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Wednesday, 23 January 2019

Disney's Song of the South and its Sources

It would be an understatement to say that Disney's Song of the South is a controversial film. How controversial is, however, largely proportional to the number of people who have not actually seen it. Upon its release in 1946, the film became a Disney staple and its animated cast - Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, and Brer Bear - became company icons. That lasted until 1986, when Song of the South had its last theatrical re-release. It became a touchstone for protest over the conditions and representation of African-Americans, and despite one of Disney's best loved theme park attractions being based on it, Song of the South was pulled from distribution in the United States. For 20 years interested parties have had to be motivated to seek out bootlegged European releases, but its wide availability in the age of the Internet has done nothing to diminish its reputation as either one of the best or one of the worst Disney films, depending on who you talk to.

Song of the South was based was based, in spots, on the "Uncle Remus" stories transcribed by Joel Chandler Harris through the 1880's and 90's. Three animated segments in the film adapt stories pulled from Harris' anthology of African-American folk tales, linked by a live-action narrative penned by Dalton S. Raymond, Morton Grant, and Maurice Rapf. Some unspecified problem has beset the family of little Johnny (played by Bobby Driscoll, Disney's first contract child actor and voice of Peter Pan), causing a rift between his mother and father. The implication is that the problems stem from anti-segregationist editorials penned by Johnny's father for the family newspaper. He and mother (Ruth Warrick) are left in the care of grandmother (Lucile Watson) on the old plantation. Problems with his family and with local bullies leads Johnny to Uncle Remus (James Baskett), the elder storyteller and kindly father figure of the plantation's African-American ex-slave community. Remus guides Johnny through his troubles by way of stories about wily Brer Rabbit. It is these live-action segments that fuel most of the controversy, for portraying the complicated era of the Reconstruction with all the pleasantry and frivolity of a Disney movie.

The biggest fault of Song of the South is being a consummate Disney movie. It has real heart, and compelling characters, and good music, and fun animated sequences. Even in a culture that has not legally been able to watch it for 30 years, its essence still endures in Splash Mountain, one of the most popular Disney theme park attractions of all time. The animated sequences are as good as the best cartoons from Disney's wartime era. The controversial live-action sequences don't quite have the same scope as a comparable classic like Gone With the Wind (1939) but it still carries that same sense of Southern charm, quaintness, and moments of grandeur. Ruth Warrick is resplendent in her gorgeous period dress, doing a slightly softer Vivien Leigh. Hattie McDaniel reprises basically the same character from Gone With the Wind, and like always it is fun to watch. It is a pity that James Baskett's wonderful performance as Uncle Remus is locked away in the Disney vault though. In 1948, Baskett received an Honorary Academy Award for his kindly, paternal, sympathetic portrayal of Uncle Remus defined by his own quiet strength of character, becoming the first African-American male to receive an Oscar (the first African-American was Hattie McDaniel, who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1939 for Gone With the Wind). It was especially ironic given that Baskett could not even attend Song of the South's premiere in racially segregated Georgia.


Though the African-American characters portrayed by Baskett, McDaniel, and Glenn Leedy are friendly, positive, and full of song - acting as the well-adjusted foils to the broken family of the white plantation owners - Disney nevertheless “Disneyfies” a difficult time in American history, in the immediate wake of the American Civil War, when African-Americans were technically free but had nowhere to go, dealing with the intergenerational trauma of slavery while racism was still rampant. It is offensive exactly because it is so inoffensive. The NAACP even said as much... In a press release following the film's debut, NAACP executive secretary Walter Francis White admitted (emphasis mine):
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People recognizes in 'Song of the South' remarkable artistic merit in the music and in the combination of living actors and the cartoon technique. It regrets, however, that in an effort neither to offend audiences in the north or south, the production helps to perpetuate a dangerously glorified picture of slavery. Making use of the beautiful Uncle Remus folklore, 'Song of the South' unfortunately gives the impression of an idyllic master-slave relationship which is a distortion of the facts. 
It was this same time period that Joel Chandler Harris came into when he set about to transcribe and preserve the folk tales of African-American former slaves. Born in 1845 in Georgia to an unwed Irish immigrant mother and a father who fled immediately after his birth, 16-year old Harris took up work in a print shop on the Turnwold Plantation. During his time on the plantation, he became immersed in the lives of African-American slaves, feeling less self-conscious around them on account of his Irish heritage (including a shock of red hair) and illegitimate birth. The Uncle Remus character he later invented was a composite of several storytellers he knew, and Uncle Remus’ stories were those he heard around the evening fire. After the American Civil War, Harris moved from newspaper to newspaper, becoming a valued humourist and political commentator while promoting the vision of racial reconciliation in the “New South.” Eventually he set upon the task of transcribing the folktales he heard at Turnwold as a document of past times.


Like the movie based on them, Harris' writings are controversial. Some see his transcriptions as preserving an important part of America's cultural history, while others see him as having appropriated African-American culture. Some see his simulated slave dialect as a significant linguistic artifact, while others see it as demeaning. Some see the Uncle Remus character as a crude stereotype, others point out that according to slave narratives such personalities did exist. Harris was, on the one hand, a progressive advocate of racial reconciliation and African-American rights, and on the other he was paternalistic with a ingrained sense of nostalgia about the Antebellum South. He had even interpreted Uncle Tom's Cabin, an avowed abolitionist novel, as "a wonderful defense of slavery." In short, it may just be that in a country still dealing with the intergenerational trauma of slavery 150 years later, it is simply impossible to write about it without courting controversy.

So, let's write about it...




Uncle Remus, His Songs and Sayings

Uncle Remus stories furnished Joel Chandler Harris with a lifetime worth of material. His first book - Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings - launched his literary career in 1880. In 1883 and 1892 he returned to his fable-telling alter-ego, amidst other literary works published at a rate of one a year. In 1904, 1905 and 1907 he published several more tales. Sadly he passed away in 1908 at the age of 60, but left behind enough material for several more books, published in 1910, 1918, and 1948... Two years after the release of Disney's Song of the South.

The first of the hundreds of Uncle Remus stories adapted into an animated segment for Song of the South is the story of Brer Rabbit making a dollar a minute. It hails from chapter XXIII of Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings... 
"DAR wuz one season" said Uncle Remus, pulling thoughtfully at his whiskers, "w'en Brer Fox say to hisse'f dat he speck he better whirl in en plant a goober-patch, en in dem days, mon, hit wuz tech en go. De wud wern't mo'n out'n his mouf 'fo' de groun' 'uz brok'd up en de goobers 'uz planted. Ole Brer Rabbit, he sot off en watch de motions, he did, en he sorter shet one eye en sing to his chilluns:
"'Ti-yi! Tungalee!
I eat um pea, I pick um pea.
Hit grow in de groun', hit grow so free;
Ti-yi! dem goober pea.'  
"Sho' 'nuff w'en de goobers 'gun ter ripen up, eve'y time Brer Fox go down ter his patch, he fine whar somebody bin grabblin' 'mongst de vines, en he git mighty mad. He sorter speck who de somebody is, but ole Brer Rabbit he cover his tracks so cute dat Brer Fox dunner how ter ketch 'im. Bimeby, one day Brer Fox take a walk all roun' de groun'-pea patch, en 'twan't long 'fo' he fine a crack in de fence whar de rail done bin rub right smoove, en right dar he sot 'im a trap. He tuck'n ben' down a hick'ry saplin', growin' in de fence-cornder, en tie one een' un a plow- line on de top, en in de udder een' he fix a loop-knot, en dat he fasten wid a trigger right in de crack. Nex' mawnin' w'en ole Brer Rabbit come slippin' 'long en crope thoo de crack, de loop-knot kotch 'im behime de fo'legs, en de saplin' flew'd up, en dar he wuz 'twix' de heavens en de yeth. Dar he swung, en he fear'd he gwineter fall, en he fear'd he wer'n't gwineter fall. W'ile he wuz a fixin' up a tale fer Brer Fox, he hear a lumberin' down de road, en present'y yer cum ole Brer B'ar amblin' 'long fum whar he bin takin' a bee-tree. Brer Rabbit, he hail 'im: 
"'Howdy, Brer B'ar!' 
"Brer B'ar, he look 'roun en bimeby he see Brer Rabbit swingin' fum de saplin', en he holler out: 
"'Heyo, Brer Rabbit! How you come on dis mawnin'?' 
"'Much oblije, I'm middlin', Brer B'ar,' sez Brer Rabbit, sezee. 

"Den Brer B'ar, he ax Brer Rabbit w'at he doin' up dar in de elements, en Brer Rabbit, he up'n say he makin' dollar minnit. Brer B'ar, he say how. Brer Rabbit say he keepin' crows out'n Brer Fox's groun' pea patch, en den he ax Brer B'ar ef he don't wanter make dollar minnit, kaze he got big fambly er chilluns fer to take keer un, en den he make sech nice skeercrow. Brer B'ar 'low dat he take de job, en den Brer Rabbit show 'im how ter ben' down de saplin', en 'twan't long 'fo' Brer B'ar wuz swingin' up dar in Brer Rabbit's place. Den Brer Rabbit, he put out fer Brer Fox house, en w'en he got dar he sing out: 
"'Brer Fox! Oh, Brer Fox! Come out yer, Brer Fox, en I'll show you de man w'at bin stealin' yo' goobers.' 
"Brer Fox, he grab up his walkin'-stick, en bofe un um went runnin' back down ter der goober-patch, en w'en dey got dar, sho 'nuff, dar wuz ole Brer B'ar. 
"'Oh, yes! you er kotch, is you?' sez Brer Fox, en 'fo' Brer B'ar could 'splain, Brer Rabbit he jump up en down, en holler out: 
"'Hit 'im in de mouf, Brer Fox; hit 'im in do mouf'; en Brer Fox, he draw back wid de walkin' cane, en blip he tuck 'im, en eve'y time Brer B'ar'd try ter 'splain, Brer Fox'd shower down on him. 
"W'iles all dis 'uz gwine on, Brer Rabbit, he slip off en git in a mud-hole en des lef' his eyes stickin' out, kaze he know'd dat Brer B'ar'd be a comin' atter 'im. Sho 'nuff, bimeby here come Brer B'ar down de road, en w'en he git ter de mud-hole, he say:

"'Howdy, Brer Frog; is you seed Brer Rabbit go by yer?' 
"'He des gone by,' sez Brer Rabbit, en ole man B'ar tuck off down de road like a skeer'd mule, en Brer Rabbit, he come out en dry hisse'f in de sun, en go home ter his fambly same ez enny udder man. 
"The Bear didn't catch the Rabbit, then?" inquired the little boy, sleepily. 
"Jump up fum dar, honey!" exclaimed Uncle Remus, by way of reply. "I ain't got no time fer ter be settin' yer proppin' yo' eyeleds open."


Brer Rabbit and the Tar Baby

In Song of the South, this is followed by perhaps the most famous of the Uncle Remus stories, Brer Rabbit and the "Tar Baby."  It begins in Chapter II...
"Didn't the fox never catch the rabbit, Uncle Remus?" asked the little boy the next evening. 
"He come mighty nigh it, honey, sho's you born—Brer Fox did. One day atter Brer Rabbit fool 'im wid dat calamus root, Brer Fox went ter wuk en got 'im some tar, en mix it wid some turkentime, en fix up a contrapshun w'at he call a Tar-Baby, en he tuck dish yer Tar-Baby en he sot 'er in de big road, en den he lay off in de bushes fer to see what de news wuz gwine ter be. En he didn't hatter wait long, nudder, kaze bimeby here come Brer Rabbit pacin' down de road—lippity-clippity, clippity-lippity—dez ez sassy ez a jay-bird. Brer Fox, he lay low. Brer Rabbit come prancin' 'long twel he spy de Tar-Baby, en den he fotch up on his behime legs like he wuz 'stonished. De Tar Baby, she sot dar, she did, en Brer Fox, he lay low. 

"'Mawnin'!' sez Brer Rabbit, sezee—'nice wedder dis mawnin',' sezee. 
"Tar-Baby ain't sayin' nuthin', en Brer Fox he lay low. 
"'How duz yo' sym'tums seem ter segashuate?' sez Brer Rabbit, sezee. 
"Brer Fox, he wink his eye slow, en lay low, en de Tar-Baby, she ain't sayin' nuthin'.
"'How you come on, den? Is you deaf?' sez Brer Rabbit, sezee.
'Kaze if you is, I kin holler louder,' sezee. 
"Tar-Baby stay still, en Brer Fox, he lay low. 
"'You er stuck up, dat's w'at you is,' says Brer Rabbit, sezee, 'en I'm gwine ter kyore you, dat's w'at I'm a gwine ter do,' sezee. 
"Brer Fox, he sorter chuckle in his stummick, he did, but Tar-Baby ain't sayin' nothin'. 
"'I'm gwine ter larn you how ter talk ter 'spectubble folks ef hit's de las' ack,' sez Brer Rabbit, sezee. 'Ef you don't take off dat hat en tell me howdy, I'm gwine ter bus' you wide open,' sezee. 

 "Tar-Baby stay still, en Brer Fox, he lay low. 
"Brer Rabbit keep on axin' 'im, en de Tar-Baby, she keep on sayin' nothin', twel present'y Brer Rabbit draw back wid his fis', he did, en blip he tuck 'er side er de head. Right dar's whar he broke his merlasses jug. His fis' stuck, en he can't pull loose. De tar hilt 'im. But Tar-Baby, she stay still, en Brer Fox, he lay low. 
"'Ef you don't lemme loose, I'll knock you agin,' sez Brer Rabbit, sezee, en wid dat he fotch 'er a wipe wid de udder han', en dat stuck. Tar-Baby, she ain't sayin' nuthin', en Brer Fox, he lay low. 
"'Tu'n me loose, fo' I kick de natchul stuffin' outen you,' sez Brer Rabbit, sezee, but de Tar-Baby, she ain't sayin' nuthin'. She des hilt on, en de Brer Rabbit lose de use er his feet in de same way. Brer Fox, he lay low. Den Brer Rabbit squall out dat ef de Tar-Baby don't tu'n 'im loose he butt 'er cranksided. En den he butted, en his head got stuck. Den Brer Fox, he sa'ntered fort', lookin' dez ez innercent ez wunner yo' mammy's mockin'- birds. 
"Howdy, Brer Rabbit,' sez Brer Fox, sezee. 'You look sorter stuck up dis mawnin',' sezee, en den he rolled on de groun', en laft en laft twel he couldn't laff no mo'. 'I speck you'll take dinner wid me dis time, Brer Rabbit. I done laid in some calamus root, en I ain't gwineter take no skuse,' sez Brer Fox, sezee." 

Here Uncle Remus paused, and drew a two-pound yam out of the ashes. 
"Did the fox eat the rabbit?" asked the little boy to whom the story had been told. 
"Dat's all de fur de tale goes," replied the old man. "He mout, an den agin he moutent. Some say Judge B'ar come 'long en loosed 'im—some say he didn't. I hear Miss Sally callin'. You better run 'long."
Uncle Remus resumes the tale another evening, in Chapter IV...
"Uncle Remus," said the little boy one evening, when he had found the old man with little or nothing to do, "did the fox kill and eat the rabbit when he caught him with the Tar-Baby?"
"Law, honey, ain't I tell you 'bout dat?" replied the old darkey, chuckling slyly. "I 'clar ter grashus I ought er tole you dat, but old man Nod wuz ridin' on my eyeleds 'twel a leetle mo'n I'd a dis'member'd my own name, en den on to dat here come yo mammy hollerin' atter you.
"W'at I tell you w'en I fus' begin? I tole you Brer Rabbit wuz a monstus soon creetur; leas'ways dat's w'at I laid out fer ter tell you. Well, den, honey, don't you go en make no udder calkalashuns, kaze in dem days Brer Rabbit en his fambly wuz at de head er de gang w'en enny racket wuz on han', en dar dey stayed. 'Fo' you begins fer ter wipe yo' eyes 'bout Brer Rabbit, you wait en see whar'bouts Brer Rabbit gwineter fetch up at. But dat's needer yer ner dar.
"W'en Brer Fox fine Brer Rabbit mixt up wid de Tar-Baby, he feel mighty good, en he roll on de groun' en laff. Bimeby he up'n say, sezee:
"'Well, I speck I got you dis time, Brer Rabbit, sezee; 'maybe I ain't, but I speck I is. You been runnin' roun' here sassin' atter me a mighty long time, but I speck you done come ter de een' er de row. You bin cuttin' up yo' capers en bouncin''roun' in dis neighberhood ontwel you come ter b'leeve yo'se'f de boss er de whole gang. En den you er allers somers whar you got no bizness,' sez Brer Fox, sezee. 'Who ax you fer ter come en strike up a 'quaintance wid dish yer Tar-Baby? En who stuck you up dar whar you iz? Nobody in de roun' worl'. You des tuck en jam yo'se'f on dat Tar-Baby widout waitin' fer enny invite,' sez Brer Fox, sezee, en dar you is, en dar you'll stay twel I fixes up a bresh-pile and fires her up, kaze I'm gwineter bobby-cue you dis day, sho,' sez Brer Fox, sezee.
"Den Brer Rabbit talk mighty 'umble.
"'I don't keer w'at you do wid me, Brer Fox,' sezee, 'so you don't fling me in dat brier-patch. Roas' me, Brer Fox' sezee, 'but don't fling me in dat brierpatch,' sezee.
"'Hit's so much trouble fer ter kindle a fier,' sez Brer Fox, sezee, 'dat I speck I'll hatter hang you,' sezee.
"'Hang me des ez high as you please, Brer Fox,' sez Brer Rabbit, sezee, 'but do fer de Lord's sake don't fling me in dat brier- patch,' sezee.
"'I ain't got no string,' sez Brer Fox, sezee, 'en now I speck I'll hatter drown you,' sezee.
"'Drown me des ez deep ez you please, Brer Fox,' sez Brer Rabbit, sezee, 'but do don't fling me in dat brier-patch,' sezee.
"'Dey ain't no water nigh,' sez Brer Fox, sezee, 'en now I speck I'll hatter skin you,' sezee.
"'Skin me, Brer Fox,' sez Brer Rabbit, sezee, 'snatch out my eyeballs, t'ar out my years by de roots, en cut off my legs,' sezee, 'but do please, Brer Fox, don't fling me in dat brier- patch,' sezee.
"Co'se Brer Fox wanter hurt Brer Rabbit bad ez he kin, so he cotch 'im by de behime legs en slung 'im right in de middle er de brier-patch. Dar wuz a considerbul flutter whar Brer Rabbit struck de bushes, en Brer Fox sorter hang 'roun' fer ter see w'at wuz gwineter happen. Bimeby he hear somebody call 'im, en way up de hill he see Brer Rabbit settin' crosslegged on a chinkapin log koamin' de pitch outen his har wid a chip. Den Brer Fox know dat he bin swop off mighty bad. Brer Rabbit wuz bleedzed fer ter fling back some er his sass, en he holler out:
"'Bred en bawn in a brier-patch, Brer Fox—bred en bawn in a brier-patch!' en wid dat he skip out des ez lively ez a cricket in de embers."


Brer Rabbit's Laughin' Place

Of the three animated vignettes in Song of the South, the story of Brer Rabbit and his Laugin' Place hails from one of the later books: Told by Uncle Remus: New Stories from the Old Plantation (1905). It is astonishing to think of how many stories Disney's production staff must have gone through between Harris' nine Remus books, just to pick out three for film. This is especially true given the difficulty in mentally translating the regional dialect preserved by Harris into a modern one. That amount of work, as well as the technical accomplishment of the film itself, makes it doubly unfortunate that Song of the South cannot be seen within the United States and Canada.
This new little boy was intensely practical. He had imagination, but it was unaccompanied by any of the ancient illusions that make the memory of childhood so delightful. Young as he was he had a contempt for those who believed in Santa Claus. He believed only in things that his mother considered valid and vital, and his training had been of such a character as to leave out all the beautiful romances of childhood.
Thus when Uncle Remus mentioned something about Brother Rabbit's laughing-place, he pictured it forth in his mind as a sure-enough place that the four-footed creatures had found necessary for their comfort and convenience. This way of looking a things was, in some measure, a great help; it cut off long explanation, and stopped many an embarrassing question.
On one occasion when the two were together, the little boy referred to Brother Rabbit's laughing-place and talked about it in much the same way that he would have talked about Atlanta. If Uncle Remus was unprepared for such literalness he displayed no astonishment, and for all the child knew, he had talked the matter over with hundreds of other little boys.
"Uncle Remus," said the lad, "when was the last time you went to Brother Rabbit's laughing-place?"
"To tell you de trufe, honey, I dunno ez I ever been dar," the old man responded.
"Now, I think that is very queer," remarked the little boy.
Uncle Remus reflected for a moment before committing himself. "I dunno ez I yever went right spang ter de place an' put my han' on it. I spec I could 'a' gone dar wid mighty little trouble, but I wuz so use ter hearin' 'bout it dat de idee er gwine dar ain't never got in my head. It's sorter like ol' Mr. Grissom's house. Dey say he lives in a quare little shanty not fur fum de mill. I know right whar de shanty is, yit I ain't never been dar, an' I ain't never seed it.
"It's de same way wid Brer Rabbit's laughin'-place. Dem what tol' me 'bout it had likely been dar, but I ain't never had no 'casion fer ter go dar myse'f. Yit ef I could walk fifteen er sixty mile a day, like I useter, I boun' you I could go right now an' put my han' on de place. Dey wuz one time - but dat's a tale, an'm goodness knows, you done hear nuff tales er one kin' an' anudder fer ter make a hoss sick - dey ain't no two ways 'bout dat."
Uncle Remus paused and sighed, and then closed his eyes with a groan, as though he were sadly exercised in spirit; but his eyes were not shut so tight that he could not observe the face of the child. It was a prematurely grave little face that the old man saw and whether this was the result of the youngster's environment, or his training, or his temperament, it would have been difficult to say. But there it was, the gravity that was only infrequently disturbed by laughter. Uncle Remus perhaps had seen more laughter in that little face than any one else. Occasionally the things that the child laughed at were those that would have convulsed other children, but more frequently, as it seemed, his smiles were the result of his own reflections and mental comparisons.
"I tell you what, honey," said Uncle Remus, opening wide his eyes, "dat 's de ve'y thing you oughter have."
"What is it?" the child inquired, though apparently he had no interest in the matter.
"What you want is a laughin'-place, whar you kin go an' tickle yo'se'f an' laugh whedder you wanter laugh er no. I boun' ef you had a laughin'-place, you 'd gain flesh, an' when yo' pa comes down fum 'Lantamatantarum, he would n't skacely know you."
"But I don't want father not to know me," the child answered. "If he didn't know me, I should feel as if I were some one else."
"Oh, he 'd know you bimeby, " said Uncle Remus, "an' he 'd be all de gladder fer ter see you lookin' like somebody. "
"Do I look like nobody?" asked the little boy.
"When you fust come down here," Uncle Remus answered, "you look like nothin' 'tall, but sence you been ramblin' roun' wid me, you done 'gun ter look like somebody- - mos' like um. " 
 "I reckon that 's because I have a laughing-place," said the child. 'You did n't know I had one, did you? I have one, but you are the first person in the world that I have told about it."
"Well, suh!" Uncle Remus exclaimed with well-feigned astonishment; "an' you been settin' here lis'nin' at me, an' all de time you got a laughin'-place er yo' own! I never would V b'lieved it uv you. Wharbouts is dish yer place?"
"It is right here where you are," said the little boy with a winning smile.
"Honey, you don't tell me!" exclaimed the old man, looking all around. "Ef you kin see it, you see mo' dan I does - - dey ain't no two ways 'bout dat."  
"Why, you are my laughing-place," cried the little lad with an extraordinary burst of enthusiasm.
"Well, I thank my stars!" said Uncle Remus with emotion. "You sho' does need ter laugh lots mo' dan what you does. But what make you laugh at me, honey? Is my britches too big, er is I too big fer my britches? You neen'ter laugh at dis coat, kaze it 's one dat yo' grandaddy useter have. It 's mighty nigh new, kaze I ain't wo'd it mo' dan 'lev'm year. It may look shiny in places, but when you see a coat look shiny, it 's a sign dat it 's des ez good ez new. You can't laugh at my shoes, kaze I made um myse'f , an' ef dey lack shape dat 's kaze I made um fer ter fit my rheumatism an' my foots bofe."
"Why, I never laughed at you!" exclaimed the child, blushing at the very idea. "I laugh at what you say, and at the stories you tell."
"La, honey! You sho' dunno nothin'; you oughter hearn me tell tales when I could tell um. I boun' you 'd 'a' busted de buttons off'n yo' whatchermacollums. Yo' pa useter set right whar you er settin' an' laugh twel he can't laugh no mo'. But dem wuz laughin' times, an' it look like dey ain't never comin' back. Dat 'uz 'fo' eve'ybody wuz rushin' roun' trying fer ter git money what don't b'long ter um by good rights." 
"I was thinking to myself," remarked the child, "that if Brother Rabbit had a laughing-place I had a better one."
"Honey, hush!" exclaimed Uncle Remus with a laugh. "You'll have me gwine roun' here wid my head in de a'r, an' feelin' so biggity dat I won't look at my own se'f in de lookin'-glass. I ain't too old fer dat kinder talk ter sp'ile me."
"Didn't you say there was a tale about Brother Rabbit's laughing-place?" inquired the little boy, when Uncle Remus ceased to admire himself.
"I dunner whedder you kin call it a tale," replied the old man. "It 's mighty funny 'bout tales," he went on. "Tell um ez you may an' whence you may, some '11 say tain't no tale, an' den ag'in some'll say dat it 's a fine tale. Dey ain't no tellin'. Dat de reason I don't like ter tell no tale ter grown folks, speshually ef dey er white folks. Dey'll take it an' put it by de side er some yuther tale what dey got in der min' an' dey'll take on dat slonchidickler grin what allers say, 'Go way, nigger man! You dunner what a tale is!' An' I don't - - I'll say dat much fer ter keep some un else funi sayin' it.
"Now, 'bout dat laughin'-place - - it seem like dat one time de creeturs got ter 'sputin' 'mongs' deyselves ez ter which un kin laugh de loudest. One word fotch on an'er twel it look like dey wuz gwineter be a free fight, a rumpus an' a riot. Dey show'd der claws an' tushes, an' shuck der horns, an' rattle der hoof. Dey had der bristles up, an' it look like der eyes wuz runnin' blood, dey got so red.
"Des 'bout de time when it look like you can't keep um 'part, little Miss Squinch Owl flew'd up a tree an' 'low, 'You all dunner what laughin' is - ha-ha-ha-ha ! You can't laugh when you try ter laugh - - ha-ha-ha-haha ! ' De creeturs wuz 'stonisht. Here wuz a little fowl not much bigger dan a jay-bird laughin' herse'f blin' when dey wa' n't a thing in de roun' worl' fer ter laugh at. Dey stop der quoilin' atter dat an' look at one an'er. Brer Bull say, 'Is anybody ever hear de beat er dat? Who niought de lady be?' Dey all say dey dunno, an' dey got a mighty good reason fer der sesso, kaze Miss Squinch Owl, she flies at night wid de bats an' de Betsey Bugs.
"Well, dey quit der quoilin', de creeturs did, but dey still had der 'spute; de comin' er Miss Squinch Owl ain't settle dat. So dey 'gree dat dey 'd meet some'rs when de wedder got better, an' try der han' at laughin' fer ter see which un kin outdo de yuther. " Observing that the little boy was laughing very heartily, Uncle Remus paused long enough to inquire what had hit him on his funny-bone.
"I was laughing because you said the animals were going to meet an' try their hand at laughing," replied the lad when he could get breath enough to talk.
Uncle Remus regarded the child with a benevolent smile of admiration. "Youer long ways ahead er me - - you sho' is. Dey ain't na'er n'er diap in de worl' what 'd 'a' cotch on so quick. You put me in min' er de peerch, what grab de bait 'fo' it hit de water. Well, dat 's what de creeturs done. Dey say dey wuz gwineter make trial fer ter see which un is de out-laughin'est er de whole caboodle, an' dey name de day, an' all prommus fer ter be dar, ceppin' Brer Rabbit, an' he 'low dat he kin laugh well nuff fer ter suit hisse'f an' his fainbly, 'sides dat, he don't keer 'bout laughin' less'n dey 's sump'n fer ter laugh at. De yuther creeturs dey beg 'im fer ter come, but he shake his head an' wiggle his mustache, an' say dat when he wanter laugh, he got a laughin'-place fer ter go ter, whar he won't be pestered by de balance er creation. He say he kin go dar an' laugh his fill, an' den go on 'bout his business, ef he got any business, an' ef he ain't got none, he kin go ter play.
"De yuther creeturs ain't know what ter make er all dis, an' dey wonder an' wonder how Brer Rabbit kin have a laughin'-place an' dey ain't got none. When dey ax 'im 'bout it, he 'spon', he did, dat he speck 'twuz des de diffunce 'twix one creetur an' an'er. He ax um fer ter look at folks, how diffunt dey wuz, let 'lone de creeturs. One man 'd be rich an" an'er man po', an' he ax how come dat.
"Well, suh, dey des natchally can't tell 'im what make de diffunce 'twix folks no mo' dan dey kin tell 'im de diffunce 'twix' de creeturs. Dey wuz stumped; dey done fergit all 'bout de trial what wuz ter come off, but Brer Rabbit fotch um back ter it. He say dey ain't no needs fer ter see which kin outdo all de balance un um in de laughin' business, kaze anybody what got any sense know dat de donkey is a natchal laugher, same as Brer Coon is a natchal pacer.
''Brer B'ar look at Brer Wolf, an' Brer Wolf look at Brer Fox, an' den dey all look at one an'er. Brer Bull, he say, 'Well, well, well!' an' den he groan; Brer B'ar say, 'Who'd 'a' thunk it?' an' den he growl; an' Brer Wolf say "Gracious me!' an' den he howl. Atter dat, dey ain't say much, kaze dey ain't much fer ter say. Dey des stan' roun' an' look kinder sheepish. Dey ain't 'spute wid Brer Rabbit, dough dey 'd 'a'like ter 'a' done it, but dey sot about an' make marks in de san' des like you see folks do when deyer tryin' fer ter git der thinkin' machine ter work.
"Well, suli, dar dey sot an' dar dey stood. Dey ax Brer Rabbit how he know how ter fin' his laughin'-place, an' how he know it wuz a laughin'-place atter he got dar. He tap hisse'f on de head, he did, an' 'low dat dey wuz a heap mo' und' his hat dan what you could git out wid a fine-toof comb. Den dey ax ef dey kin see his laughin'-place, an' he say he 'd take de idee ter bed wid 'im, an' study 'pon it, but he kin say dis much right den, dat it he did let um see it, dey 'd hatter go dar one at a time, an' dey 'd hatter do des like he say; ef dey don't dey'll git de notion dat it 's a cryin' -place.
"Dey 'gree ter dis, de creeturs did, an' den Brer Rabbit say dat while deyer all der tergedder, dey better choosen 'mongs' deyse'f which un uv um wuz gwine fus', an' he 'd choosen de res' when de time come. Dey jowered an' jowered, an' bimeby, dey hatter leave it all ter Brer Rabbit. Brer Rabbit, he put his han' ter his head, an' shot his eyeballs an' do like he studyin'. He say 'De mo' I think 'bout who shill be de fus' one, de mo' I git de idee dat it oughter be Brer Fox. He been here long ez anybody, an' he 's purty well thunk uv by de neighbors - - I ain't never hear nobody breave a breff ag'in 'im.'
"Dey all say dat dey had Brer Fox in min' all de time, but somehow dey can't come right out wid his name, an' dey vow dat ef dey had 'greed on somebody, dat somebody would sho' 'a' been Brer Fox. Den, atter dat, 'twuz all plain sailin'. Brer Rabbit say he 'd meet Brer Fox at sech an' sech a place, at sech an' sech a time, an' atter dat dey wa' n't no mo' ter be said. De creators all went ter de place whar dey live at, an' done des like dey allers done.
 
"Brer Rabbit make a soon start fer ter go ter de p'int whar he prommus ter met Brer Fox, but soon ez he wuz, Brer Fox wuz dar befo' 'im. It seem like he wuz so much in de habits er bein' outdone by Brer Rabbit dat he can't do widout it. Brer Rabbit bow, he did, an' pass de time er day wid Brer Fox, an' ax 'im how his fambly wuz. Brer Fox say dey wuz peart ez kin be, an' den he 'low dat he ready an' a-waitin' fer ter go an' see dat great laughin'-place what Brer Rabbit been talkin' 'bout.  
 
"Brer Rabbit say dat suit him ter a gnat's heel, an' off dey put. Bimeby dey come ter one er deze here cle'r places dat you sometimes see in de middle uv a pine thicket. You may ax yo'se'f how come dey don't no trees grow dar when dey 's trees all round, but you ain't gwineter git no answer, an' needer is dey anybody what kin tell you. Dey got dar, dey did, an' den Brer Rabbit make a halt. Brer Fox 'low, 'Is dis de place? I don't feel no mo' like laughin' now dan I did 'fo' I come.' 'Brer Rabbit, he say, 'Des keep yo' jacket on, Brer Fox; ef you git in too big a hurry it might come off. We done come mighty nigh ter de place, an' ef you wanter do some ol' time laughin', you '11 hatter do des like I tell you; ef you don't wanter laugh, I '11 des show you de place, an' we '11 go on back whar we come fum, kaze dis is one er de days dat I ain't got much time ter was'e laughin' er cryin'.' Brer Fox 'low dat he ain't so mighty greedy ter laugh, an' wid dat, Brer Rabbit whirl roun', he did, an' make out he gwine on back whar he live at. Brer Fox holler at 'im; he say, 'Come on back, Brer Rabbit; I 'm des aprojickin' wid you.'
'Ef you wanter projick, Brer Fox, you'll hatter go home an' projick wid dem what wanter be projicked wid. I ain't here kaze I wanter be here. You ax me fer ter show you my laughin'-place, an' I 'greed. I speck we better be gwine on back.' Brer Fox say he come fer ter see Brer Rabbit's laughin'-place, an' he ain't gwineter be satchify twel he see it. Brer Rabbit 'low dat ef dat de case, den he mus' ac' de gentermun all de way thoo, an' quit his behavishness. Brer Fox say he '11 do de best he kin, an' den Brer Rabbit show 'im a place whar de bamboo briars, an' de blackberry bushes, an' de honeysuckles done start ter come in de pine thicket, an' can't come no furder. 'Twa' n't no thick place; 'twuz des whar de swamp at de foot er de hill peter'd out in tryin' ter come ter dry Ian'. De bushes an' vines wuz thin an' scanty, an' ef dey could 'a' talked dey 'd 'a' hollered loud fer water.
"Brer Rabbit show Brer Fox de place, an' den tell 'im dat de game is fer ter run full tilt thoo de vines an' bushes, an' den run back, an' thoo urn ag'in an' back, an' he say he 'd bet a plug er terbacker 'g'in a ginger cake dat by de time Brer Fox done dis he 'd be dat tickled dat he can't stan' up fer laughin'. Brer Fox shuck his head; he ain't nigh b'lieve it, but fer all dat, he make up his min' fer ter do what Brer Rabbit say, spite er de fack dat his ol' 'oman done tell 'im 'fo' he lef y home dat he better keep his eye open, kaze Brer Rabbit gwineter run a rig on 'im.
'He tuck a runnin' start, he did, an' he went thoo de bushes an' de vines like he wuz runnin' a raee. He run an' he come back a-runnin', an' he run back, an' dat time he struck sump'n wid his head. He try ter dodge it, but he seed it too late, an' he wuz gwine too fas'. He struck it, he did, an' time he do dat, he fetched a howl dat you might 'a' hearn a mile, an' atter dat, he holler'd yap, yap, yap, an' ouch, ouch, ouch, an' vow, vow, yow, an' whiles dis wuz gwine on Brer Rabbit wuz thumpin' de ground wid his behinie foot, an' laughin' fit ter kill. Brer Fox run roun' an' roun', an' kep' on snappin' at hisse'f an' doin' like he wuz try in' fer ter t'ar his hide off. He run, an' he roll, an' holler, an' fall, an' squall twell it look like he wuz havin' forty-lev' in duck fits. 
"He got still atter while, but de mo' stiller he got, de wuss he looked. His head wuz all swell up, an' he look like he been run over in de road by a fo'-mule waggin. Brer Rabbit 'low, 'I 'm glad you had sech a good time, Brer Fox; I'll hatter fetch you out ag'in. You sho' done like you wuz havin' fun.' Brer Fox ain't say a word; he wuz too mad fer ter talk. He des sot aroun' an' lick hisse'f an' try ter git his ha'r straight. Brer Rabbit 'low, ' You ripped aroun' in dar twel I wuz skeer'd you wuz gwine ter hurt yo'se'f,an'I b'lieve in rny soul you done gone an' bump yo' head ag'in a tree, kaze it 's all swell up. You better go home, Brer Fox, an' let yo' ol' 'onian poultice you up.'
'Brer Fox show his tushes, an' say, 'You said diswuza laughin'-place.' Brer Rabbit 'low, 'I said 'twuz my laughin'-place, an' I'll say it ag'in. What you reckon I been doin' all dis time? Ain't you hear me laughin'? An' what you been doin'? I hear you makin' a mighty fuss in dar, an' I say ter myse'f dat Brer Fox is havin' a mighty big time.' 'I let you know dat I ain't been laughin',' sez Brer Fox, sezee. "
Uncle Remus paused, and waited to be questioned. "What was the matter with the Fox, if he wasn't laughing?" the child asked after a thoughtful moment.
Uncle Remus flung his head back, and cried out in a sing-song tone,
"He run ter de Eas' an he run ter de Wes
An jammed his head in a hornet's nes'!" 

The success of Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings created a whole cottage industry for Harris. He wrote nine Remus novels, the last three published posthumously, and many other folktales and accounts of Southern life. In total he published 185 tales under Remus' name, and they were so popular as to influence the likes A.A. Milne, Beatrix Potter, Rudyard Kipling, Mark Twain, and obviously, Walt Disney.


Splash Mountain and America Sings

Splash Mountain's route to being the beloved Disney classic that it's source film no longer can be is more circuitous. It began with the American Bicentennial in 1974, when Disneyland celebrated by, among other things, opening a new show in Tomorrowland called America Sings. This show was designed by Marc Davis, the Disney animator and Imagineer credited with the bringing to life of Snow White from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Aurora and Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty, Alice from Alice in Wonderland, Mr. Toad from The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, Tinkerbell from Peter Pan, Cruella de Vil from One Hundred and One Dalmatians, the humourous vignettes from the Jungle Cruise, the characters and scenes from Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion, the Country Bear Jamboree, and Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, and Brer Bear from Song of the South.  America Sings most closely resembled the Country Bear Jamboree, as a show employing a cast of animatronic animals surveying American popular music. But whereas the Country Bear Jamboree was a static show making use of a single stage and limited in scope to Country and Bluegrass, America Sings used the infrastructure from the newly defunct Carousel of Progress. That attraction, which was itself originally developed for the 1964-65 New York World's Fair, used a unique system by which six separate seating areas were rotated around a central hub of six separate stages. This allowed six separate audiences to be watching six sequential show scenes simultaneously, as well as time for audiences to enter and exit, virtually eliminating the need for guests to wait until the next show. The unlucky guest who arrived right as the doors closed would only have to wait four minutes for the next show instead of the full 20 minutes of the show's total duration. The Carousel of Progress had been moved to Walt Disney World in 1973, leaving a vacant theatre to be filled with Marc Davis' celebration of all American music. Scenes included the Deep South (Bluegrass, Gospel, etc.), the Old West (Country and Western), the Gay Nineties (Jazz, Vaudeville, etc.), and Modern Times (Swing, Rock and Pop as envisioned by a then-60 year old man who worked for Disney circa 1974).

As the Seventies transitioned into the Eighties, America Sings was looking long in the tooth for a couple reasons. One was that it never fit very easily into Tomorrowland, a land ostensibly dedicated to science fact and technological futurism, not a retrospective of American musical history by cartoon animals. Another was that it was dated, especially the Modern Times segment, whose idea of up-to-date 1970's Rock music included Hound Dog and Shake, Rattle, and Roll. Word came from on high that Disneyland was to have a log flume ride, and these twin problems plagued head Imagineer Tony Baxter until memories of Song of the South formed the glue linking those two problems together. He conceived of a log flume ride based on the film, fleshing out the cast of Brers with animatronic characters plucked from America Sings. The show's cast fit perfectly with Uncle Remus' imaginative world of anthropomorphic animals, fleshing out the ride's story without needing to directly reference the live-action segments of Song of the South. Splash Mountain eventually opened in 1989, three years after Song of the South's disastrous 1986 re-release. The absence of references to the controversial parts of the film proved to be the making of Splash Mountain and ensured its longevity as the only "official" representation of Joel Chandler Harris' stories in the Disney canon.    

Marc Davis concept art from America Sings.
Most of these characters and scenes worked their way into Splash Mountain.



The narrative of Splash Mountain combines the three animated segments from the film. Brer Rabbit decides he's going to leave his home in the briar patch, immediately running into trouble with Brer Fox and Brer Bear. First he gets Brer Bear tied up and hanging from a tree, as in the "dollar a minute" story. Then he gets Brer Fox and Brer Bear running from bees, as in the "laughin' place" story. Finally, Brer Rabbit is caught in a beehive himself (replacing the tar baby) and ultimately thrown into the briar patch, which is the ride's 50 ft drop. As the only "official" Disney version of the story, Splash Mountain also acts covertly to provide Song of the South related merchandise, in the form of plush and plastic characters from the ride.


Song of the South's Legacy

The animated sequences from Song of the South have turned up from time to time on official Disney home video releases, invariably in the context of Disney television episodes that included them. Disney's first foray into TV was the 1950 episode One Hour in Wonderland, a Christmas special designed to promote the impending release of Alice in Wonderland. The episode includes Brer Rabbit's earning a dollar a minute, and is regularly included in the bonus features to the animated Alice in Wonderland.  The first episode of Disney's regular, weekly series Walt Disney's Disneyland, an episode entitled The Disneyland Story (1954), includes the story of the laughin' place. It was one of the episodes in the Walt Disney Treasures: Disneyland USA DVD set, released in 2001. A biography episode was produced in 1956 titled A Tribute to Joel Chandler Harris that includes the tar baby story, but that has not been released on home video as yet.

Full episode of The Disneyland Story.

Part one (of four) of A Tribute to Joel Chandler Harris.


A syndicated comic strip, Uncle Remus and his Tales of Br'er Rabbit, began publication on October 15, 1945 to promote the release of Song of the South the following year. Previously, Disney syndicated a Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs newspaper strip to promote the film of the same name. Starting in December of 1937, it ended in April of 1938 when its purpose had been served. Uncle Remus and his Tales of Br'er Rabbit proved so popular, however, that it lasted until December 31, 1972. There was certainly no shortage of inspiration from Harris' stories.

The Uncle Remus stories as written by Joel Chandler Harris are in the public domain and available online, though have limited availability in brick and mortar stores. Given the challenges of the transcribed language, a modern translation may be more desirable. One of the best is by the late African-American writer Julius Lester, who passed away in January 2018. It is well worth the time to seek out one or another version of the stories wherever possible. Brer Rabbit is a significant figure in American folklore and it is a shame that his misadventures have been saddled with a controversial history. That controversy is itself a telling representation of American culture. 

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