Tuesday, July 1, 2014

"Waiting For the Robert E. Lee"

In 1912 a song was published that would cement a link between a 19th Century riverboat and Traditional Jazz. That song was Waiting For the Robert E. Lee by Lewis F. Muir and L. Wolfe Gilbert. It has been used to evoke a nostalgia for the Southern riverboat era on the Mississippi River and has been an exciting example of Dixieland music at it's finest.

Waiting For the Robert E. Lee was used in the first feature "All-Talking" musical film The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson.

The Robert E. Lee was a real riverboat that was built in 1866 and would reach the height of it's fame by taking part in a riverboat race with the Natchez that lasted from June 30 to July 4, 1870.

This is all the more interesting to the Yankee Jazz Beat because George A. Borgman's great grandfather Frank Wecker actually worked on this famous riverboat.

Frank Wecker
Frank was described as, "One of the best known local citizens of Owensboro, especially to those who have lived for years in the city." The March 26, 1905 article from the Owensboro Messenger continues. "He is, withall, a modest man, but deserves the distinction given above because of the many years he has lived here and varied experiences through which he has gone. It is probable that he can be said to have done more traveling than any other citizen in Owensboro."

Frank, "left Owensboro when a boy as a deck-sweep on a steamboat, but it was not long until he was assisting in the kitchen and later became an expert cook. It was as such that he spent many years on the great boats on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers." He saw, "the rivers of the central United States and every part of the Gulf of Mexico." As well as visiting, "the great military encampments held and spent a number of months in British Honduras."

Frank had an extreme love of music and served as a "drummer boy," from Kentucky during the Civil War. After the war he, "began his career in steamboating. He spent thirty years almost continually on boats. Much of this time was on the packet line between Henderson and Louisville, but much of the greater part of it was on the Mississippi and Southern rivers. He ran on the old Robert E. Lee with Captain J. W. Cannon. Many were the experiences he had during these steamboat days and it would take many columns in which to recite them."

The Robert E. Lee.
Captain John W. Cannon and Thomas P. Leathers the captain of the Natchez had a rivalry that can only be described as dramatic. Leathers prided himself of having the fastest riverboat in the Natchez and would race other boats using every dirty trick in the book to come out ahead. He would use barrels of lard in the boiler to give his boat an extra boost and would cut off other riverboats by veering into their paths. He even had been known to shoot cannon off in the direction of the competitors steamboats. He ruled as the king of the riverboats since about 1855 with an earlier version of the Natchez.

Captain J. W. Cannon
In preparation for the race Captain Cannon would take no chances and stripped the Robert E. Lee of every non-essential piece of metal, wood and luxury. Even the chandeliers came down.

Conversely, Captain Leathers, so sure of his boat's speed, didn't bother stripping the Natchez down. He, in fact, took the passengers denied passage on the Robert E. Lee, and loaded up with cargo. He hoped to win the race and make a hefty profit too.

Starting on June 30, 1870 from New Orleans on the Mississippi River at exactly 5 O' Clock, the two riverboats started the race! Almost immediately the Robert E. Lee with it's lightened load, crew and a handful of passengers bound for Cairo, Illinois took the lead.

Captain Thomas P. Leathers 
It took the Natchez minutes just to leave the harbor giving the Robert E. Lee a four minute lead. Hundreds of people along the shore watched the historic race and cheered as the two boats paddled up river. Needless to say that thousands of dollars were wagered on this one race that would been remembered a hundred years hence.

As the Natchez passed Baton Rouge at 8:30 PM the Lee was now six minutes ahead! Captain Leathers continued to make his stops, unloading passengers and cargo as fast as possible, but the Robert E. Lee made none and continued in the lead.

Barrels of pitch were thrown into the furnace of the Natchez to give the boat extra speed as Leathers berated his crew on the one hand and gave them shots of whiskey on the other. This tactic worked to a point because the Natchez continued to trail by only six minutes when the craft passed Natchez, Mississippi.

As the Robert E. Lee passed Vicksburg a steamboat, the Frank Pargaud, pulled alongside the Lee and tied together, long enough for the Lee to be resupplied with barrels of combustibles for the remainder of the race.

By the time the Robert E. Lee passed Memphis, Tennessee the steamboat was an hour ahead of Captain Leathers! Victory was in sight for Captain Cannon. However, disaster struck when the Lee made its one and only stop at Cairo, the steamboat hit bottom which caused the whole boat to shake.

It was mayhem for the Captain and crew. Members of the crew prayed and wept and others swore as the captain gave orders to turn this way and that  to no avail. Captain Cannon an experienced hardened captain told his pilot to put the boat in reverse.

Suddenly, with groans and scraping sounds emanating from the Lee the boat ripped free from the sandbar and they were off once again, but not before losing much of their lead. For now, the Natchez was back in view and steaming towards them with a fury.

As the distance narrowed between the racing steamboats, so too did the width of the river. As the Natchez caught up they were racing side-by-side until the two riverboats, in the narrowed waterway, collided with a hard crash.

One set of opposite passengers shook hands before the two behemoths pulled loose from each other and the Robert E. Lee managed to pull ahead and cut off the Natchez.

By the night of July 3rd the race was too close to call as the boats paddled towards St. Louis as fast as they could be made to go. Then as the night wore on a mighty fog rolled in which made sight impossible.

Captain Leathers moored the Natchez to wait out the fog. Whereas Captain Cannon threw caution and sense to the wind and continued on at a much slower speed towards the finish. Going was so bad that the Lee's crew had to use fathom lines to test the depths of the river as the riverboat proceeded through the fog. Then after only about an hour, they broke through the fog and journeyed into history.

Despite the arguments that the newer boat Natchez would have won IF it didn't stop for cargo and crew and IF it hadn't moored for six hours while the fog lasted, the American public accepted Captain John W. Cannon and the Robert E. Lee the official winner, arriving at St. Louis six and a half hours before the Natchez.
Illustration of the Robert E. Lee burning on Sept 30, 1882.
From then on the Robert E. Lee was a celebrity known as the "Monarch of the Mississippi." On September 30, 1882,  only thirty miles north of New Orleans, the Lee caught fire in the middle of the night and twenty-one people perished. Thus ended the career of the Robert E. Lee which faded into history to come out the other side into legend.

Songs about the Robert E. Lee and the steamboat race would become popular jazz tunes in the years to come. Waiting For the Robert E. Lee,  The Natchez and the Robert E. Lee and Sailing on the Robert E. Lee are three examples.

The Natchez and the Robert E. Lee.
Frank Wecker survived his steamboating days. He joined the Owensboro military group known as the Monarch Rifles, as a drummer, and took part in the Centennial Celebration of the Surrender at Yorktown in the Fall of 1881 in Washington, DC.

The love for music that Frank Wecker had, was passed down to his great grandson George A. Borgman who listened to, loved, studied, played and wrote about it all of his life.

According to Frank's obituary in 1908 there was a story, "illustrative of Wecker's love of music... that occurred while he was tending bar for Theodore Washburn on Frederica Street, near the river. A brass band was in town. Possibly it was a circus band. Anyhow, Wecker followed it leaving the bar to tend itself. He did not come back the next day -- nor the next. About a year passed, when one day Wecker walked in hung his coat on the hook and faced a regular customer of the house. 'How will you have it this time, Colonel -- straight or toddy?' And he went about the performance of the duties of the position just as though he had merely stepped out for lunch."

Four years after Frank's death Lewis F. Muir composed the music for and L. Wolfe Gilbert the words for, Waiting For the Robert E. Lee. Gilbert was just starting out in the composing world, but after Al Jolson performed the song for the first time at a Sunday evening New York Winter Garden concert, Gilbert's career took off. The song would even make the top three ragtime flavored tunes in the United Kingdom in 1913.

Turk Murphy playing Waiting For the Robert E. Lee!
Collins & Harlan recorded Dec. 13, 1912.

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