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Author: Bill Alder

Heroes and villains: the presentation of the outlaw in early twentieth-century American folk music

Updated Thursday, 30 May 2024

This article will consider how the figure of the outlaw is presented in early twentieth-century American folk music. What is constant, and what changes? What lies behind these strands of imitation and innovation?

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Folk music is music that is rarely written for profit, music that has endured, often passed down by oral tradition, investing a sense of identity in artist and listener alike. Folk music has imitation at its core. Its narratives and characters are usually already known to listeners, and they often refer to real-life people and events. The content is often based on the experiences that form an ongoing part of the everyday life of the performer and their audience. 

Yet, at the same time, folk music is extremely open to innovation. Because there is no definitive set version of a song, it can be interpreted and adapted to suit the character and concerns of the performer and listeners. The form this innovation takes may depend on the nature of the community within which the song is performed, or may be affected by changes in social circumstances and attitudes. Such innovative variation may, therefore, be synchronous or diachronous. 

Bandits Eric Hobsbawm bookThe outlaw is a common figure in folk music, and there seem to be three archetypal character templates within the tradition:

Firstly, the ‘simple criminal’ – someone who refuses to abide by the norms of their own community. Such a figure is considered a ‘bad man’ by performer and listeners alike.

Secondly, what Eric Hobsbawm (1981) calls the ‘social bandit’ – regarded as a criminal by the ruling class and its agencies, but who remains within the moral order of their own community and frequently acts in the collective interest.

Thirdly, the outlaw as ‘everyman’ – an ordinary person who through circumstance (i.e., being in the wrong place at the wrong time) performs an act that places them outside the law.

The outlaws

With one exception, all of the outlaws considered in this article were real people in American society during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. John Hardy (?–1894) was a black railroad worker who killed a co-worker in a dispute over a game of cards in 1893 (Cox, 1919). Lee Shelton, aka Stack O’Lee, aka Staggerlee (1865–1912) was a Saint Louis pimp who killed a man in an argument about a hat in 1895 (Brown, 2004). Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd (1904–1934) was an Oklahoman bank robber in the late 1920s and early 1930s, often portrayed as a ‘social bandit’ (Fisher, 1998). The exception is Tom Joad, a fictional character in John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939) who begins the story released on parole from prison, and ends the novel as a fugitive social activist.

The performers

Leadbelly with Accordion.The performers who tell the stories of these outlaws are: Mississippi John Hurt (1893–1966), who apart from two recording sessions in 1928 did not perform professionally until 1963, working as a farm labourer while performing at local socials, picnics and dances (Santelli, 1994); Huddie Ledbetter aka Lead Belly (1888–1949, pictured right), a black songster from Louisiana who served two jail sentences for murder and aggravated assault (Santelli, 1994); Woody Guthrie (1912–1967), a white Oklahoman and ‘fellow traveller’ of the Communist Party, who moved to California at the time of the ‘dust bowl’ depression and thence to New York City (Klein, 1980); Henry Roeland Bird, aka Professor Longhair (1918–1980), a New Orleans pianist and singer who scraped a living performing in clubs, supplemented by various menial jobs (Santelli, 1994).

Each performer introduces their song’s main character in keeping with their own social views.

Stack O'Lee

Mississippi John Hurt, a respectable, hard-working, law-abiding member of a settled rural community wants to know why the police do not arrest the criminal Stack O’Lee:

Police officer, how can it be
You can arrest everybody
But cruel Stack O’Lee?
That bad man, cruel Stack O’Lee.

For Professor Longhair, the initial focus is a dice game between Staggerlee and his victim, Billy Lyon:

It was early, early one morning,
When I heard my bulldog bark.
She was barking at the two men
Who were gambling in the dark.

Hurt sees the killing as the simple result of Stack O’Lee’s ‘badness’, the only motive being Billy’s theft of his hat:

What do I care ‘bout your two little babes
And your darling loving wife?
You done stole my Stetson hat,
So I’m bound to take your life.


In Longhair’s version, Staggerlee suspects that Billy has cheated him out of his money and his car: perhaps not an acceptable reason to kill a man, but certainly more acceptable to the drinking club clientele for whom Longhair would have been performing the song.

Staggerlee lost all his money
And he lost his Cadillac
He said ‘I believe you’ve been cheating, Billy,
Don’t move, I’ll be back.’

Lead Belly’s accordion introduction to John Hardy and Woody Guthrie’s guitar and harmonica introduction to Tom Joad are virtually identical in their chord changes and melody. When it comes to the lyrics, however, there is complete innovation. Where Lead Belly sings:

John Hardy was a desperate little man
He carried two guns every day.
He killed a man on a West Virginia line,
But they seen John Hardy getting away.

Guthrie begins:

Tom Joad got out of the old Macalester pen
There he got his parole
After four long years on a man killing charge
Tom Joad came walking down the road.

John Hardy

Outlaws end their days in different ways too. John Hardy is in many ways an ‘everyman’ outlaw, who recognises his crime, is baptised and meets his death a changed man. Due to his very ‘ordinariness’ (‘John Hardy had a mother and a father too’; ‘John Hardy had a pretty little wife, the dress she wore was blue’) the listener may well identify with him.

I’ve been to the East and I’ve been to the West,
I’ve been this whole wide world round.
I’ve been to the river and I’ve been baptised,
Now take me to my hanging ground.

On the other hand, Stack O’Lee, in the Mississippi John Hurt version of the song, shows no repentance. Instead, he throws defiance in the face of society, which returns the mistrust.

Standing on the gallows, 
Head held high,
At twelve o’clock they killed him,
We was all glad to see him die.

While the real John Hardy was hanged, the real Lee Shelton was not executed but sentenced to jail. In the Longhair version, Staggerlee’s trial is not even mentioned.

Pretty Boy Floyd

This creative reinterpretation of history is evident in Woody Guthrie’s explanation of how Pretty Boy Floyd became an outlaw. According to Guthrie, Floyd accidentally killed a deputy sheriff after the latter swore in front of his wife.

Well, a deputy sheriff approached him 
In a manner rather rude,
Using vulgar words of language
And his wife she overheard.
Pretty Boy grabbed a log chain
And the deputy grabbed his gun,
And in the fight that followed
He laid that deputy down.

In fact, Floyd’s criminal career had begun at the age of 18, when he robbed a post office of $3.50 in small change. However, for Guthrie, the key issue is that an outlaw like Floyd is less of a threat to the poor than are the bankers and businessmen, whose legal economic and social power causes homelessness and human misery.

Well, as through this life I’ve rambled,
I’ve met lots of funny men,
Some will rob you with a six-gun
And some with a fountain pen.
Well, as through your life you travel,
As through your life you roam, 
You won’t never see an outlaw
Drive a family from their home.

Tom Joad

Woody Guthrie playing the guitar.Guthrie (pictured left) is less limited by real history in Tom Joad. At the start of Steinbeck’s novel and Guthrie’s song, Tom Joad is released on parole after serving time in prison for homicide. By the end of the story and the song, his experiences have transformed him into a social outlaw. Having killed a deputy who attacks his friend, Joad faces life in prison or even the death penalty. Instead, he chooses the life of a fugitive labour activist: a criminal in the eyes of the law, but in Guthrie’s eyes a fighter against capitalist oppression.

Wherever little children are hungry and cry,
Wherever people ain’t free,
Wherever men are fighting for their rights,
That’s where I’m gonna be.

This account of the presentation of criminals in twentieth-century American folk music has revealed a strong thread of imitation in the presentation of the outlaw figure. On other occasions, characters and narratives are transformed in response to performer and audience concerns and changing social realities.

One of the most important musical changes in the twentieth century was the move from folk music (defined by its use-value to a community) to popular music (essentially a commodity, produced for its monetary exchange-value). The second half of the century saw numerous attempts to reappropriate the revolt represented by outlaws and transform this into a business proposition – ‘Turning rebellion into money,’ as British group The Clash would lament. Indeed, many ‘gangsta’ rappers would wholeheartedly collaborate with this project, establishing clothing lines and other business operations. Given these changes, the portrayal of the outlaw as ‘bad man’, ‘social bandit’ or ‘everyman’ would inevitably be subject to new influences in the music of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. 


Brown, C. (2004) Stagolee Shot Billy. Boston, MA: Harvard University Press.

Cox, J.H. (1919) ‘John Hardy’, The Journal of American Folklore, 32(126), pp. 505–520. Available at: (Accessed: 15 April 2024).

Fisher, J. (1998) The Life and Death of Pretty Boy Floyd. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press.

Hobsbawm, E. (1981) Bandits. London: Pantheon Books.

Klein, J. (1980) Woody Guthrie: a life. 2023, London: Faber and Faber.

Santelli, R. (1994) The Big Book of Blues: a biographical encyclopedia. London: Pavilion Books.

Steinbeck, J. (1939) The Grapes of Wrath. 1975, London: Pan Books.

Lyric extracts

Mississippi John Hurt: Stack O'Lee (traditional).

Henry Roeland Bird, aka Professor Longhair: Staggerlee (traditional).

Woody Guthrie: Pretty Boy Floyd, Tom Joad.

Huddie Ledbetter, aka Lead Belly: John Hardy (traditional).


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