Emory Report

January 20, 1998

 Volume 50, No. 17

Brown chronicles rural
Southern 'ghost dancing'

Throughout the 19th century, the culture and survival of Native Americans were under siege. As an antidote to the pressure they felt, tribes like the Sioux and the Arapaho engaged in ceremonies called "ghost dancing" in which they attempted to magically conjure the past to recreate the glory days before the white man arrived.

Ironically, according to Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts doctoral student Rodger Lyle Brown, ghost dancing survives today, but the impulse has been reconfigured by rural, mostly white communities in the South.

Since 1988, Brown has attended myriad small-town festivals, including Swine Time in Climax, Ga.; Hillbilly Days in Pikeville, Ky.; and the Clarkton Tobacco Festival in North Carolina. On the surface, Brown said, these gatherings appear to be nothing more than an excuse for the locals to fry some fish and clog the night away, but their real purpose runs much deeper.

"At the heart of each event I found the same underlying impulse," Brown wrote in the introduction to his new book, Ghost Dancing on the Cracker Circuit: The Culture of Festivals in the American South. "There was an attempt to perpetuate communities under economic and cultural stress by the manufacturing of annual rituals."

Just as Native Americans had done, Brown wrote, the organizers of these events "wanted to ghost dance for the old Main Street, for imagined places and remembered times when values and hierarchies that favored their interests were still in place." In short, if happy days had long since left town, at least one day a year could be happy.

Brown's book is an intellectual travelogue of bizarre small-town culture, and Art Papers described it as "a roaring great read" in which "difficult moments of theory are translated into striking metaphors."

The project got its start in 1988 when Brown attended Rattlesnake Roundup in Whigham, Ga. The annual event takes place in late January, and people drive in from miles around to watch local hunters use gasoline fumes to force giant, venomous rattlers out of their sandy dens. But when Brown began asking around about the cultural and historic significance of the roundup to the town, he was surprised with the answer he got.

"We used to host community fish fries," Whigham's retired postmaster told Brown. "But then before you know it, all the groups in the county, the Rotary, the Kiwanis, they're having fish fries too! So there wasn't any profit in it. We needed us a new attraction, so we came up with the roundup."

During his research for the book, Brown met countless oddball characters, including a preacher who toured the circuit selling pellet guns, butterfly knives and Mexican bullwhips, and another man who made his livelihood displaying his giant, 60-year-old alligator at various festivals. But the strangest folks he met were two men at Mule Day in Calvary, Ga., who had won a Deputy Barney Fife and Sheriff Andy Taylor look-alike contest and were driving at the head of the festival's parade. The men were being feted because they resembled two fictional characters from the Andy Griffith television program. For Brown, that image was just too rich.

"These weren't just any celebrity look-alikes," he wrote. "These were Barney and Andy look-alikes, ultimate icons of the mythified, train-depot-and-post-office, small town, white crossroads South. These were ... copies of a copy for which there is no original. What seeing Andy and Barney on Mule Day helped me understand was that ghost dancing has become an American metaphor for the mournful remembrance of a lost culture."

And sometimes, it's a culture that never existed in the first place.

-John Thomas

This article originally appeared in the Autumn 1997 issue of Emory Magazine and is used with permission.

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