Delta gospel, blues, and labor songs sprang from the fields where pain and resistance, strength and sorrow coexisted. The music that came from this place speaks to the land of milk and honey and the valley of dry bones. It speaks to the place where riches abound and poverty prevails. It speaks to a place where Blacks and Whites walk the fine line of history and the present is never separated from the past. The Delta is my home.
Very few places in the Delta commemorate the culture of the land and the songs of the region. However, the Southern Tenant Farmers Museum in Tyronza, AR is an exception. Tyronza is a town with a little over seven hundred people that lies just southwest of Memphis, TN. Trains rattle buildings as they roll through town and the Museum is the tourist attraction. The tallest building in town is a water tower and abandoned buildings on the main strip are a reminder of what once was. At the end of the main strip lies the Museum, a long building with a beautiful mural of tenant farmers, a cotton field, and wagons filled with cotton. The inside of the Museum is just as captivating. The Museum embodies the struggle for freedom and labor rights and is filled with the art, pictures, and songs of the tenant farmers movement.
Just outside of the museum is a commemorative mark for the voice of the movement, John Handcox. Handcox worked as a tenant farmer and joined the tenant farmers union to fight the injustices of sharecropping. He was a singer, poet, and songwriter whose art gave power to the movement. Now, Handcox’s songs are a time capsule that reveal the struggles and hopes of the movement. His songs were sung during labor meetings and his words uplifted the spirits of those on the frontlines of the resistance. His genuine voice came from unjust sharecropping and the strength of his voice came from the pain he and other tenant farmers experienced. It is no accident that Handcox’s story is the first story each visitor to the Museum sees.
Handcox’s voice and resistance were a threat to those in power, and he lived under the threat of lynching. This threat speaks to the power of art as resistance. For safety, Handcox had to flee Tyronza. Eventually, he moved to California where he became involved in the labor movement there. Handcox never returned to Arkansas to live, but his legacy still lives in the soul of the Delta. Handcox, a son of the Delta, represents the land. Handcox, a son of the Delta, represents her songs.
The video below is a compilation of recordings John Handcox made. They provide a glimpse into his brilliance and the story of the movement.
Article by By Andrea Price