The Lives and Times of Extraordinary Athenians: Joe Rakestraw
by Jess Edwards, Oral History Project Intern
The 1994 Athens Clarke County Heritage Room Oral History Project “Rendezvous with Destiny” features interviews with World War II Veterans of Athens, as well as people who helped in the war effort. One exciting aspect of this project is discovering that many of the interviewees played pivotal roles in whatever community they were a part of, be it on the battlefield or in Athens. In this series of blog posts, we’ll take a closer look at the individuals interviewed in this collection.
Joe Kinney Rakestraw, a self-taught Athens folk musician, had been married to his wife Alberta a little over a month when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. He was drafted shortly thereafter in June of 1942, and was sent to Casablanca, Morocco once he completed his training. In his interview, Joe, chuckling to himself, recalls battle ships firing outside the ship he arrived on as if they were practicing for combat. Later he realized this was not target practice as he initially thought, but an actual attack on his ship.
During his time in the army, Joe served in both Northern Africa and Italy as a driver transporting war provisions on a daily basis. He transported a wide range of materials including ammunition, airplane parts and airplane fuel. Although he mostly drove 6 by 6 trucks, toward the end of his time overseas, Joe and the other men in his unit were required to learn how to drive 18-wheeler trucks. This was a task none of the men in his unit except for one had ever before attempted. This man was quickly promoted from private to sergeant in order to instruct all the men in the ways of operating an 18-wheeler. After only one day of training, Joe had to drive one of the large trucks in order to deliver materials. He said he eventually got used to being a truck driver, but it did take him thirty minutes to back the truck up the first time.
Although Joe grew accustomed to maneuvering a large vehicle, he recounts one time when his mission did not go according to plan. He was driving his truck, just as he successfully had done many times before, when he realized that he was off his route. As he continued, he discovered he was extremely lost—around 60 miles from his original course. When he asked a civilian for directions, the civilian told him to be careful turning his truck around since part of the road, separated only by toilet paper, had not yet been tested for mine fields. Joe was very thankful once he successfully delivered the materials. In his drives after that, he took extra care in studying his maps.
Even in times of war, Joe relied on music as a source of happiness. In his interview, he cites with pride that one of the highlights of his time overseas centered around the melodies of an organ player. One night, when Joe was visiting the United Service Organization in Casablanca, his friend Lazarus was going to perform on his portable organ. Prior to Lazarus' performance, world renown jazz singer Josephine Baker sang for the troops and was going to stay to hear Lazarus preform. Joe introduced himself to Baker, telling her he would want to dance once Lazarus began preforming. With a smile beaming across his face, Joe recalls that they danced together multiple times that night.
Much like his entrance into war life, Joe's return to life as a civilian was equally as shocking. Sadly, Joe recalls realizing he was back in the South when a white man yelled racial slurs at him for sitting outside a “whites only” church. Although in his interview Joe refers to himself as someone who never tried to rock the boat, he knew at that point segregation needed to end. In fact, he remembers the U.S. Army during World War II being progressive in this endeavor: the organization was highly segregated when he was first drafted, but it was starting to integrate toward the end of his service. This was his final thought at the close of his interview, and he said that was the one idea he wanted future generations to remember when studying the World War II era.
Before and after World War II, the music that Joe and his brothers played was enjoyed by all, regardless to their race. From an early age, Joe remembers his two older brothers playing music that white people in Arcade, Georgia would square dance to. Joe himself started playing music when he was around ten years old as a form of cheap entertainment. Inspired by his older brothers to continue in their folk music tradition, Joe and his two other brothers formed a string band. One brother played the bass, another played the guitar, and Joe played the violin. The band soon became good enough to perform in public, making six or seven dollars a night. They even performed in the fraternity houses on Milledge Avenue, among many other venues around Athens.
A gifted fiddler, singer, and guitarist, Joe continued to play his music all throughout his life. In his musical recordings Joe is humble, commenting that he didn't actually possess a great deal of musical talent, but he had the motivation to learn how to play. If one listens to his songs today, this seems like a tremendous understatement. His songs sound like a perfect combination of bluesy and hopeful. Most of them are tunes Joe and his brothers composed that tell stories of what it was like to grow up in the South. One depicts the boll weevil wreaking havoc on the farms; another describes the sights seen on Market Street in New Orleans. It is undeniable that Joe and his brothers made people feel something great through their lyrics and melodies. More information on Rakestraw and the Athens music scene is available in this article by Art Rosenbaum.
Joe Rakestraw died January 19, 2000. One lyric that captures Joe's kind spirit is, "….reach out and give a friend a hand, what you plan, do the best you can, it will make a better man, and this will be a better world." Whether he was serving in World War II or entertaining his friends in Athens, it is clear Joe maintained a positive attitude and always carried a song with him. You can learn more about Joe's experiences by listening to his interview, available on YouTube.
Video still courtesy of the Walter J. Brown Media Archives & Peabody Awards Collection.