Revivals and Rabbit’s Feet

Gypsy Smith, famous evangelist

“Tents were used for everything from religious revivals to black face minstrels. Nearly every year there would be a big revival with a fiery evangelistic preacher, and many wayward souls got saved. I was taken to at least one but slept through the whole sermon so I am sure it did not do much for my soul. Bama and Mama loved to go to them and never stopped talking about the time it snowed in the spring and weighted down the tent when the noted evangelist Gypsy Smith was holding a revival. When it would snow late in the season they would say ‘Remember the Gypsy Smith revival.’

“Then we had the Chatauqua each year. For a week there would be a big tent set up on a downtown vacant lot and there daily afternoon and nighttime performances. There would be melodramas with a villain, etc. and there would be a magic show and musical performances. Each day was something different, and we looked forward to going as often as we were allowed. The minstrels featured men impersonating black folks. They sang and told jokes and really had some good talent. One was called ‘The Rabbit Foot Minstrels.'”

I strongly suspect that Sara slept through every revival, or found a reason to slip away to Woolworth’s. She found organized religion (and loud pulpit pounders in particular) tiresome and irrelevant. There’s an entertaining story later in these memoirs of her “conversion” at Calvary Baptist, Jackson, but once she got that little detail out of the way, she did not beat a path through the sanctuary doors unless someone was getting married, getting buried or really good music was involved. Her tastes evolved from the Rabbit Foot Minstrels to Glenn Miller, Bing Crosby, Perry Como and, at the end of her life, Michael Ball. She and her granddaughter, Emily, were Mr. Ball’s American groupies.

Ed. note: Gypsy Smith was a traveling British evangelist who roamed America throughout the first half of the 20th century. His nickname came from the fact that he had been born in a gypsy wagon and spent much of his career seeking out gypsy encampments around the U.S. and Great Britain. He may not have found gypsies in Greenwood, but I’m sure there were plenty of souls who needed a little shaking up. For the funniest account ever of a Greenwood revival (held in the Courthouse!), see Mildred Spurrier Topp’s book, Smile Please.

The Rabbit Foot Minstrels were a staple on the traveling show circuit from 1900 to 1950 or so. Several famous singers emerged from this group and their headquarters site in Port Gibson features a Mississippi Blues Trail marker, courtesy of Allan Hammons and Wanda Clark of Greenwood. From the Wikipedia page: “In his book The Story of the BluesPaul Oliverwrote : ‘The ‘Foots’ travelled in two cars and had a 80′ x 110′ tent which was raised by the roustabouts and canvassmen, while a brass band would parade in town to advertise the coming of the show…The stage would be of boards on a folding frame and Coleman lanterns – gasoline mantle lamps – acted as footlights. There were no microphones; the weaker voiced singers used a megaphone, but most of the featured women blues singers scorned such aids to volume…”[9]

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About sec040121

Hello....I'm in possession of a priceless collection of memoirs and memorabilia left by my mother, Sara Evans Criss. She was a native and lifelong (88 years!) devotee of our small town, who covered this peculiar and volatile corner of the world for 30 years as the Memphis Commercial Appeal's Greenwood bureau chief, a job that started out with debutantes and high school football and wound up spang in the midst of one of the twentieth century's most enduring social upheavals. This blog is dedicated to her memory and the legacy she left behind, both for her family and her community.
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