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Filming Born for Hard Luck

A short history of the film project and some remarks about Peg as a subject

Some footage in this film is reproduced from a 1/2-inch reel to reel videotape shot--under improvised arrangements--on the night of Saturday, September 16, 1972. Bruce Bastin (then a UNC graduate student in Folklore) got word at the last minute from Kip Lornell (collecting blues on a NEH Youthgrant) and Pete Lowry that the medicine show would play at the Chatham County Fair in Pittsboro, N.C., and he hastily assembled an expedition.

He and Ceci Conway (another UNC graduate student in Folklore) handled the video camera. They had the disadvantage of using equipment new to them, of having insufficient lighting, and of needing to keep out of the way of two performers working at their jobs. If this resulted in a less-than-perfect video, it had the advantage of capturing an audience that had eyes only for the two performers and of recording how the showmen played for their usual audience, a good-natured crowd composed mostly of rural black males. These video tapes are in the collection of the Southern Folklife Collection Library at Chapel Hill.

The remainder of the film was shot on 16mm B&W reversal stock in 1975 during two trips to Union County, S.C. Both blacks and whites in the area were friendly and interested in the film project. The film team consisted of Tom Davenport as cameraman (he had seen Peg Leg Sam perform in two college-campus festivals but was not known to Peg) and of the UNC student crew: Kip Lornell, Mike Higgins, and Allen Tullos. Bruce Bastin was present on one of the trips.

Some of the students had known Peg for several years, and all had heard him on numerous occasions, knew his recordings, and were quite familiar with his repertory. One served as soundman, while the others were asking Peg questions and responding to him. In part they controlled the situation by eliciting the best of his material.

During the filming, however, Jackson's brothers Bill and Monroe and his friends and neighbors were also usually present, and they both spontaneously participated in the film and happily provided him a more natural audience. Peg was therefore playing most of the time both for the camera and for his friends. As an old trouper he grasped the problems of the film crew and would warn the Deacon not to step in front of the camera or make the audience keep quiet during a song so as not to spoil the recording.

Throughout the film, whether in natural or abnormal context, Peg is either running through his familiar routines or playfully dramatizing himself. The most "staged" scene -- his dance in the opening of the film -- was suggested to him. He liked, or at least went along with, the idea, trying it several different ways before the filming. He revealed himself a thorough professional, interested in possible effects.

In contrast, the scene in which the Deacon and Peg spar when Peg offers liquor to the neighborhood girls was totally spontaneous, but both Peg and Deacon appear to be deliberately playing for the camera. The repartee reflects their actual attitudes, but at the same time also the playful roles they normally assume in their easy friendship (they are fishing buddies).

The most complex situation was the performance in Whitehead's Store. Peg had often played there for nickles and dimes in the old days, but is little interested in doing so now that he has found a more appreciative (and generous) audience on the college campuses. He dressed up for the scene, with clean shirt, gold watch, and good hat, and while there he asserted his independence from direction by refusing a request to repeat a sequence when the film ran out. He was perhaps both pleased that local whites should see him being the star of a film and also determined to retain his dignity by being the master of the situation. A group of stylish black youths who entered the store showed great astonishment at the performance and were highly demonstrative. Peg's own friends were more subdued than usual – a fact which made his brother Monroe's unexpected dance at the end of the scene all the more surprising.

PEG AS SUBJECT

A camera lens turned upon Arthur Jackson probably alters his behavior less than it does that of most people. He is a professional comedian whose artistic lineage includes such 19th-century platform humorists as Samuel Clemens, Charles Farrar Brown, and Henry Wheeler Shaw, who invented and wore the personae of Mark Twain, Artemus Ward, and Josh Billings. Like them, Jackson carries his mask off stage, and he seldom (perhaps never before whites) completely emerges from his character Peg Leg Sam. His trade marks are his comic hats (ones outrageously battered, or too small, or polka dotted) and his peg leg. He exploits his leg not only in his stage name and his dance, but often in his jokes as well and even in a song like "Froggie Went A-Courting."

But the character Peg Leg Sam wears a number of shifting expressions. In stories and wise cracks Peg may poke fun at himself, exploiting the conventional Ugly Man humor familiar in Southern culture from pieces like Johnson J. Hooper's "A Night at the Ugly Man's." Some of Peg's stock in trade--his stage laugh, the jokes in which he describes himself as looking like the "monkey's pa" or others in which he is worsted when he acts uppity to a policeman--are survivals from the Jim Crow era.

The anti-black implications of this humor made the white college students uncomfortable, but the rural black audiences at the Chatham County Fair or in the Jonesville neighborhood had no such qualms. The men accepted it for the burlesque humor it was and guffawed as much at these jokes as at ones aimed at the mother-in -law too tough for the Devil to burn or at one-liners like "Music killed my brother Bill--piano fell on 'im!"

Peg's humor, however, is not simply acquiescent and placatory. It also contains a marked undercurrent of hostility toward gentility and the settled order. His brother Bill thinks he inherited roving ways from his father, who had left home in Virginia at the age of 10 and had "been in the pen" before he wandered into Jonesville and won his wife over the strong objections of her respectable father. This grandfather – a powerfully built ex-slave – was highly ambitious after emancipation, but stingy, and contemptuous of less successful blacks. Sam, by contrast, has not only been a free spender but satirizes the social pillars-- the school teachers and preachers and judges and wives.

All his performances, in fact, reflect the context of his life--that of a restless and gifted black man who came of age in the closed society of the Jim Crow era and had to make his way from the age of nineteen with a physical handicap. Asked once if he would want to live his life over, he exclaimed, "I'd rather die the death of a lizard than go back over the way I lived!" But he added that another man with his hard luck would have sat by the road with his hat in his hand--but that he himself never gave up. Like Ralph Ellison's character Rinehart he lived by his wits and the creation of illusions. His humor and music, in short, were part livelihood, part convention, part self-revelation, part shield--and a considerable part art.

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Filming Born For Hard Luck
 

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