Hard-working, god-fearing Jerry Clower, the "Mouth of the South"
By Charles Aaron
Reading time 29 Minutes
An agitated Southern white man is speaking
"He taught us from birth, from the day we were born until the age we could keep listenin' to him, give everything a sportin' chance. Whatever you do, give it a sportin' chance." – Jerry Clower, "A Coon Huntin' Story”
An agitated Southern white man is speaking.
"I saw a Citizens' Council meeting bein' called in a Mississippi city and they [Council leaders] got up on the stage of the high school and said, 'If there's any press here, you leave.'" The white man's baritone drawl rat-a-tats matter-of-factly. "'Now, heah's a list of some black people who's trying to vote. They've even said that they want a better education for their children. The way we gon' combat this is fire 'em. We gon' run 'em outta town.' And I got to thinking about this…"
The speaker is comedian Jerry "Mouth of the South" Clower, interviewed in 1973 for an oral history project at the University of Southern Mississippi. He's recalling a meeting of the White Citizens' Council, a home-grown, Mississippi white-supremacist terrorist group founded in 1954 as a response to the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision that segregation was unconstitutional in public schools.
At the time of the interview, Clower was, as he might've put it, a "pure-dee" phenomenon – tireless, often breathless, and stout as a boar. He had organically parlayed his gabby, anecdotal pitches as a seed and fertilizer salesman into a side gig as a banquet raconteur and then into a regional entertainment empire. Bullhorning through just-authentic-enough tall tales – frequently involving an untamed brood of neighbors, the "Ledbetters" (Arnell, Burnell, Raynell, W.L., Lynell, Odell, Udell, Marcel, Claude, Newgene, and Clovis) – Clower created a rollicking, comedic universe from the elements of hardscrabble subsistence farming. That universe was based on his own youth in a shotgun house on the land of a remote southwest Mississippi sawmill, raised by his single mom after his alcoholic father cut out. By the '70s, a substantial part of Clower's audiences had limited firsthand grasp of this dirt-poor, deeply rural life of manual labor and often absurd combat with natural forces. As a result, his recitations of unsavory survival tactics like treein' coons and killin' rats – delivered in a floridly ungrammatical bellow – could've come off like cornpone histrionics.
But those stories, regardless of Clower's comic embellishments, resonated as relatably authentic because his listeners heard in them the voices of their older family members who were more directly linked to the South's rapidly declining, farm-based way of life. Or, they heard Clower's real-life affirmation of Southern myths that they wanted to believe. Either way, in this echo of history, they heard a voice that inspired a rare feeling – a sense of pride, rather than shame, in their history as white Southerners. Or, perhaps more importantly, given the Civil Rights movement's two-decade fight to expose the region's obscenely violent racism (eliciting deserved, if sometimes condescending, contempt from within and without), they felt an absence of blame. Instead, Clower's act spoke of white folks who were hard-working, generous, resourceful, and ruled by fearless, God-fearing common sense. So then, by association, were his fans.
After his first two comedy albums – 1971's From Yazoo City, Mississippi Talkin'and 1973's The Mouth of Mississippi – both went gold, Clower suddenly became a man of means in his late forties (he died in 1998 after heart-bypass surgery at 71). All that hammy glad-handin' and whoo-hooin' at Poultry Association Annual Meetings and Dairy Conventions had paid off. He became a Grand Ole Opry member (appearing regularly on live radio broadcasts), co-hosted the syndicated radio show Country Crossroads (produced by the Southern Baptist Convention), and billed all the work he could stomach as an after-dinner speaker and commercial pitchman. But Clower didn't flaunt his good fortune or refine his country-as-chitlins persona – he still bragged about preparing the dish either "creek-slung or stump-whipped.”
Like a wily evangelist, Clower ennobled the underdog as doubly blessed. Neither in his act nor in his personal life did he stray far from the bare-bones childhood escapades around his family's home – "Route 4, Liberty, Mississippi," located in his "beloved Amite County" down by the Louisiana border. "I don't tell funny stories," Clower often said, "I tell stories funny." It was all in the telling. He didn't hawk moralizing parables, didn't bother with punch lines, and sometimes sketched out scenes that were more curious than amusing. At times, you could represent his act in binary code if you replaced the "0"s and "1"s with "snort"s and "holler"s. Belly bulging out of his ketchup-red and mustard-yellow Western suit jackets, he loudly clowned, but with a purpose.
Clower knew as well as anybody that the South, and the country at large, had gone through volcanic changes during the post-World War II years, especially in the 1960s – socially, economically, politically. But he didn't traffic in coded nostalgia for so-called simpler times when whites, no matter how down in the ditch, still enjoyed preferred status over blacks. Instead, he built trust with his audience by comically dramatizing timeless values: fidelity to family (he was married to wife Homerline "Doris" Clower for 50 years); a strident patriotism (he and his brother Sonny both served in the Navy during World War II); a devotion to college football; and most of all, a sense of humility and fairness grounded in his faith as a born-again Christian.
As Clower put it in the epigraph up top: "Give everybody a sportin' chance.”
He was, in the eyes of his fans, a good man
He was, in the eyes of his fans, a good man, a good, unreconstructed Southern white man, Flannery O'Connor be damned. His faith was the bedrock of this reputation and he never wavered. Though his stories were wild, flailing adventures, Clower's language and content was astringently "clean." As he put it, simply: "I don't drink, smoke, or cuss." An oft-repeated line was that he never told a joke onstage that he couldn't tell in the pulpit of the East Fork Baptist Church, where he attended as a young man. Later, he was a deacon at the First Baptist Church of Yazoo City, Mississippi and had a long-time association with the Gideon Bible Society. In fact, he called himself a "Christian entertainer," even claiming that he tried to give his time and testimony as a guest speaker in front of congregations when he was on the road performing.
But one of the most convincing cases that could've been made for Clower as an admirably good Southern white man was rarely discussed by his fans and not a part of his act. Rejoining his Citizen's Council story about black Mississippians being terrorized for wanting an equal education and the right to vote, he exclaimed: "What in the world are we coming to! It's a sorry human being that don't want a better education for his children. It's a sorryhuman being that don' wanna vote. But here we was, organizing and gon' fire 'em, if they tried to do this." He gulped for air. "It was thissort of thang. The James Meredith thang at Ole Miss; that was the crowning blow with me." Meredith, an Air Force veteran, applied to the segregated university in 1961, and was denied. In 1962, he was finally admitted, after an appeal to the Supreme Court.
Among Clower's stands against racism: he kept his son and two daughters in public schools when a 1970 federal court order forced Mississippi to finally abide by Brown v. Board of Education, 16 years after the Supreme Court decision. In 1972, a "Jerry Clower Day" celebration in Amite County was delayed by officials who objected to his support of integration. He very visibly shopped at a Yazoo City grocery store run by a (white) NAACP member, which had been boycotted by a group including the White Citizens' Council, local businesses, and the Ku Klux Klan. At a Mississippi coaches' convention, he strongly urged the assembled to support integrated public schools. He refused to express support for charismatic Alabama Governor George Wallace, who had suddenly recanted his staunch segregationist beliefs for a 1972 presidential bid.
Integration was not an issue that a white Southerner, especially in Mississippi in 1970, publicly stumped for without looking over their shoulder. Certainly, white opposition to segregation existed – for both righteous and self-interested reasons – but there was a far greater fear of ostracism and retribution, either directly or indirectly. Families were harassed, shunned, and pulled apart due to differing racial beliefs.
But here's the put-up-or-shut-up reality. The vast majority of Mississippi whites, Christian or otherwise, caved to fear or made an unmistakable statement in favor of racism. They abandoned public schools and enrolled their children in quickly constituted private schools – dubbed "white sanctuaries" or "segregation academies" – which often were funded and run by local churches in concert with the Citizens' Council. This was a crucial, historical moment for Christians all across the South; and most congregations chose white privilege over the New Testament. Though he didn't shake the rafters, Clower did publicly state that such institutions were "built on hate" and that he "didn't think it was possible to have…a Christian Academy just for white Christians."
Despite Clower's squeaky-clean reputation, outsize charisma, and storytelling guile, his belief that New Testament scripture refuted Jim Crow segregation had a marginal impact and has faded from the record. Despite the fact that a prominent Southern governor with presidential aspirations, Jimmy Carter, shared Clower's Christian-inspired anti-racism, the majority of white Southern Christians (largely synonymous with "evangelical Christians") were unmoved by this sentiment.
During the early 1970s, they might have hesitated to endorse Clower, or speak out as he did, because they generally identified as apolitical or weren't registered to vote. Or they supported segregation. Then, in the mid-late '70s, Christians came out of the political closet, testing the power of their numbers; by most cautious estimates, a quarter of the national electorate identified as "evangelical." Carter's religious background – Southern Baptist deacon, Sunday School teacher, read the Bible every night – became a key selling point for his general-election campaign when contrasted with Richard Nixon's seeming moral rot via Watergate. Carter said explicitly that "the most important thing in my life is Jesus Christ" and that he could be a better president because of his faith. Incumbent Gerald Ford, who pardoned Nixon, had an evangelical spiritual adviser in the White House, but at heart was a private, uncharismatic Episcopalian. Still, he felt compelled to identify publicly as a man of faith, becoming the first president to address the Southern Baptist Convention and the National Association of Evangelicals.
A week before the election, Newsweek proclaimed 1976 as the "Year of the Evangelical," a sign that personal faith was now considered a matter of public debate. White Southern Christians who were unaffiliated, or nominally attached to a party, cast votes for Carter due to his Baptist lineage. But when opportunistic white church leaders denounced his policies on segregation, women's and gay rights, and communism (freshly stoked as a conservative rallying cry), the Republican "Southern Strategy" of 1964 and 1968 got a deafening new voice. Soon, white Southern Christian Democrats were the last living Confederate widows of politics.
This new, combatively conservative movement was led by a crew of melodramatic, fundraising dynamos dubbed "televangelists" – Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, his protégés Jim and Tammy Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, James Robison, et al. They built their politically influential project on ground consecrated by two ambitious men with differing ministerial dispositions. First, Billy Graham, a Southern Baptist preacher who looked like a Hollywood actor, barnstormed the country from the 1940s into the 2000s, embracing new technologies (radio, film, television, satellite, Internet), appealing to youth culture (his rallies incorporated rock, country, and rap music), and building a national Christian constituency. He was a beguiling power broker, advising presidents from Eisenhower to Nixon, even supporting integration and befriending Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Second, Oral Roberts, a capitalist showman who hit the road in the late '40s with a tent-revival brand of faith healing and prosperity gospel, even claiming he could raise the dead. Roberts soon developed a diverse empire, creating a vast radio-television network, building an Oklahoma-based university, medical school, and hospital, while funding his lavish enthusiasms with relentless, direct-mail campaigns.
Falwell embodied elements of both men – Graham's sharp political elbows (minus his taste for ecumenical communion) and Roberts' bathetic money-hustle. A Virginia preacher who aggressively opposed Dr. King and started the Lynchburg Christian school as a segregation academy, Falwell founded the political action committee the Moral Majority in the run-up to the 1980 presidential campaign. He pushed the Republican Party to fund his ominous, red-faced backlash to the country's human-rights advances. Soon, middling candidate Ronald Reagan embraced this message, foregrounding the threat posed by "perverts," "feminists," and "Communists" to America's "shining city on a hill" (a phrase nicked from a 17th Century Puritan treatise that references Jesus' Sermon on the Mount). At its core, the Moral Majority's alarmism had more in common with end-times Pentecostal frenzy than the small-church Baptist faith practiced by Clower. It made for an oddly compelling, if predictable, carnival of scare tactics and treacly pathos. It riveted TV viewers, especially white Southerners grappling with enormous change (or fear of same) and craving guidance.
When viewed with some detachment
When viewed with some detachment, these televangelists resembled less vitriolic versions of white Southern governors like Arkansas' Orval Faubus, Alabama's George Wallace, and Mississippi's Ross Barnett, who stood in the doorways of school buildings, resisting integration, and fulminating against the degeneration of the South's most vital white traditions. Though cannily produced, the Bakkers' PTL Club (started after they popularized The 700 Club for Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network) and Falwell's Old-Time Gospel Hour were no less righteously urgent. They cast their protagonists as beatified revolutionaries in a war to save America's decadent spirit.
Of course, an endless stream of wild-eyed Pentecostal pretenders raged and raptured in their wake. Jimmy Swaggart, most notably, was perhaps the most powerfully talented televangelist ever, a singer, pianist, and cousin of Jerry Lee Lewis who exuded a mix of passionate belief and barely contained masculine swagger that reminded some of Elvis; Sun Records' Sam Phillips even wanted him as the label's first gospel artist. James Robison was a firebrand attack dog who faltered under the pressure of succeeding Billy Graham. And there were the faith-healing antics of Pat Robertson, Ernest Angley, Kenneth Copeland (Oral Roberts' former pilot), Peter Popoff, et al.
As with any national movement, the '70s Evangelical boom had its regional DIY underground and the Rev. Estus Washington Pirkle was its most fascinating eccentric. Even before he hooked up with exploitation filmmaker and newly born-again zealot Ron Ormond, Pirkle was using props and skits to dramatize his sermons at Locust Grove Baptist Church in northern Mississippi. According to his wife Ann, Pirkle once bought a fake mummy and black cape to signify death; one autumn, he dug up a tree whose leaves had turned and brought it inside the church to demonstrate the different stages of life; or occasionally, he'd pretend to spank or paddle children to demonstrate God's punishment. It was no shock when he cast Locust Grove members in his and Ormond's films or built sets inside the church's sanctuary or classrooms. And unlike so many televangelists, he hustled to distribute merch, not to fleece believers.
Though their modes of Christian performance differed – Pirkle and his films were amateurishly stiff yet fantastical, while Clower played the loudest, craftiest raconteur at the barbershop – the men had plenty in common. Born just years apart and Mississippi-based during their 1970s heyday, both were ferocious anti-communists who thought Americans were barreling toward eternal torment unless they changed their wicked, pagan ways. But Pirkle and his films were an insular, word-of-mouth phenomenon that never reached most Southern Baptists; Clower was a regional celebrity. After his Civil Rights stands met such resistance, he was somewhat chastened. He dialed back his activism just as televangelism politicized its message.
Still, as a Southern white Christian of his time, Clower capitalized on the Evangelical market. He published his first book in 1975, unsubtly titled Ain't God Good?, a semi-autobiographical testimony to his faith; and his first Christian album, a live recording of sermons he preached at Baptist churches in Tennessee and Georgia, were released two years later with the same title. What's most interesting about the album is how Clower sharpens and tones down his shtick, even lapsing into what sounds like a normally modulated Southern speaking voice. Oh, there's plenty of his trademark, deeply drawled yarn-spinning – for instance, a long story about his grandfather luring hogs into a pen with corn is used to illustrate Devil-ish temptation. But here, Clower's rural escapades build directly to a Christian entreaty. He's trying to get his listeners to take their lives more seriously, rather than escape them for an hour or so.
As Clower's career rolled on through the '80s, his worldview narrowed and his persona took on a more generic shape. The rote, overblown patriotism, pandering Christianity, and backwoods clichés that came to comprise his act were basically Hee Haw without the wink. He enjoyed the fruits of his labor and gave his white audiences what they wanted. There's no evidence that he changed his views on race and little evidence about his feelings on other issues of the day (women's rights, gay rights). At heart, he still saw himself as a generous friend to all – and maybe even a Democrat.
One of Clower's most-quoted stories introduces a woman known as "Aunt Penny" whose unrelenting optimism could madden even the cheeriest spirit. “I don’t care what happened,” Clower explained, “she’d always say, ‘It could be worse’” — whether it was the milk cow dying or the Japanese bombing Pearl Harbor. One day, Clower and his brother tried to trick Aunt Penny. They said her husband, Uncle Jesse, wasn’t coming home because the Devil had snatched him and “toted him off.”
Without flinching, Aunt Penny shot back: “It coulda been a lot worse. The Devil coulda made poor ol’ Jesse tote him." Was Jerry Clower a good man? A good white Southern Christian man? Well, he could've been a lot worse. And when it comes to Southern white Christian men of his era, that's saying something.
Charles Aaron is a writer based in Durham, N.C. He is the former Music Editor of SPIN Magazine and Editorial Director of SPIN Media.