Hear My Sad Story--The History Behind the Songs

Hear My Sad Story: The True Tales That Inspired Stagolee, John Henry, and Other Traditional American Folksongs. By Richard Polenberg. Cornell University Press, 2015.

A version of this review originally ran on nepca.wordpress.com 

In 1966 Phil Ochs remarked, “Before the days of television and mass media, the folksinger was a traveling newspaper spreading tales through music…. Every newspaper headline is a potential song.” Long before and after Ochs' remark, commentators have applied the term "musical newspapers" in reference to folk songs. Call it all the news that's fit to sing. For every folk song that springs from a writer’s fertile imagination, there is at least one that’s inspired by real events and commemorated in ballads, broadsides, song-poems, slogans, and twice-told tales. Those events are the subject of a new book by Cornell history professor emeritus Richard Polenberg, who adds a twist: the way in which folk songs “improve” upon reality and help construct legends that may or may not be close to what actually happened.

Legends are not the same as myths; they occupy a middle position on a scale with verifiable history at one pole and belief-based mythology at the other. Often, legends become so well known that a work such as Polenberg’s is necessary to replant tales in factual soil. Polenberg begins with the news—the actual Lee Shelton (“Stack Lee”), Naomi (“Omie”) Wise, Morris Slater (“Railroad Bill”), and other such characters—and links what history says of them to the songs and legends they inspired. Sometimes they match pretty well, like Vernon Dalhart’s famed “Wreck of the Old 97,” which some scholars call the first true country music recording; other times great liberties are taken­—some of the musical tales about John Hardy, for instance, could be viewed as singing with an expired poetic license. But whether the songs hew close to the truth or spin yarns of gossamer-fragile veracity, Ochs was ultimately right: those songs became traveling newspapers. They’re more than songs; they helped write history as it is perceived, whether it actually happened that way or not. In short, music is part of how legends emerge, spread, and ingrain themselves in American culture.

Hear My Sad Song consists of twenty-one mini narratives that focus on individuals, four that deal with occupations (cotton mill workers, chain gangs, miners, and New Orleans prostitutes), and two that probe disasters (the Titanic and the boll weevil infestation of the 1920s). Folk songs share an affinity with the tabloid press in the sense that neither can resist a good murder, hence sixteen of Polenberg’s chapters deal with sensational homicide cases, sanguinary rogues, and those who may or may not have been killers (such as Joe Hill and Sacco and Vanzetti). Polenberg bookends his twenty-seven chapters with a prologue and epilogue featuring cowboy poet/songwriter Frank Maynard (“The Dying Cowboy”) as foil.

Polenberg loves folk music, but this is primarily a work of history and legends. If you do the math, you can infer that he has bitten off quite a lot for 304 pages. Each chapter is self-contained, hence Hear My Sad Story is actually a series of short stories (8 to 11 pages each) loosely held together by his musings on Maynard. It’s the kind of book that’s best read one tale at a time, preferably with a soundtrack cued. The short chapters tend to be heavy on names, investigations, and court proceedings, with music appearing as annotation rather than discussed in great depth. The book could benefit from both pruning and lengthening. There is a stylistic and organizational disconnection between his discussions of individuals and those dealing with occupational groups and disasters. Excising a few chapters would have provided more space to tell stories in more leisurely detail, a tact that would improve the book’s flow by sharpening narratives and lessening the need for chronicling. Although most of this book is illuminating, there are other things that could be cut. We don’t know, for instance, if “House of the Rising Sun” had anything at all to do with New Orleans’ Storyville red light district, thus Polenberg’s chapter, though fascinating, tells us nothing about the song. On a personal note, I’m more skeptical of Joe Hill’s innocence than Polenberg, yet way more convinced of the validity of Scott Nelson’s research into the "real" John Henry.

Book critiques have a way, though, of reflecting a reviewer’s biases just as the actual book reflects those of the author. If you’re a longtime folk music fan, you probably already know the stories behind the Tom Dula/Dooley and the Casey Jones legends. It's important, though, to imagine readers for whom the history/music/legend nexus is a recent revelation. Polenberg’s book is fine reading on its own, but it may prove invaluable for undergraduates. Check back with me; I’ll be test-driving it in my spring seminar on American folk legends.

Rob Weir


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