Book Report: Read about Ohio 'briars,'or Twin Cities' jazz scene in this week's offerings
Years back, I had a student named Gaylon Kennedy, who hailed from southern Ohio. He regaled me with stories about folks he called "briars," laborers who came up from Kentucky and West Virginia to work at the steel mills of his hometown, Middletown, Ohio.
Gaylon's stories were hilarious and sad at the same time. They were so good he earned himself a spot on Bowling Green Radio after creating a briar character named Ballard Tolliver, in which Gaylon talked like a briar and told the stories briars would tell.
I'm very sad that Gaylon died last year because he would have loved a book I just read, "The Devil All the Time," by Donald Ray Pollock (Doubleday, $26.95). Pollock worked at the Meade Paper Company in Chillicothe, Ohio, for many years before enrolling at Ohio State's MFA program.
"Devil" is his second book and it's a knockout. He doesn't call his characters "briars," but Gaylon would have. We have Willard Russell, a WWII vet who is crazy about religion and makes blood sacrifices in an attempt to cure his cancer ridden wife, Charlotte.
We have Ray, an itinerant preacher who carries a gallon jar of insects with him to eat when the donations get slim and his guitar playing partner Theodore, who loses the use of his legs when Roy tells him that God wants him to drink antifreeze and he obeys.
We have Carl and his slattern wife Sandy, who are serial killers. (They like photographing their victims, which they call "models.")
We have the Coal Creek Church of the Holy Ghost Sanctified and its new preacher, a doughy-faced softy who specializes in seducing his virginal parishioners, impregnating them after which one hangs herself in grandma's smokehouse.
And we have Arvin Eugene Russell, son of Willard, who always tries to do the right thing, but never quite manages to keep from gut-shooting someone.
All these characters are woven into a tightly knit plot that keeps one reading for suspense and the glorious use of downhome language that Pollock is so good at creating.
In the 1950s I grew up in Polka Country, where we all gathered at a pavilion every Saturday evening to waltz and schottische to the musical stylings of Harold Loeffelemacher's Six Fat Dutchmen, Whoopee John Wilfahrt and Fezz Fritsche's Goosetown Band. Then I went off to Eau Claire State and got some culture.
The first lyceum program (free with the $35 per semester tuition) featured The Minneapolis Symphony under the direction of Antal Dorati.
The following month, we went to hear a traditional jazz band and its trumpeter "Doc" Evans, also of Minneapolis. I had never heard jazz before and I was hooked. But in subsequent years jazz became harder and harder to come by, with the advent of rock and roll, country and western, etc., etc.
In 1969, I moved to the Twin Cities, where jazz, thankfully, was still alive. It was a whole new world for me. I could actually drive out to the Hall Brothers Emporium of Jazz and hear guys like Butch Thompson and Don "Doggie" Berg tickle the ivories and brush the snares. Every New Year's Day for years we gathered at financial consultant Steve Leuthold's big river view penthouse to hear Percy Hughes on the sax or maybe Biddy Bastien on bass or Reuben Ristrom on guitar or Red Maddux on drums.
It was a glorious time, now gone unless you patronize the high ticket places like the Dakota or the Artist's Quarter. Mendota is gone, as is Davy Jones' locker and countless other clubs that have come and gone with the waves of change that have overtaken jazz.
But at least you can get a delicious taste of the past if you read "Joined at the Hip: A History of Jazz in the Twin Cities," by Jay Goetting (Minnesota Historical Society Press, $29.95). Here's a well-researched book by bassist and journalist Goetting, who wisely leans on earlier research by the likes of the earlier jazz commentator like Lee Kamman and Dave Sletten. He writes of Louis Armstrong coming up the Mississippi, about Minneapolis native Bobby Lyle playing the clubs on Hennepin Avenue when he was a teen (his parents had to sign permission for him to do so) before he made it big and went east.
We learn of Red Wolfe and his Port of Dixie contingent and how Don "Doggie" Berg hooked up with the Hall Brothers. (It wasn't in Mendota. It was in New Orleans in a paddy wagon!)
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