“Of Mules and Mud: The Story of Alabama Folk Pottery Jerry Brown” By: Jerry Brown
“Of Mules and Mud: The Story of Alabama Folk Potter Jerry Brown”
Author: Jerry Brown
Edited and with an Introduction by Joey Brackner
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Tuscaloosa AL, 2022
Price: $22.95 (Paper)
Folklorist Provides Inside Look at Master Potter
Joey Brackner has been working with Alabama folk art since 1985, and was Director of the Alabama Center for Traditional Culture from 2003 until he retired last year.
He is surely our most knowledgeable resource on Alabama pottery, having published “Alabama Folk Pottery” in 2006.
Brackner and the potter Jerry Brown have been friends for many years, collaborating on a documentary about Brown, “Unbroken Tradition,” in 1986 and on many festivals like Kentuck and City Stages, and museum exhibitions.
Through all their years of friendship and collaboration, it was always clear that Brown’s story needed telling and that Brown himself was the one to tell it.
The potter, however, was not a writer, and was too self-conscious to speak into a tape recorder alone. Years passed, until September 8 and 9 of 2015. Brackner took his tape recorder to Brown’s place and spent the weekend getting Brown to tell stories. This book is largely the result of that weekend of recorded storytelling, lightly edited. It was a good thing they had this weekend. Sadly, Brown died in 2016.
The flavor of Jerry Brown’s voice is still present in every line., including a vein of country humor.
For example, when a visitor to the pottery is watching him finish a round jug, Brown might bring up the subject of which side to attach the handle to. It’s important. Why is that? the innocent fellow asks. Because, Brown tells him, it only has two sides: an inside and an outside.
This book is rich in photographs of Brown at work, Brown’s extended family and many products, some of which were really new to me. He made cornbread cookers, chicken cookers, and even a bacon cooker, which he may have invented.
There is a brief history of Brown’s career in pottery which reflects out times and relationship to crafts. His father was a potter, but the demand for locally produced pottery declined in the ’50s and ’60s and the family business in Hamilton closed.
Jerry was a logger—a very successful one—from the mid ’60s ’til the early ’80s, then reopened the family business, this reopening coinciding neatly with a national renewed interest in folk art.
His father had made churns, jugs, birdbaths, flowerpots, and flue thimbles. I did not know what a flue thimble was. When the pipe from a wood-burning stove goes out horizontally through the wall, you put a pottery flue thimble around it and avoid burning the house down.
In the course of this little book, we learn a lot about how mules grind the clay—called mud, turning—not throwing, burning—not firing, glazing and pricing.
Brown, like his father, used to charge by the gallon, so to speak. A one-gallon churn, one dollar, two gallon, two dollars, etc.
He wisely changed to charging by how much time and expertise went into the product.
His most expensive and popular items became the grotesque face jugs—with the teeth made of fragments of broken plates.
Some face jugs are two-sided and, rarely, four-sided. Brown charged a lot for these, a thousand dollars.
A man complained about the price. Brown replied: consider the heart surgeon. He might charge 30,000 dollars for his work. And there are “A lot more people that could do open heart surgery than there are can make a five-gallon jug and put four faces on them.”
Don Noble’s newest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson, and eleven other Alabama authors.