"I went a-fishing one time and - back them days had a lot of shine likker here in this country, and I did like it.Once in a while I carried me a bottle with me. I was sittin' down there fishin' and just about run out of bait. I heard something come down through the leaves, you know, behind me. I looked around - great big old snake with a frog in his mouth. 'Well, you can't bite me, I'll get that frog.' And I just caught him back of the head - poured a little of that likker in his mouth - got the frog - just throwed the snake back off out there. Cut the frog up and was fishing with him, directly I heard something comin' down over here. It was that same snake, comin' back with another frog.
Story told by Charlie Hill at a gathering in Trifton, Ca.
THE LIBRARY of Congress last week opened its first three-dimensional exhibit, based on Georgia folk, to continue through April 3. The show is in three parts: "Missing Pieces, Georgia Folk Art, 1770 - 1976," 100 pieces of folk art, pottery, paintings, quilts: "Sketches of South Georgia Folklife," a collection of photographs - 'folkographs' of south central Georgia, and a 28-minute movie of folk artists and storytellers.
The real Georgia folk art is storytelling. People talk a lot in Georgia; especially South Georgia. Twilight lasts longer there. In that pinky glow between the day's work and the evening's rest, people sit on their front porches - the children and the dogs on the steps - drink ice tea, chew sugar cane and tell stories.
The plot isn't the primary thing. No credit is given for conciseness nor economy of words. It is the wit, the language, the gestures and the mimicry that are important. In a way, it's rather like a homegrown version of the commedia dell'arte , with certain stock characters, reinterpreted by the actors of the moment, themes and variations, prose fugues. Some of the same stories are told over and over again, and the fun is to see how the actor plays it this time.
"What kinda dog is that?" "I rekon it's a setter pointer." "Which you mean, a setter or a pointer?" "It's both. It sets on the back porch and points at the kitchen."
"Where does your aunt live?" "Why she lives at Plum Nelly." "Where's that?" "It's plum out of the city and nelly out of the county."
Sometimes the stories go on long after the last fluff of pink has faded from the sky. And then they tell about the haints. There's one where the storyteller speaks softer and softer and softer, all the time looking hard at the smallest child there. Then, he stops, still staring, and all of a sudden he grabs the child and yells "Gottcha." The child is then carried off wailing to be comforted with cookies. Mark Twain wrote that one down as "The Golden Arm", but he wasn't the first to tell it.
Your real Georgian would tell you that Jimmy Carter's South Georgia tale-telling was ruined - ruint, is the proper term - perhaps by his sojourn at the Naval Academy. The president says what he's going to say without a lot of frills and fancies, embellishments or elaborations. He doesn't vary his inflections much, tending to end sentences with rising inflections. He almost deliberately eschews the story, the fable, the pause for effect, the emotional plea, the dramatic raising and lowering of the voice - the hollering and the whispering. It is as if he feels that the traditional Georgia politician rhetoric, derived as it is from standard Georgia preacher style, would be suspect away from home. And he may be right, for puns, piety and pathos are local wines and don't always travel well.
So it is that in the Library of Congress exhibit the Georgia stories are confined to the 28-minute movie and the catalog for "Sketches." And we have to make do with visual manifestations of folk art, not Georgia's major industry, though a panoramic view of Savannah, painted in tempera by Joseph Louis Firmin Cerveau in 1837, is worth the trip to the Library to see.
The painting is generally regarded as one of the best examples of naive American cityscape painting extant. Amazingly enough the cityscape, which hung for years in brilliant sunlight, seems to have suffered little fading, and remains today much as it was when Cerveau, an immigrant from Asia Minor, recorded the city as seen from the tower of the Exchange, detailing in his 'se-gar' store, the clothing shops, the newspapers, the grocery, the bookstore and the City Hotel. Savanah today has thankfully perserved much of what you see in the painting: handsome old buildings and James Oglethorpe's splendid system of parts.
Pottery, textiles, woodcarving and painting make up "Missing Pieces, Georgia Folk Art, 1770-1976," organized by Anna Wadsworth for the Georgia Council for the Arts and Humanities (with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts) as a Bicentennial show. The show is an original piece of research - one of the few efforts to collect and collate Georgia folk art in the round.
Of course, the best-selling "Foxfire" books, edited by Eliot Wigginton, who contributed to this exhibit's catalog, are a masterful codification of oral folk traditions, the best of all possible types of folk studies. But Georgian three-dimensional folk art, previously has been neglected - unfortunately Georgia was not even one of those recorded in the mammoth "Index of American Design," compiled during the Depression by Federal Works Administration artists.
Indeed, northern craftsworkers and craft experts know little of the southern crafts tradition, though in the South, crafts have waxed and waned but never vanished. Industry came late to the South, freight rates were discriminatory, and many people worked for themselves, on or near the land - all encouragement to craftwork as a living trade. Even today, there are potters, basket weavers, chenille bedspread makers, woodcarvers and sign painters who practice their skills in ways that go, as does the saying, "a fur piece back."
It is a truism that poverty, to some extent, is an aid to preservation. James Biddle, head of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the owner Andulsia, one of the first Greek Revival houses in the country, is fond of saying his house is so well preserved and unchanged because "my ancestors never had the money to improve it."
In many ways, the 100-odd objects in the show, are almost a sculptural, or solidified version of the folk tales. As such, they show most of the same elements including humor and religion (both good and evil, Biblical and heathen allusions).
The best pieces are the funny ones. "Devil Jug" by Lanier Meaders is a variation of a face jug - by tradition pottery jugs made at the end of the day when everybody was sick and tired of throwing plain ones. Some were said to be actual portraits in clay of friends - or enemies. The devil, never far from folks' minds, is a favorite subject. Other fine face jugs in the show are by William Thomas Belah Gordy and William J. Gordy, relatives of President Carter. D.X. Gordy, son to W.T.B. Gordy, still works as a potter at Westville village, as Mrs. Carter pointed out when she commissioned potters over the country to do place settings for a White House luncheon.
Pottery has been made in Georgia since 2500 B.C., judging by ceramics found in the Savannah River area. Andrew Duche, according to the catalog, son to a Huguenot potter, claimed to have been the first potter outside of China to make true porcelain circa 1738-1743. Pottery centers, called "jugtowns," had their heyday in the 1820s and '40s when their wares were greatly in demand.
The face jugs are made in some other states as well - perhaps deriving from the Toby jugs of England. Dr. John A. Burrison of Atlanta, suggests in the catalog that the grave pot, used in cemeteries for flowers and/or in lieu of a tombstone, may be a purely southern phenomenon. He doesn't seem to take into account similar Indian and oriental funerary practices.
The Georgia pottery, as well as the fine baskets (including an especially nice rice-winnowing one made by the Gullahs, a black tribe off Brunswick) are familiar to Washingtonians from the Folklife Festival. Ralph Rinzler, director of the festival, long has been a fan of the craft tradition of the area.
The woodcarving in the show, by both black and white carvers, as well as the basketry, clearly derive from African traditions. The African influence is especially strong in the canes with the alligator motifs (the one by William Rogers, carved in 1938 is remarkable) and the spoon with a head.
Unfortunately, probably the greatest piece of Georgia folk art, the fine Harriet Powers quilt, is not in the show, because its condition is too delicate for it to be moved from the Museum of History and Technology here. But it can be seen there. The Powers quilt, 1895-1898, is a clear derivation in technique from the Dahomey applique makers.
Jessie Telfair's brilliant 1975 "Freedom Quilt," of red, white and blue, and Mannie Holand Jefferson's 1860 pineapple quilt, both fortunately in the exhibit, are abstract art of a quality good enough to be considered fine rather than folk art.
Some of the 19th-century portrait paintings are rather pleasant.The naive still lifes and landscapes by Mattie Lou O'Kelley, a 70-year-old woman who still paints, are clearly the prizes. Unfortunately a few of the paintings and drawings by others are so bad as to remind one that not all that is folk is art. There are some other artifacts from Georgia's well-known eccentric creators of roadside attractions, here edified with the name "environmental art." These lesser versions of the Watts towers in California include a road-sign by the Rev. Howard Finster outside his Paradise Garden:
"I took the pieces you
Threw away and put them
Togather (sic) by night and day.
Washed by rain, dried by sun
A million pieces all in one."
"Sketches of South Georgia Folklife," a small booklet edited by Carl Fleischhauer and Howard W. Marshall of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, is the published work which grew out of a six-week field project in eight Georgia counties by the Folklife Center, headed by Alan Jabbour. The project was begun at the request of Syd Blackmar, director of the Arts Experiment Station at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College.
By far the most interesting material collected are the 1930s photographs of tobacco harvesting and marketing and the recent pictures of the more common types of houses, almost always wood: the log cabin, and the houses called by their floor plans, the hall and parlor house, the double pen house, the central hall house, the shotgun house (believed by some authorities to be of African origin) and the perhaps too grandiosely title "Georgian" house.
The floor plans have interesting variations, primarily the placement of porches: sometimes between the principal house and the kitchen, sometimes actually' dividing the house so that you have to go out on the porch to get from one bedroom to the other (an encouragement to chasity?). Almost all had more than one porch or veranda, used not only to sit on, but as a place to do the wash (later the electric clothes washers were installed on porches). Often the water pump, the only source of water, was on the porch. Almost all the houses were heated by stoves or fireplaces.
Some of the central halls, according to the Library study, had no front or back doors or only screen doors, so that a constant airwash cooled the house. One man told the study group that the old family house, now replaced by a fancier new one, was several degrees cooler. Most houses have tall ceilings, high half stories or attics used only for their insulating effect against the heat.
The overwhelming dominance of farm and church in the eight counties studied is clearly to be seen in the photographs. Plains, President Carter's home, is actually just to the west of the area, but the architecture, the crops and the life are much the same.
I was born in Valdosta, just to the east of these counties. I left 30-odd years ago. I've now been away longer than I was there. But a South Georgian accent lingers all your life, especially if, like me, you see no reason to cast off your heritage. Looking at the photographs of the small country churches, I see little difference from the ones where my grandfather preached when he was a circuit-riding Methodist preacher in the '20s and '30s. The houses look very much like the ones he lived in around Faceville. Ga. The tobacco plants don't seem to have changed at all. And the stories, oh the stories, seem to be the very ones I heard on the doorsteps.
Looking at the exhibit made me feel a bit like the Samoans must have felt about Margaret Mead. And, in company with all peoples whose quaint tribal ways are studied by outside experts, I have a feeling that the natives kept all the best stories to themselves.