Song of the South vs Joel Chandler Harris' Uncle Remus

Song of the South Image Gallery

In 1946 for his first big film as the industry was coming back to life after WWII, Walt Disney put out Song of the South.  It was based on a popular series of children's books written by Joel Chandler Harris.  He lived from 1848 to 1908.  He was a white man from Georgia, and the books were African folk tales as Harris had heard them from several old slaves whom he amalgamated into the character of the books' titular narrator Uncle Remus.  Harris wrote seven books, and this essay compares Song of the South specifically to the 1948 collection The Favorite Uncle Remus.

Harris was personally very modest in his presentation, and carefully claimed no creative credit.  He intended to simply record these stories exactly as he had heard them as a boy on the plantation.  He seemed to view himself as something like a Smithsonian museum curator out to capture field recordings of the folk culture.

All I did was to write out and put in print the stories I had heard all my life...and out of a variety of versions, to select the version that seemed to be the most characteristic of the Negro:  so it may be said that each legend comes fresh and direct from the Negroes.  My sole purpose was to preserve the stories dear to Southern far as possible in the form in which I had heard them and to preserve the quaint humor of the Negro...not one of them is cooked, and not one nor any part of one is an invention of my own.
Walt Disney changed the focus and to a substantial extent the nature of the animals.  The Harris books had dozens of animal characters. Disney used exactly three: Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox and Brer Bear.  Brer Rabbit was the most prominent in the Uncle Remus books, but in Song of the South he becomes flatly the major protagonist of the stories.  To the purpose of what one might call dumbing it down some and making it more morally simple, Disney made Brer Rabbit clearly the good guy, and pretty much representing as a stand in for Uncle Remus himself.  Per Disney, all the stories revolved around Brer Fox and Brer Bear plotting to kill more or less poor innocent Brer Rabbit.  The worst Brer Rabbit does here is to pick a fist fight with the tar baby.

Whereas the original stories were expressly amoral.  The animals lived in what a more educated person would call a state of nature. Harris provides a fairly specific explanation of the forest morality.  In "Some Goes Up and Some Goes Down" Remus explains their principles to the white boy from the big house. 

You done year me say dat de creeturs is got mos' ez much sense ez folks, aint you, honey?  inquired the old man.  (The youngster nodded assent.)  Well, den I'm bleedz ter tell you dat sense don't stan fer goodness.  De creeturs dunno nothin' 'tall 'bout dat dat's good en dat dat aint good. Dey dunno right fum wrong.  Dey see w'at dey want, en dey git it ef dey kin, by hook er by crook.  Dey don't ax who it b'longs ter, ner wharbouts it come fum.  Dey dunno de diffunce 'twix' w'at's dern en w'at aint dern.

To that end, in the books Brer Rabbit had that character same as any of the animals.  For example, Brer Rabbit helps out in "Brer Fox Shingles His Roof" so that he can "accidentally" nail his fox tail to the roof long enough to go down and eat Brer Fox's lunch.  Whereas Disney made Brer Rabbit a stand-in for the kindly old Uncle Remus, who would never be involved in such thievery.  Disney's Brer Rabbit was just an innocent brother trying not to get killed in a hard world.  In the movie, Brer Rabbit takes them to "The Laughing Place" because they had him trapped and this was a trick to keep from getting eaten.  Whereas in the book, he takes Brer Fox to (his) laughing place just because it amused him to see the fox being set upon by a nasty nest of hornets. 

Yet for being in an amoral state of nature, the Harris books were generally less threatening - certainly at least as far as Brer Rabbit is concerned. There was occasional predatory behavior or intent, which explains "Why Miss Goose Roosts High."   But Brer Rabbit was not in constant danger for his very life in the books as he was in the movie.  Harris framed the animals as basically children playing schoolyard games. 

Brer Rabbit en Brer Fox wuz like some chilluns w'at I knows un.  Bofe un um wuz allers atter wunner nudder, a prankin' en a pester'n roun', but Brer Rabbit did had some peace, kaze Brer Fox done got skittish 'bout puttin' de clamps on Brer Rabbit.
Also, Disney very much changed the focus from the animals in the tales to Uncle Remus himself and the boy from the big house to whom he tells the stories.  The books are about 99% about the animals, with Remus simply narrating.  Song of the South is about one third Brer Rabbit stories and two thirds about Remus and little Johnny.  Harris clearly had nothing but fondness for this old slave, but there's little hint of his plight or the suffering or subjugation of the Negroes in general.  The Remus character in the book really only exists in reflections of the way he frames and tells the stories.  It's not that Harris particularly denies the suffering of the black folks, but that this simply wasn't what the books were about. 

Where Harris was interested in preserving "the quaint humor of the Negro", Disney invested Remus with great pathos.  He was an old man full of self-doubt and anguish, who figured he wasn't good for anything but telling stories.  Drawing back the image from just Remus' cabin to the whole plantation, you can see in the movie some hint of the hardships of the Negroes. 

This was an extremely difficult reality to try to express in a Disney children's movie.  You can see some of the poverty and the gross inequality of the rich white folks in the big mansion versus the black folk who do absolutely all of the work.  Disney discreetly moved the time line up to somewhere past the Civil War, which slightly eased the problem of depicting their conditions.  But there was just flatly no way he could have possibly shown the Klan or the routine abuse and physical subjugation.  The nearest the movie got to that was the repeated dressing down of Remus by the white boy's mother, which was certainly abusive and disrespectful but framed as being about an anxious mother rather than specifically racism - though I can't imagine that she would have spoken that way to an old white man.


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