Friday, June 11, 2021

Detroit History Under Marsha Music’s Watchful Eyes


Marsha Battle Philpot (aka Marsha Music) is a familiar Detroit figure and longtime booster of the city who describes herself as "a writer and griot (storyteller)" of Detroit's post-World War II history, and its gentrification over fifty years later. Born on June 11, 1954, Marsha is the oldest child of the late blues record producer Joe Von Battle and his second wife, the late Westside beauty, Shirley (Baker) Battle.


Joe ran a blues and gospel record shop with a makeshift recording studio in the back room on Hastings Street, at Mack Avenue, just north of the Black Bottom area of Detroit. Joe recorded John Lee Hooker, Rev. C.L. Franklin and his fourteen-year-old daughter Aretha, among many other singers long forgotten.



Joe met Shirley Baker as she waited on the streetcar outside of the record shop, and he gave her a job. Soon he was smitten, despite being married with four teenaged children. After several years of going together, Joe bought Shirley a large house in Highland Park, a city within Detroit’s city limits, and he divorced his first wife. After Joe and Shirley had two children, they made it official and married.

 

Marsha never knew of her parent’s early unmarried status until after her mother’s passing at age 79. "I grew up in the era of Highland Park’s lush prosperity, and I would have led a very middle-class life, but every weekend, there I was on teeming 12th Street, working at my father's record shop. I came to love the neighborhood and its people." Joe's original record shop on Detroit's Eastside was bulldozed to make room for the Chrysler Freeway and urban renewal which Joe and others astutely described as "Negro removal."

 

 

Joe opened his new shop on 12th Street in Detroit's Westside in 1960 while struggling with alcoholism and Addison’s Disease. Seven years later, civil strife and conflagration consumed the 12 Street neighborhood in what history notes as the Detroit Riots. Some social historians and Black Detroiters have come to describe the event as "The Rebellion" as the social and economic forces leading to the insurrection of July 23, 1967 predated the event by decades.

 

As a direct result, Marsha became an activist during the turbulent 1960s. The late General Baker, a founder of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, became a surrogate father to Marsha. Highland Park had top schools during Marsha Battle’s early years and she was a good student, trained in classical music. Reeling and adrift, as her father’s drinking and conflict in the home worsened, she got pregnant at the age of sixteen and never completed high school. Her father died in 1973. Shirley worked after Joe's death cleaning offices for the Ford Motor Company. Shirley was able to support her two youngest children and put them through school. She passed away in 2008.

 

Marsha went to work at the Frito-Lay snack plant in Allen Park, Michigan to support her son, and at twenty-two year old had another son. After eleven years at the Frito plant, the single mother of two came into her own when she was elected to lead Local 326 of the Bakery, Confectionary, and Tobacco Worker's Union, at the age of twenty-eight. Her election was notable on several counts because she was the first African American, the first woman, and the youngest person to ever serve as union president representing workers from Frito-Lay, Taystee Bakeries, Hostess Bakeries, Wonderbread, and many other affiliated bakers and confectioners in Detroit and beyond.

 

Her main cause was to fight concessions that management was trying to enforce throughout the industry. Marsha brought new blood and energy to the job. “The people who work in these shops pay my salary, put clothes on my back, and feed my kids. I have to represent their interests.”

 

The father of her second son was an on-air news personality on WABX, and Marsha spent much of her twenties as what she calls a “rock chick.” With her father’s country blues and gospel roots, her love for the Motown Sound, the British Invasion, and hard rock music on Detroit’s underground radio station expanded her musical appreciation ever wider.

 

Marsha, a voracious reader, loved to write since childhood, but it was not until the growth of the internet that her writing took off in an unusual way. Around 2000, while searching on eBay for a new watch, she struck up a conversation with a seller which lead to an invitation to join an “online wristwatch community.” She loved wristwatches and began to write about them on moderately and high-end, international connoisseur’s watch sites.

 

Marsha also began to expand on her writing and wrote about growing up in the Detroit music world. Much to her surprise, in the world of watches there were some record collectors too who recognized the names of her father’s record labels: JVB, Von, and Battle Records.

 

Marsha realized there was knowledge about her father’s recordings among blues collectors worldwide, but there was very little known about him. A fire grew within her to return Joe Von Battle’s name to public notice and gain him the recognition he deserved and was deprived of when his larger legacy went up in smoke during that horrible summer of 1967.

 

 


Marsha also began writing for a group dedicated to music headed by rock critic Dave Marsh, who had long encouraged her writing. In 2008, she started a blog entitled Marsha Music. After a short time, she encountered many blues scholars on The Real Blues Forum, headed by author Paul Vernon, who were estatic to read stories about Joe's Record Shop.

Marsha, like her father, struggled with alcohol but adopted a life of sobriety in 1987 at age thirty-three. She returned to her family home in Highland Park in 2000, but in a cruel irony it burned in an electrical fire in 2007. Marsha has been divorced twice and was widowed in 2018.

 

Through it all, she has written about her life in Detroit. Under the pen name of Marsha Music, she is an author whose essays, poems, and first-person narratives about Detroit's history appear in many notable anthologies such as Sonic Rebellion: Music as Resistance, Heaven Was Detroit, and A Detroit Anthology.


Marsha is on a crusade to bridge the gap between Detroit's past and its present. Lots of city history has happened in between, about which Marsha writes and eloquently speaks. Marsha wears dramatic clothing, hats, and turbans, striking a commanding presence wherever she appears. She is a much sought-after speaker with a forward-looking message.

 

"[Detroit] needs a restorative movement to heal what has happened here, as the working people of the town competed against themselves over the right to a good life. We have to share stories about the experiences of the past era. As we move forward in Detroit, there must be a mending of the human fabric that was rent. Small continual acts of reconciliation are called for here."


Marsha has appeared on HBO, The History Channel, and PBS. In 2012, she was awarded a Kresge Literary Arts Fellowship, and in 2015, the Knight Arts Challenge. In 2017, she was a narrator in the documentary 12th and Clairmount about the origins of Detroit's civil upheaval of July 23, 1967. Her poetry was commissioned for a narrative performance with the Detroit Symphony in 2015 and another for the Michigan Opera Theatre in 2020.


Marsha is currently completing a film project and book about her father. And if that wasn't enough, as of 2021, Marsha Battle Philpot began serving on the Board of Directors of the Detroit Institute of Arts.


In 2020, Marsha retired after a career with the Wayne County Third Circuit Court system of almost thirty years; currently, she lives in the Palmer Park district of Detroit. Her long and distinctive list of accomplishments and her dedication to public service have revived her father’s legacy as a Detroit music pioneer. Marsha’s achievements would make her parents proud. 


Before Berry Gordy There Was Joe Von Philpot Producing Records in Detroit 

The Detroitist by Marsha Music 

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Ottawa War Chief Pontiac (Obwandiyag) Attacks Fort Detroit

No images of Pontiac are known to exist. This engraving is from 1879.

During the French and Indian War (1754-1763) against the British, most of the Great Lakes Native American tribes allied themselves with the French, whom they regarded as brothers. When the British defeated the French in Quebec, New France (Canada) in 1760, control of Fort Pontchartrain was surrendered to British General Jeffery Amherst. The fort changed from a French trading post to an English military stockade with a strong military presence. The French fleur de lis was replaced with the British Union Jack flag, and the fort was renamed Fort Detroit.

French settlers and trappers developed relationships with their tribal neighbors. They hunted and trapped together, shared food, traded beaver pelts and Indian artifacts for European goods, intermarried, and collected their annual tribute from their Great White Father--French King Louis, the XV. A stipend was paid to the tribes for trapping and hunting rights on Indian land which drew Indians in large numbers to Fort Pontchartrain. There were several peaceful Indian encampments near the fort.

The new British commander General Amherst considered these payments bribery and discontinued them. Unlike the French, Amherst placed restrictions on trading gunpower and ammunition which the Indians needed to hunt so they could feed and clothe their families. To add insult to injury, Amherst made it quite clear to the tribal leaders that they were now British subjects living on British land.

Rather than treat the Indians like equals as the French had done, these Englishmen considered themselves superior by every measure. It was clear to tribal leaders that the British intended to drive the tribes from their ancestral lands and hunting grounds. With English rule, it was only a matter of time before the empire builders and the inevitable flood of aggressive settlers would overrun the land.

The Ottawa, Potawatomi, Huron, Ojibwa, Wyandot, and Chippewa formed a loose confederation to confront their new reality. Ottawa War Chief Pontiac rose to prominence among the Great Lakes tribes for advocating the overthrow of their white overlords. He was the most outspoken tribal leader in favor of driving the British from their land.

On April 27, 1763, Chief Pontiac held an Intertribal War Council ten miles south of Fort Detroit near where the Ecorse River spills into the Detroit River in present day Lincoln Park (Council Park). Over 500 Great Lakes Indians and the heads of nearby French settlements gathered. Chief Pontiac urged the tribes to join the Ottawas in a surprise attack on the fort. The overall strategy was for the tribes to breech the British forts in the Northwest Territory, slaughter the soldiers, and lay waste to the undefended settlements.

The attack on Fort Detroit by Frederick Remington.

The attack on Fort Detroit began under the cover of darkness on May 7, 1763. A war party of about 300 Ottawa, Potawatomi, and Ojibwa warriors approached the fort from the waterfront in 65 canoes and surrounded the stockade, but the garrison commander Major Gladwin was warned of the attack by an informer, so his soldiers laid in wait and repelled the attack. The fort remained under siege for the next 153 days.

When news of Pontiac's attack on Fort Detroit spread, his example was the spark that instigated widespread Indian uprisings throughout the Northwest Territory west of the Allegheny Mountains. On May 25th, Potawatomi warriors overwhelmed soldiers at Fort St. Joseph on Lake Michigan, while on June 2nd, the Chippawa captured Fort Michilimackinac in St. Ignace, Michigan killing most of the inhabitants. Pontiac's early successes won him prominence among the Great Lakes tribes and notoriety among the British.

By mid-June, Fort Detroit's supplies and munitions were running low. Major Gladwin sent an urgent appeal to Fort Pitt for emergency provisions and reinforcements. On July 29th, Captain James Dalyell broke the blockade of the fort by arriving at night with twenty-two barges, 260 Redcoat soldiers, several small cannon, and a fresh supply of provisions, ammunition, and gunpowder from Fort Niagara. As the flotilla made its way slowly upriver to Fort Detroit, warriors from a Wyandot and Potawatomi village opened fire on them killing fifteen Redcoats.

The day after Captain Dalyell's successful relief expedition, the young officer wanted to exact revenge for the attack and killing of his men. Dalyell asked his new commanding officer Major Gladwin for permission to lead a night attack on Pontiac's encampment located two miles from the fort. Against the major's instincts and better judgement, Gladwin approved the mission.

Redcoats in marching formation

At 2:00 a.m., a raiding party of 160 Redcoat infantrymen marched toward the Indian encampment two-abreast carrying rifles with fixed bayonets along a road now known as East Jefferson. Two oar-powered flatboats mounted with small cannons followed the soldiers along the shoreline for added firepower.

Pontiac was forewarned of the attack by sympathetic French settlers. His warriors set up several defensive embankments and hid behind the natural cover and wood piles. As the soldiers quietly marched toward them, the barking dogs of French settlers heralded their approach.

The Redcoats halted before the Parent's Creek Bridge at Captain Dalyell's command. Just before dawn, an advance guard of twenty-five soldiers made it halfway across the bridge when the Indians opened fire on them. The British surprise attack was a dismal failure. The gunboat crew fired their booming cannons towards the skirmish with little effect.

Dalyell rallied his troops several times to renew their attack, but each time they were repulsed. Dalyell ordered his troops to retreat towards a nearby French farmhouse for cover. A small party of Indians were inside the house and opened fire on the soldiers killing Dalyell and many others. The survivors fought their way back to the fort after six hours of tactical retreat.

Redcoats break formation

The British lost four officers and nineteen enlisted men with thirty-nine wounded. Four hundred Native Americans fought in the battle losing only seven warriors with twelve wounded. The dead soldiers were thrown into Parent's Creek, thereafter known as Bloody Run because its waters ran red that day. The battle occurred on the site of present day Elmwood Cemetery.

One eyewitness to the battle and its aftermath was teenager Gabriel Casses dit St. Aubin. His most vivid memory was seeing the severed head of Captain Dalyell stuck on a picket fence post. When Major Gladwin learned of the death and decapitation of Captain Dalyell, he offered a two-hundred pound bounty for the head of Chief Pontiac.

By September, Pontiac's loose tribal confederation was beginning to fall apart. The Potawatomi made peace and returned to their villages to help with the harvest and hunt wild game to provide for their families during the harsh winter months. Pontiac sent Major Gladwin a message that he was abandoning his siege and open to peace talks. The larger war continued through 1766.

When Pontiac was unable to persuade the Western tribes to join the rebellion and realized the French would not come to their aid, Chief Pontiac travelled to New York to negotiate an end to the frontier war. Though Pontiac's larger plan was successful--eight of eleven British forts fell--Pontiac and his warriors were not able to defeat Fort Detroit, which led to the chief's loss of stature. Fort Pitt and Fort Niagara also were able to hold out against Indian attacks as well.

British officials were keen to end the war because it was costing the Crown dearly in supplies and manpower. Not understanding the decentralized nature of Indian warfare, British Superintendent of Indian Affairs Sir William Johnson formally ended the war on July 25, 1766, with the signing of the Treaty of Oswego with Chief Pontiac.

When Pontiac agreed to peace talks, he claimed to hold more authority over the Intertribal Council than he actually held. This fueled resentment among the tribal leaders who felt the treaty was a capitulation. On May 10, 1768, Pontiac sent word to British officials that he was no longer recognized as chief by his people. He retired to Illinois to live peacefully with his relatives.

Unbeknownst to Pontiac, a Peoria Indian council in Illinois met secretly and agreed that the former chief was to be executed for an attack several years before on Black Dog, a Peoria chief. A Peoria warrior who was related to Black Dog clubbed Pontiac from behind and stabbed him to death on April 20, 1769, outside the French town of Cahokia, Illinois.

Murder of Pontiac

Historians note that Chief Pontiac was an Ottawa war chief who influenced a wider revolt against the British to drive Great Lakes Indians from their ancestral land. But how did Pontiac's name echo through history?

Famed British officer Captain Robert Rogers claimed to have met Pontiac in 1760 when he and his Rangers took control of Fort Pontchartrain from the French and again when he was a participant in the Battle of Bloody Run in 1763. Capitalizing on his war fame as an Indian fighter, Rogers wrote a play in 1765 named Ponteach (sic): The Savages of America, which became popular in Europe making Chief Pontiac the most famous American Indian of the eighteenth century.

Cadillac Establishes Fort Pontchartrain in 1701 

Friday, May 7, 2021

Before Berry Gordy There Was Joe Von Battle Producing Records in Detroit

Joe Von Battle in his Hastings Street record shop

J
oe Von Battle was born in 1915 in Macon, Georgia and moved during the Great Migration with his family to Detroit, Michigan. In his teens, he worked doing odd jobs in Detroit’s famous Eastern Market until he found work with Detroit Edison digging trenches and burying electrical lines. During much of World War II, Joe worked double shifts. One shift at the Hudson Motor Car Company and the other shift at the Chrysler Plant across the street. When the war ended, Joe was permanently laid off like many other African American workers, displaced by White veterans returning from the war.

Joe Battle vowed to be his own boss and never work for anyone again. He added Von for a middle name as a young man, emulating European film actor Erich Von Stroheim, who he admired. When he opened his record business, he realized it was helpful on his business cards, obscuring his African American ancestory. In 1945, a narrow grocery storefront was vacated at 3530 Hastings Street in Detroit’s Black Bottom neighborhood on the lower Eastside, Joe Von Battle stepped in and opened Joe’s Record shop.

Joe outside his store


In 1948, Joe Von Battle purchased a reel-to-reel tape recorder and made a makeshift recording studio in the back of his shop. There he recorded artists like John Lee Hooker; Washboard Willie; pianist Detroit Count, who recorded “Hastings Street Opera;” Tamp Red who recorded “Detroit Blues;” Louisiana Red, Memphis Slim, Kenny Burrell, and many other country blues musicians.

Joe Von Battle recorded the final songs and sounds of the people who migrated north for a better life. His shop specialized in records that appealed to African Americans from the rural South who left to work in the automobile or steel industries for a better life. Country blues traveled with them. Joe is believed by music historians to be the first African American record producer in the post war period recording on the JVB, Von, and Battle Records labels.

His record shop played host to Detroit’s itinerate blues musicians. Typically, the music was performed live by a singer with his guitar and maybe a washboard and a harmonica player for accompaniment. Country blues was raw and rooted in the struggle for survival in a world of inherited misery. It sung about poverty, loss, suffering, desertion, death, booze, and loneliness. Country blues had its feet firmly grounded to the earth and rural life.

 
Joe recorded another style of music with a hopeful spiritual message born out of the same misery—gospel music. Joe was most proud of the close to one-hundred sermons he recorded of legendary pastor C.L. (Clarence La Vaughn) Franklin at the original New Bethel Baptist Church on Hastings Street down from his record shop. On Sundays, Joe would broadcast Reverend Franklin’s sermons on speakers set up outside the shop, his storefront always attracted a crowd.

Probably the most precious recordings he ever recorded were eight hymns sung by Reverend Franklin’s fourteen-year-old daughter Aretha before she signed with Columbia Records in 1960 secularizing her music. When Aretha Franklin signed with Atlantic Records in 1966, she was paired with producer Jerry Wexler who helped her become the Queen of Soul.

Aretha Franklin performing


In 1956, the Federal government announced the construction of the National Interstate Highway System spelling doom for Hastings Street, the heart of Detroit’s African American business community and further down Hasting’s Street Paradise Valley, Detroit’s legendary blues and jazz entertainment district. The construction of I-375 was a useless 1.062-mile spur that ran parallel to I-75. When the Black business community was uprooted, the financial health of many successful African American entrepreneurs was cut short.

The transition prompted a Black diaspora to the 12th Street area on Detroit’s Westside creating overcrowding and increased racial tension in the city. The Black community was boxed in by real estate covenants and red lining restricting their free movement around the city and the greater Detroit area.

Joe Von Battle moved his record shop to 12th Street in 1960, but by that time there was a new sound dominating the radio and television airways of Detroit threatening his business. “There is a different generation now,” Joe told the Detroit Free Press. “All they want to buy is that Motown stuff with that beat, and they want to dance. Today, young disc jockeys won’t play the blues. They say it’s degrading,”

Berry Gordy brought a polished professionalism and aggressive promotion to his Gordy/Tamla/Motown record labels. The new urban sound was sleek, suave, and sophisticated appealing to a broader, younger, crossover audience. The content of the music changed from the tough realism of the country blues to lyrical, hard-driving rhythms and strong choral arrangements with a strong pop music flavor.

The modern male and female groups wore fancy, matching outfits and danced synchronized choreography to the music. The Motown sound was tailormade for television and radio, taking the new music from Detroit’s Westside to the rest of the country and the globe.

Not only did the music change, the record industry changed also. In the 1960s when the chain department stores established record departments, they began selling rhythm and blues singles and albums. Rhythm and blues entered the mainstream. Independent, specialty record shops could not compete. 

Then on July 23, 1967, as if to add insult to injury, 12th Street erupted with racial strife and conflagration. The first night Joe protected his store with a weapon but the second day he was ordered by police to evacuate the premises and allow the authorities to restore order. That took a week.

In the meantime, Joe’s business was looted, torched, and hosed down by the fire department. When Joe and his family were allowed to return to the record shop, the smell of charred wood and melted vinyl hung heavy in the air. Twenty years of tape-recorded blues history, Joe’s life work, went up in smoke or down the drain.

Looters oustside of Joe's shop in July 1967




                              

Joe’s daughter Marsha laments that “Some of the most significant voices in recorded history were on those melted and fire-soaked reel-to-reel tapes. Thousands of songs, sounds, and voices of the era—most never pressed into vinyl—were gone forever. I believe Daddy died that day. My father’s alcoholism gravely worsened after his life’s work and provision for his family was destroyed by looters and rioters.” Joe also suffered for years with Addison’s disease and died a broken man in 1973 at the young age of fifty-seven.

***

Marsha Battle Philpot—aka Marsha Music—wrote a biography about her father to document his music legacy. Marsha brought Joe Von Battle's story back to life in 2008 in her Marsha Music: The Detroitist blog. She writes about Detroit's African American history on her blog.

Marsha Battle Philpot also has published a beautifully written book of poetry and prose titled The Detroitist: An Anthology About Detroit dealing with the era of Detroit's white flight in the 1950s and 1960s and its impact on those left behind.

Marsha Music's Blog