Tommy Millard – Blackfaced Musician & Bluegrass Boy by Wayne Erbsen

When the full story of country music is told, the name Tommy Millard will not be forgotten. Dubbed “Snowball” by Bill Monroe, Tommy was a legendary performer who made important contributions to country music. Working with numerous medicine shows up and down the East Coast, Tommy was one of a small number of blackfaced comics who helped make the transition from the racially sensitive blackface act to the more acceptable role of the rube comic. Tommy, in fact, helped to further define the rube comic character with a freckled face, tattered baggy pants, oversized shoes, and slouch hat. His constant companion was an old leather satchel containing an inventory of countless props and “instruments” like bones and spoons.

History tells us that blackface and rube comics inherited much of their material and style from the era of the minstrel show. Such shows flourished from the 1840s until well past the Civil War and introduced professional comedy to the American public. Once minstrelsy went out of style, the tradition was then handed to variety shows, then passed on to vaudeville and later to medicine shows. Country music eventually inherited this hand-me-down tradition and has kept it going in modern times with shows such as “Hee Haw.” But let us not forget that it was performers like Tommy Millard who saved much of the humor and drama of the earlier minstrel era from oblivion. Refusing to repudiate the entire tradition because of its racial overtones, performers like Tommy Millard helped to pass on to a new generation the spirit of the minstrel era. As such, Tommy’s story merits attention.

It all started in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1930 when a nineteen-year-old Thomas Millard joined his first medicine show. As a kid he’d always played the fool, told stories and jokes and kept his pals in stitches. By hanging around Lee Holden, who was an experienced comedian and medicine show man, Tommy perfected his jokes and stories. Finally, Lee hired Tommy to work blackface with him and an Indian named Big Chief Tonic in starting their own medicine show. They played their first show in Kerryville, Tennessee to a packed house. Tommy explains that “without really rehearsing our skits much, we went over like we’d been doing it for years. It just came natural to me.”

After working with Lee and Big Chief Tonic for some time, Tommy joined Mitzie Shelton and Her All-Girl Band. Performing with an entourage of fifteen young women and a band of three men, Tommy acted as M.C. and comic when they toured through Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama and Tennessee. During his travels, Tommy even made several appearances on the Grand Ole Opry, telling jokes and giving monologues. Occasionally, he beat spoons with the other Opry acts. With wages being what they were on the Opry in those days, Tommy drifted out of Nashville and back to the medicine shows.

Tommy then joined up with Indian Chief Kadat and worked everywhere from the deep south to Pennsylvania. They performed mainly in the small towns and in coal mining areas where they were often paid in script or “dugalo,” as they called it. Their basic method was simple. They came into town, set up a canvas covered platform to act as a stage, and the five or six performers and musicians would entice the crowds to get close enough to hear the “pitch,” delivered by Chief Kadat or Tommy. They would sell shampoo, soap, and snake oil to the crowd.

On one trip through West Virginia, Tommy explains that “I stopped at a snake farm and bought a rattlesnake and a black snake to use as an attraction in the show. That was a foolish thing to do, because the two don’t get along. Anyway, we go to Atlanta, Georgia and set up our stage to do a show. I hit the guitar a time or two to attract attention. Then started hollering and ballyhooing to get the crowd in there so I could start my pitch. When I took the black snake out it curled around my neck and boy, the crowds really came out! They swarmed in there. While I was holding the black snake, the rattler was in the box next to the stage. A black snake can smell a rattler a mile away, so when the black snake smelled the rattler, it started squirming and pulling and tightening up and then it wooped around and bit me right on the hand. I let go, but I didn’t want to lose it, so I picked it up again, and it bit me again. Before I got it back in its box, it bit me four or five times. At the time the snake bit me, I was lecturing the crowd on the snake oil, the liniment. Well, my hand started bleeding and the people’s eyes were bugged wide open just looking for me to drop dead any moment. I assured the crowd that there was nothing to worry about and got a bottle of that liniment and poured it on there and pretty soon it stopped the bleeding. I finished my pitch on the liniment, but I never did one time say it was good for snakebite but from what they saw, they figured it was the best snakebite remedy in the world. Man, did we sell that stuff! They bought it by the half dozen bottles. We sold plum out of it at 50 cents a bottle. Nearly everyone standing out there bought some.

Then the chief got out there to make his pitch. He was an intelligent man and had even graduated from college, but when he lectured the crowd, he talked nonsense and in circles that you couldn’t understand. But the fact that he was an Indian and wore a headdress and all, the people just bought that medicine as fast as we could hand it to them. He never made claims or promises about the medicine. People got fired up about it just because he was an Indian. Anyway, after that snake bite incident, we had sold all we had bottled. After the chief got out there, the people wanted to buy more. We had more bottles in the trailer, but without labels. Our wives got in there and started labeling them and passing them out the door as fast as they could. We sold all that, but we had a barrel of tonic in there which wasn’t bottled or labeled. They started bottling and labeling it and passing it out the door. I mean to tell you, we sold that stuff!

“I don’t remember many of my exact pitches I made in those days, but they usually went something like this: ‘Now ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to call your attention to a product here tonight. It’s Big Chiefs Tonic. It’s good for stomach troubles, it’s good for indigestion, and we highly recommend it for the elderly adults and the young. It will bring out your vim, vigor, and vitality. When you and your wife are sleeping in different rooms, after you take this medicine, you’ll find yourself going up the steps to meet your wife and you’ll find her coming down the steps to meet you.’ You know, we didn’t stress too much about it being a cure. It’s really not a cure, it’s a laxative. It was pretty good stuff to clean your system up. You know, the Chief was very secretive about what went into the tonic, so we never knew what was in there. But the fact that he was an Indian really helped sell it. Sometimes, he’d put a small headdress on me and called me Chief One Feather. I do have dark skin and some of my people were Indian, so I could play the part.

“After we were ready to leave a town where we sold a lot of tonic, the demand would sometimes be so great that we’d make arrangements with a drug store to sell it. We’d set up on the sidewalk in front of a drugstore, do our pitch, and let the people buy from the druggist. We’d sell the store about four gross of it and let him make about 10%. He’d sell it for a dollar a bottle.”

While traveling with the medicine show, Tommy often met other medicine show musicians. One he remembers in particular was Roy Acuff. Although working with different shows, they often camped near each other. Tommy remembers that they often used to make coffee in half-gallon buckets. He fondly recalls that “me and Roy shared many a half-gallon bucket of coffee together. In those days, the depression, times were plenty hard. We always lived in tents, which we pitched right behind the stage. We’d pool our money, what we had, and get 25 or 30 cents out of the whole bunch. Then we’d go and buy bologna and a loaf of bread. You could get a loaf of bread for 5 cents. If we’d get a little bit rich and get a dollar or two, we’d buy hot dogs. That was like steak to us. Me and Roy’s broke many a hot dog in two and divided it. But we didn’t often go hungry. There was a place in Knoxville where you could go in and eat all you want for 15 cents. That’s right. We visited those places a lot.”

Besides performing for medicine shows, Tommy also had a band (the Blue Ridge Hillbillies) that started doing a regular show on the Mid-Day Merry-Go Round plus performing locally at school houses in the Knoxville area. This band included, at various times, such legendary performers as Carl Sauceman, Jack and Curly Shelton, fiddler Shorty Barton, and Wade and J.E. Mainer. In addition to doing the M.C. work and being the booking agent for the group, Tommy also played the role of comedian. It was during his stay in Knoxville that Tommy made the switch from blackface to country rube. After doing his regular blackface skit on the Mid-Day Merry-GoRound, a black preacher called up and complained about the racial overtones. Realizing that times had changed, Tommy gave up blackface. According to Tommy, back when he did blackface, it was really accepted by both blacks and whites and there were no hard feelings. In fact, Tommy explains, “I’ve had colored people come around and talk to me, shake hands and they had no hard feelings, or anything like that.”

After playing out the Knoxville area, Tommy moved his base of operations to Asheville, North Carolina. It was in Asheville that Tommy met up with Bill Monroe. Monroe had recently parted company with brother Charlie and had just formed a band in Asheville which included Cleo Davis on guitar, and Art Wooten, the one-man-band, on fiddle. Tommy was hired to do the M.C. work and play comedian. Cleo Davis fondly remembers Tommy as one of the greatest of the country rube comedians. In fact, Cleo had so much trouble controlling his laughter while working straight man with Tommy that Monroe himself often acted as the straight man. It was during this period that Bill dubbed Tommy “Snowball.” Even after all these years, the name has stuck, and Tommy is still often called Snowball.

From Asheville, Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, as they were now called, moved to Greenville, South Carolina and stayed there for six or eight months. During this time, Monroe was corresponding with the Grand Ole Opry and in, October of 1939, managed to secure an audition on the Opry. At this same time, however, Tommy and his wife were expecting their first child so they decided it would be best to move back home to Asheville, North Carolina to have the baby. Tommy was tired of the road anyway, so he gave notice to Monroe that he was leaving the band.

Some months after the baby was born, Tommy moved his expanded family to Winston-Salem, North Carolina where he played with such musicians as fiddler Tommy Hunter and the three Morris brothers, including Wiley, Zeke and George.

For many musicians, the end of World War II marked a turning point in their professional careers. Tommy explains that “at the same time the boys were returning from the service, a lot of little radio stations began to pop up all over the area we were broadcasting in, in such places as Waynesville, Black Mountain, and Marshall. Everybody and his brother grabbed a guitar and a fiddle and whatever and started playing on those little stations. They also started playing personal appearances around over the country. I got wind of a lot of them that put on rotten shows, or even dirty shows and along about that time I decided to get out of it. I left the Farm Hour and also left WLOS where I was also working at the time. Shortly after that I gave my heart to the Lord and knew I had to quit show business. The very night I was saved, I was supposed to do a show in Haw Creek, North Carolina with Carl Story. I went to the stage door and motioned for Carl to come to me. I told Carl I was sorry and that I didn’t mean to stand him up, but explained that I was saved and couldn’t make this appearance with him. He said, ‘Yes, you can,’ and dragged me out on the stage and told the people, ‘Friends, this is Tommy Millard, comedian, musician and said he couldn’t make this appearance tonight because he surrendered his life to the Lord. It’s not that he thinks there’s anything wrong with it, it’s just that his life has changed, and he’s going into a different profession.’ Do you know what the crowd done? They stood up and applauded. I thought they was never gonna stop. When they finally stopped I thanked them, but I just couldn’t talk much. I did manage to say that if I don’t see them in his world again, I’d see them up yonder. They stood up again, and just kept applauding as I went out the back door. And that was the last time I was ever on stage. After that, I went into the ministry, and have been a preacher all these years.’

At age 75, Tommy is still fairly active as a preacher and fondly remembers his days as a performer, comedian, and Blue Grass Boy.

BLUEGRASS UNLIMITED, MAY, 1986

Rural Roots of BluegrassFor more information about bluegrass music, check out Wayne Erbsen’s popular book, Rural Roots of Bluegrass, This book is richly illustrated with 107 vintage photos and includes history, lyrics to 94 songs, musical notation, chords, playing tips, and historical sources for each song. Includes profiles on the Bill Clifton, Bill Monroe, the Blue Sky Boys, Bradley Kincaid, the Callahan Brothers, Carolina Tar Heels, the Carter Family, Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers, the Coon Creek Girls, Earl Scruggs, Eck Robertson, Ernest V. “Pop” Stoneman, Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith, Fiddlin’ John Carson, G. B. Grayson & Henry Whitter, Jimmie Rodgers, Karl and Harty, the Lilly Brothers, Monroe Brothers, the Morris Brothers, Riley Puckett, Samantha Bumgarner, Vernon Dalhart, Snuffy Jenkins and Wade & J. E. Mainer. 6″ x 9″, 180 pages.

 

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