“Miss Lucy Keith”

During the latter half of the 19th century shaped note singing became very popular.  Singing schools were found all though the South, and singing conventions would be held for three days at a time, or even as long as a week.  These events were part of what has been called The Great Awakening in which revivals or camp meetings were held where, along with the preaching, much singing would take place.

This song is about the great-great-grandparents of Lucy Cooper (1980-2015), Cowan “Dusty” Cooper (1843-1925) and Lucy Calhoun Keith (1859-1919).  They were an unlikely match since Cowan was a ne’er-do-well and more than 15 years older, while Miss Lucy Keith was a dignified young lady, the heir to her father’s banking fortune.  But they happened to meet at an opportune moment.

Because Lucy was a somewhat intimidating lady, suitors had never succeeded in winning her hand, and by now seven years had elapsed since she had attained marriageable age.  At the same time, it was 1885, Cowan Cooper had become dissatisfied with his life as an itinerant gambler and con-man and was ripe for change.

After becoming aware of Miss Lucy Keith, and seeing that she was strikingly beautiful, and destined to become rich, Cowan began to make himself available wherever she might be, including one of these camp meetings. Although at first his motives might not have been exactly honorable, that changed rather quickly.

They officially met at a group singing event held by the river in Vicksburg, Mississippi.  As he joined in the singing, Cowan felt himself being born again and from then on he and Lucy Keith began courting seriously. Cowan grew into a proper gentleman and eventually met with the approval of Old Man Keith, who took him on at the bank.

Cowan and Lucy married, raised three children, and lived happily together for 32 years.

Miss Lucy Keith

I buried Lucy yesterday
After thirty-two years together
But I am getting ahead of myself
I mean to tell you how I met her

My name is Cowan Cooper
Been a grifter my whole life
I was making a pretty good living
With cards and dice

I come from Jackson, Mississippi
Born in 1843
But I cared nothing about
Preserving the Union or slavery

While other boys fought and died
I bought myself out of the war
Dealt poker in a Vicksburg saloon
And lived with a whore

I met Lucy in 1885
By then the war was twenty years gone
I was tired of the gambler’s life
But it’s all I’d ever known

Miss Lucy Keith was the talk of Vicksburg
Her flashing green eyes and long red hair
They said she can look right through you
Made you feel like you weren’t even there

I was intrigued by this young lady
And would appear wherever she went
Until one night I found myself
At a camp meeting, under a tent

Now I was raised up in the church
But learned more songs in less sacred places
There was a feeling in that tent
A light radiated from all the faces

I sat down next to Miss Lucy Keith
She kindly indicated to me the hymn
We shared a Sacred Harp
Leaned in close and sang “Jerusalem”

I can’t explain what came over me
The singing mixed with Miss Lucy Keith’s perfume
From the fragile scent of lilac
I felt myself rising up in the room

In the weeks after that night
I was often seen with Miss Lucy Keith
My former friends couldn’t understand
And stared at me with disbelief

I threw away my cards and dice
Having no use anymore for them
A wretch such as I had been saved
When Lucy Keith and I sang “Jerusalem”

So now you’ve heard my story
And it’s all I have to tell
I walked away that old hymn book
Somewhere, it’s sitting on my shelf

Those shaped notes may be old-fashioned
I hope there’s still some power left in them
Save your old Sacred Harps
My life was changed when I sang “Jerusalem”

© 2020 Frank David Leone, Jr./Highway 80 Music (ASCAP). The songs and stories on the Highway 80 Stories website are works of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

“Down 80 East”

Upon hearing of Lucy Cooper‘s death while in prison, Levi Hooper went on a bender.  Getting in his truck and driving through Mississippi: Greenwood, Greenville, Vicksburg and even into Louisiana.  He drank until drunk in small bars along the way (see songs, “When Louanne Met Lucy in Prison” and “Levi After Lucy“).

This behavior was certainly unusual for Levi, normally a down-to-earth, church-going man who spent much of his spare time helping his mother, Mildred Motts Hooper,  with her house and business.  She had turned her home into a thrift shop a year after her husband passed on (see song, “Mildred’s House of Values“).

This drinking road trip only lasted a little over a week, but it was enough for Levi’s mother, to become concerned.  So it was with relief that he finally came home, and things returned to normal without Levi offering up any explanation as to the reason for his absence.

Down 80 East

Levi woke up on the wrong side of the road
Sitting on the side of 80 East
Last thing he remembered was stumbling out that old church
Pressing a wrinkled twenty on the priest

Time to go back, runnin’ wild has run its course
He can’t run away from the grief
He needs a shave, a strong cup of coffee
Time to go back, down 80 East

He don’t understand why Lucy did what she did
She was so close to getting her parole
But this drinking and running has gone on long enough
What he’s looking for ain’t down this road

Time to go back, runnin’ wild has run its course …

All along Levi thought it too good to be true
Doubted he and Lucy would last
But it looked like she was headed in the right direction
In the end she just ran out of gas

Time to go back, runnin’ wild has run its course …

© 2019 Frank David Leone, Jr./Highway 80 Music (ASCAP). The songs and stories on the Highway 80 Stories website are works of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

“Ready for Change”

Lucy Cooper and Levi Hooper met in Jackson, Mississippi when they lived across the street from each other (see song “Levi and Lucy”). They became involved in a relationship, something of an attraction of opposites: Levi was a church-going, salt of the earth type, whereas Lucy was a hell-raising rebel, who was no stranger to a variety of mind-altering substances.

However, Lucy had begun to feel that she had reached a dead end with her life, and was looking, most likely subconsciously, for new direction, one which seemed to be provided by Levi.

Unfortunately, Levi came along too late for Lucy, who was overtaken by the momentum and trajectory of her past life. One of her marijuana customers offered her name as his dealer, in exchange for a suspended sentence for simple possession. Lucy was arrested and convicted for distribution and sent to prison, where after a year into her 18 month sentence, she succumbed to depression and committed suicide (see song, “When Louanne Met Lucy in Prison”).

Levi was left to pick up the pieces as best he could in the wake of this aborted relationship (see song, “Levi After Lucy”).

Ready for Change

When Lucy and Levi met
Lucy wasn’t ready yet
To turn over a new leaf
But she really wanted to
To do what she had to do
Her life had mostly brought her grief

The mirror Lucy looked in
Showed her where she had been
But not where she wanted to go to
Levi was steady, Levi was strong
Someone Lucy could rely upon
Change ain’t what you want but what you do

Lucy wasn’t sure how to start
But something was cooking in her heart
Pushing her past the life she had known
Levi was the catalyst
Even so it was hit or miss
All he could do was cheer Lucy on

The mirror Lucy looked in
Showed her where she had been
But not where she wanted to go to
Levi was steady, Levi was strong
Someone Lucy could rely upon
Change ain’t what you want but what you do

It’ll take some time
For Lucy to leave behind
The people and things holding her back

The mirror Lucy looked in
Showed her where she had been
But not where she wanted to go to
Levi was steady, Levi was strong
Someone Lucy could rely upon
Change ain’t what you want but what you do

© 2019 Frank David Leone, Jr./Highway 80 Music (ASCAP). The songs and stories on the Highway 80 Stories website are works of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

Levi Hooper (1973- )

In Levi’s mother’s mind he was named for her ancestor who died in the Civil War.  However, the name Levi was also an old Hooper family name, and Leon Hooper, Levi’s father, chose to name his son after his grandfather who had died the year Levi was born.

Levi Hooper was a descendant of two old Southern families: the Hoopers came into North Carolina in the early 18th century and then migrated to Alabama in the mid-19th century.  The Mott family was an old Louisianan family going back to the 1750s.

Jackson, Mississippi, was where Levi was raised and he never moved away.  His daddy was a welder and made a good living but died just before Levi turned two.  After that Levi’s mother turned the family home into a thrift shop (see song,”Mildred’s House of Values“) putting price tags on everything from lamps and vases to the furniture.

Levi eventually got his own place and met his neighbor from across the street, Lucy Cooper, and began a kind of courtship (see song, “Levi + Lucy“).  Lucy Cooper was nothing like Levi, she was rebellious and wild whereas Levi was mild-mannered, a church -going man.  But Lucy was strangely attracted to Levi’s wholesome quality and made a real effort at cleaning up her life and trying her best to change.

But as this kind of thing is never really easy, Lucy had trouble straightening out and one thing led to another and she was arrested and sent to the penitentiary to serve eighteen months on a drug charge.

Levi visited her often and told her was waiting for her, but Lucy could not take prison life and ended up overdosing shortly before being released.  Lucy’s death, coupled with the passing of his mother the year before, was too much for Levi.  He started down a dark path of drinking and driving all through the western Mississippi/eastern Louisiana area (see song, “Levi After Lucy“).

He would not break out of this self-destructive behavior until he learned from Lucy’s mother, Mae Cooper, that before she died Lucy had given birth to Levi’s son whom Mae was raising and had named McCoy (see song “Lucy’s Grandma“).

Lucy Bess Cooper (1980-2015)

Parents: Mae Grant Walker (1957- ) & Frank Wes Cooper (1951-1993).  Grandparents: Lucy Calhoun Keith (1921) & Joseph Cowan Cooper (1913-1995) on her father’s side;  Bessie Grant (1932- ) & Walter Calahan Walker (1931-2001) on her mother’s side.

Lucy Cooper comes from an old Mississippi family.  Roy Cooper entered the state in 1794 and gradually purchased enough land to have a small sustenance farm but no slaves.  His son, Frank Roy Cooper was 38 when the War Between the Sates broke out and enlisted and was made a colonel of a local regiment, and served until the very end at which time he was one of last men to fall in May of 1865. One of her great-great-grandfathers, Charles “Charley” Wooley Cooper, was ten years old at the end of the Civil War, fatherless, devoted his activities to causing as much mischief for the Reconstruction politicians in and around Jackson, Mississippi, as was possible for a small boy.  So, you could say that Lucy comes from a long line of hell-raisers and people with a strong disregard for authority, however, possessing a lot of respect for their Mississippi heritage.  The women in Lucy’s family were no more timid, several generations of women lived lives outside the traditional role of women, and more than one resorted to violence to solve her problems (see song, “Lucy’s Grandma on Her Momma’s Side“).

Jackson MS editedLucy was in her 30s, living in Jackson, Mississippi, supporting herself with a small marijuana dealing business.  Across the street from her was a bachelor, Levi Hooper, who fell in love with her, which was not entirely unrequited (see song, “Levi + Lucy“).  She had been a small time drug dealer for the last decade primarily using marijuana but she also had done harder drugs, Dilaudid and cocaine.  Levi had been coming around and she began to feel a desire to change her life around due to his overall wholesomeness and positive influence on her.  See could imagine herself getting clean and starting a new life with Levi.  However, one of her old friends got picked up for his own drug issues, and in order to lessen his sentence gave Lucy up as his dealer.

Lucy's PrisonShe was arrested and convicted for possession and distribution of marijuana and sentenced to 18 months at the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility (her friends incorrectly referring to  it  as Parchman Farm).

She knew she was pregnant when she went in, but had not informed the father, Levi Hooper.  After a little over six months she gave birth to a baby boy, whom the prison authorities promptly took from her and put into foster care.  She became more and more despondent and depressed and began again using Dilaudid, not orally as designed but crushing the pills and dissolving them in water for injection (“shake and bake”).  She died as a result of an overdose 11 months into her sentence, and only weeks before possibly being paroled (see song, “When Louanne Met Lucy in Prison“).

“Levi and Lucy”

The romance of Levi Hooper and Lucy Cooper was an unlikely union; absolutely, an attraction of opposites.

They met while living across the street from one another in Jackson, Mississippi.   Lucy was a hell-raising rebel and Levi was a church-going, salt-of-the-earth young man.  Lucy was attracted to Levi mainly because he was nothing like the people she’d been involved with up to then, and Lucy had grown tired of her life and was ripe for a change.

Levi was attracted to Lucy because, well, for one thing, she was a very sexy lady, but more importantly he intuitively felt that she wanted more out of life than her drinking, drugging and wild partying.

Theirs was a true love which they both felt strongly, but a love that was destined to be cut off far too early, its potential left unfulfilled.

Levi and Lucy

Lucy Cooper cussed the hammer that struck her thumb
Sent it sailing to kingdom come
Grabbed a whiskey bottle and marched out to her front porch
Found a roach and lit it with a butane torch

Levi Hooper watched from across the street
Wonderin’ how they might come to meet
He strolled out real slow looked in his mailbox
Lucy called out,”hey, hotshot”

Love can’t be controlled
Can’t be foretold
If you can explain it
It ain’ it

Love can’t be fenced
Or convinced
If you can explain it
It ain’ it

Every Sunday Levi would stop by on his way to church
Look at his feet with each of Lucy’s cuss words
Levi hoped she might want to come with him sometime
But he tried to push that thought out of his mind

Lucy had no luck at tryin’ to settle down
Her old friends always kept coming around
Lucy got busted they sent her to the prison farm
Where she put that stuff all up her arm

Love can’t be controlled
Can’t be foretold
If you can explain it
It ain’ it

Love can’t be fenced
Or convinced
If you can explain it
It ain’ it


© 2017 Frank David Leone, Jr./Highway 80 Music (ASCAP). The songs and stories on the Highway 80 Stories website are works of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

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

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)