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  • Southern Fried Foster:Representing Race and Place through Music in Looney Tunes Cartoons
  • Joanna R. Smolko (bio)

When we watch animated cartoons, how much does music shape our perception of the narrative? And why are Stephen Foster's songs so prevalent in cartoon music in what has come to be known as animation's golden age (1930s-1960s), especially in cartoons that depict African American slaves, blackface minstrelsy, and the South? This article explores how Foster's songs were used in Warner Bros.' Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons as unsettling symbols to evoke race and place. It examines the complex associations and subtexts that are constructed through the pairing of Stephen Foster songs with particular images and themes across these cartoons, especially those scored by Carl Stalling (1891-1972). Stalling directed music at the Warner Bros. studios from 1936 through 1958 and was the primary arranger of the cartoon scores during this period. A survey of these themes will lead into a close analysis of three cartoons that use multiple Foster songs in their scores. Finally, I will discuss a few ways that we can evaluate these cartoons today.

As icons of American culture, the Looney Tunes cartoons reveal cultural attitudes from the 1930s-1960s that resound even today. The Looney Tunes cartoons, beginning in 1930 and followed by the Merrie Melodies series in 1931, were first produced to promote the musicians under contract [End Page 344] to Warner Bros. studios and were shown at movie theaters before the feature films.1 They were popular when first released in cinemas, were widely watched by the next generation in television formats from the 1970s to the 1990s, and continue to be watched today in their release in DVD formats, as well as on Internet video platforms such as YouTube. The Looney Tunes Golden Collection and the Looney Tunes Super Stars DVD sets (which collectively include well over 500 cartoons) provided much of the primary research materials for this article.2 Some of these cartoons, particularly those with racial imagery found offensive today, have been banned from syndication by television networks and have not been officially rereleased by Warner Bros. for viewing on home-video format.3 In particular, Warner Bros. cartoons featuring extreme racial caricature, known as the "Censored Eleven," were banned from television play in 1968 by United Artists and are still unreleased by Warner Bros. I found many of the banned cartoons on YouTube and similar media platforms.4

Foster's Melodies as Accompaniment for Silent Film

The use of Foster songs in silent film was a strong influence on the fledgling animated cartoon industry. Silent-film pianists, organists, and orchestral ensembles used a rapid-fire succession of fragments of familiar music to create vivid musical connections with the visual elements. Some silent-film accompanists known as "film funners" became adept at creating witty wordplay between the implied lyrics of familiar songs and the cinematic scenario for which the songs were chosen.5 Though this comedic practice died out, it set a precedent for the use of music in cartoon scores, especially for Carl Stalling. Jeff Smith notes, "As cinema entered the sound era, the use of music as ironic commentary or wordplay was mostly confined to animated shorts, especially those produced by Warner Bros. and MGM."6 Some animation conventions differ from those of live-action films, such as cartoons' usage of swift scene changes and rapid-fire deployment of comedic situations, usually with elements of the absurd or surreal; however, the use of Foster's songs in silent films set a precedent for the cinematic tropes associated with particular songs.

The convention of deploying songs by Stephen Foster within film scenes representing race and the American South was solidly established early in the silent era. These themes, for example, are played out in Joseph Carl Breil's 1915 orchestral score for The Birth of a Nation. Here, a sentimental "Moderato con expression" rendition of "Old Folks at Home" is heard as the (white) Cameron family from South Carolina is introduced; "Camptown Races" accompanies the reparation of the South following [End Page 345] the Civil War and "My Old Kentucky Home" sounds behind the return of Ben...


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