A note in the minutes of the 1935 United Sacred Harp Musical Association suggests that the hardships of holding an urban Sacred Harp convention were as real eighty years ago as they are today. Singers today may be surprised to realize that a singing might rely on catered food even during the Depression. T. B. McGraw, the president of the 1935 United Convention, expressed his thanks to the folks at Walton’s Home Cooked Meals of Atlanta:
Last, but first, I recommend to all of you for a unanimous vote of thanks, the Walton family, who “cooked” their way into our hearts. We want them to know that we deeply appreciate the valuable services which they rendered. “Tubby” was an indispensable head waiter, tossing his priceless puns to each and every one of the guests. The meals were very appetizing, and enjoyed by all.
As McGraw’s note suggests, “Tubby” Walton was quite a character. William Hewlette Walton was a local celebrity in Atlanta, known for a personality as expansive as his person. The only people who cared about his given name, he claimed, were “the revenue man and a traffic cop.” To everyone else, he was just Tubby, a name he had more than earned; as one acquaintance put it, “Once upon the days of Herbert Hoover’s poverty-stricken regime, there wasn’t a towel made that would have spanned the breadth of William Hewlette Walton. In contrast to the economy of the times, he was as big as a side of beef.”1 Tubby Walton sold insurance, played catcher for the Atlanta Crackers, and scouted for the Saint Louis Cardinals. He and his father operated a restaurant near what is now the I-20/I-85 interchange—he was presumably connected to the United Convention by his sister, who had married Ted Knight, a prominent Atlanta Sacred Harp singer and longtime secretary of the convention.
Tubby was revered for his profuse “country” wisdom, much of which, unsurprisingly, revolved around food. City life hadn’t dulled Tubby’s affection for the country cooking he grew up with near the town of Corinth (about halfway between Newnan and LaGrange). His favorite dish was chitlins: “I could eat one as long as from Atlanta to Griffin, with plenty of detours. I kid you not, Cousin, chitlins is good eating and if you ain’t ever tried them you don’t know what you’re missing. They can have their paddy far de graw and their quail on toast but Tubby’ll take his chitlins every time.”2 Regrettably, the minutes fail to reveal what was on the menu at the United Convention when Tubby cooked.
Although Tubby’s in-laws were noted Sacred Harp singers, he didn’t start out as much of a singer himself. Of his Sunday School days, he wrote, “They’d be singing ‘What a Friend We Have in Jesus’ and they’d be rounding third while Tubby was still chugging along toward first base.” Eventually, a friend somewhat indelicately pointed out this musical deficiency; as Tubby noted, “Anytime they don’t want you to sing at Sunday School, look here beloved, you need HELP.”3 But Tubby was determined to improve, so he sought out music lessons, and eventually even recorded a couple of gospel albums late in life.
Tubby Walton was such a colorful figure that he was constantly attracting the attention of the Atlanta press. The status of Tubby’s heft, in fact, was apparently a point of considerable local interest. In an article titled “Seer of Luckie Street Declares a ‘Holiday’: Tubby Walton Avoids ‘Them Fats,’” Jack Troy of the Atlanta Constitution reported that Tubby “has declared a moratorium on potatoes and is endeavoring to regain that nymph-like figure of the ‘good old days.’ … If you are not acquainted with the Walton appetite,” he continued, “you can’t realize what stern resolve and steely courage it takes for Tubby to waltz around among the potatoes and the meats and other savory dishes at his eating establishment without plunging whole-heartily into the entire lot.”4
Eventually, Tubby got out of the restaurant business. A friend recalled that “when he found he was giving away more meals at the back door than he was selling up front, he closed the kitchen and quit.”5 Tubby Walton’s name doesn’t appear in any other minutes that I’ve come across, so it seems that he didn’t catch the bug for Sacred Harp. And it’s too bad! Unlike the Corinth Sunday School, we know enough not to run off a singer who’s that generous a person and that good of a cook, no matter what their voice sounds like.