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People & Events: The Trial as Folk Event

Joe MendiScience and religion clashed at the Scopes trial and few would argue the importance of that great debate. But the trial also made history in the annals of American folklore. It inspired a unique mythology that reverberates to this day.

Eloise Reed was 14 years old when the "monkey trial" came to her hometown of Dayton, Tennessee. Her parents wouldn't allow her inside the courtroom, but there was plenty to see outside. "The roadsides were all lined with cars," she remembers. "On the street corners you might see a minister with a Bible in his hand talking to a small group of people. Religious signs had been put up over town. There were girls with monkey dolls and hawkers on the street selling souvenirs."

Reed remembers a chimpanzee named Joe Mendi who sat in the drugstore and sipped a coke. A newspaper story describes movie cameramen taking pictures of Joe "wearing a plaid suit, a brown fedora and white spats, right in the yard of F. E. Robinson, who, besides owning the drugstore 'where it started,' also is President of the School Board." Reporter H. L. Mencken dubbed Dayton "monkeytown." Reed says that the only monkeys she met were just "passing through."

'You Can't Make a Monkey Out of Me' sheet musicThe monkey trial also inspired music -- humorous songs like "You Can't Make a Monkey Out of Me," "Monkey Business Down in Tennessee" and serious folk songs. Tom Morgan, who lives in the hills above Dayton, performs songs inspired by the trial, like this song about John Scopes:

Then to Dayton came a man
With his ideas new and grand
And they said we came from monkeys long ago.
But in teaching his belief
Mr. Scopes found only grief
For they would not let their old religion go.

You may find a new belief
It will only bring you grief
For a house that's built on sand is sure to fall.
And wherever you may turn
There's a lesson you will learn
That the old religion's better after all.

H. L. Mencken came up to the hills to visit Tom Morgan's grandfather, who had a reputation in Dayton as an expert on the Bible. Mencken assumed that this "mountain man" would be devout, but illiterate. It amazed him to learn, says Morgan, "that my grandfather could read the Bible in both Greek and Hebrew." When Mencken asked Morgan's grandfather to share his own theory of the origins of man he replied, "Well, see yon hills? They know and they don't say. And I know, and I don't say."

The mythology of the Scopes trial lives on. Eugenie Scott, a biologist and firm believer in Darwin's theory, envies the "social solidarity" inspired by the anti-evolution movement. She admits, "The Creationists have all the best songs! We scientists don't have the same kind of thing going on with evolution. It's a scientific idea. And so we don't sit around the campfire singing songs about Darwin!"





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