In the folk world, we tend to think of "protest songs" as somehow belonging in the 1950s and 1960s and being associated largely with the Weavers first and then with Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan, Buffy Ste. Marie, Malvina Reynolds, and like-minded singer-songwriters.
It's a nice thought, but inaccurate and incomplete in two important ways. First, the properly-termed topical song has a long and honored history in world folk music, in this country from colonial times with numbers like our recently-presented "The Escape of Old John Webb" through early labor movement tunes like "I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night" to songs that crossed over from workers' rallies to the Civil Rights era such as "Which Side Are You On?" and "We Shall Overcome."
Even at that, though, the perception of what constitutes a protest song is far too limited. I once heard Nick Reynolds of the Kingston Trio (a group roundly belittled in the early 1960s for its intentional refusal to sing topical/political songs) remark that if you really wanted to hear a protest song, all you had to do was listen to the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem sing the Irish revolutionary ballad "Roddy McCorley". What Reynolds was clearly getting at was that songs that we might be inclined to pigeonhole as "historical numbers" or "sea chanteys" or "work songs" were actually, to borrow a phrase from classic American author Sherwood Anderson in his masterpiece Winesburg, Ohio, "a protest against his life, against all life, against everything that makes life ugly." Can you listen to a "whaling ballad" like "Greenland Whale Fisheries" or a "railroad song" like "Drill, Ye Tarriers" and not hear just such a protest as Anderson describes?
"Ain't No More Cane On This Brazos" is that kind of composition. Ostensibly a "work song" from the prison farms along the Brazos River in the state of Texas in the early 20th century - and as such a companion piece to other numbers as "Old Riley" and "The Midnight Special" - the lyric is a clear indictment of a brutality in the treatment of the convicts that exceeded even the intended harsh punishment of malefactors condemned to hard labor on a chain gang. We tend to have a somewhat milder-than-accurate mental picture of that life from well-intended but sanitized Hollywood images like Paul Muni in I Was A Fugitive From A Chain Gang or Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke or George Clooney in O Brother Where Art Thou? I don't recall any images in those fine films of "driving the women just like they was men" or leaving prisoners dead from heatstroke to lie where they fell - and there is photographic evidence a-plenty from the last century proving that just such incidents occurred.
But we tend not to hear the protest in a song like "Cane" because first, it is historical and not contemporary; second, because it truly is a work song, whose rhythm like a capstan chantey helped set the timing for repetitive labor like cutting sugar cane; and third - because we are not supposed to. While the lyric in "Cane" is pretty direct, note that it reports rather than indicts - it simply states what happened in 1904 or 1910 and leaves the reaction to the listener. To do more than that would be to invite retribution from "the Captain."
Though this and the other songs cited above come into the American folk mainstream through Leadbelly, who served two hitches in the Texas correctional system (once for manslaughter), both Pete Seeger in the 1960s and the Lomax father and son team in the 1930s made actual field recordings of chain gangs singing their songs. Our first video may be the oldest recording of "Cane," from 1933 sung by prisoners Ernest Williams and James "Iron Head" Baker and their fellows:
Well, CopyVio strikes again and this field recording is gone. But since this post appeared - and contrary to the sentence below - Odetta's classic version is now available:
Unfortunately, there aren't currently any videos up that I can find of either Leadbelly or the nearly equally famous version by Odetta of "Cane On The Brazos." In any case, the first version that I ever heard was from the Chad Mitchell Trio in their landmark 1963 album on Mercury Records, Singin' Our Mind:
This cut provides ample evidence of why many fans and critics believed that the CMT was the most musically solid and accomplished of all the pop folk groups of the era. All three members - Chad Mitchell, Mike Kobluk, and Joe Frazier - were professionally trained singers with distinctive and perfectly complementary voices. Their arrangements (created by the singers themselves with their instrumentalists, occasionally with input from Milt Okun [who also helped shape the music of Peter, Paul and Mary and John Denver]) had a sophistication and complexity unmatched by the other vocal groups, and the division of labor necessitated by the fact that the trio members didn't play instruments led to the hiring of master accompaniment musicians like Jim McGuinn and Paul Prestopino (heard here with Jacob Ander and Bill Frigo on bass). Chad Mitchell himself is credited with this arrangement, and it represents what I think is the best of what the pop folk groups attempted to do. Note that the CMT is not trying to imitate the sound created by Williams and Baker above. They have translated a black chain gang song into their own idiom and been able to preserve the powerful imagery of the lyrics in doing so. Whatever the folk purists might have thought, I have always regarded this approach as far superior to that of trying to replicate a musical tradition into which one isn't born. The results often seem contrived and imitative rather than "authentic." The authenticity of the anger and suffering in "Cane" blazes through in the CMT rendition far more than it would have had the group tried to sound like penitentiary prisoners. (Parenthetically, some good news for CMT fans. The group still performs several times a year, and Fr. Joe Frazier, now an Episcopal priest for more than thirty years, mentioned recently that the group is working up "Cane on the Brazos" for inclusion in future concerts. I'm even more excited to see them again with this number on the set list.)
The UK's Lonnie Donegan did a lot to popularize American folk songs overseas with his distinctive re-interpretation of African-American skiffle music. His arrangements of standards like "The Rock Island Line" and "The Midnight Special" are among the best recorded versions out there, and he lays an outstanding bluesy edge to his performance of "Cane":
Likely the best-known version of the song after the folk boom years is from The Band -
- again translated into their semi-folk-rock-blues idiom. I find this curiously less satisfying than the versions below, and I am a fan of the group. Their vocal performance seems to have stripped the song of its anger, and the light-sounding mandolin is just wrong here. But if you look around on YouTube, you'll find that this arrangement tends to be the base version that other groups like The Black Crowes work from.
Much more satisfying IMHO is Lyle Lovett's approach, here earlier this year:
There is a quiet and aching power in Lovett's vocals. His voice sounds as lonely and desolate as a train whistle at midnight.
Finally, I was happy to find a version by Eric Bibb, son of art folk singer Leon Bibb. I thought Eric's rendition of "Tell Old Bill" was one of the absolute best of the more than six hundred videos that I have included in these posts over the years. He does equal justice to "Cane":
In looking for some more background on this song than I already knew, I found a book by Bruce Jackson called Wake Up, Dead Man, titled from a line in some versions of "Cane." Jackson had accompanied Pete Seeger on his 1960s trip to the Texas prison farms in search of authentic prison work songs. Both men were surprised to find that most of the inmates weren't singing the old songs any more. They seemed equally surprised to find that the treatment of the incarcerated was much, much better than they had imagined that it would be. While the farms were still prisons for people who had done some very bad things, the almost casually murderous institutional brutality of a half century prior had all but disappeared, making at least in 1966 a song like "Cane on the Brazos" something of a museum piece. Such a fact has to create a kind of hope that both as a nation and as individual people we can all be better than we used to be. And that is the ultimate goal of any kind of song that we might label as "protest."