Grady & Hazel Cole & The Little Tramp
By Wayne W. Daniel
(Used By Permission of Author)
IN 1877 WHITE, SMITH & COMPANY OF BOSTON published in sheet music form a song
entitled Only A Tramp! that was composed by Dr. Addison D. Crabtre. The first
verse of the song tells about a night watchman finding, dead on the street,
a tramp who, according to a coroner, had died of starvation. In typical
Victorian fashion, the composer waxes didactic in the second verse and asks
the listener, "If Jesus was here and asked at your door/A place to rest in, and
food from your store/As once he thus wander'd with poverty's stamp/Would you
turn Him away as only a tramp?" The chorus tells us that
He's somebody's darling, somebody's son,
For once he was fair, once he was young,
Yes, someone has rocked him a baby to sleep,
Now only a tramp found dead in the street.
One suspects that the late gospel singer
and songwriter Grady Cole was familiar with Dr. Crabtre's song. Dorothy Horstman,
in her book, Sing Your Heart Out Country Boy, states that Cole's composition,
The Tramp On The Street, was "patterned after" Crabtre's song. The title and
chorus of the country gospel classic,which was made famous by Cole during the
late 1930s and 1940s, bear a strong resemblance to the earlier song. The only
substantive difference between Cole's chorus and Crabtre's chorus occurs in
the last line, in which Cole writes, "He was left there to die like a tramp
on the street."
Although Cole may have been inspired by Crabtre's composition, he took the idea
and made it into a quite different song. Instead of the anonymous tramp in
Crabtre's first verse, Cole, in his first verse speaks of the Biblical Lazarus
who was left to "die like a tramp on the street." Cole's second verse summarizes
the death of Jesus on the cross and concludes with the statement that he, too,
was left to "die like a tramp on the street." Cole's third verse closely
parallels the last half of Crabtre's second verse by asking the listener
how he would respond if Jesus should "come and knock on your door and ask you
to give the crumbs from your floor."
Cole concludes his song with a second chorus that refers to Jesus
as "King of the Jews" and names Mary as the mother who "rocked her
darling to sleep."
The Tramp On the Street was first recorded by Grady Cole and his
wife Hazel in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1939 for RCA Victor. It was released
as Bluebird 8262. It has since appeared on records by more than twenty
artists, including such diverse stylists as Molly O'Day, Joan Baez,
The Lewis Family, Rose Maddox, Patsy Montana, Peter, Paul and Mary; the
Sego Brothers and Naomi, the Staple Singers, and Hank Williams.
One of the best known recordings was the one by Molly O'Day. According to
country music historians Ivan Tribe and John Morris, O'Day learned the song
from Hank Williams. Tribe and Morris also state that virtually all later
recorded versions seem related to the O'Day rendition,which is sung to a
different tune from that of the Coles.
Grady Cole was born on August 26,1909, near LaFayette, a northwest Georgia
town with a population at the time of about 1500. After graduating from
high school at nearby Trion, he moved to Rome, Georgia, where he worked
in a textile mill for a living and studied and performed music as a hobby
and second source of income. One of Cole's co-workers at the textile mill
was a young lady named Hazel Key, who had been born and reared in Blue Ridge,
Georgia. Cole and Key were married on August 18, 1930.
By the time Cole was married, he had taught himself music theory and how
to play the guitar. In 1925, at the age of 16, he wrote the first of the
more than 500 songs that he would compose during his lifetime. Cole once
wrote that most of his early songs were "gospel hymns" and that many
of them were published in gospel song books.
Upon her marriage, Hazel Cole became not only a wife but also her husband's
singing partner as well. She also learned to play bass fiddle to help fill
out the instrumental accompaniment to their harmonizing. At first they sang
together for their own pleasure and to entertain their friends. Hazel once
recalled that on summer evenings while singing on the front porch of their
home in Rome, they attracted large audiences from among their friends and
neighbors. Even then a large percentage of the Coles' repertoire consisted
of songs that Grady had written.
In 1934, according to Grady, he and Hazel "began their career in music in
a big way." This was the year they started singing on radio station WRGA
in Rome. Grady once wrote in one of the several song books he compiled
that he and Hazel featured their "own songs on the air and soon became WRGA's
most popular artists." Their program was billed as the WRGA Studio Revue.
Grady wrote that they "worked just about every school auditorium, theater,
church, and club house, with return engagements, within a radius
of 100 miles around."
The Coles made their recording debut in 1939 with RCA Victor. Twenty-five
of their songs were recorded for the Bluebird label. They included the gospel
songs, I'm on My Way to a Holy Land, You Can Be a Millionaire with Me,
The Tramp on the Street, and such secular songs as What a Change One Day
Can Make and Shattered Love. According to their son, Jack, the Coles'
second and last recording session took place around 1950 for the Gilt Edge label.
He says that among the songs recorded at that time were There'll Never Be Another
Like Jesus, l'11 Take the Bible, I'll Follow Jesus All the Way, and I'm Getting
Ready for Heaven.
In the early Forties the Coles moved from Rome to Atlanta, where their
lifestyle was a continuation of what it had been in Rome. They worked
in a textile mill, sang on the radio, and made personal appearances. Their radio
home in Atlanta was WGST. The station's managers once stated that the Cole
family drew "more fan mail than any other group ever featured over this
station over such a period of time." By this time the second of their two
children, Jackie, who was born in 1933, was part of their act.
(Their older son, Billy, did not take part in his parents' music career.)
In addition to singing trio numbers with his parents, Jackie sang solos
suitable to his age and endeared himself to a public that found performances
by talented children irresistible. During his teen years, Jackie sang lead
in the trio to Hazel's alto and Grady's baritone.
During their career the Coles sang on radio stations in Gadsend, Alabama;
Dalton, Georgia; Nashville, Tennessee; and Knoxville, Tennessee.
In Knoxville in the mid-Forties the Coles were hired by Lowell Blanchard
to appear on the Tennessee Barn Dance and on a daily program heard on WNOX.
The Coles were heard by means of transcriptions on many other stations.
At one time, according to Grady, one of their transcribed shows was heard
on 73 stations. They also appeared with Lost John and his Allied Kentuckians
on a transcribed program that reportedly was carried by more than 144 radio stations.
In the late 40s Grady and Hazel Cole returned to Georgia and set up residence
in East Point, a suburb on Atlanta's south side. They became involved in church
and evangelistic work and for a while sang with a local evangelist who
conducted street meetings and preached from court house squares on Saturday
afternoons in the small towns surrounding Atlanta.
Jackie stopped performing with his parents around 1951. In 1957 he was called
to the Baptist ministry where he has since served. He has pastored churches
in north Georgia and Tennessee.
Grady and Hazel stopped performing in the early 1950s. Hazel took a job
in an Atlanta textile mill and later became a welfare caseworker with Economic
Opportunity Atlanta. Grady continued to teach music and write songs. Jack
states that at least 75 percent of his father's compositions were based on
gospel themes. He says that Grady was deeply concerned about spiritual things
and was inspired by the regret that he had not pleased the Lord. "Everything
had to be quiet when he was writing songs," Jack says. "He had to get in a place
all by himself. He would spend hours writing songs. He had perfect pitch and
was very sensitive to a foul note." Hazel, too, recalls her husband's dedication
to his music. "He wrote every day," she once told a newspaper reporter.
"That's all he would do. It was his life."
Grady Cole died in 1981. Since her husband's death, Hazel has lived at
various times near one or the other of her sons in north Georgia.
Credits & Sources
- Article originally appeared in Rejoice!, The Gospel Music
Magazine; June / July 1992; Center for the Study of Southern Culture;
The University of Mississippi; University, MS 38677
- Hillbilly-Music.com wishes to thank author Wayne W. Daniel
for permission to use his article.