Handcox Sings Through Honey

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Prof. Mike Honey sings and tells stories about labor-organizer and folk-singer John L. Handcox. Honey's new book is "Sharecroppers' Troubadour."

Michael Honey, the Haley Endowed Professor of the Humanities at UW Tacoma, has written a fascinating book about John L. Handcox, who grew up with ex-slaves, becoming a tenant farmer, a union organizer and a folk singer.

The book is Sharecropper’s Troubadour: John L. Handcox, the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union, and the African American Song Tradition, published in 2013 by Palgrave MacMillan (it’s on sale at the University Book Store, in their shops and online).

The story largely concerns the bitter Depression years of the 1930s and the struggle against violent repression, but the book counters that with an inspiring story of hope in which former Ku Klux Klansmen and the grandchildren of slaves joined to form a union in the Deep South.

Honey will speak about the life of Handcox and sing his songs at two upcoming events open to the public: on February 12 at 7 p.m. at the Tacoma Public Library, where members of UW Tacoma’s World Voices will sing with him; and on February 13 at 12:30 p.m. at William W. Philip Hall on the UW Tacoma campus, where Vice-Chancellor JW Harrington will also sing in a program dedicated to the memory of Chancellor Debra Friedman, who died on January 26, 2014.

Honey’s telling of Handcox’s life and music is also dedicated to Pete Seeger--whom the New York Times called a “champion of folk music and social change”--who died on January 27. Seeger introduced Honey to Handcox in 1985 and helped to popularize his music. In a forward to Honey’s book, Seeger called Handcox the “people’s poet, people’s songwriter.”

Honey summarized the importance of Handcox, saying, “He used his African-American song traditions to help desperately poor white and black agricultural workers organize one of the most remarkable social movements in American history. John showed that music is a powerful force to unite people for change.”

Honey, a musician and formerly a civil rights and civil liberties organizer in the South, met Handcox for the first time in 1985. Handcox had been living quietly in California for more than 50 years, after having been run out of Arkansas by a lynch mob in 1937, in retaliation for his work as an organizer, poet, singer and songwriter for the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union.

What followed was sort of a “rediscovery” of Handcox, a growing appreciation for the role he had played in agricultural union organizing, and a new chance for him to add his voice to the social protests of the 1980s.

Handcox died in 1992, but Honey, with his voice and through his book, brings to life the music and the poetry of a “sharecroppers’ troubadour,” whose work helped shape the labor music tradition popularized by Pete Seeger.

  • Listen to audio recordings of John Handcox made in 1937 and 1985, and Mike Honey’s arrangements of Handcox songs
  • Watch a slideshow of images of Handcox accompanied by his voice reading and singing “I Live On.”

What: Sharecroppers’ Troubadour: The Life and Music of John L. Handcox – a Performative Presentation by Michael Honey and friends
Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014, 7 p.m., Tacoma Public Library, 1102 Tacoma Ave. S., Tacoma, Wash.
Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014, 12:30 p.m., William W. Philip Hall, UW Tacoma campus
Cost: FREE and no registration is required

Written by: 
John Burkhardt / February 7, 2014
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536, johnbjr@uw.edu