Bob Dylan, Gladys Bentley, and the music of Juneteenth Jamboree
“‘Fatso’ Bentley, singing about the Juneteenth Jamboree, the oldest nationally celebrated commemoration of the ending of slavery. The State of Texas made Juneteenth an official holiday in 19 and 80, and its the only state to celebrate this event.
‘The Juneteenth Jamboree, where everything is strictly free. At the Juneteenth Jamboree there’s no shirking, no one’s working… if you really want to spree, chicks galore I guarantee. Grab your duds and come with me, to the Juneteenth Jamboree.’” ~ Bob Dylan, Theme Time Radio Hour, Episode 10 — “Summer” July 5, 2006
Since that episode of Bob Dylan’s “Theme Time Radio Hour” first aired, forty-six of the 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia have joined Texas and now recognize June 19 as either a state holiday or official day of observance. There is an ongoing movement to make June 19th a national holiday.
On June 19th Eighteen and Sixty-Five, 2,000 Union soldiers landed at Galveston, Texas with news that the war had ended and that the enslaved were now free. General Gordon Granger read the contents of “General Order №3”:
The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.
The date was two and a half years after Emancipation. However, Emancipation had had little impact in Texas due to the small number of Union troops available to enforce it. But, with the surrender of General Lee in April of 1865, and the arrival of General Granger’s regiment in Galveston, the Union forces were finally strong enough to bring about freeing the 250,000 slaves in Texas.
Slaves in Galveston rejoiced in the streets with jubilant celebrations. Within a few years, Juneteenth was marked by festivities throughout the state. The first organized celebrations of Juneteenth were used as political rallies and to teach freed African Americans about their voting rights. In the state capital Juneteenth was first celebrated in 1867 under the direction of the Freedmen’s Bureau, and became part of the calendar of public events in 1872.
Juneteenth has had its ups-and-downs over the decades. Originally known as “Jubilee Day,” June 19th had become “Juneteenth” by the 1890s ,with an estimated 30,000 celebrating at Booker T. Washington Park in Limestone County, Texas, in 1898. But by the mid-1900s Juneteenth was in decline with small celebrations and few attendees.
The holiday revived in the 1930s, as the Texas State Fair became a focal point for celebrating Juneteenth, with 150,000 to 200,000 joining in celebration of the holiday each year.
Juneteenth declined again in popularity in the 1960s, when the civil-rights movement diminished interest in the event. But by the 1970s African Americans’ renewed interest in celebrating their cultural heritage led to the revitalization of the holiday in Texas, and Juneteenth became an official Texas state holiday in 1980. As well as Texas, large celebrations of Juneteenth are an annual event in Minneapolis and Milwaukee as well as in many cities across the Eastern Seaboard.
The Juneteenth holiday is still relatively unknown outside of African-American communities. But in recent weeks, Juneteenth has gained mainstream awareness thanks to the current administrations’ insensitivity in announcing a campaign rally scheduled for Juneteenth 2020 in Tulsa Oklahoma, the site of a 1921 massacre of hundreds of African Americans by a white mob.
After several days of outraged criticism, with the President defending his rally as “… very positively a celebration” apparently of Juneteenth, he finally caved in and announced through his favorite media outlet that the MAGA rally would be rescheduled to the following day, although still in Tulsa.
And what of “Fatso” Bentley, writer/performer of “Juneteenth Jamboree”? While Dylan refers to Bentley as “him” in his radio outro to the song, where he also claims that Fatso was “no stranger to Aristotle,” Fatso Bentley was actually a “her,” Gladys Bentley, an openly gay performer who was well-known during the Harlem Renaissance of the `20s.
Variously described in the contemporary press as a bull dagger lesbian and/or male impersonator, Bentley performed at the height of her Harlem career as “Fatso” in tuxedo and top hat while flirting outrageously with the females in her audience. According to an article in the New York Times “Overlooked Obituaries” series, even though performing as a male, Bentley used female pronouns to refer to herself — at least in public. She became one of the stars of Harlem during the 1920s, performing at speakeasies and gay hangouts such as Harry Hansberry’s Clam House, described in the press as “not [a place] for the innocent young.”
Gladys Bentley was born on Aug. 12, 1907, to Mary Bentley, who was from Trinidad, and George Bentley, an American, and was raised in Philadelphia. In 1923, at age 16, she left Philadelphia for New York City, where the Harlem Renaissance was in full bloom. It was at the Clam House — Harlem’s most popular gay-friendly speakeasy — where Bentley became the main attraction. At the height of her career Bentley was living on Park Avenue with a team of servants, paying the equivalent of $5,000 a month in today’s dollars and driving a luxury car.
By the late 1930s, with the Harlem entertainment scene fading and under growing harassment by the New York City police, Bentley moved to California, where she maintained her career in a small way over the next two decades at lesbian and gay bars, although with nowhere near the flamboyant success of her Harlem days.
In 1950, she made a guest appearance on Groucho Marx’s TV show, You Bet Your Life. While most sources list Philadelphia as Bentley’s birthplace, she told Groucho that she was originally from Port of Spain, Trinidad, her mother’s birthplace.
Groucho, maintaining the schtick that he had no prior knowledge of his guests’ identities, but obviously very pleased and aware of who was on stage, invited Bentley to rock out with a barrelhouse piano rendition of “Them There Eyes.”
In 1952 Bentley claimed in an Ebony magazine interview — “I Am a Woman Again” — to have reversed her lesbian orientation through female hormone treatments. The same year she signed with Swing Time, a small L.A.-based recording label that went bankrupt shortly after Bentley joined. However, she was able to release several records before Swing Time went under, including a holiday-themed 78, “June-teenth Jamboree” backed by “Fourth of July Boogie,” in 1953. The credits list “Fatso Bently” as the performer and “Mary C. Bently” — her mother’s name — as composer, with Gladys’ last name misspelt both times.
The autobiography that Gladys mentions to Groucho, “If This Be Sin,” was never published. Gladys Bentley was studying to become an ordained minister at the Temple of Love in Christ, when she died of the flu in 1960 at age 52.
She lived one hell of a life in those 52 years.
In eighteen hundred and sixty-five,
A hep cat started some jive,
He said, “Come on, gates, and jump with me
At the Juneteenth Jamboree.”
The rhythm was swinging at the picnic ground,
Fried chicken floating all around;
Everybody happy as they could be,
At the Juneteenth Jamboree!
Juneteenth Jamboree, Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five
During my original research on Bentley’s “Juneteenth Jamboree” some 10 years ago, I discovered there’s at least one other song of the same name out there. Written by jazz and blues artist Sammy Price and recorded by Louis Jordan & His Tympany Five in 1940 for Decca, the song was mislabeled on its release as “June Tenth Jamboree,” apparently because no one at the 1940 Decca knew what Juneteenth was…
Juneteenth falls on a Friday this June 19, 2020, the same day Bob Dylan releases “Rough and Rowdy Ways,” his first album of original songs since 2012.
All these things connect, you know.
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