Most societies seem to develop stories around culture heroes who represent some aspect of skills useful for successfully negotiating the environment. Some, such as Moses or Jesus, are inspirational, and are carried by the official representatives of order. Others, carried by members of the underclass, are about disorder, and, even though the hero may lose in the end, there's a subtext of approval involved (Jesse James or John Henry, for example). I find the trickster hero stories, such as Br'er Rabbit*, particularly fascinating, because they contain dual messages. Br'er Rabbit is always operating from a position of weakness, succeeding by using a quicker wit to outmaneuver Br'er Fox, representative of the predatory overclass. But his pride and quick temper also leads him into the very predicaments he must then escape (example: Br'er Rabbit and the Tar Baby).
Br'er Rabbit was a direct descendant of Anansi the Spider, a West African Trickster, and Creek Indian stories about a rabbit trickster. Being an animal, he could build morale and carry valuable advice for slaves without alerting the masters. A more secret set of stories evolved around Old John, a slave who outwitted his master while pretending to be subservient. The folklorist J. Mason Brewer collected some of these stories in the early 20th century, but I think there must have been many more of them, because Old John metamorphosed into Lost John, an escapee from confinement (first from slavery, then from the institution that replaced it: prison). Lost John, for example, had shoes with heels at both ends, so no one could tell which way he was going when he escaped, one of many tricks for confusing trackers and bloodhounds. Songs about Lost John were common among southern African-Americans: that master plagiarizer, W.C. Handy, copyrighted and published a version.
Another version became a virtuoso harmonica piece, and yet another was a hit on the minstrel stage. Uncle Dave Macon probably heard some version of it from the entertainers who stayed at his parents' Nashville hotel. He recorded it on the 1950 home recordings, Uncle Dave at Home (Spring Fed CD SFR-101). Actually, he evidently recorded it earlier, but, it was never issued, and the master was lost without a trace. Sam & Kirk McGee and Arthur Smith, who undoubtedly learned the song from Uncle Dave, performed it in the 1960s for Mike Seeger. That version wasn't issued either, but we got a tape copy and learned the version given here. I like this version for the last verse, where the hero displays his Achilles Heel: ladies doing the buck-and-wing dance.
Lost John Dean, a closely related version without the comic verse, was recorded by Bascom Lamar Lunsford in 1928 (reissued on Yazoo CD 2028, Times Ain't Like They Used To Be, Vol. 1).
[CLICK HERE FOR SHEET MUSIC (pdf file)]
1. Did you ever hear the story of Long John Green?
A bold bank robber from Bowling Green;
They put him in jail the other day,
But late last night, he made his getaway.
He's long gone from Kentucky,
Long gone, ain't he lucky;
Long gone, that's what I mean,
He's a long gone John from Bowling Green.
2. Long John waiting by the railroad track,
Waiting for the freight train to come back;
Along come the freight train, huffing and flying,
And you oughta seen Long John grab them blinds.
3. They put the bloodhounds on his track,
Trying to get old Long John back;
The doggone bloodhounds lost the scent,
And nobody knows where Long John went.
4. Long John went to the ballet show,
Got him a seat right in the front row;
The girls come out to do the buck-and-wing dance,
And they had to bring him home in an ambulance.
* The Br'er Rabbit stories were collected and published in Joel Chandler Harris's 1880 book, Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Stories.
[NOTE: This is the last Remembering the Old Songs article. It's had an amazing run (184 essays, since 1995), and Bob and I have enjoyed presenting them. Thanks to all of you who bothered to read us, particularly those who wrote in with comments.]