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Palgrave Macmillan

Sharecropper's Troubadour

John L. Handcox, the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union, and the African American Song Tradition

ISBN 9780230111271
Publication Date November 2013
Formats Hardcover Ebook (EPUB) Ebook (PDF) Paperback 
Publisher Palgrave Macmillan
Series Palgrave Studies in Oral History

Descended from African American slaves, Native Americans, and white slaveowners, John Handcox was born at one of the hardest times and places to be black in America. Over the first few decades of the twentieth century, he survived attempted lynchings, floods, droughts, and the ravages of the Great Depression to organize black and white farmers alike on behalf of the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union. He also became one of the most beloved folk singers of the prewar labor movement, composing songs such as "Roll the Union On" and "There Is Mean Things Happening in this Land" that bridged racial divides and kept the spirits of striking workers high. Though he withdrew from the public eye for nearly forty years, missing the "folk boom" of the 1960s, he resurfaced decades later - just in time to denounce the policies of the Reagan administration in song - and his work was embraced by new generations of labor activists and folk music devotees. Michael Honey's fascinating and beautifully told history gives us John Handcox in his own words, recounting a journey that began in a sharecropper's shack in the Deep South and went on to shape the labor music tradition, all amid the tangled and troubled history of the United States in the twentieth century.

Michael Honey is the Fred T. and Dorothy G. Haley Endowed Professor of the Humanities at The University of Washington, USA, and was a 2011 Guggenheim fellow. He is author of numerous award-winning books on labor, race relations, and Southern history, including Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King's Last Campaign (Norton, 2007). His interviews and writing regularly appear in national media such as The Atlantic, NPR/Fresh Air, The Nation, History News Network, ColorLines, and many other print and digital publications.

Foreword by Pete Seeger

Introduction: Music, Memory, and History

1. Freedom After 'While: Life and Labor in the Jim Crow South

2. Raggedy, Raggedy Are We: Sharecropping and Survival

3. The Planter and the Sharecropper: The Southern Tenant Farmers Union

4. There Is Mean Things Happening in This Land: Terror in Arkansas

5. Join the Union Tonight: Interracial Organizing in Missouri

6. Getting Gone to the Promised Land: California

7. I'm So Glad to be Here Again: The Return of John Handcox


'John's story will not be forgotten, now that Michael Honey has got it down on paper. As long as human beings like to sing...I believe his songs will live on. In that sense, John will never die.' - Pete Seeger, from the Foreword
"A deeply moving account of the life and struggles of John Handcox who became known as 'the sharecropper's troubadour' for the songs he wrote and sang at union meetings in Arkansas, Mississippi, and throughout the nation. Honey's book is essential reading to understand the history of labor and black music in the rural south." - William Ferris, author of The Storied South: Voices of Writers and Artists
"John L. Handcox, the unsung radical guitar-strumming storyteller, has finally found the person to tell his story. Michael Honey not only paints a lyrical portrait of Handcox but delivers a powerful history of a people, a movement, and a culture that birthed the Freedom Songs of the modern era." - Robin D. G. Kelley, author of Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original
"An arresting account of the exemplary life of an American genius. Honey's and Handcox's voices mix in a unique combination of oral history and scholarly research that reminds us of the centrality of music, and of poetry, to US freedom movements." - David Roediger, co-author of The Production of Difference
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