Monthly Archives: June 2020

The Wreck of The Batavia

Part One – The Wreck.

Hey all, this Tale originally ran over seven episodes – over two months. To find the next part/s scroll to the bottom of the page and click on the numbers.

Today’s tale begins in all but uncharted territory somewhere out in the Indian Ocean, at around 3am, 3rd June 1629. Aboard the Dutch East Indies new flagship – the Batavia – two men are having a furious disagreement. Launched 211 days earlier in the icy waters of Northern Europe; sailing southwards around the coast of Africa, around the Cape of Good Hope, then out towards the Spice Islands the Batavia had endured an epic voyage. Having withstood extremes of heat and cold, rough seas, and most recently terrible storms, the weather was just becoming temperate, the seas calm. One gets the sense life aboard the Batavia must have been hell. Historian Mike Dash, my primary source for this tale, states just how inhospitable ships of this era were. He states any fresh food they had was long gone by now, the water onboard had become a breeding ground for worms, and below decks would smell of a horrendous aroma of stale breath, unwashed bodies and urine. Knowing they were a month from their destination of Java, modern day Indonesia, had to be massively of comfort to all on board.

But, back to our two men. The ship’s lookout, Hans Bosschieter insisted he had seen white water in the distance – a sure sign they were at risk of running aground if they didn’t alter course. The other man was the skipper, Ariaen Jacobsz – a well thought of middle aged sailor, who had distinguished himself in several prior voyages east. Brilliant as he was, he was also a difficult and scary guy – quick to temper, and once he had made up his mind he would not be swayed. He was also quite lecherous towards female passengers, but more on that later. Jacobsz was convinced they were safe, as yesterday morning they were still 600 miles from known land. In his opinion that thin white line in the distance was nothing more than moonlight reflecting off the waves – so on they rolled.

Taken from a Swedish vessel…. but it sets the mood.

The Batavia would roll on for a few moments more, suddenly – violently – brought to a bone crushing halt. With a deafening thud, the bottom of the ship collided with a coral reef, just 15 feet below the surface. A second and a half later the bow of the ship struck the reef proper. Lurching forward and to port; Jacobsz, Bosscheiter and the others who made up the midnight watch were tossed across the deck like rag dolls. Below decks the 270 crew and passengers were in for a rude awakening, as overhead compartments rained down their contents on them. They made their way up to the deck to find the Batavia stuck tight on the reef; bow all smashed up, perched over, with all the weight on the front of the boat – the back half now raised out of the water. They were shipwrecked, in the dark, and so far off the charts they had no idea where they even were. Little did they know just how awful things would get for them soon however. Welcome everyone to Tales of History and Imagination Episode 11, The Wreck of the Batavia.

(Theme music)

Hi all just saying up front, this one is going to run over three podcast episodes, running to half a dozen blog posts. There is quite a bit of background needs to go into this tale to really make sense of it. In the first (podcast) episode I want to set the scene, and introduce the main characters. In Episode two we’ll look at the voyage, then in the third what happened to the survivors on the Houtman Abrolhos chain. I will also say up front that this is probably the most bloodthirsty tale I have told yet, either on the podcast or on the blog. I feel I need to mention this as I know I have some readers on the blog do follow for the quirkier character pieces, while some like the horrible history content. Believe me there is no offense taken if the Batavia is not your cup of tea.

That said I do need to cover off a few things before we start getting into background information, and pick up from before the theme music.

In the immediate aftermath of the crash, everyone on board would have been absolutely shocked and horrified. In the first instance all hands were on deck, tossing anything with any significant weight overboard, to try to stop the ship from snapping in half. Measurements of depth were taken from all around the Batavia to try and work out if they could manipulate her backwards off the reef. They hoped dangling their two heaviest anchors off the elevated stern of the ship might tip them back into the sea, and allow them to sail away. The water however was just as shallow all around them, no more than 16 feet deep. If at low tide they might have a chance later in the day. It turned out they had crashed, and plumbed the depths, close to high tide.

Their next concern was to try to stop the ship springing a leak. The sea was rough, and bouncing the Batavia up and down onto the reef with great force. Their mainmast was acting as a force multiplier. 180 feet long, made of one massive piece of Scandinavian pine – the mainmast ran through the middle of the boat through four levels, and settled atop the ship’s keel. Every time the ship hit the reef, the mast acted like a jackhammer on concrete. The decision was made to chop the mainmast down from the upper deck. Using an axe they chopped through the mast, which came down with a heavy thud, not into the water but straight onto the deck. No one was killed but they now had a tangle of ropes, damaged decking and sails to work around.

As the sun rose the crew could finally take a proper look at their predicament. They were on the southern end of a crescent shaped coral atoll. The only habitable land was at the other end, around six miles north. As rough as the sea was it did look possible they could lower one of the two boats onboard the ship and explore the reef. At around 7am Ariaen Jacobsz took a crew of men out on the yawl and explored their surroundings.

On exploration he discovered several of the northernmost islands shouldn’t disappear below the waves on high tide, giving a reasonable chance of saving the crew and passengers yet. Jacobsz first had to convince the ship’s upper merchant – and true head of the expedition – that this should be their first move. The upper merchant, Francisco Pelsaert, was a Belgian citizen with plenty of company experience, having worked for Dutch East India company in Agra, India – but little sailing experience. Less still of commanding a ship. While Jacobsz worried first and foremost about getting everyone to safety, Pelsaert insisted they first save the cargo, chests full of precious jewels and silver carried to trade for local goods. Common sense won out, Pelsaert was convinced by the reality he’d be murdered by the crew if he so much as moved a chest before everyone was safe. Thus they began the arduous process of moving the survivors through the choppy waters, to a flat, inhospitable lump of coral lacking cover, vegetation or water. A dozen crew tried to swim across, but were all pulled under and drowned by the currents.

Just as the first boatload left for the island, the Batavia finally sprang a leak, one which would prove too large to caulk up. By the end of the day 180 shivering souls were split across two coral islands; 150 pints of worm infested water, and 12 barrels of stale bread between them – and of course one casket of treasure – at Pelsaert’s insistence. Pelsaert had intended to go back for the rest, but weather worsened and a dozen chests of silver had to be left on the deck unguarded.

That evening the remaining crew still on the ship began to rebel. A gunner named Allert Janssen raided the officers’ liquor cabinet. Others soon joined, and – all having barely touched a drop for eight months – became violently drunk. A cadet named Lenert van Os broke open the chests of silver and threw handful after handful of silver coins overboard to spite the officers. Another sailor named Cornelis Janssen helped himself to rows and rows of knives and stalked the decks with his gleaming weapons on display. Another, Ryckert Woutersz, rifled through upper merchant Pelsaert’s belongings. The next morning several more survivors escaped to the island, leaving around 70 rebelling sailors still on the Batavia. Knowing he was risking his life going back for the silver, Pelsaert shouted orders to the men on ship to make a raft and make their own way to the island, and left them to it.

After a second night on the islands, Pelsaert and Jacobsz put their heads together and discussed scenarios. They were probably on an uncharted, but very occasionally sighted atoll known as Houtman’s Abrolhos, 2,000 miles south of Indonesia. They were miles from the west coast of Australia, but we are decades before anyone would add the lucky country to a map. Thirteen years earlier the adventurer Frederik de Houtman had almost wrecked on the Abrolhos. His story is one which bears telling sometime – but suffice to say for now, the guy was jailed by the Sultan of Aceh on Sumatra for two years. In that time he learned to speak Malay and Malagasy, gleaned much of their customs, and made several astrological observations then unknown to the Northern hemisphere. He didn’t pin down the exact location of the Abrolhos, but he brought a lot of other useful information back to the VOC. The two men made a prolonged search for water, to no avail. They then gathered a crew of 40, which included their best sailors, and began equipping their longboat for the 2,000 mile journey north.

Four days after washing up they set sail for Indonesia.

Meanwhile on board the Batavia several dozen desperate men remained. They honestly had to be desperate to set sail in the first place. The stakeholders of the VOC made a killing from Eastern trade, but the crew saw very little of that wealth. Furthermore, once you had signed up, the average life span of a VOC sailor was just three years. Sailors were often plucked from the criminal classes, or people who, for one reason or another, needed to abandon their former lives. All but one of the men still onboard were lowly ranked sailors, but the one officer which remained – the under merchant, second in charge to Pelsaert was a desperate man for his own reasons. A former apothecary lately out of Haarlem- Jeronimus Cornelisz paced alone with his dark thoughts. Though more typical of the class who sent men out to die on the other side of the world to make themselves wealthy, Cornelisz’ life had suddenly been thrown into turmoil. His business gone, he was possibly also a fugitive from the law back in Holland. I will discuss Jeronimus and his downfall next week, in episode two – The Heretic.


Two: Ozymandias

Hi everyone I’m stretching out a little and trying my hand on a personal blog. Short opinion pieces on things which grab my attention, some of which (I am a notorious insomniac) keep me up at night.
I intend to make it more an op ed than I would my history blogs, and if not your cup of tea I can respect that. If it is your cup of tea, however please check the page out. – Simone

Moonlight Disquisitions

“I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

P.B Shelley – Ozymandias.

What is keeping me awake at the moment you may ask? America has quite a history of putting bronze racists on bronze horses, and brazen traitors on plinths. Most of them were put up in…

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Before Rock and Roll – A Playlist (part two)

Hi all, sorry for the delay. For part one, which includes the Spotify playlist itself, Click Here

Hi all, let’s put that playlist to bed. Apologies for missing the Thursday timeline two weeks running – if the worst thing to happen to me from COVID is having to suddenly find a new home I’ll consider myself lucky… but that said, I’ve been waylaid a little this week by having to look for a new home – ad all te joys which come with that.

The playlist itself can be found here

Oh, and anyone who has enjoyed this rock and roll bonus series, I will do some more at some time. I feel there is a story to tell, of which I have only scratched the surface in these short tales

Birmingham Bounce (1950) by Hardrock Gunter and the Pebbles. I am not just including this track as I think Sidney Gunter had the best stage name ever – which he arguably did – but because it was somewhat ahead of it’s time, pointing towards elements of rockabilly. Some writers will tell you the record was important because it was the first Western Swing song to sing about rocking out on the dance floor – I don’t know nearly enough to challenge, or confirm this. Others will point to how Gunter’s sound was making steps towards rockabilly. To my ears I’m hearing something like this – the musical timbre seems very much of the western swing of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. At the same time there is that prominent boogie woogie piano, and a noticeable back beat. Maybe it was more on it’s way to the Northern band rock and roll of Bill Haley?

Birmingham Bounce would not chart for Hardrock Gunter. Decca Records offered to buy the masters, and take the song to the world. Gunter’s songwriting partner did not want to sell his portion of the royalties, as he had promised the money to his church when it hit the big time. A disappointed Decca called in Red Foley to cut his own copycat single, which – as they had done to many a small label R&B record – killed Gunter’s version dead in the water.

Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee–O-Dee (1949) by Stick McGhee and his Buddies. Yet another song put forward as ‘the first rock and roll song’. I have included it to the playlist for a number of reasons. 1. It is a great little 8 bar blues track with rock and roll sensibilities. 2. It was an early hit for Atlantic Records, the then tiny label which would go on to have some of the biggest records of the 1950s and 60s. They may have been the house Ruth Brown built, but ‘Spo-dee-o-dee’ had great crossover appeal – going to #1 on the R&B charts and #26 on the pop charts. 3. The song foreshadowed the gibberish lyrics of many early rock and roll hits (Little Richards ‘Wop bop a loo bop, a lop bam boom’ of Tutti Frutti. The Chords ‘Day dong da ding-dong, A-lang-da-lang-da-lang, Ah, whoa, whoa, bip, Ah bi-ba-do-da-dip, whoa’ of Sh-Boom. Nappy Brown’s ‘So li li li la li li li la li li li la don’t be angry’ of Don’t Be Angry). He was hardly the first – but still. Of course wine spo-dee-o-dee was a real thing – it is when you mix wine, or sherry with bourbon. 4. How about I just really like the song, and wanted to share it with you all?

The Fat Man (1950) by Fats Domino. Champion Jack Dupree’s Junkers Blues (1942) probably should be the song I’m sharing here, as it lit a fire under a bunch of New Orleans piano professors, who stole the melody for rock and roll (or rock adjacent) songs. Professor Longhair’s Tipitina, Lloyd Price’s Lawdy Miss Clawdy, and Fats Domino’s The Fat Man all bear the mark of the song – but of course junkers blues was still very much a blues song. The Fat Man launched one of the all time great rock and roll innovators. It has always seemed to me New Orleans rock and roll, with its melting pot of influences, seems so sizzle a little more. The rolling, barrel house piano, the tricillo rhythm which pervades it. Again I share as I really like this song.

Have Mercy Baby (1952) by Billy Ward and The Dominoes. The Dominoes were a R&B vocal group put together by a Julliard trained pianist and arranger named Billy Ward. Though Ward himself got top billing in the band, and the lion’s share of the money, the voices of a couple of really great singers propelled the group to fame. In their first single, Sixty Minute Man (1950) bass singer Bill Brown was in the lead. With Have Mercy Baby it was very much lead tenor Clyde McPhatter’s song. The song is a landmark because it was one of the first songs to capture an exuberant gospel vocal performance within an R&B format. Earlier vocal groups like The Orioles had caught something of the mournful side of Gospel singing with tracks like it’s Too Soon to Know back in 1947. In both acts, in very different ways, their lead vocalists were doing something pop singers didn’t. Most pop singers were stylists who would recite a song – not sans emotion- but if they were actors you might admire their craft, well aware of their craft on display. Rock singers in the mold of Clyde McPhatter lived, ate and breathed the song. They inhabited it and the song inhabited them. If they were actors they would be a Robert De Niro – a method actor being that role.

McPhatter would tire of getting paid a stipend, while making Ward rich, and would head off to form the first version of The Drifters, before becoming a soloist in his own right. He was the first person inducted twice into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – even if he had, sadly, drunk himself to death before the honour could be conveyed to him. All multiple inductees are said to have joined the Clyde McPhatter Club.

It’s Too Soon to Know (1947) by The Orioles. In 1941 a vocal group called The Ink Spots sparked a revolution in the world of vocal music. Having seized upon an opportunity (the preeminent vocal group before them, a ‘coffee pot group’* called The Mills Brothers became trapped overseas for the duration of World War Two) they revolutionized vocal harmony singing. Though formulaic, they set the standard for much of the 1940s. The acoustic intro. The plaintive ‘Irish tenor’ vocal sings a verse. The bass singer copies that verse, only lower. The tenor revisits the hook, taking the song home. Throughout the 1940s a group of ‘bird groups’ so named as they mostly took their names from birds. Some followed the high – low vocal. Others, like The Ravens, put the bass singer front and centre. The Orioles put their lead tenor out front, and were a kind of missing link between The Ink Spots and the Doo Wop bands which followed.

*coffee pot groups used to imitate big band instruments using their voices, often through coffee pots and kazoos, to back the lead vocalist. The coffee pot would be passed through the bar for tips at the end of the show.

Speaking of Doo Wop. I’ve previously mentioned The Chords ‘Sh-Boom’, which should have been the first rock and roll record to go to number one on the pop charts, but for a white copycat record. Gee (1953) by The Crows had no such problem – though it was a slow burner, released almost a year before Sh-Boom, then finally seeing chart success just after The Chords had. It gets a little pitchy at the end of the track, but does share a number of similarities to Sh-Boom. Perhaps of note, The Crows eschew the honking sax solo for a guitar solo – likely played by Tiny Grimes, a jazz player and session ace whose ‘Tiny’s Boogie’ (1947) is yet another contender for first rock and roll song. Grimes also gifted the world Screaming Jay Hawkins – Hawkins having got his first big break singing for Tiny.

Teardrops From My Eyes (1950) by Ruth Brown. Atlantic records were a small label, making interesting ‘race records’ – and then there was Ruth Brown. Atlantic records, musical powerhouse it is to this day, is the House that Ruth Built. Teardrops from my Eyes was a huge, runaway hit for Ruth – hitting #1 on the R&B charts and staying there for 11 weeks. The song set Brown up as the reigning queen of R&B, and as an influence for future female rock and roll singers.

It’s All Right Baby (1938) by Big Joe Turner and Pete Johnson. I have already written the first music blog on this song here. I just figured it would be nice to end this where I started.

Before Rock and Roll – a playlist (part 1)

Hi all welcome back for the fifth installment of my early rock and roll, Thursday series- I know it’s a little late, I’ve suddenly had to look for a new home, and as such lost a few evenings to flat hunting. Sorry everyone. This week I’m just going to drop a playlist of songs – all preceding Elvis, Chuck Berry and Little Richard. Most pre-date or are roughly contemporaneous with Ike Turner/Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats’ Rocket 88. I am not trying to answer which was the first rock and roll song – there isn’t one first rock and roll song, just a handful of songs which sound increasingly like something DJ Alan Freed retroactively named rock and roll. I’m just capping off something I was doing, daily – one song at a time – on my personal Facebook page to distract myself during the COVID lockdown. let’s just jump into it.

Edit: Oh, as I started writing this it became apparent the text would need to be in two parts, I’ll publish the 2nd next Thursday.

First up Tomorrow Night (1948) by Lonnie Johnson makes my list, first because I think it is a beautiful song. Second, it was a country blues song written by a couple of Tin Pan Alley writers who normally catered for the likes of Bing Crosby. It topped the R&B charts and made it as far as #19 on the pop charts. Several rock and rollers would do their own covers of the song, including Elvis Presley, last week’s star LaVern Baker, Episode 1’s star Big Joe Turner…. And in 1992 Bob Dylan. Johnson delivers both vocally in his plaintive, almost country-esque vocal, and exquisite guitar work, while a piano and bass pad the track out – way in the background. Johnson had been a recording artist since the early 1920s, and counted among his early fans Django Reinhardt, Charlie Christian and Robert Johnson.

Strange Things Happening Every Day (1945) by Sister Rosetta Tharpe and the Sam Price Trio on the other hand is an old African American spiritual, rocked up. When listening to Sister Rosetta on an electric guitar, backed by Lucky Millinder’s orchestra circa 1944 there’s no doubt she helped build rock and roll. Check out This Train, or Rock Me, or Rock Daniel and you soon get the idea. In Strange things she is on a dobro, and a little bit more laid back – but I believe it still counts as proto rock – just check out that guitar solo. Tharpe was a guitar virtuoso, Gospel singer who made a name for herself playing at the Cotton Club in 1938. She was on the bill at the Spirituals to Swing concert mentioned in the first rock and roll episode. As a heavily religious Pentecostal church member, a bisexual woman who lived most of her life with her partner Marie Knight, and a true originator of ‘the devil’s music’ there is so much to unpack with Sister Rosetta – more than a paragraph could do justice to.

I don’t know near enough about Hillbilly Boogie – I’m going to tackle two of them at once. Growing up I was told rock and roll was born when R&B met country. This is not exactly correct, country had little to do with rock and roll. Western Swing (typified by Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, none of his songs in this list) and Hillbilly Boogie had much more to do with rock and roll. True country music had no drums, none of that walking bass line we associate with rock and roll. It was far more genteel. Guitar Boogie (1945) by Arthur Smith and his Crackerjacks, and Hot Rod Race (1950) by Arkie Shibley and his Mountain Dew Boys, are two examples of the Hillbilly Boogie that would influence the rockabilly players especially. Smith’s instrumental went to #25 in the pop charts… though this would happen on a later 1948 re-release which came about because James Petrillo’s 1948 musicians’ strike, which had record labels looking through their catalogues for anything in lieu of new material. Hot Rod Race makes the list for it’s subject matter, which influenced Chuck Berry’s writing on his first single Maybelline. Maybelline, incidentally also had Wills’ Ida Red all over it, the verses sound very similar.

Choo Choo Ch’Boogie (1946) by Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five. Rock and roll owed much to the big Swing Orchestras of the pre war era. Their demise was one major stream for rock and roll.

A musicians strike from 1942 to 1944 (led by James Petrillo, see the ‘Nature Boy’ entry) , combined with the effects of World War Two on music – namely fuel scarcity made transporting big bands around untenable; band members being drafted to fight (not to mention maybe half their audiences)… as well as a sudden scarcity of shellac to make the records with – Shellac is a byproduct from a beetle found only in Vietnam and parts of India – led to the disintegration of the big band, in favor of smaller units who often played heavier to make up for their smaller size.
Louis Jordan was well ahead of the pack. A featured vocalist and saxophonist for one of the greatest big bands ever – Chick Webb’s orchestra – Jordan had tried and failed to execute a coup de tat on Mr Webb. Webb, the drummer and band leader fired Jordan in 1939. Necessity being the mother of invention, Jordan formed a smaller group unlike anything else at the time. Much of his music has a rock and roll leaning to it, even if a lot of it relies heavily on a swing beat rather than the backbeat. When you listen to his ‘Caldonia’ you can’t help but think of singers like Little Richard. As tempting as it is to claim rock and roll was all about guitars so many of the early groups were driven by the horns and a boogie woogie piano – following the formula set down by Louis Jordan.

One Mint Julep (1951) by The Clovers. I don’t know anywhere near enough about this group, but I love this song. Vocal R&B groups play a big role in early rock and roll, especially in what came to be known as doo wop. The first vocal groups sounded like the Ink Spots, and the various ‘bird groups’ they inspired (the Ravens, The Orioles, The Wrens…). Generally they were of a certain mold – a high tenor, a bass singer who often parroted the tenors first verse but in a much lower voice, a couple of others singing oohs and ahhs behind them. The Clovers wanted to be the Ink Spots, but Atlantic Records head Ahmet Ertegan had bigger plans for them – a newer, less maudlin sound based on Billy Ward and the Dominoes. There is an urban legend The Clovers rebelled against Ertegan’s demands for more of that newfangled vocal music by wasting his studio time recording an a-Capella parody of the jazz standard ‘Darktown Strutters Ball’ called ‘Rotten C**ks**kers Ball’ – which a disappointed Ertegan buried. The song surfaced in the 80s – although it turns out it was the kind of thing often made for music industry insiders ears only… limited run Christmas gifts.

This song however is a good example of a vocal group moving towards a rock and roll sound, sax solo and all…. And an early drinking song.

Rock the Joint (1949) by Jimmy Preston and his Prestonians is the kind of song most of us probably think of when looking for a first rock and roll song. It’s got that walking bassline we all know. It’s got a backbeat. There is the honking saxophone first popularized by Illinois Jacquet in the early 1940s. It has a big gang vocal chanting ‘we’re gonna rock, we’re gonna rock this joint” – Alan Freed may have coined it rock and roll, but there were a slew of songs, well before his time, to sing of rocking (Tiny Grimes’ Rock the House, Wynonie Harris’ Good Rockin’ Tonight, Wild Bill Moore’s We’re Gonna Rock three examples). This is the song that convinced former Indiana state yodeling champion and then country singer Bill Haley he needed to try this new thing the kids were doing. To my ear several tracks from around 1948-49 are undeniably rock and roll – but where I think 70s rock critics fixed on Ike Turner/Jackie Brenston’s Rocket 88 is that rock music to them was only something you played on guitar. I disagree.

Good Rockin’ Tonight (1947) by Wynonie Harris. One of the songs put forwards when arguing for a first rock and roll song. Wynonie Harris was a blues shouter who had come to prominence in 1944, after he joined Lucky Millinder’s orchestra – one of the swing era big bands who were managing to stay relevant in a more jump blues and boogie inflected 1940s. Millinder’s band had a decent sized hit in 1944 with ‘Who put the whiskey in the well?’ – a jump blues piece with a boogie bassline and strong backbeat, which still ends up sounding a million miles away from rock and roll to my ears. Feeling aggrieved band leader Millinder (who did not play an instrument himself) got the credit for the disc, Harris struck out on his own. Wynonie Harris, mercurial as he was, has always seemed a bit of an ass to me. On the upside you’d hear he was electrifying on stage, gyrating his hips a decade before anyone had heard of Elvis. On the downside, the man owned two Cadillacs, employing two chauffers. At the end of the night he would decide which driver would take him home – and which driver had been sitting outside all night for naught. Yeah I’m sure both got paid, but I can’t be the only one who feels this was a little capricious – especially if one particular chauffer was the perpetual bridesmaid?

In 1947 a fan of Harris, and decent vocalist in his own right named Roy Brown brought Harris a song called Good Rockin’ Tonight. Though it was exactly the kind of song Harris did, he passed – till he heard Brown’s own version on the jukeboxes. When trying to sell the song to another jump blues singer called Cecil Gant, Gant passed too but immediately called his record company head (at 2.30 in the morning) to say ‘hey, you have to listen to this’. Brown was soon in the studio himself, laying down a version of the song. Harris quickly knocked together a cover, adding the ‘O when the saints’ intro, a couple of ‘’hoy, hoy, hoy”s at the end – and, most importantly, a back beat. The back beat is exactly why some say his version, not Roy Brown’s, is the first true rock and roll song.

Ok, I’ll do write ups for the second half next week. Spotify playlist below.

Podcast Episode 10: Tom Horn – Gunslinger (part 3)

Hi all this is the third part of this tale, for part one click here, part two here.

At this point in the tale we need to introduce Wyoming lawman Joe LeFors. Tough as nails, and determined to solve the Nickell case by any means necessary, LeFors was not above bending the rules for a result. From the outset Tom Horn was the prime suspect – though others could have been considered. Many locals hated Kels Nickell, and other beef barons could, and still did, employ range detectives to take out ‘squeaky wheels’ like Nickell. LeFors quickly determined Willie was not mistaken for Kels. It had been suggested that Willie was wearing Kels’ coat – but he wasn’t. A scene examination showed someone had stalked Willie that morning, getting close enough to realize he wasn’t Kels. The killer also took his time leaving, and stood over Willie’s body, opening his shirt to observe his handiwork. The ambush, the long shot, the coolness in which the kill was carried out had Tom Horn written all over it. To add to the evidence pile, Horn had drunkenly bragged to a patron in a saloon that he was the assassin.

Horn was brought in on 4th August for questioning. He claimed he was hundreds of miles away on the day the murder happened. After the Nickell family offered a $500 reward to find Willie’s killer, Horn hit the road – entering several out of town roping contests. In September, Horn was drunkenly telling tales in a bar when he got into a fight with a boxer. The boxer, Jim Corbett, was one of the best pugilists of his generation – and made easy work pummeling Horn. Corbett would later go down in history as the only man to beat the great John L. Sullivan, and for a time would wear the world heavyweight belt.

Former World Heavyweight boxing champ James J. Corbett.

In January 1902 Joe LeFors had another chance at catching Horn out. What he did however would muddy the waters, doing something underhanded even in his own time. LeFors sent a letter to Coble’s ranch offering short term employment to Horn for help on a job, offering a salary of $125 a month. Never one to pass up an opportunity, Horn agreed to meet with LeFors – completely oblivious of the trap he was about to walk in to. To celebrate the opportunity, Tom Horn went out and got very drunk – so drunk in fact that he showed up at his meeting the next day still three sheets to the wind.

Picture if you will, two men in a quiet room. One a dedicated, and somewhat obsessive police officer, the other a habitual liar, especially when drunk. The drunker of the two has come to get himself a job, and would be willing to say anything to secure the role. Add to this scene two people sitting in an adjoining room – one imagines each with a glass, one end to their ear, the other to the wall – listening intently. One is a court stenographer, the other an impartial witness.

Lefors soon turned the conversation to the murder of Willie Nickell, needing to know if he is the right kind of guy to work as a range detective, and make those long shots. Had he been the gunman who shot Willie down? Horn answered in the affirmative. He had taken the shot cleanly at a distance of 300 yards. Horn boasted it was “the best shot that I ever made and the dirtiest trick I ever done”. And like that Tom Horn was arrested and charged with the murder of Willie Nickell.

By the time the case came to trial Tom Horn had a highly capable team of lawyers, two of whom would later become judges, one of whom, John W. Lacey, would be chief justice for Wyoming. The team had been paid for, no expense spared, by John Coble. However good they were, and however shaky the evidence should have been – the main evidence against him was a confession, and Horn was a compulsive liar after all – the defense team had quite an uphill battle. The politics of the day had changed in favour of the homesteaders, many of whom had been affected by th barons’ thugs in one way or another, and were determined the beef barons would no longer get away with murder.

Tom Horn himself was a nightmare defendant. As the trial unfolded he often got into arguments with the prosecutor, letting his alibi slip in the process. He refused to heed his defense team’s advice, undermining his own defense to the point where it no longer mattered to anyone how flimsy the evidence was – or for that matter that he had been entrapped into giving said flimsy evidence. Horn was found guilty and sentenced to hang on November 20th 1903. Joe Lefors would write a book on the trial – hoping to be the Vincent Bugliosi of his own era I suppose. Tom Horn’s own book would be the bigger seller by far, in spite of it barely discussing the Nickell killing.

Just prior to Horn’s execution he managed to overpower a deputy and flee custody. Somehow grabbing a pistol, he fled on foot down the street, pursued by an angry mob. Symbolically he, the wild west gunslinger, had grabbed a modern Luger and understood it about as well as he understood the Wyoming of the early twentieth century. He stood in the street trying in vain to fire the pistol, unaware of how to release the safety. He was caught and dragged back to prison by the mob.

In the years since his execution, Horn’s case has faced much scrutiny. Modern historians have, while not exonerating Horn as a multiple murderer for his other acts, questioned the flimsiness of the evidence of the Nickell case.

In 1993 an unofficial retrial was held in a Cheyanne courtroom, using modern methods. Although few jurors believed Horn was innocent, they all agreed there was nowhere near enough evidence to convict. In 1980 Steve McQueen would star in a William Ward directed film titled Tom Horn, based largely on Horn’s own autobiography. The film would portray Horn as a reformed bad man who had fallen for local school teacher Glendolene Kimmel. In real life Horn did have a passing relationship with Ms Kimmel, who was unquestionably head over heels in love with him. He seemed rather disinterested by comparison. In any case in recent decades we have come to question his guilt in the Nickell murder.

Personally I don’t believe he was a reformed bad man, there is simply no evidence of it. I agree with the 1993 jury, he probably committed the murder, and certainly was responsible for dozens of other assassinations. The English jurist William Blackstone once wrote, in what has come to be known as Blackstone’s Ratio

“It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.”

Coming from New Zealand we have our share of innocent people later exonerated, from Arthur Allan Thomas to David Bain, to the late Peter Ellis, who had he not passed surely would have been cleared of the 1991 Christchurch crèche child abuse case – it bore a striking resemblance to the Satanic panic of the 1980s, for the non New Zealand readers. While I admit for that reason Blackstone’s ratio seems sound to me, I can’t feel at all sorry for the grown up Horn if wrongly hanged. Now the boy of about the same age as young Willie Nickell, the lonely outsider who fled an abusive upbringing from a loveless family – Yeah, that Tom Horn I do feel a little sorry for.

On the right to breathe…

Hi readers, I really feel the need to write a little something off script, right up front on the blog today. Yesterday I sat at the table and wrote, and wrote and wrote. First I began sketching out the final blog in this short rock and roll series (I will probably do a few more of these, just as everyday tales, just in the mix). I had something in mind where I wanted to talk about Sam Phillips and the roster of mostly white Rockabilly acts he produced – and to touch on some of his views on race and music, and how ridiculously condescending they look now – but I think his heart was in the right place. Well, I think the thuggish murder of an African American man by a white police officer – and eruption of righteous anger across America gives a pretty good indication as to why that is a terrible idea. I dread to think of the emails stating “WTF Simone, are you trying to tell a fairy tale of faux progressive race relations while our country is burning?”. Ditto any tales of the white rock and roll impresario, civil rights activist, and all round good guy the reverend Johnny Otis. Definitely not a good time to be telling stories of how the dustbowl played in to the rise of Oakies, Arkies and various other displaced folk creating the Hillbilly Boogie which blared out of many a roadhouse in the pre rock and roll era.

I also penned, and binned a piece discussing just why Edouard de Laboulaye proposed the construction of the Statue of Liberty – spoiler alert, he was an abolitionist who was proud the USA had finally outlawed slavery. He probably believed the USA would adopt something like ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’. This piece quickly escalated, America you let Mr Laboulaye down horribly. I walked through many, many, many examples of this – from the 1892 lynching of Tom Moss, a black grocer in Memphis who dared to open a store when a white man was also a grocer; to Robert Charles – a black man minding his own business in a mostly white suburb of New Orleans, which escalated into a desperate gun fight against a white mob. To the ‘red summer’ spate of lynchings across the USA in 1919, which cost over 250 black lives because black men dared to step up in formerly white job and keep the economy going during World War One; and racists everywhere saw that as theft. On to the 1919 Haynes report, which noted the lynchings of over 3,000 black Americans between 1889 and 1918, and that local authorities were often compliant, even occasionally involved in these actions. On I went, discussing the early years of the ‘great migration’ where well to do black residents were bullied out of nice, middle class homes, while the police stood by. When one recent arrival to Detroit, the doctor Ossian Sweet, received constant threats and intimidation police did nothing. When Dr Sweet fired in self defence on a violent mob encircling his Garland Street home, they were very quick to act then – charging the poor man with murder.

I went further, discussing murdered voting organizers like the Rev. George Lee and Lamar Smith – to young boys and men who dared speak to white girls like Emmett Till, or Willie Edwards Jr- Edwards, by the way was mistaken by four Clansmen for another black guy who was dating a white girl in Montgomery, Alabama back in 1957. I talked of the assassination Medgar Evars, the 1963 bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama which killed four young girls- Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley – who were little older than my niece ….. and on, and on, and on. Paragraphs of horror after horror. USA there are too many atrocities, too much blood on your hands, too many black lives lost, and families left grieving.

Look, dear reader; if you are an American reader of mine I presume you are not some racist with a hankering for lynchings – you’re probably a caring, intelligent progressive who is appalled by the murder of George Floyd. Hell, some of you may be caring, intelligent conservatives, equally horrified by the murder? Any invective by me is like a teacher yelling at the kids in front because the kid at the back is behaving like an asshole. Just know that I, like most decent people the world over, am horrified at the actions of Derek Chauvin, yet again infuriated with the tweets from the orange fascist ruining your nation, fully in support of the protestors (though worried as hell for you with all that tear gas, rubber bullets, and a killer pandemic out there).

Mostly, I am at a loss as to how I, halfway across the world, can do any little thing to show my support. The writer and activist Eldridge Cleaver once stated if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. Who doesn’t feel that just a little right now?

Back to the rock and roll series, this Thursday I’ll put together a Spotify playlist covering a load of songs that predate what we traditionally consider rock and roll, with a brief explanation on why I think they important landmarks.