DR. JOHNSON used to say of women preachers that the miracle was they could do it at all - he was not notably liberated, as you know - and something of the same condescension attaches to the folk are of Mississippi.
After four films about blues, horse trading, writing, painting, etc., in the Delta or edge-of-Delta country this week at the American Film Institute, I heard a fellow from North Carolina say:
"That was a wonderful story of Eudora Welty's. But anybody in the South could have written it."
"But," I said, "if you try it, it doesn't always turn out as well as Eudora's. Even if you know it as well as she does, and like it as well."
Here, over fried chicken and square biscuits - I am not sure I ever ate square biscuits before and cannot say I approve of them, but very likely they are short of Calumet cans up here to cut biscuits with - here we were at the central crisis of Art.
To save you a lot of time fooling around with philosophers and critics, let me say art is essentially the business of making something out of nothing.
The materials are nothing. The form is all.
That is why everybody knows stories about Papa-Daddy and the postmistress of the second smallest post office in Mississippi (the subject of Welty's story in this film about female artists of (Mississippi). Yes. But more people know the stories than write them, and more people write them than write them with glory.
In the first place, nobody should consider the highly sophisticated letters of Eudora Welty a folk art, unless those other books about Achilles and Quixote and Swann, etc., are also folky.
Then what about Theora Hamblett? She used to paint dotty pictures of mules pulling cotton wagons to the gin (with a little fellow plopped out happy in that white warm rush) and besides she had visions.
Is her stuff folk art or is it Art?
When they fired the furnaces of Chartres to melt the metal for the windows bigger than a housed, it was a large deal, of course, and we don't call the result folk art any more. We don't even call it barbarian any more. But they made their windows the same way Pecolia Warner made her quilts in Mississippi, or the way Theora Hamblett painted all her dots, or the wya Walty fidgeted with her words. That is, by fooling around till it seemed right, then they let it alone.
In her film, Theora (who died in 1977 - and she wasn't even 85 yet) said she wondered if any man would confess to having visions as she did. She just painted what she saw. Sometimes in dreams.
When her brother died she had a dream and knew he was gone. She painted him with white stars coming out his eyes. Which brings us ot another crisis in Art:
Art is far more than expression, and the integrity of the vision is somethat beside the point. Execution is all. Communion is all.
She wanted to paint a transcendent scene.
In her dream she had seen his eyes and "On," she said, "how they shone with joy and glory."
Glory, however, is hard to manage with a pot of paint. Or even with all the riches of a gorgeous language. it is not often acheived. The attempt was fine, and as Ovid once said of Phaeton, who fell out of the sky and was killed for trying to drive the horses of the sun god, he gave it a royal go before he died.
But success, with Theora, came more often in her nonglory moments when she painted a kid in a cotton wagon going up the hill to the gin. Or a garland of girls rompimng around under some cottonwood trees.
If these pictures are tender and disarming, rather than ovewhelming and glorious well, that is all right.
Time has a way of sparing minor monuments, and the mere action of a flower has a way of outlastin gates of steel.
As these films ran on, to the increasing enchantment of the packed theater, teh point was not that this quilt or that horse-trader or this barber whooshing rhythms with the razor on his strop, were supreme expressions of the human sould brooding on glory. No sir.
But they showed the human animal - so little lower than the angels - making music out of a broom wire, and that is the core of courage and the glory of any generation.
Not that life is hell. But it can stand some fixing up, and in all generations all men try to improve it, sometimes with dandy results.
Music can come out of brooms. Mysic can come out of drudgery in the fields. Though chopping cotton can be an agreeable way to spend the day, cotton is you don't make enough and the main trouble with chopping money to support a good life.
Of course these films were not offered as excercises in art, anyway - though art informed them all - but as documents of how people get through the world finding grace where none was apparent.
One of the poets once mentioned those who have a few coppers from a gilded country. But I thought it was even more surprising to scrounge up freshness in a weary land.
Not that Mississppi is anybody's desert - the egrets in those cypresses with plumes as rich as theirs. But it is financially poor and book learning - well, I am not sure it makes any difference if the "P Quilt" made by Precolia Warner has the P backwards.
Now Mr. Ray Lum, subject of one film, didn't even write up stories or make quilts or anything arty like that, but he did talk pretty steady till he died (and he was not yet 90, and could ill be spared, but the ways of the Lord are hard to figure out).
A man complained that the horse Mr. Ray sold him died the next day. Mr. Ray was shocked. "He never pulled that trick on anybody before."
Mr. Ray was a trader. yoy may have met him up here in Washington at the Folk Life Festival. He used to ride all over the Delta in his old Buick stuffed with boots and saddle bags and he once bought 80,000 horses in Dakota and sold them off just fine. Mr. Ray could sell a fly a fly swatter.
He left no art, for his memorial. No more than a dancer does, or a song when it's over.
People in the theater began to get homesick.
"I saved up all this money to go to Russia this summer, and why the hell am I going to Russia? I'm going back to the South," a gentlemansaid.
"I'm not but 34 years old," said Rebecca Harrington, on loan from Carolina, "so I don't date way back to the old days, but those films took me back. As if I were 150, and no 34 at all."
There is that to be thought of. Not only is art valuable for its esthtic wattage, or for its symbol of courage - the music from the broom, the jewel from the toad and all that - but also for its communion.
"I'm glad they got Mr. Ray on film," said Ruff Fant, once of Holly Springs. "When my grandchildren some day go back to find out their roots and see nothing but a lot of McDonald hamburger places. I don't want them to think that's all we ever had."
So art serves history too. My house is full of junk. That sofa was on a boat. That food safe was in a barn.
That picture shows the Sultans burning, across from the Memphis harbor. Right as 2,000 soldiers going home from Andersonvill got killed. I just blew up and the wind shifted and blew the fire right over them. Lincoln had been shot but not yet buried the day that happened.
Yonder is a block of marble that fell off the city hall. Just fell off. So it's true to say people value things that have value, and you can't always tell by looking.
It was the Center for Southern Folklore that made these films. I had meant to tell you all about Judy Peiser and Bill Ferris, who are mainly responsible.
Judy had got red hair. Bill's daddy is planting soybeans but his mother, Shelby Ferris, was up from Vicksburg to see the show. She keeps a scrap book on her boy.
Bill has been teaching up at Yale. He knows lots of Yankees. Likes them just fine. Judy used to live on Momosa Street in Memphis, but now is at 1216 Peabody Ave. That house has lots of copper trim that used to shine like gold but is green now. A fellow tried to paint it white but she stopped him.
"Why don't we just go to Mississppi and see all this?" somebody said. "All that music in the joints . . ."
You don't just "go and see it," if the thing you are after is the heart of man. It takes time. When Theora talks about her brother's eyes, when Pecolia talks about the ladies yapping around the quilt and how she, a little girl, was scared of getting stomped on, and when Mr. Ray lets you hear him order 150 pairs of boots so he can trade them, those are things you are not going to see driving through the Delta hell-bent for Memphis.
You aren't going to get in Parchman (the prison) and if you did (which God fobid), you aren't going to hear right off why the man didn't find nobody to give his poor heart ease. These things are in the films, and they are true, and they are very wonderdul, (and you can rent them for $25 or so). But you aren't going to find them, roaring around the clover-leafs hoping you come out on the right throughway.
Skip the filmmakers. Some other day. The celluloid pretty much tells you who they are and what they are. Alleluia.