Southern Comfort’s Homecoming

Socopic

Last week Kentucky-based Brown-Forman Corporation, which owns the Jack Daniels and Woodford Reserve brands, announced it is selling the Southern Comfort brand to the New Orleans-based Sazerac Company.  Many will see this as a homecoming for Southern Comfort.

The original recipe for the whiskey-flavored liqueur is credited to a New Orleans bartender named Martin Wilkes Heron who created the concoction in 1874, which he named “Cuffs and Buttons.”  Heron later moved to Memphis where he began bottling his recipe in 1889, and renamed it “Southern Comfort.”

Southern Comfort's tie-in with GWTW.

SoCo, as it’s often called, has stiff competition from flavored whiskeys and has seen a decline in sales in recent years.  But it wasn’t always the case.

Southern Comfort enjoyed a major boost in 1939 when it became one of several companies that tied their brands to the enormously successful film Gone with the Wind.  In the case of SoCo, it was the creation of the “Scarlet O’Hara Cocktail.”

The drink, made with cranberry juice and Southern Comfort with a squeeze of lime, was marketed as the “Grand Old Drink from the South.”  The then New York-based distributors of the brand suggested that customers “try it in a Scarlet O’Hara cocktail, but no more than two lest you be Gone with the Wind.”

Because SoCo is sweet, it has long had the reputation of being more appealing to women.  It was certainly a favorite of ’60s rocker Janis Joplin.

So a few years ago, Southern Comfort sought to increase sales among men with the commercial called “Whatever’s Comfortable.”

While the commercial caught people’s attention, it didn’t draw much of a new male customer base.

It will be interesting to see what Sazerac does in its marketing of Southern Comfort now that it’ll be back in the Crescent City. Personally, I’d recommend some heritage marketing that ties it back to the place where it all began.

Cheers!

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Portraits of Aunt Jemima in Black and Blackface

Aunt-JemimaOne of the most iconic advertising images of the twentieth century is Aunt Jemima, and recently the heirs of Nancy Green and Anna Harrington, just two of the women whose portraits were used as the “face” of the brand, are suing Quaker Oats for $2 billion and future revenues, claiming that not only did Green and Harrington portray Aunt Jemima, they were influential in shaping the recipe.  Attorneys for Quaker Oats are saying “hold on a minute,” Aunt Jemima might be the brand, but she was “never real.”

Yes and no.

The “biography” of Aunt Jemima was the creation of the J. Walter Thompson Agency based in New York. More specifically, it was the creation of James Webb Young, a native of Covington, Kentucky.  According to internal documents of the agency, the story of Aunt Jemima was that she came from Louisiana.  So, yes, the story is a creation.

256px-Aunt_Jemima,_AB_Frost
Portrait of Nancy Green by Arthur Burdette Frost.

Yet it is also true that Nancy Green, then a Chicago domestic, portrayed “Aunt Jemima” at the 1893 World’s Fair and made a career of doing so for nearly twenty years after the fair. More to the point, Green’s face was, in fact, the first image of Aunt Jemima to appear on the pancake box.  The Thompson Agency hired Arthur Burdette Frost, better known for his illustrations of Uncle Remus tales, to paint Green’s portrait.

If she contributed to the recipe, we may never know, but we do know that white women often took their maids’ recipes and passed them off as their own, a tradition that even Paula Deen maintained when she co-opted recipes from Dora Charles, a black woman who had worked in Deen’s Savannah restaurant for years.

It is true that several black women portrayed Aunt Jemima at various state fairs during the early decades of the twentieth century. They greatly assisted the brand by lending an authenticity to the product as being a particularly “southern” recipe.  This was in keeping with the character created by the Thompson Agency, whose story was that Aunt Jemima had been a slave and that she created the recipe that brought her such fame that it caused jealousy among other mammies.

But on radio, it was a different story. In a short program called Aunt Jemima Radio, which ran from 1930 to about 1942, she was portayed by several white women who were essentially doing a radio minstrel act. One of those women was Tess Gardella, an Italian-American actress from Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Gardella had played “Queenie” in the stage version of Show Boat, and she parlayed that experience into performing as Aunt Jemima on the radio. She also played Aunt Jemima in a film short.  It is even on her gravestone.

Gardella's gravestone
Gardella’s gravestone
Tess Gardella as Aunt Jemima, early 1930s

Tess Gardella is also interesting because she filed a lawsuit against NBC for allowing an “imposter to broadcast as ‘Aunt Jemima,’ when as a matter of fact she [Gardella] had been using that name for years on stage and air.”  The actress further claimed that she had the right to use the name “by virtue of authority from the Quaker Oats Company.”  She won her lawsuit and nearly $116,000 in damages.

The heirs of Nancy Green and Anna Harrington may have a difficult time in the courts because, unlike Gardella, they did not have a contract.  Still, their lawsuit brings into sharp relief the ways American companies have profited by using images of African Americans to brand their products.

*Some of the ideas expressed in this post are drawn from Dreaming of Dixie: How the South was Created in American Popular Culture (UNC Press, 2011), 40-41.

 

Looking at Appalachia: Fifty years after the War on Poverty

LBJ with the Fletcher family of Inez, KY.
LBJ with the Fletcher family of Inez, KY.

During his State of the Union address in January 1964,  President Lyndon B. Johnson unveiled his plans to address the nation’s poverty, which then hovered at a rate of nineteen percent. The major legislative initiatives in what became known as the War on Poverty included the Food Stamp Act, the Social Security Act (which created Medicare and Medicaid), and the Economic Opportunity Act (which created Job Corps and the Volunteers in Service to America programs).  This year marks the 50th anniversary of War on Poverty and, as with most historical anniversaries, both the media and scholars have weighed in with critiques and analyses of its legacy, often leading to statements about how we, as a nation, have lost the war on poverty.

But will any of it make a difference in how we view those in poverty?  And will we continue to dismiss the real struggles of the men, women, and children living in poverty with biased and uninformed assumptions about their bad decisions, their alleged laziness, or their desire to live off the government?

Very often, stories and images of Appalachia are used to illustrate the nation’s poverty.  This was the case in the 1960s and it’s still this way today. The New York Times does so with regularity.  (See, for example, this article or this one.)

Leroy Rigman, Pendleton County, WV. Photo by Chris Jackson, April 26, 2014.
Leroy Rigman, Pendleton County, WV. Photo by Chris Jackson, April 26, 2014.

But hope abounds.

There’s a terrific documentary photography project called Looking at Appalachia that operates from a different set of assumptions. Poverty is not just about statistics, it’s about human beings. More than that, poverty is not always a choice. And as for Appalachia, despite its issues with poverty, it is also home.  The images from this project reflect the beauty of the landscape and the people without succumbing to stereotype. And here is where art makes a difference.

As the Looking at Appalachia project notes:

Many of the War on Poverty photographs, whether intentional or not, became a visual definition of Appalachia. These images have often drawn from the poorest areas and people to gain support for the intended cause, but unjustly came to represent the entirety of the region while simultaneously perpetuating stereotypes.

 

Tent revival in Pike County, KY.  Photo by Roger May, July 19, 2014.
Tent revival in Pike County, KY. Photo by Roger May, July 19, 2014.

The project’s director, Roger May, is a documentary photographer from the Tug Valley region of southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky.  I asked Roger about how his project might help to dispel these stereotypes:

Well, it’s important to realize that this project can’t or won’t single-handedly dispel decades worth of stacked myths and stereotypes. We all know how powerful images can be. We certainly didn’t get here overnight, so I don’t think we’ll reverse course that quickly either. What I like about the idea of this project is that it’s purpose isn’t to negate those pictures and ideas, but rather hopefully it’ll dilute them to a point that folks who both are, and aren’t, familiar with Appalachia will have another frame of reference for people and place. I see these photographs as added voices to a conversation that started well before the War on Poverty was declared and ones that’ll be around for a long while to come. We can’t ignore stereotypes and at the same time, we can’t deny elements of truth in them. What we can do is keep our hands to the plow of reminding folks that people are people no matter where you go. If we’re collectively willing to sit a while, listen, and try to understand on an individual level, we might surprise ourselves with what we find.

Cullman County, Alabama. Photo by Tamara Reynolds, Jan. 4, 2014.
Cullman County, Alabama. Photo by Tamara Reynolds, Jan. 4, 2014.

And what has been the impact of this project so far?

“The impact I’ve noticed from the project so far has been positive. Folks seem to be generally excited about Appalachia being shown in a different light, a more modern take on a place we all tend to see stuck in the past. Appalachia is one of those places that’s easy to romanticize and quite often the “othering” that happens there is, I think, somewhat self-induced. That’s really OK, but I think it’s important to pursue and embrace change, whatever that might look like. Traditions don’t have to be sacrificed for modernity, but let’s be truthful in our representations.”

Carl Elijah Johnson, Asheville, NC. Photo by George Etheredge, May4, 2014.
Carl Elijah Johnson, Asheville, NC. Photo by George Etheredge, May4, 2014.

Aside from the project’s website, what are your plans for extending the life of the project?

In early 2015, I’ll be working with the project’s editorial and advisory boards to work through the online images and make selections for print. We’ll be coordinating with galleries, colleges, and universities throughout the Appalachian and outlying regions to host exhibitions of the work and would like to see it travel throughout 2015 and 2016. I’d love to see a companion catalog of work release next year as well, but funding will dictate most of this. At this point, we haven’t secured an grants or private donations. Moving forward, I plan to continue the project as long as there’s an interest and folks are willing to submit images. I’d also very much like to see a quarterly print publication evolve from this.

Moundsville, Marshall County, WV. Photo by Rebecca Kiger, July 17, 2014
Moundsville, Marshall County, WV. Photo by Rebecca Kiger, July 17, 2014

I encourage readers of Pop South to take visit the Looking at Appalachia website as well as Roger May’s personal site called Walk your camera.

One final note from Roger: I’d just really like to take an opportunity to thank the folks who have helped so much with this project behind the scenes and who helped get it off the ground. Aaron Blum, Kate Fowler, Chris Fowler, Raymond Thompson Jr., Megan King, Susan Worsham, Pat Jarrett, John Edwin Mason, Pete Brook, Joy Salyers, Elaine McMillion Sheldon, Rob Amberg, Nic Persinger, and many, many others. This project couldn’t move forward without their help and support. And of course, all the photographers who have submitted work so far. This project belongs to everyone.

Appalachia, the American South and Urban Condescension

"The smudge of the country. . ."
“The smudge of the country. . .”

It happened again last week.  Another journalist took a swipe at my beloved Appalachia.  Yet it’s difficult to stand tall against national media outlets like the New York Times. Even I know this. As someone who has published op-eds in the Times, I am very familiar with its impact.

Right now, Annie Lowery’s email box is probably filling up with reactions to her piece “What’s the Matter With Eastern Kentucky“.  She’s also feeling the wrath of Appalachian writers decrying Lowery’s “urban condescension,” as the essayist and playwright  Anne Shelby put it.  Shelby lives in Clay County, Kentucky, the county that, according to Lowery, has the distinction of being dead last in the country for “quality of life.”

At least that’s case based on statistics drawn from metrics a Times “data-analysis venture” calculated.  I can get down with statistics.  I can even agree with them.  But where’s the broader context and where are the people in this story?

Shelby is spot on when she calls Lowery out for “urban condescension,” because that’s what it amounts to.  Lowery and other journalists often fall into the trap of treating urban living as “better” than rural living. There’s also some regional condescension going on as well when she refers to the Deep South and Appalachia as “the smudge of the country between New Orleans and Pittsburgh.”  The “smudge?”  Really?

Me in the country just outside of Huntington, WV, ca. 1966.
Pre-blogging days in the country just outside of Huntington, WV, ca. 1966.

We also get a lot of rhetoric about where the folks from Eastern Kentucky should move if they want a better quality of life, but what’s missing is an understanding that, despite its poverty, Appalachia is their home. I have lived in the South all of my life.  I was born in West Virginia and when asked I will always claim it as where I’m from.

Sadly, many people have left the region to pursue jobs or an education elsewhere, so Lowery’s point about declining populations in Appalachia is well taken.  And yet the stereotypes implicit in Lowery’s piece, and others that take patronizing aim at the region’s poverty, do absolutely nothing to better our understanding of the people or the place.

Thankfully, there are writers like Anne Shelby and Silas House who speak the truth about Appalachia.  And, then there’s this wonderful guy named Roger May, a photographer who is directing a project called “Looking at Appalachia” that takes direct aim at the negative ways that the War on Poverty has visually defined the region for more than two generations.

He knows, and I know, there is beauty in those hills and hollers, and it includes the people who live there.  And that’s no statistic.

 

 

Pop Culture’s Southern Gentleman

This winter Atlanta, (and the South more broadly), got skewered in the media when a snowfall of just two inches snarled traffic on the interstate highways that cut through the heart of the city, causing several hundred people to abandon their cars and walk home, in some cases, for several miles. Saturday Night Live‘s Weekend Update covered the news story in classic SNL style by having “Atlanta resident” and storm survivor “Buford Calloway” offer a firsthand account.

The character of Buford Calloway is one in a long line of southern gentleman and a central figure in the pop culture pantheon of southern icons who make up the plantation legend. The southern gentleman, in fact, has a history in popular culture that extends well into the antebellum period. One of the earliest descriptions of the southern gentleman can be found in John Pendleton Kennedy’s book Swallow Barn (1832), who appears in the character of Frank Meriwether, a 45 year-old Virginia planter. Kennedy introduces him this way:

“Good cheer and a good temper both tell well upon him. The first has given him a comfortable full figure, and the latter certain easy, contemplative habits, that incline him to be lazy and philosophical. He has the substantial planter look that belongs to a gentleman who lives on his estate, and is not much vexed with the crosses of life.”

Leslie Howard as Ashley Wilkes in Gone with the Wind
Leslie Howard as Ashley Wilkes in Gone with the Wind

The southern gentleman has long been seen as an insular man who doesn’t venture far beyond his homeland (the South) or, in the case of Frank Meriwether, his estate. He is well-read and attentive to his personal appearance, but he’s not really a man’s man. He’s a tad soft, because he owns the land and doesn’t work it. You can see hints of these character traits in SNL’s Buford Calloway. He clearly doesn’t venture beyond Georgia, or even Atlanta, and lumps South Carolina in with “the North.”  And, he’s a well-groomed fellow who not only doesn’t appear to engage in manual labor, he likely gets manicures.

Tom Hanks in The LadyKillers (2004)
Tom Hanks in The LadyKillers (2004)

A century after Americans were introduced to Frank Meriwether, the southern gentleman of popular culture had changed very little. He made regular appearances in films of the 1930s.  He was Duncan Bedford (played by Randolph Scott) in “So Red the Rose,” Herbert Cary (played by John Boles) in “The Littlest Rebel,” and Preston Dillard (played by Henry Fonda) in “Jezebel.” More than anyone, he was Ashley Wilkes who Leslie Howard brought to life in “Gone with the Wind.”  (Sorry ladies, Rhett Butler was not a gentleman.) More recently, Tom Hanks offered his interpretation in 2004’s “The Ladykillers,” a Coen Brothers remake of the 1955 film set in London, as Professor Goldthwaite Higginson Dorr.

The Southern Gentleman drinks bourbon.
The Southern Gentleman drinks bourbon.
The Southern Gentleman Costume
The Southern Gentleman Costume

The southern gentleman has also been used as an advertising icon, most often for the sale of Kentucky bourbon, but also beer.  There’s even a southern gentleman “costume” that can be purchased for special occasions.

What’s notable, of course, is that there’s nothing modern about the southern gentleman. At least not in popular culture. He’s still a character of the Old South. He has a mustache and goatee. He probably drinks bourbon. He may even dress like he’s still wedded to the land of his ancestors.

He’s Buford Calloway. The only difference is Buford’s modern suit of clothes.

Faith and Conviction in Southern Appalachia: The Death of a Snake-Handling Pastor

Pastor Jamie Coots at his church in Middleboro, KY. (Photo credit: National Geographic)
Pastor Jamie Coots at his church in Middleboro, KY. (Photo credit: National Geographic)

Just this past weekend the news came down from the hills of Kentucky that Jamie Coots, the pastor of a snake-handling church in Middleboro, had died after a bite from a timber rattler while ministering to his church.  This is a scenario that has been repeated for generations in this small sect of Appalachian congregations, most of which exist in Alabama, Kentucky and Tennessee. Yet what sets Coots’ death apart from the others is that he was the star of a popular series on the National Geographic Channel called “Snake Salvation.”

I admit to having my doubts about what National Geographic was up to when I first heard about the show.  I even wrote a blog in which I pondered about this being another retrograde reality show on the region.  I worried about the fact that the pastor’s last name was “Coots,” because I’m sensitive to the fact that people might poke fun at what they saw as a “hillbilly named ‘Coots.'”  I’m originally from Appalachia, so I know the cruelty that people bestow upon hill people.

So, I watched several episodes of “Snake Salvation.”  With a cynical eye at first. But my cynicism gave way to sincere interest and even appreciation. Because what I saw was a show that took seriously the faith and conviction of Jamie Coots and his family and of his protegé Andrew Hamblin, the pastor of another snake-handling church in nearby LaFollette,Tennessee. The series, I believe, helps viewers better understand their religious beliefs, which are similar to Pentecostal sects throughout the South, save one difference–the emphasis on Mark 16:18 on taking up serpents.  And unlike TLC’s “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo,” Coots and his family do not act like, nor have they been made to look like, buffoons.

Jamie Coots (Photo credit: National Geographic)
Jamie Coots (Photo credit: National Geographic)

Pastor Coots wanted the viewers of “Snake Salvation” to understand that, as people, they were more than about hunting and handling poisonous snakes. And while the show emphasizes that part of their faith, one also can surmise that these are people who love and care about one another and who have daily challenges beyond finding snakes for a church service. Theirs is a deep conviction, and while I personally do not hold their views about religion or snakes (or the role of women, for that matter), I can respect what makes us different. Unfortunately, not everyone does.

In the few days since his passing, people have cast harsh judgement on Pastor Coots, his family, and this sect in the most insensitive way imaginable. Read some of the comments on the NPR post about this story and you’ll see what I mean. They don’t bear repeating here.

National Geographic will air a tribute to Pastor Coots and I encourage you to watch it and consider what I’ve written here.  And if you are so moved, read Dennis Covington’s book, Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia.

The story of this man’s death should not lead people to judgement, but to a better understanding and respect for differences in faith.

When You’re Lookin’ at Her, You’re Lookin’ at History

Note: This blog post first appeared on the UNC Press Blog on March 21, 2011. I post it here in honor of Loretta Lynn who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom this past week.

Loretta Lynn, Charlotte, NC, March 2011.
Loretta Lynn, Charlotte, NC, March 2011.

Whenever I visit the Thirsty Beaver, a local honky tonk in my neighborhood in Charlotte, I always find something new on the wall that catches my attention—a velvet Hank Jr. picture here, a child-size set of overalls done in Hee Haw fabric there. This time, it was a metal serving tray on which there was an image of Loretta Lynn.  Someone heard me comment on it and offered that Ms. Lynn’s tour would be coming to town.  I was so excited by that news that on the day the tickets went on sale, I beat a path to the ticket counter and had seats on the third row with a great view of the Queen of Country Music.

She sounded terrific as she sang hit after hit, and as I looked around the audience I noted that while there was strong representation from the senior set, there were also people who ran the gamut in age from teens through middle age.  My mother saw her in concert with Conway Twitty years ago, and here I was, a generation later, thrilled to hear her perform.  Loretta Lynn has experienced something of a renaissance.  Her work with Jack White, who produced her Grammy award-winning album Van Lear Rose (2004), as well as 2010’s tribute album marking her fifty years in country music, has garnered new fans for Lynn. Having her songs covered by artists ranging from young country music’s Carrie Underwood to rockers Paramore is indicative of Lynn’s broad appeal.

I also realized as I sat there enjoying her music and singing along with favorites like “Fist City” and “You’re Lookin’ at Country,” that I was bearing witness to a woman who serves as a link to country music’s past and its future.  Her first singing partner was Ernest Tubb, an icon of early country music, and her most recent partner was Miranda Lambert who, along with Sheryl Crow, re-recorded “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”

Loretta Lynn should also be understood as an important figure in women’s history.  Since she emerged on the country music scene in the early 1960s, she’s been unafraid of speaking on issues that affect women, though hers is more of a working-class feminism.  Her song “The Pill,” controversial for a country music artist, spoke of reproductive choice and being able to decide (through birth control pills) when to be pregnant.  “One’s On the Way” about those stream of pregnancies, also showed Lynn’s keen observation about how different the lives of women “here in Topeka,” (or any other small town for that matter) were from the feminists about whom we often read, write, and teach as these lyrics demonstrate:

The girls in New York City they all march for women’s lib
And Better Homes and Gardens shows the modern way to live
And the pill may change the world tomorrow but meanwhile today
Here in Topeka the flies are a buzzin’
The dog is a barkin’ and the floor needs a scrubbin’
One needs a spankin’ and one needs a huggin’ Lord one’s on the way

As we mark Loretta Lynn’s 50th anniversary in country music, I think it’s important to recognize her not only for her contributions to country music, but also for her role in women’s history as a troubadour for working-class women everywhere.