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Posted June 5, 2009
If the name "John Henry Faulk" means anything to you, it probably means that old geezer on "Hee Haw" who was so dadgum downhome folksy that next time he saddled up old Paint you wanted the pair of them to ride through the dusty sage brush and into some tightly strung piano wire.
As Michael Burton's new John Henry Faulk amply demonstrates, however, Faulk, like Orson Welles, fell victim to a culture unprepared for an individual whose talents and interest broke across the culture's tidy categories of what is possible for a person to become. The pathos of Faulk's later life is a direct consequence of the tragedy of his middle life.
John Henry Faulk was a folklorist before the word entered the vocabulary, a crusader for civil rights when some fellow Texans still evaluated tree branches by how much Black human weight they could bear on the end of a rope, and a radio humorist whose text was decidedly Texan, but whose context was universal.
The son of a liberal lawyer, Faulk was born in Austin, Texas, on 21 August 1913. In his rural neighborhood, he was surrounded by Black families, and he and his childhood playmates made no distinction between black and white. Nor did his parents, who were often in trouble with their white friends for supporting the civil rights of Blacks.
Faulk's life changed on meeting J. Frank Dobie at the University of Texas during the early thirties. Dobie, an enormously popular teacher and writer, encouraged Faulk's budding interest in the folk wisdom of the rural Texas poor, Black and white. A gifted mimic, Faulk first caught Dobie's attention by his imitations of rural Black preachers. Armed with a WPA grant, Faulk toured the southwest, gathering material, joining the NAACP, and crusading on the radio and in print for equality of opportunity for all Americans.
Following a wartime stint in Britain, Faulk returned to Texas, but was soon called to New York and CBS for a weekly radio program, "Johnny's Front Porch," where he became a "professional Texan," bringing the voices and ethos of the rural southwest to New Yorkers' ears. In New York Faulk met Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and other human rights' crusaders. At this time his views became of interest to the right wing.
By the early Fifties Faulk was combining a popular radio show with appearances on the fledgling medium of television. His ever-expanding career came to a sudden halt in 1956, however, when he was blacklisted by AWARE and the HUAC. For the next six years Faulk bravely fought the blacklisters in court (documented in his book, Fear on Trial and the 1975 CBS movie), ultimately winning 3.5 million dollars. However, owing to further legal wrangling, Faulk saw only a fraction of that sum, which in turn disappeared into debt payments.
His career sidelined at its peak, his energies wasted for years defending himself against unjust accusations, Faulk's later life was undistinguished. However, he remains among the few early southwest crusaders for the First Amendment, minority rights, and the liberal spirit of the American constitution. Burton's book describes these qualities in agreeable prose focused on his lasting social contributions.