The Grass Is Blue

I’m rereading the novel Gone with the Wind to analyze it’s portrayal of the Reconstruction period of government and multi-racial enfranchisement.  Like most Americans GWTW was my first exposure to that period of US history.  For now I’ll just say the book is better than I remembered, but the historical viewpoint for the Reconstruction era is far worse than I remembered.  More on that later.  But, as a random, weird sidebar I thought I’d post some links to a Southern folk song that was mentioned in passing that I did some digging on.

The passage on page 178 of GWTW mentions “rollicking strain of Johnny Booker, he’p dis Nigger” performed at the Atlanta charity ball.  This is the event in the book (and film) where newly widowed Scarlett is allowed to attend in order to sell items for charity behind a booth–under ordinary peacetime circumstances a widow this recent wouldn’t have attended a ball whatsoever.  Anyway, the only sound clip I could find of this song mentioned was this one from the Missouri State University archives from 1970 of an elderly man singing the song a capella.  Apparently the university conducted a wide scale project in the 1960s to preserve local folk music.

Yet this song–as sung here–hardly seems so upbeat and rollicking that “Scarlett thought she would scream” (178) and dance her feet behind the booth.  However, I did find another version recorded in the 1940s–only referred to as “Johnny Booker” which is much more lively.  It’s sung by an early 20th Century folk singer who went by the performance name Cousin Emmy.  Although this version is accompanied by a banjo only, I can imagine the spirited dancing to this when accompanied by a full band. This one is catchy. Interestingly, the lyrics are entirely different: altered far beyond just excising the obvious offensive word.

Any regional/folk music experts out there know more about the lyrical evolution of this song?

While only tangentially related, here is an awesome segment on NPR about the recently published Dictionary of American Regional English, much of the research having occurred taping elderly speakers in the 1960s and 1970s like the Missouri State University project.  Listen to the samples of a Brooklyn, Wisconsin, and South Georgia accents–so much more distinct than I suspect we would hear today (for the most part).  The Georgia one is much more lilting and almost Scotch-Irish at times than current portrayals of Southern accents usually are.  I’ve heard this disparagingly referred to as the “Texasification” of modern Southern accents.  The Wisconsin one sounds extreme–but recognizable–for one who has been accused of sounding more like a Wisconsinite in direct correlation to how many beers I’ve consumed!

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8 responses to “The Grass Is Blue

  1. Nice going on the research! Thanks for including the audio links. We know that GWTW is a work of fiction and Hollywood, so it’s easier to forget that similar things (some good, many horrific) happened to real people just a few generations ago. The music really makes that perception come alive.

  2. Yeah, I’m finding that the attention to historic detail (as well as I can tell–I’m not a Civil War expert by any stretch but based on what I’ve chosen to follow up on) is quite admirable in GWTW (book) when it comes to the actual war stuff (battles, dates, timelines). Or when it’s about period domestic touches (clothing, societal mores, N. “pioneer” Georgia culture vs. Savannah low-country, etc). There seems to be a concensus on these aspects Mitchell did her due research. The Reconstruction bits, though, are another story….

  3. Hi, I found your interesting blog today and will be following it. Last weekend, I went to see an exhibit of GWTW movie memorabilia at the Museum of History in Raleigh, NC. Costumes, props and Vivien Leigh’s Oscar are on display. Afterwards, I re-watched the movie, probably for the 10th time. It really is magnificent but shockingly racist. Surprisingly, there has not been more of an effort to make GWTW socially unacceptable. There is rich irony that “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” is more verboten than GWTW. It’s almost as if the civil rights movement made a concession on GWTW–“OK, you can keep that one as long as you get rid of the Confederate flag.” Sort of like in a divorce. John.

  4. Hi John! I like your divorce analogy!
    I heard a rumor once that the NAACP had an agreement with the film’s producers that if they made Scarlett’s would-be rapist a white hooligan/drifter instead of a black one, AND if the film didn’t use the n-word they wouldn’t condemn (or picket?) it as they did “Birth of a Nation” a generation earlier.
    Have you ever seen the 1927 version of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”?
    I hope to do a post about the Reconstruction passages in the book soon, and maybe one on the character Uncle Peter who I found interesting this read. I will have to re-watch the film like you did too!

    • Forgot where I read it, but allegedly Margaret Mitchell was rethinking her views on race after the segregated Atlants GWTW premiere. I hope this is true, but I am skeptical recalling her describing Mammy’s hands as those of a gorilla. So, she had quite a bit of room for growth.

      In the movie, Gerald O’Hara comments that Scarlett should be firm but kind with her “inferiors’, the “darkies”. “Pork” is kindly, but borderline retarded. Prissy, well, is “Prissy”. And, Mammy has dignity, but is also dehumanized in her absolute focus on Scarlett and her mother. But, the worst image is that of a chain gang of slaves being marched to dig trenches to stop the Yankees before they reach Atlanta. One of them, Big Sam, promises Scarlett that “not to worry, we’ll stop them Yankees”. Didn’t anyone in 1939 see the absurdity of that? Yikes! PS: Funny thing, when I watched the movie recently it struck me that Uncle Peter (and Mammy) were the only slaves presented with dignity more or less intact.

  5. Wow, I definitely need to re-watch the film now—I don’t remember the “stop them Yankees” bit from Big Sam! This GWTW read I was really trying just to gleam the Reconstruction political asides to see how accurate they are (I feel GWTW’s soft-peddling of slavery is pretty well-known). Yet, the novel IS so engaging on other non-historical levels too I just ended up getting reading all 1037 pages over again.

    I do hope Mitchell re-thought race and I will say this in (sort of) defense of the “gorilla hands” passage: the woman was positively OBSESSED with odd animal analogies! She likens Rhett’s chest to an ape, the Slatterys to rabbits and ferrets, Scarlett to a tiger, Prissy to a black cat, and there are all those bizarre horse-breeding comparisons made about the Wilkes family.

    There is another slave character in the book, Dilcey, who is presented with stoic dignity. However, Mitchell seems to go out of her way to suggest this is because she is of mixed (American Indian) ancestry. *thumps palm to head*

  6. I forgot about Rhett’s ape-like chest. I guess Clark Gable, per “I Happened One Night”, didn’t quite measure up on that score. Vivien Leigh also missed the mark by failing the novel’s first sentence test: “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful…”

    During her lifetime, Miss Leigh was considered an acting light weight compared to her once husband, Lawrence Olivier. Due to GWTW and Streetcar, she may now have the better claim to inmortality.

    I read that Mae West was offered the part of Belle Watling. I guess it might have worked if W.C. Fields played Dr. Mead.

    Come to think of it, W.C. Fields might have been better casting as Ashley Wilkes than Leslie Howard!

  7. HA! Yes, Leslie Howard = worst casting ever.

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