One of my favorite movies about the South is really more about Texas than the Deep "dirty" South, and definitely has the wrong title. It could even be considered provocative for its time, given its pervasive "Texas is Texas" philosophy. Jean Renoir's The Southerner, which premiered in 1945, is set in a riverside Texas community where living off the land and catching fish is a big deal. Austin native Zachary Scott, who often portrayed villains in noir films, stars as Sam Tucker, a family man who switches from cotton sharecropping to tenant farming in his quest for agrarian prosperity.
Many years ago, it's also a lifestyle legendary Texas bluesmen Sam “Lightnin'” Hopkins — who would have been 104 years old today — and Mance Lipscomb often sang about. The script for The Southerner was adapted from the 1941 novel Hold Autumn in Your Hand, by George Sessions Perry, a native of Rockdale. That same Central Texas railroad town also produced Pee Wee Crayton, the blues guitarist best known for the exquisitely slow "The Telephone Is Ringing." Crayton was likely the first guitarist to be recorded using a Fender Stratocaster when he recorded "Do Unto Others" at Cosimo Matassa's J&M Recording Studio in New Orleans.
Crayton received his red Fender Stratocaster prototype directly from Leo Fender himself. Listening to The Beatles' "Revolution," which appeared in 1968, and revisiting Crayton's "Do Unto Others," recorded in 1954, it's clear John Lennon "swagger jacked" the opening riffs of "Revolution" from Crayton. After all, rock and roll, of which Crayton was a pioneer, is really nothing more than a bastardized version of the blues.
However, The Southerner doesn't feature a blues or rock and roll score, but the orchestrations of composer Werner Janssen. The film subverts the dominant Hollywood paradigm of stereotypical Southern movies at the time by focusing on "poor white trash" instead of presenting distorted, propagandistic views of the black community. William Faulkner, acting as uncredited consultant for The Southerner's script, was the primary Southern connection Renoir had while directing the film.
Based on his own experience of establishing Mississippi's fictitious Yoknapatawpha County for his novels, Faulkner was obviously able to articulate what rural life was like in the context of sharecropping and tenant farming, despite his lack of substantial farming experience. Renoir's post-impressionist portrait of life along a Texas river, undoubtedly informed by the painterly Impressionism of his father, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, dovetailed with the Italian Neorealism cinematic movement. The Yoknapatawpha River doesn't exist in reality, but the Tallahatchie River is real, and perhaps Faulkner was inspired by Mattie Delaney's "Tallahatchie River Blues."
The hybridized French-American naturalism Renoir and Faulkner were able to construct contrasted with a Dreiser-type naturalism more focused on ambition. Theirs was a naturalism that, like the one created by blues musicians, focused more closely on the extreme challenges of a hardscrabble existence. Renoir was able to get the Texas environment just right: the blistering heat, the variegated terrain, the overarching influence of big business, the post-Manifest Destiny optimism, and the focus on fishing and hunting. One scene features a possum hiding in a tree. The wooden house the Tucker family lives in looks like it's about to fall apart. When The Southerner premiered, the Ku Klux Klan threatened to boycott the movie because it didn't like Renoir's humane presentation of white people as extremely poor, vulnerable and non-racist. The Klan also probably didn't like the fact that white people didn't exactly stick together in the movie.
In a sense, had it been told from a Texas bluesman perspective, The Southerner could have just as easily been named The Texan and starred either Hopkins or Lipscomb. Both guitarists sang about the similar hardscrabble existence experienced by residents of Grimes County's Moore Farm in "Tim Moore's Farm" and "Tom Moore's Farm," respectively. Hopkins was obviously the more citified of the two, and these days is known more for his connection to Houston's Third Ward.
Alan Govenar's book Lightnin' Hopkins: His Life and Blues mentions Hopkins's gigs at Third Ward blues clubs like the Sputnik Bar and Irene's. For a while, he lived at a place called "Mama's Place" on Hadley Street. Still, Hopkins never forgot the more rural Centerville, Texas, of his youth, or the time he spent in Waxahachie and other small Texas towns. The time Hopkins spent on a cotton farm is reflected in three versions of the same song: "Cotton," "Cotton Patch Blues" and "Cotton Field Blues." Live versions vary, and sometimes Hopkins delivered it in either a somber or a slightly more humorous vein. During one live recording of "Cotton Field Blues," one can hear the audience's laughter, especially when he sings, "Yeah, you know I got to pick that white man's cotton/ You know it's just 'gon be a solid mess."
The joke was really more on the audience, though, especially since Hopkins transcended the cotton fields and became a well-respected and beloved Houstonian. Lipscomb, on the other hand, spent most of his life in Navasota, but a more receptive Austin became his second hometown. Just like Lipscomb's repertoire of blues songs, George Sessions Perry's novels featured farmland and Texas rivers. Perry was familiar with the Brazos River, which doesn't contain much if any fish these days; the river featured in Hold Autumn In Your Hand is actually the San Gabriel River, renamed the San Pedro River (and known these days as Devils River).
Perry just borrowed the name of a real river for the book and basically changed its geographic location. In The Southerner, the river shown in the film is most like the San Gabriel, which connects to the Brazos, which also connects to the Navasota River. Lipscomb had a song called "Which-A-Way Do the Red River Run," and he spent more time on farm life with respect to his catalog: "Foggy Bottom Blues"; his reworking of Buddy Moss's "Oh Lordy Mama" into "Big Boss Man"; his rendition of the Bayes and Norworth Vaudevillian classic "Shine On, Harvest Moon"; and his "Ballad of the Boll Weevil," which was inspired by his witnessing the destruction boll weevils can cause to crops. A long line of boll weevil songs have been traced back to Charley Patton and beyond, as far back as the 19th century, long before Patton — and later Leadbelly, whose "Boll Weevil" was recorded by the Lomaxes in 1934 — became well-known.
Some writers and historians tend to lump Hopkins and Lipscomb together, when in actuality the two couldn't have been more different. Even though they knew each other, Hopkins was more of a bluesman and forefather of rock and roll; Lipscomb was more versatile. Even though Lipscomb was eventually championed by Frank Sinatra (they became friends and he performed on Sinatra's yacht with Mia Farrow present) and prior to that had been originally recorded by Arhoolie Records founder Chris Strachwitz, he was much less well-traveled than Hopkins.
Strachwitz was searching for Hopkins when he arrived in Texas in 1960, but instead wound up being the first person to record Lipscomb playing the guitar. Hopkins spoke in an interview once about playing guitar with his mentor Blind Lemon Jefferson when he was eight years old, and one of Lipscomb's main influences was Blind Willie Johnson. What the two had in common, though, was firsthand knowledge of cotton sharecropping and their knowledge of the infamous Moore farm, which has been described several times as a "plantation." In fact, it was more of a Texas version of a feudalist indentured-servitude/prison farm bolstered by Grimes County's earlier oppressive White Man's Union Association, which in a sense mirrored Post-Reconstruction Black Codes of the Deep South.
Bruce Jackson's book Wake Up Dead Man lists five Moore brothers (Tom, Clarence, Steve, Harry and Walker), even though most of the focus has been on Tom over the years. Bill Quinn's Gold Star Records, a Houston-based label, released Hopkins's "Tim Moore's Blues" in September of 1948, and it became a big hit on the charts. Hopkins's song was straightforward:
Yeah, you know it ain't but the one thing, you know
This black man done was wrong
Yeah, you know it ain't but the one thing, you know
This black man done was wrong
Yes, you know I moved my wife and family down
On Mr. Tim Moore's farm
Yeah, you know Mr. Tim Moore's a man
He don't never stand and grin
He just said, "Keep out of the graveyard, I'll save you from the pen"
You know, soon in the morning, he'll give you scrambled eggs
Yes, but he's liable to call you so soon
You'll catch a mule by his hind legs
Yes, you know I got a telegram this morning, boy
It read, it say, "Your wife is dead"
I show it to Mr.Moore, he said, "Go ahead, ni**er
You know you got to plow old Red"
Whereas Hopkins mainly lived in Houston and traveled frequently for gigs across the country, Lipscomb actually lived and worked near the Moore farm, and had reason to be seriously concerned about a reprisal from Tom Moore. He talks about his life experiences in Les Blank's 1971 documentary A Well Spent Life. After a performance of "Tom Moore's Farm," Lipscomb, initially recorded by Strachwitz and musicologist Mack McCormick, once said, "Now if he knew I put out a song like that, I couldn't live here no more."
Noting he'd probably only have six months to live if Moore found out he was the one who recorded the song, Lipscomb also added, "It wasn't nothing to walk out there and see a man floating down the river." Another live recording of the song captures a man in the audience making a request for the song, with Lipscomb joking, "Oh well, he can't hear me" in reference to Moore, to which the audience responded with laughter. He had released the song anonymously.
There are all kinds of wild, crazy stories about the Moore farm, which also functioned as a harsh work farm for parolees. According to Wake Up Dead Man, Moore once intercepted a letter and tracked down a farm escapee who had run off to Mexico, and brought the man back to the farm. Another story in the book focuses on how Moore gave men on the farm the option to select any car they wanted. The problem was: Since anyone driving a car on the farm was trapped, the car could never be driven off the land. There were also marathon gambling sessions and a commissary that kept many people in debt. Russell Cushman also tells a story on his blog of hundreds of fire ants crawling up Moore's legs — and the elderly Moore did nothing about it.
Another blues singer, a prisoner named Joseph "Chinaman" Johnson, sang a song called "Three Moore Brothers," which began with the words "Well, who is that I see come ridin', boy, down on the low turn row?/ Nobody but Tom Devil, That's the man they call Tom Moore." The Tom Moore songs came about originally courtesy of Yank Thornton, a man who worked as a field hand on the Moore farm and first sang about his experiences in the early 1930s.
Anna Mae Hunt's book I Am Annie Mae gives an account of hellish life on the farm, which she claimed harkened back to slavery times. Mance Lipscomb's book I Say Me for a Parable, as told to Glen Alyn, also gives a perspective on the Moore farm from Lipscomb's home in Navasota. By one account, Harry Moore was supposedly just as ruthless and feared as Tom Moore, but since there isn't much info about him floating around and he isn't a character in blues songs like his brother, that part of the story is still more of a mystery.
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But truth be told, Tom Moore wasn't the most interesting white man Lipscomb ever came across in Navasota. That honor would probably go to legendary Texas Ranger Frank Hamer, who brought peace to Grimes County after a time of chaos and bloodshed during the town's Wild Wild West days from 1908 to 1911. Hamer once rebuffed and controlled an angry, racist lynch mob by threatening to shoot anyone from the mob who came closer during the Sherman Riots of 1930. He never caved in.
Earlier, in 1928, he briefly left the Rangers to work in Houston as a bounty hunter for the Texas Banker's Association. He soon found out the real truth about the murder-for-hire schemes that ostensibly targeted bank robbers but were really more of an inside job organized by several official Houston entities to randomly kill people to collect rewards; Hamer threatened to go to newspapers with the story.
Six years later, he was called out of retirement by the Texas Rangers to pursue Bonnie and Clyde. Hamer led a small posse of men who fired about 130 rounds at the 1934 Ford Model 730 Sedan the duo had driven down Highway 154 in Bienville Parish, Louisiana. There are enough wild Hamer stories to fill several books and three movies, but the story of how a 12-year-old Lipscomb met Hamer and drove the Ranger around Navasota in a buggy is perhaps one of the coolest. And kind of like Jean Renoir's The Southerner, which was really more about Texas than the Deep South, the rich stories shared in the songs of Lightnin' Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb can be filled with rich life lessons, challenges and experiences.