Quote and Credit

Quote and Credit


Black Sideshow Minstrels of Nashville: Jerri Jackson and the Hi Steppers of 1952 R&B Rock and Roll

The High Steppers of 52!  The unknown sideshow photographer kept good notes too.  Seldom does a photograph caption squeeze in so much information.  However, the real story isn't the Cetlin and Wilson Shows mentioned.  It is the remarkable all African-American cast and crew bringing hot music and dancing to the greater community at a time when the races hardly met.

Here, the High Steppers are performing in Heidelberg, Pennsylvania.  Over 60 years later the population of Heidelberg is still 98% white.  The kids watching the show had probably never seen anything like it.

The traveling troupe was organized by Jerrie Jackson, shown here in a photograph from the Country Music Hall of Fame collection.  Country?  Jerrie Jackson was based in Nashville.  Ground zero for white country music.  Still, there was an active R&B scene in Nashville, and the book A Shot in the Dark: Making Records in Nashville briefly mentions Mr. Jackson's work on the very first release from the legendary Excello Record label.  The disc is credited to Willie Lee Patton and "The Charlie Dowell Orchestra" but Martin Hawkins suggests he was really using the Jerrie Jackson Revue as his musicians.  Dowell was a tap dancer in the HI / High Steppers and Wilie Lee Patton was in the chorus.  

The best source for the High Steppers story is an obscure book The Sound of Applause by Audrey Taylor Henry.  Her book claims to be "A History of Medieval and Modern Outdoor Entertainment Forms Introducing Three African-American Showmen" but it is even more.  The author had numerous personal connections to the High Stepper members, and she shares stories about an extended black family who grew up on the circuit.

The book has an odd format.  Chapters are followed by "quiz questions" as in a textbook. She also has an extensive glossary of carnival terms.  A surprising number have African-American roots.  These include dance forms such as Krumping, Mess Around, Poppin',  Snake Hips and the Tack Annie.  Even those in the trade referred to the act as a "jig" show. 

Jerri Jackson was born in Georgia in 1907. He learned piano and performed with his church choir, but he likely didn't perform any gospel with the High Steppers Act. Exotic dancers seldom perform in church.  He paid his performers well.  Members received 50 dollars a week, and in the off seasons were also employed to perform in "ethnic" clubs and the Bijou Theatre in Nashville.  He was referred to as the local impresario in Nashville and was active booking and producing acts in the Theater Owners Booking Association which catered to black audiences.

Mr. Jackson's first colored revue was known as The Hip Cats Minstrel Review active in the 1940s. 

Billboard Magazine reported in 1951 that "Jerri Jackson's Hi Steppers and the Divena, underwater strip tease show were the leading money earners" in Macon, Ga.

The High Steppers touring stage had signs reading "Rock "N" Roll Special Midnight Ramble" and "Rock 'N Roll with Jerry Jackson's High Steppers" back when the phrase had hardly emerged.  In Levon Helm's biography, he credits a similar act known as the Rabbit Foot Minstrels as an influence.   

Black showmen operating in the Jim Crow era have not received the attention they deserve.  The massive Bear Family box set Nashville Jumps, Blues & Rhythm 1945 - 1955 is a good start. Black in Blackface: A sourcebook on Early Black Musical Shows by Henry Sampson is too. 

Yes, there were black minstrel shows without white performers in black face.  Here is another.

Original Photograph Collection Jim Linderman

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