Thomas Dartmouth Rice, a white man, was born in New York City in 1808. He devoted himself to the theater in his twenties, and in the early 1830s, he began performing the act that would make him famous: he painted his face black and did a song and dance he claimed were inspired by a slave he saw. The act was called “Jump, Jim Crow” (or “Jumping Jim Crow”).
Megyn “Santa is white” Kelly reportedly has settled with NBC after her show was cancelled halfway through her three-year, $69 million contract. The stunning ignorance supporting her defense of wearing blackface for Halloween was not enough to invalidate the $30 million she will still collect on the deal.
White entertainers performing in blackface, caricaturing and demeaning people of color, amused white audiences. Black folks have been entertaining white folks in this country for a couple centuries. It’s a blurry line between the joy of performing and cynical pandering.
The accolades to Aretha Franklin in numerous obituaries and tributes made note of her early years singing in her father’s church. Ms. Franklin was possibly the most famous of many popular artists who learned their craft in church: Little Richard, The Staple Singers, Sam Cooke and hundreds – literally, hundreds – more. The conflict between the sacred and the secular, has been an undercurrent of many careers. Performers whose formative years were rooted in the black church carried the craft learned there to a wider audience but with a twinge of guilt for taking god’s music and making it profane.
Unfortunately, much of this roots music is lost forever, recorded on vinyl and tape and never digitized.
The Oxford American magazine recently celebrated the fifty-year anniversary of the publication of True Grit. The novel is Charles Portis’s best-known work, due in no small part to the film versions released in 1969 (John Wayne, Glen Campbell, Kim Darby) and 2010 (Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Hailee Steinfeld). The weekend event took place in Little Rock Arkansas, the author’s home town. The agenda included screenings of both movies, readings by writers who are also Portis fans, panel discussions with critics, educators and film experts, and seminars about the novel’s settings: Fort Smith AR and Oklahoma “Indian Territory.” A variety show, featuring singer Iris DeMent, rounded out the entertainment.
One of the panels included filmmaker Katrina Whalen who discussed the challenges of translating Portis’s work to the screen. Whalen’s short film, an adaptation of a Portis short story, was shown.
“I Don’t Talk Service No More” was published in 1996. The story is narrated by the resident of a “nut house.” He tells of his late-night phone calls trying to reconnect with his buddies in the combat unit he served with decades earlier in Korea. Katrina Whalen wrote the screenplay and directed the nine-minute picture. The film captures the mood of Portis’s story and brings alive the narrator’s dialog.
Fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross traveled by train from Dardanelle to Fort Smith, on the western border of Arkansas. She was searching for a man with grit, someone to help her track down Tom Chaney, the lowlife who had robbed and murdered her father. She hired Rueben Cogburn, a deputy U.S. marshal known as “Rooster.” A Texas Ranger is also looking for the killer, for an unrelated murder in Texas. He joins up with them and they head off into the “Indian Territory” of what is now Oklahoma.
Charles Portis’s novel, True Grit, was published in 1968. To celebrate its fifty-year anniversary, the Oxford American magazine is hosting a celebration in Little Rock, Portis’s hometown. The weekend event includes a screening on Friday of the1969 film starring John Wayne, in his only Oscar-winning performance, Glen Campbell, Kim Darby and Robert Duvall. The 2010 Coen Brothers version of True Grit, featuring Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Hailee Steinfeld, will be shown the next day. The weekend event includes speakers Roy Blount Jr. and Calvin Trillin and entertainment by Iris DeMent. (Garrison Keillor was originally scheduled to be the featured speaker, but he was quietly dropped from the agenda.)
Little Rock is also home to the Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport. The Clinton Presidential Library sits on the bank of the Arkansas River, at the end of President Clinton Avenue.
Central High School, made famous by the “Little Rock Nine,” who with the help of the 101st Airborne, integrated the school in 1957, is now a National Historic Site.
Devoted fans of this blog remember reading about the two Harrises: Harris Ranch’s feed lot in California and Will Harris’s White Oak Pastures in Georgia. There was a reference to a profile of White Oak published in the Oxford American magazine. It was not available on-line; now it is. Or you could subscribe. The annual Southern Music issue comes out soon. The CD that comes with it is worth the subscription price.
There is a remarkable story tucked halfway through Bessie, Chris Albertson’s biography of the blues singer Bessie Smith, in which Smith approaches a circle of robed North Carolina Klansmen, places one hand on her hip, and begins shaking the other in the air. She hollers obscenities at the men—who were disassembling the tent her touring company had erected earlier that night, in a particularly childish bit of public dissension—until “they finally turned and disappeared quietly into the darkness.”