Thank you Hurricane Laura for changing our travel itinerary. Because of you, we spent a day in Nashville before getting back on track. We love visiting cities but held back during COVID. Finally, armed with masks, we could not pass up a day of visiting one of the most interesting cities in the country. There are a lot of things that strike me about Nashville, not the least of which is the music. And no doubt, the music or really, the history of the music took precedence while visiting the Music City. But buried among the nostalgia of the Grand Old Opry and the many entertainers associated with it, were three stories of three women that stood out for me – three women who, in some way changed the face of Nashville and even the entire country.
After a filling breakfast from Rise Southern Biscuits and Righteous Chicken, we walked the uncluttered downtown streets and found ourselves standing in front of the iconic Ryman Auditorium. The Ryman opened as the Union Gospel Tabernacle in 1892 and while it was designed as a house of worship, it was often leased out for nonreligious entertainment events to stay afloat. In 1904, along came an enterprising widow and mother who was working as a stenographer, had recently finished business school and relocated to the fast-growing city of Nashville. To make ends meet, Lula C. Naff began helping a colleague book speaking engagements, concerts, etc. at the newly named Ryman Auditorium. Ahead of her time in 1914, Naff made event booking her fulltime job and in 1920, she became the Ryman’s official manager.
To avoid initial prejudices as a female executive in a male-dominated industry, Lula C. Naff used the name L.C. Naff professionally. Naff gained a reputation for battling local censorship groups who threatened to ban many performances deemed too risqué. She had the ability to book shows with world-renowned entertainers including W.C, Fields, Charlie Chaplin and Doris Day. The Ryman was Nashville’s largest indoor gathering place and Naff managed to keep it in the forefront of the city’s awareness. Not only did Naff stand up against censorship, but she also snubbed Jim Crow and provided a diverse range of entertainment that sometimes was enjoyed by integrated audiences in a period of “Whites Only”.
In 1943, Naff saw a good thing and arranged for the Grand Ole Opry to begin broadcasting from the Ryman on June 5, 1943. And there, it originated every week for almost 31 years thereafter with every show sold out. Lula Naff was named Manager Emeritus upon her retirement in 1955 and passed away at the age of 90 five years later. Given the nickname, “The Mother Church of Country Music”, the Ryman Auditorium became a National Historic Landmark in 2001 for its influential role in country music.
Enjoy this slideshow of downtown Nashville, taken during our guided walking tour that included Printers Alley and the Woolworths, site of the lunch counter sit-ins of the 60s.
During the same year that Naff passed away, Hattie Louise ‘Tootsie’ Bess purchased a bar called Mom’s. The old honky tonk shared an alley way with the Ryman Auditorium and was notorious for the Ryman entertainers who snuck away for a drink before, during and/or after a show.
One day, Bess hired a painter to give the 3-story bar a fresh look. Later, she came back and was surprised to see the building painted orchid purple. Instead of demanding the bar be repainted more appropriately, Bess instead renamed it to ‘Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge’ which to this day is orchid purple.
Many a songwriter including Willie Nelson, Patsy Cline, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings and Hank Williams played at Tootsie’s to get their work in front of other performers. And many luckless writers and pickers were graced by Tootsie’s generosity in the form of $5 or $10 bills slipped into a pocket. Apparently, Tootsie had a cigar box behind the counter full of IOUs from hungry artists. Opry performers got together at the end of each year to pay Tootsie. In 1978 after Tootsie’s passing, she was buried in an orchid gown and placed in an orchid-colored casket. On November 8, 2009, Hattie Louise ‘Tootsie’ Bess (herself a singer and comedian) was inducted in the Music City’s Walk of Fame.
Enjoy this slideshow from our walk down Broadway’s music district.
But of all the influential women of Tennessee, there was one the stood out more than all the others. This fact came to light as we stood in front of the Hermitage Hotel, built in Beaux-arts style in 1910. The hotel is yet another National Historic Landmark, designated so about one week before our visit. This time, not for its influence on country music, but rather on the right of women to vote. In 1920, as one of Nashville’s leading hotels and a block away from the capitol, the Hermitage became the focal point for the nation.
By the summer of 1920, 35 of the necessary 36 states had ratified the amendment and Tennessee became the Suffragists last, best hope for ratification before the 1920 presidential election. Tennessee’s governor called a special session of the General Assembly on August 9 to consider the issue. Pro- and anti-suffrage activists (the Suffs and the Antis) descended upon Nashville with intent to influence the legislature. For six weeks, the Hermitage Hotel was filled beyond capacity with Suffs, Antis and journalists. All eyes were on Nashville.
The resolution passed easily in Tennessee’s State Senate, while both sides lobbied desperately for the House of Representatives votes. It became known as the ‘War of the Roses’, where legislators favoring the ratification wore yellow (handed out by the Suffs) and those opposed wore red (handed out by the Antis). The intense lobbying worked on both sides because twice, the Tennessee House members voted 48 to 48 to table the motion to concur with the Senate action ratification decision.
On August 18, 1920, a call for a third vote on the original motion was made, assuming it would again be defeated by the same tie vote. The House’s youngest legislator at the age of 24 was Harry T. Burn from a little town called Niota. Burn came into the votes with a red rose on his lapel and voted ‘Nay’ twice to table the motion prior to the third vote. Originally, Burns supported the suffragists but was pressured by his party leaders and constituents telling him his district was overwhelmingly against woman suffrage. Burns began the voting process siding with them.
A third roll call commenced and five votes later, landed on Harry T. Burn. Tucked away in Harry’s suit jacket pocket under the red rose was a letter delivered that morning from Pheobe ‘Febb’ Burn, his mother. Among a few stories from her farm, Febb wrote the following,
“Hurrah and vote for Suffrage and don’t keep them in doubt.
With lots of love, Mama”
Knowing very well what he had to do, Burns said ‘Aye’ and pulled off his red rose. The suffrage vote had passed the Tennessee House 49-47 and Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the 19th amendment which became law ensuring the right to vote could not be denied based on sex.
In the case of Harry T. Burn, the significance of a mother’s influence on her son cannot be overstated. Since 1848, women had organized and fought for suffrage at the national level. It was an extremely difficult battle fought by thousands of women who literally put their lives on the line by enduring violence and incarceration. So it is amazing to think that the amendment’s passage came down to one mother’s gentle but forthright nudge toward her son that made all the difference in the world.
Thank you Lula Naff, Tootie Bess and Febb Burn.
One last note, we also visited the Musicians Hall of Fame Museum for a walk down nostalgia lane. Here are a few photos from that visit.