Bessie Carson Grant (1932)

Bessie Carson Grant was born during the Great Depression to a bootlegger and his wife, pilot car driver Millie Carson Sparks. Shortly after Bessie was born Millie gradually made fewer and fewer trips running her husband’s contraband whiskey. But despite quitting the bootlegging life she still had to give testimony in the great whiskey trial of 1935, which she did with little Bessie on her lap, as a three year old toddler (see song, “Lucy’s Grandma on Her Momma’s Side“.

During the Great Depression, children suffered a lot. They no longer had the joys and freedoms of childhood, and often shared their parents’ burdens and issues on money. For Christmas and birthdays, very few children were able to have fancy toy. Some families made gifts themselves, but many others could not afford food at all. For most people, the only way to celebrate holidays with gifts, were to window-shop. Since children lacked food, they often suffered from malnutrition.

There are two schools of thought about the impact of the Great Depression on children. One school holds that the hard times left young people physically damaged and psychologically scarred. The other insists that the decade of dire want and desperate wandering served to strengthen their character and forge what became America’s “greatest generation” of the World War II era. In fact, children’s experience of the depression varied widely, depending on their age, race, sex, region, and individual family circumstances. Nevertheless, certain patterns have emerged. Demographically, birthrates fell during the decade to a low of 18 births per 1,000 population, and children’s health declined due to the poorer nutrition and health care available.

Economically, many children worked both inside and outside the home; girls babysat or cleaned house, boys hustled papers or shined shoes, and both ran errands and picked crops. Yet the scarcity of jobs led record numbers of children to remain in school longer. Socially, high school became a typical teenage experience for the first time. A record 65 percent of teens attended high school in 1936; they spent the better part of their days together, forming their own cliques and looking to each other for advice and approval. Thus arose the idea of a separate, teenage generation.

This is the sociological phenomenon that formed Bessie Grant. Yes, she was tempered in the crucible of economic hardship, but at the same time it caused her to develop an almost pathological concern for financial security. As an adult,a  mother and wife, Bessie was prone to be frugal to the point of denying herself and her family any kind of “luxury item,” which might include a book, or candy, or anything that might represent fun.

Gradually she softened up, especially once she came to trust on the capability of her husband Walter Calahan Walker who was a hard worked and good provider. While Bessie may have scrimped on her children, of which she had four, she doted on her grandchildren. Bessie’s children were often heard to jokingly complain about how she never allowed them such-and-such that she happily acquiesced to when it concerned one of her grandchildren.

Bessie’s favorite grandchild was Lucy Bess Cooper, the youngest girl of her second child, Mae Ella. When she found out what happened to Lucy, it broke her heart and she never forgave Mae Ella for keeping so much of Lucy’s life secret from her (see song, “When Louanne Met Lucy in Prison“).

Bessie has seen her children grow up and their children grow up into fine people. She enjoys helping Mae Ella raise Lucy’s boy, McCoy, the one Lucy had in prison (see song, “Lucy’s Grandma“).

After Walter passed away in 2001, Mae Ella invited Bessie to move in with her, which she did.

Mae Ella Cooper (1957)

Mae Ella Cooper (1957) got her mother’s good looks, but did not inherit her mother’s obsessive concern for security. Bessie Grant Walker, as a child of the Great Depression had a healthy suspicion of good news. But as she got older and the Depression faded further in her memory, she learned how to have good time when she wanted to. Still, she took nothing for granted, was frugal to the point of self-denial, and denial to her family. Whatever generosity Bessie Grant was capable of was directed not towards her children but skipped a generation and rested on her grandchildren.

As Bessie’s oldest daughter, Mae Ella could not help but rebel against this kind of upbringing and from the time she could think for herself decided to deny herself nothing.

The first thing she did was run off with Frank Wes Cooper when she was sixteen. They stood in front of the first man qualified to pronounce them husband and wife and promptly began setting up house together. Her father, Walter Calahan Walker came after her, but realizing he was too late to bring her home reconciled himself to the situation, but knew it would be difficult pacifying Bessie.

Things improved somewhat when Mae Ella announced that she was pregnant with their first grandchild, which turned out to be a boy that she named after her father, Calahan Cooper. Mae Ella and Frank went on to have four more children, the youngest being Lucy Bess Cooper, grudingly honoring Mae’s mother.

As the kids grew up and one by one left home, Mae Ella began to look for something to occupy her time and creative impulses. What she did was open a bar, juke joint, with music, illegal whiskey, dancing and other things not exactly legal. This did not sit well with her husband and Frank began to simmer with a brooding resentment over the late nights she spent away from home.

Lucy, her youngest, pretty much grew up in the bar, which contributed to her developing a wild streak.

One night after having too much to drink, Frank decided he’d had enough and attempted to burn the bar down. This caused Mae Ella to seek a divorce, of sorts. Telling him to pack up and leave, punctuating her demand with a .38 pointed at his face.

Later, after Lucy was sent to prison and dying there of an overdose, Mae Ella was informed that Lucy had given birth to a boy. This child had been put into foster care, but Mae Ella moved heaven and earth to uncover where he was, petitioned the state for custody, and by pure dent of will power, wrangled him out of the foster home, and brought him home with her (see songs “Lucy’s Grandma” and “When Louanne Met Lucy in Prison“).

She named him McCoy and raised him, doting on him, spoiling him completely.

Millie Carson Sparks (1899-1985)

THE MAY 24, 1935, Roanoke Times headline read: Woman Pilot of Whiskey Cars Is Placed On Stand. Millie Carson Sparks testified on May 23 for a half hour. “So great was the interest with which her appearance has been awaited that it served to overshadow a full day of varied testimony . . .” The experience was a disappointing one for most, including Anderson, who saw his hopes of a great mountain heroine die with her appearance on the witness stand. “Mrs. Carson, whose name became so widely known here in the palmy [sic] days of the bootleggers during Prohibition, appeared minus the diamond that once gleamed in her teeth. She was dressed in a white outfit with hat and shoes to match, the dress having brown ruffled sleeves and collar gathered in front with a large cameo pin.

Mildred “Millie” Sparks was a tall, thin and sophisticated young woman whose appearance and mien belied her Southwestern Virginia upbringing. Sparks had originally married a big-shot bootlegger and soon became the principal driver for the operation, driving pilot cars as the caravans of booze careened and smashed their way through the hills of rural towns and into the conduits of the major cities, becoming a celebrity in the process. They said Sparks had movie-star looks and diamonds set in her teeth.

The woman she presented to the world gave no indication of the kind of upbringing she experienced as a girl.

She would have been out of bed at dawn. Summers came on the mountain farm then winters. From the time she was six or seven, she went, for a few months each winter, to a mountain school.

From the time when she was tall enough to stand up to the stove she got up and got the breakfast. In the winter there were corn bread and hot hog meat, and in the summer there were greens. Then she had to clean up the dishes and sweep out the house. She said that the house had no floor. There was just the hard earth, clay she said, made hard and even shiny by much tramping of bare and unwashed feet. To sweep out the house with a homemade broom her father had made, to wash the dishes – mend and wash her father’s clothes.

To school for a few months each winter, for four or five years – to learn anyway to read and write. Spring, summer, fall, and winter. There were plenty of creeping crawling things. “We had lice and bedbugs,” she said. She thought, when she was a child, they were companions every one had.

When she was sixteen she decided she could take no more of the life of back-breaking work and ran off to Raleigh and found work in one of the textile mills. Eventually she met the men involved in the bootlegging and married one.

No one around called the thing “bootlegging.” That might as well have been a foreign word. “You mean blockadin’, sir? What blockades?” Nobody ever said “moonshine” either. White Lightning. White Mule. Moon. Stump Whiskey. Mountain Dew. Squirrel Whiskey. Fire Water.

She had a little girl, Bessie, and chose to retire from her husband’s business, which was becoming increasingly dangerous and unprofitable by the early ’30s.  It wasn’t long before the Feds shut down the entire enterprise, culminating with the longest trial in state history.  She died 50 years after giving testimony in that trial at the age of 86.

 

“Lucy’s Grandma On Her Momma’s Side”

Lucy’s Grandma On Her Momma’s Side
WRITTEN BY: F.D. LEONE

Lucy’s grandma on her momma’s side
Was still around when Lucy died
Bessie Grant was born in the Depression
Had a hard life but was full of fun
Lucy was her favorite one
They never told her Lucy died in prison

Bessie’s momma was a blockader
Revenuers could never fade her
When she drove her fast pilot car
Millie Sparks had a diamond in her teeth
Ever’ thing she did was for keeps
Wore a camel coat; smoked a cigar

A long line of strong women
Tough as nails every one
They were here before this land was named
None of ’em was ever tamed
There ain’ ’nuff time to tell what all they done

Lucy’s momma Mae had a juke joint
Over by Friar’s Point
Where the all the old blues men played
Lucy’s daddy Frank burned it down
Bragged he was tired of her runnin’ around
‘Til he met the business end of a .38

A long line of strong women …

Maybe you heard about Lucy’s end
But six months after she went in
She had a baby, a little boy
They took the child and sent him off
Did it all without a second thought
Momma Mae found him, raised him up as McCoy

A long line of strong women …

© 2018 Frank David Leone, Jr./Highway 80 Music (ASCAP)

Ronnie Raney (1962-2004)

Ronnie Raney (1962-2004).  Middle son of Vernon and Margaret “Molly” Raney in Vicksburg, Mississippi.  Married to and murdered by Louanne Borden (Raney).  His brother Lonnie is sheriff of Warren County.  He has a younger sister, Ginny.

Ronnie works for his mother distributing drugs and in general running the business.  He started out dealing at University of Mississippi where he meets and seduces Louanne.  They begin living together in a shotgun house in Vicksburg and as Ronnie becomes more and more responsible for the operations of the Raney drug enterprise, Louanne also becomes involved in running a bar and trailer when her girls turn tricks.

Ronnie is a basically a “good ol’ boy” and means well, but has trouble controlling his temper. Because he feels intimidated by Louanne’s intelligence and background (she comes from a well-to-do Dallas family) he often resorts to threatening behavior, and even physical violence, when he is at a loss for any other way of controlling a situation.

After suffering from this kind of behavior for years, in 2004 Louanne kills Ronnie for continuing to get drunk and raise his hand to her. She was tried and convicted of second degree murder (unjustly) and was sentenced to twenty years at the Mississippi state penitentiary for women (see song, “One Time Too Many“).

“One Time Too Many”

One Time Too Many
WRITTEN BY: F.D. LEONE

She’d like to fix up her dinette
Yellow wallpaper with nosegays
A hard wood floor would do the trick
Those stains’ll take more than paint

A buzzer spoils this daydream
Lights out and the bars clang shut
It’ll have to wait twenty years
This cell is where she’ll stay put

She’d had enough
Taken too much
He treated her rough one time too many
She did the crime
She’ll do the time
Regrets? No, she don’t have any

She brought him his beer and a slice of pie
Then shot him with his deer gun
It was worth it just to see him surprised
Once he realized just what she’d done

She’d had enough …

His brother was sheriff of Warren County
There was no doubt the fix was in
A jury of his peers showed no mercy
But if she could she’d do it again

She’d had enough …

© 2017 Frank David Leone, Jr./Highway 80 Music (ASCAP)

Lonnie Raney (1958-2006)

Lonnie Raney (1958-2006).  Oldest son of Vernon and Molly Raney; brother of Ronnie and Ginny Raney.  Elected sheriff of Warren County (Vicksburg, county seat) and is generally a well-liked but corrupted law enforcement officer.  One of his prime responsibilities was protecting his mother and brother in the pursuit of their marijuana growing and drug business.

Although sister-in-law Louanne Borden Raney murders his brother Ronnie, and is convicted of second degree murder (see song, “One Time Too Many“), she later refuses cut a deal in an DEA investigation into the Raney family criminal activities and instead warns Lonnie of the investigation.

In 2006 Lonnie is killed in a shootout while attempting to protect his mother and the drug business when the DEA comes to serve warrants for their arrest.

Warren County, Mississippi

Warren County is a county located in the U.S. state of Mississippi. As of the 2010 census, the population was 48,773.  Its county seat is Vicksburg.[2] Created by legislative act of 22 December 1809, Warren County is named for American Revolutionary War officer Joseph Warren.

Part of the Mississippi Delta and the historic cotton culture, Warren County is included in the Vicksburg, MS Micropolitan Statistical Area, which is also included in the Jackson-Vicksburg-Brookhaven, MS Combined Statistical Area.

“When Louanne Met Lucy in Prison”

When Louanne Met Lucy In Prison
WRITTEN BY: F.D. LEONE

When Louanne met Lucy in prison
Lou was halfway through her twenty
For killin’ Ronnie Raney
Who hit her once too many
Lucy would talk all about Levi
In words tender and soft
It was old friends and old sins
Got Lucy caught

Ain’t that how it is sometimes?
Ain’t that how it is sometimes?
You’re on the verge of change
Life sends you the same ol’ same

They gave Lucy eighteen months
Easy time for most but for Lucy hard
Day by day she faded away
Behind stone walls and steel bars
Louanne tried to keep an eye on Lucy
Easy in there to come to harm
August night when they found her
Needle was still in Lucy’s arm

Ain’t that how it is sometimes …

Louanne got word to Levi
Said it best she knew how
Lucy only had six weeks left
She ain’ never gettin’ out
Levi read that letter and then
Put it in his dresser drawer
Got drunk in Vicksburg went a little further
Did a little more

© 2017 Frank David Leone, Jr./Highway 80 Music (ASCAP)

Parchman Farm (Mississippi State Penitentiary)

Mississippi State Penitentiary (MSP), also known as Parchman Farm, is a prison farm, the oldest prison, and the only maximum security prison for men in the state of Mississippi.

Begun with four stockades in 1901, the Mississippi Department of Corrections facility was constructed largely by state prisoners. It is located on about 28 square miles (73 km2) in unincorporated Sunflower County, in the Mississippi Delta region.

It has beds for 4,840 inmates. Inmates work on the prison farm and in manufacturing workshops. It holds male offenders classified at all custody levels—A and B custody (minimum and medium security) and C and D custody (maximum security). It also houses the male death row—all male offenders sentenced to death in Mississippi are held in MSP’s Unit 29—and the state execution chamber.

Female prisoners are not usually assigned to MSP; Central Mississippi Correctional Facility (CMFC), also the location of the female death row, is the only state prison in Mississippi designated as a place for female prisoners.

CMCF opened in January 1986 with a capacity of 667 prisoners. CMCF was the first prison facility of the Mississippi Department of Corrections outside of the Mississippi State Penitentiary (MSP) in Sunflower County. Upon the opening of CMCF, female prisoners were transferred from MSP to CMCF; previously women were held in MSP Camp 25.