Sometime in the late 1950s or early 1950s a crime was committed in Mount Airy. Specifically, a crime involving the First Baptist Church on North Main Street.
I first learned of this crime from an eye-witness. A person who, though not directly guilty, might be considered an accomplice. For this reason, the name has been changed to protect the not entirely innocent.
Summer days, long and hot, filled with the sound of cicadas and the companionship of friends, are the magical backdrop for many people’s memories of their teenage years. No school to take up the day. Possibly chores but at some point, there is likely to be some free time to hang out with friends while munching on snacks provided by Mother, perhaps guzzling some sweet tea or an ice-cold soda.
On this particular day, as related by my informant (we’ll call her Bettie Sue), she and her older brother were lounging on the front porch with some friends.
The chimes of First Baptist Church rang out across the neighborhood. Right here is where the criminal activity was first conceived.
They knew that the chimes were actually a recording played on a speaker each hour. They knew the church, like most churches and many houses at the time, was not locked.
Wouldn’t it be groovy to change the record to something more hip? Wouldn’t it be a gas!? It was agreed by some assortment of the gathered youth that someone would climb the stairs to the top of the tower and do just that, Bettie Sue told me.
When the next hour struck, instead of the soaring notes of “I’ll Fly Away” or “Because He Lives,” the town was startled on that hot July day, when the entirely unexpected snarl of Elvis Presley rang out singing the “Mean Woman Blues” from the 1957 movie, “Loving You.”
The kids laughed so hard they had tears running down their faces when Bettie Sue’s mother popped through the screen door saying the phone had started ringing off the hook. She ordered the lot of them into the house and she closed the door behind them all before giving in to her own laughter.
Now, I’ve been writing for newspapers and magazines for nearly a quarter century. One of the principal rules that was drilled into me by my editors is any story needs to be verified by an independent source.
And so it was that I have not shared that story, fun as it was to hear and sure as I was of my source. It was not the sort of story that would be reported in the newspaper or be mentioned in other records I have at my disposal and I hadn’t lived here in order to be a witness myself.
But a few weeks ago I received confirmation of that story in an email from a Mount Airy native living elsewhere now. Steve Burke, whose father had been good friends with Joe Jackson of the trip down the Yadkin River to the Atlantic, sent me a lovely email complimenting the article about the journey.
In the email he related a funny story his parents had often told of a lazy afternoon spent visiting the Jackson’s home on Taylor Street when an Elvis Pressley song blasted across the neighborhood from the tower of the First Baptist Church.
Music has been an important part of life in Surry County from the earliest days as evidenced by the number of musical instruments handed down through families, some housed in the collection of the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History.
After Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, it allowed the average person to experience music on a different scale. Victorian and early 20th century families of means in this area added phonographs and gramophones (that often cost as much as a Model T) to their parlors where they held places of honor next to pianos and violins.
They were an early status symbol and often treated as just another musical instrument. Abernethy’s Cash Pharmacy, in Elkin, sold them as Edison and his competitors raced to bring the cost down. In order to increase demand, Abernethy’s sponsored “Edison Concerts” as the Elkin Tribune wrote in April 1919.
“An Edison phonograph accompanied by the voice of Miss Betsy Lane Shepherd, under the direction of Miss Dorothy Hoyle, in music’s recreations, held the large audience for an hour and a half in a perfect maze of delight. The musical strains of the phonograph and voice of the singer were so closely blended that it was impossible to distinguish one from the other.”
Recorded music went on to be pivotally important to folks in Mount Airy as Ralph Epperson made a treasure trove of recordings of old-time, gospel, and blue grass music, a collection that remains unmatched, and first Andy Griffith rose to fame on the popularity of his comedy record “What It Was, Was Football” and then Yvonne Vaugh, better known as Donna Fargo, became one of largest selling country and pop recording artists of the 1970s.
Many of us had our favorite records. I played my mom’s collection of musical soundtracks relentlessly and I literally wore out my Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band albums. But I think my favorite story is going to remain the crime committed that hot summer day 50-some years ago, when Elvis rocked the town thanks to some bored teenagers and an unlocked door.
Kate Rauhauser-Smith is the visitor services manager for the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History with 22 years in journalism before joining the museum staff. She and her family moved to Mount Airy in 2005 from Pennsylvania where she was also involved with museums and history tours. She can be reached at KRSmith@NorthCarolinaMuseum.org or by calling 336-786-4478 x228