Wednesday, March 11, 2015
TMFW 79 - The Scopes Monkey Trial Inspires a Top-5 Hit
Today's TMFW starts with the famous "Scopes Monkey Trial" of 1925. For those of you (like me) who know your American history primarily through half-remembered anecdotes and one-paragraph writeups in your 10th-grade history book, let's start with a little bit of True Monkey (Trial) Facts Wednesday. If you aren't interested in such things, skip down past the plus signs below to get to this week's True Music Fact
Most people know the basics about the Scopes trial: John T. Scopes was a science teacher who taught evolution to his students in contravention of Tennessee's Butler Act, which provided that "it shall be unlawful for any teacher...to teach any theory that denies the Story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible, and to teach instead that man has descended from a lower order of animals." He was arrested and charged criminally, and his trial was the subject of intense (and international) public interest. Scopes was defended by the famous civil liberties lawyer Clarence Darrow, while the lead prosecutor was William Jennings Bryan. Bryan was a religious fundamentalist and prohibitionist who had by that point in his life (1) served as secretary of state (from 1913-1915), (2) made three failed runs for President (in 1896, 1900, and 1908), and (3) not actually tried a case in court for 36 years. After the well-publicized trial, Scopes was found guilty by the jury.
But here's some stuff you might not have known:
1. The whole thing was a publicity stunt. Though in high school I learned about the trial as a Big Serious Issue, in fact the whole thing was concocted for the show of it. When the Butler Act was passed, the ACLU offered to defend anyone who was charged with violating it. Recognizing an opportunity to stimulate the local economy and bring publicity to his town for what was sure to be a spectacle, a local businessman in Dayton, Tennessee named George Rappleyea convinced the town leaders that they should be the ones to accept the challenge. They got Mr. Scopes on board as the volunteer defendant, invited William Jennings Bryan to prosecute, and went from there.
Rappleyea was right that the trial brought people to Dayton - more than 200 reporters attended, and the trial was front page news around the country for weeks. WGN radio in Chicago broadcasted portions of the trial in real time, with an announcer describing the scene. And the great H.L. Mencken wrote appropriately bombastic articles in the Baltimore Sun about the circus atmosphere.
And Rappleyea was right that the trial would be a spectacle: near the end of it, Clarence Darrow called William Jennings Bryan himself as a witness, to answer questions about Biblical stories. That portion of the questioning was done outside of the courthouse on the lawn, because there were so many people and because the summer heat inside the courtroom was stifling. It must have been something to behold.
2. Evolution was already being taught in every public school in Tennessee, with little controversy. At the time of the trial, the approved (and in fact mandated) Tennessee high school biology textbook included a section that specifically endorsed evolution - including adaptations in mammals. The textbook included the lesson "[w]e have now learned that animal forms may be arranged so as to begin with very simple one-celled forms and culminate with a group which contains man himself." So it was not as though Scopes was a revolutionary or a crusader for science who was unique in his teaching. He was just a convenient defendant.
3. Scopes was a substitute teacher and might not have even taught evolution. When Scopes was brought before the town leaders and asked whether he'd be a willing defendant, he pointed out that he might not have ever specifically taught evolution. (He had apparently assigned the chapter but was out sick the next day and may not have gone back to cover it.) Considering that the whole trial was really about anything but that specific violation, that detail was seen as unimportant to the overall proceedings. So Scopes asked his students to testify that he had in fact done so, and even helped them with their testimony. It was good enough to get him charged, and the trial was on.
4. Scopes's conviction came only with a fine of $100, and was thrown out by the appeals court on a technicality. By the end of the "trial of the century" (well, one of them, anyway), the legal issue had been narrowed down to the very specific question of whether Scopes had taught evolution to his students. That part of the prosecution had lasted all of 2 hours in the 7-day trial, and was pretty well undisputed. Addressing the jury, Clarence Darrow said "we cannot even explain to you that we think you should return a verdict of not guilty. We do not see how you could. We do not ask it." So taking their cue from Darrow, the jury played their part and brought back a conviction. Scopes was ultimately fined $100 by the judge for his misdeed. He had never spent one minute in jail, and he was not even detained when he was initially arrested for the "crime."
The case then went up on appeal. The Tennessee Supreme Court, weary of the case and well aware that it was created solely for publicity, had no appetite to participate. It issued an opinion that upheld the Butler Act but nevertheless reversed the conviction on a technicality. (The technicality in this case was that the judge had set the fine rather than the jury, which was not allowed under Tennessee law for fines of over $50.) Then the court advised the prosecutors below to knock it off, saying "we see nothing to be gained by prolonging the life of this bizarre case" and urging the Attorney General to decline to take up the case for a second round. He did just that, immediately declaring that he would not seek retrial. And with that the whole thing was over.
Okay, so how to we get from True Monkey Facts Wednesday to a True Music Facts Wednesday? I am glad you asked. Though William Jennings Bryan was the lead prosecutor in the trial, his prosecution team included two local lawyers - brothers named Herbert and Sue Hicks. (Do you see where this one is going now?)
Years after he became famous as a prosecutor in the Scopes Trial, Sue Hicks presented at a judicial conference in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. An attendee at that conference was the great Shel Silverstein. Silverstein is probably known to most of the TMFW audience as a poet and children's book author - The Giving Tree, Where the Sidewalk Ends, and A Light in the Attic are all classics - but he also did grown-up stuff. He wrote cartoons for Playboy from the late 50s through the 70s, and was an accomplished songwriter. Silverstein was friends with Chet Atkins and lived in Nashville in the 1960s, and he became a friend of Johnny Cash as well.
By now most of you have surely figured out today's story. When Silverstein saw Sue Hicks - MISTER Sue Hicks - present at the conference, he took inspiration from his name and wrote a poem that he called "A Boy Named Sue." Silverstein played his song for Johnny Cash one night, and Cash loved it. Only a few days later, at the urging of June Carter Cash, Cash took the song with him to San Quentin prison, where he recorded a live version. It was one of the first times that his band had even played through the song, and Cash had to read from a lyrics sheet. The song went over huge with the inmates, and Columbia records released it as the lead single from Cash's At San Quentin record. It hit #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1969 and stayed there for three weeks. And it earned him a Grammy Award for Best Male Country Vocal Performance.
If you can believe it, though he had a good deal of Country chart success, "A Boy Named Sue" was the one and only top-10 song that Johnny Cash ever had on the Billboard Hot 100. And it was all thanks to a poet who was inspired by a lawyer who became famous for prosecuting a sham "monkey trial" 40 years earlier.
BONUS FACT: According to oft-repeated folklore - told to David Letterman and adapted into a Highwaymen song - the night in 1969 that Johnny Cash first heard "A Boy Named Sue" played by Shel Siliverstein, he was hosting a songwriting session at his house with a number of friends. Going around the room to play the latest tunes they were working on, Bob Dylan played "Lay Lady Lay," Joni Mitchell played "Both Sides Now," Kris Kristofferson played "Me and Bobby McGee," and Graham Nash played "Marrakesh Express." Not a bad night.
BONUS FACT 2: In real life, Sue Hicks was not named by an absent father who wanted to make him tough. Instead, he was named for his mother, who died giving birth to him. That would have made a really sad song, though.
BONUS FACT 3: For another great "Johnny Cash tells the amusing tale of an unusual guy" song, try his take on Loudon Wainwright III's "The Man Who Couldn't Cry." I love that song.
BONUS FACT 4: Maybe putting the lie to this week's whole entire entry, though he surely did attend the judicial conference in Gatlinburg where Hicks was speaking, Shel Silverstein often referenced his friend Jean Shepherd as the principal inspiration for the song. Shepherd - yes, the same Jean Shepherd who co-wrote and narrated A Christmas Story - said once that he "fist-fought [his] way through every grade in school" as a result of his first name.
(But let's not let that get in the way of a good story.)