Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Phil Harris – "That's What I Like About the South" (1945)

Won't you come with me to Alabammy
Let's go see my dear ol' mammy
She's frying eggs and broilin' hammy
That's what I like about the South!

She's got baked ribs and candied yams
Those sugar-cured Virginia hams
A basement full of those berry jams
And that's what I like about the South!

Hot cornbread and black-eyed peas
You can eat as much as you please
'Cause it's never out of season
That's what I like about the South!

Those verses from "That's What I Like About the South" remind me of the Sunday dinners served at my great-grandparents' home in Goshen, Arkansas, in the mid-1960s.

My sister, mother, grandmother,
and great-grandmother in 1960
My great-grandmother was born in 1888, so she was in her seventies when I hit puberty – not too old to oversee the preparation of those Sunday dinners, when dozens of my mother's relations would gather after services at the Nazarene Church just down the road.

She had plenty of help in the kitchen.  My grandmother was one of seven children, four of whom were girls – plus there were the three boys' wives.  (This was the mid-1960s in rural Arkansas, so the men didn't lift a finger when it came to cooking and washing dishes.)

One of my great-aunts in her
Goshen, Arkansas kitchen
My mother's generation included thirteen first cousins, most of whom were married.  I was the oldest of my generation, which was growing in number from year to year -- there seemed to be a new baby or two every time we visited.  All in all, it wouldn't have been unusual to have 50 people present when the dinner bell rang.

My great-grandparents had two dining-room tables.  One was covered with meats and vegetables – fried chicken, baked ham, pot roast, chicken and dumplings, mashed potatoes and gravy, macaroni salad, green beans, black-eyed peas, creamed corn, okra, biscuits and cornbread, and much, much more.

The second table was for desserts – mostly homemade pies and cakes, with a couple of Jello-based desserts thrown in for good measure.

My great-grandparents and
their seven children in 1976
Once everyone had filled their plates, the women would sit at the dining-room tables while the men would retire to the living room and eat on TV trays.  Goshen was out in the sticks, but with the help of an electrically-rotated antenna mounted on a tall mast on the roof of the house, we could usually get a reasonably decent picture from two stations – which was important if the dinner took place during NFL season.  (Most of the crowd was much more interested in Arkansas Razorbacks football than the NFL, of course.)

At age twelve, I would have much preferred to dine on hamburgers, French fries, and a chocolate malt from my aunt Thelma and uncle Harold's drive-in restaurant.  Fifty years later, of course, I would kill to serve myself from what was perhaps the best all-you-can-eat buffet of locally sourced, made-from-scratch dishes I've ever had the privilege to partake in.

"That's What I Like About the South" was composed by Andy Razaf, who is best-known for his collaborations with Fats Waller – including "Ain't Misbehavin'," "Honeysuckle Rose," and "The Joint Is Jumpin'."

Andy Razaf
Razaf was born Andriamanantena Paul Razafinkarefo.  His father, who was the nephew of Queen Ranavalona III, the last monarch of the Kingdom of Imerina on Madagascar, was killed when the French invaded Madagascar in 1894.  His pregnant 15-year-old mother, who was the daughter of the American consul to Imerina, returned to Washington, DC and gave birth to Razaf in 1895.  

"That's What I Like About the South" is no longer than a typical pop song, but has 15 four-line verses – it has so many words and so much wordplay that it's not a stretch to think of it as a precursor to rap music.

Most of the verses are not food-related.  Here's one of my favorites, which could easily be from a current-day rap song:

You love me like I love you?
Send me fifty, P.D.Q.
Roses are red and violets are pink
I'm gonna get ol' fifty?  I don't think

Here's another verse, which is about as random as it gets:

Here come ol' Bob with all the news
Got the box back coat and the button shoes
Well, he's all caught up with his union dues
And that's what I like about the South!

A box back coat
"That's What I like About the South" has been recorded by a number of artists – including Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys:

But the song really belonged to Phil Harris, the bandleader, actor, and comedian who is remembered for his voice work in several classic Disney movies and his role on Jack Benny's radio show.

Alice Faye and Phil Harris
Harris continued to appear on the Benny show  even after he and his wife, movie star Alice Faye, got their own radio show in 1946.  (For several years, Harris's show aired on NBC and Benny's was on CBS.  Harris would appear during the first half of the Benny show and then walk from CBS to NBC to do his own show.)

Here's Harris performing "That's What I Like About the South" in a 1945 B-movie titled I Love a Bandleader, which co-starred his fellow Jack Benny regular, Eddie "Rochester" Anderson:

Click below to buy the song from Amazon:

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