During deep winter I focus a lot of efforts on my genealogy hobby. I think it’s because the holidays offer big blocks of time where I’m stuck indoors. I can concentrate on intricate details as I piece together my family puzzle. Recently a line of research brought my attention to a small town in East Texas called Timpson. My Great Grandmother’s aunt and cousin lived there in the early 20th Century. They ran a milliner shop, selling women’s hats. That last part actually had nothing to do with the article, I just liked the term milliner.
An interesting bit of musical history emerged as I checked into the records of Timpson. It featured prominently in a popular song performed by cowboy singer Tex Ritter in the 1940’s. He called it "Tenaha, Timpson, Bobo, and Blair." Go ahead and give it a listen if you like. I’ll wait.
Those places were all towns in Shelby County, Texas. Tenaha and Timpson continue to exist today without about a thousand residents each. Bobo and Blair practically disappeared. No more than a few scattered houses, and maybe a church or a cemetery existed at either place to mark that they once existed. Nonetheless they all lived on in a way, permanently connected by this one old song at least until the generation that remembered it fades away. That day probably isn’t too far away, unfortunately. It’s a good thing I found out about it when I did.
Welcome to Tenaha, Timpson, Bobo & Blair.
Photo by Steve Snodgrass
on Flickr (cc)
Ritter’s song described a train ride through the Texas countryside, of a man waiting for the conductor to call out stops for Tenaha, Timpson, Bobo, and Blair, where a girl waited. As described in the Houston Chronicle,
It seems that by the time he got through calling out each name, the train had already passed through all four towns. So the conductors started calling out all four before the train arrived at the first… thus "Tenaha, Timpson, Bobo and Blair."
It became a common expression in East Texas and came to be applied to the rolling of dice in craps games, as players tried to make 10. Generally players pronounced Tenaha in an unusual way, calling it Tennyhaw. They would yell out something like “come on Tennyhaw, Timpson, Bobo and Blair” as they threw the dice. The gambling gods answered their prayers when the dice rolled ten. The expression became popular with American troops during World War II thanks to soldiers from Texas, and then became even more well known because of the Tex Ritter song.
The old Houston East and West Texas (HE&WT) Railway served those four towns. According to the Handbook of Texas, the HE&WT got its charter in 1875 with great aspirations, as noted by the railroad’s name. Those lofty goals never happened. Only the eastern portion — and only partially — ever saw a train, running as a narrow gauge from Houston to Shreveport. That took the railroad straight through Shelby County and past the settlements of Tenaha, Timpson, Bobo, and Blair. Local residents claimed that HE&WT actually stood for "Hell Either Way Taken."
A Competing Explanation
It made a nice story, however a different explanation emerged later. The order of villages listed in the popular expression didn’t make sense. A conductor would ordinarily call out the stations sequentially. If that were truly the case the conductor would be expected to call out "Tenaha, Bobo, Timpson and Blair" instead. According to the competing theory,
… stringing the town names together began during World War I when soldiers in a National Guard Unit composed of men from Shelby County discarded the familiar cadence of "hup, two, three, four" for "Tenaha, Timpson, Bobo, and Blair," their home towns.
In reality, the true explanation may never be known. Honestly, it didn’t really matter.
The Ritter Connection
Texas Country Music Hall of Fame and Tex Ritter Museum
via Google Street View, June 2016
Tex Ritter spent his early years in Murvaul, Texas, a few miles up the road in neighboring Panola County, Texas (my direct ancestors also lived in Panola County). He would have been very familiar with the expression from his childhood. He probably thought it sounded nice and simply crafted a set of song lyrics around it based on legends that had been passed down through the area.
Nobody more famous than Tex Ritter ever came from Panola. In Carthage, the county seat, there now stands the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame and Tex Ritter Museum (map). A statue of Ritter with his guitar and horse stands out front in honor of its famous son.
A lot of people in the Twelve Mile Circle audience probably never heard of Tex Ritter. I’ll bet more readers probably knew about his son, though. It’s hard to believe that John Ritter so well-known for his role in the sitcom Three’s Company as well as well as many others, had an East Texas cowboy singer for a father.
Tex’s real name was Woodward Maurice Ritter. In the 1910 and 1920 Census he had a brother named Booty. Mom and dad weren’t great at names, apparently. Tex sounded so much better.