Stace England

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'Greetings from Cairo'

Jared DuBach
Pulse reporter

Area singer and songwriter Stace England has maintained a firm creative focus on southern Illinois for most of his adult life. His focus has been kept on the area because of a certain vibe the musician says the area emanates.

That vibe reaches all the way down to Cairo, a small town at the southernmost tip of Illinois, which has served as the inspiration for England's latest CD, "Greetings from Cairo."

England said the town and its citizens have suffered much in the way of adversity from financial despair and racial prejudice. Cairo has had an eventful history England has labored to chronicle on the 11-song CD, which will be officially released April 19 by Gnashville Sounds. Although England is going to perform a CD release show May 13, he will also be performing at 10 p.m. March 19 at Hangar 9.

Any project of this undertaking needs a starting point. While the concept of the CD came about almost three years ago, and it took almost a year from finished songs to completed recordings, England has had a long running connection with Cairo.

"I think it got its hooks in me almost 30 years ago when my mom and me and my grandmother drove through town when I was a youngster," England said. "And I knew something was up."

England said the more immediate inspiration behind "Greetings from Cairo" came from his reading of "Let My People Go" by Preston Ewing, who was the head of the NAACP.

"He just took his camera around town during that time when the Nazis were in town and all that bizarre stuff and chronicled it with photographs," England said.

After being awestruck by the book, England spent a great amount of time in Cairo interacting with some of the town's residents and furthering his research into some of the events that may have led to the town's arrested development.

"The first thing you're struck by is: 'Why isn't there a giant city here?' You've got two major water routes, rail lines; you've got interstate highway," England said.

"That's when you start to peel it back and get into the layers of it. It's just fascinating. It's kind of like Elvis. Here's this thing that should've been great but ended up becoming this remarkable tragedy."

Some of the layers England refers to ended up as the songs on "Greetings from Cairo." There are more traditional arrangements, like the folk tune "Goin' Down to Cairo" and "Cairo Blues," while songs like "Grant Slept Here" and "Equal Opportunity Lynch Mob" serve up some crucial historical background on the town.

According to content found in "Greetings from Cairo," "Grant Slept Here" is about Ulysses S. Grant's five-month stationing in Cairo during the Civil War while he led campaigns in Kentucky and Missouri, before he was made a general and moved to Tennessee. After his second presidential term, Grant was honored at a reception in 1880 in Cairo at Magnolia Manor.

"Equal Opportunity Lynch Mob" recounts the grizzly lynchings of Will James and Henry Salzner on the night of Nov. 11, 1909. A crazed mob drug Salzner from his jail cell and hung him after he'd been accused of killing his wife. Will James was a black man who had been accused of raping and killing a white girl named Ann Pelly in a Cairo alley.

When James was hanged, the rope broke, so he was shot and burned to death instead. His charred head was severed from his body and placed on a pole for all to see. Subsequently postcards were widely circulated of the dual lynching, serving as a record of one of the most infamous lynching in U.S. history.

"White Hats" and "Jesse's Comin' to Town" serve as more modern historical accounts.

"White Hats" is about the forming of the Committee of 10 Million, otherwise referred to as the White Hats. The White Hats were formed after an Army private returned home, was arrested and died while in prison from an alleged suicide the black community didn't buy.

The incident resulted in three days of rioting, which brought in the National Guard for police action. The White Hats acted afterward as a method of community enforcement and shared the motto "States Rights - Racial Integrity" with White Citizens Councils and United Citizens for Community Action.

Shortly after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., black citizens began to boycott local businesses and services that refused to hire or serve black members of the community. This prompted Jesse Jackson and other leaders to visit Cairo in support of the boycotts.

England said about 56 musicians performed the songs on the album. Featured musicians include the Woodbox Gang, Jason Ringenberg (Jason and the Scorchers fame), The Implications, Little Egypt Barbershop Chorus, Robert Russell, Jimmy Salatino, Charlie Morrill, the Gutterswans, George Bradfute and Steve Ebe. England took careful note of each musician and musical group's style of playing and fitted them accordingly for the desired sound of each song.

But Cairo is not a town without hope. England said if city officials simply started to work together for the benefit of everyone, things may start to turn for the better. A few poor judgments early on set the tone for a promising community that only went on to create a snowball effect.

"Things happened there with reasonable people that sort of went over the edge with things," England said.

"The human condition is on display there - the best of it and the worst of it in that little town there and in these stories."