Bill Crawford first stumbled across a reference to former Texas governor W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel about twenty years ago while researching a book on border radio. Finally, Crawford wrote Please Pass the Biscuits, Pappy (UT Press) with help from John Anderson, the photo archivist at the Texas State Archives. Here Crawford discusses a Texas-size biography about a larger-than-life campaigner.
texasmonthly.com: How did you become interested in Governor W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel?
Bill Crawford: I first got interested in O’Daniel probably about twenty years ago when I was researching a book that was published by Texas Monthly Press. It was a book on border radio [Border Radio: Quacks, Yodelers, Pitchmen, Psychics, and Other Amazing Broadcasters of the American Airwaves] that I co-wrote with Gene Fowler, and we ran across a reference to Governor Pappy O’Daniel. We were interviewing old musicians, and they mentioned that Pappy O’Daniel, who later became governor, actually played on radio stations in Mexico along with some of these musicians, many of whom were contemporaries of Bob Wills. I looked into it further and realized that not only had O’Daniel played on the radio, but he also co-owned a radio station when he was governor with a gentleman by the name of Carr P. Collins, who made a fortune selling a product called Crazy Crystals. So I tracked this story down and started researching Governor O’Daniel at the Texas State Archives. The photo archivist there, John Anderson, helped me locate this fabulous treasure trove of photographs that I think are the same kind of quality as Dorothea Lange or other photographers of the Depression era. That was almost twenty years ago. It’s taken me this long to figure out the best way to present the fabulous visual history of the great state of Texas.
texasmonthly.com: Then do you consider this a biography with pictures or a picture book with text?
BC: I saw it as a picture book. This is the first picture book I’ve ever done, and it’s been a really interesting and rewarding experience because, of course, you couldn’t do this unless the pictures were fabulously rich. And that’s what’s so exiting about being able to present this collection of photographs that were mainly shot by Joe Tisdale of the Texas Department of Public Safety—there’s no way in words you can capture what these photos capture. It was a unique portrait project, and it was a unique time. It was the beginning of 1940, before Pearl Harbor, before Texas changed from being mostly a rural state to mostly, and largely, an industrial and an urban state. It was kind of the last days of the Great Depression, the last days of Texas as a rural area that didn’t even have electricity in many places, that didn’t have a lot of the resources and a lot of the towns that we have today. And the great thing about this project was that O’Daniel actually drove to the home of every state representative and every state senator and had his picture taken. On each visit, he’d go to two or three places a day. He had designed his car so that he could sleep in it. He dragged his wife along, who’s in each of the photos, her eyes kind of rolled up. I don’t think she cared for this project very much. But when you think about it—in 1940, to drive all the way across the state to every legislator’s home and meet with him in person, sometimes going in a parade, sometimes posing with the school band or standing in a field of cotton or patting the dog—this was such a fabulous thing and it has never been duplicated in the state of Texas. It captured the whole breadth of Texas. There’s a great photo of O’Daniel in Houston; he’s sitting with four well-heeled legislators, and one of them has this beautiful gold-headed cane. They all have silk socks, and they’re in this gorgeous club. In another photo he’s standing on a porch presumably with the father of the legislator. The man has patches on his pants, and he’s obviously very, very poor. And that’s what really strikes you in these photos—how much we have and how much we have to be thankful for compared with the Texas of just 64 years ago.
texasmonthly.com: You could almost say O’Daniel was the bridge between the pre- and post-LBJ eras in Texas.
BC: Very good point. It is the pre- and post-LBJ era in that Lyndon Baines Johnson was the one who brought federal money into the state and really revolutionized Texas. This really does capture the pre-LBJ period. It also shows that O’Daniel was actually a better vote-getter than LBJ, but he was nowhere near the politician. O’Daniel could not get things done once he got into office.
texasmonthly.com: Was O’Daniel underestimated, either as a politician or as a legislator?
BC: There weren’t two parties in this state. There was one party, the Democratic party. The Republican party existed, but it was a joke. So when O’Daniel announced that he was going to run for the Democratic primary, the Democrats in power laughed. They thought no one would ever vote for him. He sold flour and was on the radio all the time, but who cared about that when they had newspaper endorsements. Well, O’Daniel just blew them away when he started campaigning. He drew the biggest crowds in Texas’s political history to hear his band, the Hillbilly Boys, and he was a fabulous, very entertaining speaker. How could you lose with a campaign platform of the Ten Commandments? He passed around barrels that said, “Flour Not Pork.” He was actually being honest when he said that his main reason for running was to sell more flour. People just loved his kind of ballsy honesty. He was one of the first mass media politicians in American history.
texasmonthly.com: How much do you think O’Daniel’s motivation to enter politics really was driven by his desire to sell flour?
BC: Well, I think a little bit and a little bit not. I think O’Daniel was always amazed at his own success, and then he began to try to enact bits and pieces of legislation. But when I was looking through some material at the Texas State Archives, I noticed that on a couple of his mailings to constituents from the governor’s mansion, he had typed on the bottom, “Buy Hillbilly Flour.” So even when he was governor, he never stopped peddling flour.
texasmonthly.com: Why is O’Daniel’s story still so relevant today?
BC: I think his story is still relevant because he was the first one to show the power of the mass media in political vote-getting. Franklin Delano Roosevelt showed the power of the media as a tool for communication for someone already in elected office, but no one understood how powerful mass media was to generate votes and to change voters’ minds until Pappy O’Daniel. After that, you’ll notice Johnson got into the radio business, and he started spending money on TV. One of the reasons this happened here in Texas is because Texas is so huge; there’s no way you could campaign across the whole state effectively without the media. People didn’t understand that until Pappy O’Daniel hit the campaign trail in 1938. He was the first one to show that you could take a name that had nothing to do with politics but was a mass-media popular name and turn it into political victory on a large scale, on a statewide scale in one of the biggest states, Texas. O Brother, Where Art Thou? is interesting because the Coen brothers and T Bone Burnett, who put the music together, obviously knew and loved O’Daniel and the musical heritage he represented.
texasmonthly.com: What was the greatest stunt O’Daniel ever pulled on the campaign trail or as governor?
BC: After he was reelected as governor in 1940, he gave a barbecue. I think his greatest stunt was shooting a buffalo for that barbecue. I have a photo in the book; he’s twirling a lasso above the dead buffalo, and I don’t know why. It was outside of Kerrville, at the Schreiner Ranch, and he was actually standing in a pen. There were these docile buffalos, and he shot one at point blank range and served it up to the good people of Texas.
texasmonthly.com: At the end of his political career, did O’Daniel just lose touch with voters?
BC: He tried to revive his political career in the mid-fifties. He didn’t have a big political presence. He ran on a harsh segregation platform, which was just out of step with the times. He had much more of a sense of humor and much more of a sense of style, but when he ran again for governor in ’56 and ’58, it was just kind of a sad thing. Willie Morris wrote about it and described O’Daniel as “a lonely old man trying to retrieve the past.” When Morris and O’Daniel went to a cafe in Fort Stockton, O’Daniel introduced himself to one of the cowboys there and the cowboy kind of laughed and said, “Pappy O’Daniel? I thought he was dead.” He was a ghost at that point. He was a ghost of a political machine whose brilliant flash of popularity was very short-lived. O’Daniel just fell into this incredible machine that created his popularity, and he didn’t really realize what he was doing or how he was doing it. Those last two campaigns are really best forgotten by everybody.
Bill Crawford’s Please Pass the Biscuits, Pappy (UT Press) hit bookstores in September. In addition to Border Radio, Crawford also co-wrote Stevie Ray Vaughan: Caught in the Crossfire with Joe Nick Patoski. Currently, Crawford is working on The Texas Quiz Show, a game show about Texas history for seventh grade students who take Texas history in school.