Duncan and Brady

I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to post “Duncan and Brady,” which I’ve known for at least forty years and recorded on my Street Corner Cowboys CD (which is now available on Bandcamp). I learned my version off Tom Rush and Dave Van Ronk, both of whom seem to have got it from Paul Clayton…

…and that was all I knew until I started working on the “Murder Ballad” chapter of my book, Jelly Roll Blues, at which point things got interesting. Like “Frankie and Johnny” (a.k.a. “Frankie and Albert”) and “Stackolee” (about which I’ve already posted versions learned from John Hurt and Furry Lewis), “Duncan and Brady” was inspired by a real murder in the Black sporting world of St. Louis in the 1890s.

The earliest of the three, it told about the shooting of an Irish immigrant policeman named James Brady by a Black man named William Henry Harrison Duncan in 1890, which made news from coast to coast and led to several years of high-profile trials, retrials, and appeals. The first surviving mention of the ballad–which is also the first printed mention of the Stack Lee ballad–appeared in the Kansas City Star in 1897 and described the key event succinctly:

Brady walked up to the bar,
Showed Duncan his shinin’ star,
Says to Duncan, “You’re under arrest;”
Duncan put a hole in Brady’s breast.

It was actually somewhat more complicated than that: Brady apparently joined another officer named Gaffney in harassing a group of Black men outside a popular saloon, Duncan went into the bar, Brady followed him, and at some point Duncan was hiding behind the bar, Brady was shot, perhaps by Duncan, and Duncan was arrested for Brady’s murder. There followed multiple trials, in which Duncan’s lawyer, Walter M. Farmer, the first Black graduate of Washington University Law School, argued his case in front of the state supreme court and brought an appeal to a justice of the US supreme court.

In the end Duncan was executed, despite an appeal to the governor signed by many prominent citizens. The St. Louis papers covered the story in surprising detail and with surprising sympathy–a final, long article following Duncan’s death described him as “one of the most popular colored men in St. Louis,” and continued:  “He was a sport, a jolly fellow, a swell dresser, a ladies’ favorite, but, above all, he was a magnificent singer. . . . They all say there never was a colored basso like him in town and few in the country who could outclass him.”

I go into the case in more detail in Jelly Roll Blues, and one of my back-burner projects is to do a full article on Duncan, Brady, and the later life of the ballad. For now, suffice it to say that there seem to have been several songs about the incident, one of them apparently penned by Duncan himself, another popular as a street chant against the police, and the third the one I sing here, which survived in multiple variants. W.C. Handy mentioned hearing a version when he first visited St. Louis in the 1890s, Lead Belly had a version,  and there were many others. I sing it roughly as I remember it from Tom Rush, with a couple of added lines I picked up while researching the book.

All of which said, my favorite version might be the one John Koerner performed at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 — which has nothing to do with the original story, but is a great example of Koerner koernerizing, with Tony Glover on harp, and I don’t understand why no one so far has digitized it and posted it… so I just did, and here it is.