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BEACON Senior News - Western Colorado

Dancing in the Delta during prohibition

Jan 25, 2021 03:20PM ● By Cappy Hall Rearick
Dancing in the Delta during prohibition

“The delta blues is a sad, big sound and makes you think about people who are dead or the women who left you.” - Dave Edwards

During the Prohibition Act of 1919, America was sobering up whether it wanted to or not. When my mother’s boyfriend, Harold, learned that a Mississippi riverboat was anchored three miles offshore, he was all over it. Harold was no fan of prohibition. 

“We’ll drink and gamble and listen to blues that sounds like a screen door needing oil.”

“Will there be a piano player?” my mother asked.

He nodded. “Better than Jellyroll Morton.” Mama loved the blues; Harold loved the booze.

She had earned the right to love the blues because she knew what it was like to pick cotton until the tips of her fingers bled. Even at the tender age of 20, she went to bed with a backache from stooping over in the fields.

The Eighteenth Amendment put a damper on the consumption of alcohol, but folks quickly learned the acronym BYOB. A riverboat was a place to dance, gamble, drink and enjoy live music. Those who could afford to board a party boat brought their own spirits. Young and old alike crowded the Mississippi riverboats.

At first glance, the boat looked like any of the other paddle wheelers Mama saw clanging their bells down the Yazoo River. Once on board, however, she discovered a different view and she liked it. A lot.

“Want some hooch?” Harold asked. Mama sipped on the bottle he’d concealed inside his jacket, and then headed to the dance floor. He followed.

Her smile would not go away and her dancing feet wouldn’t stop moving to the heartfelt tunes sung by a man called “Blind Man Sonny.” The pianist banged out an occasional Scott Joplin song as if hoping to rouse those who had yet to feel the effects of bootleg whiskey. Throughout the evening and with each sip of booze, Mama’s comfort level grew in proportion to her laughter. Never in her young life could she remember having so much fun.

Harold and Mama danced close together while a fat woman sang “I Want Some Sugar in My Bowl” and sounded just like Bessie Smith. He leaned in and whispered in her ear, “Marry me tomorrow.”

Mama didn’t hesitate. “Nope. I’m gonna have a hangover.”

She lived with her older sister in a small town in the Mississippi Delta since leaving the country farm where she had lived with the rest of her family. Big sister was a teetotaler whose Southern Baptist membership forbade both alcohol and dancing. She was not happy when the morning after the riverboat excursion, little sister was too hungover to eat the nice breakfast she prepared. She was even more annoyed when the doorbell rang before nine o’clock and a gentleman asked to speak to Mama.

“Wake up, Sister. Wake up,” she hissed, pulling covers from her groggy and hung over sibling. “Somebody’s here to talk to you and he won’t say what it’s about. What on earth did you do last night?”

The last thing big sister needed to hear was that little sister got pie-eyed on bootleg whisky. Mama dragged herself into the living room where Harold was decked out in a suit, tie and polished shoes, looking better than he had a right to. Nervous, he held a hat in his hands and twirled it around and around. Next to him stood a stout man with a fringe of grey hair, holding a Bible.

Mama frowned at Harold. “What are you doing here?”

“I came to marry you.”

She blanched. “I told you last night I was going to be hung over today. There’s no way I am gonna marry you with a hangover.”

The heavy-set man cleared his throat. “Miss, you might as well go on and get yourself dressed. I’m a Justice of the Peace and this man is determined for y’all to get hitched today. He won’t let me leave until y’all have said ‘I Do.’ My wife is cooking fried chicken for dinner and I aim to get on home while it’s still hot.”

A year after she agreed to marry him in her sister’s living room, Mama gave birth to a son on Father’s Day. They named him Harold, Jr. Three years later, Mama gave Harold a Valentine baby, a daughter. They named her Cappy.

Liked this? Check out Dances in the desert: Relive the heyday of dance halls in the Grand Valley

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