I went to high school in Lincoln County, Georgia, during the dwindling days of the Jim Crow era. I’m too young to remember Jim Crow’s salad days, that strange time of strange laws separating the races. I do recall that Elijah Clarke State Park was for whites and Keg Creek State Park was for blacks. I don’t recall separate water fountains and restrooms, and the only bus I rode was a yellow schoolbus, segregated until my last year of high school. No one cared who rode in the back. In fact it was cool to ride in the back. We wanted to ride in the back.
We had our Jim Crow moments though. In the 1967 Panorama, a slim gold-and-black collection of public school photographs, a heartless attitude toward blacks escapes. See for yourself. In the back, in the very last photograph in fact, stand two black janitors, four black lunchroom women between them. No, you won’t see their names there. You will find nine words that say far more than nine words ought to. “These fill a vital role at L.H.S.”
“These.” No humanity there at all is there. These nails ought to hold that board in place. These pencils surely are useful. These paper towels will clean up that spill. “These fill a vital role at L.H.S.” It is probably the most insensitive editorial work I’ve come across and I can say I had no part in it.
Yes we had reason to be ashamed but let’s move on shall we? Jim Crow laws, enacted from 1876 to 1965, sure look odd viewed from 2012. Let’s review a few of those so-called laws. A black man could not shake hands with a white man because it implied social equality. Blacks and whites didn’t eat together though I had many a meal in the 1960s with my black friends down on the farm. Jim Crow held that if they did eat together, whites were to eat first. The black kids and I ate together.
If a black person rode in a car driven by a white person, the black person sat in the back seat. In my day we all, black and white alike, piled into the back of a pickup truck down on the farm. Great fun.
Another so-called law: White motorists had the right-of-way at all intersections. Good God. Surely that was a formula for disaster!
It’s damn hard for me to believe all this. But it was real and it took place at a time when black music was taboo. Black music, you will recall, used to be called “race music.” If race music sounds unfamiliar that’s because Jerry Wexler of Billboard coined “rhythm and blues” to replace “race music” in 1948. Although blacks referred to their music as race music, Wexler, Jewish and aware of words’ unintended impact, found it a bit derogatory. Thus did R&B enter the lexicon and R&B would bring some whites and blacks together in the South through a seductive blend of music and dance.
That brings us to shaggers, the original bad boys. Pioneers of this dance crossed the race line long before Civil Rights legislation came along. Few people beyond the shag world consider the first wave of shaggers as Civil Rights trailblazers. Well they were. They had three confederates old timers will recall with affection: the jukebox, 45 RPMs, and fabled music.
Some say it rolled off the Mississippi, a mist that mesmerized all who breathed it. Others say it shot up from the river’s alluvial plain, the Mississippi Delta. Something mystical, something melancholy came out of the delta all right—the blues, that sadly beautiful, beautifully sad music. And the blues, that mighty tributary of melody that grew out of work songs, spirituals, shouts, and chants, would forever change lives.
To understand how people fell in love with the blues, you have to understand the times that led to it. You have to understand how life was for those who grew up in the first half of the last century. It was a time of taboos, a time when danger accompanied things we take for granted today. It was a time when parents didn’t approve of race music or the dancing and its settings. It was a time that called for doing the unacceptable.
By the mid 1940s, Jim Crow laws had long controlled a way of life and practices that in effect maintained segregation in the South and bordering states. Listening to “race music” was out of the question. Nor in a bit of reverse discrimination could whites enter black clubs and watch black performers “live.” Nor could black entertainers perform in white establishments. Taboo! A volatile thing fraught with danger.
Thus it was, that unknown-but-stardom-bound blacks performed on the Chitlin’ Circuit, a string of clubs throughout the South where they could do their thing in a safe, acceptable venue. Finding a place to eat and a room for the night? Well that was another matter, but that’s the way it was in the Jim Crow era—that time of drinking from water coolers marked “Colored Only.” Some whites, however, dared to do the unthinkable.
Charlie’s Place I’ve written about before. It was a club on the Chitlin’ Circuit near Myrtle Beach perched on a stretch of Carver Street called Whispering Pines. The pines began whispering, as Frank Beacham wrote in “Charlie’s Place, Shaggin’ the Night Away,” the night Billie Holliday sang there. Other black performers destined for greatness came to Charlie’s Place, including Little Richard.
During World War II, the only people who heard rhythm and blues were a few bold fellows who made it a habit to jump the Jim Crow rope. “Black music influenced us from the start, and the only good place to hear it was on the Hill,” said South Carolinian shag legend, the late Billy Jeffers.
Another such fellow was a North Carolinian, Malcolm Ray “Chicken” Hicks. Hicks grew up around blacks, and it wasn’t a big deal to watch blacks jitterbugging at a Durham armory. Many a “Colored Only” show did he slip into.
Hicks served in the U.S. Coast Guard and washed up in a club-happy place, Carolina Beach, in 1943. Back then, he said, “It was like a state fair, 24 hours a day. There were places that had no doors, ’cause they were always open.” The music? It wasn’t as accessible. Back then you couldn’t just flip a switch and find black music. Radio and the recording industry had yet to undergo the cultural revolution of the 1950s that would bring black music and performers to the forefront.
Researchers Brendan Greaves and Michael C. Taylor give Hicks an amount of credit for pioneering beach music: “The oft-told legend holds that beach music was born at Jim Hanna’s Tijuana Inn at Carolina Beach, North Carolina, in the spring of 1948. It was here that Hanna, a former merchant marine, first placed African American jump blues on his piccolo, or jukebox, at the behest of his friend Chicken Hicks, creating a space where white listeners and dancers could engage the largely taboo black music in a space easily entered and exited, both literally and figuratively.”
Hanna called the amusement company in Wilmington that stocked his jukebox and had them bring over some music they regularly took to the black joints down the road. Soon the box that sat just to the right of the entrance to the long and narrow club was blaring tunes unheard of in postwar white America. Suddenly white America and black America had learned to coexist, if only at the jukebox at the Tijuana Inn.”
Hicks had an affinity for black music and white liquor. On his moonshine-purchasing trips to the African American community of Seabreeze, Hicks heard popular songs by black artists such as Joe Liggins and The Honeydrippers, Louis Jordan and His Tympani Five, Lionel Hampton, and Wynonie Harris, forebears of the budding jump-blues style music emerging out of the swing and big band traditions.
Hicks liked to show off the new steps he picked up from Seabreeze. When he hit the dance floor, people gathered around for the show. “I’m gone tell you the truth, I didn’t call it anything,” he said in 1996. “I couldn’t stand it, how they all called it the jitterbug. All I said was, ‘Come on, let’s go jump awhile.’ ”
Hicks was more than an exceptional dancer. He changed the music whites listened to. He helped bring blacks’ “bop” sound to whites, and that, in part, would give rise to the “beach music” sound.
“I got chummy with the jukebox changers. I’d say, ‘Bring that record and that record.’ I got rid of Glenn Miller in Carolina Beach jukeboxes.”
Change was swift. “You couldn’t get in the place,” said Hanna. “People just loved the music.”
The music proved infectious, and people adored its source. As the nation was coming out of the Great Depression, the jukebox secured a reverent place in Americana and shagdom. In a time when few people could afford their own phonographs, a nickel provided a way to hear great music. A designer’s dream, the jukebox’s colors, bubbles, and swirls transported people to another world, and it gave black music exposure, in the process spreading the shag up and down the North and South Carolina coasts.
Harry Driver, considered the “Father of the Shag” by some, lived in Dunn, North Carolina. He recalled listening to “race” and Hit Parade music in 1945 at White Lake’s Crystal Club. There they danced to “suggestive” music banned in the segregated Carolinas. They paid scant attention to the bans. Said Driver, “We had integration twenty-five years before Martin Luther King Jr. came on the scene. We were totally integrated because the blacks and whites had nothing in our minds that made us think we were different. We loved music, we loved dancing, and that was the common bond between us.”
Little Richard remembers those rowdy early days. “We played places where they told us not to come back because the kids got so wild. They were tearing up the streets and throwing bottles and jumping off the theater balconies at shows. At that time, the white kids had to be up in the balcony—they were ‘white spectators.’ But then they’d leap over the balcony to get downstairs where the black kids were.”
Things began to change. Yes Hicks got Glenn Miller off the jukebox, though we must acknowledge that Miller disappeared December 15, 1944 over the English Channel. Never seen again. As the big-band era died, rhythm and blues came on strong and racial barriers softened. The color line began to wash out, bleached by black musicians’ crossover to white audiences thanks to guys like Hicks who got their records into white jukeboxes. Vinyl from artists such as Bull Moose Jackson and LaVern Baker could now be heard. More and more whites turned to black music at the beach pavilions though to do so was perilous. Sometimes the KKK showed up showering bullets, slurs, and mayhem.
Frank Beacham wrote of this musical rebellion of sorts. “General Johnson (frontman of Chairmen of the Board) understood the resistance to black music from the Ku Klux Klan and Southern leaders following World War II. But he also understood the unspoken attraction of Southern white kids to black music. “The average person of the Caucasian race could not listen to that music because it was blue music (blues) . . . if you listened to blue music you were scorned,” Johnson told me. “But that same music was on the jukeboxes down in Myrtle Beach. And you could go down to Myrtle Beach and nobody looked down on you. That’s basically why it’s called beach music—though it was actually rhythm and blues.”
Said one veteran shagger, “You could only hear that stuff when you were at the beach and away from your parents. The whites loved what they heard and no sheriff was going to hold them back.”
That was many, many years ago … decades.
There’s an old dictum. “The more things change the more they remain the same.” Mostly whites dance the shag today. Young blacks consider it a dance performed to “white music.” Black musicians say their own kids refuse to listen to it. So much change has transpired that beach music’s roots in rhythm and blues are lost even on the very race that created it. Frank Beacham in “Charlie’s Place” quoted Maurice Williams of Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs on this fact.
“The beginning of beach music was predominantly rhythm and blues,” said Williams, “but today if you say to a young black man, ‘come on, let’s go and listen to a beach music show,’ he’ll say, ‘I ain’t going to that white music.’ The average black kid in his twenties or thirties doesn’t know what this is all about. They see a beach music festival and think it’s all white music. It’s strange. They haven’t studied the history of their music and the guys who recorded it enough to know what beach music is all about. They just don’t know any better.”
Author’s Note: Parts of this essay include excerpts from Save The Last Dance For Me, University of South Carolina Press.