secret_history (2006-37)

That’s Right, Mr. Mull

The reverend’s surprising reach into American literature and international politics

by Jack Neely

When I began working downtown about 25 years ago, one of my biggest surprises was that I would occasionally run into one particular old man I knew only as a legend. I was fairly astonished to see him in the flesh, with his wife checking their mailbox at the post office. They had hardly changed. He was shorter than I thought, but still bald, and spoke in a croak. She still had her famous hairdo.

I’d usually just gawk, maybe mention to a stranger, “Do you know who that is?”—they always did—but I’m glad that not too long ago, I finally got up my nerve to introduce myself. Some famous people don’t care to be bothered, but the couple was gracious.

The lady noticed me approach and directed her blind husband toward me. I just want to shake your hand, I said.

J. Bazzel Mull smiled and obliged. 

The longtime host of the gospel show Mull’s Singing Convention on radio and television, at one time heard nightly across the nation, died last week. He spent his life spreading the gospel, but even the heathen of East Tennessee will miss him.

He did a lot with his life, promoting some of the best in gospel music and helping to launch the career of hundreds of talented singers, including one girl from Sevier County who would become known to the world as Dolly.

But maybe most memorably of all, no man has ever made more of the simple and reasonable gesture of soliciting his wife’s assent. His immortal question made it into major American literature, and even into international politics, in which he once played a surprising role.

When I was a kid, my dad used to watch the Mulls on TV. I never knew why. Dad was never, to my knowledge, any big gospel-music fan. His LP collection was mostly jazz, Bix Beiderbecke to Thelonius Monk. He liked some bluegrass, but if there was a single Chuck Wagon Gang album in the case, he kept it hidden.

At 5 or so, I didn’t understand the appeal of the Rev. J. Bazzel Mull. If the old guy was funny, he was no Red Skelton. But in school I found out that a lot of the other kids in school had dads like mine, who watched the Mulls.

By sixth grade, we were onto the joke, croaking “Ain’t-that-right-Miz-Mull” at each other like a mantra, a useful password to baffle the new kid from Ohio.

Later, when I read Cormac McCarthy’s novel, Suttree , based in the early 1950s, one odd scene has Suttree hitchhiking from an aunt’s house in the country toward Knoxville, and a simple man in a decrepit old Hudson picks him up. He’s listening to a strange evangelist on the radio, and abruptly says, “I like to hear old J Basil. He’s all the time sayin: Aint that right Mrs Mull. Old deep voice. And she’ll say: That’s right Mr. Mull. You like to hear him?

“He’s all right, Suttree said.”

The misspelling’s easy to understand. Knoxvillians heard J. Bazzel’s name much more often than they saw it written down. And Bazzel is the way the English actor Basil Rathbone pronounced his name.

McCarthy may also conjure Mull subtly in All the Pretty Horses , in which another radio evangelist asks his wife, “Ain’t that right….”

Mull and his favorite phrase even played a role in international diplomacy. You may recall one of the most controversial issues of 30 years ago was the proposed treaty to grant the Panama Canal to the nation of Panama. The Canal Zone had been held by the United States since the canal’s construction 60 years earlier, but a treaty initiative supported by President Carter was preparing the way to turn it over to the Panamanians.

Some on the right opposed the treaty, led by arch-conservative former governor of California, Ronald Reagan, who campaigned against the treaty even after his loss to Gerald Ford in the Republican presidential primary the previous year.

Mull’s national reach, by way of a clear-channel gospel station in New Orleans, got the attention of Carter, who was trying to sell the nation, and particularly an influential East Tennessee Republican senator named Howard Baker, on the treaty. Carter invited Mull to a briefing at the White House.

My friend Jeff Bradley, former East Tennessee author now living in Colorado, wrote me after hearing of Mull’s death, remembering that a New York Times correspondent interviewed Mull on the issue in late 1977.

“I’m strong for the signing of the canal treaty,” Mull told the Times . “Now suppose we had 9,400 Japanese or Russian troops marching up and down the Mississippi. Even though it was our land, here they’d be right in the middle of us. Do you think we’d like that? Do you? I’ll tell you right now, Doc, we wouldn’t put up with that—but that’s just what they want the people in Panama to do.”

He continued, “Everybody who understands the treaty is for it. Many of the American people don’t know about it, so they are against it. I definitely think we are changing their minds.”

Mull’s words might be surprising to younger folks, who assume that born-again Christians all have “America First” tattooed on their frontal lobes. Mull, a former prohibitionist, was conservative on many issues. But in those days, religious conservatives weren’t always political conservatives. “I’m as strong as onions when it comes to politics,” Mull said. “And I’m a Democrat. I sometimes tell people that Jesus Christ was a Democrat, because he rode a donkey into the city of Jerusalem.

“If he had been a Republican, he would have ridden an elephant.”

The Times pointed out that it was maybe no coincidence that Carter chose to appeal to Mull, who had pull in Howard Baker’s part of the country. Mull had spoken to Baker himself. “I told Baker that Ronald Reagan used this as an issue, and if you go along with him you’ll be playing fiddle on the second row….”

The Times article concluded: “Mr. Mull’s wife manages much of the gospel enterprise and often corroborates his statements. Asked to predict whether or not the treaty would pass the Senate, Mr. Mull replied, ‘I believe it will—ain’t that right, Lady Mull?’

‘That’s right,’ she answered.”

I was impressed that Jeff remembered the story so well, and still had a copy of it handy, but then again, he was the reporter who wrote it.

Back in Knoxville after his official briefing at the White House, Mull called Jeff, and told him of his surprise that President Carter had seen the story.

“That New York paper really gets around,” he said.