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Exquisite Corpse - A Journal of Letters and Life

The Rough Truth of John Handcox
by Mark Jackson ||
Author's Links

download "Raggedy, Raggedy"

download "Roll the Union On"
download "The Planter and the Sharecropper"

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 or socks."
      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.


These recordings 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.

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