Today we remember the late Joe Mangrum (March 29, 1856 – January 13, 1932). While many may not recognize the name, at one time “Blind Joe” Mangrum was possibly the best known musician to come out of the Jackson Purchase. He appeared on the Grand Ole Opry, played before the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and was a personal friend of humorist Irvin S. Cobb.
Joe Mangrum was born in Dresden, TN to James and Catherine Mangrum and spent his life playing the violin in West Tennessee and West Kentucky. It was said that at one time Mangrum knew over 5,000 compositions by memory. According to his obituary which appeared in the Carroll County Democrat, “He lost his sight when six weeks old. Playing the violin came to him almost naturally, and at 12 he was an accomplished musician. He never took a music lesson but the classics were as familiar to him as the song of the day. ‘I remember the first piece I learned to play,’ he said one day. ‘It was “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” I learned to play, “Listen to the Mocking Bird” by following a Mocking Bird across the square at Dresden.’ “
Mangrum lived in many places including Mayfield, KY, Cairo, IL, Paducah, KY and Nashville, TN and married Mary Elizabeth Stringer in October of 1915 in Paducah. He was known not only as a country and old-time fiddle player, but also as a classical musician which was said to have caused tension between him and Grand Ole Opry founder, George D. Hay, who differed from Joe on what was considered old-time music. Independent Grand Ole Opry historian Byron Fay noted on Mangrum , “He was a regular on the Grand Ole Opry from 1928-1932 and is one of the Opry’s earliest members, although they did not use the term at the time. His first appearance was on June 30, 1928 and his final Opry appearance was on January 16, 1932.”
In a 1976 interview with Rube Elrod and Everett Cummins, provided by the Kentucky Oral History Commission, Elrod notes that he learned a lot from Mangrum, playing with him in downtown Paducah as a child. He states that “Uncle Joe” often played on the streets of downtown and credited him as being a major influence on his playing style especially the numbers “Molly Darlin,” “Fisher’s Hornpipe,” and “Mockingbird.” He goes onto to say that, “He could play some deep notes!”
Mangrum was often accompanied by accordionist Fred Shivers. According to the Discography of American Historical Recordings, on October 6, 1928, the two recorded 5 songs for Victor in Nashville, TN. While three of them, “Mammoth Cave Waltz,” “the Rose Waltz,” and “Cradle Song,” were never released, we do have the great opportunity to hear, “Bill Cheatam,” and, “Bacon and Cabbage,” as provided here.
Joe Mangrum passed away on January 13, 1932 in Nashville, TN, but he is today remembered as one of the regions greatest musicians.
If you would like to learn more about Joe Mangrum and other Jackson Purchase musicians please visit us in the Local and Family History Room at the McCracken County Public Library.
- Nathan Lynn