Throw another log on the fire, Bourbon and branch water, please. Settle down for a Southern Humor Revival now opening in Washington for a four-year run. Maybe longer, because southern stories have a way of getting loooooonger.
One-liners are out; 50-liners are in.
Let us indulge in it, enjoys it, be mellowed by the retaking of Washington be Dixie. It's magnolia time on the Potomac and Southerners must not be overnervous when they hear a damn Yankee imitating the Southern style. We've waited for this a long time.
What is southern humor? Most humor is the breaking of an accepted pattern of thought, surprising or absurd. Southerners had to laugh at the devastation of defeat. There came a kinship and solidarity throughout the South while we were grubbing for radishes at Tara. Humor was our shield, and, in practicality, our form of entertainment in adversity and the hard Reconstruction Days.
We honed our humor out of the experiences of rural America. The subjects are often as simple as the weather, hound-dogs, family eccentricities or politics. Around the pot-bellied stove of the country store of a Saturday afternoon would gather black and white. Whoever got there first got the seats. For ages black and white Southerners laughed together before they could eat together.
Threaded into most Southern humor is a healthy defiance, a never say die, we're - not - whipped undertone. Henry W. Grady, post-Civil War editor of the Atlanta Constitution, once illustrated this point to a New England audience with the story of the two Confederate soldiers plodding home from Appromattox. They stopped by the roadside to roast some corn.
"You may leave the South if you want to," one tattered veteran remarked to the other, "but I'm going home to Sanderville, kiss my wife, raise a crop, and if the Yankees fool with me any more. I'll whip 'em again."
Another editor, Harry Ashmore, underlines this technique with the story of the old Confederate General Toombs who, after the war, retired to Washington, Georgia, a settlement of Confederate veterans on the outskirts of Atlanta.
Twice a week, General Toombs would take the steam train into Atlanta and "practice law" in a myriad of bars. Once, returning about sunset to find his Confederate colleagues lounging at the depot, he was asked, "What's the news from the city, General?"
"Great news! Great news!" the General replied. "Chicago's on fire and the wind's in our favor."
You only have to go a few miles south of Washington into Virginia to find Southern humor as it happens. On the 1960 whistlestop train, LBJ had just gotten wound up as the train was pulling out of the Culpeper depot, with the crowd still listening to his final words from the back platform.
"Tell me," LBJ shouted down the track," what has Dick Nixon ever done for Culpeper?"
"Hell," an old man shouted back, "what has anybody ever done for Culpeper?"
So popular was Uncle Remus, the elderly black storefront character, in the early 1900s that his creator, Joel Chandler Harris, was invited to the White House by President Teddy Roosevelt. Later, he wrote one of his dialect stories about the visit, attributing it to a character called Mr. Billy Sanders.
He wrote: "That's one thing about the White House that'll astonish you if you ever get that while Teddy is on hand. It's a home; it'll come over you like a sweet dream the minnit you get in the door and you'll wonder how they sweep out all the politics and keep the place clear an' wholesome."
Uncle Remus' tales were most often of Br'er Rabbit (who symbolizes the southern black) always getting into scrapes and usually outwitting Br'er Fox (the southern white). Told in dialect, these stories were de-popularized during the sensitive Sixties when our consciences were raised on civil rights. Only southern blacks have lincense to tell them now. Southern whites have had to substitute words like "country" for "colored," and the stories lost much of their richness in translation. Perhaps with Jimmy Carter putting the South on the map and the Texas Trilogy underscoring our own lore, we can all once again be allowed to tell dialect stories in the uninhibited and innocent original forms.
Southern stories are organic - out of the earth of a passionate and beaten-back part of the country. You Yankees are welcome to steal them - just like you did our silver - but give us credit. Don't rub out the initials.
Bible Belt Humor is often hand-me-down, quoting and requoting a long-ago teller.
In taking about the strides made in civil rights, Rep. Andrew Young frequently told the story used by the late Martin Luther King Jr.
King said an old Negro preacher used to pray: "Dear Lord, we ain't what we want to be and we ain't what we ought to be, but thank God we ain't what we was."
During LBJ days, Brooks Hays, a leading Baptist, was an assistant and great raconteur. Once when LBJ was admonishing his staff to work hard, Brooks Hays joined in, "Yes, Mr. President, you don't want to be like Moses. You remember the line in the Bible, 'Moses leaned on his staff and died.'"
Some humor is self-deprecating: Former Governor Marvin Griffith of Georgia likes to recall the reply that his brother, Chaney Griffin, gave when he was defeated for the state legislature.
"I got defeated for reasons of health," Chaney explained. "The voters got sick of me."
In the 1940s one great Georgia raconteur was "Miss Lucy" George, the wife of the senior Senator Walter George. Once I asked her if she ever made campaign speeches for the senator.
"Oh, mercy no, child," she replied, "I just sit on the platform to show folks I haven't got a cleft foot."
Betty Talmadge is much in the tradition of "Miss Lucy."
During the Watergate hearings, Senator Herman Talmadge was very much in the news on television each day. As Betty tells it, one weekend at their Lovejoy home, a little neighbor boy knocked on the door.
"I'd like to see the Senator about being President," he told her.
"Come on in, son," she replied, and called to Herman, "Honey, there's a little boy here who wants you to be President."
"Oh, no ma'm," the little boy interrupted quickly, "Not him. I want to talk about me being President."
The former mayor of Atlanta, Ivan Allen, most respected elder statesman of Georgia, is also one of the best humorists and kids himself about some of the inevitable frailities that come to everyone as they grow older.
"I've reached the age," he told me once, "where I spend all my time doing one of two things: trying to remember somebody's name or looking for the bathroom."
Ralph McGill, longtime columnist for the Atlanta Constitution, shoved the South toward integration long before it was popular. Once he wroted of himself:
In matters controversial
My perception's very fine,
I always see both sides of things
The one that's wrong and mine."
He added, "I am not a good crusader. I call my shots. I aim where I think a shot is needed. And I recall often the old motto, 'Lord, give me the one I had yesterday.'"
The City Slicker Story is told best by good ole boys and girls.
Britt Fayssoux, editor of the DeKalb New Era, a country newspaper near Atlanta, says, "As luck would have it for the nation's writers, we are not only going to have a pure-bred Southern country boy in the White House, but his brother is an authentic 'Good Ole Boy.' Billy Carter not only looks the part but acts it. Billy's motto is work hard; play hard. When Tom Brokaw, in a Today show interview, asked him, 'Which is the real Billy Carter, the hard-working fellow who runs a multimillion dollar business or the fellow who walks around town with a beer can in his hand?"
"Billy gave the classic country boy reply: 'From 5:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., I'm the first Billy Carter. From 5:30 in the afternoon, I'm the second Billy Carter.'"
LBJ used to warn politicl friends "When someone tells you he's a country boy, keep your hand on your pocketbook."
One thing many good old boys and girls have in common is a grin. Roy Reed, a Southern-born writer for the New York Times, explains the grin:
"Everybody in the country by now has seen Jimmy's brother Billy grinning on television. Sometimes he is grinning and is saying and is saying something mean. Northern reporters are then shown looking perplexed, wondering if they have missed the joke . . .
"The Southern grin means whatever the grinner wants it to mean. Sometimes it reflects honest pleasure and approval. Other times it hides - but not quite - anger, fear, hatred, or hurt.
"What it boils down to is that 'Good Ole Boys' have certain common characteritics, but they are hard to pigeonhole."
Kissin' Jim Folsom, former governor of Alabama, is a "Good Ole Boy." Once when visiting an aircraft carrier, the military insisted on rolling him out of bed early one morning to see "a really great air show."
Still bleary-eyed from a long night before, Kissin' Jim stood and watched as one of the planes suddenly blew up, the pilot bailed out, and the plane crashed into one of the ships, creating a fiery holocaust.
Observed Governor Folsom: "Well, if that ain't a show, you can kiss my ass."
On the campaign trail my Jimmy Carter has had some lighter moments. Back in 1975 when the family was not well known, he once told an audience.
"Someone came up to me the other day and said, "Governor Carter, Mrs. Ford has said that she wouldn't be surprised if her daughter told her that she was having an affair. Now , let me ask, how would you react if you heard that your daughter was having an affair?
"I told him, 'Mrs. Carter and I would be shocked, horrified, and deeply disappointed.'
"I then paused. 'But our daughter is only seven years old'."
Jimmy Carter at an AFL-CIO Convention in September of 1976:
"Sometimes two candidates can debate and the audience stays confused. I've tried to think of a story that would illustrate this point and the only one I could think of was about a young divinity student who was very proud of his pure reputation. He always went to church, studied hard, never had dates, and he wanted to be sure that anybody thought that he was very, very holy and very pure.
"One night he went into a restaurant. The restaurant was crowded. He sat down at one of the booths and after a while a nice-looking young girl came in. She looked all around and she couldn't find another place to sit, so she sat down with him.
"He was very embarrassed and he leaned over and said. 'I'm glad to have you here. I'm a divinity student and I don't have dates, but I think we can sit together since the restaurant is so crowded.'
"And she screamed at the top of her voice, 'To your hotel room!'
"He said, 'I didn't say anything about a hotel room. I just said that I'm glad that we are sitting here together, here in the restaurant.'
"And she shouted, "To spend the whole night!"
And he said, 'You've embarrassed me terribly. What are you talking about?'
"And she said, 'Well, to tell you the truth, I'm a psychology student and my professor said I had to say something startling to someone I met to see what his reaction was. I didn't mean any harm by it.'
"And he shouted at the top of his voice, 'Fifty dollars!"
Told at the National Conference of Catholic Charities meeting in Denver on October 6, 1976:
I tried to think of a story that would illustrate the purpose of our conference. I thought of an old gentleman who ran a little country store in south Georgia. He was a shrewd merchant but he was also very devout. He tried to put an aura of being deeply religious whenever he dealt with his customers to give a good image and for public relations. Whenever he rang up a sale, he would always say a Bible verse.
One day his grandson was ther visiting and he wanted to put on a good impression. A lady came in, it was drizzling rain, and she bought some cheese and some bread. And he went over and it was about a 30-cent sale, and he thought awhile and he said, "The Lord will provide," and rang up the sale and put the money in the cast register.
In about twenty minutes she came back and she threw the cheese and the bread on the counter and said, "The cheese is too hard and the bread is stale. I want my money back." So the old gentleman reluctantly put the produce back on the counter and went to the cash register. He thought for a little while and finally hit the keys and said, "The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away."
The lady left, and about that time it began to rain a little harder, and a Cadillac automobile drew up in front - a beautiful car with a nice trailer behind and a racehorse in the trailer. A gentleman came running in and he said, "I've got to have a blanket for my horse."
The old gentleman had three very cheap blankets on the counter, all the same quality but different colors. He put a blue blanket on the counter and the gentleman asked, "How much is it?" And he said, "Five dollars." He said, "That's too cheap. Do you have nicer blanket?"
The old gentleman put the blue blanket back on the counter, picked up a yellow blanket, and he said "How about this one?" And the traveler said, "How much do you want for it?" He said, "It's only twenty dollars."
The fellow said, "I've got a horse outside that's worth about half a million dollars. I can't afford to put a $20 blanket on a half a million dollar horse. Is this all you've got? I've got to leave if it is?"
The old man said, "No sir, I've got one more blanket. I've got a nice red blanket."
"Well, how much is it?" he asked.
"Well, I can let you have this blanket for a hundred dollars."
And the guy said, "Okay, I'll take it."
So he gave him $100 and went outside, put the blanket on the horse, and drove off. His grandson knew that all three blankets ordinarily sold for about three dollars. So the old gentleman went over to the cash register, and his grandson watched him very closely, and he finally hit the cash register, his face brighteened up, and he said, "He was a stranger and we took him in."