Sunday, 5 April 2015

Baton Rouge, the Union Jack - and the story of The Kingfish, Huey Long

in a reply to a comment on his latest post, which is stuffed with great photos taken on his business travels through America's Deep South (here), fellow-blogger Erik Bartlam mentioned the odd fact that the city flag of Louisiana's state capitol Baton Rouge features the Union Jack. I don't know why this tickled me, but it did. After all, didn't the colonists kick the Brits out 240 years' ago? Here's what Wikipedia has to say about the flag:

The crest on the lower left uses the red, white and blue, representing the colors of the United States. The upper left of the shield is the fleur-de-lis of France, the upper right is the Castile of Spain, and the lower portion is the pre-1801 Union Flag of the Kingdom of Great Britain. The coat of arms encompasses the emblems of the three European countries whose flags have flown over Baton Rouge. 

Although I've been to Louisiana several times, I've never managed to visit the state capital. That's a source of regret, because I've long been fascinated by the story of the Kingfish - the state's populist demagogue governor and, later, senator, Huey Long, who turned himself into a virtual dictator, went after Big Oil, and instigated a frantic wealth redistribution and public works programme under the slogan "Every Man a King".

I suspect I first heard about Long in connection with the 1949 film, All the King's Men, in which Broderick Crawford (a sort of fast-talking, beefy, early prototype of James Gandolfini) gave a superb performance as Willie Stark, an idealistic politician fatally corrupted by power. It was a thinly disguised portrait of Huey Long. The film, which won the academy award for best picture, was an adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize-winning 1946 novel by eminent Southern writer, Robert Penn Warren. I saw it on television when I was little, and it intrigued me:

Fast-forward to 1974 and the release of Randy Newman's extraordinary Good Old Boys album, a distinctly ambiguous musical portrait of the Deep South, which I suspect outraged many Southerners, but which I thought was nuanced and - given that Newman was a California liberal - surprisingly sympathetic. It featured Huey Long's campaign song (supposedly co-written by the politician), "Every Man a King" and Newman's own "Kingfish":

The album had such an impact on me that when I travelled across America and back in the late '70s, I took two books with me: The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, expat Henry Miller's jaundiced portrait of his homeland (he'd been forced to return from Paris, due the outbreak of WWII, poor thing) - and T. Harry Williams's monumental (900 page) 1970 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Huey Long, which helped make all those seemingly endless Greyhound Bus journeys bearable. I've been wary of demagogues ever since reading it - but it was hard not to be dazzled by Long's sheer braseness, his cosmic levels of chutzpah. No wonder he was loved (mainly by the poor - especially rural Louisianians) and hated (by just about everyone else) in equal measure. To describe him as "larger than life" would be an understatement - more a force of nature. 

Last year, I finally caught up with American documentary-maker Ken Burns's 1985 film,  Huey Long, on YouTube. I was going to post it here, but we in the UK can no longer access it. Pity. It can be purchased on Amazon, here, or you can wait until it turns up on  the PBS channel on Sky (it worth waiting for). Meanwhile, this brief 1936 newsreel biography - released the year after Long's assassination - will give you a flavour of the man (who, it strikes me, bears a faint physical resemblance to KCS English teacher, Frank Miles): 

By the way, Long's use of the militia appears to have been a lot less innocent than the newsreel suggests - it was almost a private army. God knows what a Long presidency would have been like: scarily fascistic and extremely short, one suspects, as it was a racing certainty he would either have been impeached or assassinated. Barack Obama is just the latest in a long line of American presidents who have done their damndest to impose their will by circumventing the country's wonderful constitution -  but one suspects Huey Long would have made even Obama appear a model of legal probity. 

I skipped Baton Rouge on my first visit to the South, preferring to extend my stay in New Orleans. Despite its beautiful name and rich history, the guidebooks didn't make it sound that enticing, and there was just so much else to see, especially in that part of the world. Now, I rather regret skipping it. Still, I don't expect it's quite as lively as it would have been when the Kingfish was in town.  


  1. The level of hostility toward Britain in The South during the War of Independence was ambiguous. We (well not my we...the only relative I have that fought was a Loyalist killed during battle in South Carolina). We were CofE unlike the witch burners in New England...they were smugglers who had reason to hate the British navy, while our economy was a natural extension of the British Empire (the irony is that because of this...we were paying for the war). We just wanted to be treated as the free born Britons we were. A less bellicose and presumptuous approach in the Southern theatre might have led to a much different outcome in that war. The British have never been rejected here....while many Southrons argued strenuously against getting involved with New England after the war. Yes...your government abandoned us in our hour of need but, we can't forget how many of our POWs survived up north thanks to the generous and warm donations of Britons.

    On the other hand, the French and Spanish just needed to GTFO!

    The extent of Anglophilic displays in Baton Rouge is a source of great amusement to me and I've talked about them before...I giggle every time I see the French rejected for Red Stick...usually right next to Tebaux Guisses Snails and Baggets. Ha.

    I have to tell you though I wouldn't piss on Randy Newman if he was on fire. Whatever irony you find in a song like Rednecks it's not for the benefit of me and my Daddy, or my Grands, or my's meant for Yankees. To shame them by comparison. Of course, I probably wouldn't have time to get my tackle out if newman was on fire anyway.

    The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland Ohio is exactly where the little piano player from California belongs.

    If we really want to know what a Good Ole Boy (or Good'un) is...why not listen to what a man of actual and immense talent and insight has to say...the V'ginian, Tom Wolfe, the man who put the term in common parlance..

    From Last American Hero..."A goof ol boy, I ought to explain, is a generic term in the rural South referring to a man, of any age, but more often young than not, who fits in with the status system of the region. It usually mea s he has a good sense of humor and enjoys ironic jokes, is tolerant and easygoing enough to get along in long conversations at places like on the corner, and has a reasonable amount of physical courage."

    Ken Burns! Dear God Scott Gronmark are you trying to make my eyes bleed?


    Thanks for the link. You are too kind.

    1. Still, I'm glad they stuck with "Baton Rouge" rather than "Red Stick" - purely on aesthetic grounds, you understand.

      Always been a great Tom Wolfe admirer, ever since "Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak-Catchers" identified the internal contradictions and moral vacuousness of Cultural Marxism 45 years' ago. Don't agree with everything he's ever written, but he has always struck me as a genuinely independent thinker.

      All I can say in defence of my comments re the little piano player from California is that, from over here, "Good Old Boys" provided a welcome antidote to the infantile, self-satisfied anti-Southern posturings of Neil Young and his ilk. Yes, the track "Rednecks" is an attack on the North's habitual use of Southerners as moral whipping-boys - but I've just re-listened to the album and it strikes this non-Southerner as largely affectionate and sympathetic, especially given the left-liberal rock milieu it emerged from. I could, of course, simply have misinterpreted the whole enterprise - but hearing it back then stoked my desire to visit the Deep South, having caught mere whiffs of it on an earlier visit to Washington DC and Maryland. If Randy Newman set out to produce a searing indictment of the South (and I don't think he did), he failed miserably.

      Regarding Ken Burns, sorry to hear about your eye trouble - but I really enjoyed that documentary!

      A belated Happy Easter to you and your family. I know you have qualms about too much music in church, but our choir were in fantastic form yesterday.

    2. Of course, I don't have a theological leg to stand on...I just prefer the silence. Yesterday they brought in a brass quartet for the late, they decided to have a song or two for us in the early service. I told the Rector I would be writing a letter to the Bishop. He said there's already a pretty thick file.
      He actually called me out during a sermon once...he was on about all the signing there would be in Heaven "and yes, even you, Erik will enjoy it."

      You are right...Newman's not the worst...but, nobody really asked his opinion. that's the thing that becomes tiresome. Rednecks is just a step too far. There is a pleasant song about there's that. I am gladly willing to put all that aside and just be pleased that it had the effect on you that it did.

      Ken Burn's documentary on the "Civil War"...Ken freaking Burns, PBS Documentarian and Nationalist historian. Him and Shelby Foote can....Hahahah

      Did he talk about Longs' dealings with LSU football? There's some funny stories there.

      To demonstrate that I am not a humorless is what it sounds like when an actual Southerner takes the piss...

      Did he talk about the Long's dealings with LSU football?

    3. Belated Happy Easter to you and yours too.

    4. Can't remember if there was a section about LSU football - I was more interested in his use of the state militia as a sort of private army. The documentary is relatively balalnced - plenty of Long fans are interviewed, including several who were alive when he was in power. Difficult one for liberals to deal with, I'd have thought - after all, many of Long's policies would appeal to Obama Democrats, and the anti-Big Business and "one percent" rhetoric would be right up their street.

      I love "Birmingham", especially the lines about his father - "a most unsightly man" - and about Dan, "the meanest dog in Alabam'."

      I'd be interested to hear what your beef with Shelby Foote is - I find him strangely mesmerising as a performer on TV, but I've no way of knowing if his views are accurate.

      We're never going to see eye to eye on the subject of church music - I really appreciate the quietness of Evensong (when it isn't choral, of course), but Sunday Mass would feel very strange without it. Our vicar studied music (as well as theology) so you wouldn't get far with him either!

      Really enjoyed the Charlie Daniels. Thank you.

  2. "Ken Burn's documentary on the "Civil War"...Ken freaking Burns, PBS Documentarian and Nationalist historian. Him and Shelby Foote can....Hahahah".

    Erik Bartlam, can't let this go without a brief comment.

    I think Ken Burns is generally admired in the UK because our own standard of historical documentaries is currently poor - crazed, low-rent academics running around waving their arms about and employing the full battery of modern visual aids including the clapped-out historical re-enactment and naff, portentous music. Burns has provided something fresh including the skilful re-invention of the rostrum-camera although his over-use of the rustic, solo violin can be a bit trying.

    His selection of talking heads is particularly good. They sound as if they know what they are talking about and none more so than Shelby Foote. He is not only a very engaging TV performer, but his great 3-Volume "Narrative" gives him both gravitas and authority and he taught me the word "tatterdemalion" and introduced me to the exploits of Bedford Forrest [he is apparently buried near him?] and "Bloody" Bill Anderson