“I Like to Speak the Lingo of the Laity” – Celebrating the 70th anniversary of a Pat Neff Chapel Talk

screen-shot-2016-12-14-at-2-42-44-pmOn Monday, December 16, 1946, Baylor University president Pat M. Neff delivered a speech to the students assembled for what would be the final Chapel gathering of the year. Students were scheduled to be released for the Christmas break at 5:00 PM on Thursday the 19th, and everyone was in a festive frame of mind, including President Neff. That spirit of good cheer probably accounts for why, as the needle dropped on a turntable that would record his speech for posterity, Neff chose to open his presentation with a joke.

I do not know what we’d do if we didn’t have the weather to talk about. And do you know why we talk about the weather? It’s because one person in Texas knows just as much about the weather as any other person. Therefore, we meet on a common platform and discuss the weather.

(I didn’t say it was a good joke, just that it was, technically a joke.)

And now, 70 years to the day after it was recorded live in Waco Hall, you can hear the speech in its entirety – and read a full transcript, if you’re so inclined – as part of the Baylor University Archives Digital Collection. [http://digitalcollections.baylor.edu/cdm/ref/collection/bu-archive/id/1868]

Click play on the player above to listen to the entire speech in this browser window. NOTE: Due to size restrictions for MP3 files in WordPress, the quality of this audio has been reduced from the original audio that can be found at the link to our Digital Collections site.

We wanted to take the occasion of this major anniversary to examine President Neff’s message, to dive into its sentiments, to examine what was on the president’s mind at the close of what would be his penultimate year as Baylor’s chief executive … and, most importantly, to discuss something that caught all of us here a little off-guard: Pat Neff was actually pretty funny.

“Smilin'” Pat Neff

We jokingly refer to President Neff by the nickname “Smilin'” Pat Neff, mainly because we’ve never actually seen him smile. As evidence, here are his official portraits from the Round Up, our campus yearbook, from the 1940s.


That’s as big as his smiles get, folks.

And lest you think this was just a result of being a little more seasoned by life’s hardships, so to speak, observe this retrospective collage of Neff photos from the 1943 Round Up.


Some people just want to watch the world react in an even-keeled way.

With all of this evidence to the contrary, you can forgive us for not expecting Neff to have much of a sense of humor. But that’s where we turned out to be very wrong.

It actually shouldn’t have been that big of a surprise, in retrospect. After all, Neff ran a successful campaign for statewide office – governor, no less – and was a successful fundraiser and member of Baylor’s Board of Trustees before assuming the BU presidency. With some notable exceptions – *coughCalvinCoolidgecough* – it’s incredibly difficult to become such a powerful person without possessing any personality at all. But you can forgive us for being surprised to find not one but numerous occasions throughout the December 16, 1946 chapel talk recording where Neff’s speech is interrupted by audience laughter. And not just polite, “Oh, our president is so humorous, let’s give him a chuckle” kind of laughter, but actual, “By gum, that’s funny!” laughter. In fact, the transcript is interrupted more than two dozen times with the phrase [audience laughter], indicating Neff not only knew his way around a desk but around a punchline as well.

The Man Speaks


President Neff: statesman, president, world champion microphone staring contest winner

When the transcription disks containing Neff’s 1946 Chapel talk were digitized earlier this year, none of our staff in the Digital Projects Group had ever heard his voice. In fact, other than recognizing his stoic visage from an item we’d digitized several years earlier, no one other than myself had had much occasion to look at or think about materials related to Baylor’s former president. But I’d always been fascinated with Neff’s life and impact on the state of Texas. (Fun fact: as a proud Texas Tech Red Raider alumnus, Neff holds a special place in my heart as the governor who signed the bill, in 1923, establishing Texas Technological College in Lubbock.) So I was particularly excited to hear Neff’s voice for the first time when I first sat down to transcribe the five album sides containing the speech.

Neff’s voice on the recordings is strong and clear, with a distinct Texas drawl and a now-familiar cadence that I recognize as being inherent to public speakers who grew up learning to speak in public at the turn of the last century. He speaks a little on the slow side and with a seasoned speaker’s ability to pace his words to his audience’s reaction. This, after all, was a man accustomed to addressing crowds of well-wishers, nay-sayers, Congressmen, rodeos, student groups and classrooms; in short, he knows what he’s doing on a speaker’s rostrum.

After opening with his “Texas weather” joke – a safe topic for anyone who’s spent more than 10 seconds in our fair state – Neff launches into the meat of his presentation: what to talk about when you head home for Christmas and you’re stuck with your parents. Neff recognizes that many of these students are going home for the first time since arriving in the summer as freshmen, and he notes that the people back home might not recognize them anymore (because the women students in particular might have on “these little lampshade things they call a hat”). In addition, he thinks they might be interested to hear more about Baylor University and the life of the campus, so his thrust for the speech is to give the student body some interesting facts with which to regale the curious during the Christmastide.

One of his biggest laugh lines – and the source of the quote in this post’s title – is when Neff encourages the students to engage with everyone they meet back home. He notes that they may be shy to speak to these strange creatures known as college students, but that the Baylor Bears are to be “calm when you go to church, or their party, or their shindig” – at which point the audience breaks into laughter. Neff, in a bit of self-effacing humor after using such an up-to-date piece of slang, notes with mock humility that he likes “to speak the lingo of the laity.” This, of course, draws additional laughter.

Neff draws another big laugh out of a riff on what a privilege it is to be at Baylor in 1946. I’ll let the transcript tell it from here:

Sure, it’s a wonderful thing to be at an institution of learning like this. Sit down and talk to your folks about it. It won’t do you any harm and it’ll do them a whole lot of good. That’s what the girl said when her mother reprimanded her for letting the boys kiss her. She says, ‘Mother, it didn’t do me any harm and it did the boys a lot of good.'” [audience laughter] I don’t see anything funny about that! [laughs, audience laughter].

The “boys kissing the girl” joke plays off smoothly and strikes me as the kind of joke Neff probably told dozens of times at dozens of events during a long career as a public figure. But that doesn’t make the students’ genuinely amused response, or Neff’s laughing retort, any less delightful.

In between all the giggles and guffaws, however, there runs a serious streak. Neff takes the occasion of his Chapel talk to remind the assembled students that while the majority of students at Baylor were reported to be of the Baptist religious affiliation, other groups on campus were growing every year. The presence of Methodists, Lutherans, Church of Christ and Christian Church members may not be surprising on a large college campus in 1946, but the note that there were a total of 26 different denominations – including Quakers and Mormons – might be. Perhaps more surprising is Neff’s encouragement that the students “touch elbows and have comradeship and fellowship with somebody outside of your circle.” He continues, “If I were in your place, I’d make the acquaintance of these Mormons, and I’d make acquaintance of these Quakers … You might try them on and see what they have with their religion. If you can’t fortify yours and stand up with it and by it, perhaps it’ll do you good to listen to some of these others.”

That sets up one of Neff’s most effective lines in the entire speech, one that does what any good university-level speech ought to do to its audience: make them think.

I’ll tell you now, if you ever tie in to a Mormon, he can tell you why he’s a Mormon. I know why you’re a Baptist: because your parents were. He can tell you why he is. The faith that’s in him. Try one of them. See if you can.

At first, this reads as much as an insult as a joke, but after letting it sit with me for a few minutes, it struck me that what Neff was doing wasn’t an attempt to tear anyone down but to encourage members of all the various faiths present on campus to truly examine their beliefs, to do some (literal) soul searching and to know, inherently, why they identified as a particular religion, and not just for a surface reason like family tradition. He is encouraging the students to truly – to borrow a phrase – “know themselves.”

After a true master class in public speaking, Neff draws his speech to a close after twenty minutes of laughs, insight and homespun wisdom with this closing passage:

We just have to to through the world our one time, we go through just once. And when you go through these coming holiday seasons, you’ll pass through them no more. When this chapel has been adjourned, you’ll not be just as you are anymore; that’ll be in the past. The mill never grinds through the water that’s passed.

It’s an introspective, somewhat bittersweet dispensation of wisdom from a man who will pass from the Earth in a mere five years to a room full of the nation’s robust youth, fresh off the end of a devastating World War and awash in the promise of a better tomorrow, and it strikes me as pitch perfect for the occasion.

In lieu of a “benediction,” Neff closes the recording by kicking off an organ-accompanied rendition of That Good Old Baylor Line, as hundreds of youthful voices unite together to close out a semester of learning, fellowship and growth.



A Worthy Challenge

The entire 22 minute recording is well worth your listen, but if you have time for only a short excerpt, I encourage you to listen to this section of audio where Neff exhorts the students to remember the high privilege of being able to attend a university in a time when so many people in the country worked at backbreaking, manual labor and would never know the dream of an advanced education.



Bonus Audio!

On the b-side of the final disk of the Chapel talk recordings, an enterprising audiophile went into the clear cold morning of December 24, 1946 and recorded audio of the bells of Baylor campus playing two short Christmas songs: O Christmas Tree and Silent Night. We hope you enjoy these seasonally appropriate sounds of Baylor University as it was recorded live, 70 years ago this month.

“Modern, Functional and Beautiful” – Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Moody Memorial Library Groundbreaking

October 21, 1966 marked a major event in the history of Baylor University when students, trustees, faculty and supporters gathered to celebrate the groundbreaking of a “modern, functional and beautiful” new library. Named in honor of a generous gift from the Moody Foundation of Galveston, the Moody Memorial Library building was a much-needed expansion of Baylor’s physical plant and a crucial element in a long-range plan called Projection 68 that sought to grow the university’s physical footprint and enhance its reputation as an institution of higher education.

A Key Component of Projection 68

A new library facility was identified as one of three major components of Projection 68, an ambitious plan aimed at rejuvenating the aging infrastructure of Baylor’s campus. Parts of the campus built environment dated to the mid 1880s with buildings like Old Main and Burleson Hall, and the library facilities housed in the Carroll Library building were woefully inadequate for the swelling numbers of students enrolled in classes by the 1960s.

Tom Parrish, director of development and a participant in the Moody ceremony, called Projection 68 “a plan which when realized ‘will raise Baylor to a new plateau of service. We must think big and act big because the challenge is big at Baylor.'” In addition to the new library, Projection 68 called for construction of a new wing on Waco Hall for the School of Music; improvements to the auditorium at Waco Hall; and construction of a new science building.

Moody Memorial Library was slated for construction at the far end of what is known today as Fountain Mall, just across Third Street from the main campus. In 1966, the land across Third Street from campus was residential all the way to the Brazos River. This aerial photo by Windy Drum, from The Texas Collection Photographic Archive, shows the general area in the mid-1950s.


Click to enlarge. See the full photo in The Texas Collection Photographic Archive.


As part of a major redevelopment project called Urban Renewal – which radically transformed the landscape of Waco during the 1960s – the area between Third Street and the Brazos River was acquired and ceded to the university by the Baylor-Waco Foundation, and plans to expand campus toward the river began immediately.

A call for proposals for the library’s new design went out and the winning bid went to the Dallas architecture firm of Jarvis Putty Jarvis. An early rendering of the library – proposed to be situated on Burleson Quadrangle, not the area across Third Street where it would eventually be built — looked like this:

Architects' renderings of proposed new library for Baylor University, 1964.

Architects’ renderings of proposed new library for Baylor University, 1964. Image courtesy Baylor University, The Texas Collection, Waco, TX via The Texas Collection Photographic Archive.


Moving the library’s site to the new area across Third Street also allowed for changes to be made to the proposed elevation of the facility, and the more-or-less final design was available for presentation by Jarvis Putty Jarvis at a meeting on October 14, 1966.

Photo of Jarvis Putty Jarvis representatives with library building rendering from the October 14, 1966 Baylor Lariat.

Photo of Jarvis Putty Jarvis representatives with library building rendering from the October 14, 1966 Baylor Lariat.


The same rendering can be seen in this photo of Joe Allbritton and Abner V. McCall from around the same time.

Photo of Joe Allbritton and Abner V. McCall with library building rendering.

Photo of Joe Allbritton and Abner V. McCall with library building rendering. Image courtesy Baylor University, The Texas Collection, Waco, TX via The Texas Collection Photographic Archive.


Images of the Ceremony

The day of the ceremony dawned clear but breezy. As Baylor Lariat reporter Mike McKinney noted in his front-page coverage of the event, “Speakers held down their notes, women covered their blowing hair and most everyone had on sunglasses” during the festivities.


Mike McKinney's article on the ceremony, from the October 22, 1966 Baylor Lariat.

Mike McKinney’s article on the ceremony, from the October 22, 1966 Baylor Lariat.


Dignitaries took their places on the viewing stand for a program that included speeches from Joe Allbritton (chair of the Board of Trustees’ Library Committee), Baylor University librarian James Rogers and Baylor president Abner V. McCall. A brass ensemble provided musical accompaniment to the festivities, and the event concluded with the ceremonial first shovelful of dirt being turned by Mrs. Mary Moody Northen of the Moody family. To make things easier for all involved, McKinney notes that a pile of sand was trucked in for the ceremony by maintenance crews so as to “make digging a little easier.”

We also know that no university has achieved true greatness without excellent library facilities.”

– Joe Allbritton, from groundbreaking ceremony address

Scenes from the ceremony were captured by commercial photography Lavern “Windy” Drum. The originals are available as part of the photographic holdings of The Texas Collection, with digital surrogates viewable in the Baylor University Libraries Digital Collections. Selections of those digital versions are presented here.

Ceremonial shovels await the beginning of festivities next to the speakers' platform.

Ceremonial shovels await the beginning of festivities next to the speakers’ platform. Photo by Windy Drum. Image courtesy Baylor University, The Texas Collection, Waco, TX via The Texas Collection Photographic Archive.

Mary Moody Northen turns the first shovel of dirt during the groundbreaking ceremony. Photo by Windy Drum. Image courtesy Baylor University, The Texas Collection, Waco, TX via The Texas Collection Photographic Archive.

Mary Moody Northen turns the first shovel of dirt during the groundbreaking ceremony. Photo by Windy Drum. Image courtesy Baylor University, The Texas Collection, Waco, TX via The Texas Collection Photographic Archive.


View from behind the speakers' platform at the groundbreaking ceremony. Note Pat Neff Hall in background and Marrs McLean Science building on right. Photo by Windy Drum. Image courtesy Baylor University, The Texas Collection, Waco, TX via The Texas Collection Photographic Archive.

View from behind the speakers’ platform at the groundbreaking ceremony. Note Pat Neff Hall in background and Marrs McLean Science building on right. Photo by Windy Drum. Image courtesy Baylor University, The Texas Collection, Waco, TX via The Texas Collection Photographic Archive.


Ceremony participants (from left) Joe Allbritton, Hilton Howell and Baylor University president Abner V. McCall with ceremonial shovel.

Ceremony participants (from left) Joe Allbritton, Hilton Howell and Baylor University president Abner V. McCall with ceremonial shovel. Photo by Windy Drum. Image courtesy Baylor University, The Texas Collection, Waco, TX via The Texas Collection Photographic Archive.


The speech delivered by committee chair Joe Allbritton was released as a press release after the ceremony, but it is reproduced here in non-ALL CAPS FORMAT for your review. Note that several sections of it are quoted directly in the coverage provided by the October 22 edition of the Baylor Lariat.

Text of Baylor trustees’ library committee chair Joe Allbritton’s speech at the Moody Memorial Library groundbreaking ceremony, Friday, October 21, 1966

There have been many momentous occasions in the 121-year history of Baylor University, but none excels the cause that brings us together this morning and none will mean more to the future greatness of our university.

I’m sure there are those who will disagree with that conclusion. Some may even contend that the winning of the Southwest Conference football championship in 1924 was a more auspicious achievement.

Suffice it to say we have somehow managed to survive on the gridiron for 42 years without another conference title and likewise we have progressed and grown into a respected and reputable institution of higher learning despite inadequate library facilities for at least that long a span of time.

I think it is reasonable, and certainly delectable, as we return to campus for homecoming, to speculate on the possibility of achieving both goals this year.

Of course, football fortunes come and go because they largely depend on the transitory nature of human elements — or translated into the Bridgers’ vernacular, manpower or personnel. School presidents, professors, even chairmen of library building committees are of but fleeting importance in the long-range scheme of building a great university.

But a library, and the wisdom and knowledge contained therein, is of a different nature.

Thomas Carlyle put it appropriately some 100 years ago when he said: “After all manner of professors have done their best for us, the place we are to get knowledge is in books. The true university of these days is a collection of books.” If true then, all the more is it true today. The explosion of knowledge since World War II, particularly in the physical sciences, makes it imperative that this relatively new knowledge be made readily accessible to the university student.

And certainly just as important as the new, mushrooming technology of the space age, are the truths, the opinions, and the philosophies of old — some of which, when brought into perspective can be of invaluable assistance in solving the social problems that still defy solution.

Norman Cousins, editor of the Saturday Review, addressed himself to this phase of a library’s importance when he wrote: “… one of the unhappy characteristics of modern man is that he lives in a state of historical disconnection. He has not put his experience to work in coping with new dangers. He has tended to segregate himself from the wisdom so slowly and painfully built up over long centuries. He has made the mistake of thinking that because there is so much that is new in the nature of contemporary crisis the past has nothing of value to say to use …”

“it is in this sense,” Cousins continued, “that the library may be able to speak to the human condition in today’s world. For books serve as the natural bloodstream of human experience. They make it possible for the big thoughts of big minds to circulate in the body of history. They represent a point of contact between the past and future.”

As we break ground today for the magnificent Moody Memorial Library I feel that we are commencing a new era of academic achievement and excellence at Baylor University. Today marks the beginning of the end of Projection 68 which was designed in 1963 to provide the physical improvements so necessary to further the academic maturation of our University.

Already completed are the improvements to our School of Music and the Auditorium in Waco Hall, and the new science building is well under way.

We have known for years that the inadequacy of physical facilities stood as a barrier to our objectives and that the lack of a modern, efficient, and excellent library was the major obstacle in the path toward a truly great university.

Through the dedication and hard work of many — the administration, the trustees, the ex-students, and the many friends of Baylor — we have been successful in raising most of the funds necessary to bring Projection 68 into reality.

While we must continue our efforts to assure our fundraising goals, we can now at least begin to shift our major development emphasis from the physical to the academic. While our physical plan needs were critical, we all realize that architecture, brick, and stone merely provide the proper setting and environment for those who work in the academic community and allow them to perform their tasks and services at a higher level of inspiration and efficiency.

We also know that no university has achieved true greatness without excellent library facilities.

Paul Buck, the former director of libraries at Harvard University, has pointed out that the quality of a university’s library is “a major factor in determining the quality of the education that an institution can provide and the quality of the faculty it can recruit. Strong libraries are essential to the full exploitation of intellectual resources and to the maintenance of free access to ideas,” he concludes.

In the past few years Baylor has reached the crossroads of excellence in education. The university administrators and trustees could have taken the path of least resistance — we could have patched the roof and taken other temporary measures and in so doing still maintained and improved a good university.

Rather, we took the more difficult path toward excellence, because it is the most logical road for Baylor to travel toward maintaining and improving and excellence undergraduate program and expanding the graduate program to meet the increasing demands of our state and nation.

So today, Baylor University, the oldest university in continuous service in the State of Texas, looks to the future with confidence and great expectations.

Our goal is not bigness, for this is not the function of a private, religiously oriented university. Rather, our objective is quality.

We have made great strides toward this objective. But always, the lack of physical facilities — particularly inadequate library space — has caused concern and slowed the pace of progress.

The modern, functional and beautiful Moody Memorial Library will be the catalyst that will move the university toward realization of its true potential.

NOTE: The preceding text was edited slightly from the original to address typographical errors. Read the full address in its original typewritten form in the Baylor University Libraries Digital Collections.

A Final Look at Early Moody

The 1967 Baylor Round Up, the campus yearbook, shows how much progress was made by the time the official story of 1966 had been documented and told by Baylor’s student journalists.

Image from construction site of Moody Memorial Library toward Fountain Mall from 1967 "Baylor Round Up."

Image from construction site of Moody Memorial Library toward Fountain Mall from 1967 “Baylor Round Up.”


Today, we mark the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the building in which so many Baylor library staff, faculty and students have spent time – including those of us in the Digital Projects Group, whose offices are located on Moody’s Garden Level. We will be providing periodic updates to the construction and grand opening of Moody in advance of the 50th anniversary of its debut in 1968, so stay tuned to this blog for much more to come!


Friday Extra: Why Scream When You Can Shout!

screen-shot-2016-10-07-at-8-59-58-amIf this first full week of October has been stressful, tiring or just plain exhausting, take heart! A new series of 2-minute segments called Shout! Black Gospel Music Moments has begun airing on Waco’s local NPR affiliate, KWBU-FM. Hosted by Robert Darden, they will feature stories from the Golden Age of Gospel (1945-1975) and will rely on music from the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project for their inspiration.

Shout! currently airs on KWBU Sundays at 8:35 AM and Mondays at 6:32 PM. The segments are being made available to other public radio stations around the country, so check your local listings.

Learn more about the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project from our homepage.

The Scene at the Crossroads: A Peek at Baylor’s Presence in the NMAAHC

bgmrp_nmaahc_slideFriends of the blog have long known – since 2013, to be exact – that material from our Black Gospel Music Restoration Project would become part of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). And now, as the museum is set to open its doors on September 24, 2016, we are excited to offer an exclusive look at how those materials are displayed in the museum’s new Musical Crossroads exhibit.

This sneak peek is made possible due to two of Baylor’s own – Dean of Libraries/VP for Information Technology Pattie Orr and Prof. Robert Darden – receiving an invitation to attend a pre-opening event at the NMAAHC on September 17. Pattie and Bob were able to see firsthand how the BGMRP materials were integrated into the exhibits, and Pattie’s husband Steve helpfully shared photographs of the exhibit for this post.


Introductory panel for the Musical Crossroads exhibit (Photo courtesy of Steve Orr)


Visitors to the NMAAHC will find the story of African Americans and their culture written in ways large and intimate, personal and cultural, and one of the biggest elements of that story is the way music drawn from the black tradition has had a major impact on American society since the earliest roots of our country.


Visitors examine a large touchscreen interactive in the Neighborhood Record Store exhibit, NMAAHC (Photo courtesy of Steve Orr)


In a section of the exhibit called the Neighborhood Record Store, visitors are presented with a large touchscreen “table” detailing information on the various styles of music embraced by the African American experience.


A closer view of the interactive. The disc label for The Mighty Wonders’ “Old Ship of Zion” from the BGMRP is visible in lower left. (Photo courtesy of Steve Orr)


Along the bottom of the interactive are a number of musical genres – blues, country, sacred, classical, etc. – that includes a gospel category. Tapping on that tab will pull up information about The Mighty Wonders of Aquasco, Maryland and their song “Old Ship of Zion,” long associated with the BGMRP (and the de facto anthem of the project). Visitors can then hear a sample clip of the audio of “Old Ship,” as well as view a photo of the group.


Dean of Libraries/VP for Information Technology Pattie Orr (left) and Prof. Robert Darden (right) view the BGMRP materials in the interactive touchscreen. (Photo courtesy of Steve Orr)



Closeup of “Old Ship of Zion” information from touchscreen interactive. (Photo courtesy of Steve Orr)


Also featured in the exhibit are images of album jackets provided by the project. Visitors can browse through “bins” of sample records in various genres, harkening back to the days when record store customers were spend hours browsing through bins filled with the latest releases.


Bob Darden and Pattie Orr stand with a “bin” containing copies of album covers from the BGMRP. (Photo courtesy of Steve Orr)


After more than four years of discussions, file sharing, digitization, permissions granting and plenty of logistical conversations, it is truly rewarding to see materials from the BGMRP making their big debut at the NMAAHC. As the project enters its second decade dedicated to collecting, cataloging, preserving and providing access to materials from America’s black gospel music heritage, we are truly grateful to be a part of not only Baylor Nation but, in some small way, the history of the nation itself.


For More Information

Read our previous blog post about the partnership with the NMAAHC

Visit the BGMRP homepage

View the BGMRP collection via the Baylor University Libraries Digital Collections

Visit the NMAAHC website

Email us at digitalcollectionsinfo[at]baylor.edu

Still “Crush”-ing It 120 Years Later: Revisiting a Classic Post on a Big Anniversary

Today is the 120th anniversary of the “Crash at Crush,” a marketing stunt carried out by the Missouri-Kansas-Texas (MKT or “Katy”) Railroad in a field just outside of Waco. Our friends at Waco History have a great post about the event on their website, and it used materials from our blog post below to help give a more in-depth look to a truly unique instance in Texas history.

Screenshot of Crash at Crush story from Waco History (http://wacohistory.org/items/show/70)

Screenshot of Crash at Crush story from Waco History (http://wacohistory.org/items/show/70)

In honor of the big day, we’re re-posting our look at the event, as well as the way Scott Joplin memorialized it in song. Enjoy!

(Original post from April 19, 2012 follows below.)

Scott Joplin’s “Great Crush Collision March” and
the Memorialization of a Marketing Spectacle

For most people, the name Scott Joplin brings up a common range of responses: ragtime music, the Maple Leaf Rag, and his opera Treemonisha. But you’d be hard pressed to find someone whose first reaction to hearing Joplin’s name would be, “Oh, he’s the guy who wrote the song about the staged train crash near Waco!” Strangely enough, that person would be just as correct as the rest of us.

While conducting contextual background research for the Frances G. Spencer Collection of American Popular Sheet Music, I came across a reference to the collection having been cited in the preface of a book entitled The Collected Works of Scott Joplin. I retrieved a copy from the Crouch Fine Arts Library holdings and began reading the preface, looking for a mention of the collection. In a section on Joplin’s early years, I read the following paragraphs:

In 1896 the Quartette toured Louisiana and Texas. In Temple, Texas, Joplin secured his first piano publications: Combination March and Harmony Club Waltz, both with the local imprint of Robert Smith; and The (Great) Crush Collision March, published by John R. Fuller.

The first two pieces are uneventful period pieces. Crush Collision March, however, is a period piece of a special sort. As much program music as a march, it is, strangely, ‘Dedicated to the M.K.&T. Ry.,” this being the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railway, which runs through Temple and there crosses the tracks of another line. The march describes a train wreck that, quite possibly, had recently occurred (otherwise, why the dedication?). Could there have been a wreck at the crossing in Temple? And could Joplin have added sound-effects and descriptive narrative to a piece already written but unpublished? Or had he quickly composed a work to fit the situation?

It was quite a surprise to me to discover that Joplin, a Texas-born composer and son of an emancipated slave, had written a song commemorating a marketing gimmick concocted to sell tickets on a regional railroad with deep ties to Central Texas. Though the editors’ guesses were incorrect, the actual story behind the piece is something so brazen, so unique that it bears much closer examination.

Detail from “The Crash at Crush” by artist Robert Roswell Abernathy (1911-1981).

The Origins of the Crash

Beginning with the so-called Panic of 1893, the economy of the United States began a decade-long slide, with high unemployment, devalued currency, and the collapse of several major railroads epitomizing the dire situation. It was this last situation that indirectly led to the staging of the “Monster Crash” outside Waco.

As confidence in America’s railroad system eroded with the faltering economy, railroads began looking for ways to both boost their sagging bottom lines and provide some positive attention in an era when the over-extended growth of railroads was seen as a major cause of great personal financial insecurity. At the Missouri, Kansas & Texas Railroad (known to many by its nickname, the Katy), a passenger agent named William George Crush had an idea: use a head-on collision between two locomotives to generate income (and newspaper headlines). Officials at the MK&T agreed, and planning was underway.

The event was staged on September 15, 1896 in a valley north of Waco. Crush and his crew of MK&T laborers built a temporary depot, bandstand, viewing stands, and a temporary length of track measuring 4 miles long. Two locomotives were placed at either end; one was painted bright green, the other bright red. Both had been toured around the state in the months leading up to the crash in order to generate publicity. Crush dubbed the location of the spectacle “Crush, Texas.”

Admission was free, and round-trip tickets to “Crush” cost only $2 per person. As a result, 40,000 people showed up for the event, making “Crush, Texas” the second-largest city in the state (if only for a day).  At 5:00 PM, the two trains were released under a full head of steam, speeding down the track at approximately 45 mph. The resulting collision caused both locomotives’ boilers to explode, sending shrapnel into the crowd that killed at least three people and wounded dozens of others.

The aftermath of the spectacle is almost unthinkable in modern times. Crush was immediately fired by the MK&T, but with officials seeing no widespread outrage in the media, was rehired the next day. The railroad paid settlements to the victims’ families of cash and lifetime rail passes, and the debris was cleaned up by MK&T crews and souvenir hunters. By the end of the day, “Crush, Texas” had ceased to exist. And within a few decades, the whole event would pass from the collective memory with the exception of railroad fans and Texas history buffs.

Click the image above to access a PDF of the complete score.

Joplin Immortalizes the “Crash” in Song

Fresh off a stint performing with his first band at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Scott Joplin was touring Texas in the late 1890s where he saw three of his compositions published in Temple. There was one waltz (Harmony Club Waltz) and two marches, the Combination March and the Great Crush Collision March. The latter of the two marches was dedicated to the “M.K.&T. Ry.,” which is of course the very railroad that had just staged the Crash at Crush. In fact, the work was copyrighted a mere 30 days after the spectacle, leading biographers to believe that Joplin had either witnessed the crash himself or heard about it from one of his acquaintances who worked as a porter on the Katy line.

While the particulars of how Joplin learned of the crash are unclear, what is known is his reaction as recorded in song. Joplin created something more than a standard march: he added instructions for creating “sound effects” for the last third of the piece that would depict the crash through music. Joplin’s notes on the piece include the following written below the staff:

The noise of the trains while running at the rate of sixty miles per hour
Whistling for the crossing
Noise of the trains
Whistle before the collision
The collision*

This approach brings to mind the kind of scoring that would become standard for Hollywood pictures in the decades following the Great Crush Collision March’s publication. It was an attempt to insert narrative flair into what was otherwise a fairly straightforward composition and was a foreshadowing of Joplin’s later work with dramatic compositions that would find their culmination in Treemonisha.

“The Great Crush Collision” Revisited

My work on this blog post brought about an exciting opportunity to bring this piece back to life. Working with our sound engineer, Stephen Bolech, we arranged for graduate student in performance studies Eunhye Shin to perform the piece at First Baptist Church, where Stephen also serves as a sound engineer. The piece is included below, performed for the first time in more than a century, mere miles away from the site of the marketing spectacle it was created to commemorate.


*Note: The sound effects described above begin at the 2:04 mark with “The noise of the trains …” and end with the sustained note at 2:17 representing “the collision.”

Works Consulted

“The Crash at Crush” (artwork) by Robert Roswell Abernathy (ca. 1937). Original on display at the Texas Collection

King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and His Era by Edward A. Berlin (1994)

The Life and Works of Scott Joplin by Addison Walker Reed (1973)

Dancing to a Black Man’s Tune: A Life of Scott Joplin by Susan Curtis (1994)

The Collected Works of Scott Joplin edited by Vera Brodsky Lawrence (1971)

Scott Joplin on Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scott_Joplin)

The Crash at Crush on Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crash_at_Crush)

The Crash at Crush from the Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/llc01)

Visit the Texas Collection online at http://www.baylor.edu/lib/texas for more priceless Texana.