by Ben Sandmel
Ferriday, Louisiana, looms large and legendary on America’s musical landscape. For at least a century, this Concordia Parish town of some 3,500 souls has fervently nurtured the overlapping strains of blues, gospel, and country. During the mid1950s, these genres converged — in Ferriday, Memphis, and elsewhere — to create the rambunctious new sound that would come to be known as rockabilly. Ferriday’s funky fire-in-the-belly sizzles on today, as successive generations cherish and expand upon its vital roots music traditions.
The best-known musicians to emerge from Ferriday are a talented trio of piano-playing cousins — rockabilly pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis, country hitmaker Mickey Gilley, and televangelist Jimmy Swaggart. But there are many other notables. After a long nomadic career, the late blues trombonist Pee Wee Whittaker settled in Ferriday, drawn there in part by its long-standing, loyal blues community. The bedrock blues genre also thrives in neighboring Natchez, Mississippi, home of a harmonica wild-man named Papa Lightfoot. Lightfoot is dearly departed, but Hezekiah and the House Rockers carryon his raw, rural style, while brothers Y. Z. and Theotis Ealey represent the contemporary soul/blues school, each leading his own band. In addition, the surrounding region has spawned such diverse luminaries as jazz saxophonist Lester Young, classical composer William Grant Still, honky-tonk country singer Webb Pierce, and swamp-rocker Tony Joe White, of “Polk Salad Annie” fame -among many others.
The odds are low that such a small town would generate so much musical talent — and many observers wonder why. Elaine Dundy pondered this matter in her 1991 book Ferriday, Louisiana:
“Unquestionably, what this group of people all have in common is that they are all passionate communicators or more accurately, communicants, early in touch with something beyond their everyday existence, with some inner conviction that would last all their lives. It is as if something inside them was fairly screaming to be let out, as if, metaphorically, each is grabbing you by the lapels saying, ‘Listen to me. Hear what I have to tell you. It will change your life. It will change the world.’ Although these people seem to turn up precisely when needed, they were none of them merely filling someone else’s shoes. They were instead pushing, striving, enduring and prevailing to make themselves heard, make themselves known, in short, to get their own way.
“Ferriday was always a permissive town,” Dundy continues, “basically a live-and-let-live town, though in its past on Saturday nights it could also be a live-and-let-die town. From its earliest-days it has been a culturally complex community which includes not only Jews, Italians, and blacks, but Chinese and Mexicans, as well as white Protestants. Ferriday made them think. and feel differently from other more homogeneous small towns in the South. It has accepted people’s differences, yet it is far from complacent, for, to keep things hopping, it is also where back-country fundamentalist morality clashes with free-and-easy Mississippi River morality.”
Dundy’s florid, romantic musings are an apt match for her subject matter, and her book is an invaluable assemblage of oral history, anecdotes, and local lore. And, while “Mississippi River morality” is a vague concept or construct — it resonates with many Ferriday residents. “There’s just something about that river …” is a frequently encountered comment, along with observations that the town’s talent can be traced to some mythical substance that has seeped into its drinking water.
Besides attracting musicians, Ferriday is also a wellspring of wordsmiths. With great narrative skill and considerable wit, Ferriday’s loquacious raconteurs love to expound upon their environs’ rich, colorful, and often excessive past. Musicians figure prominently in such sagas, and what follows is an anthology of music-related anecdotes from this cultural crucible of North Louisiana. An appended bibliography points the way towards more measured accounts of the rockabilly revolution, and Ferriday as a microcosm of musical and social history. These are topics of import, discussed in worthy tomes, and often addressed, also, in the pages of this magazine. But suspend exactitude, for a moment, and revel in the artistry of people who revel in their own grassroots language, their own life stories, and their own pantheon.
“I took up the guitar,” W. C. “Gray” Montgomery recalls, “when a kid who played real good moved to our neighborhood, and all the girls went crazy over him. I got me a fourteen-dollar guitar, started rapping on it, and learned to play. And it worked directly, those girls were going crazy over me, too!”
Montgomery is now in his seventies, and the passage of time has brought him elder-statesman status. “Gray is a throwback to another era,” says Glen McGlothin, the mayor of Ferriday. McGlothin is well-qualified to make such musical assessments; in the time-honored Louisiana tradition of musical politicians, His Honor’s second job is lead singer for a popular “cover” band called Easy Eddie and the Party Rockers. “We play everything from Way Ion to Van Halen,” the mayor says, with great enthusiasm. “We have something for everyone.”
Gray Montgomery has rarely strayed too far or long from the area around Ferriday and Natchez, Miss., just across the Mississippi River. (Locals simply call this region “Miss Lou.” As musician and music-store owner Jim Easterling, of Vidalia, La., comments, “Those of us who live around here don’t think of that river as any kind of barrier.”) But Montgomery’s somewhat restricted range doesn’t imply any limit to his talent; he is a masterful, accomplished guitarist, reminiscent of the late Merle Travis. Montgomery is also a rich, warm baritone crooner. Actually, as a one-man band, he’s much more than that.
“I stomp my own bass notes,” Montgomery explains, pointing down to his foot-pedal bass -more typically found connected to an electric organ — ”and then I have a little computerized drum unit which sounds like a tambourine.” Beyond such instrumental ambidexterity, Montgomery also has an unusually broad repertoire. It includes country tunes from the ‘30s on, low-down blues, rockabilly and rock ‘n’ roll, and soft, sentimental “dinner music.” “Songs like ‘Stardust,’” he comments on this latter category. “Back in the old days I thought that was sissy music, and I was wantin’ to be an old, tough, country cowboy. But when I got the chance to play it, man, that was the most relaxing time of my life.
“I love to play the blues, too, now. Years ago I used to play in black clubs and little juke joints over in Natchez, with an old blues harmonica player named Papa George Lightfoot. And I love to pick those fast boogies, and western swing, and rock. You can play different kinds of music, and it’ll almost make you feel like you’re several different musicians rolled into one.”
“I did tour with a few bands,” Montgomery recalls, “but I didn’t like it to where I would take a lot of punishment to do it. I was on the road with a guy named Lash LaRue, who did a pop-the-whip act. He could pop a piece of paper out of a little girl’s mouth, and cut it right in two. The way we hooked up, I was in Monroe, walking around looking for a job, and I was wearing a cowboy shirt. He walked up to me and said ‘Do you play music? I’m lookin’ for a gittar man.’ I told him ‘yes, sir, I do.’ We’d perform at movie theaters in these little towns, the band would play for maybe thirty minutes and then Lash LaRue would come out and pop the whip. I’ll tell you what, he could pop it even better after he took a good swig out of a whiskey bottle.
“But that got old, and I wasn’t making enough to pay my bills, raising four girls. So I stayed home. I would work and play, work and play. I did some truck driving, surveying, hay baling, little jobs to make a living, and I’d play music on weekends. Then I went to trade school, and learned air-conditioning, refrigeration, and electronics.”
Despite leaving LaRue, however, Montgomery always performs in Western wear. “I fell in love with cowboy music back in the ‘30s, from watching all them old cowboy shows. And I believe that if they brought those shows back, it might cut down on crime. ‘Cause the crooks always got punished, and the guy who was honest always came out a winner.”
“I used to be in a band with Jerry Lee Lewis,” Montgomery mentions casually. “In the early 1950s, I forget what year. We’d play everything: rockabilly, country, waltzes, blues. We’d mix it up good so that we’d keep everyone happy. I’d tell the crowd ‘if you don’t hear what you like now, stick around and we’ll get to it.’ But Jerry Lee would get mad real quick. Somebody’d make a request, and he’d say ‘we don’t play that kind of damn song around here!’
“When Jerry first tried to join our band, he was real young. He wasn’t a good enough piano-man, yet, and we told him that. So he started learning, and meanwhile he worked with us playing drums. Our gig in Natchez started at 9 sharp, and he was almost always late. The owner, this big Italian guy named Julio, would ask him ‘Jerry, where you been?’ and Jerry would say ‘well, you know I live way over yonder in Ferriday!’ Somehow that excuse always worked. Yeah, old Jerry was kind of wild …”
“Jerry… never did quite settle down, did he?” This rhetorical question is posed by Frankie Jean Lewis Terrell — Jerry Lee Lewis’ sister — in the front room of the Lewis family home in Ferriday. The house doubles as The Lewis Museum, which adjoins the Lewis Quick Drive-Thru liquor store and daiquiri shop. Proudly defying all conventional curatorial practices, The Lewis Museum displays a staggering trove of invaluable items such as unpublished photos of Jerry Lee Lewis, unreleased Lewis recordings, and posters for some of his earliest appearances. These priceless possessions are randomly interspersed with room upon room of more prosaic artifacts — “mother’s favorite tea cups and flat ware,” vast stores of kitchen utensils, (“just open up any cabinet and have a look”), the complete works of Mark Twain, and even Jerry Lee’s potty seat.
In addition to Lewis-related items, the walls are festooned with photos of an unlikely assemblage of celebrity colleagues. In various rooms one is met by the gaze of The Three Stooges, Chuck Berry, Dan Rather, Fats Domino, Milton Berle, Earl Long, Buddy Holley, and TV cowboy Richard Boone, star of the’50s-’ 60s series Paladin. (Paladin’s pop-culture claim to fame is the slogan “Have gun, will travel.”) Despite these bizarre touches -and the fact that deceased sibling Elmo Lewis, Jr., is buried in the front yard -the most striking aspect of The Lewis Museum is its notion of assumed context. No effort is made to explain the impact of Jerry Lee Lewis’ music, the impressive facts and figures of his career, or the workings of his enigmatic persona. The implied message is that visitors must know this already, or they wouldn’t bother to show up. Those who do make the trip are met with genuine warmth and hospitality from Frankie Jean and her husband, Marion Terrell, not to mention a deeply unique experience. A cursory tour requires a good three hours, while cataloging the entire collection would take weeks if not months.
“You know, this fellow from the Smithsonian called me,” Terrell says, “and he wanted to know what order do I use for my exhibits. Alphabetical, chronological, or every kind of logical? And I told him, ‘It’s the plunking order. Wherever it was plunked down, that’s where it’ll set.’ He got extremely offended, and he has not called me back. You know, they have so much stuff up there at the Smithsonian that it would take 66 years to see it all, even if you only spent one second looking at each thing. Well, I am not going! It would just finish me off! But I would like to see it on a video.
“I love Ferriday,” Terrell says. “It’s a lovely little village. But we don’t want it too clean, too squeaky clean. You get too clean, you don’t look good. You get too damn clean, you look like you came out of a casket!” Nevertheless, Terrell often cleans the exhibits -and her stove -while visitors are on tour, spraying great balls of Windex and blithely singing along, quite melodically, to tapes of her brother’s music. This seeming nonchalance might give some patrons the mistaken impression that the museum’s riches are left unattended. But each room sports a security camera and monitors that flash grainy, alternating views of the house and the Lewis Quick Drive-Thru.
“Jerry loves the house, and he honors it,” Terrell confides. “But he’s kind of like the King of England -he makes all kinds of big declarations, and then he drives away. He doesn’t do his duties as far as taking care of it. I’d like to put him behind a Hoover! But Jerry’s not much on Hoovering. Or plowing.
“What year did we start this museum?” Terrell muses. “We didn’t. Daddy was in construction and moonshining, and we had a wonderful, wonderful childhood. Mother would open up the house, as far back as I remember. Jerry would play for people right here on these steps, when he was little. Mother would pass the tin cup and take up a collection. We still don’t charge admission today, but we accept donations. The house is donated to the fans. Did I say doted? Donated.
“I started giving tours when I was twelve. We never had a formal opening, but I’ve been doing this all of my life. It’s here, it’s our birthright. It’s real, it’s not a mirage. The fans need a sense of being and belonging, and they need to know that this is here when they want to drop in. It’s for the fans and the preservation of history. Jerry’s story has to be told right. That movie about him, Great Balls of Fire I told Winona Ryder not to take that part! She looked as dumb as she acted. It was stupid. It was like glazing a ham, they just glazed over everything. It was just a glaze, not even a good maze -at least then you could call it a rat!”
The past hangs heavy in Ferriday, but “what might surprise some people,” Jim Easterling comments, “is how much music is going on here today.” An admired and respected community figure, Easterling has experienced many aspects of the music business. A member of the Louisiana Hall of Fame, his original songs have been recorded by the likes of the late country crooner, Marty Robbins. Easterling is also a pianist and guitarist, and the leader of a longstanding band called The Mississippians.
“Yes,” Easterling continues, “there are many great musicians working in this Miss-Lou area, around Ferriday and Natchez, and all through the Delta region. Our mayor’s band, for instance. There’s another good, rocking outfit from Ferriday called Swampwater; our Clerk of Court for Concordia Parish, Clyde Ray Webber, used to be with them, but now he’s doing great as an after-dinner speaker. Over in Jonesville, Louisiana, we have a band Cuz and Company, they have a piano man named Jerry Lipsey who sounds a lot like Jerry Lee Lewis. Up the river in St. Joseph, which is a very small town, there’s a 25-piece outfit called the St. Joe Orchestra. They play big-band and popular material, they all read music, and they have musicians who come in from Natchez, Vicksburg and Monroe. Jesse Pollard is a blues piano man up the river in Waterproof, Louisiana — he was here, in the store, just the other day. Po’ Henry and Tookie [Henry Dorsey and Wayne “Tookie” Collum] play that old-time country blues, guitar and harmonica, they’re based out of Rayville. And another good blues guitar man is Rufus “Rip” Wimberly, in Tallulah; he must be in his seventies by now. A lot of these musicians play every year at our Delta Music Festival, in Ferriday, and the Louisiana Folklife Festival, in Monroe, and the Jazzfest in New Orleans.”
“We have lots of music here,” agrees Mayor McGlothin, “and the roots of it are the church. We have a lot of church-goin’ people in this area. Those Pentecostal services will get you going! Some musicians, like Jerry Lee, started in the church and then branched out, and others, like Reverend Swaggart, stayed in it. We have some great Gospel musicians that Zion Hill Choir over in Clayton, they’ll put chill-bumps on you. And the blues is big here, too. That blues feeling is very important to the music of this area.”
“There’s something about that Mississippi River,” Jim Easterling observes, “that gives all the music around here a bluesy feel -even the country music. The further away you get from that river, the less you will find that blues feeling.”
“Yes, indeed, the blues is big around here!” says W. J. Squalls, of Natchez. he first African-American police officer in Natchez, Squalls patrolled by day and worked as a deejay at night. Now retired from law enforcement, he concentrates on spinning recorded music, both on the air and at nightclubs. “But I don’t do it with a lot of jive talking, like some deejays,” Squalls points out; “this music deserves respect.
“Way back in the day,” Squalls reminisces, “ there was a club over in Ferriday called Haney’s Big House. All of the most popular blues artists, black entertainers, would play there -artists such as B. B. King, Big Joe Turner, Memphis Slim, John Lee Hooker. It was a black club, this was in segregation days, but Jerry Lee Lewis would sneak in there to watch those musicians, and he learned a lot by doing that.
“Did I know Papa Lightfoot? Did I? He sold snowballs! He had a portable snowball stand, on wheels. He’d pull that thing around town, set up somewhere, start blowin’ his harmonica and next thing you know he had a big crowd. Sell his snowballs, go to another neighborhood, do the same thing. Oh, Papa Lightfoot was great.
“Anyone who says that the blues is dying out has not been to this Miss Lou area!” Squalls asserts. “The blues is on the rise, and younger black people are listening to it, too, I think that the whole rap-music thing has peaked and is starting to decline, at least around here. Now, the blues that’s most popular today is what you call the modern soul-blues — artists like Marvin Sease, Poonanny, Floyd Taylor, Bobby Rush. But out in the country you still have those old juke joints. I mean little holes in the wall! And the people who frequent those places, they like an older style of blues, they enjoy artists like Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. Way back when, that kind of old-style blues was known as ‘store garrett music.’ The reason why is, folks would hang around the country stores, and they’d dance on the porch – but they called that porch a ‘garrett.’ So if I’m deejaying out in a rural area, I’ll spin some of that store-garrett music. And let me tell you what, the people get to stomping, and the ladies start waving both hands in the air. Yes, indeed! That’s how we enjoy our music around here!”
Ben Sandmel is a New Orleans-based freelance writer and folklorist, and he has served as the music reviewer for Louisiana Cultural Vistas for 24 years. He wrote Ernie K-Doe: The R&B Emporer of New Orleans, published in 2012 by The Historic New Orleans Collection.