Rufus Payne remembered

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 12, 2000

Around town this week I was given the honor of assisting historican Alice Harp with a PBS documentary on the life of Rufus Teetot Payne. Although my contribution was insignificant and behind the scenes, meeting Rufus' son, Henderson Payne, and getting the opportunity to ask questions about Greenville in the 20s and 30s was really a privilege.

Rufus Payne's contrubution to the world has gone unnoticed for many years, and it is good to see someone take interest in the man and in our community. Alice will be in and around Butler County filming for the documentary, which is scheduled to air on Alabama Public Television sometime in December 2000 or January 2001.

Henderson told me that Rufus and Hank had a very special relationship. Henderson was raised by his maternal grandmother, who thought very little of Rufus and his showman lifestyle, so he wasn't allowed to be around his father as a child.

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Henderson, who was born in 1920, said that whenever he got the chance, he would sneak away to find his father and listen to him play. He said that Rufus and Hank were a common sight in Greenville during those days, and one was rarely seen without the other.

Rufus, by all accounts, was a master musician, and although he was born in the Sandy Ridge community of Lowndes County, he got his education on the streets of New Orleans.

During Payne's early years, his family lived on Melphomene Street, in the heart of the birthplace of jazz, and it was here that he discovered the music of Buddy Bolden, Sidney Bechet, King Oliver and hundreds of other influences that would set fire to the talents Rufus held within him.

He did not learn music, he absorbed it, and he was able to play almost any instrument available. He became a "professor" of music, along the lines of Jelly Roll Morton, Champion Jack Dupree and Tuts Washington, and brought those skills with him when he returned to Greenville around 1914.

Henderson doesn't talk much about the circumstances surrounding his birth. It is clear that his mother was very young, about 16 at the time of his birth, and that she was never married to Rufus, but the experiences he had in Greenville during that period were not typical of rural Alabama of that day.

Rufus was able to transcend whatever racial tensions existed back then, and was as popular in the garden parties of the wealthy white folks as he was raising the roof of road-side juke joints and backwoods bootleg shacks on the other side of town.

Greenville was unique for the time period in Southern history, especially for a town in the Black Belt of Alabama. It was a growing, town, with prosperous, white civic leaders who recognized that acts of violence and racism would hurt their wallets, and the labor provided by the sons of former slaves was important to the area's economy.

It was Teetot who met the young Hank Williams, taught him to play harmonica and guitar, and left an indelible mark on the muscial culture of the state and the world.

His contribution to what became Butler County's most famous native, runs deeper than a few music lessons. In fact, the culture and the influences and all that was Rufus Payne was shared with the world through Hank Williams.

Rufus died in Montgomery's Centennial Hill district in what Henderson calls the poor-house. He was buried in an unmarked paupers grave. For years he lie almost forgottonuntil now.

Teetot's memory will be revived through the making of this documentary. The producers want to talk to everyone they can who might have something to share. Greenville resident Henry Cadenhead is involved in this worthy project, and anyone around town who can help should call him at 382-0391.