“Change the name of Arkansas! H____, no!”
—Anonymous Arkansas Folk Tale
In this third post of Arkansiana, which I wrote back in 1981 as part of a proposal for a newspaper column by that title, I describe a famous (or infamous) bit of Arkansas folklore—a fictitious political speech against changing the name of Arkansas.
As noted by James Masterson in his book Arkansas Folklore (Rose, 1974), since the “original” version was known for its “unprintable profanity and obscenity” (p. 184), I chose to present a combination of two “sanitized” versions: one which uses the “Arkansaw” spelling, and the other which uses the “Arkansas” spelling.
However, even these versions contain several curse words that I tried to delete or abbreviate without altering either the “flowery” literary style or the gross humor of the piece which is now a recognized part of Arkansas folklore and perhaps a contributor to Arkansas’ reputation as a habitat for uncouth and uncivilized riffraff. (This unsavory reputation, whether deserved or not, will be addressed in the final post on Arkansiana to follow next week.)
Now let’s examine my essay about it that I wrote so long ago and to which I have made some judicious alterations and inserted some bracketed updates and other information.
Change the Name of Arkansas!
“Why Mr. Speaker, to compare the fair state of Arkansas to that of Kansas is to compare the light of the noonday sun in all its brilliance to the feeble glow of a lightning bug’s a__!”
–Anonymous Arkansas Folk Tale
From Arkansas tall-tale folklore has been passed down through the years the tradition of a mythical speech that was supposed to have been addressed either to the Arkansas House of Representatives or the Arkansas Senate during a debate over a bill to change the name of Arkansas.
Some seem to believe that this change was in the spelling of Arkansas to Arkansaw to match the pronunciation. Others feel that the proposed change was supposed to have been in the pronunciation—from “AR-kan-saw” to “Ar-KAN-ziz.”
In any case, the imaginary orator (variously identified as a Senator Jones or Representative Cassius M. Johnson) who is supposed to have hailed from Johnson (or Jefferson or Jackson) County, inflamed by the introduction of the bill, is said to have risen to his feet in anger and to have delivered a scathing denunciation of both bill and author (usually identified as a “blue-bellied, copper-eyed, corpse-maker from the jungles of Yankeedom”).
Of the half-dozen or so existing versions of this masterpiece of exaggeration and obscenity, only two “sanitized” versions reprinted by Fred W. Allsopp have commonly been published for the general public. If we combine the best elements of these two printable versions, with a little bit of lewd imagination we might get some idea of the breathtaking grandeur and magnificence of this oratorical gem:
“Mr. Speaker, you blue-bellied rascal! I have for the last thirty minutes been trying to get your attention, and each time I have caught your eye, you have wormed, twisted and squirmed like a dog with a flea in his hide, d___ you! . . .
“Mr. Speaker: The man who would CHANGE THE NAME OF ARKANSAS is the original iron-jawed, brass-mounted, copper-bellied corpse-maker from the wilds of the Ozarks! Sired by a hurricane, dammed [given birth] by an earthquake, half-brother to the cholera, nearly related to the small pox on his mother’s side; he is the man they call Sudden Death and General Desolation!
“Look at him! He takes nineteen alligators and a barrel of whiskey for breakfast, when he is in robust health; and a bushel of rattlesnakes and a dead body when he is ailing. He splits the ever-lasting rock with his glance, and quenches the thunder when he speaks!
“Change the name of Arkansas! H___, no! . . .
“The man who would change the name of Arkansaw, would massacre isolated communities for a pastime. He would destroy nationalities as a serious business! He would use the boundless vastness of the Great American Desert for his private grave-yard! He would attempt to extract sunshine from cucumbers!
“Hide the stars in a nail-keg, put the sky to soak in a gourd, hang the Arkansas River on a clothesline; unbuckle the belly-band of time, and turn the sun and moon out to pasture; but you will never change the name of Arkansaw!
“The world will again pause and wonder at the audacity of the lop-eared, lantern-jawed, half-bred, half-born, whiskey-soaked hyena who has proposed to change the name of Arkansaw!
“Gentlemen. you may tear down the honored pictures from the halls of the United States Senate, desecrate the grave of George Washington, haul down the Stars and Stripes, curse the Goddess of Liberty, and knock down the tomb of U.S. Grant, but your crime would in no wise compare in enormity with what you propose to do when you would change the name of Arkansas!
“Change the name of Arkansas — h___-fire, no! . . .
“Compare the lily of the valley to the gorgeous sunrise; the discordant croak of the bull-frog to the melodious tones of a nightingale; the classic strains of Mozart to the bray of a Mexican mule; the puny arm of a Peruvian prince to the muscles of a Roman gladiator—but never change the name of Arkansas. H___, no!”
[To read the full version of this “sanitized” speech with an introduction that indicates its literary sources as (Frederick William) Allsopp (Folklore of Romantic Arkansas, Grollier) 1931 and (Benjamin A.) Botkin (no work or publisher cited), 1944, click here.]
If such declamatory brilliance inspires your soul and fires your (coarse) imagination, then you will no doubt want to read and revel in the uncensored, uncut, x-rated “for mature audiences only” versions, to which I will be only too happy to direct you (purely in the interest of historical preservation, of course).
After all, as concerned citizens we must not allow this irreplaceable bit of our precious historical heritage to disappear forever in the shifting sands of time. We do owe a debt to our progeny to pass on such jewels of wisdom and stirring patriotism.
Simply send in your name and a self-addressed, stamped plain brown wrapper. Visa or Mastercard accepted. [Note: Just a joke!]
Seriously, folks, the original versions may be found in James Masterson’s Arkansas Folklore [Rose Publishing Company, Little Rock, Arkansas, 1974, pp. 182-5, 310, 352-4, 357], available at your local library or historical society or purchased at the Arkansas Territorial Restoration and other such sites around the state.
[This book may not be as easily obtained now, thirty years after I originally wrote this piece, since I had difficulty finding it online. There are also other similar ribald versions of the speech that I located online but due to their excessively vulgar language and imagery I did not list their Web sites here. Caution in locating, accessing, and reading them is strongly advised!]
Next week: “Yew Mean the First Arkie Wuz a Eye-Talyon Franchie?”