On June 30th, 1882, the assassin Charles Guiteau was hanged in Washington, DC, almost a year to the day after his fatal shooting of President James A. Garfield. In March of 1949, North Carolina musician and folk song collector Bascom Lamar Lunsford traveled to Washington to record for the Library of Congress, and the many songs he recorded there included two topical ballads concerning the assassination of Garfield and execution of Guiteau. The epic narrative of the assassination “Mr. Garfield”, recorded on March 23rd, would later be popularized by Johnny Cash (you can watch him perform it on The Johnny Cash Showhere). Lunsford introduces it:
I first heard it about 1903 when I visited the home of Mr. A.W. Williams, who lived on the edge of Henderson County, North Carolina… Anderson Williams, a young man, picked it and played it on the banjo… Once after I heard one stanza by another person. That’s the only two people I ever heard sing the song, besides myself.”
Mr. Garfield clip
The very next day Lunsford recorded a ballad sung from the perspective of the condemned man:
This is another assassination song, known as “Charles Guiteau”. I’ve known this all my life.”
Clips from Emrich Duncan’s Songs and Ballads of American History and the Assassination of Presidents (SFC FC-545 and CD-906).
Well, it seems there really was a Stetson hat. And one cold night in 1895, William “Billy” Lyons and Lee Shelton (otherwise known as “Stack Lee”) fought over that hat in what would become one of the most infamous altercations in folk history. You know which one of them walked away, because Mississippi John Hurt, Ma Rainey, Champion Jack Dupree, Woody Guthrie, The Fruit Jar Guzzlers, Furry Lewis, and countless others immortalized the story in song.
The Southern Folklife Collection has recordings of the grim tale by at least 30 different musicians; there’s a version for every taste. In the mood for a little Hawaiian guitar? Sol Hoopii recorded an instrumental version in 1926: Sol Hoopii – Stack O Lee Blues clip
(Clip from SFC FC-4006, Master of the Hawaiian Guitar)
Want something with a little more blues flavor? Try Ma Rainey’s iconic 1925 telling of the tale: Ma Rainey Stack O Lee clip
(clip from SFC CD-3845, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom)
Mississippi John Hurt got in on the act in 1928, and brought the song to live audiences throughout the country in the 1960s: Mississippi John Hurt Stagolee
(clip from SFC CD-4025, Before The Blues: The Early American Black Music Scene)
Maybe that’s where Doc Watson heard it – he recorded his own old-timey version in 1967: Doc Watson Stackolee clip
(clip from SFC FC-14460, Ballads From Deep Gap)
Many more versions can be found in the Southern Folklife Collection’s online catalog, and you can read more about the true story in Cecil Brown’s Stagolee Shot Billy.
In August of 1931, police arrested a Quiet Dell, West Virginia shopkeeper named Harry Powers on suspicion of murder. Powers had been exchanging love letters with an Illinois widow who had responded to a “lonely hearts” ad he had posted under the pseudonym Cornelius O. Pierson, and the widow was now missing. Police searching his garage found blood stains and a noose, prompting them to excavate a drainage ditch near Powers’ yard. In the ditch were found the bodies of the widow, her three children, and another woman who had answered Powers’ personal ad.
News of the sensational murders quickly swept the country (Powers was called “The Bluebeard of Quiet Dell”), and West Virginia song publishers Leighton D. Davies and A.H. Grow were quick to capitalize with a murder ballad, “The Crime At Quiet Dell”. In an apparent attempt to convince fellow West Virginians their venture was not purely exploitative, they wrote:
… it was not written to appeal to the morbid fancies of some at all, but altogether to the contrary. (The scene has been carefully viewed, and every possible detail of the gruesome crime learned on the ground first hand). It is designed to put right the idea that some people in other states may possibly entertain, that West Virginia is not a good State.
The ballad was published and performed live on West Virginia radio stations prior to Powers’ trial, to the great consternation of his lawyer. Powers was unsurprisingly convicted and hanged for his crimes on March 19, 1932.
More on “The Crime at Quiet Dell” can be read in Donald Lee Nelson’s article in the Winter 1972 issue of JEMF Quarterly, which also contains a complete reproduction of the original sheet music (above) from the Southern Folklife Collection Sheet Music and Song Lyrics Collection.
On October 22, 1934, the notorious bank robber Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd was gunned down by the FBI on farmland outside of East Liverpool, Ohio. Floyd’s decade long career of daring bank robberies and prison escapes had made him both J. Edgar Hoover’s “Public Enemy No. 1” and a genuine folk hero, especially amongst his fellow Oklahomans, hard hit by the Depression and with little sympathy for the banks.
One of those fellow Oklahomans was of course Woody Guthrie, who helped burnish Floyd’s posthumous reputation with his 1939 recording “Pretty Boy Floyd”, casting the outlaw as a modern-day Robin Hood. The song would be further popularized through covers by Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, and the Byrds. Woody Guthrie – Pretty Boy Floyd (Clip from SFC CD-827)
While Guthrie’s song is certainly the most well known “Pretty Boy Floyd”, the first may have been the “Pretty Boy Floyd” written by Bob Miller and recorded by Ray Whitley on October 27, 1934, less than a week after Floyd was killed. As you can hear from the clip below, it puts the focus less on the outlaw’s humanitarian pursuits and more on his cross country string of homicides. Ray Whitley – Pretty Boy Floyd (Clip from SFC 78-9780)
Here’s an interesting song we came across recently in the Ed Kahn Collection: “The Strange Case of the DeAutremont Brothers”, recorded in 1928 by banjo and guitar duo The Johnson Brothers. It dramatized a sensational train robbery that took place outside of Medford, Oregon in 1923. The would-be robbers (brothers Hugh, Ray, and Roy DeAutremont) badly botched the job, murdering four innocent men in the process. The DeAutremont brothers escaped the scene with their lives, leading authorities on a international manhunt until they were finally apprehended, tried, and sentenced to life in prison in 1927. The Johnson brothers recording no doubt sought to turn some of the recent trial publicity into record sales.
Listen to a clip of “The Strange Case of the DeAutremont Brothers”: strange-case-of-the-deautremont-bros
The clip below is from a tape made in 1973 by Eugene area journalist Gary Williams (tape FT-12658, Ed Kahn Collection), including an interview with the by-then paroled Ray DeAutremont. Ray is reluctant to speak about the murders, but does offer a few interesting (though self-serving) words on the subject of regret.