The sports-banquet season is just ended, and on the Southern circuit many a tepid slab of roast beef was followed by a striking apparition: a 270-pound, 46-year-old, anti-likker, anti-bigotry, deepwater Baptist Mississippi fertilizer salesman named Jerry Clower, whose face looks like John Wayne's from the eyes up and Buddy Hackett's from the cheekbones down. Clower is a born speaker. He pooches his lips out, waves his arms, imitates a chain saw cutting through a screen door, goes "ba-oooo" deep down in his throat like a coon dog named Brumby and finds occasion, somewhere along the line, to reproach his audience: "People, I'm a little disappointed in you. None of y'all have rushed up to me and said, 'Jerry, I remember when you played football at Miss'ippi State.' "
He frowns. He looks like he might cry. "There ain't none of y'all done that and it has disturbed me a little bit. I'll just have to tell you who I am. I am the man, in 19 hundred and 49, at the Auburn Stadium—they had an All-America name of Travis Tidwell, who was a fine back—I am the man, the defensive tackle, in 19 hundred and 49, before standing room only, that Tidwell made 27 yards running backwards over."
Clower goes on to tell, and in salient detail to act out, the story of that memorable play, and the banqueters laugh so hard they get just about as much exercise as they would out of playing the game themselves. Once at a big affair in Nashville, Bear Bryant started trying to make a few notes during Clower's remarks but got so tickled he had to quit. LSU arranged its banquet this winter around Clower's schedule, and he had the people there laughing from deep down. He told about the time he played against Baylor: "I called my mama long distance at the country store, and had 'em to go over there home and get her and bring her to the telephone, and I said to her, 'Mama, just think of this. Yo' pore little old country boy is goin' to play football against the largest Baptist university in the whole world.'
"And then, when I got down to playing 'em, trying to rush in there and keep old Adrian Burk from passing to old J.D. Ison, I run into a guard named May-field—who was bad. He was so mean that when he was ordained a Baptist preacher he had two black eyes.
April 29, 1973
"This Preacher Mayfield forearmed me back of my head. He shoved my face down in that dirt and that grass, and my bottom lip and bottom teeth just scooped up a big mouthful of that dirt like a dragline."
Clower sticks out his bottom lip and teeth and assumes such a graphic dirt-biting expression that his rapt audience can taste turf through the three-color ice cream. He shudders and makes a series of massive, agonized mouth-pawing motions. "I jumped up spittin' and knockin' the grass and the dirt out of my mouth, and I said, 'Fella, you the dirtiest thing I ever played against in all my life. And you supposed to be a Baptist preacher!'
"And he stood up erect—they had done throwed the ball for a touchdown—he stood up erect and popped his hand over his heart and he pointed his long finger right in my face and he said, 'The Bible says, the meek shall inherit the earth.'
"And I had just inherited a mouthful of it."
The stories Clower tells are more or less true (Travis Tidwell, by his own recollection, ran over him backward for only seven yards). Clower compares himself favorably, and aptly, with such country-humorist predecessors as Andy Griffith and Brother Dave Gardner when he says, "I don't tell funny stories. I just tell stories funny."
He tells them all over, not just at sports banquets. In his time he has enlivened many a broiler festival and county fair, at least one tobacco-spitting contest and an armadillo festival. He has appeared at the Grand Ole Opry several times, on the David Frost and Mike Douglas television shows and on stage with country-music stars as far north as Boston. His two record albums have together sold 650,000 copies and he says with a characteristic lack of false or even true modesty that he has never had an audience that did not warm up to him eventually.
Sports banquets, however, may be his strong suit. His interest in sports and recreation goes way back, after all, to his boyhood in East Fork (Route 4, Liberty), Amite County, Miss, during the Depression.
"The main thing we done to entertain ourselves in those days," he recalls, "was work. We was so poor that when Mama would make up some flour gravy, whatever was extra she'd can it. Every seventh jar she'd put some black pepper in, and that was for Sunday.
"But we had lots of sports and social functions: candy pullings, log rollings, coon hunts and rat killings. You ain't lived till you been to a rat killing. All of us would get sticks and go down to the barn. We'd move the corn and then we'd whop the rats. Even now, I advocate everybody killing their own rats. I think they'd enjoy it.
"We'd hunt rabbits. Have peanut boilings. Corncob wars—our friend Marcell Ledbetter'd say he was Hitler, and me and my brother Sonny'd invade him. We didn't sit there and talk about being poor, we didn't send for any Federal Government recreational director to teach us dumb games and pour a Pepsi-Cola for us. We'd make us a flying jenny, or make us a cart—hook up a goat to a wagon. We rid bull yearlings one evening and climbed pine trees the next. We'd go down to the swimming hole and play gator—gator was tag."
But they couldn't do what Jerry and his brother Sonny wanted to do most—play football. East Fork Consolidated High School was too small to afford a team. So the Clower boys had to content themselves with "kicking a Pet milk can at recess in the middle of the gravel road" and listening to some games on the radio.
"We'd have to put that old battery radio down in front of the fire till it got hot, then snatch it away and run plug it in the wall, and it would play till it cooled off. One time we listened to Notre Dame and Army playing, and I said 'God Almighty, listen to all that yelling. Must be a thousand people there.' Well, little did we know it was a hundred and three thousand." And little did he know that one day he would be yelled at in major-college stadiums himself.
He might never have been if it had not been for Pearl Harbor. Clower says that his sentiments when the nation was attacked were as follows: "I hear tell, if Hitler and Tojo win the war they're gonna make us quit having dinner on the ground at East Fork church. And we like that. And you know when we gonna quit having dinner there? When somebody is physically strong enough to come down here and whip us and make us quit." The Clower brothers joined the Navy and did such a good job of helping to straighten out Hitler and Tojo that Sonny made the Navy his career, and Jerry felt up to taking on whatever good-sized college man might be placed in front of him in a game of football. "I didn't know a three-point stance from a swan dive," he says, "but when I came back to East Fork with a duffel bag over one shoulder and a Japanese rifle over the other I said, 'Mama, I'm goin' to pursue my life's ambition!' "
The gridiron career that ensued did not strike many observers as an intensely dramatic one. It struck Clower himself that way, however, and it grows more and more vivid the longer he tells about it—on his records, from touchdown-club rostrums and from behind the wheel of his black Buick as he drives between engagements and fills the whole story out for an interviewer.
"When I walked onto the campus of Southwest Mississippi Junior College in Summit, Miss. I was six feet tall and weighed 214 pounds. And in them days that was big. And as soon as I saw some people, I said, 'I'M LOOKIN' FOR THE FOOTBALL COACH!' They took me to his office and the coach jumped up and said, 'Son, I'll give you a half scholarship just looking at you. Tell me quick, what position is it that you play?'
"Well all I knew to say was, 'I am the man what runs with the football.'
"Now, friends, I went out for football 16 days, and they made me a tackle, and the first college game I saw, I played in it.
"They had laughed at me when I went to dress out. Called me a redneck. Now I am country. I can draw up a bucket of water and never disturb the well. I can treat a 50-gallon drum of shell peas with Hi-Life and kill ever' weevil, but won't get enough of Hi-Life on the peas to hurt you when you eat 'em. I can keep a settin' hen from quittin' the nest just by cluckin' to her. I can prepare chitlins fresh creek-slung or stump-whupped.... But can you imagine somebody from downtown McComb, Miss. calling me a redneck?
" 'Course I did put that thigh pad on under my arm and I ain't about to tell you what I did with that athletic supporter. But I played tackle, guard, linebacker, defensive end, offensive end and even some center, and a man I knew wrote to Mississippi State and said, 'Jerry don't know much about football, but he's big and aggressive and come from a good Christian home....' And they gave me a call.
"I got up there to that big Southeastern Conference school where they fly places on airplanes, and there I was alongside a fella who had a whole page in the program about him being a high school superstar. Mentally, it does something to you. But I didn't forget where I was from. The man puttin' out the program came to me and said, 'It says here on the list you from East Fork, Miss. Ain't even a post office there. We're going to put down Liberty.'
"I said, 'No you ain't.' And in that old program it said East Fork, and the next year, when The Progressive Farmer came around home selling subscriptions—and you got a free map when you bought one—for the first time that map had East Fork on it.
"Well, by the time the season started I had gone up against some of them folks that had made all-big this and all-little that in high school, and I had white-eyed them. And I was the first-string tackle. My first game was against Tennessee. I walked out onto the field and heard that horn blow and I thought the City of New Orleans done jumped the track and run over me. I looked over and saw their coach, General Neyland, standin' on the sidelines and I thought my old Miss'ippi heart was gonna bust. And when Bert Rechichar drawed back and hit me one time with his forearm, I wished it had.
"The whole time I was playing, Miss'ippi State tied one ball game. Didn't win none. And I didn't get named All-America. I did throw Eddie Price of Tulane once for a 15-yard loss. Stuck 'im—oh, I was so proud. I jumped up, just as thrilled, and Shag Pyron, who's now highway commissioner of the Southern District of Mississippi, and who was playin' with me then, said, That's the way to hit the sumbitch.' They th'owed the flag down and stepped off 15 yards, for cussin', and that wiped out the only great play I ever made.
"But listen. In 1947 one Saturday me and a buddy of mine at Southwest Junior College went to New Orleans to see Notre Dame and Tulane. Johnny Lujack th'owed that ball like a clothesline, tkchoookt. Lord! Well, in 1949 I, Jerry Clower, what had growed up without a high school team, lost 11 pounds on the same field, myself, standing right there, where Mr. Lujack had stood."
Before Clower could claim fame of his own, however, he had to get into fertilizer. After his two years at Mississippi State the New York Yankees of the old All-America Conference invited him to a tryout, but he had to find a more reliable way to support himself and his wife Homerline, so he got his bachelor's degree in agriculture and worked as a county agent for a while. Then in 1954 he became a salesman for the Mississippi Chemical Corp., a big, notably progressive fertilizer concern in Yazoo City, where Clower still lives.
"I have been intimately associated with salesmen for 24 years," says Mississippi Chemical Vice-President Charles J. Jackson, "and Jerry is the best salesman I ever saw." But Clower recalls that it took him a while to get his sales pitch down. "I'd go to a co-op meeting and get up and tell them folks how we made homogenized, water-soluble, pelletized, chemically mixed fertilizers. And after making one of them talks I never did get invited back nowhere. So I started telling stories about my beloved Amite County."
Now there are many people around the country who have never heard anything about Amite County that wasn't abhorrent. It is a county that has not stopped burning crosses. A pistol dropped out from under the sheet of one of Clower's boyhood friends during a Klan parade not too long ago. In private, and in the heat of local civic disputes, Clower faces up to such matters with a vehemence that would warm a line coach's heart. When he is telling stories for entertainment, however, he focuses on the recreational aspects of Amite life as it was when he was a boy.
There was the time Newgene Ledbetter (whose siblings were named Ardel, Bernel, Raynell, Lynell, Marcell and W. L.) replaced the church communion grape juice with green persimmon wine, "and everybody rose and whistled the closing hymn."
There was the time Sonny Clower came running into the house with a rat he had just dispatched and started yelling, "Mama, Mama, looky here what a rat! I done whupped him over the head with a corncob. I done stobbed him with a hayfork...." And just then Sonny looked around and saw the preacher sitting there in the living room and without missing a beat he "hugged that rat up against him, and petted it, and said, 'And then the Lord called the pore thang home.' "
Then there are the coon-hunting stories Jerry tells. Uncle Versie Ledbetter had a famous fighting coon dog named Highball, which hooked up once with the biggest coon in the swamps and fought it up and down trees and in and out of creeks for hours until all of a sudden the two of them fought their way up onto the railroad track and the City of New Orleans came along and killed them both.
Old Uncle Versie started to howl ("Whaaaaaw") and throw himself about, to the point where Jerry felt called upon to remind him that old Highball's puppies would grow up to replace him.
"I know that!" yelled Uncle Versie. "I ain't such a fool as to carry on so just over a dog dying. But I'm afraid old Highball died thinking that coon killed him."
Clower's most famous coon-hunting story, one which farm groups make him tell over and over, involves old John Eubanks and the time something got ahold of him in a high tree. John Eubanks, "a great American, a great tree climber," bit off more than he could chew because "he didn't believe in shooting no coons out of no tree. He taught us from birth: 'Give everything a sporting chance. Either take along a crosscut saw and cut the tree down, or climb the tree and make the coon jump in amongst the dogs. Give him a sporting chance.' A lot of times we'd climb a tree and make a coon jump in amongst 20 dogs. But at least he had the option of whuppin' all them dogs and walkin' off."
As it happened, Brumby, the dog, one night treed something "in the biggest sweet gum tree in all the swamp. It was huge. Old John hung his toenails in the bark and went on up. From near the top he hollered, "Hooo, what a big 'un!' And he took out his stick from his overalls pocket and punched the coon.
"Only it wasn't a coon. It was a lynx."
The rest of the story cannot be adequately rendered in print. One has to hear the way Clower throws himself into all the voices—the lynx', John's and those of the men down on the ground saying, "What's the matter with John? Knock 'im out, Johnnn."
John says, "Whaaaaaw! This thang's killin' me."
Still not quite realizing the extremity of the situation, the men down below holler, "Knock 'im out, Johnnnn."
And John hollers, "Hooooooo, shoot this thang!"
And the men holler back, "Can't shoot up in there, Johnnnnn. Liable to hit yooooou."
And John groans, in as fine a representation of agony as is likely ever to be heard from a banquet dais, "Well, just shoot up here amongst us. One of us got to have some relief."
That story—along with somewhat milder, but actually not very much milder, reflections on how to eat sorghum and biscuits right and how Pete Maravich manages to dribble with long hair—brought down the house at a long line of co-op meetings, cattlemen's association confabs, large-scale coon hunts and sports boosters' lunches. Clower became Mississippi Chemical's top salesman and public-relations figure.
Then one night three years ago in Lubbock at a feedlot association function, a radio-station man recorded live an album full of Clower's stories. Copies of it were sold by mail, and pretty soon Decca picked it up. Next thing Clower knew, Jerry Clower from Yazoo City, Mississippi Talkin, with liner notes by an English teacher from Mississippi State, Mrs. Burke C. Murphy, was No. 11 on the national country-album charts. "And when you played football at Mississippi State and you get to be No. 11 in the nation in anything, you done arrived," Clower observes with relish.
Clower has been accorded star treatment on visits to New York, but his head has never been turned. The first time in New York, "Decca sent this lady to meet me at the plane, and I thought, well, I'm happily married, and if they had to send a lady to meet me, I'm glad they sent one with a nice, long conservative dress. I wouldn't want nobody to fling no cravin' on me.
"Well, she went to get in that limousine, and her dress parted. Her naked leg was sticking out in that there Cadillac. I said, 'Lord, woman, what's done happened to yore dress?' She said, 'I got hot pants on under there.' I said, 'I don't want to know about under there.' "
Clower is still on salary with Mississippi Chemical—his colleagues there say they expect his entertainment career will level off someday and he will return, honorably, to fertilizer sales. He still makes appearances for the company. Recently he told the Farmers' Valley Co-Op in Natchitoches, La., "I growed up as a runt. Looked like I just got over a hookworm treatment all the time. Then my brother Sonny went off to the Navy, and before I joined up, too, I gained 50 pound. I found out what he'd been doing. He'd been goin' to the safe with a tablespoon and skimming off the cream from the milk. For 17 years I'd been drinking blue John!
"And friends, when you don't use homogenized fertilizer, when you let somebody talk you into picking up something cheaper, then some of your crops are drinkin' blue John....
"Hoo-eee," Jerry went on to tell the farmers, in reference to the co-op's ownership of shares in Mississippi Chemical, "aren't you glad you own the biggest and finest urea plant in the world?" Then he told them he was going to appear in Monroe and Shreveport, La. with country singing stars Tammy Wynette, George Jones and Freddie Hart. "And I sure do hope y'all'll come. And if you do, just get up and holler "Fertilizer!' and I'll know who you are."
As close as he stays to the fertilizer scene, however, he keeps in even better touch with sports. This is true even though he no longer takes active part in any sport at all, except for an occasional special coon hunt at the behest of somebody like Nelson Bunker Hunt, son of H.L. (referred to by Clower as "the old he-coon himself"). He doesn't play church softball even, and when somebody at the office tried to get him and the Mrs. to go camping, Homerline said, "The payments on this house are too high for me to go out and sleep on the riverbank."
"My wife wants me to take up golf," says Clower, "but I'm too much of a competitor. I'm afraid I'd grit my teeth and want to whup everybody."
"Jerry played golf once," says Don McGraw, a vice-president at Mississippi Chemical. "The first tee on the course we play is on top of a hill. He said he'd be afraid to hit a ball from there, he might hit it over the green and over the fence and over the highway and into the cement factory, about half a mile away.
"Well, we finally got him out there, and his tee shot hit the inside wall of the carport of the pro's house, which was 50 yards away. That's the last shot I've ever seen him take. He does play Ping-Pong once in a while. As I recall, he has quick hands, and they're big, and he hits the ball with his hands more than he does with the paddle."
Almost everybody at Mississippi Chemical can tell a good story, but Charles Jackson, one of the best, admits that nobody is in a class with Clower. "He puts all his energy into 'em. I can't mock that lynx or that chain saw the way he can. He's the most exuberant man I've ever seen."
Clower, in other words, tells stories as hard as he used to play tackle, and with considerably more recognition. "Every time Darrell Royal sees me," he notes proudly, "he says 'Jay-ree!' " Tommy Yearout of Auburn used to play the record of the John Eubanks story before a game to psych himself up. The Mississippi State secondary has been known to use phrases from that story as pass-coverage signals. Clower says that last season as he watched a Houston Astro game on TV he was startled to hear a fan yelling, "Knock 'im out, Johnnnn!" when Johnny Edwards came to bat.
But then Jerry knew a good many sports people before he became a recording artist. Among the athletes he knew in college are Alex Grammas and Joe Fortunato. In his travels he has dropped in on the Mississippi State athletic department faithfully enough that his friends include virtually everybody who has coached or played there in the last 10 years. And it was his longtime position as confidant and counselor to his town's high school athletes, not his show biz stature, that caused such a strong reaction when Yazoo City native Jerry Moses was catching for the Angels, and Clower showed up unannounced in the Anaheim stands before a game.
"Jerry was warming up a pitcher. As soon as he saw it was me, he throwed his catcher's mitt one way and the ball the other way, jumped up on the railing, grabbed me around the neck and started screaming. The pitcher looks lost. He is just standing there. He ain't got no ball, he ain't got no catcher."
Clower has been president of the Yazoo City Touchdown Club, the Yazoo County chapter of the Mississippi State Alumni Association and Yazoo City's Dixie Youth Baseball. However firmly he has left on-the-field activity behind him, he is one of the most energetic off-the-field sportsmen in his part of the country, which is saying something. When he watches football he gives it 100%.
"Sit down in front of that TV," he rhapsodizes, "with the tray there in front of you, and Mama [Homerline] brings me something good to eat, and the baby crawls up in my lap to be loved on.... There ain't a day in the United States of America I love more than New Year's! Have them hoghead and peas simmerin' on the stove and sliced onion in the icebox and a whole big old pitcher of ice tea, and when the Rose Bowl ends, oh Lordy, got another'n coming from Miami. Good gracious, how 'bout it!"
He has also been known, as anyone in Yazoo City can attest, to attend a game in person. "He'll embarrass you," says local Ford dealer Bill Woodruff.
"No I won't," shouts Clower. "I'll just yell, 'Let the hammer down!' " He'll also yell, "Umpiree, throw down that rag," and "Knock 'em out, Red! Get 'em, big Red!" in encouragement of the Yazoo City Indians (who presented him with the game ball when they won their last game to go into the Big Eight state championship in 1969).
"You can hear him all over the stadium and half the town," says Jackson. "He's by far the most outspoken fan there's ever been in this stadium, or any stadium."
But nobody has ever known Clower to get into a fight with anybody who disagreed with him, or to meddle in the coach's business. "Jerry's the ideal of a school's athletic booster," says Don McGraw. "You seldom find a man who's as wrapped up in it who can keep from being critical. And he's one of the few people I really believe," adds McGraw, an Ole Miss man himself, "when he says he's for either Ole Miss or Mississippi State except when they play each other. I really believe Jerry supports the Rebels when he says that."
"That's right," Clower says. "The Poole family—Ray, Buster, Barney—who are some of the best people ever to play for Ole Miss, are my friends. The finest gallon of molasses I ever had in my life I got at their Mama Poole's house. My State friends can't understand this. "What do you want to have anything to do with them for?' they say. Lots of State fans would be against Ole Miss if they was playing Grambling."
Homerline is less charitable toward Ole Miss. She is a down-home, quietly blithe Amite Countian who was the first and only girl Jerry ever dated and also the one with whom he stood up and acknowledged Christ as his personal savior 34 years ago (a football coach named C.C. [Hot] Moore was leading the singing in church that night, Jerry likes to recall). Once in Oxford after Jerry blindsided an All-SEC guard named Tank Crawford, the Ole Miss fans began yelling "Kill 77," which was Jerry's number, and she still hasn't forgiven them.
Clower particularly treasures Homerline, he says, because "sometimes I get to thinking I'm something. Man on the radio done called me the greatest humorist in America. Man, I'm a hoss. I'll speak to the church some morning and I'll fling a cravin' on 'em and when we're drivin' home, she'll put her hand on my leg and say, 'Honey, you got kind of wound up this morning, didn't you?' No matter how great I think I am, she can usually come up with somebody who's greater."
Homerline, who never offered a word of advice when their son Ray was playing high school football for Yazoo City, is as much of a coach's friend as her husband. "A bunch of women in town went down to get the coach fired," Jerry says. "They said the coach had cussed in front of their children. Said he'd called 'em chicken-blank. Homerline said, 'I was tryin' to think what word would describe the way they played the other night, and that's the word.' Well, it broke up the meeting.
"If I had asked the Lord to design me a perfect wife it would have still turned out to be Homerline," says Jerry, but eugenically speaking she might have been bigger or else brought a little speed into the family.
"God is going to kill me for this," Clower has said, "but I have always wanted to get a baby out of old Lance Alworth and one of these big Russian women that run so fast."
"Jerry's greatest ambition in the world," says Jackson, "is for his boy Ray to make a great football player, which he is never going to do. Ray is aggressive, but he's not big or fast enough to be more than a good junior-college guard. I know it hurts Jerry on the inside. But he acts like that was what he had picked for him."
Certainly, Ray, although he has always worn his father's old number, shows no signs of having had any parental frustration worked out on him. He seems as secure and solidly engaging as his three younger sisters, and in fact he finished up an exemplary career as a 200-pound guard at Holmes Junior College last season by being named to the junior college all-state team. In the spring of his junior year in high school, he nearly died in a car wreck the night of a big dance.
"I ran down there and talked to the driver of the car," recalls Jerry with great emotion, "and I asked him if Ray was drinking. He said, 'No, Mr. Clower, not Ray.' And I found out that was true.
"So I sat down in the hospital while they worked over my son and said, 'Lord, whatever happens, I'll praise yo' holy name. I never did get to play high school ball, and he done kicked 38 times for a 44-yard average. Lord, don't let him die.'
"And he didn't. And the first practice that next fall, Ray and Larry Kramer, who'll be a senior back next year at Ole Miss, come together like two young bulls. Kfwap! And I was afraid that lick on the head was going to reoccur. But old Ray got right up off the ground and run back to the huddle and never had any more problems with his head."
Clower may be one of the few current-day Christians whose prayers the Lord looks forward to, if they are anything at all like the rest of his conversation, and if such odd elements as punting statistics keep turning up in them. But anybody looking to brand Clower as a regionalist or redneck might accuse him of espousing conventional pieties. Each of his albums includes an entirely un-humorous sermon on Americanism and decency, and he never says anything bad about sports. "The field of sport could be the thing that's come nearer to bein' perfect than any other profession," he says. "I love college football better than any other thing that happens in the world today, except the salvation of my soul and my family.
"Football has enabled many a country boy to get an education," he recently reminded a big banquet audience that hardly needed to be reminded. "Without football I'd have still been hauling pulpwood. And it's also the only sport I know about where ever'body can get his lick in ever' time the ball is snapped. I try to tell young folks, 'If you want to get attention, play football. Not only can you get attention but they'll even play a band for you while you perform.' "
If anybody deserves to express such unhip sentiments, Clower does. They have worked for him and for a lot of boys he has counseled, and he held to them at Mississippi State in the face of strong discouragement.
"Arthur (Slick) Morton was head coach when I was there," he says with eloquent distaste, "and his first year he ran off two or three potential All-Americas. I stood in line to have a cast put on my broken hand with 17 people. In 17 weeks of spring practice he beat ever'body down just awful. He'd yell, 'I don't see no blood out there!' Against Tennessee, he grabbed me by the collar and cussed me for a sonuvabitch in front of 37,000 people, because I let myself be double-teamed by Bert Rechichar and Jimmy Hahn."
Clower has proven over the last couple of years that he does not go along with every stereotypical Deep South, good-old-boy, football-loving attitude. Not only did he refuse to campaign for George Wallace, but he has become heatedly involved in the defense of desegregated public schools.
The "white sanctuary" private academies set up to evade Federal court orders in Mississippi were "built on hate," he says, and even if he weren't against them himself, he doesn't think he could have forced his kids into them. Ray played on the first integrated Yazoo High teams and now shares a dorm suite with black teammates at Holmes. His two school-age sisters, Amy and Sue, are also public school loyalists. Their father has run into hostility for standing with the public system.
In fact "Jerry Clower Day" in Amite County was put off last year when some of the folks there argued that he had gone against his raising on the school issue. At length the occasion came off, however, and Clower went back home and said to a big crowd, "The day I stop being an Amite Countian is the day Dr. Ray Lee and Kenneth Gordon [the leaders of the anti-Clower faction] join the NAACP."
Clower has not gone so far as to join that organization himself, but his was one of the few white families in Yazoo City to keep on buying groceries from Deacon Patenotte, a white man who does belong to the NAACP and whose store was therefore patronized by blacks when they boycotted other local white businesses in 1969.
Feeling ran high during the boycott, and one man declared that the trouble with the town was people like Clower buying from Patenotte. Clower said he told the man, "Go ahead. Call Walter Cronkite on the telephone. Go down there, and as I come out the front door, shoot me. And let Walter focus that camera on the blood and say, 'War veteran, father of four, shot down in a free country trying to buy groceries at the store of his choice.' "
Later Clower addressed a state coaches' convention and adjured them, only slightly less dramatically, to stay with the public schools. When he was quoted as saying that the coaches who had left to join the academies had "tucked tail and run," a Jackson editorialist denounced him.
Clower has always made a point of not imitating black voices in his stories. When a man came up to tell him how much he enjoyed the story "about the lynx getting ahold of that nigger up in the tree," Clower replied, "What do you mean? John Eubanks was my cousin." Now he goes around saying things like, "If God was to suddenly strike ever'body white, some folks'd be in a mess 'cause they wouldn't know who to hate."
More bitterly, he takes off on a white racist commenting on the violence attendant upon James Meredith's entrance into Ole Miss: " 'One of the writers was from France that they killed. They found him over by the girls' dormitory. I understand he had a little mustache. Little sonuvabitch mighta' needed killin'.' "
Using his own imagination, Clower suggests that "they take a bad word, like 'kike,' and change it to mean "whipped cream'—where when you said it, it couldn't possibly mean anything mean or nasty. Change 'feet' to 'nigger'—'A football field is 100 yards or 300 niggers long.' "
But he doesn't use any of this antiprejudice material in his act. He may go so far as to come out against "beefin', bettin' and boozin' in the stands" while addressing the Birmingham Touchdown Club, but in general when he hires out to do a job of entertainment, he says, he doesn't think he ought to impose his views on people. "I don't want to lose the dialogue I have with a lot of people who need to change, like I've changed. I try to say things that a person will just about have to admit being an out-and-out racist and fool to object to, like mentioning that I had breakfast with Charley Pride."
So he walks onto the Kosciusko, Miss. football field before a county-fair audience that is mostly white (although times have changed to the point where blacks are throwing baseballs at a target and knocking a white Jaycee into a barrel of water). He commiserates with a girl whose foot's been stepped on: "Yep, a cow step on you, she'll twist her foot. Mule'd just lift it off."
He signs autographs on torn-off scraps of pasteboard box for the girl and for an old man, who says, "I used to coon hunt till I got hurt back here so bad. You know, it's so rough out there where I live the buzzards won't even fly over it."
Clower feels good out under the lights: "I can't walk out on a football field without feeling like the official's gonna come over and check my cast."
From the stage erected for him in front of the grandstand, he trees the coon with John Eubanks for the people of Attala County and tells about rat killings: "...awhuppin' at him with a dried brush broom. And if those women was running a rat, it was a dead rat."
The audience loves it. He tells them, "You're the heartbeat of America. You hear on television, 'This is where it's at.' Unh-unh. Naw. You are where it's at."
And he means it. It was among people like these that he came by his great appetites: for food ("I don't drink or smoke or cuss and I just love one woman, but I'm a hog and I'd like to have a sandwich right now; I get nervous when I'm not eatin' "), for abstinence, for sports, for religion, for flinging a craving on an audience.
Maybe such drive comes from growing up poor back up in the woods, and maybe some of it comes from growing up needing the father whose drinking and early departure is the one thing about Jerry's life he will not discuss. Some of the energy comes from the Faulknerian tangles of pride and denial entailed in any Mississippian's roots. "I've seen William Faulkner sittin' talkin' to the reddest of rednecks," Clower says. "I don't know of no country store in Lafayette County he couldn't sit down on a nail keg in front of and whittle. With that little old brown hat on, look like he'd fought a wasp's nest with it...."
There is a lot of fighting in Clower's nature, even though his friends say he will always talk his way out of a tense situation, and even though his answer when you ask him, "How are you?" is "If I felt any better I'd have to go fishing." There is a clash, just looking at him, between his clown's jowls and his crazy preacher's eyes, and the only time the clash is fully resolved is when his face is contorted in tumultuous narrative.
The high points of his stories almost always entail either ferocious eating or a death struggle, or both at once. " 'I wanta dig one of them tunnels and meet one of them Japs underground,' Marcell told the recruiting sergeant. 'I wanta fling my bare hands around him down there and bite him....'
" 'Son, you're crazy,' the sergeant said."
Once when Jerry was a boy, "Tobe Clark came by with a pie pan full of salt to take to the mules, and he said, 'I'll give a nickel to whichever of you boys can take the biggest bite.' The others took a little bit and spit it out, but by God I was going to win. I got a whole mouthful and walked to the well, got me a dipperful of water and drank my bite. It made me deathly sick, but I got the nickel."
Jerry Clower might well have developed into somebody a good deal more disorderly than he is. "If I'd been born black," he says, for instance, "I'd have made Stokely Carmichael look like a circumstance." But he is smart and success-oriented and a traditionally moral man, and in pursuits like football, sales and grass-roots civics, society has furnished him rules within which to struggle.
"I got to compete," he says. "Name off any-country humorist there is. I'm willing to go with him head-to-head. With a laugh meter. In Madison Square Garden, or anywhere." He has already come out on top in more interesting grapples than that.