‘The Blue Grays’ – Baseball’s Negro Leagues honored by Tim Stafford and Thomm Jutz

History is written by the winners. And musicians.

“Lost Voices” is an American history-themed album comprised of 14 original songs written by bluegrass artists Tim Stafford and Thomm Jutz. The first song made public in advance of the record’s Feb. 3 release on Mountain Fever Records is “The Blue Grays,” which was an Elizabethton, Tennessee, Negro League baseball team that barnstormed throughout the country from 1935-55.

The baseball song is a reminder of the quote most attributed to Winston Churchill regarding who gets to write history.

Baseball’s first game played at night illuminated by permanent lights was in 1935 at Cincinnati’s Crosley Field. President Franklin D. Roosevelt ceremoniously flicked them on from the White House, and the Reds beat the Philadelphia Phillies, 2-1.

That’s the often-repeated historical version, the one that pops up first on a Google search.

But night games were held in St. Louis at Stars Park five years earlier in 1930 when the hometown team played the Houston Black Buffaloes in a Negro League “little World Series.” The White House wasn’t involved in the event. No white people were, according to a New Amsterdam News report that quoted St. Louis Stars center fielder Cool Papa Bell. “We did a lot of things for ourselves and the United States that we have not gotten credit for,” Bell said. “We helped build this country.”

Bell’s story, published in 2020, is written by Lonnie Wheeler in “The Bona Fide Legend of Cool Papa Bell; Speed, Grace, and the Negro Leagues.”

Bell, the legend goes, could turn out the lights and jump into bed before the room went dark. Known as baseball’s fastest runner, Bell undoubtedly stole more bases than Major Leaguers Ricky Henderson and Ty Cobb, but official records were hard to keep in the Negro Leagues.

Home run hitters Josh Gibson and Mule Suttles and pitchers Satchel Paige and Ray Brown rivaled in skills their contemporaries, sluggers Babe Ruth and Hank Greenberg and hurlers Cy Young and Dizzy Dean, who told Gibson during a interracial ballgame, “Josh, I wish you and Satchel … played with me on the Cardinals. Hell, we’d win the pennant by the Fourth of July and could go fishin’ the rest of the season.”

Blacks weren’t allowed to play in the Majors until 1947, when Jackie Robinson suited up for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Stafford and Jutz’s song “The Blue Grays” comes at a time when Florida schools have outlawed “critical race theory,” books are banned in Texas and libraries have being defunded in Utah and South Carolina.

Ostensibly, the political movement by self-proclaimed “winners” is intended to not make white people feel guilty about slavery. Moreover, the oppressive Jim Crow era that lasted a century after the Civil War was endured and remembered by people still alive.

Will music that addresses history be the next target? Blues, jazz and subsequently rock ‘n’ roll germinated from oppression in this country.

Stafford sings the Blue Grays, “cracked the bat, climbed the mound, another perfect throw. They took on every rival, but they also fought Jim Crow.”

For some, the term “woke” has become a fashionable pejorative, but it’s been around since at least 1938 with Lead Belly recorded “Scottsboro Boys,” a song about nine Black teenagers accused of raping two white women: “I advise everybody, be a little careful – best stay woke, keep their eyes open.”

Stafford said his guitar hook on “The Blue Grays” was inspired by Blind Blake’s 1927 tune “Police Dog Blues.” 

In the bluegrass realm, Stafford is an all-star player, who is a founder of the band Blue Highway. He also played with Alison Krauss and Union Station and co-wrote a Tony Rice biography. A prolific collaborator, Stafford teamed up with songwriter and coveted Nashville session artist Juzt five years ago. “Lost Voices is a follow-up album to 2022’s “Take That Shot.”

Stafford and Jutz would like to recognize and thank Cedar Grove Foundation, Inc. and Jacey Augustus for their research and documentation of the Elizabethton Blue Grays.

-Tim Parsons

Tim Stafford and Thomm Jutz
“Lost Voices”
Label:
Mountain Fever Records
Release: Feb. 3, 2023

ABOUT Tim Parsons

Tim Parsons
Tim Parsons is the editor of Tahoe Onstage who first moved to Lake Tahoe in 1992. Before starting Tahoe Onstage in 2013, he worked for 29 years at newspapers, including the Tahoe Daily Tribune, Eureka Times-Standard and Contra Costa Times. He was the recipient of the 2011 Keeping the Blues Alive award for Journalism.

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