According to Mark Allan Jackson's brief but helpful liner notes to John L. Handcox: Songs, Poems, and Stories of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, Handcox (1904–92) was born in Brinkley, Arkansas. The descendent of slaves, he spent the first years of his life as a poor cotton tenant farmer. In 1934, he heard about the formation of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union (STFU) and quickly signed on as an organizer for that controversial organization. Handcox used his songs and poems, some of which were printed in the STFU's newspaper The Sharecropper's Voice, to help organize black and white tenant farmers. His dangerous job as an organizer and fund-raiser first took him to Tennessee, Mississippi, and Missouri, and later to Chicago, Detroit, New York, and even Washington, D.C., in March 1937. STFU Secretary H. L. Mitchell encouraged him to visit the Library of Congress, where Charles Seeger and Sidney Robertson recorded six of his songs and two of his poems for the Archive of American Folk Song: "Raggedy, Raggedy," "No More Mourning," "Mean Things Happening in This Land," "The Planter and the Sharecropper," "Landlord, What in the Heaven is the Matter With You?," "In My Heart," "Join the Union Tonight," and "Roll the Union On." "Raggedy, Raggedy," "Mean Things Happening in this Land," and "Roll the Union On" would become labor standards.
Handcox soon left the STFU, however, and during World War II he joined members of his family in San Diego, California. Here, he lived out of the limelight until 1982, when he participated in the forty-eighth anniversary of the STFU in Memphis, Tennessee, and rejuvenated his political songwriting with "Oh No, We Don't Want Reagan Anymore" and "Let's Get Reagan Out." He continued occasionally to attend labor events until his death from cancer in 1992. On May 15, 1985, labor troubadour Joe Glazer and historian Michael Honey were able to record Handcox's memories for the Smithsonian's Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage while he was attending the Labor Heritage Foundation's Great Labor Song Exchange in Washington, D.C. The next day, they recorded his two anti-Reagan songs, as well as the autobiographical "I Live On." Although separated by almost fifty years, all of Handcox's old and new archival recordings are included in this handy collection.
In addition to the information that Jackson provides in his notes, he also supplies a valuable bibliography of works on the history of the STFU and particularly Handcox's brief role in its work during the Depression. Handcox has not been ignored by scholars, since some of his songs well captured the hardships and dreams of tenant farmers at the time, in particular "Mean Things Happening in this Land." His handful of early songs have appeared in numerous songbooks and have been recorded by artists like Pete Seeger, Joe Glazer, and many others. While this is not the first time that his early Library of Congress recordings have been released—five songs appeared in the unwieldy ten-CD set, Songs For Political Action: Folk Music, Topical Songs, and the American Left, 1926– 1953 (Bear Family Records, BCD 15720, 1996)—now all of his recordings and the Glazer and Honey interview are gathered in one convenient package.
Presenting a firsthand account of hard times that now seem far distant, these recordings will certainly enhance any classroom discussions of the rural upheavals of the 1930s, as well as later political events. The CD will be most beneficial [End Page 363] for students who are steeped in contemporary popular culture but have little or no grasp of the historical use of music and poetry in labor and political organizing. Because the notes are brief, teachers will have to supplement the CD with additional information, possibly including other recordings, commercial and noncommercial. During his brief life as an organizer and songwriter, John Handcox played a vital role in bettering the lives of sharecroppers and energizing labor union organizers...