The album Classic African-American Ballads, from Smithsonian Folkways, contains a track entitled “Duncan and Brady” by the late Dave Van Ronk, whose story is told in the new film Inside Llewelyn Davis. I found a copy at a tag sale recently, and “Duncan and Brady” made an impression, along with a really creative version of the ancient tune “Froggie Went a Courting” (here known as “Mouse on the Hill.”)
Quite at random, I heard the song twice that day, the second time when my iPod brought up the version on Judy Henske‘s High Flying Bird album. The coincidence got me thinking about the origins of the song.
Aside from the fact that Van Ronk wasn’t African-American, and the song may or not be of African-American origin, I was struck by the opening lines,
“Twinkle, twinkle, little star/’Long comes Brady in his ‘lectric car.”
The reference to the electric car is in most of the versions I’ve heard of the song, including Bob Dylan’s. But it’s an anachronism in a song this old. The song commemorates an 1890 barroom brawl in St. Louis: James Brady was a cop with a reputation for bullying the local prostitutes–he wouldn’t let them dress in red. The bar in question was on the corner of Carondolet and North 11th Street, and it was lit up that night. Brady was shot in the melee, and several people were subsequently arrested. Harry Duncan, a black man, was hanged for the crime. Duncan’s appeal fingered bar owner Charles Starkes as the actual killer–some say Starkes confessed on his deathbed.
Whether or not the song originated in the African-American community, it was certainly popular there–because of its anti-cop and implied racial message, minor riots broke out when it was performed in black bars in the city. Duncan’s appeal reached all the way to the Supreme Court, and his attorney Walter Moran Farmer, was the first African-American to be heard by that body. Duncan went to his reward in 1894.
An account from Old Hat Records differs in some details about all this: It claims that the incident happened in 1880, but that’s probably incorrect. It’s unlikely it would have taken 14 years to bring Duncan to his execution in those days, with or without the Supreme Court’s involvement.
Who killed Brady is beside the point here: More important is that Brady could not have come along is his electric car, because they hadn’t been invented at that time. This is the folk process at work. The first known recording of the song is by Wilmer Watts and his Lonely Eagles in 1929. That was nearly 40 years after the murderous incident in St. Louis–and long after electric cars had become fixtures of American life. Watts’ lyrics include the ‘lectric car reference; listen to it here:
The heyday of electric cars, in their first go-round, was 1900 to 1925, so it was perhaps easy for Wilmer Watts (or some other anonymous contributor) to imagine Brady tooling around in one. But there’s another good explanation: The famously rich Diamond Jim Brady, the murdered man’s namesake, got quite a bit of publicity for his electric car driving some years after the shooting, and it’s quite possible the two got confused.
But The Delta Blues‘ account, aside from claiming the 1880 date, is illuminating; it offers some original opening lyrics:
Duncan, Duncan was tending the bar
In walked Brady with a shining star
And Brady says, “Duncan you are under arrest!”
And Duncan shot a hole in Brady’s breast
Now we’re getting somewhere! I bet somewhere along the way someone misheard “shining star” as “electric (or ‘lectric) car,” and the rest, as they say, is history. Since Watts was the first guy to record the song, his version is what comes down to us today. Someone else can address the question of whether it really was Duncan who “shot a hole in Brady’s breast.”
Finally, here’s one of Leadbelly’s versions of the song, and he’s voting for the “shining star” thing–no ‘lectric car for him. My guess is that Leadbelly (a/k/a Huddie Ledbetter) heard the song through the oral tradition, maybe in prison, and the sources predate recordings: