John Handcox, "Sharecropper's Troubadour"

Lindley, Robin

Publisher:  Against the Current
Date Written:  01/07/2014
Year Published:  2014  
Resource Type:  Article
Cx Number:  CX20785

Robin Lindley interviews University of Washington labour history professor Michael Honey regarding his biography about singer and labour activist John Handcox.



I think people should appreciate that he's part of this greater African-American song tradition. American music is highly influenced by African-American music: blues, jazz, rock and roll, funk, rap. John is part of that tradition, but he is not in the canon of African-American music. He's not mentioned in most of the books of African-American music, but neither are the labor protest songs of that era nor most of the civil rights songs.

So there's a missing piece of the story about how the African-American song tradition created a space for people in movements for social change and a way for people to tell their story and mobilize people and to reach an audience emotionally. As John says in the book, he consciously used his own tradition to not just tell a story, but to move people emotionally.

The union tried to recruit African Americans who were sharecroppers and wage laborers in one of the worst places you could imagine, at one of the worst times you could be an African American there. His music and poems helped move African Americans to action despite the fear of killings and expulsions from plantations.

But John also needed to reach white workers, and get Blacks and whites together. John said you can't do that with a speech. You need to get people together by singing together. That's what the song tradition does. These songs are inclusive. There's a quote from Bernice Johnson Reagon [a founder of the SNCC Freedom Singers, and Sweet Honey in the Rock -- ed.] in the book that music is a form of organizing in the Black tradition, and music can't make you free but don't try to get free without it. And John had his own way of saying that.