page contents

John Handcox (1904-1992) was a singer/songwriter active in the Southern Tenant Farmers Union.

"In 1989 the late, great singer, songwriter and poet John Handcox visited University of Missouri in one of his last major public appearances. Resplendent in a mocha-colored suit, his beard and hair white, Handcox had lost little of his energy, or his sly sense of humor, well into his eighties. He brought a passion born of a belief that, as he once told interviewers Joe Glazer and Mike Honey, 'Singing to me is the most inspirational thing that you can do to organized labor. If you're making a speech, that's just you doing it. But when you get all of them singing, they have a different feeling. They have a feeling that they're a part of what's going on.' The large [University of Missouri] crowd heard wonderful words from the laborist Archie Green, the historian Arvarh Strickland and others, but it was Handcox who brought them out and who brought down the house. As advertised, he drew on his role as the 'troubadour' of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union (STFU), choosing songs he wrote in nearby Arkansas and in the Bootheel region of Missouri during union struggles in the Great Depression. Some sang along on (STFU) classics like 'Raggedy, Raggedy,' 'Roll the Union On,' and 'There Are Mean Things Happening in This Land.' But Handcox also ventured further in time and space, aptly singing the fabulous song of emancipated slaves, 'Oh, Freedom' as if the lines 'Before I'll be a slave / I'll be buried in my grave' were written for 1930s sharecropping sitdown strikers, and for us. (Handcox's masterful performance of that song is available on the fabulous CD John L. Handcox: Songs, Poems, and Stories of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, distributed by West Virginia University Press). Time moved forward when he improvised a new verse for 'Roll,' promising 'If Bush gets in the way, we're gonna roll it over him,' jabbing at the first, and remarkably enough in long run the less criminal, president by that name. Repeated encores required more songs and at one striking point Handcox produced a well-thumbed red songbook. By the time he found it, he had already launched into his version of 'Solidarity Forever.' He punctuated the song's performance with pauses and searches for the right page of the book, at last announced that he had found the song, and just as quickly lost it and resumed searching while still singing. The departures from the text far exceeded in artistry those of the hosts of union officials who have never quite learned the words but nevertheless feel impelled to join in when it is sung. They even surpassed the studied decisions of folksingers choosing whether the 'might of armies' or the 'might of atoms' better bears lyrical emphasis in these times. (Handcox sang, even in the brief moment that the song's text was in front of him, 'greater than the mighty armies.') Over the years, 'Solidarity Forever' seemed to have come to belong to Handcox, and with wonderful results. It appeared possible that he wanted the songbook there as a prop, and as a place where his young listeners could find the text from which to make their own departures. One of the changes Handcox made was decisively revolutionary in its poetic power. While the song's creator, Ralph Chaplin, had written of the 'hoarded gold' of capitalists, Handcox castigated 'their horrid gold.' We all have favorite examples of Wobbly songs being used for exalted new purposes.... Sometimes...the results of borrowings from IWW songs were more unhappy.... IWW songs have always borrowed and have always remade.... When IWW songs are themselves borrowed and changed, we will sometimes be tempted to wince. But the risks are more than worthwhile. Every so often a John Handcox comes along."

—David Roediger, "'Their Horrid Gold': John Handcox and the Uncopyrighted Red Songbook," The Big Red Songbook (2007)

No More Mourning
Raggedy, Raggedy
Roll the Union On


Leave a comment: