collapse

* Member Info

 
 
Welcome, Guest. Please login or register.
Did you miss your activation email?

* Like Us on Facebook

You'd be thinkin' 'bout that ham, wouldnt ya Jelly? - Alan Lomax spoken interjection into Jelly Roll Morton's rendition of Nearer My God to Thee, Library of Congress Sessions 1938

Author Topic: Stagolee and John Henry: Two Black Freedom Songs?  (Read 555 times)

0 Members and 1 Guest are viewing this topic.

Offline jphauser

  • Member
  • Posts: 151
  • Howdy!
Stagolee and John Henry: Two Black Freedom Songs?
« on: December 07, 2020, 10:09:56 AM »
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.
http://theafricanamericanfolklorist.com/2020/11/29/twoblackfreedomsongs/


Jim Hauser
https://sites.google.com/site/johnhenrytherebelversions/home




« Last Edit: December 27, 2020, 07:16:14 AM by jphauser »

Offline Harry

  • Member
  • Posts: 966
Re: Stagolee and John Henry: Two Black Freedom Songs?
« Reply #1 on: December 11, 2020, 11:31:56 AM »
Thanks Jim. I just learned Stagolee on piano with that I / III / IV / I / V / I / V progression.

Offline jphauser

  • Member
  • Posts: 151
  • Howdy!
Re: Stagolee and John Henry: Two Black Freedom Songs?
« Reply #2 on: December 12, 2020, 10:18:03 AM »
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).

Offline jphauser

  • Member
  • Posts: 151
  • Howdy!
Re: Stagolee and John Henry: Two Black Freedom Songs?
« Reply #3 on: December 20, 2020, 02:07:35 PM »
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.
« Last Edit: December 27, 2020, 07:19:44 AM by jphauser »

Offline Johnm

  • Global Moderator
  • Member
  • Posts: 11483
    • johnmillerguitar.com
Re: Stagolee and John Henry: Two Black Freedom Songs?
« Reply #4 on: December 20, 2020, 02:25:14 PM »
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,
Johnm 
« Last Edit: December 20, 2020, 03:12:53 PM by Johnm »

Offline jphauser

  • Member
  • Posts: 151
  • Howdy!
Re: Stagolee and John Henry: Two Black Freedom Songs?
« Reply #5 on: December 20, 2020, 08:21:26 PM »
Hi John,
I appreciate your feedback, and I think if you go back and reread my article, you'll see that I've addressed the main question you've brought up.  Of course, that doesn't mean you'll agree with me. 

Also, it's not that it's important for me to think of "Stagolee" (and "John Henry") as freedom songs, but it is important for me to understand the songs.  When I learn that Zora Neale Hurston called Stagolee a culture hero and when Sterling Brown writes "Lemme be wid Casey Jones /Lemme be wid Stagolee / Lemme be wid such like men / when Death takes hole on me" my curiosity takes over and I start to search for answers.

Jim
« Last Edit: December 27, 2020, 07:22:21 AM by jphauser »

Offline Johnm

  • Global Moderator
  • Member
  • Posts: 11483
    • johnmillerguitar.com
Re: Stagolee and John Henry: Two Black Freedom Songs?
« Reply #6 on: December 20, 2020, 10:20:04 PM »
Hi Jim,
From looking at your article, it's apparent there are no answers, just guesswork and conjecture of varying degrees of plausibility. The times in which the songs were first sung are not recoverable, nor are the attitudes and motivations of people who sang the songs in the past--or the present, for that matter. If you want to say Stackolee was asserting his black manhood by virtue of being a thug and murderer and killing another black man, thus expressing his "freedom", it strikes me as a pretty starry-eyed kind of special pleading. What about Billy Lyons' black manhood and freedom?

Offline jphauser

  • Member
  • Posts: 151
  • Howdy!
Re: Stagolee and John Henry: Two Black Freedom Songs?
« Reply #7 on: December 21, 2020, 01:39:19 PM »

John,
You're right, I haven't proven anything.  But what I do have is a theory that is worth considering, and I believe that I've found a good bit of evidence which lends creedence to my theory, and other evidence which at least suggests that there is much more to the story than simply one black man killing another black man.

Regarding your question asking whether I'm saying that Stagolee was asserting his black manhood by virtue of being a thug and murderer and killing another black man and thus expressing his freedom,  the answer is a definite No.  What I am saying in the article is that I believe that symbolism was involved.  One of the main things I discuss is the possibility that the black musicians who sang "Stagolee" and their black audiences may have imagined Stagolee to be a black man and Billy to be a white man, and I raise the possiblity that their fight--a fight between a black man (Stagolee) and a white man (Billy)-- over an object which was a symbol of manhood to black people--the Stetson hat--may have been symbolic of the struggle for black manhood and freedom.

Again, thanks for your input and for sharing your views.  I'm sure that my article amounts to heresy in many people minds, and I've gotten some strong reactions. It's important for me to hear from not only those who agree with me but also those who disagree.  And I admit that as I continue my research, I may one day end up seeing things your way.

Jim Hauser

Online Rivers

  • Tech Support
  • Member
  • Posts: 6991
  • I like chicken pie
Re: Stagolee and John Henry: Two Black Freedom Songs?
« Reply #8 on: December 21, 2020, 09:43:12 PM »
Well Jim you may have a point but consider these facts. The shooting occurred on Christmas Day 1895. Harvey Hull and Long Cleve Reed recorded their version of the story 32 years later in 1927. During that time there was nothing other than print media and oral tradition to document what exactly happened; although admittedly the recording industry had just gotten going.

(edit later - Actually I believe there was actually a stage production of the story at some point. All I know about is is from an old T shirt that I got from a Macy's sale (!!!) that shows a poster from the show. I can't read it, it's so worn out)

The thing about oral tradition is it's a Rorschach ink blot test; people see what they see and are free to interpret it accordingly. The longer the period of time the more likely that those 30 years of history would overlay what actually occurred and probably more importantly the context around it. It also accounts for the wildly differing narratives, e.g. discrepancies between hero vs. villain.

I can understand what you're saying. But due to the intervening 30 years of oral transmission I think it's inevitable that you're actually talking about the way people developed their interpretations of it during the years between, not what may or may not have actually happened on the day, or the social mores surrounding it at that time.

Cecil Brown's book Stagolee Shot Billy is a really good read in my opinion. He plays with the story in a totally excellent, mildly humorous manner. I suspect that the Stagolee story has such long legs simply because it is such a great story. I'm not exactly sure what makes it such a great story but it certainly is. Scratch that, I think it's the humor of it all, we get to laugh at human nature, i.e. ourselves. That includes the cops, justice system, politicians, not to mention the two main protagonists and their friends & families. Another song that pulls the same strings is Frankie. Also Lead Belly's Alberta.
« Last Edit: December 21, 2020, 10:30:06 PM by Rivers »

Offline jphauser

  • Member
  • Posts: 151
  • Howdy!
Re: Stagolee and John Henry: Two Black Freedom Songs?
« Reply #9 on: December 22, 2020, 06:55:59 PM »
I can understand what you're saying. But due to the intervening 30 years of oral transmission I think it's inevitable that you're actually talking about the way people developed their interpretations of it during the years between, not what may or may not have actually happened on the day, or the social mores surrounding it at that time.

Regarding the passage of time, I absolutely agree with you, Rivers.  In my article, I point out that the symbolism which I believe is connected to the ballad may not have developed until years after the historical event took place.  Once the legend was disconnected from history--through either location (as the ballad spread to other parts of the country) or the passage of time or both--the imaginations of the musicians and their audiences were quite free to interpret the ballad as they saw fit. 

Certainly there would have been a disconnect between the historical event and the legend at some point.  Outside of St. Louis, it probably happened very early.  I imagine the ballad quickly spread to other parts of the country where they had no clue about what happened in St. Louis.  In 1967, John Russell David reconnected the ballad with the history behind it in his dissertation Tragedy in Ragtime: Black Folktales from St. Louis.  But knowledge of David's discovery was apparently not widespread since the first two or three (or more?) editions of Greil Marcus's book "Mystery Train" discuss the legend in a way which makes it clear that Marcus had no knowledge of the event which inspired it. In fact, Marcus himself even theorized about the racial identities of Stagolee and Billy in the book.   (The first edition of Mystery Train was published in 1975.)                 

Another point that I'd like to bring out is that I don't think that the symbolism of the hat is the only reason that Stagolee was a hero.  Other quite plausible explanations have been offered (e.g. by Lawrence Levine in his book Black Culture and Black Consciousness) for Stagolee's and other badmen's status as black heroes.  But I don't believe these other explanations help us to understand things such as Sterling Brown's poem or the quotes from James Cone which I cite in my article.  I believe that symbolism is a key (but not the only) factor.   Black people had to communicate in code, double meanings, all that kind of stuff due to the realities of the world in which they lived.  And when I say "communicate", I'm including music.  James Baldwin once told Nikki Giovanni "we had to smuggle information, and we did it through our music, and we did it in the church."
                               
One last thing.  In an earlier post I mentioned that it was curiosity about things like Brown's poem which led me to do my research.  But after thinking back to that time (which was probably at least 20 years ago), it was more than just curiosity that motivated me.  I just couldn't understand--maybe "accept" is a better word-- that a cold-blooded killer could be a black culture hero.  So I identify with what John has been saying, although I'm not really sure what his actual thought process on this is.  I'm a librarian by trade so I do a lot of research.  And it was just natural for me to research the ballad and try to find out for myself and see if I could make some sense of it all.                                                 
                                                                                                                       
« Last Edit: December 27, 2020, 07:23:55 AM by jphauser »

Offline Johnm

  • Global Moderator
  • Member
  • Posts: 11483
    • johnmillerguitar.com
Re: Stagolee and John Henry: Two Black Freedom Songs?
« Reply #10 on: December 23, 2020, 08:56:23 AM »
Hi Jim,
Actually, I don't think it's all that mysterious that Stack O'Lee would end up being a hero to some Black folk. Consider:
  * He was a bad-ass who acted according to his own wishes without being constrained by concern or fear of the consequences of his actions;
  * He was, at least temporarily in the course of the song and story, a winner, i.e., dominant. He lived, Billy Lyons died.

To a disenfranchised population having to weigh possible actions and  their consequences every day simply to live in relative peace, a character who was unafraid of the worst that could happen to him and acted according to his own lights, often in direct opposition to what the ruling class considered permissible behavior, might naturally inspire respect, admiration or even envy at some level. Even as Stack O'Lee ended up, he died a victim, but he did not live as a victim--which point would not go un-noticed and unremarked upon among his fellows. So, he had the makings of a hero for a good number of people, both despite and because of his lawlessness.
All best,
Johnm
« Last Edit: December 23, 2020, 09:52:55 AM by Johnm »

Offline eric

  • Member
  • Posts: 645
Re: Stagolee and John Henry: Two Black Freedom Songs?
« Reply #11 on: December 23, 2020, 02:19:28 PM »
Just my unoriginal, uninformed opinion, but I think Bad Man or Bad Woman ballads have in intrinsic appeal to a lot of folks, especially if experiencing alienation from broader society.



Anyway, maybe there's a germ of another thread here.
--
Eric

Offline Stuart

  • Member
  • Posts: 2739
  • "The Voice of Almiqui"
Re: Stagolee and John Henry: Two Black Freedom Songs?
« Reply #12 on: December 23, 2020, 05:24:34 PM »
Agreed, eric. I'm sure there are more than a few case where the romanticized outlaw becomes a symbol and/or hero to some, and not only in song.

Offline jphauser

  • Member
  • Posts: 151
  • Howdy!
Re: Stagolee and John Henry: Two Black Freedom Songs?
« Reply #13 on: December 23, 2020, 05:50:29 PM »
Hi Jim,
Actually, I don't think it's all that mysterious that Stack O'Lee would end up being a hero to some Black folk. Consider:
  * He was a bad-ass who acted according to his own wishes without being constrained by concern or fear of the consequences of his actions;
  * He was, at least temporarily in the course of the song and story, a winner, i.e., dominant. He lived, Billy Lyons died.

To a disenfranchised population having to weigh possible actions and  their consequences every day simply to live in relative peace, a character who was unafraid of the worst that could happen to him and acted according to his own lights, often in direct opposition to what the ruling class considered permissible behavior, might naturally inspire respect, admiration or even envy at some level. Even as Stack O'Lee ended up, he died a victim, but he did not live as a victim--which point would not go un-noticed and unremarked upon among his fellows. So, he had the makings of a hero for a good number of people, both despite and because of his lawlessness.
All best,
Johnm

Very well said, John!  In my opinion, you go a long way towards explaining Stagolee and other black badman heroes. 

And I'll add something which I think Rivers was alluding to: we can't apply our own sense of morality in judging the choices for heroes made by an oppressed people, especially when you consider the staggering depth and length of time of that oppression. 

Still, I think the symbolism I've been talking about, and Stagolee striking a blow against his white oppressors is crucial towards explaining the kinds of things I've brought up in my article.

Jim
« Last Edit: December 27, 2020, 07:25:10 AM by jphauser »

Offline lindy

  • Global Moderator
  • Member
  • Posts: 1103
  • I'm a llama!
Re: Stagolee and John Henry: Two Black Freedom Songs?
« Reply #14 on: December 24, 2020, 07:25:10 PM »
If you decide to start a Bad Woman/Bad Man thread, be sure to include Railroad Bill.

My first introduction to Railroad Bill was from John Jackson, who didn't make him out to be a really bad dude. But then we tried to transcribe lyrics from a Railroad Bill song sung by Blind Jesse Harris:

https://weeniecampbell.com/yabbse/index.php?topic=11303.msg99676#msg99676

From Harris's song, it sounds like Railroad Bill would give Stack o' Lee a run for his money.

WHOOPS--edited to add

When I looked at the Jesse Harris thread the first time I only looked at JohnM's transcription of the Railroad Bill song. I went back and noticed that you (Eric) had transcribed a Jesse Harris song about Stack O'Lee, so you're way ahead of me on this topic.

Looks like Jesse Harris really had a thing for outlaw heroes.

Lindy
« Last Edit: December 24, 2020, 07:53:07 PM by lindy »

Tags:
 


SimplePortal 2.3.7 © 2008-2021, SimplePortal