I learned Mississippi John Hurt’s arrangement of “Louis Collins” from Donald Garwood’s blues guitar book, which is long out of print but was fundamental to my early understanding of Hurt’s style — for example, his habit of getting a high A note while playing a G or C chord by just moving the chord up two frets. (Actually, Hurt often didn’t hold full chords and played a low G bass with his C chord, so what he was moving tended to just be the paired low and high G notes, but I think of those as parts of C or G chords because I think that way.)
In any case, I don’t know if I would have learned “Louis Collins” as a kid if it hadn’t been in Garwood’s book, so I owe him one, because it’s a great song. I miss having Peter Keane’s harmony on the chorus — we sang this together many times over the years, and I hear him in my head, and if you don’t know his work, he’s worth checking out, on Youtube or various CDs.
As for Louis Collins, when I originally posted this entry all I knew about him was what Hurt sang. Hurt apparently heard about the murder second-hand, and Philip Ratcliffe quoted him explaining that it might have happened in Memphis, Collins “was a great man… and he was killed by two men named Bob and Louis. I got enough of the story to write the song.”
However… I recently found a long article about the murder in the Yazoo, Mississippi, Herald of August 27, 1897. Apparently several fights broke out on a steamboat excursion between Yazoo City and Vicksburg. The specifics were somewhat disputed – a lot of drinking was involved – but at some point Louis Collins got in a fight with someone named Louis Thomas over a woman, the ship’s engineer pulled out a gun and tried to shoot Thomas, and Collins stabbed Thomas in the neck. Collins then attacked Robert Kent—the article doesn’t explain why—and cut him in the hand. Kent knocked Collins down, grabbed a pistol that was lying on a lunch counter—another unexplained detail—and shot Collins, hitting him in the chest. Collins kept coming, Kent shot again, missing him and slightly wounding a bystander, and Collins shortly fell over and died. A witness named Miles Mitchell added that three or four men had subdued Collins and were holding him down when Kent shot him.
As for the angels laying him away… until yesterday, we all thought John Hurt was the only source for this song, but I happened to ask the Library of Congress for a recording John Lomax made of an unidentified prisoner in the Tennessee State Penitentiary in Nashville in August 1933 singing “Bully of the Town…” and it turns out to have been mislabeled. The singer starts by singing “Louis Collins was a bully in the town,” and apparently Lomax was familiar with “Bully” and not with “Louis Collins,” so considered it a variant of the former song… but in fact it’s a short version of the song Hurt recorded in 1928. At first I thought the singer might have learned it from Hurt’s record, but he refers to the shooter as “Little Kent,” while Hurt just referred to him as “Bob…” and since the murder happened more than thirty years before either of them recorded, I’m assuming they both learned it from some earlier version that had Bob Kent’s full name.
If you want to hear the Tennessee recording, here it is, for the first time ever: