Bye-Bye Batson: Continuity, Creativity, and Lake Charles' Great Blues Ballad

By Joshua Clegg Caffery


I first encountered the song "Batson" while writing my dissertation, an extended study of John and Alan Lomax's 1934 field recording trip in southern Louisiana. In this essay, I present some of my research into the song and a quick close analysis of the song text. I use the song to talk briefly about the tricky term creativity, how it can be useful to understanding a song like "Batson," and how it can fit into the folklorist's vocabulary. I also try to highlight how "Batson" exemplifies different sorts of continuity as well as discontinuity.1

In the summer of 1934, the Lomaxes recorded primarily in and around the region alternately known as Acadiana, or Bayou Country, or South Central Louisiana, or the Cajun Triangle. On the recordings, John and Alan Lomax refer to the region as Evangeline Country. It's no wonder that they did, as John Lomax was to some extent an intellectual descendant of Evangeline's creator, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, by way of George Lyman Kittredge and Francis James Child. Lomax had studied at Harvard under Kittredge, who had succeeded passing him the torch of American romantic nationalism, and he'd used it already to illuminate (or obfuscate, as some have argued) the cowboy ballads of his native Texas.

In southern Louisiana, Lomax was looking, by and large, for the flotsam and jetsam of the Acadian diaspora. To quote Longfellow, he was looking for the songs of the "Acadian farmers— / Men whose lives glided on like rivers that water the woodlands, / Darkened by shadows of earth, but reflecting an image of heaven" (Longfellow 1893: 19-20). Lomax knew that St. Martin and Iberia parishes were historically at the heart of Evangeline country, and the lion's share of the songs he and Alan recorded that summer were traditional French songs. They represented the songs as Acadian remnants, and this representation is still common today.2 They did not realize it at the time, but most of the songs actually derived from 18th- and 19th-century France, long after the Acadians had left for Nova Scotia, and that most of the songs were therefore not appreciably Acadian in any identifiable way, though they may have been sung by people with varying degrees of Acadian ancestry. They did record a handful of what we would today call Cajun songs, but John was largely uninterested in the indigenous music of the region. This was the focus of the Lomaxes in the summer of 1934, and in many senses it remains the cynosure of cultural discourse about the region to this day.

In addition to the large body of Francophone traditional music, however, the Lomaxes also recorded a small body of English songs by African-American laborers such as former slaves from (and from nearby) Avery Island, a retired railroad worker nicknamed Old Dad from New Iberia, and John Bray, the boss of a cypress logging team near Morgan City. In Lafayette, Louisiana, a town now commonly known as the hub of Cajun and black Creole culture, they recorded a handful of songs from an unnamed string band led by Wilson Jones, who went by the name Stavin' Chain.3 Jones also performed a song about a character named "Stavin' Chain," who exhibits various forms of physical violence and sexual prowess. All of this resonates, of course, with the "badman" motif so prevalent in the folk blues in general—the Stack-o-Lees of the world.4

The Lomax recordings are the only known documentation of this somewhat mysterious ensemble. Who exactly these musicians were, where they might have performed, and who might have been their audience remain a mystery. There just hasn't been much work done at all on black string bands in Louisiana. Census and military records, though, do confirm that people with those names lived in Louisiana during the early 20th century. There was a Wilson Jones drafted into the army to fight in WWI on September 12, 1918. Nineteen at that time, this Wilson Jones was born in Opelousas around 1899 and would have been approximately 35 when the Lomaxes recorded him. He appears to be about that old in these photos. One of the other songs in Stavin' Chain's repertoire, incidentally, is an apparently original ballad reflecting his own experience in World War I, further suggesting that they could be the same individual.

Figure 1: Stavin' Chain playing the guitar and singing the ballad "Batson." Photo; Alan Lomax, Library of Congress.

Information about Octave Amos, who played the fiddle on the Lomax recording of "Batson," and Charles Gobert, who played banjo, is similarly sparse, but there are some hints. The 1930 Census indicates that a black man named Charles Gobert, aged 49, was living in Lafayette and military records indicate that an Octave Amos, born in Louisiana on May 7, 1894, was drafted into the army in 1918. Perhaps they met during the war. In a conversation I recently had with the anthropologist Ray Brassieur, he observed that both Amos and Gobert are common surnames found in the descendants of the Attakapas-Ishak Indians who once inhabited the Acadiana region (personal communication, August 2012).

Figure 2: Fieldworker Alan Lomax. Photo: Library of Congress.

While Anglophone black string band traditions have not survived in south Louisiana, the Lomaxes' documentation of Jones and his cohorts suggests that the folk blues was a part of the area's cultural landscape up until at least the early part of the twentieth century. Along with later Lomax recordings of John Bray and Herbert Halpert's WPA recordings of Phinus "Flatfoot" Rockmore, "Kid" White and Joe Harris (who were recorded in Shreveport, but who hailed from New Iberia), these recordings suggest that—as in the rest of the rural South—black string-band and blues performance likely once thrived in south Louisiana, alongside the better known Cajun, Creole, and zydeco traditions. Etiologies of Cajun music often point out the enormous influence of the blues, but there's been very little study of rural or acoustic blues music in the Acadiana region. Research into some of these forgotten songs and styles reminds us that this part of Louisiana wasn't the Cajun/Creole cultural ghetto it is sometimes made out to be.

This has all been a roundabout way of getting to "Batson," one of the songs recorded by Stavin' Chain. Save for a brief headnote in Lomax's collection, Our Singing Country, and an article in a legal journal, not much has been written about "Batson," the only other known version being a manuscript in the Robert Winslow Gordon papers in the Library of Congress (Gordon 3759, Lomax et al. 2000: 335). The verses had been sent to Gordon by an assistant district attorney in 1929, who had recorded it from an elderly black man in downtown Lake Charles.

Figure 3: Albert Edwin Batson, accused murderer. Photo: New Orleans Daily Picayune.

Before addressing what the song has to do with creativity, I'll offer a brief analysis of its structure and a brief account of how its narrative intersects with other historical accounts of the strange tale of Edwin Batson. Although the Lomaxes were not in the habit of taking assiduous field notes at this time, they did note that some of these photos were taken during the singing of "Batson" in the summer of 1934. At 37 or so verses and 12 minutes long, Alan had to change disks in order to record the second half. In the notes accompanying the Our Singing Country transcription, Lomax explains that although Stavin' Chain claimed that the song derived from a murder in Lake Charles, "Inquiry fails to confirm Stavin' Chain's story" (Lomax et al. 2000: 335). As the legal scholar Richard Underwood notes, Lomax's efforts to research the song must have been fairly minimal (2007: 766). But they were busy, and they moved fast. And it's good that they did, because it leaves me something to write about here.

As it turns out, the case of Albert Edwin "Ed" Batson and his alleged murder of the Earle family in 1902 near Welsh, Louisiana, was a cause célèbre in its day, and Jones's ballad constitutes a vernacular echo and retelling of a story that had been at one time a statewide and even national sensation. In Jones's song, Batson is a hapless, somewhat oppressed laborer accused of a crime he did not commit. As Lomax notes, the sympathies of the singer lie with the accused, as is often the case in folk blues narratives. Apprehended while window-shopping, he is convicted and gruesomely executed, much to the horror of his adoring family. His last request is that his daughters be well cared for:

Batson's little girl cry,
Batson's little child cry,
That's all he asked them people,
"Take keer of them two little girls." (Lomax et al. 2000: 341)

This is one version of the "Batson" tale: a sympathetic, even pathetic tale of a wrongfully accused underdog. With little exception, however, newspaper reports of the time painted a starkly divergent portrait of Batson. "FIENDISH DEEDS OF A TRAMP" reads the front-page of New Orleans' Daily Picayune story (one of many that would run), published two days after the mutilated bodies of the Earle family were discovered. This article and the ones that would follow essentially adhere to the accepted narrative surrounding the killings, the same narrative that the prosecution would successfully articulate in the subsequent trial (Anonymous 1902).

Batson had worked for some time as the hired man of Ward Earle, son of L.S. Earle, a prosperous immigrant farmer who had brought his family from Kansas to Calcasieu Parish, near Welsh, Louisiana, earlier in the 19th century. Someone (many witnesses later testified that it was Batson) claiming to be Ward Earle aroused suspicions by trying to sell Earle's team of livestock in Lake Charles, leading to the discovery of Earle's dead body, alongside the bodies of his brutally-murdered wife and children (six dead in total). Batson, meanwhile, had departed for his hometown in Missouri, apparently leaving incriminating evidence in Ward Earle's buggy—a vest containing a cryptic suicide note, and other possessions linked to Batson. As all circumstantial evidence seemed to suggest Batson's guilt, he was pursued by the sheriff and deputy,5 arrested in Missouri, and ultimately extradited to Calcasieu Parish, where he stood trial for murder (Underwood 2007; Anonymous 1902).

The already notorious case began to assume legendary proportions when the first verdict of guilty was reversed, and a second trial announced. Things became more complicated when an acquaintance of the defense attorney, the freelance Associated Press reporter Charles Dobson (also known as Miles Dobson), published a book, Guilty? Side Lights on the Batson Case, a Recrudescence of the Murder of the Earll [sic] Family in Louisiana, which postulated that two unknown villains had perpetrated the crime, possibly as retribution for an ancient grievance dating back to the Earle family's past lives in Kansas (Underwood 2007). Dobson also suggested that the crime may have been a result of tension between Cajun ranchers and Anglo immigrants from the north, a tension that is well attested in local lore.

(Recrudescence, by the way, is an interesting word. It's generally pejorative, and it usually means a sort of parasitic rebirth—the unpleasant reemergence of some that had been quiescent. And I want to come back to that term later in this essay, because it provides a good counterpoint for the concept of creativity.)

Although the hearsay evidence that led to Dobson's speculations was never admitted in court, the book caused quite a stir and contributed to the controversy surrounding Batson's eventual execution on August 14, 1903, as well as lingering doubts about Batson's guilt. A 1997 article by journalist Jim Bradshaw in Lafayette, Louisiana's Daily Advertiser, for instance, accepts key tenets of Dobson's hypothesis. Descendants of Edwin Batson have retained the story, and they steadfastly deny Batson's guilt.6

While Jones's ballad obviously diverges sharply from the facts as presented at the trial, many of these divergences relate to details of the case, no doubt refigured by oral tradition. For instance, Batson hitches up Mr. Earle's "two bay horse and a wagon." The case revolved largely around the suspect's attempt to divest himself of Earle's mules, horses, and buggy. In the song, Batson walks "uptown," where he looks in a "showcase." During the trial, it emerged that the suspect had left Earle's horses and mules and visited a gunsmith and a watch repair store. A large amount of money from a recent sale of the Earle's harvest had disappeared, and the thought was that Batson used this money to go window-shopping on Ryan Street, to this day a major commercial road in Lake Charles.

Similarly, "Henry Reese" is the name of the Sheriff in the ballad and, while the Sheriff who arrested Batson was named Perkins, one H.L. Reese, the foreman of the Lake Charles streetcar line, was a key witness at the trial. Moreover, the initial appearance of a deputy, rather than the sheriff, echoes real events: apparently, Perkins was criticized for sending his deputy to investigate what he knew to be a major crime. This ended up making the deputy a hero and paving the way for a successful career in law enforcement. Similarly, the song refers to Batson scribbling with a pencil. Much of the trial proceedings hinged on the positive identification of Batson's handwriting—specifically, whether it matched the handwriting on a note pinned on Ward Earle's door that seemed intended to throw investigators off the scent. And, finally, the closing line of the song, "Bye Bye, Batson, Bye Bye," may relate to the text of Batson's purported suicide note (the so-called "Ha Ha Letter"), which concluded thus: "A.E. Batson, Friend to All. Ha, ha, bye-bye, I'm gone."

All of these connections notwithstanding, Jones's narrative differs sharply from the events in many major respects. Albert Batson was an itinerant laborer, for instance, and had no wife or child. Authorities apprehended him after he had left the state, not when he was window-shopping in Lake Charles.

Figure 4: Sheriff Perkins and Deputy Fontenot, Batson's Louisiana escorts. Photo: New Orleans Daily Picayune

The metamorphosis of the Batson story evidenced here, though, is in keeping with its assimilation into the narrative blues tradition—a tradition that tends to invert societal norms, often making heroes of reputed scoundrels. The tune and structure of the song, as the Lomaxes note in Our Singing Country, are drawn directly from the widely known African-American folksong "Frankie and Johnny," a song that also presents a generous defense of a murderer. Incidentally, the song about Jones' World War I experience mentions his cantonment at Camp Pike in Arkansas. Many of the black soldiers who fought in WWI were trained and stationed there.7

A number of the phrases and motifs appearing in the song are traditional. Batson's declaration, "You may dress in red. You may dress in black," echoes the concluding verses of a number of similar blues songs, such as "Ella Speed," or Mississippi John Hurt's version of "Louis Collins." Likewise, the image in "Batson" of a "rubber-tired buggy, decorated horse" (often hack) appears frequently in similar songs, such as "Frankie and Albert," (1994, 103), or Blind Willie McTell's "Delia":

Rubber-tired buggy,
Two-seated hack,
Took Delia to the graveyard,
Never brought her back. (McTell 1990)

Although early scholarship on the blues ballad as a genre—"Negro ballad," as Malcolm Laws called it (1964: 94)—initially set it apart from Anglo-American balladry, suggesting that it was less likely to be based on real events, and less likely to be realistic, more recent investigation into the historical background of songs like "Stagger Lee" and "Ella Speed" have suggested that these compositions were, in fact, often based on real events, and that those real events were often rendered in precise and realistic detail. This is not to say that they were realistic in a historic sense, but their aesthetic seemed to involve verisimilitude.

"Batson," I would argue, while it does incorporate stylistic elements from the blues tradition, is a highly unified, extremely realistic narrative drawn directly from real events—much like many topical canonical English ballads. Although the term blues ballad, as originally defined, doesn't work well, I think that it's a serviceable phrase for such a song, which is so like the traditional English ballad in terms of its relation to historical sensations, and so indebted to African poetics in terms of its musical form, performance, and even lyrical formulae.

Now, what to say about creativity and Batson? Creativity today is a nebulous and ever expanding concept. Like the universe, the boundaries of creativity are expanding. As Raymond Williams explains in an excellent cultural etymology of the word, "creation" originally referred to THE creation. It came from the past participle of the verb creare. It was always situated in the past to some degree. People eventually were admitted as creators, but there was always a sense of recrudescence—a sort of contaminated creation. Implicit in the definition of creation was recreation. Creativity eventually accrued connotations of mystical originality. Instead of secondary creation, human creation was analogous to the first, divine creation. Humans were elaborating, creating, and extending nature (Williams 1985). Today, creativity has become a catchword that extends far beyond its traditional boundaries, referring to general habits of intellectual and even moral behavior. Creativity (often paired with the word "innovation") has become a paradoxically ubiquitous shibboleth in not only higher and secondary education, but in popular literature about management and entrepreneurship. (In addition to Michalko's Cracking Creativity: The Secrets of Creative Genius, consider also Landry 2009; Nussbaum 2013; Ubben and Hughes 2011; Wagner and Compton 2012).

In the study of folklore, we have seen shades of all of these definitions of creativity. We used to hunt for the ur-form, that original divine creation from which all subordinate entities descended. Items of folklore were secondary simulacra of primary events shrouded in a primordial, evanescent past. Oftentimes, we have feared items of contaminated creation, beastly hybrids of the sort Richard Dorson might have identified as fakelore (Dorson 1962), or what the pianist Mose Allison, had he been a folklorist, might have called "monsters of the vernacular id." This is folklore as false creation, as—dare we say—recrudescence. Lately, we understand creativity as part of a dynamic process of tradition and emergence. As Henry Glassie puts it, succinctly, "tradition is the creation of the future out of the past" (Glassie 1995). A song like "Batson" is creative in the sense that it employs and adapts traditional structures and fits them to a new task and context.

What I like about folklore's historical interaction with the concept of creativity is that I feel that we haven't lost track of the essential concept—of creativity's originally and inherently adaptive nature. As the meaning of creativity expands beyond recognition, we, for better or worse, have cleaved to the notion of creativity as dynamic tradition involving the past. The instant and immediate question I am left with though involves "Batson." What happens when a genre of traditional performance is discontinued, as is the case with narrative blues in southern Louisiana. What happens when creation ends. For now, I don't know, so I'll leave you with the end of the "Batson" song:

The tears run out of his eyes.

Think I heared somebody say,
"Bye-bye, Batson, bye-bye,
Bye-bye, Batson, bye-bye"
And I believe he's dead and gone. (Lomax et al. 2000: 341)


1. An earlier version of this essay was delivered as a presentation at the American Folklore Society Meeting in New Orleans, October, 2012. Portions of this essay appear, in a somewhat different form, in my forthcoming study, Traditional Music in Coastal Louisiana: The 1934 Lomax Recordings.

2. Throughout the Lomax recordings in Louisiana in 1934, the Lomaxes (as well as, occasionally, the performers) presume the Acadian provenance of French traditional songs. After one performance, for instance, Alan Lomax notes, "These songs, these old Acadian songs, were sung to us by Mrs. Sansey Bonnet, who lives near Crowley, Louisiana, in the country. She's known these songs ever since she was a young girl" (AAFS 30 B). Oftentimes, in contemporary discourse about traditional song in south Louisiana, "Acadian song" seems to simply mean, "old unidentified song with complex origins," as in this description of the repertoire of Dennis McGee: "Since retiring from work as a barber, McGee has been booked at many folk festivals, performing an extensive selection of old Acadian songs in a classic fiddle style full of ornate melodic lines and cascading trills" (Broven 1983: 103).

3. Stavin' Chain was apparently a fairly popular stage name at the time, as the Lomaxes encountered at least two other performers in their travels who shared this epithet. The origin of the name is a matter of some dispute, although there's consensus that it embodies the image of a stave thrust through the link of a chain—thus: "stave in chain," suggesting sex of a somewhat brutal nature (Calt 2009: 229-230). Paul Oliver argues that the reference ultimately derives from a Biblical quotation involving similar language, though others have noted that "stave-in-chain" is a logging term: specifically, a method of securing two logs tightly together (Noblett 1978; Noblett 1979). Considering the bawdy nature of so much logging and occupational lore, this latter explanation seems likely. Either way, "Stavin' Chain" seems to derive from the suggestive image.

4. For more on badmen in American folk consciousness, see Brown 2004; Roberts 1990; Nyawalo 2012; Roberts 1983.

5. This is where the story became particularly interesting for me. It was fairly easy to locate an image of Batson in the New Orleans paper, looking not at all like the fiendish tramp I had imagined. Eventually, though, I also located a photograph of the deputy and the sheriff in the case. After a few hours of internet sleuthing, I was pretty excited to find this and I called my wife to see the image on the computer screen. Her eyes widened and she turned a bit white and said, "I know that man." This raised goosebumps on my arm, and I said, "That's impossible. This was taken in 1902." She left the room hurriedly and returned with her family photo album, which contained a picture of a man who was obviously the deputy from the case. As it turned out, her great-great grandfather, who later went to become a well-known and respected sheriff of Jennings, was the fresh-faced young deputy. His involvement in the case had apparently paved the way for a storied career in law enforcement.

6. My wife and I have plans to reconcile with Batson's clan to also hopefully re-record the song.

7. Another singing soldier who was stationed there was none other than Big Bill Broonzy himself. I love to think that maybe they jammed together.


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Bradshaw, Jim. 1997. Batson Murder Trial Was Talk of Parish in 1902. The Daily Advertiser, October 28.

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Brown, Cecil. 2004. Stagolee Shot Billy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

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_____. 1979. Stavin' Chain: A Study of a Folk Hero-Part Two. Blues Unlimited (134) (June): 14-17.

_____. 1980. Stavin' Chain: A Study of a Folk Hero-Part Three. Blues Unlimited (139): 31-33.

_____. 1982. Stavin' Chain: A Study of a Folk Hero-Part Four. Blues Unlimited (142): 24-26.

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Nyawalo, Mich. 2012. From "Badman" to "Gangsta": Double Consciousness and Authenticity, from African-American Folklore to Hip Hop. Popular Music and Society (ahead-of-print): 1-16.

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Roberts, John W. 1983. Stackolee and the Development of a Black Heroic Idea. Western Folklore 42 (3): 179-190.

_____. 1990. From Trickstar to Badman: The Black Folk Hero in Slavery and Freedom. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Ubben, Gerald C, Larry W Hughes, and Norris. 2011. The Principal: Creative Leadership for Excellence in Schools. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson.

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Joshua Clegg Caffery is a folklorist, musician, songwriter, and producer currently living in Breaux Bridge and currently English Department Chair at the Episcopal School of Acadiana. A founding member of the Red Stick Ramblers, and a long time member of Feufollet, Caffery was nominated for a 2009 Grammy Award for his work on the album En Couleurs. He is also the producer of the acclaimed Allons Boire Un Coup, an award-winning collection of Cajun and Creole drinking songs. In 2013, LSU Press will publish Caffery's first book, a study of the 1934 Lomax recordings in south Louisiana. This article was first published in the 2013 Louisiana Folklore Miscellany.