download "Raggedy, Raggedy"
download "Roll the Union On"
download "The Planter and the
In the three
recordings by John Handcox included here, you will not find a honey-smooth
voice. But it is a pure voice, that of a man needing to express his thoughts
and feelings about the injustices he saw around him in Depression-era
rural Arkansas. Perhaps his voice will even grate on your ear a bit--it
has a bite to it--just as his lyrics do.
Born in Brinkley, Arkansas on February 5,
1904 to an African-American family, Handcox knew the hard life of a poor
cotton farmer. Handcox's father, the son of slaves, owned his own land
but died in an accident in 1921. By the mid-20s, the family had lost the
farm and had become tenants on others' land. During this time period,
many people--both black and white--made a precarious living as tenant
farmers raising cotton in the rich lands of the Arkansas Delta and throughout
the South. Instead of money, these tenants paid a percentage of their
harvest as rent. But with cotton only earning five cents on the pound
in the early 30s and the perfidy of some landowners' bookkeeping, many
tenants ended each year deeper in debt, including Handcox's family.
Recognizing this injustice, Handcox sought out
others who shared his disdain for this repressive system and who worked
for equality. In 1934, some members of the Socialist Party and a few tenant
farmers--both white and black--joined forces in Arkansas to create the
Southern Tenant Farmers Union (STFU). After hearing about them in 1935,
Handcox said, "Man, that's the thing we need" and immediately
joined. Soon, he became involved with union activities and even began
writing songs and poems about his and other tenant farmers' experiences.
In his song "Raggedy, Raggedy," he
expresses the true conditions under which many tenant farmers existed.
Along with comments about low wages for labor, he also documents other
burdens these tenant farmers had to bear. Often, landowners demanded that
their tenants plant cotton up to the porches of their cabins, leaving
no room for vegetable gardens or livestock pens. Since they could not
grow their own, tenants had to buy food from local stores (often owned
by the landowners) on credit, resulting in even more debt.
Handcox's poem "The Planter and the
Sharecropper" lays out how the crushing debt and low wages of the
tenant farmers left them far behind the standard of living experienced
by the landowners. Here, the planters, their wives, and their children
eat well, ride in automobiles, and live in homes "as fine as the
best," while the sharecroppers and their families work the fields
and "have to go bear." Even in death there is no equality: "When
the sharecropper dies he has to be buried in a box,/Without any necktie
But Handcox and others had faith that the
STFU's efforts would lift them out of this poverty. To help raise spirits
during meetings, they would sing Handcox's "Roll the Union On."
Set to the tune of the old Gospel tune "Roll the Chariot On,"
his lyrics joyously threatened those who would stand in the way of the
union and its fight for economic justice.
were made available through the kindness of the Handcox family and support
from a Parson's Fund Award. The original tapes are held by the Library
of Congress' American Folklife Center in Washington, DC.