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FDR Requests Soldier's Joy


I have always found this YouTube clip of Franklin Delano Roosevelt extremely fascinating. It appears to have been taken from a Yazoo DVD entitled Times Ain't Like They used to Be-Early Rural and Popular Music from Rare Original Film Masters. You'll notice that when to film begins, the banjo player to the right of FDR asks "Governor, is there a special piece you want us to play?" He doesn't call him "Mr. President." That's because the film was made on January 26, 1933. Roosevelt had already been elected to his first term in November, but it would be five more weeks before his inauguration in early March, when he would deliver his famous line, "We have nothing to fear but fear itself." At this time, however, he was still the Governor of New York state, probably taking a much needed break after a very hard fought presidential election. Herbert Hoover was still officially in the White House, though yesterday's news. This would be the last time a president would be inaugurated in March. The Twentieth Amendment was to be ratified later in 1933, which moved up the date to January 20th.

The film was made at the Roosevelt's retreat in Warm Springs, Georgia, near Pine Mountain, just south of Atlanta. While he had been coming to Warm Springs since 1924, where the naturally warm spring waters gave him some improvement for his polio, the building which came to be known as the "Little White House" had just been constructed the previous year, during the election campaign. It looks like they set up two separate shots for the Soldier's Joy short, and you can see the house portico very clearly in the long shot:

Bun Wright's Fiddle Band playing Soldiers Joy

The Little White House, at Warm Springs

The character to the left of Roosevelt is playing on a Gibson harp guitar. In the limited close up shots which include this musician, you never see him tickle the extra strings. I wonder if they were just supposed to ring in sympathy, or if there was an established technique for incorporating them into a piece.

Starting at .33 or so, the camera pans across the line of musicians, ending just at it gets to the last picker, the one with the resonator banjo. It sure looks like a Gibson to me, but the frame below is the very last one in the sweep, and it stops before you see the peghead. One interesting thing, all three banjo pickers appear to me to be playing in an up-picking two finger style, not a clawhammer adherent among them. The first might be playing clawhammer style with a middle finger lead, but it looks to me more like he is picking lead with his index finger, then brushing with his middle, or maybe middle and ring. The other two have their right hands anchored, and are picking up with the index. More proof that it is a myth that clawhammer style was the predominant old time banjo picking style.

Okay, now I am going to really go out on a limb. I think the Mastertone picker might be Fate Norris, the banjo picker who played with the pioneer old time band, Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers. Norris lived in Resaca, Georgia, about 120 miles north of Warm Springs. He left the Skillet Lickers sometime in 1931, and lived close enough to Warm Springs to make the trip for such a weighty command performance. I've put the image above next to the famous, but fuzzy image of the Skillet Lickers. If I'm right, we may know a little bit more about how he picked, since he is generally inaudible on the Skillet Licker recordings. I don't know, looks like the same guy to me...

The film's editor took some liberties when putting the piece together. At .20, the woman in the striped shirt and cap standing behind FDR is not yet in the picture.

One second later, she shows up. The image from .25 shows her looking directly at the camera.

The young woman is Anna Roosevelt, FDR's only daughter, then 26. Twelve years later, when her husband was away at war, she moved into the White House to take over her mother's roll as hostess, due to Eleanor's frequent travels. Alarmed about both the severe emotional and physical toll which his presidential responsibilities were taking on her father, the devoted Anna was to help arrange a number of clandestine reunions between FDR and an old mistress, Lucy Mercer Rutherford, in order to bring him comfort. Rutherford was with the President at the Little White House when he died in April, 1945, but was spirited away before the press arrived, to avoid scandal. Eleanor immediately learned of Rutherford's reemergence in her husband's life, and her daughter's role as enabler, which led to an estrangement between the two that continued for many years. Anna died in 1975, at the age of 69.

The day before he died, FDR spoke to his daughter by telephone. Some local friends, he told her, including the Mayor of Warm Springs, Frank Allcorn, had planned a barbeque for him the next day. They were going to cook him up some Brunswick Stew. There was going to be some music, he said, including some tunes from his favorite fiddler, Bun Wright.

(c) copyright 2009, by Donald J. Borchelt, all rights reserved.