Note: This is the third in a series of posts about the murder ballad “Batson.” This one discusses the version of the ballad performed by Wilson Jones, aka “Stavin’ Chain,” in light of the real-life Batson case.
In previous blog posts about the murder ballad “Batson,” I looked at early versions collected by Robert Winslow Gordon, and I looked at the 1934 recording by John and Alan Lomax, revealing that the latter song was a blues ballad performed by a string band led by the kind of singer often called a “songster”: Wilson Jones, also known as “Stavin’ Chain.” In this post, we’ll examine Stavin’ Chain’s version of “Batson” in light of the details of the Batson case.
As we’ve seen, when he recorded “Batson,” Wilson Jones provided the Lomaxes with a summary of the tale:
Stavin’ Chain said that this…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.
In fact, this summary is fairly accurate, although only L.S. Earll’s body was discovered outside; the other five family members were found inside the house.  The fact that the Lomaxes’ “inquiry” failed to confirm that “Batson” was based on a real case only shows they did not inquire too deeply. Wilson Jones correctly told them the case was tried in Lake Charles, and the authorities in that town were certainly aware of the case and the ballad; only five years before, the assistant district attorney in Lake Charles, Sam Houston Jones, had sent a copy of the ballad to Robert Winslow Gordon, and he still held that job in 1934 during the Lomaxes’ field trip.
Alan Lomax went home knowing their information about the ballad was skimpy, and that the song was so important it deserved more. In 1939, when his father was scheduled to return to Louisiana, Alan wrote him a letter, in which he suggested:
On your way through Louisiana, if you come that way, why not try to run down the story of the Batson affair. It is one of the most interesting of American ballads and about which even [Robert Winslow] Gordon has practically no information.
Sadly, John does not seem to have followed through, so that when they published Our Singing Country two years later, they apparently still knew less than Gordon!
Luckily, many more people have researched the case and the ballad since then, including Joshua Clegg Caffery, John Garst, Richard H. Underwood, and Jim Bradshaw and Danielle Miller. This gives us an opportunity to compare the facts of the case to the way they are presented in the ballad. 
In my first post about the ballad, I gave a detailed summary of the crime and the trial, which you can read here. Because there were no witnesses to the crime, I’ll leave my discussion of that to the end of this post and first deal with elements of the case that were documented through witness testimony and reported in newspapers. In the examples below, I use Bradshaw and Miller’s book Until You Are Dead, Dead, Dead: The Hanging of Albert Edwin Batson, based primarily on newspaper accounts, as the source of the historical details, and supplement this with other newspaper stories online at the Library of Congress.
On a factual level, Wilson Jones’s “Batson” does not capture the story very well. There are discrepancies large and small between the ballad and the details of the case. The sheriff’s name in the real case was John Perkins, but it is “Henry Reid” in the ballad. The real Batson was apprehended in Missouri and brought back to Louisiana for trial, but in the ballad he is captured in downtown Lake Charles. The real Batson was unmarried and had no children, but in the song he has a wife and two daughters.
On the other hand, the ballad does show real familiarity with the case, the area, and the evidence. In many cases, elements of the evidence appear in the ballad with a different significance than they had in the real case. For example, Earll’s wagon and bay mares are mentioned twice, in verses 3 and 4 of the song, and a buggy is mentioned at the end. In the real case, the murders were discovered because a suspect, later identified by some witnesses as Batson, tried to sell Earll’s mules and horses, including a bay. Much of the physical evidence was left behind in Earll’s buggy.
In verses 5 and 6, Batson is arrested while “looking down in the showcase” on Ryan Street in downtown Lake Charles. In the real crime, the suspect later identified as Batson visited many businesses on Ryan Street, including a livery stable, a gun shop, and the jeweler Otto Winterhalter, who repaired Ward Earll’s watch for him. The last time the suspect was seen by the liveryman John Downs, who allowed him to put up the stock and drove him to find the Wells-Fargo man, he was standing on Ryan Street. (Bradshaw & Miller pages 5, 89, 90.)
In verses 6-8, the name “Henry Reid” is given to the Sheriff. This is technically inaccurate; the sheriff at the time of the Batson case was John Perkins. But it reveals familiarity with Calcasieu Parish politics as well; Henry Reid was Perkins’s successor, and quite a flamboyant character, accused (for example) of misappropriating funds and then getting off scot free by bribing the jury with cigars! According to his obituary on page 1 of the Monroe News Star of March 21, 1943, Reid served as sheriff from 1912 to 1920, was reelected in 1928, and remained sheriff until his death in 1943. This means that “Mr. Henry Reid” was indeed the sheriff of Calcasieu Parish at the time of the Lomax recording in 1934, and that he had served a long stint as Sheriff not long after the Batson case itself. If Stavin’ Chain was familiar with Calcasieu Parish anytime in the 30 years before he was recorded, he’s likely to have known the sheriff as “Mr. Henry Reid.” 
Verses 19 and 25, referring to Batson’s mother, may reflect the active role taken by the suspect’s real-life mother in supporting her son and attempting get his sentence commuted. (An earlier version of the Batson ballad, which I discussed in a previous post, was all about Batson’s mother.)
Verse 23, in which Batson asks his brother on “the day he brought him back at home” to do something for him after his death may reflect the only three interactions between Batson and his brother that history has recorded. First, Batson was “back at home” in Missouri with his brother when he was apprehended; his brother was initially detained with him until the authorities determined he was not a suspect. (Bradshaw & Miller pages 36, 175.) Second, the letter found in Earll’s buggy, apparently written by Batson before he was reunited with his brother, contains the line: “My brother J N Batson I do not know where he is but he that finds this will do the dead justice by sending my mother or my sister word of my death, and how it occurred.” (Bradshaw & Miller page 7.) Thus, Batson’s brother in the real case was associated both with Batson being “back at home” and with Batson asking for something to be done after he is dead. Finally, Batson also wrote a letter to his brother a few hours before he was executed, exhorting him not to drink or gamble; this was reported in the newspapers as well. (Bradshaw & Miller page 157.) This could also be the basis of the verse, in which Batson apparently gives his brother unspecified instructions.
In verse 31, Batson’s excruciating death is described, with blood running from his eyes and his tongue protruding six inches from his mouth. This reflects the sad fact that Sheriff Perkins did not tie Batson’s noose correctly, so that his neck did not break and he died slowly of strangulation. (Bradshaw & Miller page 160.) According to the Lafayette Gazette, it took him 14 minutes to die.
The strange 38th verse, in which the narrator hears someone say “Bye bye, Batson, bye bye” and then “believes he is dead and gone” may (as Caffery argues) reflect the document dubbed the “Ha Ha Letter” by the police, an apparent suicide note signed by Batson and found in Ward Earll’s buggy, which ended with the line “Ha ha bye bye I’m gone.” (Bradshaw & Miller page 7.) It is also true, as reported by many papers at the time, that Batson’s last word, spoken from the scaffold with the noose around his neck, was “goodbye.” The Lafayette Gazette reported this, and also that “only fifteen persons were allowed to witness the execution, but there was a large crowd in the jail yard.” So Jones could also be taking the role of a member of the crowd, who could not see the hanging but could hear Batson’s final “goodbye,” speculating that once the word was spoken, the execution was done.
Even the traditional content chosen by Wilson Jones may reflect the true details of the case. For example, Caffery points out that a “rubber-tired buggy” appears in versions of “Delia,” and may have entered “Batson” from the blues tradition. But it’s also true that the suspect later identified as Batson stole a rubber-tired buggy from the Earlls. (Bradshaw & Miller, page 5.) Similarly, the verse linking coffee, tea, and the jailhouse key may reflect both tradition and history. While Batson was in prison, many admirers did bring him food and drink, and were dealt with politely. (Bradshaw & Miller, pages 150-151.) On the other hand, in October 1902, the Houston Daily Post and other papers reported that “Batson Tried to Escape” using a rudimentary saw made of needles thrust through a piece of wood. Newspaper accounts also indicate that three other prisoners escaped the same jail in May 1903 (during Batson’s stay there) using a similar tool . Moreover, three young men passed something to Batson in July 1903 by attaching it to a string that Batson had thrown from his cell window. The three accomplices were caught and charged with a crime, but the contraband was never found. Although a connection among all these incidents can’t be proven, it seems likely that the authorities were concerned about another escape attempt. If the people who brought him food and drink faced no consequences, but those suspected of helping him escape did, it was literally true and widely reported that you could bring him coffee and bring him tea, but you couldn’t bring him the jailhouse key!
Did He Do the Crime?
The Lomaxes’ comments on “Batson” in Our Singing Country conclude with a telling line: “the sympathies of the ballad singer rest wholly with the accused, not with his victims.” Here they tip their hand: the dead Earlls are “HIS victims” (i.e. the victims of “the accused”), rather than “THE victims.” In other words, the Lomaxes seemingly lean toward the interpretation that Batson is guilty.
Meanwhile, Caffery has taken the opposite position:
In Jones’s song, Batson is a hapless, somewhat oppressed laborer accused of a crime he did not commit. […] This is one version of the “Batson” tale: a sympathetic, even pathetic tale of a wrongfully accused underdog.
So which is it? Is “Batson” in Stavin’ Chain’s song innocent or guilty?
In my post about Robert Winslow Gordon’s text of “Batson,” I pointed out that the song carefully maintains ambiguity about whether Batson did indeed “do the crime.” That version puts the focus on Batson’s mother, who is not there to witness the events, and who therefore only has the word of others to go on. By making the heroine of the song an onlooker like any audience member, but one with a stake in the outcome, that version pulls the audience in and encourages us to experience the saga with her: we wonder about Batson’s guilt, we are somewhat reassured of his innocence, and we suffer at his execution, alongside his innocent and sympathetic mother.
Stavin’ Chain’s version also achieves ambiguity about Batson’s crime, but by different means. It shows some events of the day on which the Earlls are murdered from Batson’s point of view, but it skips obviously relevant moments. In so doing, it leaves open the possibility that among those skipped events are the murders themselves. It also leaves several clues along the way, perhaps as another means of drawing the audience into the tale.
Consider, for example, the opening lines of the ballad. How is it relevant that Batson has not been paid for six years of work? Does it merely establish, as Caffery suggests, that he is “hapless” and “somewhat oppressed?” Or is there more to it? (If you want to refer to the ballad recordings or the text, I published both in a previous blog post, which you can find here.)
For the answer, we might look to the ballad tradition. In folk ballads, for a hired worker to be cheated out of years of wages is a traditional motive for the murder of the employer’s family. As such, it goes back at least to the classic old Scottish ballad “Lamkin” (Roud 6 and Child 93), in which a mason builds a lord a castle, is cheated out of his wages, and kills the lord’s wife and baby. In American versions of this song, such as that collected by Herbert Halpert from Lena Bare Turbyfill, and the one collected by Frank and Anne Warner from Frank Proffitt, the lyric traditionally notes “pay he got none.” (Hear those versions in the players below.)
Note that Wilson Jones’s line “He never have got a pay” sounds like Jones, a gifted ballad composer, altered the traditional line “pay he got none” to fit the meter and rhyme of “Batson.” If this is the case, and the line is a reference to this very old ballad trope, then this stanza would seem to serve as justification (or at least motive) for Batson’s murder of Ward Earll and his family.
Other intertextual clues suggest Batson’s guilt too. The Lomaxes note in Our Singing Country that the meter and tune seem to be adapted from “Frankie and Johnny.” (To judge the similarity, compare with Big Bill Broonzy’s classic recording on YouTube.) The tune was also known as one of the melodies for “Stack O’ Lee,” particularly in Ma Rainey’s version (which you can also hear on YouTube). Even Stavin’ Chain’s unusual grammar, “I didn’t done the crime,” can be read as a reference to one or both of these two songs, in which the corresponding line is “he done her wrong” or “he done me wrong.” In both “Frankie and Johnny” and “Stack O’ Lee,” needless to say, the protagonist is a real murderer, not an accused innocent. So the tune and the grammar of the refrain carry the connotation that the main character of the ballad really is a killer.
In addition to serving as an intertextual reference and a motive or justification for the crime, the opening verse establishes a crucial fact: Batson has no source of income. So it’s curious that, after driving the team and wagon “uptown,” bringing back a load of feed to Ward Earll’s house, and unhitching the team, he bothers to walk all the way back uptown again and go shopping. Why go shopping if you have no money? And why return to the house and walk back uptown if you could have done your shopping when you were there the first time?
The suggestion seems to be that Batson had to return to the Earll house before he could do his own shopping. Since practically all we have been told about him is that Ward Earll owes him money, the most likely reason would seem to be to get that money. And since he has not been paid for six years, it seems unlikely that any money he finds there is given to him freely.
If Jones’s ballad is suggesting that Batson took money from the Earll house, it’s merely reflecting the case as it was reported in the newspapers. At first, it was reported that robbery was the only possible motive for the crime. It was also thought that the Earlls had the entire proceeds of the sale of the rice harvest at home. (Bradshaw & Miller, page 13.) When it was discovered that they had in fact put most of the money in a bank, Fred Earll told the press there was still a robbery motive. Fred, the only surviving son of Lemuel, and the older brother of Ward, claimed to have been in Iowa at the time of the murders, but he also claimed to know exactly how much money each of his relatives was carrying at the time of their deaths. Since this money was not found on their bodies, he told newspaper reporters that the murderer had stolen at least $115.00. Jones’s verses about Batson returning to the house and then going shopping would seem to be a subtle allusion to this important aspect of the case.
Also relevant is the fact that the first time Batson leaves the Earll farm he goes so far as to get Earll’s permission to leave, and he seemingly obeys Earll’s command to “come right back.” But then he leaves again, and we don’t see him ask Earll’s permission the second time. This detail is striking. Why include the detail of Batson asking permission the first time, unless to highlight the fact that he does not ask permission the second time? And why wouldn’t he ask permission, when he is bound to be away for longer since he’s on foot?
The conversation between Earll and Batson before Batson leaves the first time also establishes a crucial fact: Earll is still alive when Batson leaves on his first trip. But during Batson’s time at the house between the two trips uptown, the narrator tells us nothing about whether Batson sees Earll or anyone else. In a ballad about a murder case, this would seem to be a crucial point: were the victims alive or dead the last time the suspect was at the scene of the crime? If dead, does Batson simply not notice the bodies? Does he take the opportunity to rob the house? If they’re alive, does he demand his money and get paid, or kill the family and take the money? All are possible explanations, but the narrator is purposely silent on these crucial points.
The timing is also somewhat troubling: if the Earlls are alive when Batson goes “uptown” on his second trip, how is there time for someone else to arrive, to murder six people, and to get away, for the police then to discover the murders, and for them to pursue and apprehend Batson, so quickly that they find him still shopping? This suggests instead that Batson either killed the Earlls himself, or at least stole their money after they were killed by someone else.
Remember, too, that Wilson Jones was at least partly composing the song in performance. He was a masterful storyteller, not afraid to assume the role of the omniscient narrator. This included describing details of the Batson case that no one could actually have witnessed, such as Batson’s bleeding eyes and protruding tongue in verse 31, described at a moment when he had a black cloth over his head so that, in Jones’s own words, “nobody they couldn’t see his face.” Given this, he was free to make up whatever verses he wanted. If he had wanted to, he could have stated outright that Batson murdered the Earlls, or he could have shown the Earlls to be alive when Batson departed the house for the second time. But he did neither.
In short, Jones seemed very purposeful about NOT showing anything that definitively establishes Batson’s guilt or innocence. Instead, he carefully established that Batson had motive and opportunity to commit the murders, and he gave circumstantial evidence, in the form of Batson’s window- shopping trip, that Batson at least stole from the Earlls. Just like the earlier version of “Batson” collected by Robert Winslow Gordon, this one seems determined to maintain ambiguity on the central question of Batson’s guilt.
Conclusion: Performance, Genre, and Story
By all accounts, Wilson Jones and his group was one of the most extraordinary recorded by the Lomaxes in coastal Louisiana. His performance of “Batson” is an example of a confident storyteller-in-song spinning his yarn with gusto. His personal ability to spin out a sung story to 39 verses and twelve minutes through a combination of traditional stanzas and improvisation was certainly prodigious; in this, it matched his nickname, “Stavin’ Chain,” which is a name for a prodigiously sexual character from black folklore.
Identifying Jones as a songster does give some insight into his artistic choices as well. Jones’s photo (but sadly not his music) appears on the Smithsonian Folkways CD Classic African American Songsters. In their liner notes for that release (which you can download as a free PDF), Barry Lee Pearson and Jeff Place note:
Entertainers by profession, [songsters] played wherever the opportunity presented itself, finding available performance spaces in cafes or coal camp dances, or creating their own spaces on street corners or store porches. Concurrent with travel and venues, the songster has also been characterized by the diversity of his audiences.
To put this another way, songsters were, or tried to be, ardent crowd-pleasers. This was an occupational necessity for musical performers, especially those who had to catch the attention of passers-by on the street and keep them entertained long enough to pass the hat or the tin cup.
This, I think, goes a long way toward explaining the ambiguity we see in the “Batson” ballad. The Batson case was a divisive one in South Louisiana. There were many people who thought Batson got what he deserved, but there were others who thought he was innocent.
For example, after Batson’s trials but before his execution, the book Guilty? Side-Lights on the Batson Case was published by Charles Dobson, casting doubt on Batson’s guilt and giving several alternate theories of the crime. Newspapers also offered alternative ideas, including one involving a homicidal maniac who returned at ten-year intervals to kill the occupants of the Earll house, which had apparently been the site of previous murders. Still other people thought Batson might well be guilty, but felt that in light of the circumstantial nature of the evidence, the death penalty was too severe. Even the Pardons Board fell into this last category, and decided his sentence should be commuted…only to be overruled by Governor Heard.
In such an environment, “Stavin’ Chain” did what any good songster would do: he avoided alienating any of these factions. He sang a song in which it’s not clear if Batson did the crime, and even if he did do it, it’s possible that it was justified by Earll’s refusal to pay him. Either way, the trial and the hanging are traumatic events for the accused, and above all for his family. By giving an account of the events leading up to the murder, skipping the murder itself, and lingering on the emotional aftermath of friends and relatives moaning and groaning, Stavin’ Chain allowed his listeners to be transported to the emotional landscape of the courtroom and the execution no matter where they stood on the question of Batson’s guilt or innocence.
Wilson Jones’s ability to construct a song in this way is partly a result of his own personal skill as a storyteller. But it’s also partly because this kind of storytelling plays to the strengths of the “blues ballad,” the form in which he composed his tale. While a broadside ballad like “Pretty Polly” or an Anglo-American murder ballad like “Omie Wise” tend to tell a more or less complete and chronological story, this is not true of what scholars sometimes call “blues ballads.” Like Joshua Caffery, I’ve never loved the term “blues ballad.” Part of my discomfort (and, I think, Caffery’s too) is that so often the genre is defined in a way which contrasts it with other types of ballads, and which can therefore sound negative or derogatory. Prominent scholars have said that blues ballads “show little regard for the demands of sensible chronology,”  that they “show little evidence of coherent and complete…narrative,”  that they are “loose,”  that they exhibit “lack of detail,”  and that they have “a ballad theme [but are] also non-narrative.” 
There is, however, a more positive way to put this. Albert Friedman, for example, points out that what he calls “Negro ballads” “resemble the older ballads in having evolved a rhetoric of repetition and in using ellipsis suggestively.”  “Batson” shows us just how these characteristics can serve a storyteller’s artistic vision. If you want to tell a story in which the audience will be left not knowing whether the central character is a murderer, the blues ballad turns out to be ideal; its looseness, its incompleteness, its lack of detail, are really “suggestive ellipsis,” an aesthetic that allows the singer to simply skip the events he wants to skip.
“Batson” also demonstrates another important point about “blues ballads.” In their very lack of cohesiveness, detail, and strict chronology, in their use of repetition and ellipsis, blues ballads can be intensely realistic. In real life, in community life, people don’t learn a story like Batson’s all at once in rich detail and perfect chronology. The Earlls’ neighbors in 1902 and 1903 first heard about the Earll murders. The next day, perhaps they heard that the authorities were looking for Batson. They heard vague rumors in the subsequent weeks, about where Batson went, what he did, how he was caught. They heard some of these details several times over, without ever hearing some of the details their neighbors were repeating. They ran into some of the witnesses while they were shopping; they heard about the witnesses’ meetings with the suspect, and whether each witness thought it was really Batson. They heard speculations from friends and read statements in the press from the surviving Earlls. They read the newspaper some days, but perhaps not every day. In the end, they heard a lot of different things, and had to make up their own minds.
In other words, in community life, stories like that of Batson come to us not like a broadside, neatly tied up with a moral, but like a blues ballad, a bit at a time, and not necessarily in order. “Batson” may be “incomplete” by some literary standards, but that’s because it emulates real life instead of literature.
This makes our own experience of the blues ballad all the more realistic. People with no knowledge at all of the Batson case can listen to this song and be put in the place of community members in 1902 and 1903, complete with conflicting news reports, circumstantial evidence, and alternate theories. These circumstances force us, like them, to take our best guess about Batson.
We can count ourselves lucky, though. Unlike the folks in 1903, we have Wilson Jones’s verbal mastery, and his trio’s musical artistry, to liven up the telling of an otherwise grim and inconclusive tale.
- Newspapers and other accounts are inconsistent about the spelling of the Earll family’s name. The family members themselves seem most often to have used “Earll.” For more details see my previous posts on “Batson.”
- 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.
- Caffery follows the Lomaxes in transcribing the name as “Henry Reese,” and points out that this may reflect H.L. Reese, a streetcar foreman who almost ran the suspect down in the real case. (The real Reese, according to Bradshaw & Miller, later testified that Batson was not the man on Ryan Street that day.) However, I believe the name is 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.”
- “Lake Charles: Three Prisoners Saw Their Way Out of Jail.” New Orleans Daily Picayune, May 1, 1903, page 10
Norm Cohen, Long Steel Rail, p. 72
Norm Cohen, Long Steel Rail, p. 126
David Evans, Big Road Blues, p. 44
- Roger Abrahams and George Foss, Anglo-American Folksong Style, p. 84
- Paul Oliver, Songsters and Saints, p. 251
- Albert B. Friedman, The Penguin Book of Folk Ballads of the English-Speaking World, p. xxxii