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Letters to Planet Slade: 2009

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Murder Ballads
Secret London


October 12, 2009. Bill Hudson writes: “Reading your story on Hattie Carroll, I came across the part in which you mention Don West. Don was a good man and I went for many years to his folk life center because Pete Seeger told me about it. In 1996 I was asked to be the director of the festival there, which was a joy to do.
    “I did enjoy reading your very detailed stories. It's always nice to know where the songs really came from, as I've been singing Frankie & Johnny and Stagolee for years. I will bookmark your site.
    “Off the subject if you go to you can see what we are doing down in the Gulf Coast and maybe soon West Virginia for the school kids. If you come to the USA and you are in Virginia, give me a heads- up. There is a load of music in these hills.”

Paul Slade replies: In retrospect, I may have a been a little harsh on Don West, who simply had the misfortune to find his Hattie Carroll song competing with an absolute masterpiece from Bob Dylan. It must be like finding your own hobbyist painting has been hung next to the Mona Lisa, and knowing it's going to suffer by comparison from that day on.
    I'm glad you enjoyed my essay, and I hope you find some other stuff on the site to interest you too. I'm having a great time writing it.

[Bill's group, The Hudson Brothers, had a handful of US chart hits in the 1970s, and went on to star in their own network TV show. He was married to the actress Goldie Hawn from 1976 to 1980, and their daughter Kate Hudson became a movie star in her own right. Bill's Feel Good Tour project travels round the Katrina-devastated areas of Louisiana and Mississippi, playing music and distributing free instruments to the schoolchildren there.]

October 13, 2009. Jerome Clark writes: “I'm reading your superb piece on Hattie Carroll's murder and its aftermath (for which many thanks, by the way), but I must correct an error. Nothing called ‘Joe McCarthy's Committee on Un-American Activities’ ever existed.
    “Yes, there was a Senator Joe McCarthy, notorious for reckless charges against (mostly falsely accused) subversives. And there was a House Committee on Un-American Activities, which investigated domestic espionage, Communist Party USA members, and alleged Communist sympathizers as well as fascists, the Ku Klux Klan, and other groups on the far right. As a US senator, McCarthy was in the wrong legislative body to occupy a position in the House of Representatives. He conducted his dirty business out of the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations.
    I seem to have a small side-line correcting people on the disconnection between McCarthy and the House Committee on Un-American Activities. The last guy I corrected was the Florida singer-songwriter Ronny Elliott - a very smart, well-read guy otherwise. Elliott conflates the two in Red Rumor Blues on his Jalopypaint CD. In short, you're hardly the first.”

Paul Slade replies: I'm glad my error didn't spoil your enjoyment of the piece. One of the problems of writing about all this stuff as a Brit is that I'm not as familiar with the detail of America's political structure as I probably ought to be.
    A few years ago, I visited the Jimmy Carter Library in Atlanta and chanced on a primary school class of children being given a civics lesson by their teacher there. She split them up into all the constituent parts of the US government and had them argue an issue out by voting within each group and then sending delegates from one to the other to show how the various bodies all fitted together. I slipped in quietly at the back, and actually managed to learn quite a lot!

October 28, 2009. Susan Pace Hoy writes: “Your article on my grandfather was most interesting. It has made me question so many things about Harry Herbert Pace and Black Swan Records.
    “Interestingly enough, he did pass for white, although my father Harry H. Pace Jr took this information to his grave. We never knew anything of our father's family. I was raised as white and never knew anything different until two years ago, when a family member discovered Jitu K. Weusi's essay The Rise and Fall of Black Swan Records. My father had one sibling and she is still living. She kept it a secret until one of my cousins handed her the story of this incredible man - her father. Only then did she finally admit they had promised never to tell that they had passed for white.
    “What pushed my grandfather over the edge when he fought such a battle against the white record companies for so long? Was it the brutality and violence of race back then? Or was it because he just got tired of it all and knew he could pass and raise his children as white?
    “You mentioned John Johnson and I have read his book Succeeding Against the Odds. Johnson was a very successful African-American and started Johnson Publishing (Ebony magazine, Jet etc). He credited much of his success to my grandfather giving him his first job, mentoring him and so on. Through a friend I was able to speak with Lerone Bennett Jr, who co-authored this book. He told me that Johnson expressed regrets that Pace's children and grandchildren were ‘lost’ to the tradition and would never know the trials, challenges and triumphs of a great American story.
    “It has been a roller coaster ride these past two years with this discovery, and I am still trying to put all of the pieces together. I am grateful that I finally know the secrets my family has kept buried for so long. That's why I truly was moved by your article, and the knowledge you obviously have on this story. I am embracing it - along with my brother, Peter and his son Eric. Through writers like yourself, we hope to put together the pieces again and not be ‘lost’ as Johnson expressed it. I think this is a story that is worthy of being told.”

Paul Slade replies: Thank you so much for getting in touch. It's lovely to hear from a member of Harry Pace's direct family.
    My understanding is that Pace, who had spent his whole life fighting to improve black people's lives, often under the most trying circumstances imaginable, found the plans for demonstrations attacking his integrity extremely hurtful. He must have felt that his own people were turning on him in a very ungrateful and even spiteful way. And, yes, as you say, he had other options, so if the black community didn't want him, and he had the chance to secure a better life for his family elsewhere, who could blame him for taking it?
    Pace's generation believed black people's cause could best be advanced by promoting what they called "the talented tenth" of their own community - those educated men and women of achievement who would excel so much in their chosen fields that even the most bigoted whites could not deny their worth. By the time he reached Chicago's white suburbs, though, a more militant attitude was gaining ground, and I think that may explain why younger employees from Supreme Life turned against him. It's all very sad, particularly for someone who fought as hard to succeed as your grandfather did, and accomplished so much with his life. He was a remarkable man.
    If I could say Harry Pace was one of my ancestors, I'd be extremely proud of that fact, so I'm glad to to know I might have played some small role in helping your family reclaim its heritage.

November 11, 2009. Eric Pace writes: “My Aunt Susan shared some correspondence she had with you, and I decided I would also reach out to you.
    “When I stumbled upon your article I was taken aback at first by the Paramount picture of my Great Grandfather, which I had never seen before. My father, my aunt, and I have been researching Harry Pace for about three years now, and it is always exciting when something new comes to light.
    “Secondly, I was very intrigued by the way that you understood Harry Pace, as it seems that most people who write on him borrow heavily from assumptions and conclusions made by other authors. It was refreshing to read your comments mixed with the many quotes that bring Harry Pace, Black Swan, and Pace & Handy Music Company to life.
    “I wanted to let you know that I am interviewing some individuals concerning Harry Pace and Black Swan in NYC this coming week. I would very much like to interview you as well, but you live in London, correct? I really enjoyed your article and your website is GREAT.”

Paul Slade replies: I'm delighted that you enjoyed my piece, and that you're working to bring Harry's story to a wider public with your documentary film. His tale certainly deserves to be much better known than it is.
    As you say, I live in London, but if there's anything I can help you with via telephone or e-mail, please just let me know. I'm planning to visit the States early next year - probably January or February - so maybe we'll get a chance to meet up then.


Message board round-up

As usual when I post a new essay, I tipped off a few message boards that Hattie Carroll was now there to be found. If you've any interest in following the (sometimes very short) discussions that resulted, you'll find them linked below.
One interesting subject that came up this time was the question of how much responsibility – if any – a songwriter has to get his facts right when basing his work on a real-life event. I'd suspected while writing the Hattie Carroll essay that most of my own views on this subject sprang from my training as a journalist, and the message board discussions do seem to bear that out. Most people joining the discussion couldn't see what all the fuss was about, but anyone who had a journalistic background themselves – like the guy on the MySpace thread - seemed to worry away at it just as much as I had.
One of the best old-school editors I ever worked for would linger in the office long after the rest of us had left on press day, checking the final page proofs one last time for himself before letting the issue go. He would have already seen the proofs half a dozen times by that point, and they would have been checked by a full staff of perfectly competent journalists and sub-editors too. So was that last check really worth the trouble for the odd occasion when it actually turned something up?
When I asked him this question, the editor explained that he'd persuaded himself any factual error he allowed to slip through the production process would cut a day from his life, and that it was this belief which gave him the energy to make that final check when all he really wanted to do was go home like the rest of us. Once you get an idea like that rammed into your head, it tends to stay there.
While we're on the subject of message boards, some of the ones I've been using are starting to get a bit antsy about self-promotion. The moderators over on The Straight Dope, for example, wouldn't let me post a link there, which makes it far more difficult for anyone interested to find their way over here. I can understand why moderators worry about this, because without some sort of restrictions their boards would presumably turn into nothing but a long list of people's own websites. Sturgeon's Law dictates that 90% of these would be rubbish, and the message board in question would be ruined as a result.
Readers placing a link to a website they've genuinely enjoyed, however, is an entirely different matter, and that's where you guys come in. If you see anything on PlanetSlade which you think deserves a wider audience, please do consider posting a link on any message boards, social networking site or “best of the web” sites which you may use. Nobody pays me anything for writing this stuff, so my only motivation to keep the fresh essays coming is the thought that a reasonable number of people are reading them. You'd not only be helping me out by spreading the word, but acting in the best traditions of enlightened self-interest too. Thanks very much.

BBC Radio 2: Folk & Acoustic

Harmony Central


Mudcat Café


The Never-Ending Pool,com_fireboard/Itemid,22/func,view/id,65784/catid,6/

The Straight Dope


September 6, 2009. Neil King of Fatea magazine writes: “Paul - just to let you know that a new version of Knoxville Girl is on Jackie Oates' new album under the title The Butcher's Boy. All the elements are there: murder as contraception, the walk with her lover, the nosebleed.
    “I found your murder ballad pages really interesting. It's fascinating how the DNA of one song can populate so many different versions, spellings and titles. ”

Paul Slade replies: Thanks very much for tipping me off about the Jackie Oates track, which is excellent. I was aware of the connection between the two songs, but neither of the two Butcher's Boy recordings I have make it nearly so explicit. There's no mistaking the link with Jackie Oates' lyrics though, is there?
    I'm also grateful to you for introducing me to the
Fatea website, and the free download compilations you offer there. So few hours in the day, so much great new music to find and enjoy!

September 8, 2009: Jean-Marie Carroll of The Members writes “Thanks for the mention of my version of Knoxville Girl. A couple of points:
    “I think the boy was mentally unbalanced because he calls for a hankerchief to bind his aching head, and the way he drug her round. Also, The Members are still functioning, so I am a current Member.”

Paul Slade replies: I said you were “late of The Members” in my Knoxville Girl piece, so apologies for that. I've still got an old cassette tape of The Members' John Peel session from January 1979, which I dig out and play once in a while, and I'm glad to hear the band's still up and running. Any outfit which can make you dance and smile at the same time is all right with me.
September 9, 2009: Joe Dignam writes: “I'm very interested in the Stagolee lyrics, but can't seem to find the lyrics that Eric Bibb performs live. I'm starting to think they may be his own adaption?”

Paul Slade replies: I've just listened to the Eric Bibb studio version I've got (from his 2008 album Spirit I Am), and I'd say it's basically a version of Mississippi John Hurt's 1928 lyrics.
    Bibb omits Hurt's first verse (“Police officer, how can it be...”) and imports a couple of lines from the song's toast tradition with the “bartender's looking glass” reference. But aside from that, it's MJH all the way. The musical style's very similar too, with both songs using what I'd loosely call a Piedmont blues style. Both men spell the song's name as “Stagolee” too, which may indicate that Bibb took his inspiration from Hurt's classic rendition.
    The version on Bibb's
Live a Fip album is even closer to Hurt, restoring the “Police Officer” verse to its rightful place. The giveaway in each case is the “Gentlemens of the jury...” couplet, which I always think of as the signature lines of Hurt's version.
September 10, 2009: Malcolm Burgess of Oxygen Books writes: “Great blog! I was wondering if you'd be interested in looking at a copy of City-lit London. It includes over 60 writers on London, from Will Self and Peter Ackroyd to Monica Ali and Alan Bennett. It was published in June this year.”

Paul Slade replies: Thanks very much for the book. I've only dipped into it so far, but I was particularly struck by page 148's description of a lively night in the Haymarket: “On Saturday nights, half a million working men and women and their children spread like the ocean all over town, clustering in certain districts and celebrating their Sabbath all night long until 5:00 o'clock in the morning. [...] Everyone is in a hurry to drink himself into insensibility. Wives in no way lag behind their husbands and all get drunk together, while children run and crawl about among them.”
    That's Fyodor Dostoyevsky, describing what he saw during his London visit of 1862. Nothing much changes in our fair city, does it?

Bouncing blogs from the Big Smoke to the Bayou

Time Out's Big Smoke blog was kind enough to give PlanetSlade a plug again this month. Peter Watts, the blog's author, mentions that he once lived just down the street from the Necropolis Railway's Westminster Bridge Road Station, in a building that was itself converted from old MI6 offices. “Even the dullest London streets can harbour extraordinary surprises,” he adds, and that's a sentiment I'd heartily endorse.
The site also popped up in some more unexpected places, including a St Louis radio station, a branding consultant's blog and a Dorset historian's on-line musings.
Let's start with the St Louis radio station. That city's KDHX has a DJ called Sonny Boy whose Howzit Bayou? zydeco show played Stella Johnson's The Trial of Stagger Lee on its August 4 edition. Sonny's playlist blog duly credits PlanetSlade as prompting this selection, and the thought that I may have helped bring this aspect of Stag's tale back to his hometown audience kept a smile on my face all week.
The branding consultant was Mike Arauz of Brooklyn's Undercurrent agency, who liked my London Treasure Hunt Riots story enough to present it as a cautionary tale on his blog. I hadn't actually thought of the story as an example of viral marketing until I read Mike's take on it, but I can see that it makes perfect sense to do so. Meanwhile, over at Boing Boing, Wirelizard compared the Weekly Dispatch scheme to an even more challenging Canadian Club campaign in 1967.
As for the Dorset historian, well that would be Justin Pollard, whose blog tells us he acted as historical consultant on BBC Two's The Tudors. On September 10, Justin wrote a piece about the London Necropolis Railway on his site, a piece which appeared just two weeks after my own account went on-line. It evidently slipped his mind to credit PlanetSlade as what appears to be his one and only source on this subject, so I'm sure he'll be glad to see me correct his omission here.
As usual, I've also been plugging the site on various message boards, and you'll find the the best of the comments they've produced in this page's box. The full threads, as ever, are linked below.

BBC Radio 2: Folk & Acoustic

Froots magazine

Harmony Central


Mojo magazine

Mudcat Cafe


The Straight Dope


May 1, 2009. Derek McCulloch, author of the Stagger Lee graphic novel, writes: “Wonderful article! I've just passed the URL on to Greil Marcus, who likes to be kept up on all things Stagger Lee.”

Paul Slade replies: You're the first Stagger Lee expert I've had any feedback from, so it's really good to know you enjoyed the piece. Thanks also for mentioning it to Greil Marcus - I'd be just as chuffed as you were if he ever gave my work a plug.

May 4, 2009. David Hirsch, the world's leading Stagger Lee collector, writes: “This is really excellent. Great article and I like the idea of posting the versions people need to hear. Have you thought of posting MP3s?”

Paul Slade replies: I don't own the rights to any of the recorded versions of course, so I've avoided posting any music on the site for that reason. If people are interested, the site gives them all the information they need to track down any particular recording, and I think that's the most important thing.
May 4, 2009. Rick Geary, the writer/artist behind A Treasury of Victorian Murder, writes: “Thanks for the links to your Giants website. It looks great, and the art is reproduced beautifully. Sorry to have been out of touch for so long. The Giants graphic novel idea seems to be at a standstill. Maybe it's all a symptom of the lousy economy. I'll keep trying, though”.

Paul Slade replies: Thanks for that - I'm glad you like the site. I've just read your Dark Horse Blanche collection, by the way (I'd only had the Paris volume before), and I thought it was delightful.
May 14, 2009. Ryan Harris writes: “Found your site via Harmony Central. Very cool stuff. I was particularly interested in the murder ballads. Then I got into the article about Black Swan. All in all I think it's great stuff.
   “The reason I am e-mailing you is because I have a song I remember my mom singing when I was a kid, Ode to Billy Joe by Bobbie Gentry. It's about a murder, I think. Anyway, I thought you might be interested in doing an article on this one as well. I know I'd love to read it.”

Paul Slade replies: I remember Ode to Billy Joe from my childhood too, but I must admit I'd never given the lyrics much thought. Judging by Wikipedia, it's a suicide song rather than a murder one. Without hearing the full, unrecorded version which Wiki mentions it's hard to know for sure, though.
   I'll certainly add it on to my list of songs to investigate further when I get the chance. In the meantime, you might want to have a look at the Wiki entry for yourself, which you'll find here: They've got some interesting stuff.
May 23, 2009. Alan Whittle writes: “I really enjoyed your article about Stagolee. I would like to send you my attempt to revitalise the murder ballad tradition with a song about George Joseph Smith - a UK bad man who drowned people in the bath:
   “PS: Your contact details are a bitch to find. All very well, but when Steven Spielberg passes on your work ‘cos you can't be arsed to talk to anybody....”

Paul Slade replies: So that's why Spielberg hasn't been in touch...
May 25, 2009. Reverend Nicholas Holtam of London's St-Martin-in-the-Fields church writes: “Very many thanks for thinking to send me this. I am grateful to know a bit more about this couple.”

Paul Slade replies: “You're very welcome. Martin and Anna's story (The Giants' Wedding) makes St Martin's one of my favourite London churches, and if I could encourage a few extra people to visit there, I'd be delighted.”
June 25, 2009. Domhnall O'Huigan writes: “Great site, I really enjoyed the articles on the Giants' Wedding and the Treasure Hunt Riots - it's the sort of thing I've been seeking for some time; well written, thought provoking pieces of more than one paragraph in length! Many thanks & keep it up.”

Paul Slade replies: One of the things that got me started writing long essays was reading The New Yorker and seeing just how satisfying that format can be. You can see a selection of their stuff on the magazine's website ( and I do recommend giving it a try. I honestly think it's the best magazine in the world right now.

News from The Old Weird America

I'm particularly chuffed that Gadaya, the mastermind behind this excellent site, thought my Murder Ballads essays were good enough to recommend them to his own readers.
The Old Weird America ( spins off from the classic Harry Smith Anthology of 1952, which introduced a whole generation of American musicians to their forgotten blues, country and folk heritage. If you've any interest at all in pre-war American music and its key performers, then you'll find a wealth of fascinating material on Gadaya's site, and you should definitely check it out.
Gallows Fodder, a Baby Goat and 19 Crows

Planet Slade has also been receiving signals from the internet's many message boards. Various folks with unlikely names like those listed in my headline have all had their say.
Some of these were generated by my own early efforts to promote the site, notably with the Time Out article here:
Much more significant was the fact that someone called Tellurian was kind enough to place a Planet Slade link on a US site called Metafilter. This multiplied June's average daily visitor numbers by a factor of ten (compared to May's), and created a single-day record of 4,728 visits which I may never break.
You'll find a few highlights from the message board comments in this page's right-hand box. Naturally, I've selected only the most flattering remarks to include there, but if you'd like to see the full threads, just click on the appropriate link below.

BBC Radio 2: Folk & Acoustic

Mudcat Cafe

Mojo magazine

Live Journal

Communications From Elsewhere

Harmony Central


The Straight Dope

EXcited eXperts eXude eXtreme eXhilaration

On Stagger Lee
“Very entertaining.” - Sunny Boy, KDHX St Louis.

“Another great article.” - Richie, Mudcat.

“The Stagger Lee article was great! Well done, my friend.” - Flapjax, Metafilter.

On Frankie & Johnny
“Great story.” - Khrysso Heart,

On Secret London
“One of the best you can find on the web.” - Peter Watts, Time Out London.

On London's Treasure Hunt Riots
“I highly recommend reading the whole thing.” - Mike Arauz, Mike

“Whoa. Thanks for sharing this story!” - Astrocrabpuff, Community Live Journal.

“Great piece.” - Andrew, Mike

“Interesting subject!” - KJcachers, Groundspeak.

“This is a great story.” - English Profi, Mike

“How fascinating! Thank you for writing about it.” - Amanda Hardy, via PlanetSlade.

On The Necropolis Railway
“Very, very cool. I recommend this highly to others with an interest in the macabre.” - Choie, The Straight Dope.

“Interesting essay. Thanks.” - Jenny, moderator, QI.

“Very interesting article!” - StGermain, The Straight Dope.

“Fascinating!” - Mike Stenhouse, Friendfeed.

“Nice Article.” - Johnny LA, The Straight Dope.

“Interesting essay.” - Posital, QI.

“Fascinating subject.” - Aruvqan, The Straight Dope.

On Black Swan Blues
“A wonderful article.” - Steven, Nightlines.

Your yammering yields yards of 'Yippee!' yells

On Planet Slade
“A site with some great articles.” - Chaotic, Boingboing.

“It's a great site with fascinating info.” -Blue2blue, Harmony Central.

“If you love music history, I recommend PlanetSlade.” - Infomantic, Wordpress.

“Fascinating, well researched, and very well written.” - Jjimm, The Straight Dope.

“That's a wicked site, Slade. Good stuff.” - Usedtabef'n'b, Mojo.

“Wow, pretty outstanding stuff. Really great.” - Shmegegge, Metafilter.

On Murder Ballads
“This is awesome.” - Infinitewindow, Metafilter.

“Looking really good.” - Marie McPartlin, organiser, World of the Ballad festival.

On Knoxville Girl
“Outstanding essay.” - Squonk's Tears, Mojo.

“Very cool.” - Miller, The Straight Dope.

“Very interesting stuff.” - McWilly, Reddit.

“Good essay.” - Tamerlane, The Straight Dope.

“An impressive piece of scholarly research. I wish there was more like it around.” - A-roving, BBC Radio 2 Folk & Acoustic.

“Damned interesting.” - Samclem, moderator, The Straight Dope.

“A good read - interesting as usual.” - Rhino55, Harmony Central.

“Entertaining and informative. It would have made an excellent Radio 4 programme.” - Andy Turner, Froots.

“Interesting.” - Ruth Archer, Mudcat.

“I thoroughly enjoyed reading your Knoxville Girl piece.” - EnglishFolkFan, BBC Radio 2 Folk & Acoustic.

Zealots' zeitgeist zooms to zenith of zippy zest

On Murder Ballads
“Absolutely fascinating... I suggest folks put the links in favourites.” - Uncle Boko, Radio 2 Folk & Acoustic.

“Really interesting stuff.” - Birdmonster, The Straight Dope.

“Brilliant stuff, Paul. Thanks for posting us the link.” - Mel, moderator, BBC Radio 2 Folk & Acoustic.

“This kind of thing is fascinating.” - Gallows Fodder, The Straight Dope.

“Fascinating.” - Nick Pilley, Radio 2 Folk & Acoustic.

“It's well-written and the content is good.” - Dr Drake, The Straight Dope.

“Excellent stuff. Keep up the good work.” - Brown Gravy Davey, Radio 2 Folk & Acoustic.

“I love reading about historical background of songs. Your site is great.” - Wolfgang, Mudcat.

On Treasure Hunt Riots
“Great Link.” - Girlgenius, Metafilter.

“A bunch of really interesting investigative historical essays.” - Host, Communications From Elsewhere.

“Read this fascinating story.” - 19 Crows, Community Live Journal.

“Fascinating article.” - Benzo8, Metafilter.

“Great story. People should read it.” - Steve Booth, Communications From Elsewhere.

“Wow. Brilliant story. Had never heard it before.” - Alexanderditto, Community Live Journal.

“Great link. Mr Slade is clearly of our ilk.” - Mwhybark, Metafilter.

On Black Swan Blues
“Interesting reading... high quality website.” - Azizi, Mudcat.

“Worth a read.” - Jabney, Harmony Central.

“Fascinating stuff.” - Atsib, Mojo.

“Great stuff.” - Kenny Chaffin, Harmony Central.

“Extremely interesting.” - Johnny Beezer, Mudcat.

“Fascinating stuff.” - Rhino55, Harmony Central.

“An easy read and (an) interesting article - WELL DONE.” - Gargoyle, Mudcat.