July 16, 2014
Vol: 21 No: 29

Arts & Entertainment

Songs of freedom

By Jim Douglas / Contributing Writer

Book Review - Sharecropper’s Troubadour: John L. Handcox, the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union, and the African American Song Tradition / Michael K. Honey

A poor black farmer in the ’30s turned experiences of racial oppression into anthems for social justice

Photo by Matt Ulrich / Illustrator

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In this fascinating little book, “Sharecropper’s Troubadour” University of Washington – Tacoma Professor Michael Honey tells the story of John Handcox,  a largely unknown African-American man, to illuminate obscure but significant events from American history.

When Handcox was born in Arkansas in 1904, the legacy of slavery was pervasive. Reconstruction after the Civil War failed miserably, and race-based, involuntary labor continued by another name. Because the planter elite had lost their slaves and could not profitably operate without cheap or free labor, a system of “convict leasing” was created that endured until the late 1920s. An increasing number of former slaves were arrested and convicted on meritless charges and sentenced to work without pay on plantations, in mines or in the woods. Counties were spared the expense of caring for their prisoners, and business owners had to pay only modest fees to the county.  One source estimates that, for plantation owners, leasing a convict was 50 to 80 percent less expensive than purchasing and keeping a slave.

Black worker-prisoners got the shaft. Under slavery, slaveholders had a financial incentive not to kill or injure their slaves. There was no similar motivation under convict leasing. Conditions were horrific, and in some camps 30 to 40 percent of the prisoners died each year. 

Along with convict leasing, there were three different relationships between plantation owners and their workers. Day laborers were paid per diem and took care of their needs independently. Sharecroppers worked “on the halves” with the landowner providing seed, tools, mules and everything else while taking half the crop. Tenant farmers “rented the land on thirds and fourths:” That is, the landowner got one-third of the income from corn and one-fourth from cotton. 

Tenant farmers furnished their own animals, tools and seed and did all the work.

Plantation owners, some of whom owned tens of thousands of acres, exerted substantial power. “Planters furnished goods at exorbitant rates of interest, controlled distribution in the market, and insisted that workers devote all their resources to producing one cash crop, namely ‘King Cotton.’”

Handcox’s family was better off than most, usually farming its own land and escaping some of the system’s most oppressive aspects. Able to attend more school than kids from plantations, John learned to read, write and do arithmetic. 

As an adult, he had relative success running the family’s farm in Arkansas until drought, floods and a collapsing cotton market hit small farmers hard. “The cotton economy’s downward cycle and the planter capitalists’ monopoly over land, credit, and marketing crushed John’s optimism and his enterprise.” He stopped farming after the crop failure of 1935.

Sharecroppers had been trying to organize unions for almost 20 years without any real success. An eastern Arkansas effort in 1919 met with brutal repression that included the slaughter of more than 800 people in the Elaine Massacre.

Initially organized by white members of the Socialist Party in July 1934, an interracial group of sharecroppers founded the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union (STFU) in the eastern delta of Arkansas. When the union grew rapidly, the planters, supported by the police and the Ku Klux Klan, fought back with shootings, lynchings and other intimidation. Despite this, the union, organizing in secret, successfully struck in 1935 to increase the amount planters paid for cotton.

No longer farming, Handcox began union organizing. “His greatest historical legacy,” however, “would be his role as a poet and songwriter.” His first poem,” The Landlord and the Sharecropper,” appeared in the Sharecropper’s Voice, the union’s newspaper. He became a regular contributor and “would use songs and poems like editorials to criticize and mock, to expose the perfidy of the planter class, whose values had been twisted by the privileges granted by racial plantation capitalism.” Honey tells us that with his rage barely contained, Handcox kept asking the landlord, “What is the matter with you?”

By early 1936 the STFU had an interracial membership of 100,000. They were negotiating contracts with certain growers when they faced an “intense new round of terror.” Despite being inadequately prepared, the union called a strike.  By the time it eventually failed, people who could find work had gone back to it, while others lost homes and jobs.

Handcox wasn’t around to see that. Some anti-union men had come around saying that they had “a limb and some rope,” and all they needed was Handcox. He left the area immediately, relocating to the “boot heel” of Missouri, where he was the union’s only organizer.

Assisted by radical preachers who saw “militant interracial unionism as a vehicle of deliverance,” Handcox steadily developed the union. Joining African-American song traditions with labor protest music, he created a wealth of songs and poems, including “Raggedy Raggedy Are We.”

Unfortunately, because of external attacks and internal differences based on race and leftist party politics (Socialist versus Communist), the union began to unravel in early 1937.  At that same time, STFU leadership and Handcox made a northern tour to publicize the sharecroppers’ plight.  A man named Charles Seeger ran the Special Skills Division of the Resettlement Administration, which recorded several of Handcox’s songs.  Seeger’s son Pete was to discover them a few years later.

Upon the leaders’ return to the South, they “revoked the commissions” of the union’s organizers and stopped paying them. Handcox left the union, dropped out of public view and eventually settled in San Diego. 

He bequeathed a substantial legacy. Almost without knowing it he had made a lasting contribution to black freedom and labor protest music. The folk revival of the ’50s and ’60s happened without him but included at least a couple of his songs (“Roll the Union On” and “Mean Things Happening In This Land”).

People who knew of Handcox the singer assumed he was dead. However, Honey and others discovered he was still alive in the mid-’80s, and, until his death in 1992, Handcox sang and recited at workers’ culture festivals and talked about his life. 

He had this to say: “Singin’ to me, I think is the most inspirational thing you can do to organize labor. I don’t know, there’s something about songs has more effect than makin’ a speech to mind. Anyway, if you makin’ a speech, that’s just you doin’ it. But when all of them is singing, they have a different feelin’, they have a feelin’ they’s a part of what’s goin’ on.”



Nice review!! Thanks for your attention to John Handcox.

Michael Honey | submitted on 07/17/2014, 9:30pm

Thanks Jim, and Michael, for drawing me to this important life and legacy, teaching me re: a union history of which I was completely ignorant. I am moved and inspired now by knowing of John Handcox.

D'vorah Kost | submitted on 07/19/2014, 11:19am

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