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Stagolee and John Henry: Two Black Freedom Songs?

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I have written an article titled Stagolee and John Henry: Two Black Freedom Songs? which has been posted to Lamont Pearley's African American Folklorist website.

It draws on some of the research which I've documented on my own website (John Henry: The Rebel Versions), plus it includes a discussion about the "Stagolee" ballad and the connection between the two ballads. For those familiar with Cecil Brown's book Stagolee Shot Billy or who have an interest in the Stagolee ballad, I believe you will find that my article contains much about the ballad that has never been published before.

Here is a link to the article.

Jim Hauser

Blues Vintage:
Thanks Jim. I just learned Stagolee on piano with that I / III / IV / I / V / I / V progression.

You're welcome, harry! 

I've been involved in some discussion about the article on other forums and with the folks on my mailing list, and based on that I'll probably be posting some additional interesting info about Stagolee and John Henry on this thread, including the significance of Stagolee's holding his head up high while on the gallows (Mississippi John Hurt's version).

One of the things which has come out of my discussions with others about my article is that in Mississippi John Hurt's recording "Stack O'Lee Blues" he sings "We was all glad to dee him die" and this doesn't fit with my claim that Stagolee was a hero for African Americans.  I agree that Hurt probably did not see Stagolee as a hero.  He was a hero for many but not ALL black people.  For example, many churchgoing black folks may have been repulsed by Stagolee's killing of Billy and would have never imagined the battle between them as symbolic of a fight for manhood and black freedom.  I don't know if Hurt was a churchgoer, but he did record religious songs such as "Nearer My God to Thee" and "Praying On the Old Campground, and he gives me the impression of having been a gentle, very soft-spoken, and kind man who would have taken a dim view of violence of any kind.    My guess is that he did not view Stagolee as a hero, let alone Stagolee"s fight with Billy as symbolic of the struggle for black freedom.   His version of the ballad was not a sign of approval but instead served as a warning.   

But I also want to point out that Vera Hall--described by Alan Lomax as a peaceloving cook and washerwomwn and the pillar of the choir in her Baptisit church"--may have thought of Stagolee as a hero.  She recorded a version of the ballad in which she refers to the fight as a "noble fight" which suggests that she approved of it.  And if churchgoing Vera Hall did approve of the fight, then possibly she saw it as symbolic of the black freedom struggle.

Hi Jim,
I would argue that "noble fight", a lyric which occurs in more than one version of Stackolee, refers to the scale of the fight, and not its high-mindedness or rectitude. I'm curious as to how a song about an altercation between two African American males which resulted in the murder of one of them can be construed as a "freedom song". Stackolee, according to most versions of the song, was a remorseless killer, unconcerned with the fate of the surviving family of his victim. For that matter, I don't understand why it is important for you to think that of it a "freedom song".

Incidentally, John Hurt was not categorically averse to violence, at least as expressed in his song lyrics. Check out "Got The Blues, Can't Be Satisfied" or "Nobody's Dirty Business".
All best,


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