The KENTUCKY COLONELS as Axe-bearers/”Good for the Jews”
This, from writer/historian Jason Odd, when I asked him what he does that takes him to a place and time (Southern California, 1960’s) I know well from 50 years ago (Jason, are you even half that old yourself?):
“I’ve done various freebies online, a Bakersfeild section for the Rockabilly Hall Of Fame, and a buddy of mine name Thomas Abrunner has a Clarecne White timeline page, I added the info on his bar-band the Roustabouts to the Reasons/Nashville West page: http://www.burritobrother.com/reasons.htm
“It’s a work in progress, the Roustabouts were the forgotten bar-band, which ran parallel to the Reasons/Nashville West, which is the group most historians (well, all really) write about when talking about Clarence’s pre-Byrds, post-Bluegrass career.”
It’s a terrific site, not at all academic-feeling, but chock-a-block with details and data on the Country Boys/Kentucky Colonels, as well as other talent.
In a follow-up email Jason asked me if I remembered Sammy Masters and Cal’s Corral, a legendary auto dlrship in So. California in the 50’s and 60’s, maybe even in later decades, owned and operated by Cal Worthington, a country-speakin’ spokesman for his company. So, here you go, Jason:
Yes, I remembered the name Sammy Masters, but not well enough to put a face on him til I saw this one, from you. And of course I remember Cal’s Corral. My dad bought three Chryslers there, a ’47 New Yorker Highlander, a ’52 New Yorker two-door, and a ’56 300 C which I sold to Roland White in 1966.
I also remember vividly a stint the Country Boys/Ky Colonels did with Joe and Rosalie Maphis, a real live Country-Vaudeville husband-and-wife act working the LA area in the early-to-middle ’60’s. I even remember Clarence co-opting one of Joe’s most terrible licks for a few minutes, ’til Dave Cohen asked him not to. (We, i.e., us Ash Grovies, were all proprietary about, and protective of, Clarence’s gift, purists that we were.)
The Maphis couple were truly bad: fast, cornpone and tasteless. And what made it worse was they were really country and sincere, unlike, say, Roy Clark, who was also fast and corny, but sloppy and opportunistic. He seemed not to give a shit what shape he left country guitar in after he finished using it for his circus act.
The most poignant mental keepsake I have of the Country Boys/Kentucky Colonels in their Joe and Rosalie Maphis period is of Clarence and Roland putting down their axes in the middle of a double-time fiddle tune to hand Joe his instruments, one after another, for his own circus act. And you can only imagine how happy Eric White, Sr., who went to nearly every gig his sons played, was with that caper.
I know the Brothers White didn’t like it, either, but they were still learning what you do and don’t do for your art and your daily bread in the music biz. (You know, Jason, that the ‘ Boys were often on the balls of their asses, financially, during the ’50’s and first yrs of the ’60’s. Were it me, I wouldn’t have done anything different if I thought I’d starve but for gainful employment with the Maphises. But I also knew I’d be getting the fuck out of there as fast as you could smell a Pink’s hot dog with chili and onions on my breath. I think the ‘Boys might have taken a little longer than that, thinking there might have been some sort of future with the Maphisim.
Well, Jason, that’s the post part of this post. As threatened, I’m enclosing another chapter in my proposed book, “Growing Up Jewish in LA.” For my future publisher to see, you understand.
> BTW, I still remember the Joe Maphis lick Dave Cohen forbade Clarence to play. In fact, I can actually play it myself, and I will, as soon as I get my price.
…from the book Growing Up Jewish in L.A.
GOOD FOR THE JEWS by Allan P. Ross
“Joe Louis is good for the Jews.”
This is the unanimous decision reached by the boy’s father, grandfather and uncle as they listen to the Brown Bomber defend his title for the 22nd straight time.
“Is Joe Louis Jewish?” asks the five-year-old boy.
The three men gathered around the radio in the grandfather’s kitchen smile. The grandfather pinches the boy’s cheek and the father brushes a shock of golden hair back from his son’s forehead.
“No, sweetheart,” the father says, “but he is very good for us, and sometimes that’s even better than being one of us.”
The three men are speaking mainly Yiddish, which the boy can only partially understand. But he’s seen the wise nodding and narrow-eyed appraisal that goes with the words “Zol zein guten far wir” enough times in the past to know it means “it’s good for us,” and that “us” always means “Jews.”
Only the day before, his mother had used the phrase in connection with the Presidential election of 1928.
“Everybody in the Home wanted Al Smith,” she’d said, “but it didn’t mean anything, we were all underage.” The “Home” she was talking about was Vista del Mar, a Jewish orphanage in Santa Monica where she and her two sisters and a brother had spent their junior and senior high school years.
“Was Al Smith Jewish?” the boy had asked.
“No, my precious,” she’d answered, “he was Catholic. That’s why he was popular with the Jews.”
The boy had nodded even though he hadn’t understood. His mother had used a certain voice that meant it should be accepted as self-proven. Generally speaking, people and things that were Zol zein guten far wir were self-proven.
Franklin D. Roosevelt was the most Zol zein guten far wir the boy had ever heard of. The mere mention of his name would get nods of approval at all family get-togethers whenever it was invoked.
“No, love, he wasn’t Jewish” the boy’s mother had said, “but people who didn’t like him said he might as well have been.”
This was followed by an exchange in Yiddish with the boy’s father recalling how Westbrook Pegler, a right-wing rabble-rouser, had called the President “Franklin Delano Rosenfeld” whenever he could.
“Do you remember that, Benny?” she’d said to her husband.
He nodded, yes, he remembered.
Over the years, the boy, a beautiful, flaxen-haired, rosy-cheeked youth p Herschel, came to understand the subtleties of the phrase “good for us.” Not that he could explain them easily to an outsider, or even to himself.
“It’s just something you feel,” he would repeat to himself after hearing it from his mother, Zora.
Harry Truman, all New York mayors from La Guardia forward and, until 1945, Joseph Stalin, were considered friends of the Jews, at least in his family. And in the immediate post-War years in Los Angeles, that’s all a young Jewish boy could rely on.
Growing up Jewish in Los Angeles meant being constantly on the alert for anti-Semitism, wherever it could be found. Obviously, that would be amongst gentiles (his mother and father never said Goyim; it was considered prejudiced and in poor taste).
Therefore, the search was always on for Christians who were either overtly or implicitly pro-Jewish. And, since there really were no gentiles who were openly supportive of Jews in 1946, that meant ferreting out those whose policies, works or entertainment content somehow helped the Jewish cause.
Joe Louis, a handsome Black man who did his race proud and beat Max Schmeling, a Nazi, was a major friend of the Jews, even if he didn’t know it. It only enhanced his reputation that he sometimes trained at Gilman’s Hot Springs, one of four Jewish resorts in Southern California, and that Uncle Yankel had actually shaken hands with him. Yankel also and won a bundle on several of his fights.
“Jackie Robinson, now this is a sportsman,” his Grandpa Sam would say, after the Brooklyn Dodger broke the color line in major league baseball. He said “sportsman,” because Shiminu, an elegant, 65-year-old Polish Jew not at all in touch with the pop culture of his adopted land, was never sure exactly what sport Jackie Robinson played. But his son and son-in-law talked about Jackie in revered tones, so he figured it was QED to put him in the lineup of friends of the Jews. By the time Roy Campanella became a Dodger Grandpa Sam had already developed a bottom-line attitude about the issue. “How bad can it be [for the Jews] that a colored man can do this thing?”
Speaking of Poland, the ex-home of the largest concentration of Jews on the planet, it was once good for the Jews, but no longer. It was called “The Old Country” in the boy’s family, and it was agreed that it never really was good for us, that it was always a disaster waiting to happen.
“Why didn’t everyone leave?” the boy would ask his Grandfather, who had left in 1912.
This would bring an exchange of deeply troubled looks between whomever in the family was there, and, sometimes, the start of an explanation. The explanation would be conducted on two levels, one in English with sprinkled-in Yiddish, for the boy, the other in Polish, for the adults still debating what had happened and how could they have been so naïve.
When Motke, his grandmother, was still alive, it would move very quickly through the English and Yiddish to Polish, and would soon be accompanied by tears. Once it occasioned Motke and Shiminu warily pulling out an album of family photos from the Old Country.
“This was my brother, Israel, and his wife, Zora, and their children, Mimi, Shura and Majka,” Motke had said. But she and Shiminu had almost immediately been forced to give up the project. All had been lost in the War.
France, on the other hand, had never been friends of ours. Although admired for its culture, the mention of it would bring tightly-shut eyes, side-to-side headshakes and mouths drawn up in expressions of dismissal.
“At least the French are honest about hating us,” Shiminu would say. “The rest of them are lying hypocrites.” This would include the Hungarians, Russians and Czechs and, from time to time, depending on their position vis-à-vis Palestine (his family didn’t call it Israel), the British; the Austrians (“Worse than the Nazis”); and, of course, the Germans, although Willi Brandt would later become a “fellow traveler,” if not a friend. In truth, however, you could never again trust the Germans, no matter what they did to right their unspeakable wrong, or what anyone said about them. That was emes, i.e., on the level.
The boy could not see a pattern in how his family determined who was and wasn’t their friend for the first seven years of his life. Up to that point, friends seemed to come in in any number of ways, none of them predictable.
For example, Clarence Darrow, after arguing for the principle of evolution in the Scopes trial, was quickly embraced as a friend.
“How could you not like a man who has the nerve to say we’re descended from monkeys,” reasoned his grandfather.
On the other hand, Richard M. Nixon, a gerrymandering, mud-slinging demagogue from Whittier, California, came in over the transom for supporting a Jewish homeland in Israel. In 1946 Israel was a non-event/non-starter in terms of importance and impact on everyone in America except the Jews, and Nixon quickly understood that it would cost him nothing in political cash to be in favor of the proposition, and might win him some friends among Jews, despite their overwhelmingly Democratic voting record. He was right.
Then came 1948, a watershed year for the boy, with two headline-grabbers for the Sons of Abraham.
First came the United Nations recognizing Israel as a sovereign state. This was very, very Good for the Jews. It was the first time in modern history that the official language would be written with Hebrew letters, and the first time ever that Jews could be completely themselves at home, not worrying if they were being too loud in public or if their noses were the wrong shape or too big.
Then came the unexpected victory/election of Harry S. Truman to the United States Presidency. Truman had already been anointed because of his Vice Presidency under Roosevelt and his support of Israel. But very few considered him a real contender for President. His election was like a very gratifying greps, belch, for American Jews.
This time when the boy asked if the friend was Jewish, the answer was a little different than it usually would. His mother looked at him, and the smile was little less wistful and resigned than usual.
“No, my darling,” she said, “but he’s a liberal.”
“What’s a liberal?” the boy asked.
“That’s someone who’s for the underdog,” his mother said. “That’s why Jews voted for him. But it isn’t necessary to tell your friends at school who your father and I supported.”
“But he won,” said the boy.
“I know,” said the mother, “but voting is private and personal. You don’t have to let anyone know how you voted. It’s one of the most important rights in this country. Besides, everyone else in the neighborhood voted for Dewey, and it could…” she paused here, for no reason the boy could see, and her eyes seemed to turn inward.
“Could what? insisted the boy.
She refocused on him, and seemed to come to some decision about how to finish the sentence.
“It just could cause us a little trouble, that’s all,” she said. The boy knew that tone of voice, and knew he’d have to make do with that explanation until he was older, or found out from someone else in the neighborhood.
In the meantime, the word liberal became embedded in his mind as something almost holy, inviolable, sacrosanct for Jews.
The Daily News, the only Los Angeles newspaper to support Truman, was a liberal paper, the last such daily in Los Angeles. It died in the mid-‘Fifties from malnutrition. Until it did, it refused to identify personalities in the news by race or color, when virtually every newspaper east of New York used terms like “a Negro youth saved a white tot from the savage fangs of a rabid dog,” or “12 Chinese Arrested for Gambling.” It also refused to carry any advertising that specified ethnic preferences, and carried the cartoons of Herblock, a card-carrying liberal who knew how to make his marks look like bums, and drew this reposte from Nixon/McCarthy:
Interviewer: Mr. McCarthy, do you really shave three times a day?
McCarthy: Because I don’t want to look like a Herblock character, that’s why.
Being a liberal was really all you had to know about someone, if push came to shove. It was never put that way, exactly, but the boy could tell from what was said and not said, especially between his mother and father, that that was the way things were.
Sometimes, it came in the form of elliptical conversations his folks would have with teachers, at parents’ night, for example, this exchange with Mrs. Colani, the boy’s Third Grade teacher.
Parents (to Mrs. Colani): Some election, wasn’t it?
Mrs. C: Yes, it was.
Parents: We were sure surprised.
Mrs. C: So were my husband and I.
Parents: Everyone was. And what does he do, your husband?
Mrs. C: He’s a police lieutenant.
Parents (sharing private smile with Mrs. C): Then he must be happy.
Mrs. C: We both are.
Parents: Us, too.
The L.A.P.D. was unionized by then, and Truman was a staunch union supporter. Unions were good for the Jews.
All in all, 1948 was turning out to be a banner year for the boy’s family in terms of having friends in high places, although Hollywood was yet to be conquered. Remember, “Good for the Jews” refers primarily to gentiles or gentile situations that are good for Jews.
Until they managed to convince themselves that Frank Sinatra recorded Bei Mir Bist Du Schön, which he didn’t, the boy’s family felt they didn’t have a solid gentile friend in show business. Although they had favorite actors, like Lana Turnip, Judy Garlic and Olivia de Halivah, and Xavier Cugat laced his stage rap with Yiddishisms, and Nat King Cole raised a toast to Chaim Weizman and David Ben-Gurion one night at Frank Sennes’ Moulin Rouge, a big Hollywood nightclub, no one in the business not already Jewish could be tagged as openly sympathetic to Jews.
But Sinatra changed all that.
He made it possible for Bob Hope to lift his entire style from Jack Benny (according to his family), and that was the wedge that opened up all of Hollywood to the Jews. It didn’t matter if they were Republican or Democrat, if they were in “The Industry” they were liberal, and if they were liberal, “Zol zein guten far wir,” it was “Good for us.”
With Truman, Israel and Hollywood in their hip pockets, the members of the boy’s family were more secure than any Jews they’d ever heard of, time out of mind. More secure than they had any right to be. It was the best time ever for the Jews.
That’s why when the mother told her son they were changing their last name from Rosenberg to Ross he knew once and for all he’d never get it right.
BTW, Sammy Davis, Jr., was not considered particularly good for the Jews. But you knew that.