Drawing from the little that’s known about Emile “Stalebread Charlie” Lacoume, Mahin presents a fictionalized story about the homeless New Orleanian boys who innovated “spasm band” music, considered one of jazz’s precursors.
In 1895, Stalebread and pal Warm Gravy, both white, live in Storyville, which “smelled like trash and looked like trouble.” The boys steal to eat, constantly dodging the coppers. Hearing a trio playing one night, Stalebread hatches an idea. “Gravy! We’ll start a band. We’ll never be hungry again!” With an old stovepipe to sing through and a pebble-filled can to shake, the boys debut their rhythms—to the neighborhood’s general disdain. “No one liked their music. Not even the alley cats.” A boy called Cajun (the band’s sole kid of color) joins up with his “comb-made kazoo.” Pennywhistler Monk is next, followed by kids on washboard, spoons, and cigar-box fiddle. Though more often chased off than cheered, the boys’ luck finally turns when they bravely improvise for patrons at Mac’s Restaurant and Saloon. Mahin’s jaunty narrative uses occasional rhyme, and onomatopoeic words scroll through in arcing display type. Illustrator Tate’s note mentions finding supporting research for his intentional visual diversity: Among the diverse denizens of Storyville, he depicts a black cop. The text ends abruptly, but Mahin’s note adds lively details.
An upbeat introduction to the scrappy origins of a little-known bit of American musical history. (craft activity) (Picture book. 5-7)