That bluesy old old piano song has a name that always makes people laugh. First recorded in May, 1930, by East Knoxville singer Leola Manning, it’s better known now than it was then. Just in the last 20 years, it has made it onto at least three CD collections. A couple of local performers have interpreted it for nightclub audiences. YouTube has posted it more than once, and it’s gotten a few thousand listens. And, just lately, an international effort by Germany’s Bear Family Records is setting out to preserve that song and dozens of other recordings made at the St. James Hotel in downtown Knoxville.
Of the hundreds of recordings associated with that interesting moment in popular-music history, this is the title that jumps out at you:
“Satan is Busy in Knoxville.”
It’s not about vice, as many chortlingly assume. After some nervous laughter, you may begin to wonder what it really is about. As it turns out, it’s a serious song, describing in some detail two apparently unrelated murders. The singer was a woman who made her living working in a school cafeteria, a young mother reacting to these horrors afoot in her hometown.
“In Nineteen and Thirty, in the beginning of the year, so many people was made sad,” it opens.
The singer, who also wrote the song, was one Leola Manning. Although she lived a long life in Knoxville, few paid much attention to her music until after her death. I first heard of her from maverick Texas performer Steve Earle, who had encountered her music while on tour in Europe, and became fascinated with her lyrics and her rare voice.
The available recordings are scratchy, and the words aren’t enunciated with radio-announcer precision anyway, but here’s how it’s been transcribed:
“When Frankling was out, earning his bread, no fear or troubles he had;
He was driving in the sun along the road
And a robber jumped on his running board
Who murdered this man nobody knows
But the Good Book says they’ve got to reap just what they sow
‘Cause Satan is so busy in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Not many hours later, a colored woman her name was True
She was found with her throat cut
From ear to ear below the Mountain View School….”
Those details are so specific I’ve always been convinced they described real crimes. Years ago, taking the opening line literally, I combed over both daily papers through the month of January, 1930, and found nothing resembling those incidents. Discouraged, I put it aside.
As if happens, I just didn’t look quite far enough. English blues aficionado John Newman solved the mystery from over 4,000 miles away.
I’ve never met Mr. Newman, but we’ve corresponded over the years concerning other Knoxville musicians. By comparing 1930 death certificates, available via ancestry.com, he found a couple of names that sounded plausibly familiar to “Frankling” and “True,” as music historians have transcribed the murder victims’ names, over the years.
On ancestry.com and other sources accessed through the Nottinghamshire Public Library, Newman learned, Lefford Franklin and Amanda Toole died in Knoxville in February, 1930, hours apart, both victims of murder. Newman thought maybe they inspired the lyrics to Manning’s song. He sent me the death dates. Naturally, I looked them up in the local papers.
Lefford Franklin, 28, originally from Jefferson City, was a deliveryman for the Swan Bread Co. which was, along with Kern’s, one of Knoxville’s big bakeries. He was finishing a day’s work, on Saturday evening, Feb. 22, dropping off $3.20 of bread at the W.E. Holland & Son’s corner grocery, on College Street at Eubanks. (Now, I think, that’s the quiet corner of College and Iredell Street.)
Franklin’s emergence as a bread-truck driver may call for a reinterpretation of the song’s reference to “bread.” Although it’s hard to be sure what verb Leola uses, he wasn’t just earning his bread, he was delivering it.
As Franklin was leaving Holland’s store, a man jumped on the truck’s running board, entered the cab, and in a struggle with the driver, pulled a .44 pistol and shot Franklin twice so close that it burned Franklin’s clothes, piercing his heart. The truck hit a wall and turned over. A stray shot hit a Knoxville College building. After leveling his gun at a witness who fled down a service alley, the killer vanished.
The assailant was described as a black man, and the police first picked up a neighborhood white man who had blacked his face with burnt cork, but then released him and arrested an actual black man. Whether that man was convicted, I don’t know. The book that might direct us to his trial is missing from the Knox County Archives.
Newman’s assumption that what everybody thinks sounds like “True” might actually be “Toole” bears out. Listening to one of the conveyed versions of the recording, I think I can even hear the L at the end. And, of course, it rhymes with “Mountain View School.”
An Amanda Toole lived on Jasper Street, just south of Dandridge Avenue. At 42, she was a woman who did as she pleased. She was married, but also entertained gentleman callers. The day she disappeared, she’d been drinking.
A pedestrian along a path found her body in a wooded area behind the Mountain View School, the brick elementary school at the corner of Dandridge and a since-erased street called Crowder. It was a particularly awful scene. Later, another pedestrian found the bloodied “white-handled razor of fine quality” not too far away.
Her husband was detained for questioning, then released. Later, another man was arrested for the murder, but on the plea of defense attorney Webster Porter, who was also editor of the black community’s East Tennessee News, he was released a week later. It was “a crime against justice and freedom to hold him a week without a hearing,” he said, persuading a judge.
Whether justice was done in either case, I don’t know. But we do now know that Leola Manning’s “Satan is Busy in Knoxville” is as much a piece of nonfiction journalism as was her other best-known song. “The Arcade Building Moan” described a fatal fire on Union Avenue just a few weeks after those murders.
Within 10 weeks of when they all happened she wrote her songs about these horrors and recorded them at Brunswick-Vocalion’s project at the St. James Hotel, on Wall Avenue near Market Square.
Her recordings were released on 78 rpm records, but didn’t get far. Leola Manning’s six sides sold an unknown number of copies, to be heard by an unknown number of people, in that first year of the Great Depression.
She had enough of recording, went home to East Knoxville, and devoted the rest of her life to church and family. She apparently never recorded again, and in fact never told her family that she’d ever cut a record. But she stayed in touch with local musicians. Eccentric jazz fiddler Howard Armstrong knew her well. And here’s a coincidence. Among her local favorites were the famous black gospel group Swan’s Silvertones, who first started singing together in the late 1930s, and appealed to her religious sensibilities. They got their name from their sponsor, Swan’s Bakery.
Leola Manning married Eugene Ballinger, a guitarist she sometimes worked with—some people think that’s him accompanying her and the piano player on the record–and for the next 60 years was known not as a singer, but as a loving mother and a guardian angel of the homeless and desperate along Central Street.
She died in Knoxville about 20 years ago, apparently unaware that people had just begun listening again to the music she made so long ago.
Satan’s been plenty busy in Knoxville in the 84 years since Leola Manning made that memorable recording, but there’s been no one to remark about it quite like she did.