Arts & Culture

Ground Down to Molasses

The Making of an American Folk Song

July 02, 2014

James "Iron Head" Baker at a prison in Sugar Land, Texas in June, 1934. With fellow inmates, he made the first known recording of the iconic work song "Ain't No More Cane on the Brazos."
/ Alan Lomax, Library of Congress.

 

It is the summer of 1970, and if you are a resident of Calgary, there is a trainload of blasted musicians headed your way. A few promoters—brothers Thor and George Eaton, and Ken Walker—had what must have seemed like a bright idea at the time: hire Janis Joplin, The Band, The Grateful Dead, Delaney and Bonnie, and a host of lesser lights to board a train and cross Canada playing a series of five shows along the way. Tight-assed civic leaders interfered, and the Montreal and Vancouver shows were cancelled. The three remaining concerts were notable for great music, smaller-than-expected crowds, and a couple of mini-riots. The promoters lost a huge sum of money, and the documentary coverage of the tour disappeared for decades. Eventually it resurfaced, was extensively edited, and debuted in 2003 as Festival Express.

One scene from the film has proved especially popular online. In the clip, Joplin, The Band’s Rick Danko, John Dawson of New Riders of the Purple Sage, and Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir from the Dead are lounging in the club car of the train. Danko, who is about as joyfully juiced as a man can be while remaining sentient, is leading the rest of the musicians in a sloppy, ad hoc rendition of the song “Ain’t No More Cane on the Brazos.”

One of the pleasures of the Festival Express clip comes from watching Danko toss out the complexity and discipline for which The Band is revered. Slouching, wearing a crappy white undershirt, he waves his skinny arms like a spastic Leonard Bernstein and calls the key: G! The chord progression comes clear, and Danko lurches into the body of the song:

Shoulda been on the river in nineteen and ten
Ooh ooh ooh
They were driving the women just like they were the men
Ain’t no cane on the Brazos
Ooh ooh ooh
It’s all been ground down to molasses
ooh ooh ooh

Joplin and the rest join in, discordantly, on the chorus. Danko keeps the lyric going somehow, Garcia plays a little guitar solo, and after a few minutes the whole thing dissolves into intoxicated banter. They are funny and endearing, these disheveled, fiendishly talented young people. To see them simply enjoying themselves, unwilling and unable for that moment to perform, content just to sing and strum and laugh, why, it could drive a grown man to tears. Today they are all, with the exception of Weir, dead.

• • •

The folk revival that emerged in New York in the mid-twentieth century took as its texts two primary sources: the six-volume Anthology of American Folk Music curated by the filmmaker Harry Smith, and the field recordings of John and Alan Lomax, particularly the acetates featuring obscure blues singers and inmates from the prison farms that flourished, if that is the word, in the southern states. Unlike Smith’s anthology, which was culled from a number of traditions and ethnicities, Lomax’s recordings during this period focused almost exclusively on African American music.

After the first recording of “Ain’t No More Cane” in 1933—which we will wander back to—the song goes largely silent, enters a period of dormancy from which it will not emerge for several decades. When it is recorded again and released in 1958, it comes from an unlikely source—Lonnie Donegan, the Scottish-born “king of skiffle.”

Skiffle, an idiosyncratic blend of early jazz, blues, and jug-band music, is closely associated with its mid-century practitioners in the United Kingdom. Its roots, however, lie in African American culture, and the term gained currency in pre-Depression Chicago. But by the early 1940s, the homemade ethos of the music—guitars, banjos, jugs, tea chest, kazoos—was pretty much a done deal.

In the late 1950s skiffle got a second wind in England. Donegan had several huge novelty hits in the idiom, with “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour (On the Bedpost Overnight?)” and “My Old Man’s a Dustman.” Donegan immersed himself in American jazz, blues, and forgotten work songs. His keening tenor and frailing banjo on “Ain’t No More Cane” conjure Appalachia more than East Texas, but the verses are terse and spooky. He cuts to the heart of it somehow.

The next performance of “Ain’t No More Cane” to generate an audience was recorded by a classically trained singer who became one of the signal voices of the folk revival. Odetta’s version is as much bluesy lament as work song—rich, dark, and deep. It was probably this recording that caught the attention of the folk singers wandering around New York, looking for the oldest new material they could find.

And find it they did. Bob Dylan sang it at the Gaslight Café in Greenwich Village. The bootleg recording contains a choppy, plaintive complaint; Dylan’s youthful voice sounds as though it could belong to the old man who is still out there busking in the music halls. His remarkable gifts were evident even then: the difference between Dylan and his peers was always the difference between imitation and preternatural inhabitation. How he was able, a few years out of high school, to conjure up such weariness and melancholy remains a wonderful mystery.

The Chad Mitchell Trio included “Ain’t No More Cane” on their 1963 album, “Singin’ Our Mind.” (Even with the dropped “g,” a better title than the earlier “A Mighty Day On Campus.”) I find it difficult to be charitable about the verbose, self-righteous school of folk caterwauling that emerged in the early 1960s, a school of which the Chad Mitchell Trio was a part. In their hands, “Ain’t No More Cane” sounds like a bunch of putout divinity students bellowing a New England sea shanty.

But I am also wary of undermining one of my premises here, which has something to do with the small miracle of successive iteration. The reflexive snobbery of an obsessive man is a paltry thing. Who might have jumped through the portal these lads opened, traced the matter back to its supposed beginnings, fashioned their indignation into something less bound and pompous?

To even attempt a glimpse at those beginnings, you have to leave behind Danko and Joplin and that train rolling through the Canadian grasslands. You have to go back a long way, to a time when the black gold of the global economy was not oil but molasses.

• • •

It is 1733, and if you are an American colonist involved in the rum, molasses, and slave trades, His Majesty’s legislative minions have it out for you. The Molasses Act will levy “upon all Molasses or Syrups of such Foreign Produce or Manufacture . . . which shall be imported or brought into any of the . . . Colonies or Plantations of or belonging to His Majesty, the Sum of Six pence of like Money, for every Gallon thereof.”

The colonists reacted to the Molasses Act with outrage and then with disdain—the legislation was perceived as a violation of their right to frolic unimpeded in the global mercantile economy. What was truly at stake though was not an abstract principle, but the colonists’ piece of what would become known as the triangular trade.

Beginnings are always covert. We can only imagine where things come from.

Here is how that form of economic skullduggery went down: molasses was imported from the Caribbean islands to the New England states, and the colonists distilled the molasses into rum. A portion of the rum was sold domestically, but much of it was transported to Africa, where it was traded for slaves. The slaves were packed into the holds of tiny wooden boats and sold into bondage, either in the Caribbean sugar plantations or the American colonies.

The profits were used to purchase more molasses, which was then imported back to New England to restart the triangle. While the trade was not terribly efficient, it worked well enough to sustain the many and enrich the few.

Rather than engage the British diplomatically—which would have been futile—the colonists opted to transform their New England operation into a vast outlaw state. They ignored the tariff requirements, ran circles around the blockades and administrators, and smuggled the molasses onto the coastline of Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The trade continued with little interruption until 1764, when the British reduced the tariff and decided to actually enforce it with their occupying military. It was another eleven years before the colonists formed a shadow government and forced the Empire’s hand. The molasses legislation, though, presaged what was to come.

• • •

When it comes to tariffs, one man’s tyranny is another’s self-interest.

Absent any form of national income tax, the new American government needed to find sources of revenue. So in 1790 Congress imposed tariffs on just about anything that could be imported. Molasses imports were taxed at three cents a gallon, initiating a program of sugar protectionism in the United States that continues to this day. Admittedly there wasn’t much sugar to protect yet; it would be decades before viable crops began to flourish in Louisiana, and even longer before the crop was established in the subtropical hectares of southeastern Texas.

As the plantation owners in Barbados and other Caribbean outposts had long known, a sugarcane crop cannot be made profitable without cheap labor. Slaves will do just fine, thanks. The history of American Texas is about nothing so much as the creation of a slave-driven agricultural state.

You would have to look long and hard to find a less pacific man then Ulysses S. Grant, yet even he regarded the border war between Mexico and Texas as an abomination. In one concise paragraph in his Memoirs, he outlines the rationale for what the dissembling screwheads in that benighted state still call the Texas Revolution:

Texas was originally a state belonging to the republic of Mexico. . . . An empire in territory, it had but a very sparse population, until settled by Americans who had received authority from Mexico to colonize. These colonists paid very little attention to the supreme government, and introduced slavery into the state almost from the start, though the constitution of Mexico did not, nor does it now, sanction that institution. Soon they set up an independent government of their own, and war existed, between Texas and Mexico, in name from that time until 1836, when active hostilities very nearly ceased upon the capture of Santa Anna, the Mexican President. Before long, however, the same people—who with permission of Mexico had colonized Texas, and afterwards set up slavery there, and then seceded as soon as they felt strong enough to do so—offered themselves and the State to the United States, and in 1845 their offer was accepted. The occupation, separation and annexation were, from the inception of the movement to its final consummation, a conspiracy to acquire territory out of which slave states might be formed for the American union.

The mythology of Texas began with this imperial scheme. It is a big place, this stolen land, but the banks of the Brazos have seen a remarkable share of the state’s mischief.

• • •

If you’re ever in Houston, boy, you better walk right. But if you can’t walk right, give walking due west a shot. Before you know it, you’ll be standing by the lower Brazos, as it twists and slugs toward the Gulf. There are still prisons all over the place, so be careful where you trespass.

Natives named it Tokonohono. The French explorer Robert de La Salle, having perhaps had a premonition that he would die an unpleasant death on its banks, called it Maligne. Those savage poets from Spain called the waterway, the longest river in Texas, Rio de Los Brazos de Dios: River of the Arms of God.

The alluvial soil along the lower Brazos was almost as rich and productive as the dirt in the Mississippi delta, and the climate, humid and subtropical, was close to optimal for cotton and sugarcane. While Texas was still in the fold, the Mexican government had encouraged the settlement of the area with what were called emprasario grants, and it was not long before the ground was sown with cane. By 1828, eight years before the end of the war between Texas and Mexico, the first sugar mill had been established on acreage owned by Moses and Stephen Austin, after whom the state capital is named. By 1850, five years after Texas joined the United States, there were forty-five plantations in Brazoria County and millions of pounds of sugar under production.

The continued importation of African slaves had been prohibited in the United States since 1808, and, thanks to effective enforcement, the slave trade drastically diminished. One of the few places that continued to import slaves in sizeable numbers was Brazoria County. With Mexico, the Republic of Texas, and the United States all claiming jurisdiction, the area was simply not governable in the first half of the nineteenth century.

In the decades before the Civil War, the Texas strategy that Grant described was fully realized. The area along the Brazos, in particular, became an agricultural stronghold rivaling the established southern states. And like Mississippi and Louisiana, the Brazos economy was wholly dependent upon the labor of slaves.

• • •

For the collector of Folk-Lore, the most important virtue is accuracy, and the value of any contribution is destroyed if it is not given just as it was told or sung or described, with no changes whatsoever, even when such changes seem necessary to make sense. Second to accuracy, it is of great importance that full information be supplied, when possible, as to the source of the contribution, the informant, whence he obtained the material, how long it has been current, and any other data that may be of aid to the student. Wherever it is possible, a transcript in the exact words of the informant is best—colloquialisms, meaningless words, mistakes, and all—and, in the case of the ballads and much of the other work, such exactness is necessary.

—Leonidas Payne, 1910 pamphlet, Texas Folklore Society

Leonidas Payne’s instructions seem, at first glance, above reproach. His insistence on accuracy and fidelity reflects a curatorial passion and discipline that John Lomax—who, with his son Alan, is responsible for much of what we know about the music of the Brazos’s penitentiaries—reportedly lacked. Undoubtedly, certain artifacts have survived as a result of Payne’s rigor.

The instructions are also troubling, though. Payne’s tone and language betray the static biases of a literate tradition—a belief that there is nothing that is not discoverable by the scrutiny of the academic mind, a view of folklore that condescends even as it attempts to resurrect. Payne doesn’t seem to be aware that the “colloquialisms, meaningless words, mistakes” are the heart of the matter.

Payne’s edict is framed in a language of custody and surveillance. It is as if he wished to hold what he found in the same bondage in which its creators often languished. The singer of the song or the teller of the tale is an “informant”; turn on that single bare light bulb and make him talk.

In the oral culture of the enslaved men who cut cane on the Brazos, there was no notion of a song as an immutable object, no concept of “currency” as anything more than the vagaries of a given day, no sense of authority vested in the printed word—except that the printed word could deprive you of your family, your home, and your freedom.

I do not mean to chastise the early scholars of this evanescent music. But what they could learn and describe had limits they couldn’t comprehend. What they did not know was that beginnings are always covert, that we can only imagine where things come from.

• • •

The Brazos River flows from Texas’s northern tier, at the confluence of the Salt Fork and Double Mountain Fork. It then flows south for 840 miles through east central Texas before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico. The story of “Ain’t No More Cane on the Brazos” is a tale of confluence as well, with a mystifying series of tributaries. As it mutates, the song can be located at certain way stations, but the origin of “Ain’t No More Cane” is a grand vanishing act.

Here it is, 1933, almost 200 years to the day since the Molasses Act was passed. John and Alan Lomax are lugging their 315-pound disk recorder around Texas, talking their way onto prison plantations and making the first recordings of Texas work songs. The earliest known performance of “Ain’t No More Cane” is attributed to a group of prisoners at Central Unit on the Brazos—Ernest Williams, Iron Head Baker, and anonymous “others.”

What’s the matter, something must be wrong
oh, oh, oh
keep on a working, Shorty George done gone
oh, oh, oh.

 

Got to come on the river in nineteen and four
oh, oh, oh
You could find a dead man on every turn row
oh, oh oh.

 

But it ain’t no more cane on the Brazos
yeah yeah yeah
they done grind it all in molasses
oh, oh, oh.

 

Boy, what you do for to get so long?
oh, oh, oh
said I killed my rider in the high sheriff’s arms
oh, oh, oh.

 

Got to been on the river in nineteen-ten
oh, oh, oh
they was rolling the women like they drive the men
oh, oh, oh.

 

Well, it ain’t no more cane on this Brazos
oh, oh, oh
they done grind it all in molasses
oh, oh, oh.

This is generally regarded as the lyrical model for the versions to come, but it cannot be considered by itself. Another work gang singing the song “Go Down, Old Hannah” complicates things. There is no Brazos in it, but it is essential to understanding later renditions of “Ain’t No More Cane.”

As Alan Lomax wrote eloquently, “Go Down, Old Hannah” is strident and apocalyptic, a choral fury aimed upward at the unrelenting Texas sun—old Hannah—and downward at the circumstances that could trap a man in the hell of Brazoria County. You could force yourself to cut cane all day under the spell of this terrifying song. You could sing it, too, while driving a rusted stake into your oppressor’s heart. Here are the opening lyrics, with the choral phrases emphasized:

old Hannah / well, well, well / you’re turning red / you’re turning red / well I looked at old Hannah / it was turning red / well I looked at my partner / well, well, well / he was almost dead / he was almost dead.

“Go Down, Old Hannah” creeps into a version of “Ain’t No More Cane” that the Lomaxes document in American Ballads and Folk Songs, originally published in 1934. While this version of the song contains the standard references to the lack of cane and comments on the hard times in both 1904 and 1910, the fantasy of escape is also introduced into the narrative:

If I had a sentence like 99 years
all the dogs in the Brazos won’t keep me here.

 

I believe I’ll go to the Brazos line
If I leave you here, gonna think I’m flying.

 

Believe I’ll do like old Riley
Old Riley walked the Brazos.

 

Well, the dog-sergeant got worried and couldn’t go
Old rattler went to howling ’cause the tracks too old.

The next verse conjures up the sun:

I looked at my Old Hannah and she’s turning red
I looked at my partner and she’s almost dead.

The song ends with this echo:

Go down Old Hannah, don’t you rise no more
If you rise any more, bring judgment day.

Scores of online folklorists and living-room strummers attribute “Ain’t No More Cane” to Huddie Ledbetter—one gentleman sings a jumped-up version at Ledbetter’s gravesite—but Ledbetter never recorded it. What he did record was “Go Down, Old Hannah.” Ledbetter is associated more closely with Louisiana’s Angola prison, but he had also done time at Central State, the same Brazos prison farm where Iron Head Baker and Ernest Williams were locked up. He starts his version with the usual invocation of the sun:

Don’t you rise no more / and if you rise in the morning / bring judgment sure / it was soon one morning / when the sun did rise / and I was thinking ’bout my good-looking baby / I would hang my head and cry / go down old Hannah / please don’t rise no more / and if you do rise in the morning / set the world on fire.

Ledbetter is well into the song before the Brazos, unnamed, appears: “If you had been on the river / somewhere in 1910 / they was driving the woman / just as hard as they do the men.”

When Ledbetter is finished singing, the recording continues. Someone, I presume it is John Lomax, says to Ledbetter: “First time I ever heard you sing that many verses.” And Ledbetter replies, “Well, you can just put, you know, just make ’em right on up, you know.”

We should run from the notion of seminal documents in such settings. What we can say is that one recording introduces the disappearance of cane from the Brazos, one song laments the sun, one song laments the sun on the Brazos, and another introduces the Brazos in a lament of the sun. None of these recordings comes close to the original: they just happened to be what was voiced on particular days by particular men when happenstance arrived with a recording machine. Before that, and forever after, Old Rattler is shit out of luck: the trail is too old.

The origins of the specific words disappear along with the songs. Lomax continues the conversation with Ledbetter:

‘Old Hannah is the sun?’

‘Yeah, they call it Old Hannah ’cause it was hot, they just give it a name. . . . Boys talking about Old Hannah. I kept looking and I didn’t see no Hannah . . . but they looked up, said, that’s the sun, that’s all.’

The ancestors of slaves might have known where the name came from. In Hausa, a language widely spoken in areas of West Africa where the slave trade was common, the word for “sun” is “raanaa.”

That African music and oral tradition shaped this music is a truism. It is possible, though, that the language along the Brazos during these years maintained especially close ties to its African roots when compared to what was spoken in areas of the American South that had complied with restrictions on the slave trade.

• • •

A 1902 political cartoon depicts an attempt by Cuban farmers to export sugar cane to the United States via a reciprocity agreement, rebuffed by tariff-wielding sugar growers. Though the gate to reciprocity is blocked, the doors to annexation swing open, and Puerto Rico, symbolized on the far right, has entered through them. / Udo J. Keppler, Library of Congress.

 

The end of the Civil War and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment threatened to undo Texas’s sugarcane industry.

Foreign sugar imports were still subject to a steep duty, and American growers sometimes enjoyed subsidies. But profits would be severely diminished by the abolition of cheap forced labor. The problem was solved, though, during the early days of Reconstruction.

First, the Texas legislature introduced laws aimed at incarcerating freed slaves and their early descendants. Vagrancy laws were a favorite, but black men could be imprisoned for a host of frivolous reasons. You could do a nickel for stealing blackberries off a bush. The first series of laws—known as the Black Codes—was overturned by the federal government, but the practice of mass incarceration continued by a more localized, less visible, fiat.

Once incarcerated, the prisoners were leased to large agricultural corporations, which put them to work in the cane. These corporate camps were brutal beyond imagining—inmates were worked to death as a matter of course, beaten unconscious for “malingering,” shot in the back for staggering off the line. The prisoners’ mortality rate was never much of an issue; the sheriff made sure the work force was continually replenished.

Convict leasing was highly profitable to both the state and its agricultural partners until the early twentieth century. By the 1880s, though, the government of Texas had figured out that there was more money to be made by cutting out the middleman. The state began to buy tracts of land along the Brazos, often from the very corporations—Imperial Sugar, for one—that it had been contracting with. It was on these state-owned prison farms that the Lomaxes found Iron Head Baker and Ernest Williams almost fifty years later.

• • •

Did the Festival Express crew think they were singing about a past that was dead and gone? Was there mystery, romance attached to “Ain’t No More Cane”—the surplus beauty that radiates from obscure histories? Did they sense that they might become part of that history as they themselves faded from view?

Danko and Joplin and Garcia will never be shrouded in the same darkness as the Brazos singers, but even they have begun to vanish. The twenty-year-old kids in the audience during that summer’s shows in Canada are sixty-four now. It will be a while yet, but the day will come when there will be no one living who has seen Danko or Joplin perform.

I listen to the music The Band made from 1965 to 1976 with something approaching veneration. They sabotaged rock and roll at precisely the point when it needed to be sabotaged, rescued it from puerile hipness and self-indulgence.

The Band’s version of “Ain’t No More Cane,” recorded on The Basement Tapes, which elsewhere features Bob Dylan, is a fine example of their virtuosity. The drummer plays the mandolin, the pianist plays the drums, the organist does a turn with the accordion, four of the five members sing verses, and all of the vocalists harmonize, sublimely, on the chorus. The accordion and the supple, bouncing rhythm nudge the song eastward, toward Cajun country. Nothing wrong with that.

But this rendition suffers from affective dissonance. Danko gets his verse right. When he implores the captain not to do him like Shine got done, he sounds unsettled. His plea hints at the foreboding that underlies the first recording. But when Levon Helm, sounding more captain than captive, twangs, “You shoulda been on the river in 1910,” it sounds like he is inviting you to a picnic.

The song is just a little too up-tempo, too rousing and decorative. There should be endless avenues for interpretation, but when the mood of a song stands in such contrast to the evidence that is being laid out, the effect is jarring.

It is an important recording, in any case. The Band’s version of “Ain’t No More Cane” becomes another beginning of the piece.

• • •

One could be forgiven for assuming that The Band’s version of “Ain’t No More Cane” was not just a beginning but also the last word on the subject. The niche market for all that was old and weird collapsed, and rock and roll went looking elsewhere for its myths and motifs.

Even so, there was an unheralded version recorded in 1983 by the blues singer Eric Bibb, who recalibrated the song as a sixteen-bar blues. It is an interesting take, and my only difficulty with it has to do with locomotion and imagination. Visualize, if you can, the work song as linear by necessity, unspooling down the line, the beat of the thing held steady by the imperatives of efficient and regular motion, by work. The blues form truncates that line, plays tricks with the rhythm. Whenever I listen to any version of “Ain’t No More Cane,” I see a group of men walking down the muddy row, swinging machetes at the stalks with a choreographed predictability. In Bibb’s version, my movie descends into chaos: the convicts stumble into one another, cursing, the machetes are swung at random intervals, and that bastard on the horse threatens to shoot ’em all before the next water break.

“Ain’t No More Cane” makes its next grand entrance in 1990, with the Englishman Ian Gillan, the on-again, off-again lead singer for Deep Purple and Black Sabbath. His recapitulation is absurd: bombastic, echoing, theatrical in a Hamlet-at-high-school sense of the word.

It is still a rock song, more or less, when the alternative country band Son Volt gets to it. Lead singer Jay Farrar tones it down a bit, with pensive, affecting vocals. A guitar solo emerges twice, carving melancholy lines on top of the dense chords. There is a weary intelligence in this version—when it ends, the crime has been both committed and witnessed.

Looking at the young, white faces on a late 1990s Son Volt CD cover, I wonder if they are an updated variant on the Chad Mitchell Trio. It would be hard to argue that Farrar and his band aren’t revivalists of a sort, practitioners of a more diffuse folklore. It may be that what matters most is the archeological impulse. There is a difference, though, between Son Volt and The Chad Mitchell Trio, The Kingston Trio, The New Christie Minstrels. Time has passed. What was once presented with the sort of indignation that only the naïve can claim is now recounted in sorrow.

Not to be outdone by the alt-country upstarts, Lyle Lovett refashions the tune as an experiment in musical miscegenation. His “Ain’t No More Cane” begins with a lonesome fiddle, morphs into a country waltz, and then gets utterly hijacked by a black choir.

It is no accident, I’d wager, that Lovett often showcased this borrowed song at the end of his live shows. He has composed a brilliant body of work and could easily have designed a more self-referential tour de force. He is a native Texan, though, and seems both enamored with the myth of his birthplace and queasy about the truth. His arrangement is guided by generosity, by the moment of reconciliation that follows from such contrived fusion.

• • •

Earl Butz, like so many of the men that Dick Nixon gathered around him, was a foul-mouthed Midwesterner with bad intentions and too much power. Most of the sycophants and ne’er-do-wells who gravitated to Nixon swirled down the toilet when Nixon did, never to be heard from again. Butz, though, left a legacy from which we may never recover.

Nixon appointed Butz secretary of agriculture in 1971, and he served in that capacity until 1976. One of his primary goals was to undo the Depression-era practice of subsidizing small farmers, which at times included paying them for not planting commodity crops. During the Depression, commodity prices collapsed because of oversupply; the subsidies were an attempt to restore some balance to the mechanics of supply and demand. The subsidy also reflected environmental lessons of the Dust Bowl. Over-planting had decimated grasslands; the creation of fallow zones was rightly seen as a way to keep the land from disappearing for a second time.

Butz put an end to all this softhearted nonsense. He encouraged farmers to plant corn and soybeans “from fencerow to fencerow.” The farmers could unload their excess production by exporting it—primarily to the Soviet Union, which was suffering a disastrous grain harvest. This worked for a season or two, until the export targets began to restore their own production. By then, the small operations had mortgaged their futures to buy grain, equipment, and additional land for the promised bonanza.

In short order, the export markets collapsed, interest rates rose steadily, and the farmers were unable to pay off their loans. By the early 1980s there was an epidemic of small-farm foreclosures, and agricultural corporations—on whose boards Butz had served since the ’50s—were ready to pounce, quietly folding the smaller parcels into their already massive tracts.

Butz was no one-trick pony, however. He occasionally took a moment from re-engineering the ecology and economy of the heartland to dabble in the southern sugarcane business.

In 1971, a year after the Festival Express had run its course, the Department of Agriculture ruled that under the 1937 Sugar Act, U.S. sugarcane workers were entitled to an extra nickel or dime per hour, depending on their job. The American Sugarcane League and other business interests protested the increase, in spite of the many benefits they derived from the law, including subsidies and tariff protections. The crop was good, and most of the Louisiana workers were paid in scrip, yet the companies complained about their profitsButz agreed with them. He overruled his subordinates and froze the cane workers’ pay, depriving them of their extra forty to eighty cents per day.

With assistance from the Southern Mutual Help Association—a nonprofit run by courageous nuns—two Louisiana sugarcane workers filed a class-action suit against Butz. The court sided with the workers, and the pay raises were reinstated. Additionally, the federal subsidies that the growers relied on were stalled until the Association could determine exactly what the workers were owed. It got ugly at that point, when the courts had the temerity to mess with the growers’ handouts—cars were run off the road, cops took down the license plate numbers of activists, plantation owners threatened the nuns with violence. But the workers won, and in some incremental way life improved for them.

In 1976 Butz was forced to resign from the Department of Agriculture for stating, in the presence of a reporter, that all the “coloreds” really wanted was “tight pussy, loose shoes, and a warm place to shit.” He later served a little time for tax evasion. He died in his sleep a few years ago, at the age of ninety-eight. At the time of his death, he was professor emeritus at his alma mater, Purdue University.

• • •

“Just make ’em right on up,” Huddie Ledbetter said. Freed from the strictures of a literate text, the lyrics of a song could be altered by the composition of that day’s crew, the weather, the mood of a cane-cutter with a carrying voice. References to the meteorological phenomenon known as the Texas norther, to a ninety-nine year sentence, and to that prison train the inmates called “Shorty George” appear, disappear, and reappear. One verse from the original “Ain’t No More Cane,” though, vanishes from the folk revivalist version and does not get resurrected.

In the first of the 1933 versions, Ernest Williams documents a murder in twenty-seven syllables: “Boy, what you do for to get so long? / Oh, oh, oh / Said I killed my rider in the high sheriff’s arms / oh, oh, oh.”

It is one thing to omit a reference to bad weather, the length of a sentence, or even thoughts of escape. Murder, though, brings another order of depth and complexity to the tale. So what happened to it? Why do these lines disappear completely from the revivalist’s tale?

The folk revival in New York coincided with the beginnings of a new racial consciousness in America—sit-ins, voter registration drives, school integration, long-delayed civil rights legislation. Simply put, many folk singers viewed themselves as propagandists for the movement. It is possible that there was an unspoken, self-censoring tactic displayed in the editing of these songs; that, in the service of creating outrage, there was a one-dimensional sterility attached to the oppressed, a romance of victimization without the complication of culpability.

The revivalists wanted saints, not sinners. The more unsavory aspects of the Brazos prisoners were left unsung.

• • •

Brazos still runs muddy / Just like she’s run all along / And there ain’t never been no cane to grind / The cotton’s all but gone. —Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen, “This Old Porch”

Here I am / Well, I guess it’s no surprise / Up to my knees in water / Up to my ears in dragonflies / Broke down on the Brazos / Broke down on the Brazos / About to lose my mind. —Gov’t Mule, “Broke Down On The Brazos”

One song a melancholy pastorale, the other a guttural complaint: text invades text, text recreates text, language washes over the banks, sediment of words layering the soil. The signal words—“Brazos,” “cane,” “turn row”—are meanings unto themselves now, cut clean from the ligatures and tissues that bound them to sentences. Words, saturated with the despair and evil from which they emerged. Fugitive words, even now looking for obscure tributaries by which to escape.

It was the cane, not the cotton, that was gone by the time Lovett and Keen composed “This Old Porch.” In fact the cane was disappearing when Ernest Williams and Iron Head Baker sang for John Lomax—mosaic disease, exhausted soil, and the economics of cane conspired to fulfill the prophesy that had been a lament.

Prisons still line the Brazos, and the incarcerated population of Texas today is more than ten times that of the 1960s. But while the agricultural model has faded, Texans have never stopped searching for ways to make mass incarceration profitable. The state is now the epicenter of the American private prison system. The value of prisoners no longer resides in their ability to work; their worth is easier to extract. Profits accrue by the simple fact of their presence behind bars. Politicians, judges, state employees, and entrepreneurs huddle at the carceral trough.

Sugar-related agriculture in America has withered away to almost nothing, but the legislative legacy of 1790s protectionism has continued through the ages. In 1901, the Platt Amendment gave U.S. companies a stranglehold over sugar production—not to mention foreign policy—in Cuba, the profits from which worked their way back to the states. And today a matrix of tariffs results in Americans paying substantially more than the world price for sugar. There are few workers left in the industry to benefit from the high price but no shortage of aggressive lobbyists and compliant legislators.

Molasses has become a culinary anachronism and is of no importance to our economy. That hasn’t, however, prevented a persisting interest in the harvesting of cane. Sugarcane can be processed into biofuel as well as syrups and booze. There are huge plantations in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatamala, and Costa Rica.

Calamity follows, as it nearly always does when sugarcane is involved. Starting around 2005, doctors and epidemiologists reported that thousands of young sugarcane workers in these countries—mostly young males—were dying of kidney disease.

The origin of the epidemic is not fully understood. A variety of factors, including exposure to pesticides and the unrelenting heat stress and dehydration involved in the harvest, have been implicated. Medical researchers have named the disease “endemic agricultural nephropathy,” though it is often referred to simply as “sugarcane nephropathy.” El Salvador’s health minister requested that the United Nations formally recognize the malady as a medical crisis, which would have increased the likelihood of obtaining UN funding with which to combat the disease. The U.S. delegation resisted and also refused to implicate pesticide exposure as a causal agent.

One rural region of Nicaragua where nearly everyone with a job works in the sugarcane fields is now referred to as La Isla de las Viudasthe Island of the Widows.

• • •

There are three of them, and they call themselves The Low Anthem. One has an acoustic guitar, another sits in front of a rack of delicate percussion instruments. The third holds a clarinet, an instrument that has been losing its luster since Mezz Mezzrow bit the dust.

We are well into the twenty-first century, and the members of The Low Anthem look very young. The guitar player starts strumming, and they begin to play their version of “Ain’t No More Cane On The Brazos.”

He rises, unrested, from his wooden bunk. The line has already formed outside the bunkhouse, fifty-six men with permanent sleep in their eyes, waiting for the signal to begin walking toward the fields.

The cane is tall now, but he can glimpse the river through the wreckage of yesterday’s harvest. He can see the sun, too, rising red on the horizon, giving off heat already, creating new heat to mix with yesterday’s heat, joining yesterday’s heat with tomorrow’s heat.

They break off, separate down the rows. He swings the machete low, steps back as the stalks fall at his feet. He stumbles in the snaky vegetation of the row, a green tangle just tall enough to slow every step. Yesterday’s blisters tear off, and the machete handle turns red with blood. Up on the turn row, the rider shifts on his horse, drinks from a canteen, lights his first cigar of the day.

The sun rises higher in the sky, and his eyes begin to sting. He finds the rhythm, finally, the interval between stillness and motion, the metric that divides every wasted minute of yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

By the time the sun is directly overhead, he has hacked his section all the way to the banks of the Brazos. He stands and stares. And then he throws his cutting tool into the sky over the river. Spinning, the machete floats forever in the space between cloud and current.

She holds up the clarinet, fingers the silver buttons, and places the reed in her mouth. She is beautiful, really, no junked-out, pockmarked genius Joplin, but sincere, and maybe that’s the only damned thing we have left.

He lowers his head and opens his mouth.

Sound of wood and air.

He begins to sing a song, and all his children sing along.

Comments

I feel out of breath just reading this. The man may be obsessed, but so much the better for the rest of us. This is truly poignant. One of those essays that connects you to the deep strand of humanity going back and forward, forever.

I've listened to this song for years and never asked these questions.  Sometimes, if you are lucky and the writer talented, you read something that opens up a text in ways you never expected.  This has it all: history, judgements, and feeling. Thanks.

shockingly great

Well. Up in the hills of Pennsylvania in 1963 (where the anthracite coal mines were all but done), seeing the Chad Mitchell Trio perform their version of the song on television was one of one ways to be exposed to the story. They moved me, and even after reading these words here, when I followed the link and listened to them on You Tube, I'm moved again. Or still moved. 
Glad you moderate your detestation therefore of the Folk folk. My people were still singing polkas and chanting in Latin -- traditions also with some long and deep experience in their folds. But that is tangential and for the moment irrelevant. 
I'm old enough now to hear the narrative's brutality through Odetta's soft lovely voice, and to take the misgivings about Danko and Helm's rendition in the "basement" recording. Less so the reservations about Lyle Lovett's deeply felt ensemble version. I might have shed tears over this even if I didn't know the story; knowing the story made me unable to resist.
In my arguments with fellow Pennsylvanians over racial matters (I'm recalling my Penn State days now), us sons and grandsons of coal miners and steel workers largely held that blacks were looking for special privilege. Our fathers and grandfathers (and some of ourselves too) had worked hard in killing places, persisted, and emerged. I wish this piece had been available to me in response. I feel like I have held the song in my hands in four dimensions, been given a look back into the life. 
Anyway, the "divinity student" approach by the white three added a dimension to and explained the hosings and marches and bombings seen on the evening news. It had its place, taking the experience from the guts and hearts of the oppressed and giving it the volume of people who could dare to speak up loudly. Anyone may suppose that my indignation on behalf of distant people was puerile and self-righteous; what of that there was deepened with study. What was long-lasting and what remains with me now, followed the curve of that social process. 
So, your instincts warning you against uncharitable feelings for the "caterwauling" -- keep that in mind. It wasn't possible for me then, there, to "leaped through the portal" and trace this to its several morning mists. I had to wait, even as long as bursting out in the Mitchell Trio's version after supper no more than five days ago, for this consideration to take me there. Much thanks.

Thank you for this lovely comment

Pretty great. Now who is Dave Byrne and where can I read more by him?

Linda Tillery and the Cultural Heritage Choir, along with Kelly Joe Phelps, on their CD "Say Your Business" do a stunning version which includes the lyrics, “Boy, what you do for to get so long? / Oh, oh, oh / Said I killed my rider in the high sheriff’s arms / oh, oh, oh.”

excellent thanks.

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