The African American Folklorist: The World of Porter Parrish Grainger

May 27, 2021

Street signs mark the intersection of State St. and 2nd Ave. in Bowling Green's Shake Rag neighborhood, where Porter Parrish Grainger once lived.
Credit Lamont Jack Pearley

As a folklorist, I’m constantly searching for notable African American stories in and around Kentucky.

In my more recent research, I decided to look specifically in the Bowling Green area.

To my surprise, I found the name of an American composer and pianist that many people in the Bowling Green area are unfamiliar with: Porter Parrish Grainger. 

Editors note: A previously aired version of this story notes Grainger's last notable work as coming out in 1939. He published his last song in 1943.


Grainger was a Vaudeville Blues composer working with legends such as Fats Waller, Bessie Smith, Mamie Smith and Lady Day herself, Billie Holiday. His career as an accomplished composer, playwright and publisher spanned about two and a half decades, even writing and arranging music for ethnographer and folklorist Zora Neale Hurtsons’ play From Sun to Sun.

 

What may be the most amazing part of his story, however, starts on the corner of Second Ave. and State St. in Bowling Green. That's the heart of Shake Rag, a historic Black community with a rich history.

 

Grainger grew up in the home of James and Mattie Covington, who built The Southern Queen Hotel, a place where legendary Black musicians such as Ray Charles, Chuck Berry, Memphis Slim, and others stayed as they traveled the Chitlin Circuit. 

 

The story of Porter Parrish Grainger, like many other African Amercicans who’ve made significant contributions, tends to fall to the wayside, taking with them the connection to places such as Shake Rag.

 

The African American Folklorist looks to continue the research and presentation on Grainger, his family, and the astonishing story of Shake Rag. Be sure to follow as we share these stories. 

Below is a partial transcription of the episode:

[Ain't Nobody's Business I Do by Billie Holiday]

Lamont Jack Pearley: The song you just heard was sung by Billie Holiday. However, it was written by Bowling Green native Porter Parish Grainger. I first came across Grainger while researching notable black folks from Bowling Green. Interestingly enough, despite him working with legends like Holiday, Bessie Smith, and Fats Waller, I couldn't find much information readily available. So I went to the Helms-Cravens Libraries at WKU.

 

Oddly enough, it states that on his WWI draft card registration, he listed his occupation as a composer of songs, so this is something that he knew he was going to do. This is something that he's been doing, and obviously very serious about.

 

[Just Thinkin' by Viola McCoy]

 

Lamont Jack Pearley: Grainger played piano on that song. At the library, I found old records that started to put Grainger’s story all together, including a document from 1908 that showed his Kentucky residence.

 

So I'm standing on the corner of Second Avenue and State Street, in the heart of Shake Rag.

Grainger's story took him from Shake Rag to Chicago, where he solidified himself as a professional musician. By 1924, he and his writing partner Bob Ricketts, were working from a New York office located in what's now known as Times Square. Once established, legendary musicians began contracting Grainger as music director, arranger, and accompanying pianist on several recordings and productions throughout the 1920s and 30s. That includes writing for anthropologists and ethnography. Zora Neale Hurston's musical From Sun to Sun and Mamie Smith's 1929 film Jailhouse Blues.

 

[Jailhouse Blues by Mamie Smith]

 

Grainger's last notable work came out in 1939. From there, his story gets kind of murky. His WWII draft card notes him living as a boarder in a house in 1942 in Harlem. There are conflicting accounts over when he died, but records found show him passing in Pittsburgh in 1948. He's buried in the same cemetery as famed playwright August Wilson, who actually based characters around people Grainger knew and worked with in real life, showing the impact of Grainger's compositions.