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PlanetSlade makes Longform’s “Best of 2012”

 
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Murder Ballads
Secret London
Miscellany

PlanetSlade broke all its previous traffic records in 2012, and that’s mostly thanks to the fact that longform.org recommend several of my essays. In December, the site ranked my Andy Capp piece as one of the ten best articles it had seen all year – not too shabby when you consider the rest of that Top Ten is filled by prestigious magazines like The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s and GQ.
Longform’s editors scour the web for new and classic non-fiction articles of 2,000 words or more, and point their readers towards the three or four best examples they find each day. The site also lets you save the articles you choose in a suitable format for later reading via Readability, Instapaper, Pocket or Kindle. This all comes as a free service, courtesy of the site’s partnership with Pittsburgh University writers’ programme.
Until 2012, nothing on PlanetSlade qualified for inclusion there, simply because I’d always run my essays in multi-page format, with no more than about 1,200 words to a single web-page, and a dozen or more click-throughs needed to complete the whole article. I had a chat with one of Longform’s editors early in the year, who suggested I might want to think about adding a “single-page view” option, particularly on the articles that he most liked. Reformatting long articles like that is quite a lot of work, though – particularly for a one-man band like myself – so initially, I did nothing about it.
That changed in August, when I first posted my Andy Capp essay here as 15 separate pages. In the week that followed, I heard from several would-be readers protesting at that format, and these calls eventually accumulated to a point where they pierced even my thick skull. Most trenchant of all was Kit on The Comics Journal website, who noted the number of click-throughs required and asked: “Did you have some extra internet you needed to use up?”
I bridled a bit at first, but Kit and I continued our conversation, and I had to admit he had a point. “Fifteen separate pages have no benefit either to you (as you’re not selling ads) or to the reader (as it’s not 1997 and we can load 36,000 words at once without needing to go and do a load of washing or have a cup of tea),” he wrote. “Anyone who Instapapers or sends to Kindle or suchlike won’t bother reading it at all.”
One click-through every 2,400 words still didn’t seem terribly excessive to me, but the Kindle point far outweighed that, so I bit the bullet and added an additional version of the Andy Capp essay in single-page format. Longform recommended it a few days later, and my traffic figures went through the roof. Since then, I’ve also added single-page options on Masquerade, Hattie Carroll, First Great Radio Hoax and Stagger Lee, scoring two more Longform recommendations along the way, and a pleasing traffic spike each time. That Top Ten ranking in December was the icing on the cake.
The result is that PlanetSlade beat its previous unique-visitors-per-month record by 41% in December 2012, its previous visits-per-month record by 38% and its previous page-views-per-month record by 26%. The average number of unique visitors per month was double 2011’s figure, the visits average up by 85% and the page views average up 67%. One effect of all this has been the renewed life it gives some of the site’s earlier pieces, producing a batch of new letters like the Stagger Lee ones I’m running below.
I’m going to continue adding single-page options to the existing essays as time permits, and make all my new articles dual-format as a matter of course. Anyone who prefers to read my stuff in multi-page format will still be able to do so. Naturally, I shall also make sure Longform hears about it whenever another essay goes up in a format they can use, and hope the editors there don’t get bored with me anytime soon!

*****
Letters to Planet Slade: February 2013



January 21, 2013. Helene Elysee, Reg Smythe’s niece, writes:
“Trawling through the web, I found your excellent articles on Andy Capp. As a long-ago journalist, I really appreciated the in-depth research and crisp writing – as Reg Smythe’s niece I was thrilled to find a fan.
“I have written my own story of Reg and Andy, Dancing Bear, which I am hoping to publish this year. My take is probably more memoir than biography and I am lucky to have early material from Reg’s formative drawing years which illustrate the links to Andy.
“I first mooted the story when Reg died but, despite interest from both Penguin and Little Brown, they concluded there was not enough interest in him at that time . Now there appears to be a resurgence, thanks not only to the adroit management by The Daily Mirror but also to websites such as your own.”

Paul Slade replies: How lovely to hear from a member of Reg's family. I was hoping one of his relatives might eventually see the article, but also slightly nervous that they'd feel I hadn't got him right. I'm relieved to hear that wasn't the case with you.
Good luck with your own book - and please do let me know when it's out so I can get a copy. Have you seen the Ian Smyth Herdman family memoir I mention in the article? You may find that covers some of the same ground you have in mind, though I think it probably reached too small an audience to interfere with your own project. Please do keep in touch.

*****
December 5, 2012. Clifton Royston of Honolulu, Hawaii, writes:
“I thought you might be interested in adding another classic American murder ballad, John Hardy, to your list - also based on an actual murder from the late 1800s. John Hardy was hanged in 1894.
“The first version I knew of it was sung by Cisco Houston, one of the great American folk singers, and contains the verses:

‘John Hardy was a desperate little man,
He carried two guns every day.
Shot down a man on that West Virginia line,
You oughta seen John Hardy gettin' away, Lord, Lord,
You oughta seen John Hardy gettin' away.’

[...]

‘The second one to visit John Hardy in his cell
Was a little girl dressed in red.
She came down to that old jail cell,
And said 'Johnny, I would rather see you dead, Lord knows,
Johnny, I would rather see you dead.'


“And there's Stagger Lee’s woman in red again! John Hardy was a black railroad worker, not a pimp, so there goes that connection in this case.
“As I was writing this, I realized that several different elements of the real history for this case seem to have ended up in many of the Stagger Lee songs. In most versions of John Hardy, it says that he was arrested by a policeman who simply ‘took him by the arm, and said 'Johnny, won't you come along with me?’' - which fits with the version you noted about the policeman stopping Stacker Lee, who sasses him to his face.
“The story of Hardy’s actual arrest was much more dramatic and would have made a good couple of verses: www.wvculture.org/HISTORY/crime/johnhardy.html.
“Even more to the point, John Hardy did shoot his victim after a drunken argument over a game of craps, which became the motive in most versions of Stagger Lee: www.wvculture.org/HISTORY/crime/hardyjohn01.html.
“It's a good song too, even if its cultural effects aren't as pervasive as Stagger Lee. You should check it out.”

Paul Slade replies: Thanks very much for your letter, Clifton, and thanks also for those John Hardy links, neither of which I'd seen before. I know the song a little, but I've never researched it properly, so please don't take anything that follows as gospel.
Gadaya’s excellent site The Old, Weird America, has a useful piece on the song here. Hardy, it explains, killed a man called Thomas Drews at the Shawnee Coal Company’s workcamp in Eckman, West Virginia in January 1893. Both the killer and his victim were black, and the disagreement really did break out after the drunken Hardy lost his last 25c to Drews in a craps game.
Hardy fled and was captured, just as you say, by Sheriff John Effler after a struggle on the train. He was convicted of first-degree murder at Welch, WV, on October 12, 1893, and hanged there before a crowd of 3,000 people on January 19, 1894. As some versions of the song mention, he asked to be baptised on the morning of his death, and this was duly done.
The first version of the lyrics I've been able to find dates from 1927, and is reproduced in The Penguin Book of Folk Ballads with this verse:

"John Hardy had a loving little wife,
And the dress she wore was blue,
She was hanging around John Hardy's neck,
Saying 'John Hardy, I've been true to you, Lord, Lord,
John Hardy, I've been true to you'."

There's no mention of the girl dressed in red in this version, but there is in The Carter Family's 1928 recording:

"John Hardy, he had a pretty little girl,
The dress that she wore was blue,
She came skipping through the old jail hall,
Saying 'Poppy, I been true to you'.

"John Hardy had another little girl,
The dress that she wore was red,
She followed John Hardy to his hanging ground,
Saying 'Poppy, I would rather be dead'.

If the song really did start with the blue verse alone, that would seem to suggest that the colour was chosen simply to provide a convenient rhyme with "you", and the red verse added later to give the blue one a satisfying twin. Replacing his wife with two different girlfriends adds the idea that Hardy was not to be trusted, but I don't know what to make of it beyond that.
Some versions extend the line to make it clear the red dress girl would rather be dead than lose Hardy to her blue dress rival. Blue is often associated with the Virgin Mary of course, so perhaps we're supposed to conclude one of his girlfriends was virtuous and the other one not? Even I’m not really convinced by that, though, and I suspect it's just my imagination working overtime.
That’s the tricky thing about these songs: you never know which bits are there because they contain genuine factual information and which are there simply to serve the song's structure. Often, lines or whole verses would be inserted from somewhere else by a singer casually improvising at the microphone, or find their way into a song simply because someone happened to think they sounded good there.
Unlike Stagger Lee or Duncan & Brady, Hardy's ballad doesn't raise the subject of prostitution, and I think we'd need a bit more evidence before we interpret it that way. If the red dress girl alone was mentioned, or if both girls were wearing red, I could believe this was intended as mourning clothes for Hardy’s very imminent death, but that doesn’t seem to make sense here either. My hunch is that, in this particular case, the dress is coloured red simply because it rhymes with "dead", but I’d love to be proved wrong.
The other Stagger Lee mystery I raised in my piece was the reference to a bulldog in its lyrics, and why that bulldog’s bark is given so much significance. I concluded that a bulldog here meant the so-called “British Bulldog” revolver, a very popular Webley handgun of the 1890s. There’s some support for that idea in another vintage song I heard for the first time in December 2012.
Gene Autry’s Stay Away From My Chicken House, recorded in 1929 is narrated by a farmer swearing revenge on whoever’s been stealing his hens. The key verses go like this:

“Stay away from my chicken house, boys,
If you figure your life worthwhile,
Stay away from my chicken house, boys,
Or I’ll cut you down Mexican-style.

“I’ve got a long keen razor, a Bulldog too,
You’ll never look like nothing when I get through with you,
You’re not invisible or still as a mouse,
So stay away from my chicken house.”


Coupling the Bulldog with the razor like that strongly suggests he’s got a weapon in mind rather than a dog, and that this is the tool he’s planning to use in cutting the thieves down. “Mexican-style” is a term still used in the gun world, where it refers to an illegal gun carried in the waistband of the pants rather than in a holster. The idea is that a gun carried like this is quicker and easier to ditch if you see a police search coming your way.
The first mention on disc of a bulldog barking in Stagger Lee comes in Frank Hutchinson’s 1927 recording. Autry’s 1929 song is one more bit of evidence that “Bulldog” was being used to mean a gun at about that time, and makes me even more convinced that’s what it means in Stagger Lee too.
*****
December 5, 2012. Michael Morgan of St Louis, Missouri, writes:
“I greatly enjoyed your piece on Stagger Lee. I have followed the song and legend myself for a while on my blog here.
“As a musician, citizen of St. Louis and fan of many Stagger Lee performers. I learned yet more from your story. A row house reportedly owned by Lee Shelton is still standing at 911 North Tucker Boulevard, formerly 12th Street, across the street from the Post-Dispatch, and there’s a Google Maps photo here. I’m working on a map of Stagger Lee sites as they are today, so please let me know if you have other sites I should add.
“I want to add to your section on dressing in red. Mississippi John Hurt's murder ballad Louis Collins has the following lines:

‘When they heard that Louis was dead,
All the people, they dressed in red.’

“I had thought it part of the African funeral tradition, and I had read of it as connected to the ancient tradition of using red ochre in burials. Philip Ratcliffe’s recent biography Mississippi John Hurt: His Life, His Times, His Blues contends that Louis Collins could have been a Louis Cobbins who lived in MJH's area. I made a MJH map several years ago too.
“Thank you for adding to the tradition.”

Paul Slade replies: And thank you, Michael for getting in touch. I wish I’d had your Stagger Lee map in front of me when I was researching that essay, as it would have made picturing his progress round town much easier.
I had no idea there was property associated with Lee Shelton still standing in St Louis, so I was particularly interested to see that pic. One more bit of evidence that Stag had rather more money and political power behind him than is generally assumed, don’t you think?
I love Mississippi John Hurt, and Louis Collins is one of his most beautiful songs. Again, I’ve never researched it in any depth, but I’ve learned enough this evening to know he wrote it in the 1920s, based on the details of a real murder which Hurt had seen reported in the press. I’ve seen suggestions that one of the real killers was called Bob Angels, which would give a pleasing extra layer to the song’s refrain, “The Angels laid him away”.
There’s never just one answer to things like the “dressed in red” question, so all one can do is make a judgment from the context of each individual song. As far as Louis Collins is concerned, I agree with you that it’s the African mourning tradition which Hurt has in mind. Making it clear that all the people dressed in red suggests that Collins was an important man in his community too, and popular enough to be widely mourned.
Looking at the MJH biography you mention, I see Ratcliffe also raises the real-life murder victim Lewis Collins of Litwar, West Virginia, who was shot dead in June 1924. Hurt first recorded Louis Collins in his 1928 Okeh Records session, so the timing there seems to be about right.
Ratcliffe reports that Hurt, talking with the musicologist Tom Hoskins at his later Piedmont sessions, confirmed that the song was about a real event, but added that it did not happen locally. By ‘locally’ I take him to mean near Hurt’s hometown of Avalon, Mississippi.
“John added that ‘He (Collins) was a great man. I know that, and he was killed by two men named Bob and Lewis. I got enough of the story to write the song’,” Ratcliffe continues. “Another source states that John made up the song after hearing people talk about the murder, which suggests that it was a well-publicised event.”
I found a few Welch Daily News reports of the case on the West Virginia Archives & History site, one of which says Collins, a Litwar merchant, was “one of the best beloved men of the community, counting all as friends. He was a man of many splendid qualities, charitable and kindly disposed”.
Collins was found shot dead in the bedroom at the rear of his store on the morning of June 10, 1924, and his son-in-law George Conley arrested for murder. Police guessed that Conley was trying to hurry along an inheritance Collins had promised him.
The case was tried in November 8, 1924, but everyone agreed the prosecution had a weak case, and the jury found Conley not guilty after only a few minutes’ deliberation. “The trial attracted a large crowd from the Litwar and Iaeger communities, where the principals were prominent,” the Welch Daily News reports.
There’s no reference to anyone named Bob Angels in the newspaper reports I’ve seen, nor any report of others being charged with this killing later. Even so, the timing of the case relative to Hurt’s first recording, Collins’ status in the community and the high-profile trial all suggest it could well have been Hurt’s source.
I don’t have time to chase it down any further just now, but maybe someone out there can tell us more?

*****
December 6, 2012. Scott McKnight of Alexandria, Virginia, writes:
“I just found, read and enjoyed your articles on Stagger Lee, Frankie & Johnny and Knoxville Girl. The first two had me thinking of The Ballad of Ella Speed, and I wondered if you had considered writing about it.
“The version I first heard was recorded by Ian and Sylvia in the 1960s. It contains the lines:

When the women all heard that Ella Speed was dead,
‘They went home and re-ragged in red.’


This is similar to women dressing in red in versions of Stagger Lee and Frankie & Johnny. One of the things I found interesting was the fact that the event happened in New Orleans in the late 1800s but seems to have been kept alive by people singing it in Texas a few years later - people who believed it to have been more local, and more recent, a story than it actually was.
“As a songwriter, what tickles me about the ‘re-ragged in red’ line is mostly the alliteration. It sounds like it would be fun to sing.”

Paul Slade replies: Thanks for that, Scott. I do have a 1944 Leadbelly recording of Ella Speed, though I had to check my CD shelves even to be sure of that, and it’s not a song I know at all.
A bit of Googling reveals this item on the song from Mike Ballantyne’s website: “In 1894, Ella Speed, a married octoroon with two children, was employed as a prostitute in the French Quarter of New Orleans. She was apparently having an affair with Louis "Bull" Martin, an Italian immigrant, who was one of her customers and who had become obsessed with her. Both were 28 years old.”
The lyrics go on to describe Martin shooting Ella dead in September 1894 while she was “havin’ her lovin’ fun” and includes the “re-ragged in red” verse just as you give it above. The song, Ballantyne adds, was first collected in the 1930s, from a group of black prisoners on a Southern prison farm. John Lomax was making field recordings on prison farms at about that time, so I dare say it’s one of his.
An octoroon, it seems, is someone who’s one-eighth black. There’s an interesting Mudcat thread on the song here.
I like the phrase “re-ragged” too, which makes that simple act of changing your clothes sound so much more dramatic. Given Ella’s trade, I guess you could interpret the colour here either as an act of female solidarity towards her or as simple sorrow at her death. Martin claimed the shooting was an accident, and ended up being convicted of manslaughter rather than murder. He was sentenced to 20 years hard labour, but seems to have served only seven.
To sum up, then, I’d suggest the default assumption when we find red-clad women in a murder ballad should be that it indicates mourning dress. If the song uses prostitutes in any kind of pivotal role, then its worth considering that as an alternative explanation and, if neither of those ideas fit, then it’s probably just there for the sake of a rhyme. Precisely what Chris de Burgh was trying to tell us in 1986 – beyond the fact that she was dancing with him - remains a mystery.

*****

Message board round-up


The source threads for our latest collection of PlanetSlade blurbs (“Garrulous gang gladly grants…”) can be found below. Sometimes there’s quite an interesting discussion attached.

Bob Dylan Encyclopedia
http://bobdylanencyclopedia.blogspot.co.uk/2011/08/gerry-rafferty-right-down-line.html

The Comics Journal
http://www.tcj.com/lets-set-this-bed-on-fire-with-passion-and-love/#comment-138155

The Daily Saw
http://thedailysaw.blogspot.co.uk/2012/12/take-five-or-15.html

The Gear Page
http://www.thegearpage.net/board/showthread.php?p=14435081

Go Comics
http://www.gocomics.com/andycapp/2012/11/12

Metafilter
http://projects.metafilter.com/3838/18-genuine-Victorian-gallows-ballads-recorded-by-todays-musicians

QI
http://old.qi.com/talk/viewtopic.php?t=26441&start=0&sid=d3a1871ec377cd90efce0f39f1e7cfb4

Ravens & Writing Desks
http://kimber00.blogspot.co.uk/2013/01/things-i-love-january-18th.html

Vdrums.com
http://vdrums.com/forum/showthread.php?71126-Acoustic-drum-thanks-but-no-thanks!/page2

Victorian Gothic
http://www.victoriangothic.org/forum/victorian-gothic-group3/social-history-forum5/murder-ballads-thread8/

Happy hordes here hail humble hack’s histories

On PlanetSlade
“Really enjoying your writing on all manner of topics. Love the depth you go into on the murder ballads.” – Jamie Macphail. No Depression.

“So many interesting and off-the-wall stories.” – Lisa Mauthe, Fort Thomas Military Museum, via e-mail.

“Your site rocks.” – Crow Jane, Sing A Song of Murder, via Twitter.

On Masquerade
“Lovely piece.” – Robert Cottrell. The Browser, via e-mail.

“Got a great response.” – Aaron Lammer, Longform.org, via e-mail.

“Fascinating! A must for anyone who had Masquerade on their childhood bookshelf!” – Anna Vincent, Twitter.

On Gallows Ballads Project
“This is a killer project. [...] I love it.” – Reverend Peyton, Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band, via e-mail.

“Congratulations for digging deep and doing the research on this perverse phase of entertainment history.” – Fred Smith, songwriter, via e-mail.

“Interesting idea.” – AndyM, Sound of the World.

“Consider me on board.” – Doc Bowling, The Blues Professors, via e-mail.

On The Jetsonics’ Cruel Lizzie Vickers recording
“Just played it twice, and I like it!” – Digladwin, Mojo.

“Love it. A cautionary tale of brutal murder that you can slamdance to. What a combination!” – Lonesome EJ, Mudcat.

“Sounds like The Jam, circa David Watts. By no means a bad thing.” – Geoff Wallis, fRoots.

“Great song.” – Poonjive, Basschat.

“I can't stop listening to this. Just can't stop it.” – Mamaloochie, Mojo.

“Nice track! Well done.” – Jacko, Reaper Forums.

“I dig your song.” – Camerondye, Basschat.

“Excellent!” – Hungry Joe, Mojo.

“An excellent brand new track.” – Retro Man.

“Really like the song. I love this style.” – Wolffman, Basschat.

“Sounds great.” – Atsib, Mojo.

“Nice one.” – Clauster, Basschat.

“Excellent stuff.” – Tubesnake Boogie, Mojo.

“Brilliant. Well done!” – Bluejay, Basschat.

“Just what the doctor ordered.” – Fingerprince, Mojo.