Not Pic of the Day 6-19-08 Heroes - 'Big John'

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Not Pic of the Day 6-19-08 Heroes - 'Big John'

Postby jgh » Jun 19, 2008 10:35 am

In 1960, Jimmy Dean’s career was on the rocks. He’d had a minor country music hit in 1953 – and hadn’t had one since. He hosted a local TV show in Washington and knew lots of people like Patsy Cline and Roy Clark, but Columbia records was about to drop his contract. He was desperate for a hit record as he headed to Nashville for what might be his last recording session. He also needed one more song to fill out his four-song session.

The “folk revival” was just getting to be a force in American music and everyone knew songs like the one about John Henry, the “steel drivin’ man.” Dean jotted down a simple “talking song” about a heroic miner. It was released as the B-side to a song Dean hoped would be a hit – “I Won’t Go Huntin’ With You Jake.”

Contrary to all predictions, the B-side caught the affection of the American public. It was the first year of the Kennedy era. People were optimistic… and they were tuned in to heroes.

“Big Bad John” went to the top of the charts, pushing out Dion’s “Runaround Sue.” Soon most Americans could repeat the lines

Ev'ry mornin' at the mine you could see him arrive
He stood six foot six and weighed two forty five
Kinda broad at the shoulder and narrow at the hip
And everybody knew ya didn't give no lip to Big John.

And knew the heroic story of his mighty strength saving the lives of his fellow miners, ending with

Now they never reopened that worthless pit
They just placed a marble stand in front of it
These few words are written on that stand
At the bottom of this mine lies a hell of man, Big John

It is an interesting sidelight that the last line was seen as too provocative and most people heard a sanitized version that read “lies a big, big man.” This was the beginning of the sixties, which makes this kind of charming considering what would be on the airwaves only a few years later.

Jimmy Dean is a classic American artist – meaning he milked his success for everything it was worth. He released a sequel the next year entitled “The Cajun Queen”, based on the lines in the original song

Somebody said he came from New Orleans
Where he got in a fight over a Cajun Queen.”

In the sequel, “Queenie” shows up and revives Big John and they go on to have 110 grandchildren. Talk about a choice between artistic integrity and “anything for a buck!” The sequel totally cheapens the heroism of the original song. A few years later, Dean plowed his music wealth into a company he humbly named “Jimmy Dean Sausage Company.” Years later was forced out of management when the company was sold to Sara Lee – a baker just about as real as Big John’s Cajun queen.

The song was covered by many artists, and it spawned many parodies. Its influence lives on… just note the Will Ferrell Saturday Night Live bit on "Big Brawn" brand ultra-absorbent feminine wipes, made from pure lumber.

Dean actually starred in a made-for-TV movie called Big Bad John in 1990, finalizing the ultimate commercialization of his “product.” I wish he’d stuck to sausage.

I really don’t know if “Big John” was a common phrase before 1961, but it is certainly everywhere now. There are Big John bars and restaurants all over the country. There are Big John tree movers and agricultural equipment and trailers… even Big John Jerky. There’s the professional wrestler, Big John Studd and the UFC referee, Big John McCarthy.

My favorite Big John product speaks for itself (from their website):

The Big John Toilet Seat brings stability and comfort to our growing population. The Big John Toilet Support discreetly installs under wall mounted toilets to provide additional support.

Yes… it is true… regular sized toilet seats no longer provide the size, support, and comfort required by "our growing population!”

It is interesting that Big John made such an impact on the American psyche. A simple folk hero story made it to the top of the charts, only driven out of its top spot by the totally-excellent "Please Mr. Postman" by The Marvelettes. What does that say about how we think about heroes?

I'd like to tell you about my father-in-law, John Yetzer. John wasn’t all that big in stature, but unlike the mythical miner, he was a real American hero.

Born in 1916, oldest child in a large family, his life is the story of America in the Twentieth Century. His father was a no-account and abandoned his mother with a whole bunch of mouths to feed. The Great Depression saw a teenage John riding the rails, dealing with the brutal railroad "bulls", finding work where he could. He was a cowboy in Idaho and a mortician’s assistant in Nevada.

He was drafted and went into Normandy on “D-Day plus six.” He did his part in the defense of Antwerp, shooting down V-1 flying bombs, and experienced things people shouldn’t have to know about. He returned home and never talked about the War… threw away his uniform and medals and set about making a life.

He married and had three daughters. He built several businesses from the ground up. He helped get a hospital and golf course built to make his small rural hometown thrive. He worked hard, loved his family, survived to age 90, and is buried in an out-of-the way country graveyard.

John died just about the time I retired, so writing his eulogy meant I was also reflecting on what really matters in life. I realized that this man who originally didn’t think I was good enough for his daughter and whose conservative values consistently conflicted with my Sixties radical views, this man who in many ways represented “the Establishment” that I was dedicated to opposing, was a true American hero. He wasn’t six-foot-six and he didn’t save the lives of some miners… he was five-feet-nine and helped preserve democracy, then worked hard and lived with integrity – and raised one helluva daughter.

John was a hero. So was my dad. So were all those men and women who have gone before us, working and striving and loving. No statues in Washington or stars in the sidewalks of Hollywood for these folks… their only monuments are how we live our lives now.

Is there something about hostas in all of this?

We planted H. ‘Big John’ in honor of my father-in-law.

H. ‘Big John’ (Owens, 1986) has a great name. It is a large-leafed green hosta. It doesn’t have the widespread distribution of some of the newer giants, but you can find it. For reasons unknown to me, one famous retailer lists it for $50, but there are also listings for $10 and $15.

Hosta Registry -
MyHostas -
Hosta Library -

Given its plain-Jane character, it is surprising the attention it gets in hosta literature. It is referenced in both the 2002 and 2007 Grenfells/Shadrack books and in George Schmid’s 2002 shade gardening book. Zillis' description in the “Handbook” explains all the attention:

‘Big John’ is synonymous with “huge” in hostas. Not only does the mound of foliage become massive, but the individual leaves are the largest of any hosta, narrowly beating out ‘Sum and Substance’ for that honor. The record-breaking, 21” by 16 3/8” leaf was measured in 1988 in Clarence Owen’s original clump… Since then no leaf that I have measured (probably more than 5,000) has exceeded those dimensions.

Alas, mine has grown slowly and does not demonstrate either the huge clump or leaf sizes described. I guess I have to be patient. Schmid suggests we have to wait 12 years for these big ones to develop. A hero isn’t made overnight – it takes a lifetime!

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Not Pic of the Day 6-19-08 Heroes - 'Big John'



Postby newtohosta-no more » Jun 19, 2008 6:12 pm

Those are some mighty big looking leaves, Jim! And such an interesting read. Your FIL sounded like one heck of a man! :D
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Postby Ginger » Jun 19, 2008 6:53 pm

Whew..... :o Great story and nice Hosta.

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Postby addieotto » Jun 19, 2008 6:59 pm

Excellent read. I should have waited to read it with tomorrow's coffee. Would have made a nice start to the day.

Interesting thing for me about many of your NPOTD is they are plants that I don't have. So they will be forever connected with the narrative if I ever get them in the future!
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Postby renaldo75 » Jun 19, 2008 10:21 pm

Thank you for your NPOTD, Jim. I got a little misty near the end of this one.

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Postby flowerchild59 » Jun 20, 2008 6:23 am

I was getting a little Misty Eyed too, great story and great hosta too.
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Postby Chris_W » Jun 20, 2008 8:19 am

What a great story! Thanks! :D
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Postby pauhaus » Jun 20, 2008 8:32 am

Another great NPOTD, Jim. Very interesting read. Thanks.
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Postby nanny_56 » Jun 20, 2008 2:50 pm

That is so sweet and heartfelt and...gosh..all around really good!
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Re: Not Pic of the Day 6-19-08 Heroes - 'Big John'

Postby tsbccowboy » Mar 07, 2015 10:02 am

Always love JGH's stories!

If your name is John, you have to have a 'Big John'.

Big John

Big John
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