In 1927, a Virginian textile mill worker named Kelly Harrell traveled to Camden, New Jersey to record some songs for Victor Records. It was his third time recording for Victor; his last two (in 1925 and 1926) garnered enough interest for six new cuts with his own backing band, the Virginia String Band. He was an unlikely pioneer of country music considering he couldn’t play an instrument, but his short career predated Jimmie Rodgers (who Harrell wrote a few songs for) and the Carter Family’s.   One of the songs Harrell recorded in 1927 was “My Name is John Johanna,” a traditional ballad about the state of Arkansas.  Harrell’s cut might have been the first time the ballad was recorded.

“My Name is John Johanna” (or Jo Hannah) is also known as “The State of Arkansas” (or Arkansaw), “Bill Stafford,” “Stanford Barnes,” and “Misery in Arkansas” among others. Like most folk songs, versions of “The State of Arkansas” vary lyrically and musically but rarely thematically. The song tells the tale of a man (with varying names) who travels to Arkansas looking for work but instead encounters hunger and despair. In most versions, the man stays in the “best hotel in the state of Arkansas” for one night, which compels him to leave the entire state early the next morning. But before he can hop on a train, he is persuaded to do some work, usually either draining swamp land or laying railroad. “Walking skeletons,” who only eat “corn dodgers” and drink “sassafras tea,” are a common motif.   The narrator ends multiple stanzas with the gloomy phrase, “I never knew what misery was ‘til I came to Arkansas.”

Kelly Harrell

The origins of the ballad are a mystery, some date the tune to the pre-Civil War minstrel period, others believe it might come from the 1870s, ‘80s, or ‘90s. In 1940, H. M. Belden, an English professor at the University of Missouri, proposed that the song had Irish origins because of its similarities with “The Spalpeen’s Complaint of the Cranbally Farmer,” a tune about an Irish man looking for work. He first heard the tune in 1906 from a man who had heard it several years before (“the boys out in the country like to sing it,” he said). Gus Mahon of Heber Springs, AR, who recorded a version for John Quincy Wolf in 1962, said he first heard the song when he was “a kid, down here close to Memphis, Tennessee. Lived down there close. An old Irishman sang that.”

Whatever its origins, “The State of Arkansas” must have influenced the national perception of Arkansas in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Belden called the song one of the “most widely known” regional satire songs, with evidence of it being sung in West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Illinois, and Minnesota. The harsh description of Arkansas was probably not far from the truth. In many ways Arkansas was still a frontier one hundred and years ago – life was not easy in much of the state. Whoever first strummed “The State of Arkansas” was responding to the hardships and disappointments of westward settlement (what William Clements called “Dystopian” folk music) while preserving a sense of humor. Things were so bad, the narrator states that after he leaves, “I’ll be lookin’ through a telescope from home to Arkansas” (one of the few instances when someone uses a telescope to maintain distance rather than proximity).

I’ve chosen a few variations of “The State of Arkansas,” each unique, some better than others. The creativity and diversity of the lyrics is interesting, take a look. First up is Kelly Harrell’s recording from 1927, click on the tabs below.

Kelly Harrell’s music career ended after his last recording session in 1929. The Depression forced Victor to make cutbacks. Since Harrell had to hire instrumentalist (he did not know how to play), Victor never offered another recording session. Harrell went back to the textile mill and enjoyed the royalties he received from “Away Out on the Mountain,” a song he wrote for Jimmie Rodgers. He died in 1942, reportedly after an asthma attack at the mill. The story goes that Harrell had a coughing fit (he was an asthma sufferer) and was advised to go home by co-workers. Instead he jumped out of a restroom window to show his toughness, then collapsed. He died on the way to the hospital.

Click here to listen.

My name is John Johanna, I came from Buffalo town.
For nine long years I’ve traveled this wide wide world around.
Through ups and downs and miseries and some good days I saw,
But I never knew what misery was ’til I went to Arkansas.

I went up to the station the operator to find.
Told him my situation and where I wanted to ride.
Said, “Hand me down five dollars, lad, a ticket you shall draw.
That’ll land you safely railway in the state of Arkansas.”

I rode up to the station then chanced to meet a friend.
Alan Catcher was his name, although they called him Cain.
His hair hung down in rat tails below his under jaw.
He said he run the best hotel in the state of Arkansas.

I followed my companion to his respected place.
Saw pity and starvation was pictured on his face.
His bread was old corn dodgers, his beef I could not chaw.
He charged me fifty cents a day in the state of Arkansas.

I got up that next morning to catch that early train.
He said “Don’t be in a hurry lad, I have some land to drain.
You’ll get your fifty cents a day and all that you can chaw.
You’ll find yourself a different lad when you leave old Arkansas.”

I worked six weeks for the son of a gun, Alan Catcher was his name.
He stood seven feet, two inches, as tall as any crane.
I got so thin on sassafras tea I could hide behind a straw.
You bet I was a different lad when I left old Arkansas.

Farewell you old swamp rabbits, also you dodger pills.
Likewise you walking skeletons, you old sassafras hills.
If you ever see my face again I’ll hand you down my paw.
I’ll be lookin’ through a telescope from home to Arkansas.

Like Kelly Harrell, Uncle Dave Macon was one of the earliest “country” musicians to record. The Tennessee native recorded over 170 songs between 1924 and 1938, but he rarely recorded traditional songs such as “Misery in Arkansas.” Macon’s version features a sprightly banjo, creating a more lively tune. Most of the major motifs remain in comparison to Harrell’s version.

Click here to listen.

Spoken: Now good people, I’m a-singing this song especially for my old school mate-friend, Joe Morris of Nashville, Tennessee. One of the leading clothing men. He’s a man who’ll address you at the door and he’ll dress you up before you go out.

I’m just from Nobletown, I’ve travelled this wild world round,
I’ve have the ups and downs through life,
And better days I’ve saw,
I never knowd what misery was, till I come to old Arkansas.

I landed in the Spring, one sultry afternoon,
Up stepped a walking skeleton,
And handed me his paw,
Invited me to his hotel, the best in Arkansas.

I followed my conductor unto his dwelling place,
And poverty did picture in his melacholy face,
His bread was corn dodger, his beef I couldn’t chaw,
That was the kind of hash I got in the State of Arkansas.

I started out next morning to catch the early train,
He said, “You’d better work for me, I have some land to drain.
I’ll give you fifty cents a day, your board and wash and all.
Indeed you’ll be a different man, when you leave old Arkansas.”

I worked six months for the son-of-a-gun, Jess Harrold was his name,
He stood six feet two-and-a-half, as tall as any crane,
His hair hung down in ringlets all round a lantern jaw,
Indeed he was a photograph for the gents of Arkansas.

He fed me on corn dodgers as hard as any rock,
My teeth began to loosen, and my knees began to knock,
I got so thin on sassafras tea, I could hide behind a straw,
Indeed, I was a different man when I left old Arkansas.

If ever I see this land again I’ll hand to you my paw,
Oh, it will be through a telescope from here to old Arkansas.

I’m just from Nobletown, I’ve travelled this wild world round,
I’ve have the ups and downs through life, And better days I’ve saw,
I never knowd what misery was, till I come to old Arkansas.

The Almanac Singers were formed in 1940 by Millard Lampell and Lee Hays along with the legendary Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. The Almanacs were active in the Popular Front and their music was performed with the specific goal of social change. “State of Arkansas” appeared on their record, Sod-Buster Ballads, recorded in New York City and produced by Alan Lomax. The song was used in a pro-labor context by the Alamanac Singers; the predicament of the narrator (“Charlie Brennan” in their version) fit nicely with the band’s agenda. Lee Hays must have been familiar with the song for years before 1941. He was born in Little Rock, Arkansas and his uncle was the Ozark folklorist, scholar, and Fayetteville, AR resident Vance Randolph (whose work on the Ozark region is immeasurably valuable).

Click here to listen.

My name is Charlie Brennan,
From Charleston I come.
I’ve travel’d this wide world over,
Some ups and downs I’ve had.
I’ve travel’d this wide world over,
Some ups and downs I’ve saw,
But I never knew what mis’ry was
Till I hit old Arkansas.
I dodged behind the depot,
To dodge that blizzard wind.
Met a walking skeleton
Whose name was Thomas Quinn.
His hair hung down like rat-tails
On his long and lantern jaw.
He invited me to his hotel,
The best in Arkansas.

I followed my conductor
To his respected place.
There pity and starvation
Was seen on every face.
His bread it was corn dodger,
His meat I couldn’t chaw,
But he charged me half a dollar
In the state of Arkansas.

SPOKEN:
Then I got me a job on a farm. But I didn’t like the work, nor the food, nor the farmer, nor his wife, nor none of his children. So I went up to him one day and I told him, “Mister, I’m quittin’ this job, and you can just pay me off right now.”
He says to me, “OK, son, if that’s the way you feel about it.” And he handed me a mink skin. I told him, I said, “Hell, brother, I don’t want this thing, I want my money.”
He says to me, says, “Son, that’s what we use for currency down here in Arkansas.” So I took it and I headed for a saloon to see if I could get me a pint of drinkin’ whisky. Put my mink skin on the bar, and durned if the bartender didn’t throw me a pint. An’ he picked up my mink skin, and he blowed the hair back on it, and he handed me three ‘possum hides and fourteen rabbit skins for change…

I’m going to the Indian Territory
And marry me a squaw.
Bid farewell to the cane-brakes
In the state of Arkansas.
If you ever see me back again,
I’ll extend to you my paw,
But it’ll be through a telescope
From hell to Arkansas.

Pete Seeger’s 1958 version is a scathing criticism of the 1957 Little Rock Central High School integration crisis. The narrator, “Terry Roberts,” is Terrance Roberts, one of the nine African American teens who enrolled at the all-white school. David I. Arkin, a black-listed set designer, teacher, painter, and lyricist, wrote the lyrics to Seeger’s version. Arkin is the father of the Oscar-winning actor Alan Arkin (Glengarry Glen Ross, Little Miss Sunshine) and grandfather of actor Adam Arkin (Adam from my favorite TV show, Northern Exposure)

Click here to listen.

My name is Terry Roberts,
From Little Rock I come.
I went down to the schoolhouse,
The place they kept me from.
I went down to that schoolhouse,
And this is what I saw. . .
State troopers with steel helmets
In the State of Arkansas.

I went up to the troopers
And said, “Please let me in.”
And all their guns were pointed
At the color of my skin.
They kept me from that schoolhouse
Where I’d be by law.
And that’s what they call justice
In the State of Arkansas.

Now his name is Orval Faubus,
The governor of the state,
He sent his army charging down,
Nine kids at the gate.
Three hundred National Guard were there
Dressed up to fight a war,
And that is why I’m late for school
In the State of Arkansas.

Oh listen, Mr. Governor,
And Mr. President, too.
Give me that constitution
That’s what you’ve got to do.
Give me that constitution
I ask for nothing more.
Yes, that’s what I want to study
In the State of Arkansas.

I’ve traveled this wide world over,
Some ups and downs I’ve saw,
But I never knew what misery was
Til I hit old Arkansas.

The folklorist John Quincy Wolf, Jr. recorded Mr. Mahon singing various folk songs in Heber Springs, AR in August 1962. Mahon’s version of “State of Arkansas” has a particularly haunting tone. “Bill Stafford” is the narrator. He came from Buffalo town to St. Louis then to Little Rock where he sees the “living skeleton” with “long and lantering jaws.” Before Bill Stafford left Arkansas, he “got so thin on sassafras,” he “could hide behind a straw.”

Click here to listen.

My name, it is Bill Stafford;
I was borned in Buffalo town,
And for nigh nineteen long years,
I’ve roamed this world around.
I’ve bummed this wide world over,
And trouble I have saw,
But I didn’t know what misery was
‘Til I come to Arkansas.

I landed in St. Louis, boys,
Six dollars and no more.
I read the daily paper
Until both me eyes were sore.
At length an advertisement
In the paper there I saw.
Five hundred men were wanted in
The state of Arkansas.

I rubbed me eyes with glad surprise
When I read this joyful news,
And I was going straight down Broadway
To see old Billy Hughes.
Say, “Pay to me five dollars,
And a ticket you will draw,
That’ll land you on the railroad
In the state of Arkansas.”

I paid to him five dollars,
Which gave my heart a shock.
Straightaway I landed off the cars
In the town of Little Rock.
Up stepped a living skeleton
With his long and lantering jaws,
And invited me to his hotel
In the state of Arkansas.

Next morning when I rose to go,
He asked me to remain.
“See, sir, you had better stay;
I have some land to drain.
I’ll pay you fifty cents a rod,
Your board and washing all,
And you will be a different man
When you leave Arkansas.”

I worked six months for this galoot,
Jess Hale was his name.
He was six foot seven in his boots,
And slim as any crane.
His hair hung down in rattails
All over his lantering jaws
He’s a photograph of all the gents
That was raised in Arkansas.

He fed me on corn dodger
That was hard as any rock,
Until all my teeth had loosened,
And my knees begin to knock.
I got so thin on sassafras,
I could hide behind a straw.
Indeed, I was a different man
When I left Arkansas.

Mary Stuart recorded for John Quincy Wolf in 1962 and 1963 in Banner, Arkansas. Stuart gives a charming rendition as she combs through her memory for the right words. Her version is very similar to Gus Mahon’s.

Click here to listen.

My name is Sanford Barnes;
I came from Buffalo town.
I’ve traveled this world all over;
I’ve traveled this world around.
I’ve had my ups and downs in life,
And better times I’ve saw,
But I never knew what misery was
‘Til I came to Arkansas.

Was in year of ’82,
In the early month of June,
I landed in Hot Springs
One Sunday afternoon.
Up came a walking skeleton
And handed me his paw.
Invited me to his hotel,
The best in Arkansas.

I followed my conductor
To his respected place.
Very poorly was it shown
In his melancholy face.
His hair fell down in ringlets
O’er his wrinkled jaw;
He was a photograph of all the men
Who were raised in Arkansas.

I started out next morning
To catch the early train.
He says, “You’d better work for me.
I have some land to drain.
I’ll give you fifty cents a day,
Your board and washing, all.
You’ll find you are a different man
When you leave Arkansas.”

I worked six weeks for the son of a gun;
Joe Howell was his name.
He was nine feet in his stocking feet,
And tall as any crane.
His bread, it was corn dodgers,
And his beef I couldn’t chaw,
And that’s the kind of grub I got
In the state of Arkansas.

Farewell to all hard countries,
The mountains and the hills.
Farewell to sage and sassafras tea,
And all corn dodger pills.
If ever I view this land again,
I’ll give to you my paw.
I’ll view it through a telescope
From here to Arkansas.

He fed me on corn dodgers
As hard as any rock,
‘Til my teeth began to loosen,
And my knees began to knock.
I got so thin on sassafras tea
I could hide behind a straw.
Indeed, I was a different man
When I left Arkansas.

Folklorist Max Hunter recorded Bill Baker’s “Sanford Barnes” in October 1973. Baker lived in St. Paul, AR, a small community thirty miles east of Fayetteville on Highway 16. His version mentions Fayetteville, the only one I’ve come across that does. Barnes plays the tune at a higher pace and has a unique key, making it a bit livelier. He also ends the song with “Would be through a telescope, from Heaven to Arkansas,” rather than the Almanac Singers’ “from Hell to Arkansas.”

Click here to listen.

My name is Sanford Barnes
I came from a northern town
I’ve traveled this wide world over
I’ve had my ups an’ downs
An’ better days I’ve saw
But I never knew what misery was
Till I come to Arkansas

I started out one morning
Th merry month of June
I landed in Little Rock
One rainy afternoon
Up walked a walking skeleton
An’ handed t’ me his paw
Invited me to his hotel
Th best in Arkansas

I folloer’d my conductor
To his fine dwelling place
His poverty an’ his starvation
Is sure dired on his face
His bread it was corn dodger
His beef I could not chaw
An’ that was th kind of th hash I got
In Little Rock, Arkansas

I got up next morning
T’ catch an early train
He says, Bill you’d better work fer me
I have land to drain
I’ll give you fifty cents a day
You board, n’ wash, n’ all
You will be a different man
When you leave Arkansas

He fed me on corn dodger
Hard as any rock
My teeth begin to loosen
My knees begin to knock
I got so fat on sassafrass tea
I could hide behind a straw
Indeed I was a different man
When I left Arkansas

I started out next evening
Was a quarter after five
I landed in Fayetteville
Half dead an’ half alive
I bought me a quart of whiskey
My misery was to ball
I got as drunk as a son-of-gun
When I left Arkansas

Farewell to you swamp angels
Quinine an’ your chills
Farewell to the days of (?)
Your corn dodger pills
If ever I see ole Mac again
I’ll hand t’ him my paw
Would be thru a telescope.
From Heaven to Arkansas.

Let us know which one is your favorite. What other variations should we have included?

Further Reading:

Clements, William. “’The State of Arkansaw’: A Folk Dystopia,” Southern Folklore Vol. 46, No. 1 (1989).

The State of Arkansas,” The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture.