Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Behind the Songs: Ballad of John Henry Faulk

"His wife and children trembled, the time was runnin' short,
When a man of law got on their side and took them into court,
And there upon the stand they could not hide behind their eyes,
And the cancer of the fascist was displayed before our eyes"
--Phil Ochs, "Ballad of John Henry Faulk" (1963)

John Henry Faulk: The Making of a Liberated Mind

Austin writer Michael C. Burton has produced the first biography of this celebrated humorist, folklorist, raconteur and champion of the First Amendment. The author conducted extensive interviews with Faulk, and with family and friends, including Studs Terkel, Lee Grant and Pete Seeger; and received counsel from Faulk's close friends such as Austin humorist Cactus Pryor. The author concentrates on Faulk's formative years in South Austin in the twenties when, as son of a well-known and eccentric attorney, he associated more with his poor black neighbors and rather earthy cedar choppers than the middle-class members of the Methodist church. John Henry came under the influence of J. Frank Dobie and John Lomax at the University of Texas, where he was encouraged to develop his native ability for folklore. After World War II, when he served in the Merchant Marines, the Red Cross and finally was accepted into the Army, he began to fine tune his talents as a humorist and folklorist. His first big break came when Alan Lomax, who worked for CBS Radio in New York, introduced him to radio executives. From disc jockey to radio host and later a television personality, Faulk's career skyrocketed. But when the Un-American Activities Committee and Senator McCarthy ushered in the notorious "Hollywood blacklist," John Henry was caught in the crossfire. His eventual lawsuit exonerated him, but the damage had been done. His return to Austin to rebuilt the shambles, his stint on the Hee-Haw series, and his continued fight as a champion of the First Amendment are chronicled in the closing chapter. His grand finale, from 1986 to 1989, was "Pear Orchard, Texas," a revised version of his "Deep in the Heart" one-man play. He had already established his legacy by the time of his death in 1990.

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