“Meridian”

The lineage of Crawford Harper and the Donald and Vern Raney, is a little complicated.  They were distantly related to each other, although they did not know it at the time of the events described in this song.  In order to set the stage we have to go back to Alabama, before the Civil war.

Celsie Crawford Monroe (1844-1936) was born into slavery but was freed by Will Monroe, her father, a wealthy white planter, in 1863 as a result of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

Celsie’s mother, Jessie Crawford (1828-1905), was a slave from a neighboring plantation of whom Will Monroe had grown quite fond. Monroe made sure Jessie was provided for and also insisted that she be freed in 1863 by paying off her owner Carson Crawford.

Celsie was what was called a “yellow gal”, and quite beautiful. Once she was freed at age 19, Celsie began seeing a white man, Joshua Tate (1828-1867), and their relationship developed into a common law marriage, although the possibility of such a union being recognized was not possible at the time.  They had one child, a son, Tullison Tate, “Monroe’s Tully” (see song “King Cotton“).

In 1872 Celsie’s first actual marriage was to a African-American man, Jesse Harper (1850-1922), and Celsie and Jesse enjoyed a long and happy union, raising four children, seven grandchildren, and many great-grandchildren. However, Celsie’s oldest child, Tully, was raised by his spinster Aunt Ruth, his father’s sister.

Donald and Vernon Raney were distant descendants of Tully Tate, his daughter marrying Virgil Raney, whose son Vernon was Donald and Vernon’s grandfather.  Their father Lonnie Raney, had been a crooked Warren County sheriff, who was killed in a shootout with U.S. Marshalls, during a drug raid. The Raneys were descendants of Lonsom Raney, longtime moonshiner in North Georgia (see song “Lonsom Raney 1828“).

Lonnie’s generation of Raneys had become major players in the drug trade stretching from Memphis to Natchez, with Lonnie’s mother Molly Motts Raney acting as matriarch of the family drug enterprise (see songs “When Molly Motts Married Vernon Raney” and “Louanne in Vicksburg“).  Donald and Vernon were Molly’s grandchildren, who were trying to carry on the family business, albeit on a much smaller scale, in Meridian, Mississippi.

One of Celsie Monroe’s great-grandchildren, William Crawford Harper (1942-2001), had marched from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 (see song “Crossin’ the Edmund Pettus Bridge“). Crawford Harper was Willie’s grandson, and this song describes the events of Crawford’s first summer home from college, when he visited his grandpa in Meridian, Mississippi.

Meridian
WRITTEN BY: F.D. LEONE

Crawford Harper was in Starkville
Mississippi State
He’d be the first in the Harper family
Who might graduate

His Grandpa Willie lived in Meridian
Crawford spent the summer, wanting to earn
He’d heard about two fellas with a business
That’s how Crawford met Donald and Vern

The Raneys were from North Georgia
Moonshiners back in the hills
When they came down off that mountain
They were selling pot and pills

When Crawford met up with the Raneys
Vern gave him a duffle bag full of meth
Told him how much money to deliver
Crawford could keep the rest

One night Grandpa Willie found his stash
Asked him, “where’d you get this money?”
Crawford said, “don’t worry, old man,
I got it working for somebody”

Willie Harper had marched at Selma
Five miles from the same plantation
Where his ancestor had been a slave
Going back six generations

Willie asked, if that somebody
Might be named Donald and Vern
Crawford grabbed his duffel bag
Told him, “it ain’t none of your concern”

But see, Willie’d had a visit
From the Raneys late one night
Crawford owed them money
That had to be made right

Willie Harper was a welder
Vern said, “you’re gonna have a partner”
Willie looked at him with stone cold eyes
Said, “only name on that sign is Harper”

Under his welding gloves
Willie kept his service forty-five
He told Vern, “if you think I won’t use it,
You’re in for a surprise”

When Crawford came home, his grandpa told him
“The Raneys won’t be ‘round no more”
He took that duffel bag and torched it
Into a pile of ashes on the floor

Crawford Harper was back in Starkville
Mississippi State
He was the first in the Harper family
To graduate

© 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.

Lonsom Raney (1828-1923)

Lonsom Raney is the son of Scots-Irish immigrants to this country in the early 18th century.  Originally the family spelled their name “Rainey” but Lonsom chose to drop the “i” and spell his name “Raney”.

The Scots-Irish were transplanted (literally the “Plantation” by King James I in 1608-1609) Scots in Ulster, then Ulster Scots in colonial America, they became known as the Scots-Irish, settling in and often moving on through Pennsylvania, and later Virginia and all through the Appalachian mountains.  The Raineys moved into the North Georgia mountains.

Scots-Irish tended to be impetuous and hotheaded, having been marginalized back in Ulster, they defied any easy definition. In fact, they bristled at others’ labels for them—”Irish,” “Irish Presbyterians,” “Northern Irish,” or even “Wild Irish.”  Already twice transplanted, they had acquired a migratory habit. Once acquired, such habits are liable to persist; when the constraints of government caught up with them, these wayfarers often chose to move on.

In Colonial America, a whiskey-making tradition came ready-made with the arrival of Scots-Irish settlers from Northern Ireland’s Ulster region, beginning in the 1700s. They brought with them their taste for the drink and an understanding of how to make it.  Lonsom Raney’s grandfather had always made his own whisky back in Scotland, and brought his still with him wherever he moved: first to Ireland then across the ocean to Virginia.

When Lonsom was a child, moonshine doubled as a cough suppressant and sore-throat treatment. To get little ones to tolerate whiskey, adults added something special to the cup: “It was pretty common with everybody in the mountains to put the old-fashioned peppermint-stick candy in it,” says Vernon Raney, Lonsom’s great-great-grandson (see song, “Lonsom Raney 1828“).

Lonsom claimed to drink corn whiskey nearly every day of his life, often telling anyone in his vicinity, that moonshine was the only thing that kept him alive. He started making it while still a child. “I went to helpin’ my daddy make likker when I wuddn’t but nine years old,” he told Vernon. “My daddy just let me go to the still with him and I watched him and learnt it myself.”

Over the years, the law mostly left the Raneys alone.  But Lonsom wasn’t always lucky.  On at least four occasions, he served time in jail and in prison for violating liquor laws and evading taxes.  But as it turned out, being locked up wasn’t bad for business. “That’s a good place to get customers,” Vernon said of his great-great-granddad’s time behind bars. “He would just take orders and fill them when he got out.”

Lonsom Raney died in 1923 at the age of 95.   He had four descendants who carried on the Raney whisky tradition: Ransom (son), Royal (grandson), Virgil (great-grandson) and Vernon (great-great-grandson).  Vernon would marry Molly Motts, who would later transition their bootlegging business into a drug enterprise.

“Lonsom Raney 1828”

Lonsom Raney 1828
WRITTEN BY: F.D. LEONE

1828 Lonsom Raney was born
Had a copper still and made clear corn
His great-granddad brought it from Scotland
Hid it in the hills on this Georgia mountain

Help’d his daddy make likker, Lonsom told
When he wuddn’t but nine years old
They’d load the wagon right at the still
Run that shine all through those hills

Let me be, my sons and me
I’m just doing what I can
Let me be, the boys ‘n’ me
I’m just livin’ off the land

He made it himself when his daddy died
Drank corn whiskey every day of his life
Claimed moonshine was what kept him alive
Lonsom Raney lived to ninety five

Let me be, my sons and me …

Five generations have used that still
From Ransom to Royal, then Virgil
Lonsom died in nineteen twenty-three
Now it’s Vernon’s time with the recipe

Let me be, my sons and me
I’m just doing what I can
Let me be, the boys ‘n’ me
I’m just livin’ off the land
I’m just doing what I can
Lemme be free Mr. Gov’mint man

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

Margaret “Molly” Motts (1937- )

Margaret “Molly” Motts Raney (1937- ).  Half-sister of Mildred Motts Hooper; aunt of Levi Hooper; wife of Vernon Raney; mother of Lonnie, Ronnie and Ginny Raney.

Delta_Farms_signMolly Motts was born in Delta, Louisiana, a tiny hamlet at the Louisiana-Mississippi border,  just across the river from Vicksburg.  Because of a difficult home life, she often dreamed of getting out of Delta.  Vicksburg just across the river looked like a dream garden to her and she thought she’d do anything to get there.  She did: marrying Vernon Raney, more than twice her age, but a good husband to her (see song, “When Molly Motts Married Vernon Raney“) .

They had three children, Lonnie, Ronnie and Ginny.  Molly was an ambitious girl and decided early on to piggy-back a drug distribution business onto Vernon’s already prospering bootlegging enterprise (see song, “’57 Fleetwood to Memphis“).  After all, bootleg whiskey was going out of style since by the mid-‘60s, liquor by the drink was legal and there was little demand for bootleg whiskey except out of nostalgia.

Molly got her oldest son, Lonnie elected sheriff as a way to offer protection to her and her second son, Ronnie, as they operating the drug business with little interference from law enforcement. This they did and quickly established a distribution network of dealers from Natchez to Memphis (see song, “Louanne in Vicksburg“).

Molly lived to see both of her sons die violent deaths: Ronnie was murdered by his wife, Louanne Borden, and Lonnie was killed in a violent stand-off with DEA agents.  As the drug network wound down, Molly grew into her role as grandmother to Ginny’s children, living a quiet life in Vicksburg.

“When Molly Motts Married Vernon Raney”

When Molly Motts Married Vernon Raney
WRITTEN BY: F.D. LEONE

From her bedroom in Delta, Louisiana
Molly Motts could see the Vicksburg lights
She thought they looked like stars in the River
A just out of reach paradise

About two hundred people lived in Delta
Vicksburg had a hundred times more than that
Molly would close her eyes and dream her future
Leaving Delta and never lookin’ back

Home is a place that’s supposed to be safe
And not what you have to run from
But when home is the place that you must escape
Then it’s just where you come from

When Molly Motts married Vernon Raney
Vern was nearly fifty years old
He was Lonsom Raney‘s great-great-grandson
The first to age the Raney clear to gold

Molly was two months along with little Lonnie
Vern was glad to finally be a dad at last
Molly sure won’t miss that Delta bedroom
Or her step-dad and what her momma never asked

Home is a place that’s supposed to be safe …

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

Vernon Raney (1911-1997)

Vernon was the first Raney to grow to adulthood in Mississippi, the rest of the Raney family settled in north Georgia as early as 1748 when Thomas Rainey, Lonsom’s grandfather was born (Lonsom would later change the spelling, dropping the “i” from the name).

The first Raney, Lonegan, a Scots-Irish immigrant, entered colonial America in 1743 at Virginia as an indentured servant. As soon as he was released from his labor, five years later, he traveled, with his pregnant wife, through the Appalachian mountains eventually settling in the north Georgia mountains.  His first son, Thomas, was born in a small log cabin in December 1748.  The Raney family always made whiskey and in fact the copper bowl still they used was brought to America by Lonegan (see song, “Lonsom Raney 1828“).

Vernon made one major change in the moonshine, he began to age it in oak barrels, producing a more refined product which he sold to Memphis big shots at a premium price.  Vernon remained a bachelor until the age of 49 when he married Molly Motts, just 23 years old, and pregnant with their first son, Lonsom, or Lonnie as he was known.

gettyimages-109913282Molly Raney was an ambitious young woman, seeing that the bootlegging business was doomed as liquor laws were repealed making it easy to purchase whiskey.  She also realized that the younger generation was interested in marijuana and other recreational drugs.  Her oldest, Lonnie, became the county sheriff, the other son, Ronnie became Maggie’s right hand man in their drug distribution business.  Molly oversaw the entire distribution network as Ronnie handled the day-to-day operations.  They moved large amounts of pot and meth all through Mississippi and Memphis, with Lonnie responsible for insulating the enterprise from law enforcement (see song, “Louanne in Vicksburg“).

Over the decades from 1957 through the ‘70s Vernon became more and more detached from day-to-day reality, turning a blind eye to Molly’s drug business while he continued to make small batches of his whiskey and selling a little but mainly giving it away to a group of his old friends who would gather at his old mountain cabin drinking, playing cards or dominoes; smoking cigars or spitting tobacco juice on pot-bellied stove and telling tall tales (see song, “’57 Fleetwood to Memphis“).

In the spring of 1997, at the age of 85 Vernon Raney died in his sleep after producing the last of his tobacco gold whiskey.

“’57 Fleetwood to Memphis”

’57 Fleetwood to Memphis
WRITTEN BY: F.D. LEONE

Vernon took pride in his small batch corn whiskey
Made it in his great-great-granddaddy‘s copper bowl
He would age it five years in oak barrels
It came out tobacco gold

He sold it to Memphis judges and politicians
Hundred dollar bottles in back alley deals
Come a long way from his great-great-granddaddy
And those Ulster hills

On and on and on and on it goes
They are tryin’ to get somewhere
On and on and on and on it goes
They just know they ain’ quite there

1741 his people came to Virginia
Indentured servants just tryin’ to stay alive
Seven long years they learned one hard lesson
Do what you have to: survive

On and on and on and on it goes …

Vern drove a ’57 Fleetwood to Memphis
Tailgate riding low with gallon cans and Mason jars
Coming back empty he’d open up that Caddy
Just to hear the V8 roar

On and on and on and on it goes …

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