John L. Handcox
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John L. Handcox Songs, Poems and Stories of the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union West Virginia University Press Sound Archive Volume VI
WVU Press (

Around 1935-36, John Handcox faced the possibility of being lynched. Handcox had become an important, active member of the Southern Tenant Farmers' Union (STFU), which advocated for the rights (both labor and civil) of poor tenant farmers across the south and the southwest. His legacy was the creation of a number of songs and poems important to unionizing labor in the 1930s, such as his famous "Roll The Union On." At the urging of his mother, he left his Arkansas home to avoid being lynched. Heading north for a time, he continued to pursue worker justice, but the dramatic episode I have briefly highlighted here exposes the bedrock of racial and class conflict from which Handcox's words were hewn.

Handcox's life (1904-1992) embodies the fighting spirit of poor cotton farmers during the Depression. The life of a labor activist in the STFU was hardly an easy one. Landowners, who benefited from tenant farming by demanding a high proportion of their farmers' crops, were loathe to lose their outrageous profits. Furthermore, the STFU was a racially-integrated union, which was rare in the South. Yet despite opposition to the union, Handcox continued to compose and speak on its behalf, representing not just the poor black farmers he grew up with, but also similarly dispossessed whites.

This collection of songs, poems, and interviews is an important historical document. Consider it uneasy (but hopeful) listening: Handcox's unaccompanied voice is rough, but the powerful message he delivers is one of the perseverance of human dignity in the face of social injustice. In an interview with Joe Glazer and Michael Honey, included on the CD, Handcox provides tremendous context for his labor songs, stating that when trying to organize labor, nothing forges a bond quite like singing. Singing together made both blacks and whites aware of their common misery; it broke down barriers. The superb 22-page CD booklet, by Mark Allan Jackson, provides further background on Handcox's life and the STFU.

John L. Handcox was aware that he would continue to have an effect on others through his songs and stories, as evidenced by his own self-referencing "I Live On." However, remaining humble, Handcox realized that it is via voices raised in unison and community that his songs lived; hence he states, "We live on." Astonishing, too, to contemporary ears is to hear Handcox's recordings from the 1980s, when he felt the need to lift his voice in protest against Ronald Reagan's presidential bid. On these tracks, Handcox sounds ghostly, warning of future folly.

West Virginia University Press has released an enlightening package that honors this important folk hero. It should be noted that Handcox's struggles are not resigned to the dustbin of history; one need only examine the current state of strawberry farming and immigrant (legal and illegal) workers in California to recognize that unjust farming practices are still being perpetuated here in the United States. The work of John L. Handcox thus remains as relevant as ever. - Lee Blackstone

CD available from Amazon

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