From news to folklore, talking to and for ‘the plain people’

In addition to providing an oldtime radio dramatization of the life of newspaperman turned reteller of folktales Joel Chandler Harris, the Internet Archive has his works and biography, including the volume shown above.

His red hair is mentioned several times in his radio portrait on DuPont Cavalcade of America in 1941, which introduces Harris as a shy, stuttering and insecure young man, far from the brash, confident stereotype of a journalist.

Perhaps listeners also were reminded that 19th and 20th century newspapers provided a steady paycheck for writers whose literary interests were broader than page one news.

Radio writing served that function too: The script was by playwright Arthur Miller, who contributed more than a dozen profiles to Cavalcade. He also spent some time in the South making recordings for the Library of Congress (see this BBC interview) around the same time that he was writing this radio play about the 19th-century story collector. Were the two connected? My research into this continues and this essay will be updated if I find out more. (Thanks to radio historian Randy Riddle for pointing out the BBC story.)

The Cavalcade radioplay doesn’t preach about “cultural appropriation” or race relations in its portrayal of Harris’s “Uncle Remus” African-American folktales, but it does have a message of brotherhood and wartime internationalism, mentioning how widely accepted those Bre’r Rabbit stories were, translated into more than 20 languages.

When Harris meets a crowd of children at the White House, they are disappointed not to meet an old black storyteller. Harris, reflecting, says he is happy to have written himself out of the story, and that “America has got to remember her roots, the plain people.”

That those plain people come in all colors goes without saying. The closest the broadcast comes to discussing race relations is Harris’s plea for “good-neighborliness” and the “kindliness and comradeship” that allowed the friendship of “an old colored man and a little boy.”

(Produced less than two years after “Gone wth the Wind,” the radioplay makes no statements about the evils of slavery or the Civil War, and hints at a romantic “plantation” image of the South in its opening scene.)

Karl Swenson plays Harris, and Juano Hernandez plays Uncle Terrell, his source for the Brer Rabbit tales, which Terrell tells him may have “come over on the slaver ships from Africa.”

When not preserving folk tales, Harris (1848-1908) rose to be an associate editor of The Atlanta Constitution, but his “Uncle Remus” stories were what made him an international celebrity — and guest of Teddy Roosevelt at the White House. Another former newspaperman, Mark Twain, makes an appearance in that scene, helping the shy Harris accept some of the honor due him.

For more on the Cavalcade series, see Martin Grams Jr.’s The History of the Cavalcade of America presented by DuPont.

For more about Harris, his biography at Wikipedia cites numerous sources.

For more about Arthur Miller as a radio writer… I think I will make some inquiries and do a little more research!

About Bob Stepno

mild-mannered reporter who fell deeper into computers and the Web during three trips through graduate school in the 1980s and 1990s, then began teaching journalism, media studies and Web production, most recently as a faculty member at Radford University.
This entry was posted in 1940s, 19th century, Brotherhood, columnists, editors, folklore, playwrights, Race. Bookmark the permalink.

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