Sharecropper’s Troubadour

tags: unions, Pete Seeger



Robin Lindley is a Seattle writer and attorney, and the features editor for the History News Network. His writing also has appeared in Writer’s Chronicle, Crosscut, Real Change, Re-Markings, Documentary, NW Lawyer, and more.  He can be reached at robinlindley@gmail.com

In the rigidly segregated American South of the early twentieth century, inequality and discrimination were the law and African Americans who challenged their subordinate status in this fierce caste system risked intimidation and brutality from economic deprivation and jail to beatings, mutilation, and murder. 

At this time, John Handcox (1904-1992), a descendent of African American slaves and white slaveowners, survived attempted lynching as well as poverty, floods, drought, and more, to use his powerful voice and poetry in the 1930s to bring together black and white workers in the Southern Tenant Farmers Union. With songs such as “Roll the Union On,” Handcox became one of the most prominent musicians of the Depression-era labor movement as he inspired impoverished laborers and bridged the racial divide.  

Handcox’s words depicted the miserable predicament of the virtual serfs who worked the land of oppressive, avaricious, often brutal plantation owners:

The planter lives by the sweat of the sharecropper’s brow.
Just how the sharecropper lives the planter cares not how.

By the early 1940s, Handcox withdrew from the public eye, and many who knew him in union and music circles thought he had died. But he re-emerged in the 1980s when legendary musician Pete Seeger located him in San Diego.

In 1985, University of Washington history professor Michael K. Honey met John Handcox through Pete Seeger, whom Dr. Honey had known since his days as an organizer for civil rights and labor activities in the South in the 1970s.  

In his new book of historical recovery, Sharecropper’s Troubadour: John L. Handcox, the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union, and the African American Song Tradition (Palgrave MacMillan), Dr. Honey recounts Handcox’s life as he interweaves the story of the plight of African Americans in the Jim Crow South, the traditions of black music, and the surprising history of the integrated Southern Tenant Farmers Union. As reviewers have noted, the groundbreaking book broadens the understanding of social change movements in the rural South of the thirties as it follows the odyssey of John Handcox.

Dr. Honey is the Haley Professor of Humanities at the University of Washington-Tacoma where he teaches labor, ethnic and gender studies and American history. His previous books include the award-winning histories Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King's Last Campaign; Black Workers Remember: An Oral History of Unionism, Segregation and the Freedom Struggle; and Southern Labor and Black Civil Rights: Organizing Memphis Workers.  He is also a folk musician and performed with Pete Seeger on several occasion over the decades, including at the 1997 Seattle Folklife Festival.

Dr. Honey recently talked about John Handcox and his significance as a musician and labor activist.

* * * * *

Robin Lindley: How did you come to meet singer and labor activist John Handcox and how did you decide to write this book about his life?

Dr. Michael Honey: It was sort of decided for me. I organized a session [in 1985] at the Great Labor Song Exchange, sponsored by the Labor Heritage Foundation of the AFL-CIO.          

We met at a campus in Maryland for labor education. I organized a workshop on labor and civil rights songs of the South. Pete Seeger was on the panel with some important Southern singers.

It just happened at that time that Pete had re-discovered John Handcox. He had listened to his songs in 1937. And Pete was interested in the labor songs of the South and also the African American song tradition. He had included some of John’s songs in a book, Hard-Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People. He thought John had died because nobody was able to find him. They couldn’t let him know that his songs were in the book or give him any royalties.

Pete found out that John was still alive, and they brought him to this Labor Heritage Foundation gathering. That’s how it all got started. 

Once John was there, Ralph Rinzler of the Smithsonian Institution said John is a “living legend,” and we needed to interview him. So he paid me one hundred dollars and I spent two days with John. There are recordings in the Library of Congress from those interviews and there is a CD from the University of West Virginia Press with the interviews and John’s 1937 recordings.

We had done that much, but it took me all of these years  to get back to the lengthier interviews. I went back over all of the interview material and put it in a chronological sequence so it would make sense as a book.

Most people won’t know of John Handcox. What are a few things you’d say to introduce him?

I think people should appreciate that he’s part of this greater African American song tradition.  American music is highly influenced by African American music: blues, jazz, rock and roll, funk, rap.

John is part of that tradition, but he is not in the canon of African American music. He’s not mentioned in most of the books of African American music but neither are the labor protest songs of that era nor most of the civil rights songs.

So there’s a missing piece of the story about how the African American song tradition created a space for people in movements for social change and a way for people to tell their story and mobilize people and to reach an audience emotionally.           As John says in the book, he consciously used his own tradition to not just tell a story, but to move people emotionally. The union tried to recruit African Americans who were sharecroppers and wage laborers in one of the worst places you could imagine at one of the worst times you could be an African American there. His music and poems helped move African Americans to action despite the fear of killings and expulsions from plantations.

But John also needed to reach white workers, and get blacks and whites together. John said you can’t do that with a speech. You need to get people together by singing together.

That’s what the song tradition does. These songs are inclusive. There’s a quote from Bernice Johnson Reagon in the book that music is a form of organizing in the black tradition, and music can’t make you free but don’t try to get free without it. And John had his own way of saying that.

He must have been influenced by the gospel and blues tradition in black music. He uses call and response and rhythms from earlier works

He told me that he didn’t have a lot of musical influences because he lived in the back country. He didn’t go to juke joints and there was no radio. They were gathered in frontier-like conditions on the plantations.

But they did have church and they did learn hymns from the Baptist tradition and some from slavery era like “Oh, Freedom.” So he had the African-American musical repertoire just by being there.

In addition, his father gave him a book of poems by Paul Lawrence Dunbar, the most famous black poet of that era. He voraciously read these poems and he had a real sense of rhyming. He was as much a poet as a singer and some of his most powerful writing is his poetry.

I was struck by his incredible memory and, even as a child, word pictures and storytelling fascinated him. That tradition goes back to Homer and it is present now in musical forms like rap.

One of the things I like the best that he wrote was a poem, “The Planter and the Sharecropper.” I put music to it, and it’s like a rap song. It tells a great story, and only somebody who lived that life could tell that story the way he does.

Pete Seeger said that John was one of the most important folk musicians of his time because he was able to tell things in a simple way and have a profound effect. That’s not easy to do. And he also represented the heritage and the people he came from. He’s a link between the generations of slavery and post-slavery, and the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Didn’t John’s father suggest that slavery may have been better in some ways than the antebellum life of sharecroppers?

He didn’t say things were better under slavery. What John said was that, under slavery, we were a master’s slave, but after slavery, we were everybody’s slave. And no longer valued as property, so an endangered population.

The Handcox family’s story does show the fruits of emancipation. They had chickens and farm animals. They grew vegetables and had plenty to eat. They didn’t go into extreme debt. His family did fairly well, and in way better conditions than anything associated with slavery. But then, in the 1920s after his father was killed in an accident, the plantation economy went into a crisis and they lost their land. Then John became a sharecropper. That was a disaster.

So there was a change from when he was doing well and being somewhat independent despite the rampant racism of the time and the lynchings and other terrible things. They were insulated from that a bit because they had their own land, but then it all fell apart. 

You vividly describe the brutal situation of blacks in the deep South in the early twentieth century. Even John was threatened with lynching. And I hadn’t heard about the horrific Elaine, Arkansas, massacre of 1919 when whites in the community killed more than 200 black citizens.

John never mentioned that Elaine massacre, but everybody knew about it. It was fifty miles away from where he grew up. It’s all the more profound that these black and white sharecroppers would join together [in the thirties] given what had happened before.

Didn’t labor organizing spark the Elaine massacre?

Plantation owners said that sharecroppers and tenants had to market their crops through them, and then the workers would get a bad deal. The small producers got together and decided they would market the crops themselves. That cut out the plantation owners. They called it a union, but it wasn’t a union as we think of it, but their way of dealing with [an unfair marketplace.

The plantation owners and political leaders roused the white community and said that black people organizing was a racial threat to white people. That led to this terrible massacre where whites murdered hundreds of African Americans.

When they organized the Southern Tenant Farmers Union [in the 1930s], they had to decide whether to organize in separate black and white units because that’s what most of the trade unions did. One of the survivors [of Elaine] said, “That’s what killed us the last time when blacks organized themselves without whites. We can’t do that.” And a former Ku Klux Klan member said, “You’re right. We need to be in the same organization.” That was an incredible, historic step in 1934.

I think the story of this integrated union in the deep South in the thirties will surprise many readers. How did the STFU come about?

It was precipitated by the New Deal, ironically.  The government paid land owners to plow under their crops. The idea was to push up agricultural prices by creating scarcity. The land owners were supposed to share their federal subsidies with sharecroppers and day laborers and the tenants who rented. Instead, the land owners kept the subsidy money for themselves and kicked sharecroppers and tenants off the land.

Also, local [Arkansas] merchants, H.L. Mitchell and Clay East, brought in Norman Thomas, the leader of the Socialist Party, to speak, and he said, “What you need here is a union to bring all of these people together.” That’s how the union, got started.

And, despite the racism and brutality John Handcox faced, he was committed to an integrated union and he had a lot of empathy for poor whites.

He was very empathetic and observant. He wrote the song “Raggedy, Raggedy” after seeing the conditions of a white worker who was worse off than John by far.  Actually, there were more white sharecroppers than blacks, and they were all in horrible conditions. In the past, planters used racism to play one off against the other, and that’s what they were trying to overcome. 

I think that John’s greatest satisfaction was that the union brought blacks and whites together.

You also note that John had no fear of white people in this bitterly racist world where inequality and discrimination were the law of the land. He always spoke up for himself in the face of constant threats.

Most people worry about death, but he said, "That’s the price you pay and, if it’s for a good cause, that’s a good death.” He was hard to intimidate. But he wasn’t foolhardy. When a lynch mob came for him, he left.

How did John become involved with the Southern Tenant Farmers Union?

There’s a moment when he gave up sharecropping and then tried to make a living selling fish he’d catch in the river. He rode on a mule from plantation to plantation with a bucket of fish and sold them to sharecroppers. He also bottled soda pop. Back in the twenties he made moonshine.

So he sold fish and bottled soda pop and popcorn.  As he was doing this door to door, he started recruiting people for the Southern Tenants Farmers Union. Then in 1936 H.L. Mitchell, the union president, designated him an organizer, but the union was so poor they actually didn’t pay their organizers. For every membership, they would get a small fee, but the people joining were paying only 25 cents, so it couldn’t have been very much.

There was a strike in 1936, and then a lynch mob came after John. He left Arkansas. He did go into Missouri as an organizer and had some great experiences organizing blacks and whites together, but the union paid him almost nothing. So he took to the road and sang at NAACP and Socialist Party meetings. They paid him a small amount. That wasn’t viable, so he went to Oklahoma and then to California.

How did John Handcox come to the attention of ethnomusicologist Charles Seeger, the father of Pete Seeger?

I think through H. L. Mitchell. People in Washington, D.C. knew of Mitchell because he had been there to publicize the plight of the sharecroppers. As I say in the book, the Southern Tenant Farmers Union was as much a civil rights and civil liberties organization as it was a union. It depended a lot on outside support, as the civil rights movement did in the sixties. H.L. Mitchell was cultivating people in Washington, D.C. and New York to provide support. He suggested that John record with Charles Seeger.

From what Pete Seeger told me, his father brought the recordings home. Pete heard them soon after they were made. He got really turned on by them, as he says in the foreword to the book, but then John disappeared so he didn’t meet him until many years later.

Did John have a national reputation so that people outside the union world knew of him?

Not at that time. His song “Roll the Union On” became very popular, but the song was credited to Lee Hays and other singers, but not to John Handcox. But people in the network of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union knew about John because he had appeared and sang at conventions.

After World War II, when Pete Seeger came back from the military, he started this folk song revival. Other people including African Americans from the South became well known, people like Lead Belly. But John didn’t and he wasn’t around. Furthermore, his songs weren’t published until 1967 when Hard-Hitting Songs for Hard-Hit People, edited by Pete, Woody Guthrie, and Alan Lomax, came out. They had edited that book in 1940 and then lost the manuscript. It was recovered in an attic and published in 1967.

It seems the union declined and John left even before it dissolved.

The union struggled along.  The Missouri roadside demonstrations in 1939 brought the high point of national recognition of the sharecroppers’ movement, but the whole thing was coming apart at the seams organizationally. After that, it became the National Farmers Union, and H.L. Mitchell carried on the story, but it ceased to be an effective organization by about 1940.

In the meantime, John Handcox, landed in Oklahoma for a while and then, in 1942, he settled in San Diego, and most people who knew him thought he had died. You recount his “lost” years.

He was very entrepreneurial. He bought some property and grew food and sold it off the back of a truck. He rented out part of his house to migrants from the South. He and his brother ran a grocery store in a house. He ended up owning three different properties at one point, all serving the black migrants in San Diego.

He also faced discrimination in San Diego.

John maintained the same temperament. He insisted on his rights and he was not cowed by anybody. He picketed store and theater owners who discriminated.

When I met him, he was an older man in his eighties. He was funny. He told a lot of jokes and had country ways of speaking and singing. He was a nice person to know but underneath he had this strong resolve and wouldn’t be pushed around by anybody.

You stress his powerful effect on people.

Yes, he had an electrifying effect on an audience. It was like the second coming of John Henry, the legendary steel-driving man of folk song. He disappeared and then reappeared.

By the time he appeared in my life, I was quite familiar with his music because I had bought that book Hard-Hitting Songs in 1970.  I’ve been using that book for years.  I knew who John was and people in the labor song movement, all knew “Roll the Union On.” As soon as he stepped on the stage and sang those songs there was great excitement.

He traveled around for the last seven years of his life doing that at folk festivals. He was quite old and not a great singer, but people loved him. He embodied a tremendous story.

Was he surprised that many people thought he had died?

I don’t think he thought about whether people knew he was dead or alive.  It turned out that a lot of people in the black community in San Diego did know about him. There was appreciation for him long before we rediscovered him, but he was very local in San Diego.

I think readers will be surprised by John’s story of survival and perseverance as a black troubadour who organized whites and blacks into a union in the brutal Jim Crow South.

Yes. I think it’s a powerful personal story as well as an important political history. In the book, I was trying to make his story resonate and put it in context. It was actually harder to do that than I thought it would be when I started.

Is there anything you’d like to add about the legacy of John Handcox and the resonance of his story now.

The song at the end of the book is “Jobless in the USA.” We’re still facing the same issues now: economic and racial inequality, poverty, massive unemployment through mechanization and outsourcing and globalization.    He was talking about those things all of the time. In his later appearances, he would always connect his experiences of the thirties to the experience of the eighties. That was the Reagan era when employers smashed unions and manufacturing was declining. The issues of the 1930s and the 1980s were very much the same in his mind.


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