Raisin’ Cotton (1938-1941)

The film Raisin’ Cotton, shot around 1941 by Emma Knowlton Lytle on Perthshire, her family’s plantation. This film may be familiar to many Register readers. In 1997 Karen Glynn, of the Southern Media Archive, produced a version of the original silent color film with Emma Knowlton Lytle’s accompanying narrative.

In 1999 Glynn returned to Bolivar County with Peter Slade (Southern Studies M.A.,1999) to record a different narrative for Lytle’s film. In Gunnison they met with Every Jackson and Eddie McCloud, who were both born on Perthshire and worked there at the time Lytle was shooting Raisin’ Cotton. As Jackson and McLeod watched the film, Glynn and Slade recorded their memories of working in the fields and of the African American community on Perthshire. These recordings were then edited into a narrative to accompany the film.

Voices of Perthshire is the movie Raisin’ Cotton shown twice, the first time with the voice of Emma Knowlton Lytle providing the narrative as mules, ploughs, crop sprayers, farm laborers, and planters parade across the screen. The second time one hears McCloud and Jackson recalling the hard work, the religious life, and occasionally bursting into laughter as they recognized some long-dead person.

Juxtaposing the two narratives demonstrates the thoughtful way that Lytle tried to capture and interpret her world and the often soul-destroying labor and inadequate remuneration of the tenants. Lytle recalls, “There was something feudal about the relationship between the people who lived and worked on the land and my brother who managed the financing.”

Lytle offers a critique of her own work: “It is a good film because it was a completely honest film. I made no effort to depict anything prettier than it was.”

For McCloud,Lytle’s honest filmmaking prompts memories that elicit a deeply religious response: “I read about back in the time of Israel and Moses and everything. When I look at that [film], puts me in mind of how far God done brought me—how far I have come.”

Glynn and Slade’s decision to present the two narratives separately has received a positive response from academics working with oral histories. Chuck Bolton, from the Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage, University of Southern Mississippi, said: “Voices of Perthshire reminds us of the importance of oral testimony for understanding the history of the biracial South, where often wildly divergent black and white accounts exist of a shared past.” Heather Norris Nicholson, from the School of Historical and Geographical Studies in the United Kingdom, stated: “Presenting the film through both the filmmaker’s memories and the recollections of tenant workers is extremely effective. The two commentaries are illuminating about time, place, and social context. The material is most thoughtfully edited and thought-provoking in both its original and reworked form.”