Monday, March 2, 2009

Chitlin Circuits

So, in looking at some material on Central Texas and the Brazos River bottomland area, I've been running across references to the Texas version of the chitlin circuit. If you've heard of the Orpheum circuit---the vaudeville-era system that parceled show business talent throughout the country from Broadway all the way down to the backwater 150 seat theatre--the chitlin version served (natch) as the African-American parallel. 

There seems to have been a triangle between Austin, Houston, and the Killeen area with its military bases. Once an act entered the triangle, it would get its money's worth by stringing through the towns that drift along the Brazos, tiny burgs like Rockdale, Thorndale, Gause. And while most of the acts were never heard of outside the state, others who came in--Ike and Tina Turner, B.B. King, Bobby Womack, Lightning Hopkins, were certainly well known. The interesting thing to me is that the towns themselves were irrevelant; it was the population out in the farmland surrounding them that made up the audience. The Brazos river and the rich cotton producing soil around it, served as the western end of the cotton belt that began back in Southern Georgia. In the sharecropping era, you had farmers who would come in to the county seat on the weekend. And an act from the circuit would be there to take their money. 

In Austin, the city had built the Doris Miller Auditorium in 1942, ostensibly to honor the memory of the sailor who'd shot down Japanese planes at Pearl Harbor, more specifically to provide a location on the east side for black servicemen to avoid racial intermingling. The little auditorium is still there today, along with the Victory Grill, which was another key spot in the circuit. In its way, the chitlin circuit still exists--only now it's used by rap groups coming out of Houston and gospel troupes and traveling stage plays and musicals.  

Besides the music and entertainment, in the absence of a media targeted to sharecroppers and other men and women in rural areas, with no equivalent to the Grand Old Opry or Pappy O'Daniel's Lightcrust Doughboys on the radio, the old circuit also must have acted as a mode of communication, of passing information within the triangle.  (One would think that the internet now would be the primary method to get the word out over the modern day chitlin circuit, but they still use old, old media--flyers, posters on light posts all over east Austin, late night interviews over low-watt community radio stations. Not sophisticated but the message hits its target better than throwing a pebble in the internet sea.) I'm sort of interested in that idea of messages being passed around in plain sight, in seemingly unsophisticated ways. 

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