May 17, 2016: Blow George

Blow george. There’s no other term quite like it, but in eastern Kentucky, no other term that will do for its purpose. It means a person full of hot air, a braggart who’s long on professing and short on possessing—what people in other regions of the United States might call a “gasbag,” a “windbag,” a “blowhard,” a “blatherskite” (Mark Twain’s personal favorite) or a “bull thrower,” the first word of this latter term also lending itself to verbiage a little too strong for newsprint. “Blow george” could apply to almost anyone with a strong ego coupled with the gift of gab, be it a fisherman whose prize trout just keeps getting bigger and bigger with each recounting of its catch, or, say (just for the sake of argument), a newspaper columnist. So with so many other colorful, vivid words to choose from, how did the people of eastern Kentucky wind up with “blow george” as an expression?

The same way our conversation got itself flavored with so many other distinctive terms—the coal mines. The ventilation fans installed in the first mines ever opened in this area in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were patterned after the design of the British mining engineer George Atkinson, himself a bit of an egoist who proudly titled his creation—you guessed it—the blow george. The apparatus was also known as the “windy king” in some areas, a great description itself for a braggart, but that term never caught on in Appalachia. A blow george could be operated by a steam engine connected to its crank by a piston, but in this area the enormous fans were far more often hand-cranked by very young miners (I’m talking ten- and eleven-year-olds here, since there were no Child Labor Laws at the time). A crew of six boys might spell each other out, by twos or threes, for ten or twelve hours a day, often five and a half or six days a week. And no doubt after a long hard shift of cranking a blow george to expel the rotten-egg-stinking black-powder smoke produced when coal was “shot,” many an overworked child came to hate the fan, its distinctive title, and the hydrogen sulfide odor associated with its use, with an antipathy one had to “be there” to share. I can almost hear the term popping up practically automatically in the earliest coal camps, from the lips of boys and young men with backs and arms sore from a long day of thankless labor, listening to someone brag: “Good Lord, listen at that (expletive deleted) blow george go on and on!”

And yet when it comes to politics, eastern Kentuckians absolutely adore blow georges—not the mining apparatus, but the sort of people the term is used to describe. For many years before radio and television, political speeches and debates were first-class entertainment, and our most successful politicians were often also our most colorful. Perhaps with reality television, history is cycling back round. At least until after the Second World War, when a sizable bloc of voting veterans whose years of listening to the orders of blow-george military officers made for a modest change in political sentiment, throughout Kentucky and most of the rest of the South a candidate practically had to be a blow george to succeed. Though Carl Perkins pretty much qualified for the name too he didn’t really count, because the fact he was a veteran got him elected the first time. He did most of his own blow-georging after that very first general election against Johnson County’s own Howes Meade, though admittedly not without a lot of results both positive and negative over the years. The key, of course, was getting elected, and then keeping most of the people happy, or making them think that they were happy, at least a third or half the time, then getting ready for another blow-george campaign.Often, though, a blow george can go too far: in the 1930s Governor “Happy” Chandler’s blow-george personal attack on Senator and later Vice President Alben Barkley earned Chandler the opprobrium of his entire political party, including President Roosevelt, and actually forced him out of politics for a brief while. And while this incident caused one of the strongest Democrats I ever knew, my maternal grandfather, to vote Republican against Chandler every chance he got, Happy’s blow-george style actually got him elected Governor again in the 1950s and even let him alter Kentucky’s political landscape once more, in the 1960s—when Henry Ward beat him out for a Democratic nomination and he threw his support to Louie Nunn in retaliation, ushering in the era when West Virginia had Moore and Kentucky had Nunn. Want to be a Southern politician? It still pays to take a lesson from the blow george. Maybe two or three or four.

Which leaves us with the questions: how much has the blow george factor influenced the presidential campaigns of last fall and winter and this spring, how much effect will it have on the season of political conventions this summer, and what on earth might it do to us this fall? Lord knows enough people are weighing in already, but even the commonest of Common Taters has eyes.

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