September 2011 Archives


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Folks, have you just plain had it with the Jehovah's Witnesses showing up every weekend to bombard  you with pamphlets and hose you down with arcane scriptural harangues? Tired of kids selling magazine subscriptions to earn a scholarship to embalming school? Is your pantry already stuffed with boxes of Girl Scout cookies with expiration dates stretching back to the Clinton Administration? If you answered "Yes" to any of the above, then, courtesy of that great southern principle of "making do with what you have," here is a truly one-of-a-kind deterrent doorbell. Install this baby, brought to my attention by a sociologist buddy of mine, and you can be pretty well assured that when you hear that ding-dong, it's somebody who really needs to see you pretty badly. That is unless, of course, it's just one of your fellow hunting fanatics.

As a matter of fact, this deer-butt doorbell reminded me immediately of one of my favorite characters, Henry Shipes, an obsessive turkey hunter in Errol Morris's "Vernon, Florida," (1981) who documents his biggest kills by nailing the slain bird's feet to a piece of plywood. In this scene, our fearless frontiersman explains how hearing the gobble of a big ol' Tom cured his diarrhea on the spot. Where Henry is simply straight-out funny, this clip  of Koy Brock, a local preacher who devotes an entire sermon to the etymology of the word "therefore" manages both to make you laugh and then to feel a little bit ashamed for doing so. (If you're a southerner anywhere close to my age and spent much time in church during your youth, I'm betting this will have a very familiar ring.)

The actual background to the making of this film is about as comical as the film itself, because Morris intended originally to focus on the mysterious propensity of the residents of this little Panhandle town to lose one or more of their extremities:

L. W. Burdeshaw, an insurance agent in [nearby] Chipley, told the St. Petersburg Times in 1982 that his list of policyholders included the following: a man who sawed off his left hand at work, a man who shot off his foot while protecting chickens, a man who lost his hand while trying to shoot a hawk, a man who somehow lost two limbs in an accident involving a rifle and a tractor, and a man who bought a policy and then, less than twelve hours later, shot off his foot while aiming at a squirrel.

"There was another man who took out insurance with 28 or 38 companies," said Murray Armstrong, an insurance official for Liberty National. "He was a farmer and ordinarily drove around the farm in his stick-shift pickup. This day--the day of the accident--he drove his wife's automatic transmission car, and he lost his left foot. If he'd been driving his pickup, he'd have had to use that foot for the clutch. He also had a tourniquet in his pocket.

"We asked why he had it and he said, 'Snakes. In case of snake bite.' He'd taken out so much insurance, he was paying premiums that cost more than his income. He wasn't poor, either. Middle class. He collected more than $1 million from all the companies. It was hard to make a jury believe a man would shoot off his foot."

Nearly fifty men in Vernon and surrounding areas collected insurance for these so-called accidents.

Filmmaker Morris had come to town intending to tell the story behind Vernon's well-deserved reputation as "Nub City," but locals let him know right away that pursuing this plan might lead to his sporting a nub or two himself, and he wound up retooling the film as something of a collage featuring the community's most eccentric and colorful characters who seemed to exist in comparable profusion to its host of profiteering self-mutilators.

One of William Faulkner's characters observes that northerners seem "eager to believe anything about the South not even provided it be derogatory but merely bizarre enough and strange enough." Some of the more devoutly Dixie-fied still find it almost obligatory to take umbrage at the persistent tendency among Yankee media types to come down in search of folks who affirm this predisposition. I guess I'm just too old and tired to have the appropriate regionally patriotic sensitivity to whatever intended slights may be behind these efforts to seek out such characters, but you have to admit some of the folks they turn up are just plain hilarious, and the mere fact that Yankees are laughing at them doesn't mean we can't as well.

This certainly appears to be the case with this "Colbert Report" take on a story originating  right here in these parts that ultimately went viral and even found its rehashed way into no less a rag than the New York Times. If you haven't seen this video, it's well worth enduring the fifteen-second commercial,  for it's sort of a classic example of the old Brer Rabbit genre in which the designated southern simpleton is actually pulling the strings so deftly that the presumptuous city slickers have not a clue that it is they who are actually being "funned" just a little. Local reporter Wayne Ford is so incredibly adept at deadpan that the videographers probably had no notion he was simply playing along. The real find in the story is actually Chris Cooley, who proves to be not just wild and woolly but ultimately wise. Note his scarcely constrained incredulity when he is asked simpleminded questions such as why he runs when the police swoop down on him: "because the police want to take me to jail, and I don't want to go," or why he refused to lie on the ground when ordered to do so: "I was sweaty, it was hot, I didn't want to get dirt on me." Note also Cooley's absolute refusal to cast himself as a persecuted, misunderstood man of the people. He notes that because he is perhaps Oconee County, Georgia's most notorious and least credible scofflaw, any offense committed by a person unknown usually means that he is arrested "whether I'm guilty or not," but he is admirably quick to add, "Mostly, I'm guilty."

Meanwhile, the supposed central character in this rustic farce is one Bobby Kirk , who has become something of a backwoods savant-turned-folk hero for his vivid capture of the summer's hellish temperatures with the succinct observation, "It's too hot to fish!" What most of the Yankee reporters who came to Bogart, Georgia, in search of Bobby (after first, of course, being in search of Bogart, Georgia) failed to grasp was that Bobby was a self-conscious caricature of himself. Although the response would likely not have been worded thus, any local asked to characterize ol' Bob could've told them this.

This exchange with an NYT reporter is particularly telling:

Does it bother him that he is getting famous in part because people might be making fun of him? . . .

"No," he said. "They can make a monkey out of me as long as I get some money."

The Times scribe marks this as the response of "a savvy country boy," but it is hard to see what's particularly "country," i.e., "southern" about it. It actually defines the apparent philosophy of a bunch of hyper-profligate "housewives" from Jersey to California, not to mention repo men, antique-hunters, and a huge assortment of others, who have come to believe that even bad publicity is good for the pocketbook. Professor Karen Cox of UNC-Charlotte has a thoughtful take  on the rapid proliferation of "reality TV" shows such as "Hillbilly Handfishin'" and "Swamp People" as an indication that the national mass market for southern stereotypes is still going strong, primarily because they reassure other Americans of their own relative enlightenment and sophistication.

Southerners have been hip to this for well over a century, of course, and have long understood that no pocket is riper for the picking that that of a Yankee who has just had his superiority reaffirmed. If a high-powered, big-budgeted New York or L.A. producer is just dying to document the survival of the supposedly backward South, then why not oblige him and demonstrate thereby that the region's longstanding reputation for hospitality (especially to well-heeled suckers) remains very much alive. While there are very sound reasons to object to these seemingly demeaning and obviously caricatured portrayals of southerners, there's no shame in the fact that southerners can be very funny people or that they enjoy laughing at each other almost as much as making fun of the outsiders who are actually paying for the privilege of making fun of them.


Although all of us are prone to make chronological mileposts of particularly striking or traumatic events, understandably perhaps, historians are clearly more given to this practice than most. Both shaken and consumed by what happened on the morning of September 11, 2001,  I tried to sort out my feelings in the following piece that appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution the next day.

"Americans Left to Fear Unseen Enemy"
          On January 6, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt promised to forge "a world founded upon four essential freedoms." In addition to freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom from want, there was "freedom from fear," which in Roosevelt's view meant "a worldwide reduction of armaments" so that "no nation will be in a position to commit an act of aggression against any neighbor--anywhere in the world." Rather than securing freedom from fear, however, our victory in World War II soon dissolved into a nuclear arms race fueled by the Cold War.
          The generation that spent portions of their childhoods practicing for direct nuclear hits on their elementary schools by putting their heads under their desks or had its adolescence punctuated by the sheer terror of the Cuban Missile Crisis can hardly look back with much nostalgia on that era. Yet, even as the Cold War ended and we breathed a collective sigh of relief at the diminished likelihood of a global nuclear holocaust, we were already slipping into a new era of fear and uncertainty, one in which the enemy could be internal, as well as external, and essentially invisible to boot, one in which extravagant defense budgets and massive missile stockpiles count for less than the ruthless and calculated fanaticism of relatively small numbers of unseen and often unknown enemies....

          The hysterical reporters and the scenes of genuine public panic in New York City seemed more the stuff of B-movies or a TV mini-series than that of live "as-we-speak" reality. Obviously, we are stunned by the apparent ease with which planes at major airports could be hijacked and used to demolish what should have been a tightly secured potential terrorist target. Yet, neither our shock or our dismay at the paralyzing fallout of this atrocity at all the nation's airports and in its major cities defines the true significance of yesterday's horrors. That significance lies in the capacity of an unseen enemy to make not just the residents of New York or Washington, D.C., afraid, but to implant that fear into the hearts of millions of Americans who have never been (and probably never intend to be) anywhere near either place.

          This reality came through to me in a number of ways, including the cancellation of classes at the University of Georgia and the anxious investigation of a "suspicious" van parked near the federal building in Athens. However, it was local reaction to yesterday's horrors here in rural Hart County that I found most enlightening. Our local radio station, WKLY, "The Voice of the Upper Savannah River," largely suspended its regular programming (save, of course, for the obituaries and mid-day devotional) and broadcast the programming of the Georgia News Network. The mayor of Hartwell, a woman of Lebanese extraction and the Episcopal faith, urged citizens to offer their prayers for the victims and their families "in their own tradition." To that end, churches in town and throughout the county opened their doors to the prayerful. Yet, for all the sincere expressions of grief and compassion for the victims and their families that were uttered in Hart County yesterday, I feel certain that explicitly or not, those prayers also embodied a personal plea for the freedom from fear that, despite our victories in World War II and the Cold War, seems more elusive now than it did when President Roosevelt pledged to secure it for us it sixty years ago.

Ten years later, there are still some what I would call "suspicious" vans chugging about old Athens town, but, of course, there always have been, at least since I arrived here as a student in the mid-1960s.  Meanwhile, Americans seem less fearful of terrorists than what appears now  to be a protracted, possibly even two-tiered,  economic downturn that has put many of them out of both their jobs and their homes. This frightening and frustrating state of affairs is further compounded by our continuing involvement in two massively expensive military operations, both of which were justified as necessary to prevent a recurrence of the events of 9/11/01. It remains to be seen whether, if and when we are able to extricate ourselves from either of these conflicts, we will have succeeded in doing much more than provoking further resentments that are likely to spawn a new generation of bin Ladens.

Certainly, the striking unity of purpose and resolve that marked America's response to what happened on that terrible Tuesday ten years ago is little in evidence these days. Unfortunately, when the overwhelming majority of members of both parties rallied behind President Bush in a time of genuine national alarm, his political strategists could not resist the temptation to exploit that alarm by making it the foundation for an orchestrated climate of fear in which criticizing any of his policies became tantamount to aiding and abetting the terrorists who were committed to destroying our way of life. Thus it was that on the fifth anniversary of the tragedy, I tore into "W." for "shameless fear mongering" when he used the solemn occasion of a visit to Ground Zero to promote wholesale acceptance of his political agenda by warning us yet again that "there's still an enemy out there that would like to inflict the same kind of damage again." I hardly marked myself as a representative of the liberal lunatic fringe by pointing out that the President was telling us that because we were essentially "no freer from fear than we were five years ago," we must continue to support the policies that had thus far failed to achieve that end. At the same time, the notorious pinkos at The Economist were also scoffing at "the idea that it is the West and its values that are everywhere under attack, and everywhere by the same seamless front of what Mr. Bush has taken to calling 'Islamic fascism' as if this conflict is akin to the second world war or the cold war against communism."

Two years later, it was painfully obvious that objections to the Bush administration's strategy of tarring their critics with the brush of disloyalty had fallen on what by then may have been willfully unhearing ears. The accusations and innuendo that greeted the candidacy of Bush's successor both fed and foreshadowed the polarization that has now crippled our capacity to fashion any constructive response to an economic crisis arguably more frightening in its destructive potential than anything that transpired on that terrible morning ten years ago. Indeed, freedom from "fear" and the freedom from "want" no longer fit neatly into the distinct categories laid out by FDR in 1941 As things stand today, it's not terribly far-fetched to suggest that the fallout from the politically motivated manipulation of the anxieties produced by the atrocities of September 11, 2001, may well prove far more damaging to our country's well being than the actual events themselves.

Don't You Weep for "Sister Mary."

I have always said that the best way to learn about anything is to teach a course on it. Teaching a new class is a lot of work, especially at my advanced age. Still, way back in my distant past, I offered a course at the University of Maryland on the history of country music. Later, at Ole Miss, I was one of three instructors for an "Introduction to Southern Culture" class where we tried to integrate history, literature, and music in a coherent way. Although I enjoyed trying to hold up the history end of the bargain, the most stimulating -not to mention challenging-aspect of my duties was helping college freshmen try to figure out William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! Now, on the cusp of my dotage, I have somehow caught a wild hair and undertaken to reprise this course, although flying solo this time with upperclassmen, rather than freshmen, along for the ride.

On the first day of the semester, I told the students in "Understanding Southern History and Culture" that I would do my best to make the course enjoyable for them, but regardless of whether they had fun or not, I damn sure intended to. It's soon yet to gauge their reactions, but thus far, Il Professore has been having a blast. Here is one example of the kinds of historical/cultural interconnections we are exploring. While preparing a discussion of the ways in which slave spirituals, like slave folktales, tended to emphasize tales of triumph and deliverance in the face of overwhelming odds, it occurred to me that an old song that was one of the very few I ever heard my father try to sing might be a fairly vivid case in point. Sure enough, "Oh Mary, Don't You Weep" seems to have come out of the slave spiritual tradition. Here's just a snippet of one of the many versions of the lyrics:

"If I could, I surely would

Stand on that Rock where Moses stood.

Pharaoh's army got drownded.

O' Mary, don't you weep.



O' Mary don't you weep, don't you mourn.

Pharaoh's army got drownded in the storm.

Pharaoh's army got drownded.

O' Mary, don't you weep.


One of these mornings 'bout twelve o'clock,

This old world's gonna reel and rock.

Pharaoh's army got drownded

O' Mary Don't you weep. . . ."

 Although Jesus does play a bit part in some versions of this song, Moses seems to have been the marquee superstar of slave spirituals--his resemblance to Charlton Heston made him a natural, I suppose--although other Old Testament worthies such as Joshua, Noah, and Daniel were popular as well. If there's a musicologist out there who has a better take on this, I'd be grateful to hear it, but my two cents worth is that most of the preaching aimed at the slaves featured  the volatile God of the Old Testament who, like ol' Massa was quick to anger when his servants were disobedient. As the slaves saw Him, however, He was also Jehovah-on-the-spot whenever he was  needed to step in to make things right in the here and now, and his earthly agents were also guys who favored taking the oxen by the horns, so to speak, over promising pie-in-the-sky in the sweet-by-and-by.  

 One thing is for sure, a great many of the slave spirituals outlived their creators and the original context in which they emerged. For example, here is a version of "O' Mary" as performed by a group of Georgia field hands, supposedly circa 1916, although the details on the exact date of the recording are sketchy.

 Like so many southern cultural forms, slave spirituals demonstrated just how porous the region's supposedly impenetrable color barriers could be. Check out "Sister Mary" as done here by the Georgia Yellow Hammers, a 1920s string band whose composition and constituency were about as white as you could get.

 The theme of deliverance despite the odds that permeated "Sister Mary" virtually assured its resurgence as a popular anthem for civil rights workers, and it quickly made its way into the repertoire of famed activist folksinger Pete Seeger. Take a look at this rendition by Bruce Springsteen and friends in a session dedicated to Seeger.

 As a song becomes a mainstay in a certain vernacular, it's tune can easily become as relevant--and in this case, inspiring--as its lyrics. Thus did both the rhythm and spirit of "Sister Mary" infuse "If You Miss Me at the Back of the Bus," another famous song of the Freedom Movement.

 The content and presentation of this song rooted in the travail of African American slavery have clearly varied some over the nearly two centuries of its likely existence, but no less than Absalom, Absalom! or any other Faulkner novel, the enduring relevance of its message of faith and deliverance bears witness to the fact that cultures survive not so much by resisting change as by accommodating and sometimes even inviting it.

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