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1973: Courier-Post profiles Maceo Wilson

From the Hannibal Courier-Post Oct. 27, 1973

Steve Chou provided this incredible reprint from the Hannibal Courier-Post

On a summer’s afternoon in 1926 a troupe of musicians called the Virginia Ravens drove into Muscatine, Iowa, in three Hudson convertibles stenciled with the words "A Colored Orchestra Plenty Hot."

The ten of them had been traveling since sunup, and although the temperature was in the eighties they wore woolen suits and soft-billed cloth caps.

They were scheduled to play at a local ballroom later in the evening, and several were preparing for the performance by polishing their instruments.

The band leader, a frail, myopic man barely five feet tall who wore horn-rimmed glasses, sat in the lead car. His name was Maceo Wilson, and he was in a good mood. For the first time in a week they were going to sleep in a hotel instead of on the road.

At first Wilson stared absent mindedly at the rows of clapboard houses with their gambrel roofs and white balustrades. But then he realized something was wrong. The town appeared to be deserted. There was not a man, woman or child in sight.

Everyone else soon made the same discovery, and the gay bantering in the cars halted abruptly as the men stared at one another in amazement.

Moments later the caravan veered left onto Main Street and the Virginia Ravens found themselves in the middle of a Ku Klux Klan parade.

With perfect timing they had inadvertently pulled into a gap between two rows of horsemen who wore white hoods and carried rifles across their laps. These bizarre looking riders rode in front of a drum and bugle corps and several hundred children, all similarly masked.

The cars pulled to the curb where the musicians piled out as quickly as they could and lined up n the sidewalk just as a phalanx of men walked up carrying signs with the inscription, "Let’s Lift Iowa Out of the Mud."

They were followed by 20 to 30 klansmen who held American flags.

Wilson and the others immediately took off their caps, but someone yelled, "Put ‘em back on!" and they readily obeyed.

After the parade passed, the men drove to the ballroom and began setting up their music stands and props. Suddenly one of them shouted in terror and pointed to a window.

Over five hundred people, all wearing white robes and hoods, were standing outside. They had come to dance.

A short time later the participants in the largest KKK conclave in the state’s history were fox trotting to the music of the Virginia Ravens.

But according to Wilson, who is now 76, there first had been a major change in costuming.

"The guy who ran the place wouldn’t let anyone in who wore a hood, and by god if everyone of them didn’t take the things off," he said. "As it turned out they were a pretty good audience."

Wilson, who has taught music here since the Ravens broke up in 1929, emphasized that he and his companions were "straight," meaning they neither used heroin nor drank excessively. But he admitted they often bought an $18 case of bootlegged gin when they played Cicero, Ill., a gangster stronghold.

Prohibition, he said, didn’t mean you couldn’t drink. "It just meant you couldn’t drink as much as you might have liked."

He also confessed he once smoked a joint of marijuana before a performance in Chicago.

"The notes seemed like they were movin’ away from me so I started playin’ faster to catch up," he said with a crescent shaped grin. "The people were runnin’ all over the floor tryin’ to stay up with me. It was crazy."

He said he never smoked marijuana again, although he claimed he often smelled its sweet-sour odor while driving through Illinois.

“The farmers there used to burn it as a weed, and I’ve wondered for years what they were like in the evening when they went home for dinner,” he said.

Wilson is grateful Hannibal never discriminated against jazz, the music created by Negroes in the honky tonks of the South. Other towns have. In Zion City, Ill., for example, jazz and smoking were condemned by ordinance in 1923.

Music, until very recently at least, has always prospered here, and the town once boasted seven ballrooms.

Today not one of them is still operating, and Wilson blames the rock music of the 50’s and 60’s for their demise.

"When I had my band everyone danced, even the older people. Nowadays only the kids dance," he said as his voice momentarily flickered with a trace of fire, of excitability. "Rock and roll had made it impossible for anyone over 25 to dance without laughing at himself, and when the people stopped dancing the bands stopped playing."

But Wilson believes a renaissance is at hand. Men, he said, are beginning to rediscover the pleasures of touch.

"Bands and ballrooms and cheek to cheek dancing will return and when they do it will be saxophones, clarinets, trumpets and bass fiddles that make the music, not electric guitars," he said. "It’s all going to change, just watch."

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