Richard Polenberg – Hear My Sad Story | Book Review

richardpolenbergbookRichard Polenberg – Hear My Sad Story

The True Tales That Inspired Stagolee, John Henry, And Other Traditional American Folk Songs

Cornell University Press

283 pages

There are many songs that have been recorded and re-recorded, tunes that most of us have heard throughout our lives. These familiar compositions have entered the realm of traditional material due to their commonality. After extensive research, author Richard Polenberg has compiled detailed examinations of the origins of many of the songs, often providing names, dates and facts on events that inspired these well-known songs.

The book is divided into seven thematic sections – St. Louis, Lying Cold on the Ground, Bold Highwaymen and Outlaws, Railroads, Workers, Disasters, and Martyrs. The opening section has chapters on W.C. Handy and his classic “St. Louis Blues,” then presents the convoluted tale surrounding the folk ballad, “Duncan & Brady,” about a gun battle that took the life of Patrolman James Brady. Blues fans will enjoy reading the chapters on “Stagolee” and “Frankie & Johnny,” as Polenberg reveals in the former that Lee Shelton – “Stack Lee” – did indeed shoot William Lyons over a hat while the later number is based on an incident involving Frankie Baker shooting Allen Britt in self-defense.

The Lying Cold on the Ground section takes a look at six tunes based on murders. “Tom Dooley” is the most famous of the bunch. The author traces its roots back to 1866, when Thomas Dula, a former member of the Confederate Army, was arrested and charged with murdering Laura Foster because he suspected that he had contracted syphilis from her. The chapter takes you through the court proceeding right up to the point of the hit record by the Kingston Trio. “Delia’s Gone” is another memorable tune based the shooting of fourteen-year-old Delia Green in 1900 by Moses Houston in Savannah, Georgia. Blind Willie McTell recorded a version of the song later popularized by Johnny Cash, albeit with revised lyrics.

Readers will find a wealth of details in every chapter, from famous western outlaws like Cole Younger & Jesse James to the African-American folk hero Railroad Bill (Morris Slater), who robbed trains in southern Alabama for a three year period, sharing his ill-gotten gains with those in need. Frank Dupre robs a jewelry store, killing two men in the process, to secure a ring worthy of Betty Anderson, the love of his life, later immortalized in the song, “Betty And Dupree”.

The Railroads section features chapters on the John Henry and Casey Jones legends while the Workers portion delves into tunes associated with cotton mills, chain gangs, coal mines and prostitution as portrayed in the classic ‘House Of The Rising Sun”. The short Disasters section looks at the sinking of the Titanic and the devastating impact of the century-long boll weevil plague on the cotton industry, illustrated in Charlie Patton’s “ Mississippi Boweavil Blues” for Paramount Records.

Polenberg provides plenty of factual content based on detailed research but also manages to tell the story that makes the facts compelling enough to inspire songwriters, who captured the stories in songs that have stood the test have time. Music fans will find plenty to enjoy in this engaging book that is tough to put down – and has you searching the internet for a version of songs that you have never heard!

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