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Hear My Sad StoryHear My Sad Story

The True Tales That Inspired "Stagolee," "John Henry," and Other Traditional American Folk Songs

Richard Polenberg

Narrated by James Robert Killavey

Available from Audible

Book published by Cornell University Press

In 2015, Bob Dylan said, "I learned lyrics and how to write them from listening to folk songs. And I played them, and I met other people that played them, back when nobody was doing it. Sang nothing but these folk songs, and they gave me the code for everything that's fair game, that everything belongs to everyone." In Hear My Sad Story, Richard Polenberg describes the historical events that led to the writing of many famous American folk songs that served as touchstones for generations of American musicians, lyricists, and folklorists.

Those events, which took place from the early nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries, often involved tragic occurrences: murders, sometimes resulting from love affairs gone wrong; desperate acts borne out of poverty and unbearable working conditions; and calamities such as railroad crashes, shipwrecks, and natural disasters. All of Polenberg's accounts of the songs in the book are grounded in historical fact and illuminate the social history of the times. Reading these tales of sorrow, misfortune, and regret puts us in touch with the dark but terribly familiar side of American history.

On Christmas 1895 in St. Louis, an African American man named Lee Shelton, whose nickname was "Stack Lee," shot and killed William Lyons in a dispute over seventy-five cents and a hat. Shelton was sent to prison until 1911, committed another murder upon his release, and died in a prison hospital in 1912. Even during his lifetime, songs were being written about Shelton, and eventually 450 versions of his story would be recorded. As the song—you may know Shelton as Stagolee or Stagger Lee—was shared and adapted, the emotions of the time were preserved, but the fact that the songs described real people, real lives, often fell by the wayside. Polenberg returns us to the men and women who, in song, became legends. The lyrics serve as valuable historical sources, providing important information about what had happened, why, and what it all meant. More important, they reflect the character of American life and the pathos elicited by the musical memory of these common and troubled lives.

Richard Polenberg is Marie Underhill Noll Professor of History Emeritus at Cornell University. He is the author of Fighting Faiths: The Abrams Case, The Supreme Court, and Free Speech, and is the editor of In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer: The Security Clearance Hearing.


“I never knew that 'Railroad Bill,' which I used to sing at summer camp, is about an African American outlaw (real name Morris) who terrorized Alabama in the 1890s. People had good reason to fear Bill, but that fear was also used as an excuse for the blatantly racist treatment of people whose only connection to him seems to have been the color of their skin. ('A number of Negroes have been arrested,' Polenberg quotes an 1895 news report. 'None of them will be permitted to go about for fear that they might sneak some information to Railroad.') Many of Polenberg's stories shed similar light on the uglier aspects of American history, and he tells them well.”

—Peter Keepnews, New York Times Book Review

“Well researched and packed with fascinating detail, Hear My Sad Story tells more than just the origins of popular folk songs. It tells an unflinching and honest story of America. At times viciously misguided and undoubtedly ugly, the country's history has nevertheless been documented through the lenses of those who witnessed these events and passed them down to subsequent generations. Celebrated in song, the tales outlined through the book’s nearly 300 pages seem poised to continue their grip on the fabric of society as we move further away from the actual events. As history continues to unfold, there are surely those amongst us today whose interpretations of modern events will be relied upon by future songwriters to help make sense of life in our time. It’s the American tradition. ”

—Jeff Strowe, PopMatters

Hear My Sad Story is an excellent book about folk songs and ballads that cover much of U.S. history in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Richard Polenberg draws on a wide range of fascinating primary and secondary sources to tell these stories in rich detail, particularly dealing with legal and political issues.”

—Ronald D. Cohen, Indiana University Northwest, author of Rainbow Quest: The Folk Music Revival and American Society, 1940‚Äì1970

“This fascinating book by one of the very best twentieth-century American historians draws on Richard Polenberg's enduring and continuing interest in folk music. Hear My Sad Story provides useful and illuminating background stories for a host of important American songs. Polenberg's good, crisp, readable prose ensures that anyone who likes folk music will enjoy this musical window onto the patterns of the past.”

—Allan M. Winkler, Miami University of Ohio, author of "To Everything There Is a Season": Pete Seeger and the Power of Song

“By giving equal weight to historical events and their reinvention as musical myths, Richard Polenberg creates a rich and colorful tapestry of fact and fable. The result is a thoroughly enjoyable and frequently illuminating volume.”

—Elijah Wald, musician, cultural historian, and coauthor of The Mayor of MacDougal Street

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