About The Artist
George McKinley Reneau was another in the tradition of blind street musicians recruited by record companies in the 1920s, partly because they were virtually the first professional country vocalists.
A native of Jefferson County, Tennessee, Reneau was probably sightless from birth as he was a student at the Nashville School for the Blind by age seven. In his late teens or early twenties he relocated to Knoxville and began playing his guitar and harmonica and singing on the major thoroughfares in and around the Market House.
In the spring of 1924, one of those who heard Reneau was G. A. Nennstiel, manager of the phonograph, radio, and record department at the local Sterchi's Furniture Store. Vocalion Records were recruiting possible artists for their label and recommended the young musician who was attracting listeners not far from their store (other Vocalion recruits included fellow Tennesseean fiddler Am Stuart and the well known Uncle Dave Macon).
Reneau was sent to New York, but initially he played guitar and harmonica while pop singer Gene Austin did the vocals. By his third session George did three of eight vocals and by October 1925 Reneau did all of his own singing.
In later years, scholars began to notice that Reneau could not sing and play harmonica at the same time and Austin's unaccredited role was discovered. In all, "The Blind Musician of the Smoky Mountains" placed forty-eight sides on Vocalion. Under the name Blue Ridge Duo, George and Gene also recorded eight numbers for Edison, all covers of what they had already placed on Vocalion discs.
Blind George and another Knoxville blind musician Lester McFarland (of McFarland & Gardner aka Mac & Bob) in 1927 recorded several numbers for the Plaza Corporation under the name Gentry Brothers which appeared on a variety of labels under various pseudonyms. This ended his recording career, but Reneau continued to sing and play on the streets of Knoxville for another decade. As his health began to decline, he eventually entered the Beverly Sanitarium where he died three months later.
During his time, he was subject to various attempts to keep him from singing on the streets of Knoxville, something seen elsewhere during that era as well. In July of 1925, he was arrested partly for being drunk and disorderly but also for violation of the anti-begging law that specifically prohibited street performances for money. The disorderly case was dismissed by Judge Flenniken on George's stated promise to quit drinking. The singing for money charge was to be tried separately and seen as a test case. At that time, his stated 'corner' was near the post office, playing, singing and selling pencils. Reportedly he had squandered the money he had made from his recordings.
The second case was won by Reneau. He was given the right to continue his singing and playing on the streets. Judge R. P. Williams declared that under the present city ordinance on begging, Reneau could not be molested (arrested). He had been pronounced "not guilty" previously by Squire M. F. Flenniken who was presiding in Judge Williams' absence. The police were ordered to arrest Reneau again if he was performing on the streets. It was the second arrest that Judge Williams ruled in George's favor.
His defense attorneys (J. Arthur Atchley and Fred Houk) argued that he was solely dependent on his street performances to support his wife and two small children. Bystanders were sworn in as witnesses to testify that to their knowledge he had never asked anyone for a contribution. But the prosecution's view was that by displaying a box or cup, it was to extend an invitation for gifts, which they contended was the same as begging. The attorneys took on George's case pro bono because they felt he had "suffered an injustice at the hands of the city."
A column in the local paper entitled "Steve's Sunshine and Moonshine" ("Read this column when you have nothing else to do. That's when we wrote it.") touched on George's plight a couple of times. On July 9, he perhaps sarcastically wrote,
Police failed to convict George Reneau, the blind street-singer, under the anti-begging ordinance. But if they're determined they might try prosecuting him under the sanitary ordinance for holding out a public tincup.
Later that same month, Judge Williams reportedly wrote a letter to the Chief of Police, Ed M. Hayes, suggesting he have the city legal department draft an ordinance prohibiting musicians and vendors of merchandise from occupying the sidewalks and/or streets of the city.
Later in the year in December, George Reneau was reported to have been the entertainment at a Kiwanis luncheon at Kern's banquet hall.
But the controversy never seemed to go away. In April of 1928, Reneau along with another street musician, John M. Scott, were fined $5 each in city court. Fred Houk, attorney for Reneau previously, announced he would post their bond. Judge Williams was quoted, "We'll let the cases go to big court and see how it interprets the begging ordinance."
In May of 1929, he had to give up his banjo for several weeks due to an accident he suffered. He was using his walking cane, tapping along the alley behind Gay Street off Cumberland Avenue. He poked an empty space and he fell over an eight foot embankment that resulted in a dislocated shoulder and arm. But he told a reporter he had his stock of pencils and that was how we would spend his 'convalescence.'
But in a turn of events, a new Mendicancy Board had been formed with Welfare Director Haynes named as chairman. They awarded the first permit to beg on the steets. An elderly gray haired man who sat at a corner by the postoffice with a tin cup was given the second permit.
It would seem there was some stress in the Reneau family. In May of 1931, his then 33-year old wife, Elsie, made an attempt at suicide by drinking lysol at their home. She was rushed to the hospital where her condition was "good." She told the policeman "You couldn't understand, I have been worried and bothered, and decided to kill myself." After she had drank the lysol, Foggy Gentry was said to have knocked a glass of carbolic acid from her hands as she was preparing to drink it after the lysol. He was slightly burned in the incident from the acid.
In 1932, Reneau suffered another blow to his health; he had gotten rheumatism in his arms, rendering him unable to play his guitar on his daily trips up and down Gay Street. It seems when he made no music, donations to his tin cup dried up. His brother-in-law, Decator Shelton, also blind, came to his assistance. While Shelton played guitar, Reneau would sing along. "My brother-in-law is a good fellow." Reneau said.
A local columnist named Bert Vincent seemd to have a 'man on the street' approach of people he encountered in his walks or travels around Knoxville. One day he encountered George Reneau. It seems George had been arrested for being drunk the previous day but was back in front of Miller's on Gay Street the next day. He was singing an old hymn, "Oh, come, come, come to the church in the wildwood. Come to the church in the dale." Some bystanders had hear of his arrest and wanted George to confirm it. He quit singing. His guitar went silent. He told the person to sit down where he could talk to the person. He said, "Well, yes, the police dide get me. You know, it is like this, I'm blind. I try to get all the pleasure out of life that I can." George went on talking and people were gathered around. Mr. Vincent wrote as he walked away, "They were hearing from the blind man turn his soul inside out."
Mr. Vincent wrote some months later of how 'radio' may have cut off Reneau's income or any other musician's income. He wrote of seeing a certain fellow (e.g., George Reneau) on the street, playing guitar, singing the mournful tunes of the day, perhaps you drop a nickel in his cup. But he told readers, did you ever stop to think what a new low-priced enjoyment and pleasure invention may have been a cause for suffering for persons such as the street singer? The death of Floyd Collins gave rise to many recordings on phonograph records for the nation to turn to. But the rise of the radio caused record sales to drop. "...and wifth them went George's chance. He was left — a blind man with a cup, just a street singer of sad tunes."
On April 8, 1938, George Reneau was reported as having been admitted to Knoxville General Hospital. He was dismissed from the hospital on April 16, 1928. He died at the Beverly Hill sanitarium on June 5, 1938.
He was survived by his wife, mother, two sisters, a brother and two step-children. Research on Reneau was done by British music historian/discographer Tony Russell and published in Bear Family Record's book "The Knoxville Sessions" which ironically happened after "The Blind Musician of the Smoky Mountains'" recording career had ended.
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