Roy Orbison: A Texan Not So Lonely

Though not so dark and lonely as his songs made him seem, Roy Kelton Orbison had a lot of pain in his life.  He absorbed that pain and transformed it with dramatic lyrics and a three-octave voice, a one-two punch of emotion and sound that hit teenagers of the early Sixties right where they lived.

He sang about the “Pretty Womanand lots of other women besides, many of them variations of his first, tragic love—Claudette, whose name he also used in one of his earliest songs.  That was in 1958, and the Everly Brothers recorded “Claudette” as the flipside to “All I Have to Do Is Dream.”  

But Roy was no pretty man.  Needing coke-bottle glasses by the tender age of four, the young kid from Vernon, and later the big town of Wink, also took to dying his hair coal black while still in his teens to cover up the early onset of gray.  And then there were the ears, which could have been switched with LBJ’s without leaving anyone the wiser.

Beginning in 1956, Roy recorded four songs for Sam Phillips’ Sun Records—thanks to a good word from Johnny Cash.  The original man in black had heard Roy when they had appeared on the same local TV show in West Texas. Roy’s first song for Sun made a brief appearance on the charts, rising to number 59. “Ooby-Dooby” was not a taste of what was to come.  But it was the only success he had at Sun Records.

It was the heyday of Sun: Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash all signed with Sam Phillips.  Roy couldn’t match their success.  Phillips thought Roy was a good enough guitar player, but wasn’t that impressed with his voice.  And then there were the looks.  Up against Elvis, Fabian, and the other pretty boys of the Fifties, the young man from Wink, pale-skinned and shy, seemed to have little chance. 

Roy had already seen one pretty boy make good, back in college.  At what was then North Texas State College in Denton, he saw the young man who made a career out of sweetness and light make it to the big time.  While Roy was out working in the oil field and playing occasional gigs with his band The Teen Kings, a smiling, soft-voiced Pat Boone got the record contract. With failing grades in his geology classes, Roy dropped out of school.

But in 1960, Roy collaborated with his friend Joe Melson on a song.  The Everly Brothers turned it down.  Roy knew Elvis well by then and went by Graceland to pitch the song to the King.  Elvis was asleep and Roy decided to give the song a try himself. RCA gave Roy a chance to record it.  Only the Lonely” not only brought the shy singer to light but it did so in a way that introduced the world to the range of his voice.

The next year was even bigger: “Running Scared”; “Love Hurts,” later covered magnificently by Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris; “Crying,” with k.d. laing; and “Candy Man.”  Now Roy had a number 1 song in “Running Scared,” and a pair of number 2 songs with “Only the Lonely” and “Crying.”

Then came “Dream Baby” in 1962; “In Dreams” in 1963; and, finally, “Pretty Woman” in 1964.  Roy was 28 and hitting the big time in both the U.S. and the U.K., where he became known as the “Big O.”  He had all the money he needed, enough to fill a warehouse with cars he bought on a whim, sometimes following a car he saw and liked and making the driver a generous cash offer on the spot.

In 1963, his fame in the U.K. resulted in his being the headliner on a tour, along with a young group of kids from Liverpool. Roy got to England and saw all the press the Beatles were receiving.  “What’s a Beatle?” he asked, evidently within hearing of John Lennon.  Lennon tapped Roy on the shoulder and said, “I am.”

They soon got along well, with Roy becoming good friends with Lennon and a close friend of George Harrison.  But the Beatles persuaded Roy to go on first, letting them become the headline act. 

When Roy opened the next performance, the audience shouted for 14 encores, leaving the Fab Four standing impatiently offstage.  After the 14th encore, the boys restrained Roy from going back on stage.

Roy had left his thick glasses on a plane in Alabama before taking off for England.  The only other pair he had were black-rimmed Waverly sunglasses.  He put them on, and people began to wonder if he was blind when they saw him perform.  He saw well enough, but he kept the shades as part of his act, finding in them and in his black clothing a persona that seemed to compensate for his lack of good looks.  And it didn’t hurt that the shades gave a shy man a way to hide his eyes.

When Roy met Claudette Frady in Odessa, Texas, she was only 16 and he was 21.  A beautiful high-school dropout, Claudette was a source of both pain and inspiration for Roy.   When “Pretty Woman” came out in 1964, Claudette, lonely and restless in Hendersonville, Tennessee, while Roy was on the road, had an affair with a contractor who was working on their home outside of Nashville.

According to an excellent magazine piece,  Roy Orbison: The Big “O”, Roy was seriously depressed by the affair and the subsequent divorce in Novemer. “I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t communicate and I certainly couldn’t write a song,” he said.

Roy and Claudette reconciled while he was recuperating from an illness, and they remarried in 1966.  By then, the boys from England had an edgier counterpart in the Rolling Stones; Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and other voices of protest took over the charts. 

It was a time when Roy and Claudette could spend more time together, and he no doubt needed her badly as his career began to fade.  One day, about two months after they had remarried, they were out for a ride on the motorcycles they both loved.  A truck smashed into Claudette and knocked her off the bike and onto the side of the road.  Roy was riding a couple of blocks ahead.  He heard the sirens, looked back, and didn’t see Claudette.  When he reached the scene, she was dead.

“After Claudette’s death, Orbison was immobilized by grief,” the magazine story says. “‘It was a dark period,’ he recounted later. ‘All I was doing was surviving, trying to work my way out of the turmoil.’ After her funeral, he struggled to pen a hit and, as the years went by, his ballads fell out of step with the promiscuous, swinging ’60s. ‘The thrust of the war and drug-related songs, I didn’t relate to that at all,’ he reflected.”

Two years later, using his work as a way to fight his grief, Roy was touring once again in England, where his previous fame was less obscured by the songs of protest.  There, he received a phone call.  His father, Orbie, was taking care of the Hendersonville house and Roy’s three sons.  The boys were playing in the basement.  Some gasoline in one of Roy’s vintage cars ignited, and the house burned down.  Only Roy’s father and one son, three-year-old Wesley, survived.

And so here was the slug of pain that some of Roy’s earlier songs seemed to anticipate.  He was only 32, but his wife and two of his sons had died violently.  This time, he determined to get on with his life.  He remarried—a German girl of 17 he had met on tour—and built a new home in Tennessee.

In 1980, two years after Roy’s first heart attack at age 44, he and Emmylou Harris released the duet “That Lovin’ You Feeling Again,” and Roy was back on the charts—for a little while.  He also received his only Grammy during his lifetime.  The same year, Don McLean covered “Crying” and went up high in the charts.  In 1987, Roy made it to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The strangest turn in Roy’s career came in 1987 when David Leach’s disturbing noir classic, Blue Velvet, appeared in theaters across the country.  A do-wop song from the Fifties gave the film its title, but the tone of film itself was as far from the voice of a young Bobby Vinton as…as Wink is from London.

The use of his song In Dreams in the film, during two grotesque scenes, at first annoyed Roy.   The second of the scenes shows a deranged and Dennis Hopper viciously beating a young character played by Kyle MacLachlan, while the opening lines of Roy’s song are playing in the background:

A candy-colored clown they call the sandman

Tiptoes to my room every night

Just to sprinkle stardust and to whisper:

“Go to sleep, everything is all right”

But, in truth, the actual song ends with lines that show “everything is all right” only in dreams. The song was used to bring home the brutal disillusionment of the young man in the movie, for what could be less like the sandman our mothers told us about than a crazed Dennis Hopper? Roy came to see the use of the song as artistically appropriate.  Regardless, the film helped boost Roy’s name into the consciousness of an America that had become enthralled by stories of lust, violence, and greed.  Roy was “in” again.

In 1988, he and his musical friends performed in a highly successful TV special based on his music.  Roy, Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Tom Petty, and Jeff Lynne then recorded The Traveling Wilburys, Volume One.  The album had reached number 10 on the charts when Roy died of his second heart attack on December 6, ten years after he had given up chain smoking.

Roy’s life, despite the pain, is a testament to more affirming dreams than the ones in his famous song.  “My life,” Roy said not long before his death, “is a never-ending dream. I take one day at a time and never look too far into the future.” 

The man in the Waverly shades, wearing black clothes, and singing songs of longing, was, in the end, much more in tune with his soaring voice than with the dark persona he had assumed.

His second wife, Barbara Jakob Orbison, said Roy “was born sunny-side up.”  She died at age 60 on the 23rd anniversary of his death.

Born April 23, 1936, in Vernon, Texas; died December 8, 1988, in Hendersonville, Tennessee. Here is Roy Orbison singing happy birthday to his son, Roy Jr. The accompanying photos are from Roy’s own birthday celebrations.

 

 

Remembering Sam Houston and San Jacinto

Post-San Jacinto: Gratification, ire for Houston

Revolution’s leader saw Texas’ statehood, then disaster.
By John Willingham / Special to the San Antonio Express-News
Published 12:02 a.m., Thursday, April 21, 2011

  • Gen. Sam Houston’s (1793-1863) defeat of Mexico’s army in Texas in 1836 led to eventual statehood.

    Photo: San Antonio Conservation Society / SA

    Gen. Sam Houston’s (1793-1863) defeat of Mexico’s army in…

Sam Houston’s improbable victory at San Jacinto 175 years ago, on April 21, 1836, opened the way for emigrants from the South to pour into the new Republic of Texas. Although not yet a state of the Union, Texas was another vast territory beckoning settlers who were eager for land, a natural extension of the Louisiana Purchase of 1804.

Like his mentor Andrew Jackson, Houston knew that the influx of U.S. citizens into Texas would lead to statehood. Both hoped the annexation of Texas would work to strengthen the Union rather than weaken it.

One great irony for Sam Houston was that the 1845 annexation of his beloved Texas, made possible by the earlier victory at San Jacinto, re-ignited the sectional argument over slavery that had been dormant since the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Annexation led to war with Mexico only four months later. That brought more territory into the Union, much of it south of the Missouri Compromise line and therefore open to slavery.

A young congressman named David Wilmot, D-Pa., proposed in 1846 that any new territory acquired as a result of the Mexican War not be open to slavery.

Houston, in the U.S. Senate after annexation, found himself arguing against the Wilmot Proviso, ironically in the same camp with his great enemy John C. Calhoun, D-S.C., the famous nullifier who had already opposed the nationalism of Jackson.

Debate over the Wilmot Proviso ran into 1848 when the Mexican War ended. Houston opposed it for a variety of reasons, but Calhoun used the issue to rally Southern Democrats to the cause of slavery, which he had already called a “positive good.”

Did the old Unionist Sam Houston believe that the flames of sectional enmity, having been fed by Calhoun and other radicals on both sides, could still be reduced by wise and skillful moderates? Never intimidated by Calhoun’s brilliance, Houston as a senator was capable of besting the Senate giant in debate.

If so, he must have been heartened by passage of the Compromise of 1850, which gave the Union a reprieve. Houston argued against Calhoun — and against Southern interests — when he supported the compromise in a famous speech. In words that Abraham Lincoln would use a decade later, Houston told the Senate that “a nation divided against itself cannot stand.”

Houston won the Battle of San Jacinto, dreaming Texas would soon be a crown jewel of the Union he loved. The ultimate irony was that, when he died, this champion of both Texas glory and national greatness had been cast aside by most Texans as they disdained further compromise and rushed headlong to the doomed Southern cause.

Houston didn’t live to see the full fruits of his victories on and off the field of battle or to enjoy the vindication of being right about the Union. But he did leave much for us to honor in his name.

John Willingham is author of “The Edge of Freedom,” a novel about the Texas Revolution. He divides his time between Portland, Ore., and Austin.

Read more: http://www.mysanantonio.com/default/article/By-John-Willingham-1345868.php#ixzz1KAXsESz6

 

 

Waco–The City Where “Waco” Didn’t Happen

Note: This article originally appeared on April 19, 2013, on the History News Network HNN.us, under the title:

Waco–The City Where the “Waco” Siege Didn’t Actually Happen

April 19, 2013, is the twentieth anniversary of the bloody end to the “Waco” Siege at the Branch Davidian’s Mount Carmel compound–a forlorn place that is, in fact, 13.8 miles east of the city of Waco.

I do not know who the first person was to assign the name of “Waco” to the terrible events that took place 20 years ago. What I do know is that he or she did a great disservice to Waco, often pronounced “Wacko,” as I have heard repeatedly whenever I tell someone that I was born and raised in the city.

Let me be quick to own that Waco has had its share of problems, one of them a so-called act of God, a 1953 tornado that killed more than 100 people and blew away much of downtown. As a young boy, I watched from the picture window of my father’s real estate office about one and a half miles from the eye of the storm. The day turned completely dark, almost black, and downtown was never the same.

Then the feds closed a big Air Force base and a tactical fighter wing, and the people and the real estate market went, if not altogether south, then off to Austin, Houston, or Dallas.

And speaking of the South, Waco was the farthest extension of the Old South, sending soldiers off to the lost Confederate cause, including several generals. As an approximate end point for the reach of slavery, the city has had its share of tragic relapses to the harshness of Reconstruction, but now struggles more conventionally with the issue of race.

Waco is also associated with the Baptist denomination, mainly because Baylor University is located in the city. Baylor can be the butt of jokes, a few of them earned, but the university and its religion department are actually a significant moderating influence, in Texas and worldwide. Baylor also has excellent academic programs in business and law, and recently, engineering. 

Ann Richards was a Baylor grad, along with four other Texas governors, three U.S. Senators, about a dozen congressmen, and a U.S. ambassador.

I did not attend Baylor (one of my daughters did), and I do not live in Waco. Yet this business of referring to the city as the site of the siege and its fiery climax has bothered me for years, particularly since President George W. Bush decided to buy a ranch near Crawford, Texas.

Now Crawford, Texas, is a town of about 800 located exactly 24.4 miles west of the city of Waco. How many news datelines have begun something like this, “Crawford–We are at President Bush’s ranch near Crawford, Texas, where he just announced…”?

As I see it, the net geographical difference between being identified with a president versus becoming the name for a national tragedy is about 10.6 miles–the difference between the distances of Mount Carmel and Crawford from Waco. For otherwise, wouldn’t we have seen datelines saying, “Waco–President Bush announced from his ranch near here today that…”?

The closest town to Mount Carmel is Elk, a tiny hamlet of about 150 souls. Also nearby is the town of Hallsburg with a population of about 800. Depending on where one might be standing in these towns, the distance to Mount Carmel would be around 3 or 4 miles, or even less.

Now this is not an argument that the so-called “Waco Siege” now be referred to as the “Elk Siege” or the “Hallsburg Siege.” But there are, in truth, striking examples of how tragedies are not named for the towns near which (or even in) the cities where they occurred.

Thus we have the “Columbine” massacre, even though the high school has an address in Littleton, Colorado.  There are the “Aurora” theater shootings, referring to the Denver suburb less than nine miles out of town.

Columbine, in naming an awful event for the school in which it occurred, both narrows the location to an actual structure and reminds us that it was tragedy of the most terrible kind, one in which children were killed.  Yet naming an event for its exact location would seem to suggest a more logical name for the “Waco” siege: Mount Carmel.  For that is where the Davidian compound was located.  Not in Waco, Texas.

Instead of a Frontline documentary on “Waco–the Inside Story,” or the award-winning “Waco: the Rules of Engagement,” we would have “Mount Carmel: the Tragic Siege.”  But then we could have a dispute over naming a tragedy after the mountain where the prophet Elijah challenged each false, contending deity to make a sacrifice and then cause it to blaze; the one who succeeded could claim to be the true god.  The deities failed, but the sacrificial altar erupted in flames, destroying the altar, sacrifices, wood and stone.  The Bible says it was a real act of God.

(Note: On April 17, a fertilizer plant exploded in West, Texas, about 18 miles north of Waco.)

April 19, 2013, is the twentieth anniversary of the bloody end to the “Waco” Siege at the Branch Davidian’s Mount Carmel compound–a forlorn place that is, in fact, 13.8 miles east of the city of Waco.

I do not know who was the first person to assign the name of “Waco” to the terrible events that took place 20 years ago. What I do know is that he or she did a great disservice to Waco, often pronounced “Wacko,” as I have heard repeatedly whenever I tell someone that I was born and raised in the city.

Let me be quick to own that Waco has had its share of problems, one of them a so-called act of God, a 1953 tornado that killed more than 100 people and blew away much of downtown. As a young boy, I watched from the picture window of my father’s real estate office about one and a half miles from the eye of the storm. The day turned completely dark, almost black, and downtown was never the same.

Then the feds closed a big Air Force base and a tactical fighter wing, and the people and the real estate market went, if not altogether south, then off to Austin, Houston, or Dallas.

And speaking of the South, Waco was the farthest extension of the Old South, sending soldiers off to the lost Confederate cause, including several generals. As an approximate end point for the reach of slavery, the city has had its share of tragic relapses to the harshness of Reconstruction, but now struggles more conventionally with the issue of race.

Waco is also associated with the Baptist denomination, mainly because Baylor University is located in the city. Baylor can be the butt of jokes, a few of them earned, but the university and its religion department are actually a significant moderating influence, in Texas and worldwide. Baylor also has excellent academic programs in business and law, and recently, engineering. 

Ann Richards was a Baylor grad, along with four other Texas governors, three U.S. Senators, and about a dozen congressmen.

I did not attend Baylor (one of my daughters did), and I do not live in Waco. Yet this business of referring to the city as the site of the siege and its fiery climax has bothered me for years, particularly since President George W. Bush decided to buy a ranch near Crawford, Texas.

Now Crawford, Texas, is a town of about 800 located exactly 24.4 miles west of the city of Waco. How many news datelines have begun something like this, “Crawford–We are at President Bush’s ranch near Crawford, Texas, where he just announced…”?

As I see it, the net geographical difference between being identified with a president versus becoming the name for a national tragedy is about 10.6 miles–the difference between the distances of Mount Carmel and Crawford from Waco. For otherwise, wouldn’t we have seen datelines saying, “Waco–President Bush announced from his ranch near here today that…”?

The closest town to Mount Carmel is Elk, a tiny hamlet of about 150 souls. Also nearby is the town of Hallsburg with a population of about 800. Depending on where one might be standing in these towns, the distance to Mount Carmel would be around 3 or 4 miles, or even less.

Now this is not an argument that the so-called “Waco Siege” now be referred to as the “Elk Siege” or the “Hallsburg Siege.” But there are, in truth, striking examples of how tragedies are not named for the towns near which (or even in) the cities where they occurred.

Thus we have the “Columbine” massacre, even though the high school has an address in Littleton, Colorado.  There are the “Aurora” theater shootings, referring to the Denver suburb less than nine miles out of town.

Columbine, in naming an awful event for the school in which it occurred, both narrows the location to an actual structure and reminds us that it was tragedy of the most terrible kind, one in which children were killed.  Yet naming an event for its exact location would seem to suggest a more logical name for the “Waco” siege: Mount Carmel.  For that is where the Davidian compound was located.  Not in Waco, Texas.

Instead of a Frontline documentary on “Waco–the Inside Story,” or the award-winning “Waco: the Rules of Engagement,” we would have “Mount Carmel: the Tragic Siege.”  But then we could have a dispute over naming a tragedy after the mountain where the prophet Elijah challenged each false, contending deity to make a sacrifice and then cause it to blaze; the one who succeeded could claim to be the true god.  The deities failed, but the sacrificial altar erupted in flames, destroying the altar, sacrifices, wood and stone.  The Bible says it was a real act of God.

(Note: On April 17, a fertilizer plant exploded in West, Texas, about 18 miles north of Waco.)

The Cowboy Strike of 1883 and the Demise of Old Tascosa

A cowboy strike, in Texas?  In a state now known for its right to work laws and general hostility toward unions?  And cowboys–well, let’s just say that they are not often associated with the words “collective” and “bargaining.”

Yet these allegedly lonesome men on horseback, working from “can see” until “can’t see” in heat and dust, lightning storms, and northers cold enough to freeze them to their saddles, did rise up against big cattle syndicates back in  March of 1883.  And they fought the brief but good fight to regain the rights they had lost to greedy or inept corporate ranchers who had taken over the open range that fit the cowboy soul like a well-worn glove.

Before the syndicates moved in there was a sense of community on the smaller spreads. The best ranches brought together tough, hard-working, essentially decent and practical men who respected one another and shared not only the elements and the endless plains but a heritage of frontier cooperation born of necessity: In 1883, the Comanche threat was less than a decade in the past.

A cowboy then, on one of the smaller ranches, could take some calves in lieu of pay and combine them with mavericks he had “gathered” on the open range to form his own small herd, good for sales or to supplement whatever victuals he usually had from his own fire or from one communal cast-iron pot.  The longer he stayed with a ranch, the more likely he was to have two or more horses to use, and the horses he was dealt improved with his tenure.  This was a real life with a stake.

The syndicates came in, understanding the business world but often very little of the ranching life on the plains.  Profits tended to be as low as their ignorance and speculative fever were high; so, as their heirs might do today, they blamed the people who actually did the work for the problem.  They cut wages, disallowed horses for personal use, stopped the gathering of mavericks, and offered no more calves for pay.  Then…they forbade drinking and gambling.  This was not much of a life, with no stake.

Tom Harris was a seasoned and respected hand at the LS Ranch and decided he had seen enough.  He rounded up some men from the LIT, the LX, the LE and the T Anchor, and made out a list of demands:

 

We, the undersigned cowboys of Canadian River, do by these presents agree to bind ourselves into the following obligations, viz:

First: that we will not work for less than $50 per mo. And we furthermore agree no one shall work for less than $50 per mo. after 31st of Mch.

Second: Good cooks shall also receive $50 per month.

Third: Any one running an outfit shall not work for less than $75 per mo.

Any one violating the above obligations shall suffer the consequences. Those not having funds to pay board after March 31 will be provided for for 30 days at Tascosa.

 

No one specified what made a good cook, or how much a bad cook should receive. Not much, probably.

Twenty-four cowboys signed the proclamation.  The number of cowboys who supported it thereafter was as variable as the disappearing mavericks along the Canadian.  Maybe upwards of three hundred had some ties to the strike.  The LE and T Anchor fired the strikers right away; more cunning by far were the LS and LIT.  They offered piddling increases to cowboys who stayed, and then they fired the rest. Then they picked up the leavings from the other outfits by paying the marginally higher wages, at least for a while.

The out of work cowboys drifted into Tascosa, as famous as Dodge City in its time as a stopping place for the big drives headed north.

The cattlemen would pause and water their herds along the Canadian, leaving the beeves under the disgruntled watch of the few hands who were not allowed to go into Tascosa for recreation.  Here is what state historian Bill O’Neal tells us about Tascosa at the time:

“A cluster of dives a quarter of a mile east of Main Street was dubbed Hogtown, partially because of the presence of such less than glamorous ‘sporting women’ as Homely Ann, Gizzard Lip, Rowdy Kate, Box Car Jane, Panhandle Nan, Slippery Sue, Canadian Lily, and Frog Lip Sadie. In 1878, Billy the Kid and four other fugitives from New Mexico’s Lincoln County War arrived with 150 stolen horses, enjoying Tascosa’s bawdy pleasures for several weeks. During the 1880s there was so much rustling in the area that Pat Garrett was hired to lead a band of ‘Home Rangers.'”

In the midst of such gentility, the strikers claimed that they would be peaceful.  Most probably were.  Newspapers covered the strike and reported gossip likely planted by the syndicates that the strikers were plotting to kill the owners, burn down fences, and kill syndicate cattle at random.  None of this happened.

On the other hand, a disturbing number of cows began to disappear from the syndicate herds.

Only two months after the strike began on March 31, 1883, it was over.  The efforts of Tom Harris and his comrades did not so much as delay the May roundup.  If they did nothing else, though, they gave the late, great Elmer Kelton a subject and title for his novel The Day the Cowboys Quit.  In those pages find the real dust of the plains.

As for Tascosa, whether from Hogtown or the few respectable precincts, some remained optimistic.  The railroad would come to town, finding its way past buffalo bones and through the attenuated grass. The syndicates would pour cattle into waiting trains, which would blow out steam and sound their whistles in their urgency to depart.  Surely some of the money would come back to the plains.

There are two books on Tascosa.  In reviewing John L. McCarty’s Maverick Town, in 1947, Walter Prescott Webb was characteristically direct regarding the fate of Tascosa: “It is useless to look on a modern map for Tascosa because the town is not there.  It died so long ago that the map makers have forgotten it.”

The Rock Island railroad had bypassed Tascosa in favor of Amarillo.  The Oldham County seat moved to Vega.  In the end, years later, only the former prostitute Frenchy McCormick remained in Tascosa, her husband and tavern-keeper, Mickey, having gone to his reward twenty-nine years before her death in 1941.  She had continued to live alone in their crumbling adobe home, without electricity and running water, insisting that Tascosa would come back to life.

Before Tascosa died, a volatile brew of syndicate hired guns, disgruntled ranch hands, and the insalubrious atmosphere of Hogtown erupted in a gunfight in 1886 at the Jenkins Saloon. Unlike the “ambush” of Billy The Kid, Webb says, this “was a real fight between the cowboys [gunmen] of the big LS outfit and the little men of Tascosa.  Three LS cowboys were killed, along with an innocent and too-curious ‘poverty-laden’ immigrant named Jess Sheets.” 

A great review of the more recent book on the town, Frederick Nolan’s Tascosa: Its Life and Gaudy Times, came from Bill Neal in 2008: “Tascosa was located in a land beyond the law, a fact that many frontiersmen found appealing….Pioneer cowman Charles Goodnight pronounced Tascosa ‘the most lawless place on the continent.'”  It was said that one resident, perhaps Bill Gatlin, “used to kill men just to see if his pistol was loaded.”

Reading Neal’s review, I came across the name of Cape (Caleb Berg) Willingham, and was reminded that some of my relatives hailed from western Oklahoma and West Texas.  Cape Willingham had a solid reputation as a lawman and rancher, indicating that he actually knew how to do some practical things.  I therefore dismissed him as a possible ancestor until I found out he had also run a saloon.

Said to have been the first sheriff of Tascosa, he carried the true standard weapon of lawmen in those days, a sawed-off double-barreled shotgun.  One day, while relaxing in the Equity Saloon, one of the town’s few “respectable ladies” burst in and screamed that a man outside had just killed her duck.  Perhaps intrigued that, for once, a killing had not involved a human, the sheriff went outside to investigate.  His concern was also enhanced because he had instituted what may have been one of the state’s earliest gun-control measures–he had banned firearms from Tascosa.

Clay Coppedge of the Country World’s Texas Trails tells the story:

“The duck killer turned out to be Fred Leigh, foreman of the LS Ranch, who had a habit of taking his guns to town in defiance of Willingham’s ban. The sheriff notified Leigh that he was now indebted to the woman for the fair market value of a duck and he might have been trying to figure out an exact sum when Leigh did something a lot dumber than shooting a duck — he went for his pistol. Willingham blew him out of the saddle with his shotgun, which ended the negotiations.”

Now, there remains in me a trace of the boy from Waco, Texas, who played cowboys and Indians, and “Army,” and watched westerns on TV, and that would get a kick out of claiming Cape Willingham as an ancestor.  And the duck story almost pushes me to the point of prevarication.  But, alas, Cape’s branch of the clan came west from Virginia through Georgia, and mine through Tennessee, so any connection is remote.

Cape Willingham, Charles Goodnight, the good hand Tom Harris, and the woman with the dead duck– all would be amazed to know that in 1939, not far from Boot Hill in old Tascosa, Cal Farley’s Boys Ranch was born.  Frenchy McCormick was still around by then to see it, and no doubt feisty at age 87.  And that, my friends, one-ups the duck.

W.C. Brann, the “Iconoclast,” Was Killed in Waco in April 1898

Loved, hated, admired and reviled, the journalist William Cowper Brann was shot and killed on a Waco street on April 1, 1898. His death ended a long feud with supporters of Baylor University–an institution that he had accused of producing “ministers and Magdalenes,” based on the alleged corruption of a Brazilian maid by an official at the Baptist institution.  Here is an excerpt about Brann from the Handbook of Texas, written by the late Waco historian Roger Conger:

“Brann took obvious relish in directing his stinging attacks upon institutions and persons he considered to be hypocritical or overly sanctimonious. He by no means confined his distaste to Baptists, but directed it generously to Episcopalians, anything British, women, and, perhaps with the greatest harshness, blacks. Among his targets was Baylor University, a Baptist institution that he scourged as ‘that great storm-center of misinformation.’ On October 2, 1897, Brann was kidnapped by student-society members and taken to the Baylor campus, where he was asked to retract his statements about the university. On October 6, having failed to leave town, he was beaten by a Baptist judge and two other men.

“In November 1897 occurred a street gunfight between one of Brann’s supporters, McLennan county judge G. B. Gerald, and the pro-Baylor editor of the Waco Times-Herald, J. W. Harris, and his brother W. A. Harris. Both Harrises died, and the judge lost an arm. On April 1, 1898, on one of Waco’s main streets, Brann was shot in the back by a brooding supporter of Baylor University named Tom E. Davis. Before the editor died he was able to draw his own pistol and kill his assailant.”

As a young Wacoan, I read Charles Carver’s Brann and the Iconoclast, shortly after the University of Texas Press released it in 1957.  (My mother had unwittingly paid for the book; good Baptist that she was, I am certain that she was unaware of its contents.) The book was fascinating, though perhaps for the wrong reasons. Looking back on it now, I see it as a precursor for my interest in some of William Faulkner’s writing, for Waco in 1898 was a lot like Faulkner’s fictional city of Jefferson, a place where violence was a virtue for men who defended the honor of their women, or their own reputations. It is noteworthy that the man who killed Brann had a daughter attending Baylor; he took the reference to “Magdalenes” (i.e., prostitutes) personally. Violence in the name of honor has deep roots in the South, and of course in Texas.

Brann was an associate of William Sydney Porter, better known as O. Henry, who purchased Brann’s original Iconoclast in Austin but probably never produced any issues. Brann bounced around Texas as an editor or columnist for several major papers–San Antonio, Galveston, Houston–before going to work for the old Waco Daily News.  Soon after, he revived the Iconoclast, in February 1895, and eventually won a worldwide circulation of almost 100,000, an amazing figure for the time.

Part of the success was due to Brann’s flamboyant style and astounding facility with words, given that he ran away from home at the age of 13. But as a journalist in need of money, Brann knew that the best way to boost circulation was to choose controversial topics, and what topics were more controversial in his day than women and religion? This was specially the case when the topic was women and their desire, or lack of same, for sexual activity. As for religion, Brann saw himself as Jeffersonian, mostly deistic with a preference for a remote God who wielded the instruments of a grand architect while creating a universe without dogma.

Of the Bible, he said: “He that accepts it in its entirety–gulps it down like an anaconda absorbing an unwashed goat; who makes no attempt to separate the essential from the accidental…may, like the ass which Balaam rode, open its mouth and speak; but he never saw the Angel of the Lord; he utters the words of emptiness and ignorance.”

There are Brann devotees to this day, but for me, even though the racism he embraced was prevalent in Waco and the South, his own expressions of it are so revolting that there is no giving him the benefit of acting under the influence of his times.

In an article titled “The Buck Negro,” Brann opens with these words:

“I once severely shocked the pseudo-philanthropists by suggesting that if the South is ever to rid herself of the negro rape-fiend she must take a day off and kill every member of the accursed race that declines to leave the country. I am not wedded to my plan; but, like the Populists, I do insist that those who object to it are in duty bound to offer something better.”

He continues:

“Drive out the ” n . . . [ a racist term for African Americans] young and old, male and female – or drive him into the earth! It may be urged that the ‘good negro’ would suffer with the bad. It is impossible to distinguish the one from the other until it is too late. It were better that a thousand ‘good negroes’ -if so many there be- should suffer death or banishment than that one good white woman should be debauched. We must consider ourselves first, others afterwards. The rights of the white man are paramount, and if we do not maintain them at any cost we deserve only dishonor.”

That this type of vile racism, grounded in the alleged protection of white women, would later erupt in a terrible lynching in my hometown a few decades later, is all the more disturbing. The Klan was strong in Waco in the Twenties, and the story is that they would meet on a hill near what is now North Twenty-Fifth Street. Were they the ignorant gap-toothed followers that we mostly see today, along with a little skinhead seasoning?

I found an answer to this question that struck home, truly, back when I was still living in Waco in the late 1980s.  My sainted grandmother had just died, after living out the last eight years of her life with me and my family. After her death, we found in our garage, folded neatly in a long, white cardboard box, a robe, or costume if you like, that had belonged to my grandfather. And so, wearing these detestable garments of the Klan, my grandfather might have been among those standing on that hill all those years ago, screaming out hatred from the basest and smallest part of himself.  A respected businessman who worked downtown, he might also have been at the lynching that took place not far from his store. Now, I can only hope that he was not.

“Mr. Sam” Rayburn Sworn in as Speaker, April 1913

On April 7, 1913, Sam Rayburn officially began his congressional career that would not end until more than 48 years later. Following the summary immediately below, there is a longer post on Mr. Sam. Here is the Texas State Historical Association summary of the event and Sam Rayburn’s life:

“On this day in 1913, Sam Rayburn took the oath of office as a member of the United States House of Representatives. He became majority leader in 1937 and was elected speaker of the House in 1940, a post he held in Democratically controlled legislatures until his death in 1961. Rayburn helped negotiate the Roosevelt-Garner ticket in 1932 and loyally supported the New Deal. As chairman of the Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee in the 1930s he oversaw legislation that established the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Federal Communications Commission. During World War II he helped ensure the legislative base and financial support for the war effort, and in the 1950s he worked closely with Senate majority leader Lyndon Johnson. Rayburn served in the House for more than forty-eight years.”

Born in Tennessee in 1882, Sam Rayburn came to Texas with his family at the age of five, and with grit and hard work made his way from a small cotton farm to the campus of what is now Texas A&M–Commerce.  From there, after teaching school, he was elected to the Texas House in 1906, and by the beginning of his third and last term, in 1910, he was chosen by his peers as speaker, at the age of 28.  He managed to attend the UT School of Law between legislative sessions, became a member of the bar, and then won election to congress in 1912, heading off to Washington amid the hopes that the new president, Woodrow Wilson, would take the country in a new direction.

From 1912 until his retirement from the House in 1961, Mr. Sam never had a Republican opponent, and he might as well have had no opponents at all. The reason: Sam Rayburn was headed for greatness, not the kind of greatness that presidents often attain, with their world-changing decisions, but greatness as both a person and political leader. Who in American history has managed to join fairness, honesty, and integrity to the hard business of politics as well as Sam Rayburn, to such good effect? Washington, Lincoln–and then who else?  And the remarkable fact about Rayburn is that he earned his reputation, like the two presidents above, in the midst of grave national challenges: depression, world war, the cold war, and the first wave of desegregation.

Rayburn and his protege, Lyndon Johnson, both refused to sign the “Southern Manifesto” in 1956 that called for total opposition to the integration of public places. Johnson’s desire to be president (and likely his beliefs) provided sufficient motivation. Mr. Sam, near the end of his career, a hard-scrabble boy with a Deep South heritage, simply did what he always did–what was right. He went on all of one political “junket” during his whole career, a trip to Africa, and then paid for it out of his own pocket. When he died, he had about $15,000 to his name, the result of his determination since his Texas House days never to take any money when there was the slightest appearance of a conflict of interest, no matter that he often could have done so legally.

It is this level of integrity that sets Mr. Sam off from just about every political leader one can name.  Lyndon Johnson certainly did not have it. Worse, according to LBJ biographer Robert Caro, Johnson allegedly betrayed his mentor Rayburn when FDR was looking for someone to take over the allocation of New Deal funding in Texas, in the wake of FDR’s rift with John Nance Garner. Caro writes that Johnson schemed to form the impression in FDR’s mind that Rayburn was not in fact a loyal supporter of the New Deal–despite the constant and effective efforts by Mr. Sam to pass New Deal legislation. Johnson became FDR’s man in Texas. Yet Sam Rayburn stood by Johnson later on, when he sought the presidency in 1960. It must have been that Mr. Sam still believed Lyndon was the man who could do the most for the nation, the one criterion that Rayburn put above others.

Sadly, looking back on Rayburn’s life and career brings to the mind how much has been lost more than it links the values of the great man to any modern inheritor. Turn this way or that way, search anywhere you like; how many Sam Rayburns do you see?