Briar Patch

June 1973By , and Comments

THE SIN OF AUSTIN

IN AUSTIN RECENTLY, DURING A public hearing on skinnydipping in Lake Travis, local resident Louis Steinbach testified to attentive city councilmen: “God has the power to destroy this city for its sin…and officials had better realize it.” We do not want to appear soft on sin, but we are of the opinion that if God did not see fit to destroy Austin during the veteran’s land scandal, the insurance scandals, the Sharpstown scandal, and whatever other indiscretions legislators have deemed appropriate to perform, He will be merciful enough to spare us in spite of a few naked frolics in Lake Travis.

NEW HOPE FOR THE UXORIOUS

MOST MARRIED FOLKS IN TEXAS know that divorce brings no alimony in this state. However, very few well-heeled otherwise super-planner-executive types anticipate the Federal Estate tax that will be due if their spouses die. If those men did, they might buy insurance on their spouses’ lives as well as their own.

Even if dear old Mom departs from this world having devoted her life to the care and feeding of the family without a scrap of outside income or property in her own name, old Dad—if he’s at all in the chips—has 9 months from her death in which to pay what may be a whopping bill. The amount depends on the size of the estate which, according to tax law, is one-half of the couple’s community property plus any separate property owned by the decedent. Community property is defined as everything the couple has acquired in Texas during their marriage regardless of whose name such property may be in except property which has been acquired by inheritance or gift.

Let’s say you get out your pocket calculator and add up the value of all your property. Don’t forget to count your house, real estate, bank accounts, stocks and bonds, cars, objets d’art—the works. If that total is $500,000, at the death of your spouse, $250,000 would be subject to Federal Income tax. There is a $60,000 exemption under current law, so the tax on the remaining $190,000 would be $47,700.

The Federal Estate Tax is a graduated tax. Those what has most, owes most. To-wit:

Value of community property/ Federal Estate tax due

$100,000/ no tax
$150,000/ $1,050
$200,000/ $4,800
$300,000/ $17,900
$400,000/ $32,700
$500,000/ $47,700
$1,000,000/ $126,500

THE BLUES IS A PRESSURE INSIDE YOU

MANCE LIPSCOMB’S MODEST FRAME HOME, situated just outside the Navasota city limits in Grimes County, looks out over mile upon mile of fertile Brazos River bottomland. This is the land of Lipscomb’s birth, the land in which he will most likely be buried, the land which has alternately blessed and cursed him during his 78 years, and the land in which his strangely beautiful music is rooted.

Unlike other Texas bluesmen—notably Blind Lemon Jefferson—Lipscomb’s fame came late in life. Despite a considerable reputation as a songster in the Navasota area, he was virtually unknown elsewhere.

In 1960, after half a century of playing at Saturday night dances, barbecues, and baseball games, Mance was “discovered” and recorded on the spot by Arhoolie Records president Chris Strachwitz and Houston folklorist Mack McCormick. Blues critics immediately hailed the album as a work of art, and a most unlikely star was born.

Lipscomb frankly admits, “I never did think I would become a recording man.” Raised to the fields, he was working under the fierce Texas sun, helping to support his mother and ten brothers and sisters, before he was 12.

Music came naturally to Mance. His father, born a slave in Alabama, was well known around Navasota as a fiddler and his uncle was a talented banjo player.

In an interview last November at his Navasota home, Lipcomb recalled that “When I first started out, there wasn’t much guitar music around. Mostly there was a fiddle or banjo, but there weren’t many guitars.

“My brothers had a guitar, though,” he continued, “and they would let me hold it on my lap if I would go to the store and fetch them some ‘bacco or cigarettes.”

He acquired his first guitar at 13 when a gambler happened through a field in which Mance and his mother were working.

“You know how children are,” said Lipscomb. “They watch every bird that flies. I saw this man coming up across the field—he was a gambler—carrying this guitar. He put it down under a cotton stalk so it wouldn’t get burnt up in the sun, and went over to talk to my mother. They knowed one another—he was a gambler.”

He went on to say that after greeting his mother and exchanging customary small talk, the gambler offered to sell the guitar for $1.50. “Oh Lord,” said Mance, “I thought I was going to have a guitar right then, but Mama said, ‘Where do you think I’m going to get that much money?’ and the gambler told her to pay him the money when she got it. And that’s how I got my first guitar.”

It wasn’t much of a guitar, Lipscomb recalled; its back was full of holes and it had only three strings. “No, it wasn’t much,” Lipscomb said, “but to me it was the best guitar in the world. I just sat out under the trees after dinner and whammed away. I didn’t know nothing about no songs.

“At night,” he continued, “I couldn’t get no sleep for no guitars. I’d dream about those old guitars hanging up along-side the wall and wake up to see that nobody had bothered it. One day my daddy showed up and patched up the holes for me. I must have kept that guitar three or four years.”

Mance was in his mid-teens when he first heard a phonograph recording.

“We didn’t have no record player,” he said, “but the people down the road from us did and we would all go sneaking up to their windows and eavesdrop whenever they played it. These were the old cup records, you’d slip them on a sleeve and they’d go ’round like a rolling pin.”

The first recorded artist he heard was Bessie Smith. “She was one of the mothers of the blues,” said Lipscomb. “Her and Mahlia Jackson were two of the best songsters you could ever want I to hear.

“Now you couldn’t dance to her music,” Lipscomb continued. “You couldn’t keep no time to her music but she could might near make you cry with her voice. She sang those sad songs—people say she sang those sad songs like convicts. Like convicts out chopping, picking cotton—and they can sing, you hear?

“No, she didn’t care if you dance behind her music. Convicts didn’t care. Blind Lemon, he didn’t care. They all had that sad feeling.”

Lipscomb met Jefferson while the latter was a street singer in Dallas. “In those days,” Mance recalled, “the laws would put you off the street if you made a lot of noise, so Blind Lemon would always do his singing down by the central tracks.

“He would always be there under a tree—with his guitar and a little bench—playing and singing for the people who came from far and near to hear him,” Lipscomb recalled.

“He wasn’t what you would call a time man. He had his voice tuned up to his guitar and his guitar tuned up to his voice, and he was good,” Lipscomb continued, “but I decided to estimate my own style.”

While Lipscomb rates Blind Lemon as one of the greatest blues singers of all time, he insists that his own musical style is unique. Among other early musical influences on Mance were the occasional traveling musicians who happened through Grimes County such as Tom and Gummy Meigs from Ennis.

“Really, though,” said Lipscomb, “I knew that I would have to learn my music on my own. When these players would come to town maybe they’d show me one or two songs and then they’d leave and I might not see them for another two or three years.”

When asked if any young musicians he has heard “have what it takes to be a good songster,” Mance replied, “Sure there are. I know a lot of them are coming up the right way because I’ve taught them myself.

“A lot of young people today,” he continued, “won’t give you any feeling in their music. You can’t hardly get them to give you anything but a snappy feeling, a finger popping feeling—but they can’t play those blues.

“The blues is a pressure inside of you. White people have the pressure just the same as black people, and they can play the blues just the same as blacks. It’s just that the black people have more feeling for the blues because they’ve had more bad things happen to them. They’ve had more bad things happen to their parents and their grandparents. You see, it’s a generation to generation thing.

“The blues was estimated on us back in slavery times. People had to do work they didn’t want to do, live in old shacks, wear rags. They couldn’t go to and fro like they wanted. They were whipped with bull whips. That’s when the bad feelings began happening.”

“Some people say I’m a guitar picker,” Lipscomb said, “but I’m more of a religious man than I am a guitar picker.”

He said that he never fails to say a morning prayer before going about his day’s business. “Young men should remember,” Mance said, “that they can’t do anything without the help of God. You shouldn’t say ‘I go to such and such a place on such and such a day’ what you should say is that ‘if God is willing, I go to someplace.’

“I never even leave the house without saying a silent prayer. And I know God hears them and listens to me. When I was younger I always prayed that He would let my last days be my best days—and here they are.”

THERE (S)HE IS…

ON A SPRING SATURDAY NIGHT in Houston, a performer stood onstage at a local bar, singing a song called “This Is My Life.” The lyrics of the song were Personal Statement Pop—like “My Way” or “The Impossible Dream” or any of those I’m-my-own-man, stand-aside-world things that Sammy Davis is forever singing on the Carson show. But the voice on “This is My Life” was a woman’s; the performer coiffed and gowned. Done Up. Or done up at least until the gown came off, and the wig. By the end of the song, the performer onstage had been transformed into a young man wearing nothing but a pair of levis and a lot of makeup.

Twenty-two contestants competed this spring in the Miss Gay Texas pageant of whom the boy-with-a-flair above was number 20. His stage name: “Stephanie Carr.” His sponsor for the contest: The Glass Stein, a gay club in Houston.

We spoke with Stephanie on the second and final night of the pageant, immediately prior to the announcement of the ten finalists. With his wig and face in order, but dressed in street clothes from the neck down, it was like interviewing a butterfly still in his chrysalis. Unsettling.

Stephanie must be in his early twenties—ages weren’t mentioned—and has worked as a professional drag queen for four years. Although he has worked outside the state, he prefers Texas—largely because the state is a strong hold of the pantomime queens, while the two Coasts lean to live acts. (Only one contestant at Miss Gay Texas used his own voice in the talent competition; the rest lip-synched to recordings). Stephanie is beyond all doubt the world’s greatest Shirley Bassey fan; it is to the Bassey recording of “This Is My Life” that he performes his spectacular butterfly-into-caterpillar routine.

“I’m a Leo,” he told us, “and Leos like to be the center of attention.” But he also likes the money—professional drag work can pay very well, and first prize in the Miss Gay Texas pageant was $500—and had nothing but scorn for on-the-street drag. “Screamers,” be called them. “If I don’t get paid, I don’t put on my wig.”

His concern over the monetary angle is understandable, since a man necessarily spends more turning himself into a woman than most women do. Stephanie estimates his wardrobe is valued around $12,000, and be claims to have another $3-4000 “in hair.”

An hour after our conversation, “Stephanie Carr” was chosen as one of the ten finalists in the Miss Gay Texas pageant, held this year at Houston’s Bayou Landing club. And by the end of the show, one of the ten had evening-gowned, swimsuited and talented his/her way to the national competition in Nashville.

Both the semi-finals and finals consisted of three distinct competitions: evening gown, self-expression, talent. (No actual swimsuitting, alas: gender is obstinate, difficult to hide.) The evening gowns were elaborate: the second category emphasized expression more than self (all the queens apparently thought of themselves as sexy showgirls, and could there be an ostrich plume or a sequin left in the state?); and the talent consisted—with the exception of the one live singer and another guy who twirled the baton—of mouthing to a record. And someone else’s record at that.

The someone else was Joey Heatherton or Shirley Bassey or Liza Minnelli or Barbara Streisand—or Diana Ross, but only from her workababy days as a Supreme. The whole Belting Girl Singer fraternity, those dames who do enough television so that the people who watch television will go see them when on vacation in Las Vegas.

The winner of the pageant was “Miss Jody Lane” from Dallas, and it was a bad choice, both because he was not very good and because he was not at all representative of what was best about the Texas competition.

“Miss Jody Lane” (one of those immutable constructions like “Miss Helen Hayes” or “Miss Jane Morgan”) was a lady. “Tastefully” dressed, pert little smile—he looked a bit like Sue Ann Langdon (she who spreads her sugary charms on “Hollywood Square” and the like). In fact, he looked a bit like Miss Straight America. Lots of perfect teeth, but the jaw somehow not big enough for them all.

The best of the Texas lot were nothing like ladies, but rather the trash-with-flash set, who shimmied their sequins right out into the audience. The working girls. (If Tina Turner is indeed the “hardest working woman in show biz,” then the hardest working man is her drag.)

But judging from the results of last year’s Miss Gay America contest—the reigning Queen was a special guest at the Texas event—it’s the Miss Jody Lanes they’re looking for. Miss Gay America 1972 was about as brassy as Greer Garson.

So talent did not “out” whatever that means, nor did work. And Stephanie Carr has gone back to his job at the telephone company, where he fills in between drag jobs. “At least,” he says, “when I get tired of my tits I can hang them up.” He had provided, however, the most bizarre moment of Miss Texas Gay. For when he took off his gown and stood shirtless among the lights, his was still a woman’s body. Pre-pubescent, of course, but strangely, recognizably “female.” Whatever that means.

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