The Baldknobbers (It Ain’t No April Fool’s Joke!)

Flipping through a box of ephemera at an antique mall, I spotted the word “Baldknobbers” in big red letters — who wouldn’t pull that up for a closer inspection?!

In my hands I now held a souvenir book for The Baldknobbers Hillbilly Jamboree Show, “a tradition in Ozark Mountain Country”– the 25th Anniversary Edition.

baldknobbers-souvenir-book-cover

That was a bit disappointing… I mean with a name like “The Baldknobbers” I had expected something far more pervy. But it turns out that The Baldknobbers Jamboree attraction was Branson’s first country music and comedy show — and are largely credited for the “music scene” (tourist trap) that Branson now is. Apparently the group started back in 1959 when brothers Bill, Jim, Lyle and Bob Mabe began entertaining visitors in downtown Branson on the Taneycomo lakefront. (One can only imagine that this consisted of odd performances and very little money put into hats?)

baldknobbers-1959

I could remain disappointed that there’s not enough smut-factor, that the group still exists — that I don’t have something incredibly exotic and rare. But my souvenir program dates to 1984 (which is older than some of you reading here) and it has 11 Baldknobber autographs, including from founders who have passed away. And, it has photos of the “Baldknobber Wheels”, aka old touring buses used by the group — so awesome, I must have that first one!

baldknobber-wheels

(Truthfully, it’s those images which made me pay the $5 & rush home to show my Mom — one lady who enjoys kitschy vehicles and “baldknobbers” as much as I do.)

While that’s cool & all, the interesting thing is the very thing which drew me to the old souvenir booklet: the name Baldknobber.

It turns out that the Mabe brothers took the name from an Old Ozarks vigilante group the Bald Knobbers, who called themselves that because they held their meetings on a treeless hilltop or “bald knob”. Those original Bald Knobbers have a long & complicated history, beginning as, according to Wikipedia, “a group of non-racially motivated vigilantes in the southern part of the state of Missouri.”

original-bald-knobber-hood-mask

Non-racially motivated? I cannot look at the Bald Knobbers’ traditional hoods with horns — on dark fabric with light markings for facial features, no less (Gerry Darnell says they wore horned black pillowcases with the eye and nose holes rimmed in orange) — and not see anything other than the horror of blackface. I’m wondering who can?

But apparently the group was borne of the post-Civil War lawless southwest, a vigilante response to murder and other crime that, horrible enough prior to and during the war, went unheeded & grew after the Civil War as fugitives sought refuge in the remote and inaccessible Ozarks region.

The purpose of the old Bald Knobbers was to “correct the lawlessness”, but eventually they became not only increasingly violent, but using their power for greedy and selfish purposes, including killing Anti-Bald Knobbers and those who spoke negatively about the Bald Knobbers — finally becoming home grown terrorists.

While the Bald Knobbers may not have originally been racially motivated, some argue that the group did not dissolve in 1889, but merely went underground after the lynching of John Wesley Bright in 1892 and then members &/or believers became associated/perverted/twisted into the KKK family clan.

All of this certainly takes a funny phrase and makes it anything but funny.

The “full circle” moment for this collector was discovering that I’ve had my hands on this story of the original vigilante Bald Knobbers for quite some time. In some box or other (which I can’t really dig in right now, due to the flood situation here in Fargo), I’ve got at least one copy of Harold Bell Wright’s Shepherd of the Hills, which I’m told covers the Bald Knobbers and this period of United States history:

In 1907, Harold Bell Wright published the novel Shepherd of the Hills which tells about the Ozark area and its’ settlers such as the Ross family. Mr. Wright was afflicted with tuberculosis (consumption) and stayed with the Ross’ while he waited for the White River to recede enough to be crossed. Mr. Wright was a young man seeking his health. He stopped among the hill folks and found peace. He explored Marvel Cave and was amazed with its beauty. He visited each summer for seven years collecting notes about real life events of the people of the area. He stayed in a tent near the Shepherd of The Hills homestead. The experience moved him to set a story-part fact, part legend, part dream. The novel gained popularity quickly and attracted many tourist to see the area he wrote about. The Shepherd of The Hills novel has become a widely read book and had over a dozen television productions and eight movies made from it.

This is a still from the 1919 movie based on the book:

film-still-of-bald-knobbers-in-1919-film-the-shepherd-of-the-hills

The bottom line is that I now have two reasons to go to Branson: to see The Baldkknobbers (with my mom, so we can steal some vintage Baldknobber wheels) and to see the cabin that Harold Bell Wright stayed in. I had no reason or desire to go before.

cabin-which-inspired-harold-bell-wrights-book

So, to re-cap, I paid $5 for a retro souvenir booklet worth so much more: it made me laugh out loud, discover a fascinating history story — one which leads to a book I likely already own (another excuse to read!), and now have a reason to travel to Branson. I call that a good score.

Dancing With The Stars, My Age Is Showing

Watching Dancing tonight, the results show, I saw Hall & Oates perform one of the songs from my glory days, Maneater.

Now the interesting thing, the thing is not just that I feel old because I watch the show with my kids, but because I’ve seen Hall & Oats perform live, in concerts. And I thought I’d already seen the duo’s life cycle.

But I was wrong.

The first time I’d seen the band I was 19 or 20. It was at the great party on the lake, Summerfest — back in the day when the old stage had true general seating. Not some general seating (like today on ‘the hill’, with partially obstructed views, vs. the ticket seats closer to the stage), but all the seats were general seats.

The only price you paid was your general admission to the fest (and the food and drink bill — which was no small thing, but still cheaper than it is today). The true fans, those dedicated to the principal of the fest and music, would arrive in a group at the festival park before the gates opened, and at 10 A.M., when the gates opened, rush the main stage.

There you’d scrounge for and stake-out the best seats you could get. You had to be a group because in order to keep you seats, at least a pair of you would need to sit, lounge and/or lay upon the old wooden plank seating from 10 in the morning until 7 P.M. or so when the opening act would begin their performance.

You’d guard in shifts, with other members checking back in either to take their shift at seat saving or to bring you wine coolers, beers & real brats (not the grey hotdogs many try to pass-off as bratwurst). I personally loved my seat saving duties. Despite the great number of other seat savers (and the scavengers who tried to poach seats) and music occasionally billowing by from one of the other stages, it was one of the more quiet places on the lake to actually have a conversation. Conversation, sunlight, wine coolers, music, lake breezes… What’s not to like? Oh yeah, and the inevitable run-in with old friends who spotted you on your concert seating stake-out. (Remaining in place, letting others come to you, has always been one of the best ways to be found.)

Anyway, the first time I saw Hall & Oats was at Milwaukee’s Summerfest — they were just approaching their biggest days and as a college student on the cutting edge of music at the time, it was freakin’ fantastic. Being slightly drunk on beverages, the feeling of cool night lake air caressing hot sunburned skin, the intoxicating mix of old and new friends (and lovers), and youth was topped-off by awesome music & dancing on the wooden plank benches as we scream-sung the lyrics. Hall & Oats was on fire and so was I.

But just a few short years later, or so it seemed to me, Hall & Oats was once again back at Summerfest — but this time, at one of the smaller music stages. I still went to see them & had a fantastic time. But it was a stage demotion, symbolic of their loss of cool status — and my own. No longer were any of us on fire… Smoldering, maybe; but not on fire.

I noted it, this temporary ‘hot’ status in pop culture, and how it mirrored my own fleeting popularity in our youth obsessed culture. I didn’t like it; but I accepted that this was how others would see us. They were wrong; but let them move along with their fads & fancies.

Flash forward to now. A few weeks ago, Hall & Oates appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (yes, I am old; but I’m also cool enough to have intelligence and good taste, thankyouverymuch). Their appearance may have seemed a slice of retro kitschy goodness to many — a big “Howdy” to gods from the 80’s, a decade now so “vintage” that it’s back “in” again — but to me, it was a fond remembrance. Not just of my glory days, but of my “they’re wrong, they don’t know what they’re doing” thoughts. Seeing them with Stewart wasn’t a nod from a current pop culture collegiate deity to gods that once were; it was, at least, mutual recognition of one another’s cool factor — with neither’s being over with.

Seeing the duo’s performance on Dancing tonight, with that hot Karina Smirnoff in a flaming red jumpsuit and black leg warmers, I realized that I may no longer look as hot as she did — but I once wore those leg warmers, those heels, and mesmerized audiences grooving to Maneater. My audience was smaller, my moves less professional; but by boobs were bigger and I was entertaining and cool to those who watched. Like Hall & Oates, I may not be the looker I once was, but I’m not dead. Or irrelevant.

I hope to keep seeing more of them; because, boys, every time you go away you take a piece of me with you.