Many readers have written to tell me how much they enjoy listening to “Jones County Jubilee,” over on my Free State of Jones website. The song is performed by Doctor G and the Mudcats, and was written by Doctor G himself, aka Gregg Andrews. Gregg, who wrote the following post, is a historian as well as singer/songwriter, and has published numerous books and articles, including his own community study, City of Dust: A Cement Company Town in the Land of Tom Sawyer (Univ. of Missouri Press, 1996). I’m proud to note that Gregg is also my husband.
The Origins of “Jones County Jubilee”
By Gregg Andrews
As a singer/songwriter, historian, and teacher, I like to use music as a teaching tool to reach students. I grew up in a cement company town just outside Hannibal, Missouri–Mark Twain’s boyhood home–on the banks of the Mississippi River. My father, who drilled holes and set dynamite charges in the cement plant’s limestone quarries, died at the age of 48, but he taught me to play the guitar shortly before he died. I was 15 years old at the time. The first song I learned from him was Jimmy Rodgers’s Depression-era “Waiting for a Train.” That song about hard times symbolized the cultural legacy he passed on to me–a love of traditional country music and the blues, along with a deep interest in the struggles and culture of working people. A few years later, I discovered the exciting music of Tony Joe White and Credence Clearwater Revival, which added a swamp vibe to the mix of influences on my music.
My song, “Jones County Jubilee,” had its roots in the first trip I made with Vikki to Jones County, Mississippi, on a hot August day in 1992. I was driving our car, trying unsuccessfully to find a local landmark in the area. When I spotted a guy in his truck out in the field, I pulled over and suggested that Vikki get out of the car and walk over to ask him for directions. He told her to have me pull the car up in the shade and motioned he’d join us there in a few minutes.
The next thing we knew, we were in the truck with Julius Huff, who took us to the Jackie Knight cemetery, where several members of Newton Knight’s band of Unionists were buried after being hanged by Confederate forces. I got my first good feel of Jones County history, folklore, and culture as he got a key to unlock the gate guarding the bumpy old road down into the swamp. I still remember the chills running up and down my spine when I saw the tombstone inscription, “Executed for the courage of their convictions.” Looking back, I think that was the starting point for my song, even though I didn’t write it til years later.
We spent delightful hours with Julius, who stressed how beautiful Rachel was, how she “HOO-DOOED” Newt. Julius took us to a number of other places and gave his views on the history of Newt’s campaign against local Confederate officials during the war. We picked our way through the thick brush and kept an eye out for snakes as he showed us where Ben Knight and Sil Coleman were hanged after Confederate hound dogs had tracked them down. After Ben’s executioners refused his last request for water, according to folklore, water began to bubble up near his grave.
One other experience on that first trip to Jones County, in particular, helped to establish the feel of “Jones County Jubilee.” It was Earle Knight who rode with Vikki and me as we tried to locate the cemetery where Newt and Rachel are buried. Earle, who was 89 years old at the time, strained his eyes as I drove our new Ford Taurus down what had once been a pretty primitive dirt road. As I maneuvered the car to straddle washed-out gullies and drove through weeds that came up over the hood of the car, I started having second thoughts about just what in the hell we were doing. I mean, here we were, down in the swamp, dependent on the memory of an 89-year-old man who hadn’t even been to the cemetery in years. The rumble of thunder off in the distance added tension and a bit of urgency to our search for the graves. Then, at one point, Earle asked me to stop. Telling us to stay in the car, he got out and in a few minutes suddenly vanished in the brush. Oh, great, I told Vikki! What if he’d have a heart attack or something out there searching in the sweltering heat? Besides, the old road had taken so many twists and turns and the weeds were so high that we’d never find him or our way out of there. About that time, Earle reappeared and summoned us. He’d found the graves. “Praise the Lord,” I think I muttered at the time.
Over the next ten summers, I served as Vikki’s research assistant as we became familiar faces to many in the Jones County area, especially to members of the Knight family. In particular, Florence Blaylock opened her house to us, prepared fantastic meals, introduced us to members of the Knight family, and took us with her to services of the Seventh Day Adventist Church. In Jackson, the owners of a local restaurant (Martins, if I remember right) near the old Mississippi Department of History and Archives greeted us by name each summer, giving us free pieces of pie after we had filled up on their delicious cafeteria-style food.
I didn’t set out to write a song about the Civil War history of Jones County. I had never even thought about it, in fact, but one day years later when I sat down with my guitar to write something with a good swamp feel, out came the words “way down in Mississippi.” And then it just flowed. I wanted to title the song, “Free State of Jones,” but when I did a google search, I discovered a great song by Cary Hudson, of Sumrall, Mississippi, that already had that name. That’s when I became first acquainted with the music of Cary and his band, Blue Mountain. What a treat when, a few years later, Vikki and I got to hear Cary perform the song at Cheatham Street Warehouse in San Marcos, Texas, while he was on a Texas tour. About 7 months later, Cary and I did a show together at Cheatham Street, and he quickly became one of my own favorite songwriters.“Jones County Jubilee” soon became popular among fans (including many pro-Confederates) as I began to perform it with my band, Doctor G and the Mudcats, here in south central Texas. We included it on my CD, Mudcat (Cheatham Street Records), which was produced by Kent Finlay and released in September, 2005.
Gregg Andrews (Doctor G)
San Marcos, Texas