Of James Baskett, Uncle Remus, and “Song of the South”

This post is one of a series honoring Black History Month.

For good or for ill, today the name James Baskett (1904-1948) has been overshadowed by his most famous role, that of Uncle Remus, which he portrayed in Walt Disney’s Song of the South (1946), an adaptation of Joel Chandler Harris’s stories. While the portrayal was much praised by some, and even won a special Oscar, the character itself quickly joined the pantheon (or rogue’s gallery, if you prefer) of stereotypes which also includes Uncle Tom, Aunt Jemima, Amos ‘n’ Andy, Mammy, and others.

Baskett was originally from Indianapolis; he came to New York during the Jazz Age to break into show business. His early credits are under the name Jimmy or Jimmie Baskette. He performed with that handle in the Broadway shows Deep Harlem and Hot Chocolate, both in 1929. That same year he made his first film, a Vitaphone short called Sending a Wire with Eddie Green. In 1932 he appeared in the early race film Harlem is Heaven with Bill Robinson, Eubie Blake, and Putney Dandridge. He was announced to appear in the Broadway production Hummin’ Sam in 1933 but that show closed the same day it opened. That same year however he was in the chorus in the Vitaphone short 20,000 Cheers for the Chain Gang.

There’s a five year gap between films at this stage in his career; a reasonable conjecture is that in these years he performed on the black vaudeville circuits and in nightclubs. He is often described as a vaudeville performer, and he is known to have performed at the Apollo Theatre.

Next came good roles in a series of race movies (films with all-black casts designed especially for the African American market): Gone Harlem (1938), Policy Man (1938), Straight to Heaven (1939), and Comes Midnight (1940). In 1941, he got his first Disney job, and his first work for a major studio in some time, playing the voice of one the crows in Dumbo. He also had small roles in Revenge of the Zombies (1943) and The Heavenly Body (1944). In 1944, he became a regular on the Amos ‘n’ Andy radio program.

Then came Song of the South. The film was an animation/live action mix, with the live action Uncle Remus (Baskett) telling stories about folk characters Bre’r Fox, Bre’r Rabbit, etc to an integrated group of children. Initially, Baskett thought he was auditioning to supply voices of animated characters as he had done in Dumbo, and was surprised to be awarded the lead in the film. As the movie: 1) is set on a Plantation during the Reconstruction years: 2) seems wholly unjudgmental about the topic of slavery, and 3) the African American characters speak in a rustic lingo doubtless untroubling to the sensibilities of racists, the film was condemned by many despite being a hit at the box office.

The nub of the argument can be found in the film’s best known song “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah”, which projects an unrelenting (some might say mindless) cheerfulness, flying in the face of what surely everyone in the audience knew was a bleak reality. Some might counter, “What’s wrong with being upbeat? What’s wrong with sunshine and bluebirds?” Nothing — if they’re not being specifically identified with a character like THIS. What did a former slave living in the Jim Crow South have to be so cheery about? Was he screwy? There’s more. The nonsense phrase that makes up the tune’s refrain was adapted from one of the traditional variations of “Turkey in the Straw”, an old minstrel tune. And the first syllable conjures “Zip Coon” a traditional minstrel character. It’s the one zillionth case of white producers, white songwriters, and white audiences telling African Americans how happy they ought to be with raw deal they were getting.

Song of the South was in circulation in the U.S. as late as the 1980s; I recall seeing segments of it routinely on television in the ’70s. Also, I recall Garrett Morris and Michael O’Donoghue did a politically incorrect parody of it during the early days of SNL, back when everybody got the reference. Since those days, however, Disney has locked it down. Song of the South has never been available on home video, and they never screen it or show it anywhere. This is corporate self-censorship of course; it’s an open question whether that’s the correct approach to dealing with the film’s problematic aspects. I’d be more in favor of showing it with disclaimers at front and back, and perhaps even throughout, in the lower third of the screen for those who come in late. This was, after all, an early example of an African American STARRING in a mainstream Hollywood film. It ought to be seen in some form, and in the correct spirit. (Yes, I used the word correct. Not politically, but morally. If you think it should be okay to demean others you are intrinsically in the wrong by any measure, be it emotional, spiritual, syllogistic, or utilitarian.)

Ironically, just as Baskett was getting all of this attention, and his career presumably was beginning to take off, he became sick with diabetes. It killed him in 1948. It will always remain academic whether he’d have gone on to take other kinds of roles in the future.

To learn more about the history of vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous