Notes on Week 5 Music


This week we consider two men whose real lives have been, through song, transformed into legend: John Henry, a convict laborer whose death became for many a symbol of exploitation, and Lee “Stack Lee” Shelton, a pimp and murderer whose legendary counterpart became an outlaw hero and role model in the African-American community.

Each of these two men’s ballads represents a different aspect of post-Reconstruction Black society. Stagger Lee is the prototypical “bad man,” making his own defiant way in a white world, and he survives today in hip-hop and gangsta rap. John Henry’s significance depends on the audience: for white revivalists he’s been a proud working man, driven beyond his endurance by the railroad bosses. Black performers are less likely to portray him as heroic, and tend to downplay the man-versus-machine contest which others see as central to the legend.

The CD’s first John Henry is song number 18 on the Anthology. The Williamson Brothers were neighbors of Frank Hutchison in real life (both from Logan, West Virginia) as well as in the Anthology (Hutchison’s Stackalee is number 19). I wonder if Harry knew that? John A. and Ruby T. Lomax recorded Arthur Bell’s John Henry in 1934 at the Cummins State Farm in Gould, Arkansas. In this version, John Henry worked lining track, since there were no mountains to tunnel through in Arkansas. In the last stanza, we hear the same “England…Spain” juxtaposition Clarence Ashley sang about in The Coo Coo Bird- these lines do get around! Pete Seeger is next – Pete never took enough credit for his banjo playing – note that he moves Arthur Bell’s first verse to the end of the song, where it’s a better fit. Evans and McClain recorded their John Henry in 1931. Here the steam drill never appears, and John Henry is hardly heroic: he’s small and the rock is tall, and John Henry lays down his hammer and cries, apparently intimidated by the enormity of his task. His sickness and death are not attributed to overwork; he simply takes to his bed.

John Jacob Niles was a classically trained singer who collected folksongs and presented them as “high art” in a concert setting. He collected ths version in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, Dolly Parton’s home town. Dock Boggs recorded his John Henry in 1964, as part of his second career as a performer. Dock lived in Wise County, Virginia, only twenty miles or so from Hazard, Kentucky, where we met Roscoe Holcomb. You’ll recall that Harry planned Volume 4 of the Anthology, but never quite got it together; the songs he selected were issued as Volume 4 in 2000, and the J. E. Mainer performance of John Henry was among them. It was recorded in 1936.

The Bully Song is the first example of the “bad man” song on record. It was customary around this time for white songwriters to visit black bordellos and clubs for musical inspiration, and this process likely brought the song to May Irwin. It was Irwin’s trademark number for many years, and her custom was to lead the audience in a singalong of the chorus. May Irwin was also the star of the early Edison film “The Kiss,” which you can see in its 21-second entirety below (don’t skip ahead!).

Like John Henry, Stagger Lee has been recorded many dozens of times. The CD gives you five – be grateful that I spared you Neil Diamond and Pat Boone. Frank Hutchison worked medicine shows when he could, and mined coal when he couldn’t. His Stackalee was recorded in 1927. The amount of narrative detail Hutchison puts into less than three minutes is beyond amazing. Bob Dylan recorded two CDs of traditional songs in the 1990s: his Stack A Lee is a darker version of Hutchison’s arrangement and is taken from World Gone Wrong, released in 1993.

David Miller’s That Bad Man Stackolee, recorded in 1927, tells the story out of sequence, beginning with the shooting, moving to the barroom scene, and skipping ahead to Stackolee’s arrest. Billy’s mother makes a late appearance here as well. Your playlist incorrectly credits the Original Stack O’Lee Blues to Big Boy Cleveland. Long Cleve Reed and Papa Harvey Hull are in fact the artists here. This text is typical of that sung by early black performers of the ballad. Here Stack begins the song by bullying “two Chicago police with a ten cent pocket knife.” The narrative becomes secondary in importance to Stack’s defiant character. Lloyd Price’s Stagger Lee was a number 1 hit in 1959, and a game of dice replaces the John B. Stetson hat as Stagger Lee’s murderous motive.

One hundred years worth of “bad men” are brilliantly summarized in Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly, which closes the CD: “The game he plays/He plays for keeps/Hustlin’ times/And ghetto streets.” Stack and Billy would have understood. Enjoy the music and see you on Tuesday.


2 Responses to “Notes on Week 5 Music”

  1. danwatt Says:

    John Henry and the Machine

    We didn’t talk in class about teh central image in almost all versions of John Henry. The competition between John Henry and the steam drill–preceded by JH’s famous — “I won’t let that steam drill beat me down, I’ll die with my hammer in my hand, Lord Lord …”

    I grew up on the man-machine competetion as the heart of John Henry’s story. As a child I had a book about John Henry’s legend. The confrontation with the steam drill was central. In that book, as I recall, John Henry had a nemesis called John Hardy. John hardy showed up where John Henry was working, and told John Henry’s boss that his steam drill could work more cheaply and efficiently than human workers. When the boss was skeptical, John Hardy challenged him to a competion against his best worker. John Henry became the workers’ champion. At first the steam drill was ahead but it overheated and broke down. John Henry kept going until “he laid down his hammer and he died.” As a result, in the story, John Hardy and his machine did not get the contract to finish the tunnel and the human workers got to keep their jobs!

    So I saw the story as an epic battle between man and machine, nbetween labor and capital, where the prize was the right to a laboring job. The goal of John Hardy (representing capitalism I suppose) was to replace workers by machines. In that sense, the song is similar to “Peg and Awl”, in which the singer says,

    “They’ve invented a new machine, peg and awl …
    Peggin’ shoes is all it done, peg and awl …”

    “Pegs a hundred pair to my one, peg and awl …
    Throw away my pegs, my pegs, my pegs, my awl.”

    Of course as wed’ve learned, the reality of John Henry’s life was much different: a convict, virtually a slave, brutally worked to death in tunnels and mines, like so many men of his era and his race.

    That story would make a very different kind of song!

  2. Don Bashline Says:

    I was going to do a post on the history behind Peg’n’Awl and did some research on the introduction of machinery into shoe manufacturing. The song tells a good story, but not one that fits the facts. The machines were nowhere to be seen until the Civil War, and then took a while to catch on. Pegging shoes was not the greatest of jobs, but it’s one that disappeared nearer the turn of the 20th Century than the 19th.

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