Hear My Sad Story

The New Book by Richard Polenberg

Hear My Sad Story: The True Tales That Inspired “Stagolee,” “John Henry,” and Other Traditional American Folk Songs


“I learned lyrics and how to write them from listening to folk songs. And I played them, and I met other people that played them, back when nobody was doing it. Sang nothing but these folk songs, and they gave me the code for everything that’s fair game, that everything belongs to everyone.”—Bob Dylan

In Hear My Sad Story, Richard Polenberg describes the historical events that led to the writing of many famous American folk songs that served as touchstones for generations of American musicians, lyricists, and folklorists.

Those events, which took place from the early nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries, often involved tragic occurrences: murders, sometimes resulting from love affairs gone wrong; desperate acts borne out of poverty and unbearable working conditions; and calamities such as railroad crashes, shipwrecks, and natural disasters. All of Polenberg’s accounts of the songs in the book are grounded in historical fact and illuminate the social history of the times. Reading these tales of sorrow, misfortune, and regret puts us in touch with the dark but terribly familiar side of American history.

On Christmas 1895 in St. Louis, an African American man named Lee Shelton, whose nickname was “Stack Lee,” shot and killed William Lyons in a dispute over seventy-five cents and a hat. Shelton was sent to prison until 1911, committed another murder upon his release, and died in a prison hospital in 1912. Even during his lifetime, songs were being written about Shelton, and eventually 450 versions of his story would be recorded. As the song—you may know Shelton as Stagolee or Stagger Lee—was shared and adapted, the emotions of the time were preserved, but the fact that the songs described real people, real lives, often fell by the wayside. Polenberg returns us to the men and women who, in song, became legends. The lyrics serve as valuable historical sources, providing important information about what had happened, why, and what it all meant. More important, they reflect the character of American life and the pathos elicited by the musical memory of these common and troubled lives.

Mississippi John Hurt
Mississippi John Hurt

Advance Praise for Hear My Sad Story:
Hear My Sad Story is an excellent book about folk songs and ballads that cover much of U.S. history in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Richard Polenberg draws on a wide range of fascinating primary and secondary sources to tell these stories in rich detail, particularly dealing with legal and political issues.”—Ronald D. Cohen, Indiana University Northwest, author of Rainbow Quest: The Folk Music Revival and American Society, 1940–1970

“This fascinating book by one of the very best twentieth-century American historians draws on Richard Polenberg’s enduring and continuing interest in folk music. Hear My Sad Story provides useful and illuminating background stories for a host of important American songs. Polenberg’s good, crisp, readable prose ensures that anyone who likes folk music will enjoy this musical window onto the patterns of the past.”—Allan M. Winkler, Miami University of Ohio, author of “To Everything There Is a Season”: Pete Seeger and the Power of Song

Author Richard Polenberg

Richard Polenberg and Pete Seeger at his home on the Hudson River, January, 2009
Pete Seeger and Richard Polenberg in Seeger’s home on the Hudson River, January, 2009

Richard Polenberg is Marie Underhill Noll Professor of History Emeritus at Cornell University. He is the author of Fighting Faiths: The Abrams Case, The Supreme Court, and Free Speech and editor of In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer: The Security Clearance Hearing, both from Cornell.

Hear My Sad Story:
The True Tales That Inspired “Stagolee,” “John Henry,”
and Other Traditional American Folk Songs

Richard Polenberg
Cornell University Press
ISBN 978-0-5017-0002-6

Read an Excerpt

Listen to the Songs

Click Here to Purchase