliff travelled to Eldridge, Missouri to buy hogs and met Laura Stidham, then nineteen years old. They were married in September. Laura, from a family which had moved to the Ozarks in 1860 from central Tennessee, sang quite a bit.
GS: Lots of hymns. All kinds of hymns. "A Cloudless Day," that was one she used to sing a lot. Then she had a lot of old ballads she used to sing. Oh, the one about Jack and Joe going across the seas, you know, and making money and coming back: "Three years ago both Jack and Joe set sail across the sea." Going to get rich. "Give My Love to Nell," that's the name of that. One guy married the other guy's girlfriend. That was one of her songs. Oh Lord, she knew so many, many, many. Now these are all songs she learned from her mother. Her mother sang all the time when she was a little girl. She died when Mom was nine. But Mom said she learned most of her songs from her mother. And she knew just about all the old- timers. "Picture On the Wall," "Barbara Allen," "Put My Little Shoes Away." Oh, just song after song after song. She knew lots of them. She had an awful, awful good memory. (Strait 1993)
For the next several years, Cliff and Laura moved back and forth between farming in Missouri and living in Muskegon, where Cliff worked at a wire factory. In 1920 my grandfather, George Strait, was born in Eldridge, Missouri. The music of his mother was not the only influence on George, however.
GS: Now, see, Dad [Cliff] was from Michigan, but he was a square dance caller. And sang tenor, had a beautiful tenor voice. He didn't sing harmony. He sang lead, but it was a tenor voice. I only heard him sing one song all the way through. That's the one about the Younger boys. That old Cole Younger song. You know, Cole Younger and the James boys, bank robbers. And then he had a real cute tune that he used to sing about the guy that married the Indian girl. And the chorus said [sings "White man he began a-wishin' that he'd never gone a fishin' met that pretty little Indian maid -?-"]. (Strait 1993)
Cliff was not the only member of his family with musical ability, either. While I do not know whether the rest of his family was musical, his brother Milt was.
GS: I've seen them square dance to just a harmonica. And Dad calling. Somebody playing the harmonica, and Dad [Cliff] calling. Whatever instrument they had, that was it. My Uncle Milt [Strait] played a concertina, it's a small accordion-type instrument, and sometimes we had that.
BB: What sort of tunes would he play on the concertina?
GS: He played all of the old tunes that you square dance to. "Skip To My Lou My Darling." None of the fancy fiddle tunes like Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys and stuff comes up with. I'm talking about old "Buffalo Gals." That was a famous one, you know. Just old tunes like that that had the right rhythm that they could square dance to. (Strait 1994)
The family into which George Strait, my grandfather, was born was one with roots in both Muskegon and Missouri, and the music he grew up listening to in his family was a combination of songs, mostly from his mother, and square dance music from his father and uncle. However, born in 1920, George was part of the first generation to have access to radio and records as a medium for music, and both of these were important to the development of his musical tastes and repertoire. While living in Missouri, he trapped rabbits and sold them for a nickel apiece in order to save money to buy records, usually from the Sears and Roebuck catalog. Radio was not a significant influence on George's musical development until about 1934, when the family settled in Muskegon for good.
My grandmother's people were from Wolfe County and Lee County in eastern Kentucky. Her aunt, Hattie Cable Hecker, who was born in 1908, writes,
As to the people around where I was born were all farmers. They owned their own farms and did the best they could with what they had to do with. They used horses and mules to plow with. They had no modern machinery but they all did very well in taking care of their families. My dad, your great [great] grandfather [Roby Finley Cable] was a good provider. He owned 160 acres of land.
For reasons probably lost to history, Roby Finley Cable walked from his home near Boone in Watauga County, North Carolina to Lee County, Kentucky and settled near Big Sinking (Duff 1979). His first wife, Josephine Spencer, was a member of a fairly well-off family which had moved from Lee County, Virginia to Breathitt County, Kentucky in about 1832, and later moved to Owsley County, Kentucky by 1850. According to a local history compiled by the Wolfe County Women's Club, "quite a few families came to Wolfe County from Lee County, Va." (1958:3). Roby Finley's eldest son was Thomas Anderson Cable, born on December 31, 1883. "In about 1904, Roby moved his family to Wisconsin, but only stayed there a few months. . . . Three of his sons remained on in Wisconsin, however, and worked in the logging mills there for several years" (Duff 1979). Roby Finley's family were part of the migration described by Asher E. Treat, who writes,
Ten or twelve years before the turn of the century a stream of migrants began to flow northward from eastern Kentucky. Most of them came from Powell, Wolf [sic], and Breathitt Counties, some from Elliott and Carter, and a few from Rowan and Greenup. By 1903 or 1904 there were well-established colonies of these people in the Wisconsin backwoods, and the flow of newcomers had just about ceased. A virtual island of mountain culture had been formed, with a population in Forest and Langlade Counties of perhaps two hundred families. (1939:1)
While Treat finds a singing family from Kentucky with a relatively pure Kentucky style, some cultural exchange was occurring in the Wisconsin lumber camps at this time. According to Wisconsin folklorist Jim Leary, "the lumber camps were a great place for ethnic mingling" (1989). Although Leary does not mention Kentuckians, he does say that "Scandinavians, Slavs, Scots, Irish, Canadians, Indians, all worked and lived together under close conditions" (Leary 1989).
Returning to Kentucky, Tom "found Susie [Kincaid] still single and it was then that he decided he'd better marry her before he lost her" (Ballard 1994). They were married in Fincastle, Lee County on July 2, 1908. Using skills which he had probably learned in the north woods, Tom began driving oxen to haul timber in the area around Torrent in Wolfe County (Ballard 1994).
BS: See, he always worked oxen. He never worked mules, that I know of. Maybe when he was a young kid and so forth. But when he started really trying to make a living, he went to those oxen. And he moved timber. And he moved anything and everything that was to be moved. He was using his oxen. Well, then those oil fields, somebody, God only knows who, started in with those wells, discovered a well down there. Well, then right away they had to move those rigs. (Strait 1993)
The oil fields in this part of Kentucky are part of the Glencairn Fault (Jillson 1965:5). Around 1921, "15 or 16 wells were drilled about a mile west of the Pine Ridge Fault" and pumped as many as ten barrels of oil per day (Jillson 1965:26).
GS: They were drilling wells down there, and he had these ox teams. And of course, steep, crooked, poor roads that they had to move those heavy rigs over. We're talking about big steam engines, you know, to furnish power to drill those wells. You put about six of eight mules out in front of one of them and they can't move it. You put twenty mules out there and they pull each other around the corner. They can't make the curves, you know. So with his ox teams, why he could just move anything that needed moving. And he made fifty dollars every time he moved a rig. If he moved it five hundred yards or if he moved it five miles, he still got fifty dollars. I heard him tell about moving three rigs the same day. That's a hundred and fifty bucks. That's money them days. (Strait 1993)
GS: But sooner or later, somewhere working around them oil fields, Tom had a knack for making those doggone, little old one [-?-] engines run. And he was mechanically inclined anyhow, and he was a good plumber. He could do anything [-?-] plumbing. And he just worked right into a pumping man, maintenance man, whatever you want to call him, to operate an oil field. That's what you'd call that, I guess, is operating. Operations manager, or whatever. (Strait 1993)
GS: And that's how he got into the oil field business. He just sort of backed into it. He started by moving rigs with his oxen. And then he was around where the work was going on, and they had to have somebody to do it, and he worked right on into it. (Strait 1993)
Tom "plunked on the banjo" in a "clawhammer" or "rap-down" style, but the only tune I know of that he played was "Hook and Line" (Strait 1993, Ballard 1994b). As Joan Ballard writes, "I never heard it said that those Cables were musically inclined" (Ballard 1994). It was Susie Kincaid Cable who was the musician in the house.
BS: See, Susie's family in Kentucky were the music-makers of the neighborhood, and everybody gathered at their house on Saturday night and danced till two in the morning. And they weren't allowed to dance, but the old folks would go to bed. (They danced so much the kitchen in the old home place had grooves in the floor! I've seen them - PSB). Conveniently. And then they'd dance. But they couldn't dance as long as the old folks was up. (Strait 1993)
Three of the children in the Kincaid family were musicians. Bob played the guitar and banjo, Jake played fiddle, and Susie played both fiddle and banjo. "Cabe always claimed that his uncle Jake was probably one of the better fiddlers that ever lived. I've heard other people say the same thing" (Strait 1993). Although no recordings of Jake Kincaid survive, if indeed any were ever made, it would appear that Jake had a fairly wide repertoire and played with a legato bowing style (Strait 1993). Where these Kincaids might have learned their music is not clear, but it appears that they were exposed to much of the local music while growing up.
BB: Do you know sort of back in that neighborhood when your mom and her brothers were growing up, who else around there played that they might have learned from? Would they have known somebody like this George Spencer? [a local fiddler distantly related to Tom]
GS: Oh, definitely. Cabe knew him.
BS: See, Cabe and Hattie are the same age. Aunt Hattie was from April to August older than Cabe. So they kind of grew up together. So if she remembers seeing him around when she was younger, no doubt Cabe would have seen him too. Now that's what I'm assuming. But many a time I've heard him say, "Well, here's a tune old Long George Spencer used to play." And he'd cut loose and play it, see. So I don't know if he had heard that that was one of Long George Spencer's tunes, or whether he had actually heard him. But Aunt Hattie says she can remember him coming to the house. I can't begin to tell you who all might have been there. Almost everybody picked and played something down there. (Strait 1994)
Susie herself was primarily a banjo player, playing mostly in the home for her own and her family's entertainment.
BS: Alright, in the evening, when the store was closed (and the store was never closed if you needed anything. They come to the back door and knocked on it), so then she'd grab out her banjo, and she'd set there and pick her banjo a little bit. Or, if the fiddle was laying around, which wasn't always because after Cabe married he took his fiddle with him and she didn't have a fiddle.
BB: What did she like to play better?
BS: I think the banjo. I really think the banjo. (Strait 1994)
BS: Mom could play a Jew's harp. She could play an accordion.
BB: What kind of accordion, buttons or?
BS: Yeah, buttons, little round buttons.
BB: What sort of things would she play on that?
BS: Oh, some of them old kind of mournful kind. Like [pause 5 sec.] [to George] What was that song you sang the other day?
GS: "Letter Edged In Black"?
BS: Yeah, such things as that. Or "Barbara Allen."
GS: A lot of the old-time ballads.
BS: And I mean old. And she'd play some fast ones, too. I can't name any right off the bat, but she could play some faster ones, too.
BB: Would she play that for those dances on Saturday night?
BS: No, because she wasn't that good. She could play it, and you could hear what the tune was too, but every once in a while she'd hit a sour note or something. So she'd never play in public like that.
BB: She was playing that accordion back in Kentucky?
BS: No, I think she learned that up in Muskegon, to tell you the truth. And where she learned it from, I don't know. And she played the fiddle. She never played the guitar, that I know of. (Strait 1994)
Having gained skills in the Kentucky oil fields which could earn him a good living, Tom followed the work in the oil fields where it led him, taking his family and their Kentucky background with him.
BB: Where in Illinois were the oil fields where Tom worked?
GS: Right down in the southern end.
GS: A big oil field down in there. And that was between the time of 1917 and 1922. He was in Illinois, then went back to Kentucky, then went to Michigan.
BS: Now wait a minute. Dad made two trips to Illinois. He went to Illinois, but I don't know when he went the first time.
GS: That means he was in Illinois in 1914 then.
BS: But he didn't stay. I don't know the story.
GS: Wasn't your Uncle Bob up there?
BS: Very likely Bob was. Bob was quite an oil field man. Jake never done much in the oil fields, Uncle Jake didn't.
GS: What did he do?
BS: Well, he run that store for one thing. And he farmed. He worked around, but Alice wouldn't let him, Alice wouldn't leave. And so he wouldn't go either, of course. (Strait 1994)
Although oil development in Michigan began in the Port Huron area, by 1926 the hunch of "Stanley L. Daniloff, a Bulgarian-born tailor with little formal education and not previous experience in the oil industry" paid off, and oil was discovered in Muskegon, making it, for a time, the "center of Michigan's refining activity" (Pollard 1959:213).
BS: Well, they went to Muskegon following the oil fields. No, excuse me, they went to Michigan following the oil fields.
GS: They went to Boyne City.
BS: And Dad went to work in the oil fields, tried to go to work in the oil fields at Boyne City, Michigan. And he couldn't get a job doing what he could do or would do. So he got to work, he went to work at a tannery, tanning leather. And, I don't know, I guess that was before the big, must have been, I'm saying, before the big break in the oil fields in Muskegon. Soon as he heard they were drilling in Muskegon and getting wells, then we moved from there on down to Muskegon.
GS: The drilling must have started in Muskegon about '26, '25 or '27. Along in there, I would say.
BS: I was going to say '25. No, before that, George.
GS: How long were you in Boyne City?
BS: Well I was nine months old when we left Kentucky and I was only about three when we went to Muskegon. Yeah, about '25, you're right. I was thinking I was born in '20.
Many other Southerners were moving to Michigan at this time to work in the factories. Erdmann D. Benyon made a sociological study of white Southern laborers in Michigan in the late 1930s (1938). Although he focuses on Flint, Michigan, many of the comments he makes are echoed in the interviews I conducted. According to Benyon,
Prior to leaving their old home, the people of any particular region were usually conscious only of the differences between themselves and the people of adjoining regions. In the northern cities, however, the people with whom they came into contact distinguish between themselves and all southern white laborers and tend to treat them as members of a single homogeneous group. . . . As a result, there appears to be an emergent group consciousness among the southern white laborers. (Benyon 1938:334)
Both George and Bunny Strait suggested this sort of homogenization and group consciousness among Southerners. According to Bunny, "We always had a bunch of Southerners in there with us, from Alabama and Georgia and Tennessee, a lot of Tennesseeans" (Strait 1993). These Southerners came from many different parts of the South (or, one might say, from many different Souths).
BB: That side of Muskegon you were living on, where were some of the other people who lived near you from, who were from the South, where were they from?
GS: Oh, just name it, everywhere.
BS: Mostly Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, and Kentucky, an awful lot of Kentuckians.
GS: And some other Missourians there, too.
BB: Sort of all from the western side of the mountains, more or less.
BB: You wouldn't get any from around here, in North Carolina?
GS: I didn't know any. (Strait 1993)
Although there was work to be had and higher wages, life in the urban North as a rural Southerner was not always easy. Benyon found that "their choice of residence is limited by low wages, by their desire to live near their work and by the frequent objection to them as renters," resulting in "small clusters [which] may reside in close proximity but . . . are found in all areas of workingmen's homes" (1938:334). Bunny talks about this sort of residential pattern, saying:
BS: But they [Southerners] still, they were cliquish, they were still clannish. They stayed together. Because in the first place, we weren't always welcome in among the Polish, the Italians. They're very clannish, too. They didn't want anybody in with them, you know, too much.
BB: Would they live in different streets?
BS: Yeah, different sections of the town. (Strait 1993)
The influx of a new population group was disruptive to some of the patterns of life in Muskegon, and conflicts with established population groups were inevitable. It seems worth mentioning that the prejudice and mistreatment described below was not from other immigrant groups, but from the native Muskegon Whites.
BS: Well, that bunch that lived out there where we lived in east Muskegon. Now, George lived in east Muskegon, but
GS: I was a mile north of there.
BS: That bunch out there was running stills. And, of course, we were strangers, we were outcasts. They were all friends and like that.
BB: Who were these other people? Were they from up there?
BS: Yeah, they were Michigan people. And therefore they made all manner of fun of us hillbillies. And they was going to run us back to the hills where we belonged, and all that kind of stuff. So they tried their best to run us out by just being mean and doing all sorts of ornery, mean things. But it didn't never work with my dad. You couldn't push him an inch. So they used to get in fights every once in a while over one thing or another.
GS: He wouldn't pick a fight, but he sure wouldn't back down from one.
BS: No, he loved to fight. And so that's how come them to get into all them fights. I guess it was only a couple of incidents. (Strait 1994)
BS: And that's the way the whole thing, I'll tell you, if you ever see "The Dollmaker," the movie "The Dollmaker" with Jane Fonda, that is just exactly like living in that time, to a T.
GS: People from the South were really looked down on. We were poor folks and white trash.
BS: And hillbillies.
GS: And hillbillies, that was a term they used a lot.
BS: Just prejudice is all you could call it, that's all it was.
GS: But, when you went to the shop to work, if you looked around the department and picked out all the fellows from the South, they were the ones that carried the load for the department. They were the best workers there. (Strait 1993)
George's comment about the value of the Southern workers and their solidarity is found in Benyon's study as well (Benyon 1938:339).
This sense of identity as an excluded group forced energies which may have been used to develop social bonds with broader segments of the Muskegon population into reinforcement of cultural forms which maintained the solidarity of Southern identity. Most important among these cultural forms were music and dance. Bunny describes this concisely.
BS: It's kind of funny, really, when you stop to think about how it worked. And there went the music because this guy from Kentucky would have a banjo, and that guy over there would have a guitar. Well, they was lonesome and felt kind of ostracized, you know, back over here in the corner by themselves. So, they'd all get together and they'd make music, you know. (Strait 1993)
Tom and Susie's first child was Audley Harrison Cable, born in Kentucky in 1909. Learning from his uncle Jake Kincaid and his mother, Audley, known as "Cabe," learned to play fiddle, banjo, mandolin, guitar, Jew's harp. Left-handed, he,
GS: played a right-handed fiddle left handed. The other instruments he played right-handed. But the fiddle, he played the right-handed fiddle left-handed. BB: With the coarse strings on the bottom and the fine strings on the top? GS: Yes. (Strait 1993)
Accounts of Cabe's musical development and influences differ somewhat in emphasis. Joan Ballard writes that, "leaving Ky. when he did and at an early age he didn't hear a lot of tunes of the late 20's & 1930's that were played in that part of the country unless he happened to hear a record of it" (1994b). George Strait, however, says that Cabe would have learned most of his music from his uncle Jake Kincaid (1993). At any rate, it would appear that his first instruments were fiddle and banjo, and perhaps guitar, and it also appears clear that he was playing all of these before he left Kentucky in 1923. He learned to play the mandolin a little bit later.
BS: This was in Michigan, and this was before 1929. So I'd say '27, and he had a taterbug then. That's what he learned on was that tater-bug. It's got a round back and stripes, looks just like a tater-bug. See, I wasn't old enough to know if he was playing it good or not, but he was playing tunes. (Strait 1993)
One influence on Cabe's music was a fiddler named Darley Fulks from Wolfe County, Kentucky. Although he knew Darley in Kentucky, it appears that they did not play music until "in the early 1930's, Darley came to Muskegon to work in the oil fields," where, according to Joan Ballard,
he stayed with Mom & Dad [Cabe] for awhile and then he would go back to Ky or some other place to work. One time when my folks lived at Gables, Mi. they worked together again and of course they would play music when they weren't at work. I think the last time my Dad saw Darley was in the early 1940's. . . . He [Darley] always seemed like some kind of legend to me because Cabe always spoke of him when we would sit down to play music. (Ballard 1994)Fulks traveled widely working in the oil fields and spoke of a process of musical assimilation he experienced, apparently in Illinois, which is very similar to what apparently was happening in Muskegon and probably many other places where Southern migrants were becoming part of ethnically diverse populations:
John [Harrod, the interviewer], I was never so embarrassed in my life. I will tell you about that. They had a square dance in a big barn. And, I never will forget it. Anyway, there was a fellow there from Tennessee that could call a set. And, I don't know where he'd moved up there. I don't know. I just asked them where that fellow was from that was calling that set. They said he was from Tennessee. Well, I played and they danced. And, nobody ever [-?-]. This fellow was asking if he could play square dance music. He said, "No, I don't play that kind of music." But, he was there, and he'd been playing waltzes and schottische and things, you know, for the crowd. And, this fellow got up and said, "Anybody in this place want to square dance?" And, he was a caller, you see. Well, I was playing the fiddle, and they asked me if I could play a schottische. And, I said, "No." I said, "No." Well, John, it just cooked my goose. There I had the crowd a going for me, and I couldn't play it. That learnt me a trick, bubby. I went to learn schottisches. And, John, don't never get caught in that shape like I did. I had to lose all of my prestige, you know, that I had gained. That I had built up. And, I was embarrassed the worst ever you saw in your life. I never had anything to embarrass me so. So, if you're going to play, you better, you better learn more than, learn square dance music. (Fulks)
The earlier dances in Muskegon that George and Bunny Strait recall were local, neighborhood affairs, usually based around an extended family and featuring exclusively Southern square dance music.
BB: So the people who were there for the dance were mostly people from your neighborhood?
BS: Yeah, sure, most of them.
GS: Generally mostly relatives.
BS: Well, if you had them. We didn't have any relatives up there. But just neighbors around. And maybe Buck and Cabe and Vada's friends. Maybe they'd live fifteen miles away. You know, people didn't have cars, too many of them, those days. So, Cabe would have his car, and maybe he'd go get a couple or two or three and bring them in, or Vada would go and two or three of her friends would come from somewhere. But it was just anybody. And it was old folks and young folks and anybody, just anybody.
GS: When me and Bunny was going together, and Charlie and Maude, Midge's folks, lived right across the road from her, that's how come I met her, see, we had a big house party over at their house one night. And Buck was there, and Bunny and Pat, and Vern Hively, and my Uncle Milt, and Lowell, and a bunch of us was there.
BS: And it would be, as I said, old folks and young folks and anybody that happened to be around. They'd all get together. You'd be surprised how many of those old fellows, say would be George's age now, I think particularly of Henry Briggs, my brother-in-law Fred Briggs's older brother, and if there was a young kid, say if there was a young girl, maybe ten, he'd get her out on the floor and just work with her trying to teach her. And that's the way people would learn how to dance. Just such things as that.
BB: Would there be, say, Italian or Polish people there?
BS: A few, but very, very few, because most of them . .
GS: They held to themselves.
BS: They were cliquish. We were all cliquish. And we didn't mean to be racists or snobs or anything like that, but
BB: Just wouldn't have much in common.
BS: No, you don't have much in common. Because most of them were pretty good drinkers, pretty heavy drinkers. And they liked this raucous music, like polkas and like that, where the other people would rather have a waltz or maybe a square dance, but none of that other stuff. Them polkas will wear you out. But very seldom. Once in a while maybe. Now Buck used to run around with the Pinazzo brothers. They were Italians. And so maybe one or two of them would be there. And maybe it'd be one of the Pinazzo brothers and his Italian girlfriend. And everybody, once you were there, you were always welcome. So it wasn't like you had to sit over in the corner like that. But outside of that, and maybe once in a while one of the neighbors would have a Polish friend. And maybe they'd be in on it, see.
GS: About the time Bunny and I got married, World War Two come along, and everybody was too busy to have any parties. (Strait 1994)
BB: The dances that you had earlier, when y'all were younger, just growing up there, would they be, would you have the schottisches and polkas?
BS: No, we didn't.
GS: We didn't have anybody in our group that done the schottische or the polka either one. But a lot of them wanted to waltz or to foxtrot. A dance they called the foxtrot, to a six-eighths measure. And Dad was good at foxtrotting. And he was an awful good square dancer. He was about as good as I've seen step on the floor.
BS: And once in a while if it was a group of people that knew the old Virginia Reel, where you lined up, you know, they'd do them, but only once or twice that I can remember. (Strait 1994)
BB: So at these earlier dances when y'all were younger, they were doing mostly square dances, and who all would have been there, you know, that was calling for the square dances?
BS: Oh, whoever could call. You'd be surprised how many people could get up and call one or two squares. Maybe this guy would only know one, "Wabash Cannonball," say. He'd know one, and that was all that he could do. Here was this guy over here. Well, he knew how to call the little Indian song, too. "One little Indian, two little Indians," and so forth, to the tune of that. And he'd call that. And maybe the next guy, he'd call something different, if he could. And sometimes they'd call the same ones over and over. (Strait 1994)
Some of the Cables would play for these dances and on other occasions throughout Muskegon.
GS: And Buck and Cabe and Susie used to play for some dances there in Muskegon.
BS: Mom only played once or twice.
BB: This would be about what years?
BS: '29, '30, '31. I don't think Buck ever went and played with Cabe until after Cabe got married, which was about '32.
GS: And then Buck a lot out in the taverns in the late '30s, but I don't believe he played regular anywhere. He just knew all the musicians, and he'd go somewhere to a tavern and there'd be a bunch there he knew, and he'd sit in with them.
BS: Or to a regular dance hall. They used to have dance halls all over. Just regular dance halls.
GS: Oh, yeah, they had several barns, barndances. You went out in the country four or five miles and there was a big old barn, and they'd have a dance every Saturday night. (Strait 1994)
I have probably heard why it was that George started playing the guitar, but if I have I have long since forgotten, and it never occurred to me to ask during the interviews for this project. Guitar-playing and singing seem such an integral part of the idea I have of my grandfather that I could not imagine him without imagining him in connection with music. I know that he learned at the age of sixteen when his fingers were so stiff and clumsy from farm-work that at first he would have to move the fingers of his left hand into position with his right in order to play a chord. At any rate, by nineteen, in late 1939, he began playing semi- professionally.
GS: My Uncle Milt's daughter's husband. His oldest daughter, Verna, married this Frank Hilliard, who was Polish. And he played the steel guitar, Hawaiian style. He played a lot of Hawaiian music. And he played the accordion. Had a big nice 120-bass accordion. And I went out and beat on a guitar in a tavern when he would have to come to my house beforehand and take a bunch of the songs and write out the music and show what chords he wanted played and everything on that. And I'd go fake it in the dadburn tavern whether I could play it or not. And I was making three bucks a night. Play four hours and get three dollars. That was union scale those days, 75 cents an hour. And there for a while we played four nights a week. And I worked forty hours a week in the shop at the same time. I worked forty hours in the shop for sixteen dollars. I played sixteen hours in the taverns for twelve dollars. (Strait 1994)
BB: The taverns, then, I guess there'd be a fair number of taverns in the city?
GS: Oh, yeah. And the ones that had live music got a better crowd, no matter how sorry it was. And I used to play and sing some of Gene Autry's songs. And, ummm, it was one of . .
BS: [sings: "Bring it on down to my house honey"]
GS: Oh, yeah, that's the kind of song they liked. All them old rotten tavern songs. And then he would play all kinds of tunes on the accordion. And he was a rather good musician. And he played "Twelfth Street Rag" and "Tiger Rag" was two of his specialties that he did on the accordion. And he'd play a lot of Hawaiian numbers on the, what we call a dobro now. It was known then as a Hawaiian guitar. And there was a lot of Hawaiians came in from Hawaii and played Hawaiian music. It was quite popular at that time. We're talking late '30s to early '40s. And we played anything that people asked for, if we knew it, of course. And we tried to keep up on all the popular songs that were coming on the air at that time. Because radio was quite popular. Wasn't any TV, but radio was pretty popular, and people wanted all the late songs, was what they wanted to hear. So we had to learn a lot of them. (Strait 1994)
BB: Would each tavern tend to have a fairly steady group of people that would come in?
GS: I could tell you ahead of time, if I got there at nine o'clock, and the tavern was one third full, say, I could point to a different table and describe the person that was going to come to that table and how he was going to react as the evening progressed. Whether he would sit there and cry in his beer all night, or whether he would turn out talkative and noisy. Whether he would be ornery and get his butt kicked out, or whatever. I could tell you ahead of time what was going to happen in the tavern every night.
BS: What there was was those, like we're talking about this Bidler Street. There'd be a tavern over here on this corner. And then maybe another three, four blocks down the road there'd be another one. And then maybe a couple of blocks over on another street there'd be another one. So that people that lived right here would go to this one.
GS: Very few people drove to the tavern.
BS: No, they walked. And then the people who lived over here, they'd come to this one. Well, very seldom would these ever come to here, or these come to here. So, as George said, it was the same group every time. In every neighborhood.
GS: We got fired one night. I was nineteen years old, and I didn't drink much them days. I would drink a little beer. And we were playing in a Polish tavern. And they thought the musicians, if they weren't half-drunk, couldn't play good music. So they were bringing us a Coke and a shot of whiskey about every ten minutes. And I was drinking straight Coke. And Frank Hilliard hadn't had any supper, and he was drinking double shots. And he didn't last too long. He couldn't play, and they kicked us out. (Strait 1994)
After playing in the taverns with Frank Hilliard for a while, the jobs played out and George began playing with his younger brother, Roy, on tenor guitar and later mandolin.
GS: Anywhere we could get a date we played music. We played in Sunday School. We played dances. We played anywhere we could play. I remember one night we played at Marquette School, and Roy and I were singing Delmore Brothers tunes, and we got asked if we were the Delmore Brothers. That'll make you a bit big-headed, you know. (Strait 1993)
This urban "country brother duet" became a trio, the Tennessee Mountain Boys, with the addition of Marshall Dial, a guitar and octaphone player about Roy's age who had moved up from Paris, Tennessee with his family about ten years before and who had been playing on the local radio station since the age of eleven (Strait 1993).
BB: How did you run into Marshall?
GS: He lived in the same neighborhood we did there in East Muskegon. And I went up to Marquette School, for something for the school, a school bazaar or circus or whatever, and they needed music. And Roy and I went up there and sung that night. And Marshall was there with his sister. He had a sister that sang alto with him. And they made some music, and me and Roy made some music. (Strait 1994)
GS: He played guitar mostly, and then his cousin owned an octaphone. . . . And he was awfully good on that. (Strait 1994)
GS: And we played together right up until World War Two come along. And Marshall went off to the Navy. And then a year or so later, Roy went off to the Air Force. That's what busted us up. We called ourselves the Tennessee Mountain Boys, because Marshall was from Tennessee. And that was the name we went under. And we got pretty well known around town. And one guy had a stint on the radio station, a thirty-minute stint every Saturday. (Strait 1994)
The Tennessee Mountain Boys played a lot of the later Delmore Brothers songs, along with earlier ones like "Brown's Ferry Blues," tunes that Marshall learned from his Tennessee family, and a mix of other country material (Strait 1993).
GS: We were singing Delmore Brothers tunes. The Monroe Brothers songs. We learned off of both of those records. Shelton Brothers songs we learned off their records. Cliff Carlisle songs. And Marshall was picking all kinds of tunes that he'd learned from his relatives down in Tennessee. Just all of the songs that were popular on the WLS Barndance show and like that.
BB: So you listened to WLS a good bit?
GS: Yeah, WLS and then there was a guy out of Gary, Indiana. There was a radio station there. (Strait 1994)
This line-up remained stable for a few years, with the band playing a variety of shows around Muskegon, including a few radio broadcasts.
GS: Yeah, they [Rusty and the Dude Ranch Cowboys] had a show on the radio station every Saturday morning, a fifteen minute show. And, self-sponsored. I guess they mentioned the fact where they could come to see them, stuff like that. Probably sponsored by [-?-] Tavern. He probably paid the freight. But they had us come up there and sing a song with them, and this is before we ever played at the tavern. This is before I was married, even. And had us go out to Ravenna and play at a political rally they had out there one time. And Rusty took a liking to us guys, I don't know. Just hired us on as extra hands, you know, for a little variety. (Strait 1993)
GS: We played after Bunny and I were married . We played out at [-?-] tavern out in the Heights with Rusty and the Dude Ranch Cowhands. And we went out there Sunday nights only and played two fifteen minute hitches in the course of the night to give his boys a break and got three dollars apiece. And that was union scale for playing the full four hours. He liked our music and it give his boys a break. Gave them a couple of breaks during the night. And, boy, they were worked to death. They were playing there seven nights a week about five hours a night. So that's a lot of playing. (Strait 1993)
World War Two marked a significant change in the pattern of music and dances for most of the people in Muskegon and across America, particularly the people discussed here. The Tennessee Mountain Boys broke up, the days of the early dances were over, and Buck Cable was off to North Africa. When the war was over and things returned to normal, it was a different sort of normal. For one thing, both George and Roy now had families, which must have changed the options for playing music available to them. In the mid-1940s, they ran square dances one winter at Nunica, a little ways out of Muskegon. These dances were related to, but different from, the dances of the early and middle 1930s.
BS: We're talking about after World War One, then the Southerners went North. Well, then after their kids grew up and went to school with all of these Polish and Italian and German and Hollander and so forth, see, well, then they'd all start mixing in. And, here was this girl, she was married maybe to a Southerner, but maybe her folks played the schottische. And the first thing you know, why, "Well, gee, that's kind of cute. We'll play that," you know. And then that's how it all, it was just a big melting pot, you might say. And that's what happened. She'd bring her type of music, and then pretty soon here another one'd marry a Polish person and he'd, they'd be all for polkas. So then you'd get into the polkas.
GS: By the time I got big enough to play music, when you played a dance you had to be able to play for polkas. You had to play for other fast dances. You had to play slow waltzes. You had the play schottisches. Because you were getting requests for all of it. And you'd have to play that, and, oh, you'd play probably four or five or six dances, round dances, like that. And then you'd have a square dance set. And then you'd play half a dozen round dances, and then another square dance. And that would go on all night. Mix it up, you know.
Although the background for this project has been too narrow to attempt to
draw broad conclusions, I think that the experience of George and Bunny Strait
was probably fairly typical of Southern migrants in Muskegon, allowing a
tentative pattern to be described. As Southerners moved to Muskegon, lured by
steady work in the factories and higher wages, they brought many aspects of
their culture with them. Elements such as music, and particularly dancing, which
had a socializing effect were strongly maintained and served to unite and define
this new ethnic group in contrast to other ethnic groups already in Muskegon
such as the Italians, the Poles, and the native Muskegonites. In time, as the
Southern migrants worked with, lived with, and socialized with these other
groups, and especially as the migrants who grew to adulthood in Muskegon
socialized with, and often married, "outside their section," the Southerners
tended to merge with the general urban population of Muskegon, and their sense
of separateness diminished. The disruptive and equalizing effects of World War
Two accelerated this process. This process of social assimilation may be viewed
through the window of culture and the process of cultural adaptation and
assimilation demonstrated in the new performance contexts of traditional and
traditionally-based Southern music, the change and expansion of musical
repertoires, and the changes in social dancing between the early period of the
middle 1920s and the early post-War days.