(interview recorded by Bill Thompson on 4/18/04)

Milton Brown’s plaque says:

The Texas Western Swing Hall of Fame
April 22, 1989
Milton Brown 1903 - 1936
and His Musical Brownies
A Giant in Western Swing.
A True Innovator and Stylist in the music he would be remembered for.
He combined jazz piano, twin fiddles and the amplified steel guitar for a sound not heard before.
He was truly a genius in a field that was just being born.
Milton and His Brownies laid the groundwork for Western Swing music.

Roy Lee Brown’s plaque:

May 15, 1999
The Texas Western Swing Hall of Fame proudly inducts
Western Swing historian, guitarist, vocalist and author, Roy Lee has done his part in keeping the musical style developed by his brother Milton alive and well.   His bands, the Junior Brownies and the Musical Brownies, have always represented his musical range from the Thirties and Forties to the current.   Now it’s Roy Lee’s turn for induction.

Wanna Coffman’s plaque:

May 17, 2003

The Texas Western Swing Hall of Fame proudly inducts
After playing house parties and radio programs with Derwood Brown, Wanna joined the Musical Brownies Band as an original Brownie.  He played “slap style” bass fiddle, the first in Western music.  He gets credit for that “Brownie Beat”.  He recorded with the Brownies from 1934 to 1937 and later played with Ocie Stockard’s Wanderers.  We proudly induct this swing pioneer into the Western Swing Hall of Fame.

Back when they first started, people called these string bands “hillbilly bands”, “fiddle bands”, “country bands” - a number of different names.  Nobody had come up with “Western Swing” until Spade Cooley in the Forties was going in California.   His manager was trying to get a phrase to publicize Spade Cooley, so he said “Spade Cooley, King of Western Swing.”  As far as I know, that’s the first time the term “Western Swing” was used, and it stuck.   Everybody started calling it Western Swing.  In Texas, a lot of people call it “Texas Swing” instead of Western Swing.   It’s the same thing.   I guess they call it that because Texas is where it started: in Fort Worth, Texas at Crystal Springs Ballroom.

I did several numbers on a CD that’s out called “A Salute to the Heroes of Texas Swing”.   I do “My Mary” and “The Eyes of Texas”.   Rodney Moag, who produced it, sings harmony with me.   I sing the first verse, and Rodney sings harmony with me on the second verse.  On the Brownies recording, Milton sang the first verse and Derwood sang harmony with him on the second verse.  We tried to copy the Brownies as closely as possible.    Johnny Gimble and Randy Elmore played the twin fiddle on my tunes, besides each taking rides.  I did four songs.   He’s going to put another one out, and the other two tunes are going to be on that one.

(The CD was released in 2002 on Tex-Trax Records TTX003D.   It is a “Salute to the Honorees” of the Hall of Fame.

Another CD is “Dance Halls and Last Calls”.    There’s a number of artists on that one.  They included my recording of “Beale Street Mama”.

“Dance Halls and Last Calls” - A Collection of Dance Hall Classics.
New Braunfels Museum of Art and Music (2002)

There is also a book by the same name by Geronimo Trevino III.
Republic of Texas Press.  It has a lot of pictures of the old dance halls of Texas, including Crystal Springs.


I don’t know where that tune came from.   Bob Wills gave his father credit for it, but it may have actually come over on the Mayflower!  Most of our music came from something earlier anyway.  But I believe the first name of it was “Charma” or something like that.  Then when Bob came to Fort Worth and met Milton and Derwood and they started playing together, Bob played that tune, but they were singing it as “Take Me Back to Texas”.   When I was a kid, that’s the only way I ever heard it.   Then later on, after Bob got real popular and gone out to California, their headquarters was in Tulsa, Oklahoma.   So they decided to change the name to “Take Me Back to Tulsa”.  That’s the way most people know the song nowadays.  I heard Bob tell the story of it on a videotape that was made at a college where he and Johnny Gimble and some of the other fiddle players and musicians were playing.


Back in 1934 or 1935, when the home phonograph recording units were coming out, some fellow had one and recorded Milton announcing his dance dates on his radio program.   He recorded it on that little disk and sent it to Milton.  Milton brought it home, and it had to have a special needle to play it.   We played it around the house there.

I can’t remember it verbatim, but the announcer said something to this effect:  “Now, here’s Milton Brown…” It was like he was introducing Milton as a speaker to an audience.   Then Milton said, “Well, thank you, Marshall Pope”  (or whoever the announcer was).   “Good Evening, Ladies and Gentlemen.   It’s a pleasure indeed to come before you to make this little announcement, folks.   Tonight we’re going to be at (some certain place).  Thursday night we’re going to be at (another place).”  Anyway, he gave 3 or 4 dates of places they were going to be in the future.  We played that record until it wore out.  It stayed around the house until it finally disappeared.  I don’t know what happened to it.  But that was the first home recorder that I knew of.

That was like the one they found over in Dallas that somebody’s uncle had recorded.    In 1934, this man had been searching for his niece’s singing on the radio, and they picked up Milton and the Brownies, and they recorded “Sonny Boy”, which Milton had just recorded in 1934.

Transcriptions were just coming in.   Milton and the Brownies were an independent band.  They weren’t backed by a company like Burrus Mill and Elevator Company or Bewley Mills.   They made it on their own.  The Mills had set up a studio and were able to do these transcriptions as soon as they came in.    They could transcribe several programs at once, and then those bands could go on the road and be gone days at a time.  Then when it was time for their radio program, they would play these transcription records and it sounded just like they were in the studio.  But Milton and the Brownies didn’t have that privilege, because they had to be back at the radio station the next day for their noon or 1 o’clock program.

So they couldn’t travel beyond a certain radius, in order to get back to Fort Worth in time for their daily radio program.   Back then, communications were bad and the roads were terrible.  Automobiles wouldn’t run as fast.   Unless you lived back then and witnessed it, you can’t imagine how bad it was.  The roads were crooked and mostly unpaved.    All my people were from Stephenville, Texas, but I was born in Fort Worth lived in Fort Worth all my life.    When we would go up and visit my grandmother and other relatives in Stephenville, it was about 70 miles.  Now it’s about 60 miles, because they have straightened the roads out.  But we would leave Fort Worth at 8 o’clock in the morning, and it would be 2 o’clock in the afternoon before we would get up to our relatives’ house in Stephenville.  That’s how bad the roads were and that’s how slow the cars went.   You couldn’t go too fast because the roads were too rough, and too winding.   They weren’t paved, a lot of them, and sometimes you’d get stuck, or have flats - there’s just not any comparison to today’s driving.

The Brownies would not have made any studio transcription disks.   If they had to travel further than one day’s drive, the station would put substitute another program for theirs.

I know in 1935, I was traveling with them, fixing strings for Derwood.   It was August of 1935.   We went to Childress, and we spent the night there, so they couldn’t come back the next day and play their radio program.  So the radio station had to make do with something else - I don’t know what they did.   So we spent the night in the Childress Hotel after they played that night.  The next morning we went down to the café to eat breakfast, and that’s when we picked up the paper and it had the headline that Wiley Post and Will Rogers had been killed in a plane crash.   I didn’t know who Wiley Post was, but I knew who Will Rogers was, because I had heard him on the radio.

After we ate breakfast there at the café, we went back to the hotel for a little while, and then we went to Vernon, which was back closer to Fort Worth, and they played at the Log Cabin there in Vernon the next night.   Then after the dance, the man that owned the Log Cabin and his wife cooked up a big batch of fried chicken with all the trimmings, and fed the band before we went back to Fort Worth.   Of course they had to back on the air at noon the next day.  But they missed that one day of being on the radio.

But that wasn’t very often - the radio station didn’t like for them to be off because they had so many spot announcements.  They didn’t have any one advertising sponsor; they had spot announcements like the commercials are on TV now.  Sometimes when they were on KTAT they would be on for an hour or an hour and a half.  But after they went on WBAP, all they were allowed was 15 minutes.  That’s all the time they allowed the Chuck Wagon Gang or any of those live programs on WBAP.   Of course, WBAP got out a lot farther because it was more powerful.   That’s when Milton started getting mail from Arkansas and Oklahoma and places like that.   Right before he had his accident, he had booked a date up in Oklahoma, but he never did carry it out because he passed away.  Derwood never did go up there - I don’t know why.

Milton was also fixing to leave Fort Worth.  He was fixing to go to Houston or somewhere, and eventually he would have wound up in California and no telling where, because his popularity was climbing like mad.  After he passed away, that’s when Bob Wills made his surge.

Milton and the Brownies had been slated to appear in a Gene Autry film, “O Susannah”, but after Milton’s death, they got the Light Crust Doughboys to go out there and do it.  I read where Gene Autry said that they usually tried to get some local musical talent from back in Texas when they would do a western with music like that.   Milton and the Brownies were slated for a lot of things, but after his death, they just didn’t happen.

Milton did his own booking, managing, everything.  He didn’t hire anyone else to do it.  As soon as Bob Wills started down in Waco, he got Mr. Mayo to manage the band.  But Milton never used a manager.  A lot of people see that picture that was made at Crystal Springs, and it’s got Papa Sam Cunningham and the picture shows him as “Manager”.   But that’s not manager of the Brownies - that’s manager of Crystal Springs, because Papa Sam owned that.   His son Baby drove the Crystal Springs bus.  After Milton left Crystal Springs, he had his own bus driver; Peach McAdams was the first one.

I traveled with the Brownies to their dates, but that time in Childress was the only time we spent the night anyplace.   They did most of their sleeping on the bus.  The first time I went with them, in August of 1935, I was 14 years old, and we went to Palestine.  We played a Lodge Hall upstairs, and that’s the first time I went with them to fix strings for Derwood.  We’d go to Waco - they played about 5 different places in Waco.  They played The Mineral Plunge in Waxahachie or Corsicana - it’s gone now, I don’t know when it left.  They played the Oak View Inn in Dennison.  They’d play down at a place between Meridian and Cransford Gap or whatever that other town was.  It was out in the country, and a Swedish guy owned it.  When I was going with them, it was in the summertime of course, because school was out.  So one night, they took an intermission and I walked outside - it was hot.  This was before air conditioning, so I walked outside to get some fresh air.   I was fooling around outside, cooling off, and I happened to notice a flicker of light behind the dance hall, so I said “I wonder what that is?”  I walked over to see what it was, and they had a bar set up back there, and they were selling booze by candlelight!   And that was a dry county!  And of course, you would go into a dry county, and there were bootleggers everywhere.  People got their booze whether they sold it outright or not.

I would restring Derwood’s guitar whenever he would break a string, which was very often.  Derwood broke a lot of strings.   That’s why they had to carry a young man along with them.   I was just one of many that went with them.  I only went with them for a month or two at a time, in the summer of ‘35.   Then in ’36 after Milton died, I went with Derwood when he had the band, and fixed strings for him.   They used a kid for the job, because they couldn’t afford to pay that much.  They would pay you a dollar and a half a night, and you had to furnish your own eats.  If you didn’t live at home and have your mother to do your clothes up for you and all that, you couldn’t make it.  I lived at home and my mother took care of all that.

I would be there during their entire performance.  Derwood would have two guitars, and he’d tune them up and have them ready.  He’d start playing.  I would set up right behind him on the stage.  When he’d break a string, I’d just hand him a guitar, and he’d hand me the other one, and I would fix that string.  Now, I didn’t put a new string on there; I would just repair that string.   Derwood played Martin guitars, and they had a pin bridge.  You put the end of the string down in there and then put the pin in to hold it.

Here’s my Martin guitar - it’s one I got back in the ‘40’s.   It shows it too - I wore out a hard shell case carrying it around.   When Derwood would break a string, it usually broke here close to the pin bridge.  He was short-armed anyway, and when he would play, he would hit the strings close to the bridge, and you broke more strings that way.  He also played real hard, because they didn’t use drums, and they got all the rhythm they could get from the other instruments.  That’s what rhythm guitar is - percussion with musical tone.

When he would hand me that guitar, I would take that pin out, and the short end would fall down inside the guitar.  Then I would hold it up and shake it out of that hole.   When it came out, then I would take the other end of the string that broke, run it through this little hole there, wind it around like that, stick the whole thing in there, then pull the slack out.  See, this was the Depression - you couldn’t afford to always be buying new strings.  Rarely, they broke up where the keys are, and I have fixed them up there.  I would try to tie a sheep bend knot if I could, or some kind of knot that wouldn’t slip.  If that wouldn’t work, I would have to put on a new string.

Now I have a Fender Stratocaster.   I’ve also got a Les Paul Junior that I bought back in the ‘60’s, and I played it for a long time.  But now I have this Stratocaster, and I like it a lot better.   It’s easier to play, and it has three pickups on it.  Of course I just play rhythm.  That Les Paul just has one pickup on it.

When I was working for the band, Bob Dunn was playing steel guitar.   I couldn’t really tell it, but they said he was always a little uptight when they recorded.   Of course I wasn’t in the studio when they recorded, so I couldn’t really say.  But I watched him many times, and I also requested him to do certain tunes, because I liked when he took a ride in chords, I liked that the best.  Like he does on “Beale Street Mama”.   I guess he may have been a little bit anxious or nervous when he recorded - maybe he was afraid he would make a mistake.    If you are on the bandstand, nobody hears a mistake anyway.   It’s the same way with singing.  I used to sing at dances, and it didn’t matter if I forgot some of the words, because most people weren’t listening that close anyway, and there was so much other noise going on while people were dancing.

The Brownies mainly played their music for dancing, but a lot of people just came to listen.   At Crystal Springs, they’d bring their whole families.   If the kids got sleepy, they’d lay them out on those wooden tables and they’d go to sleep.

My mother and father square-danced, and my dad played for a lot of them.   On the west side of Fort Worth, there was a group of families, and nearly every Saturday night they would have a square dance at somebody’s house.   I’ve gone to a lot a square dances where my mother and father would either be playing or dancing, and I would be outside playing with the kids, running around seeing what kind of mischief I could get into.  Then when I got tired, I would go in there and there would be 8 or 10 kids asleep on one bed, and I would pile in there with them.  Then when the dance was over, my mother would come in there and get me and we would get into somebody’s car and go home.  Neither my dad nor my mother drove - we never had a car.  So we always had to have somebody carry us.

There was a fiddle player named Red Steely, and he was the group’s favorite fiddle player.  He and his guitar player would play.  Then next favorite was Bob Wills with Herman Arnspiger.  Then if they couldn’t get either one of those, my dad would play.  He didn’t have the repertoire that the others had - he just didn’t know a lot of those old breakdowns for square dances that they knew.   That’s what Steely played - breakdowns and waltzes.

The Brownies would play a lot of the popular songs of the day, many of which they never recorded themselves.   For example, “How Many Times” and “Two Tickets to Georgia” are two they used to do.

How many times have you said “I love you”
How many times have you said “I’ll be true”
How many baby blue eyes have you gazed right into
How many love words have you spoken
How many promises have you broken
How many times have you sat all alone
How many lovers have you called all your own
I’d hate to think that you kissed too many
I’d feel worse if you hadn’t kissed any
Please tell me - How many times?


Part of my job as the “band boy” was to put up the speakers at the place where we would play.  They had two speakers, one amplifier, and one microphone.  When we got to the place where they were going to play, the musicians (and I) would take our turns carrying the speakers.   Two of us would carry them into the dance hall and try to set them up in the most advantageous place so everyone could hear.   So that was part of my job, besides fixing strings for Derwood.

Also, I had the roughest seat on the bus.  My seat was right over the right rear wheel.   That old bus was rough riding, and I mean I rode many a bumpy road!  But when they would get into town, usually the first thing they would do is go and eat at a café.  Sometimes they knew where the dance hall was.  Sometimes they would go and find it first and set up and then go eat.  But they tried to get to the town in plenty of time to both eat and get set up.   Then at 9 o’clock they would start the music.  Later on, I think they started earlier, like 8 o’clock.   They would play until 10:30, and they would take an intermission.  Then they would play on up to 12 o'clock.  Then they would close out.

Milton would call the tunes when he was on the bandstand.   Sometimes Milton had to get down off the bandstand, which a lot of times he did because he had to do certain things.  He was a mixer with people.  He knew everybody, nearly, and the people were naturally clamoring after him.   When Milton would leave the bandstand, then Derwood was his right hand man, and he would call the tunes and take care of any announcements.  On the radio show, it was Derwood’s job to make out the programs for the radio show.  He had to keep up with the tunes that they had done, and how long had it been since they had played that on the air, if they wanted to do it again.  He would also check the mail to see if they had any requests, and try to get those in.  So he had a job besides just playing.

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