John L. Handcox, |
Songs, Poems & Stories of
the Southern Tenant Farmers Union
(West Virginia University Sound Archive, 2004)
Given what America has come to in the first decade of the 21st century, this collection sounds like an artifact from another planet. It is from a time of struggle and progressive hope, mostly from the era of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, founded in Arkansas in 1934 by two Southern members of Norman Thomas's Socialist Party, the democratic-radical alternative to the then-powerful Communist Party of the United States. A biracial group when the very concept drove many onlookers into murderous rage, STFU fought for both labor and civil rights. It was not an organization for the timid, but courage and desperation drove the STFU, and soon it spread into neighboring states.
John L. Handcox (1904-1992), a self-educated man who grew up in a large, very poor African-American family from eastern Arkansas, joined in 1935. His gift for organizing almost got him lynched by local goons, but more happily, his efforts took him as well to big eastern cities he might never have seen otherwise, to link up with urban radical and liberal sympathizers. Meantime, he composed poems and labor-themed songs; "Roll the Union on" (a parody of "Roll the Chariot on") has lasted. Handcox was, in other words, an authentic folk composer. Like most folk composers he borrowed familiar traditional melodies, in his case from gospel anthems and spirituals, though his purpose was less to entertain than to keep up spirits on picket lines.
In March 1937, when Handcox's business took him to Washington, D.C., Charles Seeger and Sidney Robertson recorded him for the Library of Congress Archive of Folksong. Not a musician if one defines musician as someone who plays an instrument, Handcox sang unaccompanied and solo with a rough yet engaging voice.
The man's charisma certainly shines forth in his singing and speaking. Pete Seeger is being wildly hyperbolic, however, when he declares Handcox "one of the most important songwriters of the early 20th century." Even so, Handcox's work, intended to be utilitarian and ephemeral, took on deserved new life when the younger Seeger found the recordings in the Library of Congress archives and taught a few of the songs to Woody Guthrie and Joe Glazer. Some were subsequently reprinted in the Seeger/Guthrie anthology Hard Hitting Songs for Hard Hit People. By then Handcox had moved to San Diego. He ceased being active in the STFU by the time World War II started.
The early recordings are supplemented with reminiscences and song fragments taped in 1985. In honor of the occasion, Handcox produced a couple of anti-Reagan ditties. Mark Allan Jackson puts this all together in loving fashion, preserving a record of one man's heroic involvement in the eternal struggle -- albeit one nearly comatose at this sorry moment in our national story -- for a just and decent society.
by Jerome Clark