When I first moved to the Berkshires in 1992, I was in my early 20’s and my knowledge of American folk music extended only a step or two beyond the obvious inspirations for the music of the Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan. I’d entered the worlds of bluegrass, of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, and barely crossed the gate in to Lead Belly’s. It wasn’t as easy to find old music as it is today of course – the monumental task of remastering, digitizing, and re-releasing those old recordings had begun, but was nowhere near complete. And online searches for such that did exist were not yet possible. Thankfully for the writers and readers of this blog, both situations are now much improved.
So it came to pass that, twenty years ago, one summer evening in search of folk music I ascended Mt. Greylock in my faded silver AMC Concord to join a weekly song circle in the big room at Bascom Lodge. One of the lodge managers was a folkie, and I heard him play a murder ballad that night that was both violent and entertaining – even hilarious. It really struck me!
This cocky policeman walked in to a bar, interrupted the gamblers to arrest the owner, and bought a fatal shot to the chest delivered by said proprietor. The unrepentant barkeep delivered a long list of grievances to the dying policeman, ending with the charge that “Damn it, now you’re dripping blood on my barroom floor!” And every verse ended with the wry statement “He’s been on the job too long!”
Folks smiled, but no one really laughed. Being young and weird, I thought maybe my reaction of deep amusement was aberrant, so I kept quiet. Surely such a violent song *couldn’t* be that entertaining. Every bluegrass murder ballad I’d heard was tragic! But a few weeks later I went up to the same song circle with a couple of friends, and the manager played the mysterious tune again. One of my friends giggled through the whole song and laughed out loud *every time* that refrain rolled around. She was *way* smarter than I was, so I felt better! It wasn’t just me.
Such was my introduction to what I didn’t yet know was the ‘bad man ballad’ “Duncan and Brady”, or, “Been on the Job Too Long.” I learned to play the song, and soon thereafter got to wondering about its origins. I never got far with that part of it, so recently I decided to dig in to it as a project for this blog. It turns out that when I first heard the ballad, it was likely just over 100 years old. And in trying to figure all *that* out, I came across the best part of the story – a rich musical diversity that I want to share with you this week.
Let me start on that now, before I spill more virtual ink, with a superb and seminal version from 1959. It comes closest in performance and lyrics to the one I heard twenty years ago. One man, one guitar, and a voice full of soul and gravel – this is the Mayor of MacDougal Street himself, Dave Van Ronk with his take on “Duncan and Brady”.
I’m sure you’ll be shocked to find out that, though this song surely has its basis in actual events, the narrative here is essentially fictional. We’ll get to that fiction and its ornaments later in the series. Today, though, we’ll get a synopsis of the real-life inspiration for this ballad – and then we’ll close with another awesome recording.
“He felt for his pulse…” Origins: Factual (and not so musical)
The best original scholarship on the historical source of this ballad appears to be the 1976 PhD thesis by John Russell David, titled Tragedy in Ragtime: Black Folktales from St. Louis. I managed to get a copy and, though it’s a bit dry, it’s fascinating.
David makes a convincing case that three classic African-American bad man ballads all spring from true events that occurred in the same place and around the same time. In his words, “‘Stack Lee,’ ‘Brady and Duncan’, and ‘Frankie and Johnny’ were products of the frontier conditions prevalent in black St. Louis during the 1890’s.” Indeed, he pinpoints all three precipitating events to a few blocks in St. Louis along and near Morgan Street. ‘Deep Morgan’ was a red light district and part of ‘The Bloody Third’ police district. I’ve seen these claims repeated in various forms at several websites devoted to the blues, though none cite David’s work and several confuse and mistake details that are otherwise verifiable with a simple bit of sleuthing.
David gives us the details accurately, and describes
“…one of the most infamous murders to have taken place in the city’s old Bloody Third police district — the slaying of Patroman James Brady by Harry Duncan… According to the official court records, the slaying of James Brady occurred on the evening of October 6, 1890, in a saloon at 715 North 11th Street… owned and operated by a Negro named Charles Starkes.”
Websites aside, scholars (e.g. Cecil Brown and Jerry Bryant) cite David’s work and find it convincing, and my own amateur read is that he certainly makes a solid case that is extensively footnoted with references to a variety of primary sources. As you’ll see, the connection between the event and the song is solid, and the details are remarkably well-known. Why? For one thing, the related legal case leads all the way to the Supreme Court.
This can be easily verified with a simple search; and, indeed, we find documentation of the crime and the ensuing legal battle in the records of the Supreme Court. (Now you understand the photograph at the top of the page!) Duncan’s lawyer was Walter Moran Farmer. He was, according to Washington University Law, “the first African-American lawyer to argue before the Supreme Court of Missouri (1893) and one of the first to argue a case (Duncan v. Missouri 1894) before the U.S. Supreme Court.”
In fact, this account of the reported facts of the case from The Southwestern Reporter, Volume 22 for the Supreme Court of Missouri will satisfy anyone’s need for detail in the matter of the crime and the legal issues surrounding it! Likewise, David in his thesis goes into even greater detail regarding the legal case and considers multiple sources of evidence. In case you don’t feel like reading either through, and you haven’t figured it out already, I can tell you how it turns out – not *at all* like the song!
As mentioned in my introduction, the song usually tells the tale of a saloon keeper named Duncan who’d simply had enough of the harassment given him by a corrupt and arrogant officer of the law named Brady. Brady came in to Duncan’s place to arrest him and, in the traditional simple justice of the folk song, got what was coming to him. Folks thereabouts didn’t seem too torn up about his demise, especially the ‘ladies in red’ who presumably found Brady’s zeal bad for business.
The historical reality seems in contrast more an unfortunate mix of alcohol, bad temper, racial tension, and guns – all sparked by a simple fistfight between two black men in a rowdy part of post-bellum St. Louis. It’s true that Brady was a policeman trying to arrest a man named Duncan, and that a shot from behind a bar killed him. As well, there was mutual distrust and animosity between Irish policemen like Brady and black St. Louisians like Duncan. Oh – and bordellos, fancy and otherwise, most certainly lined the streets of Deep Morgan. That’s about where the similarities between song and history end.
For example, Harry Duncan didn’t own the saloon. David cites the St. Louis Post Dispatch in describing him after his execution in 1894 as a “sport, a jolly fellow, a swell dresser, a ladies’ favorite, but, above all, he was a magnificent singer.” Though he held odd jobs, David found him described by The Dispatch in 1890 as being mainly a “specialty actor and singer.” He was quite popular and well-known. Indeed, according to David, Duncan gave many concerts while in prison and even sang two songs for reporters the day before his execution.
As for the crime, David makes clear that in reality, insofar as it was established in court and reported in the newspapers, Officer Brady did not enter the saloon first or with the intent of *causing* trouble for the owner or the clientele. There was no charge of corruption against him, and he was only there to assist in the apprehension of Harry Duncan.
“Along come Brady…”
So what really happened on October 6, 1890?
Sometime early in the evening, Harry Duncan struck a white officer named Gaffney in the face when that officer laid hands on Duncan’s brother Luther. Gaffney was trying to break up Luther’s fistfight with a fellow African-American barber, near Charles Starkes’s saloon. After further concerted assault upon the officer, the Duncan brothers ran in Starkes’s establishment. Alerting other officers in the neighborhood by firing his pistol twice in the air, a dazed Gaffney then followed the Duncan brothers inside. While the officer tried to arrest Luther, Harry attacked him and ended up with Gaffney’s revolver.
Other patrolmen, including Brady, came in to Starkes’s saloon just after that scuffle. In the ensuing melee, Brady advanced on Harry Duncan, who had taken a position crouching behind the bar. (David’s thesis includes a detailed drawing of the inside of the saloon, presumably from trial records – I can’t reproduce it here because of copyright.) In reaching or leaning over the bar to fire, Brady took a fatal bullet to his chest. Police gunfire wounded Duncan several times as well, but they took him alive.
David’s research shows that, two days before his execution and after nearly three years of legal appeals, Duncan publicly accused the tavern owner Charles Starkes of shooting Brady. The claim had come up in previous trials, raised by Farmer in Duncan’s defense to cast a reasonable doubt about his guilt. It seems though only two witnesses with questionable character and motives testified to that version of events. Duncan though, at that late date, was claiming *he* saw it happen, though he’d never told his legal team. Starkes died more than a month prior, but Duncan made no explanation as to why he’d waited so long to come forth with such a statement.
Lawyers had already put forth several other arguments to stay Duncan’s execution. Indeed, courts granted such five times in the last year before it was carried out. In the end though, his new claim notwithstanding, William Henry Harrison Duncan went to the gallows on July 27, 1894.
Curiously, Starkes’s daughter Lizzie (Randall) Ray in 1904 seems to have provided information to the St. Louis Dispatch that led them to publish a startling claim. Allegedly, Charles Starkes confessed to Brady’s murder on his deathbed, a month before the state executed Duncan. It’s a claim that I see often repeated in secondary sources, and was apparently verified by the St. Louis judge and local historian Nathan Young in the 1960s. I have not seen his work and I have more digging of my own to do before I satisfy myself. Nonetheless, there is some reason to believe Duncan *may* have died an innocent man. There is certainly reason to argue that, even if guilty, Duncan did not commit murder in the first degree. However, the hangman’s noose made that discussion academic.
None of this inconsistency with the ballad’s narrative disqualifies this event as the origin of the song! We know about the story behind “Frankie and Johnny” (you may recall Ken’s excellent series of posts on the subject, starting here) and about the story behind “Stagger Lee.” Neither of those ballads across their multiple variants tell the news precisely as it happened, and some versions are almost complete fiction. Yet, outside of David’s scholarship we can with great confidence identify those specific events as the ballads’ origins. Such seems almost certainly to be the case with “Duncan and Brady” too, though in this case David’s work is essential to that claim.
Indeed, as legal documents cite the address of Starkes’s saloon as 715 N. 11th Street, we can even pin point this all to the map today, though that part of St. Louis is much different now. If you’re interested in seeing a large map of St. Louis around the time in question, you can find it here. I have reproduced David’s mapping work from his thesis and superimposed it on the appropriate section of the linked 1887 map.
The disconnect between the ballad narrative and reality means there’s only so far to go with the historical part. The best story for a 21st century ballad lover is found in the music itself. In the next post, we’ll look at the earliest scraps we have of this ballad up to World War II and see what they tell us about the original. Finally, we’ll close the series by sampling the bountiful musical harvest available to us, grown from such humble seeds.
Let’s get a preview of that to close today, from near to the ballad’s home in Missouri. Here is Mark Bilyeu, lately of the band Big Smith, with “Brady and Duncan” from his 2005 solo album First One Free. I think you’ll agree that this song still has a great deal of life left in it.