by Tim Gilmore, 10/2/2023
“Butler May, negro, better known around the country as ‘String Beans,’ is dead.” November 17, 1917, The Montgomery Times, his hometown paper. He’s just turned 23. Now Hillman Pratt Funeral Home on LaVilla’s Beaver Street in Jacksonville is shipping his body home to Alabama with a broken neck. Is the gold still on his teeth? Does he still wear that big diamond on one gold-grilled front tooth?
String Beans, says the Times, is “the best-known negro comedian in the South and the highest-priced negro showman in the country.” A “very great indignation” has risen in Montgomery, with weeping and gnashing of teeth, in response to “an effort at Jacksonville to suppress the real facts.”
Elsewhere, “Harlem theatregoers” are “shocked to learn of the sudden death of Butler May, says The New York Age. “Like Charlie Chaplin, String Beans’ legs” are “his chief asset,” though his comedy can be “too coarse when irresponsible managers” allow him to “turn it on.” Beans, says The Kansas City Sun, is “a peculiarly eccentric comedian, his comedy of the lowest type.”
Black America stands outlaw and outside white America. The Black streets know the white streets, but the white streets don’t know the Black. Black theaters operate in a separate Black world. Black newspapers – like The Chicago Defender, The Indianapolis Freeman and The New York Age – report on that world. Some Black stars go mainstream and play to white audiences, but white audiences stay mostly ignorant of Black stardom and showbiz. And when sound recording and electronic media begin, thousands of Vaudeville stars fade like receding shadows, like grainy old photos, like pre-history, like only what’s recorded was ever real.
Lights from above and eyes from hundreds of seats illuminate the stage at the Globe on Ashley Street. “The turkey-trot, the bunny-hug, the tickley-toe / Will be forgotten when we start to go! / Mr. Leader, won’t you start the syncopation? / And we’ll begin our little demonstration…”
Beans is downhome, but “the blues gets ’em,” piano man and singer, “Ballin’ the Jack” his feature. Now, first you put your knees / Close up tight. / Then you sway it to the left. / Then you sway it to the right.
True he shuffles Jim Crow and struts Zip Coon, while just a mile or two away the Lubin company makes moving pictures like Rastus Among the Zulus. Black entertainers wear blackface too, but String Beans turns blackface on its head. When Beans works Atlanta, he ends every night with the lines, “Ah must be tearin’ away from you-all now, ladies and gent’men, because my Rolls Royce, with de chauffeur and de footman, waits without.” The audience gets it. The Rolls means the paddy wagon, the Black Maria. Beans turns the cops waiting to take him to jail into his white servants.
Step around the floor nice and light. / Then twist around with all your might. / Stretch your lovin’ arms straight out in space. / Then you do the Eagle Rock with style and grace. / Swing your foot way round and bring it back. / Now that’s what I call ballin’ the jack!
Belmont Theater in Pensacola, Butler May gets his nickname, 14 years old, springtime, 1909, with Will Benbow’s Chocolate Drops Company. Maybe Ma Rainey herself sticks him the name. Or Kid Kelly, other half, double act, Atlanta. Remembering is putting back together, and these earlier things mythologize. Butler, still a young kid, playing piano back of some kind of truck, some wagon or dray, singing from porch to porch in Montgomery. But “May and May” soon circuit Chicago to New York. Beans writes an act called “Jasper’s Dream in the Pits of Hell,” and Sweetie sings the “‘Oh, You Devil!’ Rag.”
And Sweetie, Sweetie will never die, like an archetype, never was born. No birth records, no death records. When they meet in 1910, he’s 15 and Sweetie Matthews is 16, “dainty little Southern soubrette” from New Orleans. They connect as a comedy team like there’s been no beforetime, just always was, a togetherness like that. Early impressions of streetcars and moonlight and white demon night riders and strange tones broken off tunes.
String Beans is founding member of Russell-Owens, stock company over at the Globe, heart of Ashley Street in the heart of Black LaVilla, new ragtime dance sensations, Black blackface and Chinese impersonator, “coon shouters” and “mirth makers” at the Colored Airdome, the Bijou Theater, the Globe. “On Ashley Street,” Leola Wilson sings, “You get a smile from everyone you meet,” though still she can’t shake “these awful Jacksonville Blues.”
Jelly Roll Morton later, 1938, tells white musicographer Alan Lomax, Beans “always had a big diamond in his front tooth. He was the first guy I ever saw with a diamond in his mouth, and I guess I got the idea for my diamond from him.” Jelly Roll’s with Beans in Jax, remembers him “very slender with big liver lips. His shoes were enormous and he wore trousers impossible to get over his feet without a shoe horn.”
“Largest Vaudeville Bill Ever Put On in Colored Playhouse,” “North or South,” says The Indianapolis Freeman, January 27, 1912. The new revue at the Globe includes Ma Rainey, “May and May, known as the original String Beans,” an orchestra and big names now mostly lost.
And it’s almost 50 years after String Beans ships back home, neck broken, his family finding attorneys, promising justice, and absolutely not, they don’t believe he broke his neck in a car wreck after a show, it’s almost 50 years, when Marshall and Jean Stearns publish, September 1966, “Frontiers of Humor: American Vernacular Dance” in Southern Folklore Quarterly, and quote Willis Laurence James, Black violin student in Jacksonville, later director of music at Spelman College, who sees String Beans, or Stringbeans, and Sweetie, and journals his thoughts about their act at the Globe on Ashley Street, 1915.
“Provocatively” comes Sweetie, “cuts a neat buck-and-wing and sings a blues.” She flirts from head to toe, men in the audience whistling, shouting out at the stage. Then “Stringbeans strolls out of the wings.” He’s built like his nickname, flashes into the lights that front tooth diamond. His jacket raggèd, ripped, he’s wearing padlocks in place of buttons.
Beans stops, gives ear to the men watching, sniffs in contempt. “The force of his presence is so powerful that the audience falls silent.” He polishes his padlocks. Sweetie says, “Stop cuttin’ the fool, Beans! Don’t you see them intelligent peoples out front watchin’ you?”
Well, but he’s got a story to tell. A cop, which means white, stops him on the way to the Globe, says Beans been in jail enough to know to stay away from them padlocks. “So I tol’ him the truth an’ he believed me.” Stringbeans eyes his audience, says, “I don’t want no colored folks ’round this town stealin’ my clothes.” They get the joke. Besides marital bondage, servility duplicitous, private rebellion that mocks the cops in secret, manipulation of white bias.
Beans frenzies and freaks at the piano, banging the keys, blasts out his standard “The Sinking of the Titanic,” singing of “Elgin movements” – those reliable rhythms of Elgin wristwatches, based on their ubiquitous advertisements – “in ma hips. / Twenty years’ guarantee! / I want all you ladies in this house / To nestle up close to me. / I was on that great Titanic / The night that she went down. / Ever’body wondered / Why didn’t I drown – / I had them Elgin movements in ma hips, / Twenty year guarantee!”
And as Beans sings, he “falls to the floor quivering and shaking (yet still playing the piano). At the end of the act, Stringbeans stands on his head, turns his pockets inside out so that a few pennies fall on the stage, and pleads, ‘Don’t, Baby … Don’t, Baby … Don’t, Baby!’ Sweetie May wants to know ‘Don’t What?’ and adds aggressively ‘I ain’t done nothin’ to you – yet.’ Stringbeans continues to beg like a masochistic Milque-toast until he cuts short the refrain suddenly and emphatically: ‘Don’t – leave me a damn cent!’”
He “attacks the piano,” then his “head starts to nod, his shoulders shake, and his body begins to quiver. Slowly, he sinks to the floor of the stage. Before he submerges, he is executing the Snake Hips, shouting the blues,” and “performing a horizontal grind” as he “hits the deck, still playing the piano.”
“An eccentric dancer,” the critics say, and “ancient type of oddities inconceivable” and “much of his present popularity is due to his oddities, his eccentricities, differing wholly from anything ever seen on a public stage” and “truly an oddity, a curio, a monstrosity – a freak comedian.”
No such thing recognized as The Blues when Beans is playing, but decades later, in ’36, Robert Johnson, infamous enigmatic bluesman, talks about “Elgin movements” in his “Walkin’ Blues.” Beans is a star but his categories don’t yet exist. He never records his piano, never his voice, never copyrights his hits. He’s all and totally the moment he’s in.
Vaudeville performer and producer Salem Tutt Whitney, June 1915, complains of Beans’s “songs overflowing with double, triple and sometimes quadruple entendre.” July 31st, Vaudeville composer Perry Bradford writes the Indianapolis Freeman from Philadelphia that producer Frank Montgomery “is dead. He was cut severely by String Beans a fortnight ago.” When the Freeman reports Montgomery still living, it quotes the producer that Beans slashed him when Montgomery warned him about “using profane language on the stage in front of ladies.”
But Beans sings, “Father was a deacon in a hardshell church, / Way down South where I was born. / People come to church from miles around / Just to hear the holy work goin’ on. / Father grabs a sister ’round the neck and says, / ‘Sister, won’t you sing this song?’ / Sister tells the deacon she don’t have time, / Feels religion comin’ on! / Somebody got up, turned all the lights out. / You ought to heard that sister shout. / She hollered, ‘Brother, if you wanna spread joy, / Just pray for the lights to stay out.’”
Beans and Sweetie break it off and Beans tours with Jessie May Horn, Indianapolis and Cincinnati, as “Sweet Papa’s String Beans.” Rumors circulate: Jessie in the hospital, Beans the one that put her there. Freeman’s policy’s to silence stories that reinforce negative stereotypes of Black artists and entertainers. Nobody ever hears from Jessie May again. Beans tours with Baby Mack. Then Ella Goodloe in Chicago. Then it’s Beans and Sweetie, “the original String Beans,” back together in Jacksonville.
The blackface character Rastus keeps up sudden appearances, not just in white-produced movies shot around town, but in Black blackface roles created by Black artists like actor, playwright and Vaudeville impresario Irvin Miller for his variety revue Broadway Rastus, which begins a legendary 13-year touring life with an extended run at the Strand Theater less than a block from the Globe on Ashley Street in LaVilla.
The revue features the Strand’s full orchestra, piano and cornet and trombone and violins and drums, Thanhouser Motion Picture Corporation’s “new moving picture that is to be used in Broadway Rastus,” which Peter Dunbaugh Smith calls, in his 2006 dissertation, Ashley Street Blues: Racial Uplift and the Commodification of Vernacular Performance in LaVilla, Florida, 1896-1916, “one of the earliest examples of multimedia integration.” May and May, Stringbeans and Sweetie, perform that August at the Strand, just more than a year before Beans’s death by broken neck.
“I suppose you have heard about String Beans,” Vaudeville performer Hattie Akers writes stage column editor Tony Langston of The Chicago Defender from Jacksonville. “He was being initiated into a lodge and in some manner they broke the small bones in his neck. He now lies in a hospital paralyzed from head to foot.” It takes him a week to die.
“It is alleged,” reports The Montgomery Times, “that May’s neck is broken, and that rough places are about the head. It is charged that the man’s death was due to the initiation at a Jacksonville lodge.” The death certificate lists cause of death as “fracture of 6th cervical vertebra of neck.” When Hillman Pratt ships Beans back home, his sister lists his address as “Traveling Man.”
“The initiation rite derailed when a rope was put around his neck as part of a ceremony that reminds the candidates of their humble and fragile state,” says Erwin Bosman in his 2012 article “Butler May: Was He the Real Father of the Blues?” published in No Depression: The Journal of Roots Music.
December 1917. Sylvester Russell, Chicago Defender arts critic, says the lodge where String Beans died was “not the general Masonic fraternity, but an independent Masonic order, only of local recognition in Jacksonville.” He adds, “Colored orders have long been too rough in their initiations.” Genaro Urso, grand historian for the Prince Hall-affiliated grand lodge in Florida, at the historic Black Masonic Temple in LaVilla, says Russell has it all wrong.
“Since membership was so popular,” Urso tells me, “there were lots of bogus and counterfeit outfits that flim-flammed other Black people and just took their money. We call them ‘degree peddlers.’” Just as Masonic degrees are progressive steps to membership, “These peddlers were like outfits today that sell college degrees.” Thus far, nobody seems to have discovered just where String Beans had his neck broken, nor by whom.
A decade later, Blind Blake goes up to Chicago to record with Paramount those Jacksonville songs like “Ashley Street Blues” and “Police Dog Blues” and “Stonewall Street Blues,” singing, “I’ve been your dog ever since I’ve been your man.” But Beans is the biggest thing just before the biggest thing’s recorded. Beans stares you right in the eye, smart and wily and wild, from the widening grains of rare old photos and disappears before the flash of the camera.
A century after Beans’s death, historians resuscitate the dead, make the case for the unrecorded, dig into Black Vaudeville for the birth of the Blues before the earliest recording. Everybody they dig up points to Stringbeans, both bastard blues child and father, purer and truer for never caring to mainstream his art and perform for white audiences. Here’s the secret to historiographing ghosts: the truer origins lie off register.
“Just as much as W.C. Handy, String Beans was responsible for the ascendancy of the Blues to a legitimate American popular music,” Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff write in their 2019 book The Original Blues: The Emergence of the Blues in African American Vaudeville. “Unlike Handy, however, Beans was never ‘legitimized.’”
In 1984, digging through a collection of 78s in a Philadelphia record shop, jazz historian David Sager, who works for the Library of Congress, finds a recording by Gus Haenschen, a white pianist and bandleader in St. Louis, dated May 1916, “nearly a year before the first jazz recordings.”
Haenschen’s playing part of a published medley called A Bunch of Blues, written by Black musicians J. Paul Wyer and Alf Kelly. Part of that medley is “String Beans’ Blues,” which Beans himself, though he dies a year and a half after Haenschen’s recording, never bothers to copyright.
The piece “begins with an exciting descending motif,” Sager writes, which lots of musicians soon copy and repeat. “It can be heard on many recordings, such as the introduction to ‘Walk That Thing’ by Charlie Johnson and His Paradise Band,” recorded in 1928.
Just where String Beans dies, somewhere in the lost blocks of LaVilla, most of which the City of Jacksonville demolishes in the 1990s, maybe nobody’ll ever know. But where he lives is Harlem and Chicago, Philadelphia and Memphis, Indianapolis and Cincinnati, Atlanta and Montgomery, Savannah and Jacksonville. The Globe still stands, converted nearly a century ago to the Clara White Mission, home of the oldest private humanitarian institution in Florida, founded by another Jax and LaVilla legend, Eartha Mary Magdalene White.
When Beans performs long stints in this city or that, he alters his calling card. “If we are to live forever in Ethiopia, let us live by all means at” – Fill in the blank for the theater he’s currently playing. The Monogram in Chicago. The Pekin in Montgomery. The Crown Garden in Indianapolis. The Globe in Jacksonville. “Ethiopia” means segregated and outlaw Black America and String Beans is its prince. Nobody before String Beans creates such a stardom totally independent of “mainstream,” meaning white, America.
Wander down West Ashley now at the quietest hour. A while past time to fall asleep. A while before time to wake up. Was a time Ashley never was quiet. Now, tens of thousands of residences demolished, between the calls of barred owls, who live at the longest as long as String Beans lived, in the city’s center both spatially and historically, discern if you’re able some lost piano introduction.
It’s here. Dark parody of white night riders’ killing. Execution’s extrajudicial, while just to be born Black is outlaw. Butler May’s broken-neck cavorting seems the kind of thing he’s always been ready to perform at his piano before an audience of 700 or 2,000. He knows what he’s doing. For the second he’s here. That quick jet of breath quenching candle flame. Bear witness. It answers yet in the nightmorning downtown air.