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Gordy Brown

I just learned, from an obituary in The Boston Broadside, that Gordy Brown died on December 11th. On December 3rd I had gotten one of Gordy’s frequent mailings to his e-list, this one a forward of a link to videos of old Opry stars. The return address was “may be hospitalized awhile limiting access to mail.” Gordy had COPD and had been in the hospital not long before; last time I saw him, in the summer when he dropped by WHRB to leave off a few records, he was toting an oxygen tank.

On the 24th I dropped him a note saying I was using his old photo of the 1994 HAH Christmas Party and reminding him to tune in on Saturday for the rebroadcast of the 2012 Christmas Extravaganza. The email generated this response: “Gordy.s Auto Signature Block Am in Bedford VA Hospital Hospice unit, Bldg. 2, rm 303. No cell phone. Room Phone is 782-687-4110. NO physical visits. due to covid” As far as I knew he was still alive and maybe even reading his mail. Eerily, it now reminds me of the scene in the movie, On the Beach, after a world-ending atomic war, when a submarine crewman, searching for the source of a radio signal in dead San Francisco, finds only a Coke bottle bumping in the breeze against a telegraph key.

Gordy might have appreciated that irony. He was a friend, and a friend of the show for many decades. If he also earned the title of ‘Complainer in Chief’ on this blog, back in 2014, it was in jesting tribute to our long-standing differences of taste in country music, and it did not diminish the long years of his efforts on behalf of local country performers in New England. Gordy knew practically everyone who played ‘country and western’ in the region, and put that knowledge to the service of his own New England Country Music Historical Society and to Halls of Fame in Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island.

Gordy collected records and memorabilia, and hoped to establish a site for the Society and his collections—at one point he had Georgia Mae’s famous white guitar, which he donated to the Maine Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. The Society was a one-man operation, and eventually proved too ambitious. Gordy did succeed in creating an exhibit called Legends of Waltham Country Music at The Waltham Museum (25 Lexington St.). Here’s an email from Gordy about it:

Gordon Brown was born in New Bedford. He had worked as a part-time DJ on WNBH in New Bedford in the 1950s, and in engineering and production at Boston station WNAC (AM, FM, TV). He served in the Army and was active as a veteran in the American Legion and the VFW. He was also active in conservative politics, and helped distribute the fledgling Boston Broadside monthly, hence the prominent obituary there (next to the legendary Walter E. Williams). Gordy leaves a son, Barry, who I believe lives in Florida, and two grandchildren.

I can’t find a good photo of Gordy, but it would be fitting to treat readers to the volume of the old film series Gordy linked to in his final email, ‘Memors: Grand Ole Opry Stars of the Fifties’. This was the country music from the period that Gordy liked best, featuring acts like Carl Smith, Goldie Hill, Little Jimmy Dickens, Lonzo & Oscar, Minnie Pearl, and many others. This video contains several shows, and runs about an hour an a half. It’s lots of fun:

RIP Gordy. /CL

The Day-After-Christmas Extravaganza!

This Saturday is the day after Christmas, but we can’t let a year go by without keeping the tradition of our Christmas Extravaganzas alive. So we’ve got one for you: a rebroadcast of the Extravaganza from December 22, 2012! Plenty of favorites, like this one of mine from back in the ’60s:

If all goes well, it’ll start at 9:00 AM Eastern Saturday morning, and run until c. 12:40 PM, to make room for the Prelude to the Met. I had to take out the dated weather reports and Country Calendar announcements, which actually worked out well, as otherwise the show would have run too long. If you hear time cues during the show, just ignore them.

It’s also re-created from an aircheck at home, so the sound quality won’t be as good as usual or in stereo. But with the mix of LPs, CDs, and Vast Variety Vault singles, you might not even notice.

You’ll also hear some songs, like ‘The 12 Days of Redneck Christmas’ that I don’t think we’ve played since. Fun!

Why did I pick 2012? Dunno; listened to bits of a few others, and decided this one was more lively. The old pirate, Cap’n Flint, makes an appearance towards the end, as well.

Stay tuned! /CL

PS Speaking of archives, here’s a photo from the days when we had a party and a little carol singing for the Christmas Extravaganza:

The faces are pretty washed out, but I can recognize most of them. Going left to right, there’s Paul Anderson and his wife, Miss Barbara, who was our cheerful librarian for a time; then two dark-haired fellows I don’t recognize; Helen Clougherty (Sinc’s wife); Bucky Bear, I think; Jimmy Allen in the red sweater; a young lady with glasses I don’t know; Ol’ Sinc in front; Jimmy’s wife Sheila behind him, and then Richie Brown (?); Cousin Flo Murdock in red, and behind her Stan Zdonick; then I guess me in my green shirt (for Christmas) in front; Grace Funari behind me, and Ed Muller behind her; to the right of Ed is someone I don’t know; there’s John Lincoln Wright in a black hat, and his wife Vicki beside him; in front of the two of them is someone in a shiny jacket I don’t recall; in the back, behind Vicki is George Hauenstein (formerly of WZBC’s ‘Sunday Morning Country’, now in the midwest); next to last is the always-cheerful Frank Dudgeon (where is he now?), and farthest right, Gordy Brown, who gave me the photo. It was 1992.

Oh, and MERRY CHRISTMAS everyone! Yes, we are having one!

The Met Is Back, and Orgies® Pre-empt HAH for Two Weeks in December

The Metropolitan Opera Saturday Matinee Broadcast season begins December 5th. Of course, no live operas are being produced this season in New York City; all the operas broadcast will be drawn from the archives. They are scheduled for 1:00 PM every Saturday through June 5th. Although they could be run at any time, since they are recordings, not live, as of now the plan is to start them at the usual time, and for WHRB’s Pre-Met program to precede them, at about 12:45 PM.

Rather than list all the operas, let me direct you to the Met’s own broadcast schedule, which is HERE.

WHRB’s semi-annual Orgy® schedule begins December 4th, with many programs produced by members working from home. As usual, the offerings will be many and varied. The WHRB Program Guide containing the Orgy® schedule will be mailed to subscribers soon, and is available of course on the WHRB Website.

Normally Hillbilly at Harvard, along with the Metropolitan Opera, continues throughout Orgy® Period, but this term HAH will be pre-empted on two Saturdays, December 12th and 19th. I regret this further interruption after the last one, but remember to circle the 26th on your calendar and mark it, ‘HAH back!’ And remind your friends and neighbors, if they are listeners, in case they don’t read this blog. /CL

David Elliott—We Lost a Friend and Colleague

Last Friday brought this news from Jon Lehrich, Chairman of WHRB’s Board of Trustees:

Friends:

I am writing to share the sad news that David Elliott passed away last night, after a long battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). 

David was enormously important to WHRB and to many of us personally.  His leadership, his dedication, his enthusiasm, and his tireless insistence on excellence inspired generations of students.  His fans were legion, among alumni and listeners alike.

We are deeply saddened by this loss.  We are coordinating with his family to understand their wishes for his remembrance.  I also encourage you to share the news among the worldwide WHRB community.

Our hearts and sympathies go out to all who knew and admired David.  Please be well.

Jon

David Elliott at WHRB’s 75th Anniversary Celebration, October 2015 (Photo by Randy H. Goodman)

David Elliott was known to many listeners of Hillbilly at Harvard, especially those who looked forward to his comments on the Metropolitan operas that have followed HAH for some years now. Others will remember David dropping by to plug one of his special programs, especially his afternoon of American classical music for Independence Day, his Christmas specials (featuring a reading of A Christmas Carol by Lionel Barrymore), and his Orgies® of American musical comedy and song. Although David’s expertise in classical music and its recorded history was legendary, his musical interests ranged much wider, especially to older recordings and musical novelties. So he fit right in with the spirit of Hillbilly at Harvard.

Of course the Hillbilly show was special to him because of its long history at WHRB. David was the unofficial historian of the station, giving a semi-annual lecture to new members, and maintaining contact with many old ones. He took a special, we might say custodial, interest in HAH, especially after my broadcast partner Ol’ Sinc passed away at the end of 2002, and for this I remain grateful. David occasionally found songs (like ‘It’s Alright [sic] To Be Fat at Christmas’, by Stringhan Walters) and replaced missing ones, including the CD with our themes that mysteriously disappeared. He maintained the small library of my pre-recorded Generic Hours until his illness made it impossible. And several times over the years he actually co-hosted HAH as a ‘Fillbilly’ when I was out of town, once with John Lincoln Wright, other times with Gerry Katz and/or Larry Flint.

David was above all an exponent of radio, of the art of broadcasting, and his constant influence was one reason why WHRB has consistently maintained a high standard of professionalism, even while staffed by a constantly rotating cast of undergraduates. He certainly encouraged me to keep Hillbilly at Harvard going over the past couple of decades, in part I think because he valued the show as typical of the radio he remembered from years past. I don’t doubt that, behind the scenes, David was instrumental in keeping HAH a fixture of the Saturday morning schedule.

Beyond all this, David was a friend and colleague, and enormously helpful to me in other ways, especially as an advisor when, some years ago, I was trying to run a classical-music record label (Northeastern Records). His absence from WHRB has been a tremendous loss to all of us, ever since the inexplicable ALS disease confined him to a bed in 2018. Friday just made it worse. /CL

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PS Looking for something to play for David, I chanced upon this March 2017 email from him:

The Met opera this week is the famous William Tell (aka Guillaume Tell) by Rossini, from which comes the overture.

I don’t suppose you have any country versions of the famous part of the overture….

I responded: “Yes! Bob Wills! Swing, but I’ve played it before. And, of course, not even remotely country, there’s. . . Spike Jones! Now what in the world did I do with the Spike Jones CD. . .?”

I didn’t find Spike Jones, so I played the Bob Wills ‘William Tell’. Afterwards, David wrote,

I heard the Bob Wills — lovely! I brought in my Spike Jones LP version of the William Tell Overture just in case I got the courage to play it, but it was getting very late, and in fact I wanted to play (and did play) a Toscanini recording of the Overture which we doctored in about 1963 (hasn’t been heard since we aired it on Midnight Symphony back then). When it gets to the last section, we put in the opening of The Lone Ranger from an LP I had (and probably still have). The trumpet fanfare is played, and on the last section (the repeated notes) you hear horse’s hoofbeats. At the end of the last note of the fanfare you hear Brace Beemer (the Lone Ranger) say “Hi-yo, Silver!” and there are a few gunshots, and then the Toscanini recording resumes with the big tune. I chose the Toscanini recording because its sound (in NBC’s Studio 8H) was the closest to the sound of the studio orchestra playing for The Lone Ranger. It worked pretty well. So between you and me, we provided bookends of crocques. [‘Crocque’ is the WHRBic spelling of ‘crock’, in the sense of a novelty, or silly event.]

It was only a few seconds, but deliciously funny. “I wonder how many people that went by before they realized it,” I wrote. To which David responded,

Tony Lauck (whom you don’t know) was the engineer of the overture, and he did a splendid job. When we first played it, on Midnight Symphony, there was a phone call right after the interpolation: “Cut that out!” the person said. Too late — it happened and was over quickly.

I’d insert it now, but it would take some editing, and you really need much of the surrounding Overture to appreciate it. So instead, belatedly, here is Spike Jones’s ‘Williiam Tell Overture’. It’s never too late:

Willie, John T, and Me

In which Willie sits around in his underwear, his friend John T sells sheets to the KLan, and I get suspended.

Back on September 26th, a listener to one of our prerecorded shows (I’ll call him ‘Mr S’), wrote to the Program Director at WHRB, who forwarded the email to me:

I’ve been a loyal listener of Hillbilly at Harvard for decades.  Am listening again this morning and strongly object to the song “Shotgun Willy” that just played.  It memorializes a member of the KKK, whose family made money selling sheets!  This song should NEVER be played on your station.

I am a white person, who grew up in a KKK area.  Even white folks were scared.  Please delete this song from your music library.

Thanks.

This threw me for a loop, as I remembered nothing about the Klan in any Willie Nelson songs, but then I couldn’t recite lyrics for most of them anyway. ‘Shotgun Willie’ was of course the title song of the 1973 Atlantic album that Willie mostly wrote and in which he joined the ‘Outlaw’ revolt against the then-reigning Nashville ‘countrypolitan’ style. The song was not a profound piece of work; my favorite from that album was ‘Sad Songs and Waltzes (Aren’t Selling This Year)’. I had to look up the lyrics to ‘Shotgun Willie’ on the ‘Net:

Shotgun Willie sits around in his underwear
Biting on a bullet and pulling out all of his hair
Shotgun Willie’s got all of his family there

Well, you can’t make a record if you ain’t got nothing to say
You can’t make a record if you ain’t got nothing to say
You can’t play music if you don’t know nothing to play

Shotgun Willie sits around in his underwear
Biting on a bullet and pulling out all of his hair
Shotgun Willie’s got all of his family there

Now, John T. Floores was a-working for the Ku Klux Klan
At six foot five, John T. was a hell of a man
Made a lot of money selling sheets on the family plan

Shotgun Willie sits around in his underwear
Biting on a bullet and pulling out all of his hair
Shotgun Willie’s got all of his family there

OK, so Willie does write about some guy selling sheets—maybe to the Klan? And who was John T. Floores? So I did a little more research, coming up with the response to a query on Reddit that linked to an interesting article in The Texas Monthly by John Spong. What I found led me to conclude that Willie was not ‘memorializing’ either John T or the Klan. So I wrote to Mr S:

You are mistaken about ‘Shotgun Willie’.  Willie is clearly making fun of John T. Floores, who (as I learned today, thanks to your comment) was a dance-hall owner (the John T. Floore Country Store in Helotes, TX) and good friend of Willie’s, who helped him when he couldn’t make it in Nashville.  Willie was making fun of himself, too (“Well, you can’t make a record if you ain’t got nothing to say”).

‘Shotgun Willie’ was the title song of the groundbreaking album Willie Nelson released in 1973.  We’ve been playing it on Hillbilly at Harvard ever since, and yours is the very first complaint we’ve ever had.

So was John T. Floores a member of the Klan?  An article on Texas dance halls in The Texas Monthly sheds a little light (but not much):

The outside world knows John T. from Nelson’s song “Shotgun Willie” and its line connecting him to the Ku Klux Klan. The second-most-asked question at Floore’s, right behind “Did Willie really used to play here every Saturday night?”—a reference to another of Floore’s jokey signs—is “Was John T. really a Klansman?” Some old-timers deny it, but others say that when he was growing up in East Texas, that was just part of doing business. And they say that he really did sell sheets to the Klan. They add that he was married two times, to a Native American and a Jew. “The Klan was just another vehicle to sell something,” says Willie’s bassist, Bee Spears, who grew up in Helotes.

Good article, by the way.  Floores was reportedly quite a character.

Willie wasn’t ‘memorializing’ the Klan, any more than Hillary Clinton was when she called the late Senator Robert Byrd, the Grand Kleagle of the Klan in West Virginia, her ‘mentor’ in the Senate.

Cheers, Lynn

Willie reported that he dashed off ’Shotgun Willie’ while on a trip to the bathroom. It sounds completely tongue-in-cheek to me, and the lines about John T. Floores were just throw-away filler. I must say it always struck me as ludicrous that a vicious, terrorist organization like the KKK would be wearing bedsheets and pointy hats as uniforms; it made them look silly. I expect it struck Willie the same way. John T. Floores, before he was a club owner and Willie’s friend, was in various businesses, which apparently included retailing sheets.

I’d be interested to hear from other listeners. Do you agree with me or with Mr S, who says that the song ‘memorializes’ ol’ John T. and/or the Klan, and should be deleted from our music library?

Now I didn’t hear back from Mr S, so I assumed the matter was settled. But to my surprise it wasn’t: the management of WHRB (the undergraduates, not the Trustees) were concerned that I failed to assure the listener that I wouldn’t play the song again. They viewed this as an act of insubordination, and decreed that I should be ‘suspended’ for four weeks. Of course, ever since my Exile on August 23rd, when Harvard banned non-students and non-employees from the premises, all of the HAH shows have been pre-recorded, so it was those that got suspended.

Now you know why the show has disappeared for the past four weeks.

Of course there was more. The station managers brought up other listener complaints over the past year or two. I won’t reiterate them now (maybe later if some of you want to discuss). A couple you’ve seen debated here. None are quite so obscure as ‘Shotgun Willie’; some have to do with cultural stereotypes with language now considered ‘slurs’. As you know if you’ve been listening and reading the blog, I take the position that when we’re playing a hundred years or so of country music, we have to appreciate the historical and traditional context of songs, and we have to avoid allowing excesses of political correctness to become the cancellation of history. It depends on where you draw the line, and folks do differ, especially outside the academy. However, WHRB considers itself a voice of Harvard, and is hyper-sensitive to complaints. I program on the fly, and beyond watching new songs for ‘FCC clean’ I can’t pre-emptively screen lyrics. So we agreed to consult if the station gets a complaint and to keep a list of songs problematic for Harvard air. Obviously, if you have a complaint, I’d prefer that you contact me first.

What about the immediate future? We’ll be playing pre-recorded shows for the next month or two, maybe longer. Harvard has indicated that they will continue with on-campus restrictions for the Spring term. That likely means I’ll still be exiled from the building (only students and employees allowed), so no live shows, unless a few volunteers like me are granted exceptions during December and January, when no students will be on campus. We’ll see. If not, then I might be able to cobble some archived material here, and maybe produce some new segments live from my office. But my broadcast style relies on ‘physical media’ (records and CDs), not Internet downloads, so it would be hard without professional equipment. But again, we’ll see.

Let me say also that I greatly appreciate all the expressions of support here and by email. Patience is the highest virtue: stay tuned! /CL