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“No One Can Ever Forget It”: Stavin’ Chain’s Performance of “Batson”

Note: This is the second in a series of posts about the murder ballad “Batson.” This one discusses the performance recorded by John A. and Alan Lomax from a trio of musicians including Wilson Jones, a.k.a. Stavin’ Chain, in 1934.

This photo is from the 1934 recording session in Lafayette, Louisiana, and is probably by Alan Lomax. It’s a nice shot of Wilson Jones (a.k.a. “Stavin’ Chain”), and gives us a great view of Octave Amos and his fiddle. Lomax specifically noted that they were performing “Batson.” See all the photos of this session here.

A little while back, I presented for the first time anywhere a version of the murder ballad “Batson” collected by Robert Winslow Gordon. A much better known version was published by John and Alan Lomax, based on a field recording they made of Wilson Jones (whose nickname was “Stavin’ Chain”) on voice and guitar. Jones had two accompanists, Octave Amos on fiddle and Charles Gobert on banjo. Their  version of “Batson” has a lot to tell us about the musical traditions the Lomaxes encountered in southern Louisiana, and throughout the South, in the 1930s. It also tells a different story of the Batson case from the version collected by Gordon.

The Lomaxes published their transcription of Stavin’ Chain’s performance in their 1941 book Our Singing Country, making the song famous, at least among serious folksong enthusiasts. Their notes on the song are brief, so they’re worth quoting in full:

Stavin’ Chain said that this long, shuffling, and bloody story whose tune and stanza form are evidently derived from “Frankie and Johnny” concerns a Lake Charles, Louisiana, murder. Batson, he told us, was a white day laborer, accused of murdering his employer, Mr. Earle, along with his whole family. They were found in an open field with only a little red soil thrown over their bodies. Inquiry fails to confirm Stavin’ Chain’s story but no one who has ever heard him sing this wailing song with his guitar, at times beating a solemn dirge and then shrieking in hopeless despair can ever forget it. You’ve seen and felt a hanging. You notice, too, that the sympathies of the ballad singer rest wholly with the accused, not with his victims.

Several scholars, including Joshua Clegg Caffery and John Garst, have done further work on the ballad. Still others have written about the Batson case and included a few details about the song along the way. Here I’ll present an overview of the ballad and of the Stavin’ Chain group’s performance. In a future post I’ll talk about the song’s reflection of the Batson case. [1]

The Ballad

The AFC catalog card for “Batson.” Note that the accompanists are not identified, and that some later hand has added the words “and Alan” to identify the second collector, and “with fiddle” to identify at least one of the instruments.

In putting together this post, I noticed that the Lomaxes’ transcription was incomplete and faulty in several places. [2] This is probably because Stavin’ Chain’s pronunciation is often indistinct, and because their playback equipment made it much more difficult for them to hear the words than it is for us. Moreover, the Lomaxes were attempting to produce a singable and easily understandable version for a mass-market book, not necessarily a fully faithful transcript.

For all these reasons, I’ve prepared a brand-new transcription of my own. For ease of reference I’ve numbered the stanzas. To save space, I’ve omitted the refrain line after most of the verses, including it only when it varies from the standard wording seen after the first verse. The transcription appears below, along with two players in which you can hear the two parts of the ballad yourself.  Feel free to listen and follow along–see if you agree with my transcription, and if not, let me know in the comments!

1. Batson been working for Mr. Earll [3]
Six long years today,
And ever since he been working for Mr. Earll
He never have got a pay.
Refrain: Crying “Oh, Mamma, I didn’t done the crime.”

2. Batson asked Mr. Earll
Can he take a walk,
Mr. Earll answered Batson
“You can go and come right back.”

3. Batson hitched up Mr. Earll’s
Two bay horse and a wagon
Started back uptown
To get him a load of feed.

4. When he got back to the house
Unhitched those two bay mares
And he walked on back uptown
See something he really liked.

5. He was walking down Ryan Street
Looking down in the showcase
He thought he had done seen
This thing what he really need.

6. ‘Bout the time he was looking in the showcase
Here come Mr. Henry Reid, [4]
Mr. Sheriff, police come a-walking
Throwed two forty-fives in his face.

7. Mr. Henry Reid’s deputy come a-runnin’
Slapped him across the face,
Says, “Stick ’em up, Batson,
For we consider you under arrest.”

8. Batson asked Mr. Henry Reid
“What you arresting me for?”
Says, “That’s all right, Batson
You know all about it yourself.”

9. Arrested poor little Batson
They took him to the parish jail
And then the people begin to gather
From mile and mile around.

10. When Batson got in the jailhouse
Locked up in the place,
He took a pencil right in his hand
He marked every day he laid.

11. Batson told Mr. Sheriff,
“Don’t you know that’s wrong?
You got me charged with killin’ the Earll family,
And I know I ain’t done the crime.”
Crying, “Oh, Mama, I never harmed no one.”

12. Batson begin to cry,
Funny what these boys do,
With the young folks Batson was crying
Just like a baby child.

13. The day Batson cried
This is the words he said,
“You’re trying me for murder,
And I know I never harmed no one.
Crying, “Oh, Mama, I never harmed no one.”

14. Well, the judge found him guilty,
The clerk he wrote him down,
And then the jury passed the sentence,
Poor Batson, he had to be hung.

15. Batson begin to wonder,
Batson begin to moan,
Batson told his people,
He just have to leave his home.

16. “You may bring me coffee,
You may bring me tea,
Look like you bring me everything I want
Except that jailhouse key.”

17. “Now you may dress in red,
You may dress in black,
You may dress any color you want,
But you’ll never bring Batson back.”

18. Batson’s little girl begin to wonder,
Batson’s little girl begin to cry,
Batson’s little child begin to ask him,
“Daddy, what they going to do with you?”

19. Batson’s mother cried,
Batson’s sister cried,
Batson’s sister asked him,
“When you coming back again?”

20. They brought poor Batson to the gallows,
They brought him back to the hall,
Batson asked the judge
If they going to take his life.

[Part 2]

21. Batson asked the judge
Was they going to take his life
Judge asked Mr. Batson,
“Haven’t you done that crime?”

22. Batson begin to moan,
Batson begin to groan,
Batson begin to tell his people
He’d never see home no more.

23. Batson told his brother,
The day they brought him back at home,
Says, “If your brother have to lose my life,
I tell you what I want you to do.”

24. Batson asked the sheriff,
He asked him that two, three times
Says, “All I want y’all to do for me
Take care of my two little girls.”

25. Batson’s mother…,
Batson’s mother cried,
Batson’s mother had tears a-running
Clean out of her eyes.

26. They brought him onto the gallows,
They brought him there to stay,
He started looking around over the people,
To see ’em for the last, last time.

27. They brought his coffin.
The day he come to die.
And he asked the sheriff,
“That’s the last thing I’m going to lay down.
Crying oh mama….

28. When the priest told Batson,
That last day to lay down,
Says, “Here comes your black box,
You’ll never rise again.”

29. They put a black bonnet above his head,
They put a rope right in his neck,
They put handcuffs on his hands,
Balls and chains in his foot.

30. The people begin to cry,
“Umm-mm-mm,
Um-mmmm-mmmm,
Poor Batson he is dead and gone.”

31. The clear blood run out of his eyes,
Nobody they couldn’t see his face,
Had a tongue stuck out out of his mouth
Six inches long.

32. A rubber-tired buggy,
Decorated horse,
You know they brought Batson to the graveyard,
Says, they brought his family back.

33. His wife walked up to the grave,
Fell down on her knees,
Says, “Lord, have mercy,”
Says, “Batson, are you gone?”

34. Batson’s wife began to pray.
Pray as hard as she could.
Prayed so much until it looked like
The Lord done answered her prayer.

35. I thought I heard somebody say
Awhile before she left,
Says, “You’re goin’ leave me,
But I’ll meet you some lonesome day.”

36. Batson’s little girl cry,
Batson’s little child cry,
That’s all he asked them people,
“Take care of them two little girls.”

37. Um-mmm,
Um-mmm-mmm,
Um-mmm,
The tears run out of his eyes.

38. Think I heared somebody say,
“Bye-bye, Batson, bye-bye,
Bye-bye, Batson, bye-bye”
And I believe he’s dead he’s gone.

39. Long as his blood was running warm in his chest,
He could talk to you
But his blood got cold
And his heart stopped beating so…

Performance, Composition and Genre

Cards for two performances identify Stavin’ Chain’s accompanists as playing fiddle and banjo.

The performance of “Batson” by Stavin’ Chain and his friends is exuberant string-band music, with Octave Amos’s fiddle taking the melody line along with Stavin’ Chain’s voice, while Charles Gobert’s banjo and Stavin’ Chain’s guitar supply rhythmic chording. As Caffery notes, such African American string bands were rarely recorded in South Louisiana, although they are documented throughout both the deep and the upland south. Nowadays, you can easily find online examples of similar commercially successful African American string bands from other states, including the Mississippi Sheiks, the Dallas String Band, and the Tennessee Chocolate Drops. Notable non-commercial examples included the Son Sims Four, which featured fiddle, guitar, and mandolin. Recorded by Alan Lomax and John W. Work III in Mississippi 8 years after the “Batson” recording, Sims’s outfit featured the singer and lead guitarist McKinley Morganfield, who went on to great fame as Muddy Waters.

Unusually for the time period, Alan Lomax took photos of Stavin’ Chain’s group, and noted that they were specifically performing “Batson” at the time they were photographed. The pictures are interesting, and have the potential to explain a minor mystery about the session: while the Lomaxes wrote in Our Singing Country that Wilson Jones played guitar and was also accompanied by fiddle and another guitar, on all the catalog cards where Charles Gobert’s instrument is mentioned (see above), it says he was playing banjo. Although Gobert could have had two instruments, it would be typical for the archive to note this in the catalog if it were known to the fieldworkers. Gobert’s instrument sounds like a banjo on the “Batson” recording, it sounds like the same instrument he is playing on the other recordings, and it is judged to be a banjo by other scholars, including Joshua Clegg Caffery, himself a guitar and banjo player. But it’s also deep in the background of “Batson” and only playing rhythmic chords, so it’s hard to tell for sure. (The card for “Batson” itself is no help; it mentions only the fiddle!)

This photo is from the 1934 recording session in Lafayette, Louisiana, and is probably by Alan Lomax. In addition to being a great, expressive shot of Wilson Jones (a.k.a. “Stavin’ Chain”), it gives us the clearest view of Gobert’s instrument behind Jones. See all the photos of this session here.

Ironically, it’s possible that the photos, which might normally be expected to clear up a discrepancy, caused the confusion to begin with. Gobert’s instrument appears only in partial form, and all we can see is the headstock and part of the fingerboard. The headstock, which you can see behind the singer in the photo at right, is clearly not that of either a typical 4-string or  5-string banjo. Anyone looking at the photo might indeed think Gobert was playing a guitar.

However, Gobert’s headstock is consistent with a 6-string banjo, sometimes called a guitar-banjo or banjo-guitar. While relatively new in the 1930s, this instrument certainly existed. In fact, it was probably best known in Louisiana, where it was part of New-Orleans-style jazz, and was being widely played by such stars as Johnny St. Cyr. Several brands of such instruments, including Wurlitzer, Gretsch, and Slingerland, did have a large geometrical design on the headstock exactly where one is visible on Gobert’s. (The photo at this link, which is part of this slideshow on the Ocean County Register website, shows Johnny St. Cyr with Louis Armstrong and Kid Ory. Compare the headstock of St. Cyr’s banjo to Gobert’s in the picture above!) In all, it seems likely Gobert played a six-string banjo, and that this later confused the Lomaxes when they saw the photos.

As we’ve seen, the Lomaxes were impressed by Jones’s emotional delivery, and their aesthetic judgment about his performance speaks for itself. But they didn’t say very much about the musical tradition he came from. Several songs were recorded from this trio, and the selection comes across as a sampling from a wide-ranging repertoire of dance tunes (“Liza Jane”), traditional blues (“Can’t Put On My Shoes”), badman ballads (“Stavin’ Chain”), and original autobiographical songs (“When I First Got Ready For the War”).

The string-band setting, the wide-ranging repertoire of traditional song forms, and even the colorful nickname “Stavin’ Chain” mark Wilson Jones as the type of performer often called a “songster” by African Americans of the time. Paul Oliver, in the latest edition of the Grove Dictionary of American Music, defines the songster this way:

A black American musician of the post-Reconstruction era who performed a wide variety of ballads, dance-tunes, reels and minstrel songs (a repertory overlapping with that of white rural singers) to his own banjo or guitar accompaniment. Songsters were sometimes accompanied by ‘musicianers’, or non-singing string players. By generally favouring the guitar instead of the earlier banjo and fiddle, the second generation of songsters  stands as a link between the older song tradition and the blues.

Sam Chatmon was a member of the Mississippi Sheiks, a singer, blues guitarist, and string-band musician…in other words, a songster. He was interviewed and recorded extensively by Alan Lomax, and many videos appear on the Lomax YouTube channel. This photo was shared to the Wikimedia commons by the author, StCroix1, with a Creative Commons License.

This clearly applies to Jones, and puts him in company with such old-time blues and folk musicians as Lead Belly, Sam Chatmon, Mississippi John Hurt, Peg Leg Sam, and Mance Lipscomb.

Jones’s other recordings reveal that he was not merely a performer but a gifted songwriter. Among the pieces the Lomaxes collected from him is a unique autobiographical song, “When I First Got Ready for the War,” which Stephanie Hall wrote about right here at Folklife Today.

Given his skills as a composer, it’s virtually certain that Jones composed his own verses for “Batson” as well. It’s not quite clear how much of his version was self-composed, but there are some strong clues. First, there’s the rhyme scheme: all three of the older versions of “Batson” (that is, the full text and two fragments collected by Gordon) were quite regular about their ABCB rhyme scheme, with strong rhymes like “knees/ease,” “done/hung,” and “be/free” tying almost every quatrain firmly together. In Jones’s song, most of the verses don’t rhyme at all. The ones that do are obviously borrowed from other blues songs and from earlier versions of “Batson.” The exceptions are the opening stanzas, which feature the strong rhymes “today/pay” and “walk/back,” but aren’t known from older “Batson” texts. After that, the rhyming stops, suggesting that Jones’s song starts out with traditional verses, or verses he carefully composed and memorized, then moves on to a freer form of composition. I’d suggest, then, that his song was largely self-composed.

There are also many markers of composition in performance, making it very likely Jones not only composed his verses, but did so as he performed for the Lomaxes. In this kind of composition, performers know the tale they want to tell, and have a repertoire of formulaic phrases to help them build stanzas toward that story. Many of Jones’s verses are spun from such formulas. Thus, we get pairs of verses like 15 and 22, which are virtually the same, or whole groups like 18, 19, 25, and 36, which describe different people crying in similar formulaic language. We get verse 25, in which Jones falters in saying what Batson’s mother did, then repeats the line with “cried.” We get lines that begin “Batson begin to cry,” “Batson begin to wonder,” “Batson begin to moan,” “Batson begin to groan,” and so forth. When Jones couldn’t think of another verse, he wasn’t above repeating one he’d already sung, or even just humming for a while–two verses are mostly humming. All of these are indications that Jones sang formulaic lines, or hummed wordless lines, while he thought about the next part of the story to be sung—a classic strategy of oral composition. [5]

Mississippi John Hurt was another of the great songsters, and his repertory included several lines in common with Wilson Jones’s “Batson.” This Library of Congress photo shows Hurt here at the Library with Rae Korson and Joe Hickerson in 1963.

Jones’s ballad incorporates some traditional verses and ideas shared with other songs in the blues tradition, another strategy for orally composing songs. Some of these verses were collected as part of the “Batson” ballad by Robert Winslow Gordon. Caffery points out that the “rubber-tired buggy” of verse 32 is shared with versions of “Delia,” and that the idea of dressing in red for Batson’s funeral (verse 17) is echoed in “Ella Speed” and Mississippi John Hurt’s “Louis Collins” (which Hurt performed here at the Library of Congress in 1963). The specific statement that dressing in black won’t bring a loved one back, also from verse 17, was previously known in Maceo Pinkard’s “Those Draftin’ Blues.” (See the sheet music.) (Interestingly, too, the traditional “red” is replaced by “purple” in one version of “Batson” collected by Gordon.)

Another example of a borrowed stanza is verse 16, the verse linking coffee, tea, and the jailhouse key. It’s the most common verse in our small “Batson” corpus, occurring in two of the texts collected by Robert Winslow Gordon as well as Wilson Jones’s song. It’s not surprising to find it’s a “floating verse” found in many “jailhouse visit” songs. In my last post, I pointed out its inclusion in Henry Thomas’s “Don’t Ease Me In.” It’s also in some versions of “Midnight Special”; Melvin “Li’l Son” Jackson’s “Roberta Blues” (1948); and Rubin Lacy’s “Mississippi Jail House Groan” (1928), in which he sang:

And she brought me coffee, and she brought me tea
And she brought me coffee, lord, and she brought me tea
She brought everything, now, but that low-down jailhouse key

(Hear it at this link on YouTube!)

I’ll mention one more very unusual quality of the “Batson” ballad: its length. Stavin’ Chain’s “Batson” is twelve minutes long. In an era when many of the best blues performers were seeking record deals with companies that limited their songs to three minutes or so, Stavin’ Chain was afforded the attention of a recordist willing to change the disc for him in order to capture the whole song. The result is a twelve-minute performance that doesn’t even seem to be over when the recording stops. The last word, “so,” is a conjunction, strongly suggesting the singer could continue adding words and verses to his tale.

As Michael Taft tells us in his book The Blues Lyric Formula, the ability to keep singing and composing for a long time was a common boast among blues performers (page 19), and twelve-minute blues songs have been reported, though rarely actually recorded (pages 291-292).

Lead Belly was surely the best known proponent of the songster tradition from Louisiana. Like many songsters, he sang, composed, and played several instruments, including the diatonic button accordion. This photo, by an unknown photographer, appears on a contact sheet with three more frames in AFC’s collections. See the original, with full catalog information, here.

Many of the elements we’ve discussed so far  are characteristic of the form often called the “blues ballad.” Blues ballads are songs which tell stories, but in a less linear and complete fashion than classic narrative ballads. They tend to focus on certain highly emotional moments in the story (as the Lomaxes observed of “Batson”), and they frequently also incorporate repeated lines and stanzas, floating lines or verses, and verses composed in performance. “Batson” is such a good example of the form that even Caffery, who thinks the phrase “blues ballad” “doesn’t work well” in general, concedes that it’s a good term for describing this performance of “Batson,” a point we’ll return to in my next post.

“Batson,” then, at least in Stavin’ Chain’s version, is rare for several reasons: it’s an example of African American fiddle-and-banjo string band music from South Louisiana; it’s an English-language African American “blues ballad” at least partly composed by a songster from South Louisiana; and it’s a twelve-minute, partly improvised blues performance. All of these are traditions scholars knew existed from historical references, but they are hardly documented outside of the Lomax recordings. These qualities make this version of “Batson” an important recording in our understanding of string-band music, Louisiana music, the songster tradition, and the blues.

It’s a pity the Lomaxes didn’t record more of the repertoire of this unusual band, because it would have told us a lot about the songster tradition in Louisiana. This could have shed light not only on the immediate region, but on the repertories of many similar musicians, including their fellow Louisiana native, Lead Belly. As it is, Wilson Jones’s trio recorded only a few songs, but in so doing they achieved what any great entertainer strives for: they left us wanting more.

In hopes of leaving YOU wanting more, I’ll end this now…but I’ll be back a little later, with another post about the relationship between Stavin’ Chain’s “Batson” and the real-life Batson case. [6]

Stay Tuned!

Notes

  1. Joshua Clegg Caffery’s research appeared in its most polished form in his book Traditional Music in Coastal Louisiana: The 1934 Lomax Recordings. He has also discussed the song in two blog posts, here and here. John Garst contributed his research to Richard H. Underwood’s article “The Other Batson Case,” which appeared in Legal Studies Forum, vol. 31 (2007), p. 765-800. The fullest treatment of the case is the book Until You Are Dead, Dead, Dead: The Hanging of Albert Edwin Batson by Jim Bradshaw and Danielle Miller, which has an appendix about the ballad.
  2. The Lomaxes rather inconsistently represented Stavin’ Chain’s pronunciation by misspelling words, such as “onhitched” for “unhitched.” They replaced “parish” with “county,” which is inaccurate and takes away some of the song’s Louisiana flavor. They made the jailhouse key “black,” when no such description appears in the song. Most egregiously, they transcribed the line “you got me charged with killing the Earll family” as “you got me charged guilty unfriendly!”
  3. The Lomaxes used the spelling “Earle” for the murder victims. Researching the case, I found that newspaper accounts spelled the name “Earll” inconsistently as “Earl,” “Earle,” or “Earll,” sometimes employing more than one spelling in the same article. The family is recorded in the 1880 federal census as “Earl,” but the 1885 Iowa state census as “Earll.” The surviving brother, Fred, was recorded up to the 1940 federal census as “Earll.” The legal documents I have seen involving the family’s land call Ward’s father “Lemuel S. Earll.” I have therefore elected to use the spelling “Earll” when I am not quoting from other writers.
  4. Caffery follows the Lomaxes in transcribing the name as “Henry Reese.” However, I believe the name is Reid. Henry A. Reid was the sheriff of Calcasieu Parish at the time of the Lomax recording in 1934; Reid had served from 1912 to 1920, was reelected in 1928, and remained sheriff until his death in 1943, according to his obituary on page 1 of the Monroe News Star of March 21, 1943. This means that for a good part of the thirty years leading up to the Lomax recording, the sheriff of Calcasieu was indeed “Mr. Henry Reid.” Because I knew our expectations can affect our understanding of old scratchy recordings, I canvassed co-workers to listen to the verses without telling them what I thought, and they did not hear “Reese,” saying it could be “Henry Reid” or even just “Henry” pronounced as “Hen-e-ry.”
  5. See Michael Taft’s book The Blues Lyric Formula for a more complete discussion of poetic formulas and their relationship to improvisation in the African American tradition. See also John Barnie’s articles “Formulaic Lines and Stanzas in the Country Blues,” Ethnomusicology Vol. 22, No. 3 (Sep., 1978), pp. 457-473, and “Oral Formulas in the Country Blues,” which is online here.
  6.  In the meantime, you can enjoy Claire Caffery’s performance of “Batson,” which she adapted from the Lomax recording, at this link on YouTube.  Claire is the great-great granddaughter of Isaac Fontenot, the deputy who arrested Batson, a story you can read about in this previous post.  Claire Caffery’s performance is on the Valcour Records CD I Wanna Sing Right: Rediscovering Lomax in the Evangeline Country, Volume 1.

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