Remembering The Old Songs:


by Lyle Lofgren
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, May 2006)

Electricity didn't reach our farm until I was almost 12. Before then, some relatives might play music on a Sunday afternoon, but otherwise the only entertainment was a wind-up Victrola and an eclectic record collection contributed by an aunt. Kenny Wagner's Surrender, sung by Ernest Stoneman, was one of my favorites. Its simple tune caught me, so I learned to sing it when too young to understand its subject matter.

When record companies in the 1920s realized that old-time country music meant big sales, they needed lots more of it. Ralph Peer and Polk Brockman of Okeh records discovered a gold mine in Rev. Andrew Jenkins (1885-1957), a blind Atlanta preacher and gospel singer who moonlighted by selling newspapers. He had a knack for writing credible (and copyrightable) country songs that were then recorded by more famous performers. In addition to gospel, he dashed off topical songs while the news was still current, writing both words and music for such hits as Little Marion Parker (young Atlanta girl murdered), The Death of Floyd Collins (cave exploration ends badly), and The Wreck of the Royal Palm (train wreck). Jenkins's métier was songwriting (over 800 songs), but he usually slipped in some preaching by including a morality message as the last verse.

"Kinnie" Wagner (real name either William or Karl) was born 1903 in Virginia and as a youngster developed marksmanship skills. He joined a circus at age 16 as The Texas Kid, a target shooter and bronco rider. When he left the circus, he took up selling moonshine in Mississippi, perhaps in cahoots with the local authorities. Something went wrong, and there was a shootout where Kinnie killed a deputy sheriff. He was arrested but quickly broke jail. Another deputy tracked him down and set up an ambush, but Kinnie spotted it and killed him also. He fled to Kingsport, Tennessee, where three deputies, tempted by reward money, tried to get him, but he further demonstrated his sharpshooting skills by killing two of them. "I would have gotten the third one, but it was too dark," he explained later. Finally, in August 1926, Sheriff Lillie Barber (yes, a woman) arrested him in Texarkana, Arkansas. He was extradited to Mississippi, where he stated that he had committed no crimes other than killing deputies. Within a couple of weeks after the arrest, Rev. Jenkins had written two songs on the subject, Kinnie Wagner, a third-person ballad, and this one, where the first verse references the earlier song. Both were immediately recorded by Vernon Dalhart. Stoneman covered the second one in 1927, causing me to spend part of my youth singing a badman ballad to myself while working in the fields.

After the events described here, Wagner was sentenced to the electric chair, but broke jail and was re-arrested several more times. For some reason, Mississippi never got around to executing him, and the internet says he finally died in jail, circa 1958.


Complete Lyrics:
I'm sure you've heard my story
From the Kenny Wagner song,
How down in Mississippi
I took the road that's wrong.

It was down in Mississippi
Where I murdered my first man,
When the sheriff there at Leakesville
For justice took his stand.

Then I went from Mississippi
To the state of Tennessee,
Two men went down before me
As I took my liberty.

I wandered to the country,
I never could find rest,
'Til I went to Texarkana
Away out in the west.

Again I started drinking,
And again I pulled my gun,
And within a single moment
The deadly work was done.

The sheriff was a woman,
But she got the drop on me;
I quit the game and surrendered,
Gave up my liberty.

I'm now in Mississippi,
And I soon shall know my fate;
I'm waiting for my trial,
But I do not dread my fate.

For still the sun is shining,
The sky is blue and fair;
But my heart is not repining
For I do not fear the chair.

I've had my worldly pleasures,
I've faced a many a man,
But it was down in Texarkana
Where a woman called my hand.

Young men, young men, take warning,
Oh take my last advice:
If you start the game in life wrong
You must surely pay the price.

Note added 11/26/2010:
I recently received the following e-mail from Ramelle Macoy with further information on Wagner.

I was born and finished high school in Mississippi and what I know of Kenny Wagner I know from my Mother. I have no personal knowledge. Mother was fascinated with criminal trials and with criminals. In addition to The Kenny Wagner Song she frequently sang "21 Years" and one that began: "My name is Charles Guiteau, That name I'll never deny, For shooting James A. Garfield, I am condemned to die."
[For more on this song, see Bob Waltz's article, Charles Guiteau ]

How she knew I have no idea but Mother told me that Kenny had been sentenced to death in Texas but because of the several murders in Mississippi was returned to Mississippi to be tried for those murders before being executed. And while it doesn't make a lot of sense, she said he was tried and convicted in Mississippi and given a life sentence but Mississippi then refused to return him to Texas.

Kenny lived out his life--my guess is maybe 20 to 30 years--in the state prison at Parchman Farm probably no more than 20 miles from my home in Clarksdale. He was a model prisoner and was offered a pardon by the Governor of Mississippi. He knew however that freedom would mean execution in Texas and he preferred prison.

At Parchman he attained the status of a "Trusty". A remarkably trusted "Trusty" who was rather frequently given overnight leave and a prison truck to drive into Clarksdale to visit a lady friend who lived across the street from us in the 100 block of Madison Street. I saw the prison truck parked there many times but have no idea if Mother ever met Kenny.

When he died however his body (for reasons unknown and unimagined by me) was, for a short time, in the Post Office (according to Mother but I suspect it must have been the Court House) and could be visited by the public. Mother said she was the only person there.

[ I'm fascinated by the part about Mississippi not sending him to Texas to be executed. I suppose they wanted him to finish out his Mississippi life sentence first. And if I ever go to prison, I want to be the kind of trusty who gets to take a prison truck into town overnight. Ramelle is going to try to find out more about whether Wagner's body was really exhibited at the post office. It's possible, since local postmasters had quite a bit of autonomy back then.]

Note added 12/10/2010:
Ramelle Macoy sent the following Wagner obituaries from local newspapers:

From the Gate City (VA) Herald Courier:

WAGNER-Funeral services for William Kenny (Kinnie) Wagner Will be held at 2 p.m. Wednesday (3/12/1958) in the chapel of the Scott County Funeral Home, Weber City , Va. , the Reverends Bobbie Alterman and Clarence Arnold officiating. Burial will be in the Wood Cemetery on the Nickelsville highway. Friends will serve as pallbearers.
(Submitted by Don Lane).

From the Kingsport (TN) Times-News, March 11, 1958:

Wagner Rites Are Set For Wednesday

Funeral services for William Kenneth (Kinnie) Wagner, 55, will be conducted Wednesday at 2 p. m. from the Scott County Funeral Home Chapel. The Rev. Bobbie Olterman and the Rev. Clarence Arnold will officiate. Burial will be in Wood Cemetery. Friends will serve as pallbearers.

Wagner, convicted killer of five persons, died at about 3:45 p. m. Sunday while petting dogs at the prison in Parchman, Miss., where he had been confined.

Officials said the native of Scott County collapsed shortly after asking to be temporarily released from his hospital bed where he had been under treatment for a heart condition.

Wagner was one of the South's most widely known gunmen, and at one time, was Mississippi's most wanted killer. He was also renowned for his ability as an escape artist.

Survivors include his father, Charlie M. Wagner. Speers Ferry. Va.: his stepmother. Mrs. Louisa Wagner: seven sisters, Mrs. Joe Mann. Gate City. Mrs. Rinda Tunnel, Lexington. Ky., Mrs. Rod Bellamy, Donovan. Ill., Mrs. Frank Adams. Robinette. W. Va., Mrs. Carl Winkle. Speers Ferry. Mrs. Jack Seckly, New Jersey; Mrs. C. W. Cunningham, Kingsport; four brothers; Oscar Wagner of Gate City, Kelsey and J. C. Wagner, both of Kingsport and Robert C. Wagner, Washington, D. C.

From the Gate City (VA) Herald Courier:

William Kenneth Garland "Kinnie" Wagner
Kinnie Wagner Story Ends In Grave Beside His Mother
Special To The Herald Courier

GATE CITY , Va. , March 12 - The fabulous story of Kinnie Wagner ended today when his body was buried beside that of his mother on a mountainside near here.

A funeral home at nearby Weber City had estimated at least 10,000 persons viewed the body there Tuesday, but only a small portion of them followed the procession to the cemetery today.

Automobiles from Mississippi , where Wagner began his career of violence many years ago and where he died in the state penitentiary Sunday, were among those winding along the mountain road.

The coffin was opened for the 1ast time just before it was lowered into the grave. This time only close friends were within viewing distance.

Wagner has become a legend in this mountain country where he grew up and to which he returned in frequent escapes from a life sentence. Fiction has become mixed with the facts, and there are even conf1iting reports on the number of people he killed. The generally accepted version is there were at least five.

According to FBI files, Wagner first got into trouble when he was accused of stealing a watch in Mississippi . An ex-circus sharp-shooter, he became embroiled in a gunfight with officers in which his aim was deadly. Thereafter he was a hunted outlaw between periods of imprisonment.

Once, in 1924. he was sentenced to electrocution at Blountville , Tenn. , just across the state line from his home county for slaying two policemen. But he escaped and never was brought back to Blountville for execution of the sentence.

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