I have an ongoing fascination with folk heroes in America: the real people who have been elevated into weird demigod status through song, story, and legend.
Because June is African American Music Appreciation Month, I decided to choose three folk heroes and their songs as sung by African American musicians.
John Henry, the “Steel-Drivin’ Man,” has many variations of his ballad. The consensus is that he was based on a real person who lived in the late 1800s, although which person is the subject of some debate. He was born a slave but was a free man during the time of the ballad. That being said, he may have been a convict leased to work on the railroad, which was de facto slavery. Pretty sure Disney glossed over that in their version. Anyway, in the main version of the tale, he races a steam drill to make a tunnel through a mountain, and wins but dies tragically from exhaustion. There are, frankly, more versions that I can process, but that’s the one that gets the most press.
In an art exhibition titled “Other Heroes: African American Comic Book Creators, Characters, and Archetypes,” John Henry is cited as being an early appearance of the “black Superman” archetype. “He is an icon for both battles of humanity versus nature and humanity versus machine,” notes curator John Jennings.
Here’s a version of the ballad by blues singer Furry Lewis.
Here’s a version by Mississippi John Hurt:
a.k.a. Stagolee, a.k.a. Stack-O-Lee
If John Henry is an archetypal hero, Stagger Lee is archetypal antihero. Stagger Lee is based on a real historical person named Lee Shelton, who murdered a man named Billy Lyons in 1895; both are now immortalized in a murder ballad. The details of the murder vary pretty wildly from version to version of the ballad, but the basics are that Billy and Stagger Lee were sort of friends, and had a dispute over gambling/women/Billy messed with Stagger Lee’s hat. You don’t mess with the hat. In any case, Stagger Lee shot Billy, and has since become an archetype for the rebellious black antihero.
I had not heard of Stagger Lee until I heard about the Dallas Theater Center’s production of Stagger Lee, a musical written by Will Power that stars Stagger Lee and other folk heroes (such as Frankie and Johnnie). Here’s a lengthy and amazing discussion of Stagger Lee and archetype by Will Power on NPR.
Here’s an upbeat version of the ballad by Lloyd Price that hit number one on the Billboard 100 in 1959:
Robert Leroy Johnson is a historical person that is well-documented as compared to the other two. He was born in 1911 and died at the age of 27. He was apparently an okay harmonica player and a mediocre guitarist, but suddenly improved his guitar skills mightily and went on to have a strong career as a musician, pioneering the Delta blues style. His death remains mysterious. He is one of two musicians (the other being Tommy Johnson, no relation, who shows up in the film O Brother, Where Art Thou?) who allegedly got their musical talents from selling their soul to the Devil at a crossroads in exchange. The Devil, in these tales, is usually described as a large black man; between that and the crossroads factor, the figure is perhaps more reminiscent of the Yoruban trickster Elegba (and his various incarnations) than anything overtly Christian.
Johnson never sang explicitly about selling his soul to anyone, but here’s a song about him going to the crossroads:
Got a favorite folk hero, or favorite version of these songs? Post ’em in the comments.