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Two head-and-shoulders portraits of the same man
James "Iron Head" Baker, Photographed by Alan Lomax in 1934 at Central State Farm, Sugar Land, Texas.

Caught My Eye: “Iron Head” Baker and “The Mighty Blue Goose”

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The latest thing to catch my eye in the collections of the American Folklife Center is a family-related treasure, which makes it especially relevant given the Library’s upcoming Treasures Family Festival. The special item appears to be a draft or proposal for a children’s book, written by Alan Lomax. The book was to be based on a song Lomax recorded alongside his father in 1934, and illustrated by an artist who was apparently not yet chosen for the project when the manuscript was written.

Lomax was planning to take a few liberties with the song, as we’ll see. The most obvious one is that, although the song was called “The Grey Goose,” Lomax decided the book should be called “The Story of the Mighty Blue Goose.” Still, Lomax was meticulous about credit; the book is credited to “Iron Head,” the nickname of the singer who had sung the song for Lomax and his father in 1934. We’ll say more about Iron Head later, but at the time he was recorded he was incarcerated at Central State Farm, a prison in Sugar Land, Texas. Alan Lomax and the yet-unchosen illustrator are credited as Iron Head’s assistants.

The manuscript, which you can find at this link, begins with a story introducing Iron Head himself, and then describes how the song and illustrations should be presented. Let’s look at the manuscript first, then the song, and then some of the background.

The Manuscript Transcribed

Three manuscript pages
Three pages of “The Story of the Mighty Blue Goose.” Find the archival scan here.

Below is a transcript of the whole manuscript, including a scan of the single illustration, which was evidently intended as a placeholder until an illustrator could be hired. I have largely followed the crowdsourced transcription we offer on the Library of Congress website, but I haven’t been afraid to make corrections when I think they’re warranted. I’ll begin by noting that “Negro” was the polite term for African American at the time, and that “the boys” was what the real-life Iron Head called his friends and singing companions. I’ll also mention that I added the word [pieces] in two places where Lomax says the tree “broke into on his head.”

[p1]

.                                                                         Negro Material                                             Misc.

 

The Story of the
Mighty Blue Goose

By

Iron Head

assisted by Alan Lomax
and
___________  ___________

[p2]

Iron Head was a Negro man with a head so hard you couldn’t even imagine it. The boys didn’t know much about diamonds, I suppose, or they would have called him Diamond Head, because, as you know, a diamond is the hardest kind of thing there is. But the boys had seen a lot more iron laying around than they had seen diamonds laying around and so they called him Iron Head. They thought iron was hard and they knew Iron Head’s head was hard too.

This was how they found out about his head.

One day he was out cutting down live oaks with the boys and he was singing. He was singing so loud that he didn’t hear the boys holler “Timber!” When the boys holler “Timber” and mean it,

[p.3]

they want everybody to know that a tree is falling down and they want everybody to look out because a tree may hurt you if it falls on you. That’s what everybody says who ever remembers a tree having fallen on them.

Well, the boys hollered “Timber” as loud as they could but Iron Head didn’t hear them because he was singing. So the tree fell on Iron Head’s head. It hit him in the head and it broke. The tree broke, not Iron Head’s head. He didn’t even tremble when that tree broke into [pieces] on his head. He went right on chopping down his live oak and singing his song. And the boys for ever after called him Iron Head.

He was not proud about this, but for ever after when the boys would ask him,

[p.4]

“Say, Old Iron Head, old buddy, why don’t you try to break down a wall with your head sometime?”

Iron Head would light his pipe as if he didn’t hear them. The next morning, though, after Iron Head broke the live oak tree into [pieces] with his head, he did have something to say.

He said, “You know boys, last night after I lay down, I began to study about that tree falling on me. Somehow it reminded me of the time my Daddy went hunting the blue goose. Would you like to hear about that time?”

All the boys said, “Yes, we certainly would love to hear about it.”

So Iron Head lighted his pipe and began to sing. He always smoked his pipe when he sang. This is what he sang.

[p.5]

Then the text of The Blue Goose ‐—

One couplet to every page of brilliant illustration.

For Example:

A rudimentary drawing of an ox-team pulling a wagon.
The single illustration Lomax included in the manuscript, to demonstrate how a page might look. Find the archival scan here.

[p.6]

Ladies and gentlemen –

Shorty George
Little John Henry
I know you, rider gon’ miss me when
.                              I’m gone
Pick a Bale o’ cotton
Root Hog or Die [Tune Hog Rogues on the Hurricane]
P. 430 A. B & F S.
[Manuscript Ends]

The Song “The Grey Goose”

A giant sculpture of a goose
Maxie-world’s largest goose, Sumner, Missouri. Photo by John Margolies. John Margolies Roadside America Photograph Archive. Find the archival scan here.

The bulk of Lomax’s proposed picture book would have been the text of “The Blue Goose.” From the one verse he included as an example, we can tell the song was adapted from “The Grey Goose,” which Iron Head sang for John A. and Alan Lomax twice: once in December 1933 and again in October 1934. (The 1933 performance was cataloged as “The Grey Goose” and the 1934 performance as “The Gray Goose,” but Lomax generally used the spelling “Grey” when referring to the song.) The words and tunes of the two versions are nearly (but not quite) identical. I’ve embedded the 1934 performance in the player below, followed by the words.

Well, last Monday mornin’,
Lord, Lord, Lord
Well, last Monday mornin’,
Lord, Lord, Lord,

My daddy went a huntin’, etc.

Well he carried along his Zulu

Well along come a grey goose

Well, he throwed it to his shoulder

And he ran his hammer way back

Well down he come winding

He was 6 weeks a-falling

We was 6 weeks a-finding

And we put him on his wagon

And we taken him to the white house

He was six weeks a picking

Lordy, your wife and my wife

Gonna give a feather pickin’

And we put him on to parboil

He was six months to parboil

And we put him on the table

Now the forks couldn’t stick him

And the knife couldn’t cut him

And we throwed him in the hog pen

And he broke Betty’s jawbone

Then we taken him to the sawmill

And he broke the saw’s teeth out

And the last time I seen him

Well was flyin’ ‘cross the ocean

With a long string o’ goslings

And they’s going “quank, quink-quank”

[Spoken] That was led by Iron Head, Will Crosby, Mose Platt, and R. D. Allen. Spoken by Iron Head, Central State Farm, Sugar Land, Texas, Clear Rock, Dough Belly, and Rough Hands…

Notes on the Manuscript

Alan Lomax at a typewriter and a copy of the book American Ballads & Folk Songs
Alan Lomax, seen on the left in about 1940, helped his father edit the songs in American Ballads & Folk Songs (1934), seen on the right. The book included a transcription of Iron Head’s “The Grey Goose.”

The Mighty Blue Goose manuscript begins with the words “Negro Material Misc.” Presumably, this was added later as an aid to filing the manuscript away. If so, the real beginning was the title “The Story of the Mighty Blue Goose.” It’s interesting that Alan Lomax planned to credit the book to “Iron Head” with himself and the illustrator listed as assistants.

The first story told in the book is the tale of how Iron Head got his name. Alan Lomax’s retelling is a much-embellished version of the story as recounted in his father John A. Lomax’s book Adventures of a Ballad Hunter. In a chapter on Iron Head Baker and his friend Clear Rock Platt, the elder Lomax recalled Iron Head’s own telling of the tale:

“I was cutting wood on the Ramsey State Farm at Angleton at a place called the ‘lifetime cut.’ A live-oak tree fell down that I wasn’t expecting. Some limbs hit my head, and it broke them off; didn’t knock me down, and didn’t stop me from working. The boys named me Iron Head.”

Alan’s embellishments include the claims that other men shouted “timber” to warn people of the falling tree, but that Iron Head didn’t hear them because he was singing so loudly while he worked. This establishes not only that Iron Head is a singer, but that he sings work songs while chopping wood. These were relevant cultural details that Lomax wanted to include in the book. Along with Lomax’s musings on why “the boys” called their friend “Iron Head” instead of “Diamond Head,” these details seem designed to capture the attention of young readers while also imparting useful cultural information. On the other hand, certain information is left out of the story; there’s no inkling in “The Story of the Mighty Blue Goose” that Iron Head and “the boys” are prisoners engaged in hard labor.

In Alan’s proposed book, Iron Head is reminded of the “Blue Goose” story by the story of his own nickname. This makes sense since the Blue Goose is so tough it breaks a saw’s teeth and a sow’s jaw, just as the singer’s head is so hard it breaks the tree limbs. This natural segue between the two stories might have happened in an unrecorded conversation Alan had with Iron Head, but if it was Alan’s idea it’s a good example of his skill as a writer and curator.

A man drives a wagon drawn by an ox
When Iron Head mentioned a wagon, he probably meant something like this prison wagon, drawn by a single ox, photographed by Alan Lomax in 1934 at Reed Camp, South Carolina. Lomax added the detail of an ox team to the song, making the goose seem even more prodigiously large. Find the archival scan here.

Lomax specifies that the song should be printed “one couplet to every page of brilliant illustration.” This first of all establishes that what he had in mind was a picture book. It also makes it hard to know just what Lomax intended for the text; the song as Iron Head sang it was not organized in couplets; each verse consisted of a single line repeated twice, with the “Lord Lord Lord” refrain after each.

Lomax’s example of an illustrated page includes two lines and the refrain. The first line is written vertically to simulate the goose’s falling: “He was 6 weeks a falling.” This is a line directly from Iron Head’s song “The Grey Goose.” The second line appears as part of Lomax’s rudimentary illustration design: “Took an ox-team to haul him.” Interestingly, this line does NOT appear in Iron Head’s song, where the corresponding line is “We put him in the wagon.” Both lines serve the same function, which is to establish that the goose is too heavy for the hunting party to carry without a wagon; but Lomax’s specification of an ox-team makes the bird’s weight seem all the more prodigious. Also, Lomax’s new line establishes a near-rhyme between “falling” and “haul him,” making the two lines fit more naturally as a “couplet” than Iron Head’s original text. This opens up the question of how faithful to Iron Head’s text Lomax intended to be, but that’s a question we simply can’t answer.

As we’ll see, in a 1934 note on the song, the Lomaxes compared it to tall tales about Paul Bunyan. This suggests that Alan might have changed the goose’s color to blue and added an ox team to the story as a direct homage to Bunyan’s blue ox Babe. The detail about Iron Head’s friends chopping a tree and yelling “Timber” when it falls makes the men appear to be loggers, which is another possible reference to the Paul Bunyan tradition. On the other hand, these details could simply be an attempt to enhance the song’s tall-tale quality and make it amusing for children. As a side benefit, these changes would also have given the illustrator interesting things to draw. Also, it should be noted that Alan was absolutely clear in the book that the protagonist, Iron Head, was African American.

Lomax renders the song’s refrain as “Lawd! Lawd! Lawd!” This is in keeping with the era’s tendency to render African American dialect in non-standard spellings, something we avoid today. I have used the standard spelling, “Lord,” in my transcription, as Alan did when he transcribed the song for LP liner notes in 1942.

A statue of Paul Bunyan (a giant logger) and a blue ox.
Paul Bunyan and his blue ox, Babe, may have been an influence on Lomax’s adaptation “The Mighty Blue Goose.” The photo shows Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox at the California Trees of Mystery site in Klamath, California, photographed by Carol M. Highsmith in 2012. Find the archival scan here.

The last page of the manuscript features the puzzling heading “Ladies and gentlemen,” followed by a list of song titles. Three of these were collected by John and Alan Lomax from Iron Head, “Shorty George,” “Little John Henry,” and “Pick a Bale o’ cotton.”  “I know you, rider gon’ miss me when I’m gone,” is a line from “Prison Rider Blues,” collected by John A. Lomax from a group of women prisoners at Parchman Farm in 1933. “Root Hog or Die” is a common song mostly in the American West, and the manuscript helpfully follows the title with “P. 430 A. B & F S.” Looking at page 430 of the Lomaxes’ American Ballads and Folk Songs, I find a cowboy song called “The Bull-Whacker,” which has the refrain “Whack the cattle on, boys–Root hog or die.” Lomax’s note “[Tune Hog Rogues on the Hurricane]” seems to be a note about what tune the song should be sung to. In general, what this list of songs signifies is a mystery. Perhaps Lomax had an idea for a series of illustrated songbooks of which “The Story of the Mighty Blue Goose” was merely the first. But he also could have been jotting unrelated notes on an adjacent page.

Notes on the Song

Two 19th century illustrations of a giant ram.
Two 19th century lantern slides depicting scenes from “The Derby Ram,” a song in the same basic genre as “The Grey Goose.”

“The Grey Goose,” and its adaptation “The Mighty Blue Goose,” are part of a subgenre of folk and popular songs involving giant or prodigiously tough animals. Other songs in this genre include “The Derby Ram,” “The Wonderful Crocodile,” and “The Herring’s Head.” (“Delaney’s Chicken,” featuring a bird that was too tough to kill and too hard to pluck, is particularly similar, and while we don’t have versions in the archive, we know it was sung from Birmingham, Alabama all the way to Honolulu, Hawaii.)

In Iron Head’s version of “The Grey Goose,” the goose flies so high he takes six weeks to fall to earth when he’s shot. The hunters require a wagon to carry him (plus a mule team in Lomax’s adaptation). A picking party organized by the hunters’ wives takes six weeks to pluck the goose, and even after he is parboiled for six months he is so tough he breaks a sow’s jawbone and a saw’s teeth. At the end of all this, he’s not even dead, but goes on to have a large family and fly across the ocean!

A group of 5 men swinging axes and singing.
“Lightnin'” Washington and his group, seen in this picture singing in the woodyard at Darrington State Farm, Texas, also sang “The Grey Goose” for the Lomaxes in 1934. Photo by Alan Lomax, 1934. Find the archival scan here.

In 1934, when the Lomaxes published Iron Head’s version of “The Grey Goose” in their book American Ballads and Folk Songs, they didn’t say very much about it:

“Iron Head grinned, very literally like the Devil, while he sang this saga of the grey goose. It has the feel of the Paul Bunyan tales and of Uncle Remus.”

But by 1942, when Alan published the recording on the third record album to come from our archive, Afro-American Spirituals, Work Songs, and Ballads, he had evidently thought about it more, and discovered in the song a theme of African American resistance and resilience. In the sleeve notes he wrote:

The folk have always loved humble heroes who were absolutely invincible, who could endure any hardship or torture without fear or harm. For the southern Negro, faced with the problem of sheer survival under slavery and later as the sub-standard economic group, this pattern has dominated his ballads and folk-tales. The ballad of the heroic goose, who, after being shot, picked, cooked, carved and run through the sawmill, was last seen with a large, derisively honking flock of goslings, flying over the ocean, epitomizes the Negro’s belief in his own ability to endure any hardship.

The design of the song is the African leader-chorus form, and this version is used on the Texas prison farms for hoeing–a whole gang moving forward together, their hoes flashing together in the sun, across an irrigation ditch, thus:

Well, last Monday mornin’
Lord Lord Lord

It’s good to see that Alan gave up dialect spellings such as “Lawd” at the same time as he recognized deeper meanings in the song’s text.

an advertisement for a "Zulu" shotgun.
A Zulu breech-loader as it appeared in the 1884 E.C. Meacham gun catalog.

A few names and words in the song might require explanation. We know Betty is a sow, because in the other recording of Iron Head singing this song, he sings “broke the old sow’s jawbone.” To “give a feather-pickin'” meant to hold a communal party for plucking poultry; usually, this would be done when a large number of birds were being plucked for a gathering, so the necessity of a feather-picking for a single bird again indicates the size of the grey goose. A “zulu” is a shotgun, especially one that was adapted from an obsolete military musket. When Western militaries converted from barrel-loading long guns to breech-loading rifles, they often didn’t have the resources to buy all new weapons, and instead modified their muskets into rather poor breech-loading rifles with the aid of conversion kits. They then could take a few years to replace these subpar but functional old guns with new rifles, at which point they sold the obsolete weapons to arms dealers who converted them once more, to shotguns. They came to be known as “zulu breech-loaders” or “zulu shotguns,” presumably because European versions were often sent out to African colonies. In Iron Head’s other recording of the song, when the gun is fired, it makes the noise “boo-loo,” which is a nice callback to its status as a “zulu;” sadly, Iron Head apparently forgot that line in the version I’ve embedded here!

Iron Head wasn’t the only person who sang “The Grey Goose” for the Lomaxes. Two other Texas prisoners, Augustus “Track Horse” Haggerty and “Lightnin'” Washington, sang it for them in 1933 and 1934. Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, was present for some of these Texas sessions as John A. Lomax’s assistant, meeting both Iron Head and Track Horse, and he may have learned “The Grey Goose” from one of them. He sang his version of “The Grey Goose” for the Lomaxes in 1935, and kept it in his repertoire throughout his musical career, recording it on several children’s albums, playing it as part of the film “Three Songs by Lead Belly,” and recording it again at the end of his career in his last sessions.

Lead Belly’s version of “The Grey Goose” differed from Iron Head’s, in that the character hunting the goose is “the preacher” rather than “my daddy,” and the action occurs “one Sunday morning” rather than “last Monday morning.” In his spoken introduction, Lead Belly made it clear that the story was about a Baptist preacher who was hunting when he should have been in church; in some versions he described the ladies of the church wondering where the preacher was. The implication was that the goose was God’s punishment, and Lead Belly often ended the introduction by saying the goose was “still laughing at him.”  Lead Belly often adapted his songs to create interesting stories about them. He might have borrowed the theme of the preacher flouting his religion to go hunting on a Sunday and being punished by the animals he encounters from the popular (and unfortunately racist) song “The Preacher and the Bear.”

Until the late 1940s, the Lomaxes believed “The Grey Goose” was sung exclusively within the Texas prison system, but in 1949 Jean Ritchie sang a different version for Alan Lomax. In 1957, she recorded it for a children’s album, and told Kenneth S. Goldstein that she had learned it from John and Ben Hall at the John C. Campbell Folk School in North Carolina. She repeated that in the posthumously published book Jean Ritchie’s Kentucky Mother Goose, but in a 2007 interview with Susan Brumfield included on the Kentucky Mother Goose CD, she said she first heard it when her father and her uncle Jason were swapping songs, presumably during her childhood in Kentucky. In her 1949 version, the goose eventually has its eyes picked out by buzzards, but she later removed that verse and added a chorus.

As Kenny Goldstein pointed out in his notes, “In [Jean Ritchie’s] version, the goose can hardly be considered a symbol of the indomitability of the Negro.” That is true also in Lead Belly’s version, which as we’ve seen uses the goose to comment on the preacher’s indiscretion. Only in Iron Head’s version does the goose’s indestructible nature seem to have this meaning. Certainly, one possible reason that Alan Lomax was considering a children’s book based on Iron Head’s version rather than Lead Belly’s is that he admired the way it represented the strength and resilience of African American people and culture.

Who Was Iron Head?

Head and shoulders portrait of a man.
Alan Lomax’s most iconic portrait of Iron Head, in Sugar Land, Texas, in 1934. Find the archival scan here.

The man known as “Iron Head” was one of the most important singers in John A. Lomax’s recording career, and has become one of the most influential singers in the AFC archive. He was incarcerated for burglary when John A. Lomax first met him at Central State Farm, the state prison at Sugar Land, Texas. John A. Lomax included a chapter in his book, Adventures of a Ballad Hunter, about Iron Head and his friend Moses “Clear Rock” Platt. According to Lomax, Iron Head’s given name was James Baker, and he was 63 years old when Lomax first recorded him.

These details have been repeated by generations of music historians, but more recent research into Texas prison records has shown that Lomax was probably mistaken. “Iron Head” was indeed the nickname for a man known as James Baker in the Texas prison system, but according to the research of Caroline Gnagy, “James Baker” was itself an alias for Tom Barkley. Barkley was born to Tom and Ise Barkley on March 18, 1884, in Dallas, meaning that Iron Head was only 49 years old, not 63, when the Lomaxes came to Sugar Land in 1933. (As Gnagy also points out, the pictures Alan Lomax took are consistent with him being 49.) Why Lomax thought he was 63 is a mystery, but Iron Head did at one point insist that he was too old for hard labor, so he might have been pretending to be older in order to avoid the harder physical work given to younger inmates.

Although misinformed about Iron Head’s personal details, John A. Lomax felt both admiration for his skills as a singer and affection for him as a person. On the first day they met, Lomax and Iron Head bonded when Iron Head sang “Shorty George,” about a convict who breaks out of prison to attend his wife’s funeral. Before singing it, Iron Head broke down in tears over missing his woman, and Lomax comforted him by noting that, unlike the song’s protagonist, he might yet see her again. In his book, Lomax indicated that Iron Head was a prodigious singer, and referred to him as a “Black Homer.” His abilities as a singer included a strong voice and good pitch, a great memory for old lyrics, and a quick mind for improvising new ones. He also had an interesting repertoire of old songs, from traditional English ballads to work songs and spirituals.

After their initial meeting, John Lomax sent Iron Head letters and small gifts, and the prisoner reciprocated. John and Alan Lomax visited him again twice in 1934 and continued to record songs from him. Iron Head was a trusty at the prison. As a skilled craftsman, he was given his own freestanding workshop, where he wove collars for the prison’s horses and mules, as well as rugs and doormats, out of corn husks. He sent one of his rugs as a Christmas gift to John’s wife Ruby Lomax in 1935, further impressing the collector.

A book cover and a portrait of a man smoking a cigar.
John A. Lomax (right) included a chapter on Iron Head Baker and his friend Clear Rock Platt in his book Adventures of a Ballad Hunter (left). The portrait is from the Bess Lomax Hawes Collection. Find the archival scan here.

At the time, another great singer whom Lomax had met in prison, Lead Belly, was acting as Lomax’s chauffeur and field recording assistant. Soon, however, John Lomax’s relationship with Lead Belly soured. It was only natural to seek a similar arrangement with his new friend Iron Head. Lomax approached James Allred, governor of Texas, and proposed to have Iron Head released on parole into his care, in return for the trusty’s help with his prison recordings. After meeting with Iron Head and being impressed with him, the governor agreed to the parole on Lomax’s terms. On April 6, 1936, Iron Head and Lomax set off together to collect songs.

As a recording assistant, Iron Head seems to have been successful, breaking the ice between the white collector and many African American inmates, and demonstrating the types of songs Lomax was after. He also continued singing throughout the tour; not only did Lomax obtain many songs from many singers on his 1936 trip with Iron Head, but he recorded Iron Head himself singing more songs in Florida, South Carolina, and Washington, D.C. Only as a driver was Iron Head a total failure; Lomax discovered that the convict was terrified of driving, and decided he himself must be “permanent chauffeur.”

Over the course of the trip, Lomax got to know Iron Head better personally, learning for example that he was afraid of being alone in the dark. (We can speculate this was perhaps a result of abuses he suffered in prison.) The result was that he usually slept in Lomax’s room, on a pallet on the floor, which only increased their time together. In strictly segregated establishments and prisons, Iron Head roomed with Black employees or prison trusties. When no such rooms were available and segregationist policies or other circumstances prevented him from sleeping in Lomax’s room, he locked himself in the car to sleep so no one could attack him.

Two portraits of the same man.
Two more portraits of Iron Head by Alan Lomax in 1934. Find all the archival scans here.

To Lomax’s disappointment, Iron Head considered himself a habitual criminal and had no interest in a crime-free life. Lomax’s previous assistant, Lead Belly, had been subject to mood swings, and his rare crimes were committed in moments of anger, which he usually could control. By contrast, Iron Head was a professional burglar whose crimes were less serious and less emotional, but much more frequent. As he explained to Lomax, he simply watched houses until the residents left, climbed from the porch up to a window, and pilfered without violence. He had been caught and convicted six times, but he readily admitted that many more of his burglaries went unpunished than the few for which he had been caught.

After the collecting tour was over, Lomax had promised the governor that he would try to set Iron Head up with a business making corn husk rugs and other handwork, which he was evidently excellent at. But Iron Head didn’t want the responsibility of a business, and he and Lomax quarreled about his next step. Lomax claims Iron Head made veiled threats to the collector’s family, but no one seems to have taken them seriously. Eventually Lomax put Iron Head on a bus back to Austin from Washington, D.C., and considered their partnership dissolved.

As was also the case with Lead Belly, after his partnership with John A. Lomax was over, Iron Head remained on friendly terms with Alan. According to Nolan Porterfield’s biography of John A. Lomax, Alan met Iron Head’s bus in Austin and he and his stepmother Ruby lodged the paroled burglar at their house for a few days in June, 1936. They then found Iron Head a job with friends who owned a farm. Sadly, Iron Head soon returned to burglary, and was sent to prison once again.

A newspaper clipping
A clipping from a 1937 newspaper preserved in the James Baker Corporate Subject File at AFC. The clipping reports that Iron Head has been sent back to prison after his trip with John A. Lomax.

John Lomax encountered Iron Head again on his collecting trip in 1939, this time back at Ramsey prison where Iron Head had earned his nickname. The convict sang several more songs for the collector, this time spirituals, and the two men seem to have reconciled. In Adventures of a Ballad Hunter, Lomax mused that Iron Head might have ended up worse off because of their time together, because his situation at Ramsey was less comfortable than it had been at Sugar Land. He regretted his interference in his friend’s life, concluding, “I should have left him at Sugar Land to weave from corn shucks horse collars and rugs.”

According to Gnagy, Iron Head died of kidney cancer on February 23, 1944. He was just shy of 60 years old, and was still in the Texas prison system when he died. He lies buried in the prison cemetery at Huntsville, Texas.

A Last Gander at “The Grey Goose” and “The Mighty Blue Goose”

A man with a guitar surrounded by children
Lead Belly with children in the 1940s. He often performed “The Grey Goose” in children’s concerts. Photo from AFC subject files.

A children’s book based on “The Grey Goose” was clearly an inspired idea, one of many that Alan Lomax had in his long career. The song certainly appealed to children; when Lead Belly performed for kids, “The Grey Goose” was a staple of his repertoire. Lead Belly’s version inspired many youngsters, including the future Grammy winner Dan Zanes, who later recorded his own version. Pete Seeger included it on several of his children’s albums (including this live performance where he really got into the quink-quank part)!  Pete’s nephew Calum MacColl led the song on a Seeger family children’s album, and Pete’s more commercially successful friend Burl Ives also had a go at it.

It’s unclear what prompted Alan to think of converting Iron Head’s song into a picture book, or when the idea occurred to him. We do know that both Lomaxes continued to correspond with Iron Head after John’s last visit to him in 1939. A letter Iron Head wrote to John Lomax on December 14, 1941, indicates that Lomax had written to him on December 11, enclosing a gift of money and inquiring about another visit to record more songs. Iron Head said he was “overjoyed” to hear from Lomax, and effusive in his gratitude, suggesting that the two men were feeling their way past the strain in their relationship. (Note that the formality and eloquence of Iron Head’s writing contrasts with the exaggerated Black dialect of early transcriptions of his singing):

I am indeed grateful to you for everything that you have done for me. That has been so much that I don’t know just what to thank you for first, so I am hoping for every good blessing for you for being so kind to me. I know that I can never repay you for everything. But surely you’ll accept my poor and pitiful gesture in trying to help in my way, that is by doing your bidding. I am trying to get the boys together and make some songs that will be satisfactory to you.

Three months later, Alan Lomax wrote to Iron Head requesting the use of “The Grey Goose” on a record album to be issued by the Library of Congress. The initial letter of March 20, 1942, was a completely impersonal government form letter, beginning “Dear James Baker” and ending “Sincerely, Alan Lomax.” When Iron Head didn’t respond, Lomax wrote again on April 14. This was the same form letter, but Alan personalized it so that it began “Dear Ironhead” and ended “Sincerely Your Friend, Alan Lomax.” It’s amusing that Iron Head’s response of May 4 said he had signed and returned the documents and chided Lomax for not being “very prompt in your dealings with me in this business matter.”

A snippet of a 1941 letter from Iron Head to John A. Lomax. The text is in the caption.
Part of a letter from Iron Head, in Ramsey prison, to John A. Lomax, December 14, 1941. “Please give my best regards to Mr. Allen [i.e. Alan Lomax]. I hope to have the boys lined up real soon and just as soon as I do I’ll write you at once. I am very truly yours. James Baker. Reg no. 57469. Box #1. Otey Texas.”
Between Lomax’s receipt of Iron Head’s signed forms in April 1942 and his departure from the Library of Congress for the Office of War Information in October of the same year, Lomax found time to edit and write notes for five record albums of field recordings, including the one featuring “The Grey Goose.” The “Blue Goose” manuscript is undated, but it’s certainly also from before Alan Lomax left the Library of Congress in October 1942.

None of the surviving correspondence between Lomax and Iron Head mentions the possibility of a book, which would be strange if Lomax had already been working on a book proposal when he wrote to Iron Head in April. Given all this, it seems most likely that Lomax began “The Story of the Mighty Blue Goose” after his last surviving letter to Iron Head in 1942. In that case, he likely had the idea through revisiting the song for the 1942 album. At that time, he listened to the song, thought enough about it to realize its themes of Black resistance and resilience, transcribed it anew, leaving out most of the Black dialect spellings, and wrote a new headnote. Apparently, sometime during the process of editing the LP notes, but before he decided that the final transcription should be “Lord” and not “Lawd,” Lomax had the idea for “The Story of the Mighty Blue Goose,” jotting it down in the manuscript we have today.

Side by side images of a record album cover and the center label for the 78 rpm issue of Iron Head's "The Grey Goose."
In 1942 a “record album” was like a photo album: a book whose pages were sleeves to hold 78 rpm records. In 1942, the Archive of American Folk Song (now AFC’s Archive of Folk Culture) issued its first five record albums, edited by Alan Lomax. Album III was Afro-American Spirituals, Work Songs, and Ballads, and included Iron Head’s “The Grey Goose.”

In the brief time between editing the record albums and leaving the Library of Congress, it seems likely Alan Lomax just didn’t have time to pursue “The Story of the Mighty Blue Goose” or even to write Iron Head about the idea. If that’s true, it’s just one of many plans Alan had which were interrupted by his service in World War II and never brought to fruition. Lomax was still in the Army when Iron Head died in early 1944, and he never returned to the Library of Congress to reclaim the unfinished manuscript, which we still have over 80 years later.

This is a shame, because Lomax was clearly onto something. The Story of the Mighty Blue Goose would have been inspirational on several levels. An homage to African American culture credited to a Black man and his white assistants, it would have been an inspiring children’s book and a significant accomplishment in the legacies of the Lomaxes and of Iron Head Baker.

Comments (2)

  1. Thank you for this.

    Alan Lomax wrote a children’s book, ‘Harriet and her Harmonium: An American Adventure with thirteen folk songs from the Lomax Collection” illustrated by Pearl Binder with music arranged by Robert Gill, published by A. S. Barnes and Company, Inc., New York. The copy I have was published in 1945 by Faber and Faber Limited, London.

    One of the included songs is ‘The Grey Goose’. There is no reference to Iron Head but the song’s meaning is explicit. An escaping slave boy, Buddy, sings it to Harriet. In introducing the song he says “See, they work us from five in the morning till night dark. And beat us when we tire down. But Mama told me Negro must be tougher than white man. Last out anything, like the old grey goose.”

    • Thanks Tim! That’s a great reference!

      I think you might be off on the date though; all the copies I’ve seen of that book are dated 1955, and that is How Alan listed it on CVs and other documents.

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