Don't get beneath your raisin': Was Minnie Pearl a racist? Perhaps a slobbering racist?
Frankly, we aren't sure! All through the sixteen hours of his PBS film, Country Music, Ken Burns ducks this blindingly obvious question, arguably along with one or two others.
In fairness to Pearl, she carried a basic disadvantage in the general area of so-called race. She was born in 1912 in Hickman County, Tennessee, a jurisdiction of roughly 16,000 souls at the time of her birthin'.
Hickman County was one small part of the sprawling Jim Crow South—and the lady's parents were socially defined as "white." That made Pearl "white" too, at a time when the white world tended to be less than fully evolved concerning matters of "race."
At any rate, her name at birth was Sarah Colley. Later, she adopted the "Minnie Pearl" alias as a Southern comedy star.
What was Colley taught about "race" in the years of her raisin'? We have no idea, nor was Burns willing to tell when he profiled her in just the second episode of his eight-episode film.
That said, we drew a lesson about modern politics as we watched his profile unfold. It had to do with the cultural values Sarah Colley apparently drew from her raisin'.
Who the heck was Minnie Pearl? Burns stressed the fact that she was born to a prosperous family.
Many stories in Country Music describe a rise from impoverishment. Minnie Pearl's background was different, Burns said:
COUNTRY MUSIC: The most enduring and improbable comedy star of the Grand Ole Opry was a college-educated aspiring actress from a prosperous Tennessee family who joined the cast in 1940...To watch this profile, click here, move ahead to the 1:23 mark.
Nothing in Sarah Colley's upbringing seemed destined to produce the character she became on the Opry stage. Her father owned a sawmill, and the home he provided for his family had one of the town's best libraries, its finest carriage, and one of its first automobiles.
As a young girl, she became sensitive that she wasn't as pretty as her friends, but she excelled in elocution and determined to be a great actress. She enrolled at the most fashionable finishing school in the state, Ward-Belmont, located in a former plantation mansion in Nashville, where she studied Shakespeare.
"She became sensitive that she wasn't as pretty as her friends." Especially given the person this young woman became, it's hard to hear those words.
But as to who this young woman became, Burns describes her first job after finishing college—"a job with a theater company in Atlanta which was helping rural towns throughout the South stage plays and variety shows with homegrown talent."
Apparently, Colley wasn't staying in fancy hotels as she provided this service. We thought of our nation's modern political breakdown as Burns' narrator continued the story:
COUNTRY MUSIC: One cold winter night in January 1936, she arrived in a little village near Sand Mountain in northern Alabama.Given the reckoning of the world, the young woman named Sarah Colley wasn't "just like one of them." She'd come from a much more privileged background, but perhaps she'd been trained to respect the person of those who were perhaps less fortunate in the eyes of the world.
She boarded with a poor family, presided over by a woman in her seventies whose youngest of sixteen children was simply called "Brother."
"When I left," Colley remembered, "the old lady paid me the highest possible compliment. "She said, 'Lord a-mercy, child, I hate to see you go. You're just like one of us.' "
Or who knows? Maybe those were simply the values she developed on her own.
Immediately, we thought of our own political tribe as Burns' narrator offered this story. We thought of how rarely we're able to convey the impression, to certain groups of Others, that we believe we're just like one of them.
At any rate, as Burns continued to draw his portrait, he continued to stress Sarah Colley's refusal to place herself above those who may have seemed lesser. As she did her hard travelin' during these years, she developed the Minnie Pearl character which would become regionally famous. But she said she avoided making her character "a caricature" of poor rural people, as other country comedians of the era often did.
She shared the news from the fictional town of Grinders Switch in the fictional person of Minnie Pearl. Before too many years had passed, she got her shot at the Grand Ole Opry:
COUNTRY MUSIC: In 1940, at age 28, she got a chance to audition on the Grand Ole Opry.At this point, we get one of the heartwarming anecdotes Burns especially loves. But Minnie Pearl was a widely-loved regional giant for the next fifty years, based upon her refusal to let people think that she looked down on those who hadn't studied Shakespeare or imagined going to college.
Aware of her genteel background, "Some were afraid," she said, that the Opry audience "would find that out and suspect I was a phony, would think I was putting down country people."
Just before she went on the air, [the Opry emcee] thought she looked scared, and gave her what she later called "the very best advice any performer can get"...
Don't get us wrong! Minnie Pearl's performances are hard to watch today. You can verify this through YouTube searchin'. (The same is true of much northern comedy of the era.)
That said, we were struck by the political lesson lurking in Burns' profile. This lesson involves the way we admittedly superior upper-end liberals express ourselves with respect to the many deplorable irredeemables who put Donald Trump where he is.
In the language of the Burns film, Sarah Colley didn't get "above her raisin'." She also didn't go beneath it. We'd say her aim was true.
Apparently, she actually didn't look down on those who were less sophisticated. Beyond that, she didn't want such people to think that she did. She conveyed this attitude for a great many years.
Minnie Pearl presented the news from the fictional town of Grinders Switch. She did so in a way which didn't broadcast condescension.
On a personal note, we well remember the Saturday night when we saw that Minnie Pearl had gone national. It happened in June 1969, in the lobby of a small inn, By-The-Sea, in the actual town of Dennisport, Mass., when we were stunned to see our first broadcast of the new CBS program, Hee Haw.
(Political warning: According to the leading authority on the program, "Hee Haw's appeal was not limited to a rural audience. It was successful in all of the major markets, including New York, Los Angeles, Boston, and Chicago." In syndication, it stayed on the air for roughly twenty-five years.)
We were overnighting in Dennisport in a party of four when first we encountered Hee Haw. The other feller had grown up not far from Nashville and was well aware of Minnie Pearl, not to mention Grandpa Jones and possibly Cousin Emmy. One of the ladies had been born and raised, by admirable parents, in Mississippi during the most difficult times of the Civil Rights era.
At least two members of our party were thrilled by what they saw on a small TV screen that night. Two weeks ago, we thought we saw a political lesson when Burns profiled Minnie Pearl.
"Don't get above your raisin'!" On several occasions, the Burns film presented that as the basic ethos of country music culture. As a self-appraisal by an industry, it may perhaps be a bit overstated in a self-flattering way.
That said, at least according to Burns, Sarah Colley never got above or beneath her raisin'. She proceeded to do the right thing, even to author a lingering political lesson.
Our own tribe will never take it. Of that we can feel fairly sure!
Hard to watch today: In her early adult years, June Carter also did a lot of country clownin'—country clownin' that can be hard to watch today.
For an example of what we mean, you can watch this brief clip of her with Hank Williams, country music's all-time greatest star. For the more extensive tape from which this clip is drawn, you can just click here.
Williams died at age 29. Carter, later June Carter Cash, lived a long, productive, decent life.
Colley wouldn't mock the lessers. We were immediately struck by the lesson this conduct teaches today.