[Photo: Brother Will Hairston, “The Alabama Bus”]
In 1956, my father (Joe Von Battle) recorded
a explosive, if obscure, 45 rpm Blues/Gospel record called The Alabama Bus, a rhythmic chronicle of the Alabama Bus Boycott – which might be known as “spoken word” if recorded today.
It was sung by Brother Will Hairston, a factory worker and preacher, who was called “The Hurricane of the Motor City”, due to his thunderous impact on a church services when preaching and singing. My father recorded Hairston’s iconic record in his Hastings street studio in the late 1950’s. This record is reportedly the first documented mention of Martin Luther King Jr. in any blues or gospel recording.
I recently found this record and it had been 40 years, I’m sure, since last hearing my father play it over and over again in his record shop in the mid-sixties, and I remembered the chorus, hook and back beat as if I’d heard it the day before.
I’ve written a piece about this record (below) in the November 10, 2010 Detroit Metro Times feature on little known local Detroit recordings/artists that deserved a wider audience.
From the Metro Times:
Back in the ’60s, my father [Joe Von Battle] played the record “Alabama Bus,” by Brother Will Hairston, in his 12th Street record shop, and I remember its “rat-a-tat-tat, rat-a-tat-tat” staccato (that was Washboard Willie in the backround). “Stop that Alabama Bus/ I don’t wanna to ride/ the Alabama boycott/ I don’t wanna ride.” My father played it because the record was a chronicle of the bus boycott in the South that he had fled, and because he had recorded it on one of his record labels, years before.
“The Alabama Bus” is such a clear, anthemic narrative of the boycott that I always wondered, after I grew up, why it was so little-known. Brother Hairston was a Detroit preacher whose songs were startlingly socially conscious for the times. This record can only be found on an obscure compilation of Joe Von Battle’s recordings, or occasionally turns up on Ebay. To me, it is a masterpiece of the civil rights movement and a memento of my father’s bittersweet ties to the South.
In mid-2009 I received a surprising and delightful communication from Dr. Guido van Rijn, a Blues and Gospel historian in The Netherlands who sent an astonishing gift – his scans (below) from a chapter of a book he had written, The Truman and Eisenhower Blues – African American Blues and Gospel Songs. It was the section about Brother Will Hairston. I was amazed that someone so far away had immersed himself in the arcana of an obscure Detroit gospel figure.
Hopefully, more people will come to know about Brother Will Hairston and his extraordinary songs, especially, “The Alabama Bus”.
[scans are as large as I could reproduce for this page, enlarge by any means necessary]
In honor of Brother Will Hairston, and his contribution to Civil Rights music history, and in recognition of my father’s foresight in recording him.
Marsha Music, November 2010
The book The Truman and Eisenhower Blues – African American Blues and Gospel Songs by Dr. Guido van Rijnis is excerted here in Google Books; Brother Will Hairston’s The Alabama Bus mentioned on page 140. http://books.google.com/books?id=agTpGiHKvgwC&pg=PA140&dq=alabama+bus+will+hairston&hl=en&ei=hQTbTJm1BsTflgfe2_xj&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=2&ved=0CDIQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=alabama%20bus%20will%20hairston&f=false
From The Metro Times, Music Issue November 10, 2010:
Alabama Bus, Lyrics, first verse:
Stop that Alabama bus, I don’t wanna ride (3x) Lord, an Alabam boycott, I don’t wanna ride.
Lord, there come a bus, don’t have no load,
You know, they tell me that a human being stepped on board.
You know they tell me that the man sat on the bus,
You know, they tell me that the driver began to fuss.
He said: “looka here, man, you’re from the Negro race,”
And don’t you know you’re sitting in the wrong place?”
The driver told the man: “I know you paid your dime,
But if you don’t move you gonna have to pay a fine.”
The man told the driver: “My feets are hurtin”
The driver told the man to move behind the curtain”
Chorus: Stop that Alabama Bus, I don’t wanna ride….