Heroes and Outlaws: folk hero in Folksong and Folklore Dick Turpin, John Hardy,Davy Crocket, folk heroes, highwaymen
This is the first in a series of hubs about outlaws and heroes as told about in folk songs and folklore stories.Generally I look to traditional songs but at times a pop song or country music can provide a true folk story.This first hub highlights Dick Turpin, an English outlaw from the 18th Century, John Hardy, an American Western outlaw and gunfighter and Davy Crockett considered a frontier hero.
Dick Turpin: Outlaw and Hero?
Dick Turpin hero was his name
He from Dublin City came
--from folk song "Bold Turpin" sung by Ed McGurdy.
Dick Turpin was an 18th Century highwayman and seems representative of the hero worship that the English of the period gave to such outlaws. and seems to me to be a part of a continuing legend of the outlaw/hero which dates back to Robin Hood and continues on today. Following the period of Turpin we now have folk songs, books and movies about such figures as Jesse James, Pretty Boy Floyd and Bonnie and Clyde.
So, was Turpin and the others heroes or villains? It somewhat depends on who you ask. A Frenchman visiting England during the period said that he met English who bragged as much about the success of their highwaymen as of the bravery of their troops. A noted thief was kind of a hero. On the other hand one writer stated that the highwaymen were sordid fellows.
A short summary of Turpin's life is that he was born in Hempstead, Essex, the son of an Innkeeper in 1706. He was hanged in 1739. When he was young he joined with a band of thieves who stole farm animals and deer. Later he worked with Tom King and they robbed travelers on the road from London to Oxford.He accidentally killed his partner, King, while shooting at a constable. Later he was arrested in York for stealing horses. and hung.
Much of the Turpin legend has been attributed to the novel Rookwood, by William Ainsworth which described a ride by Turpin on his horse Black Bess from London to Yorkshire. He was trying to establish an alibi by making people believe he was in Yorkshire when he was actually committing a crime in London.This one novel has been followed by about fifty plays, hundred of ballads and chap books.
In the making of a hero. factors such as publicity, personality, struggle and showmanship are important, and there are numerous writers willing to be indirect press agents for the outlaws.Even Shakespeare usually portrayed highwaymen as gentlemen. In a later day, writers such as Ned Buntline gave reputations to a number of American heroes.
Newspapers added their share to the glory of the outlaws. If you believe the newspapers of Turpin's time truth can be as astonishing as fiction. While he was practicing around London, one of the papers reported that he had committed a robbery nearly every day of the month. Although Turpin's ride to York seems to be mythical, the Times swallowed the story whole, and relished it. If the respectable publications give so much publicity to the glory of the road agent, you can imagine what the hack writers did with it.
Turpin and others were often cast as underdogs facing great odds. With only a pistol and a horse Turpin eluded a whole kingdom for almost a decade and was considered a hero by the common people. He proved himself a good loser by ending his life voluntarily by jumping from the ladder rather than waiting for the cart to be pulled out from under him.
Strangely the harshness of the times made it possible for the highwayman to operate. Police methods were so poor that criminals were seldom caught, however punishment was harsh. Turpin was finally caught and tried for stealing horses. Generally, nobody wanted to stop the highwaymen. They were heroes to the poor and gentlemen to the rich
John Hardy was a brave little man
He carried a pistol every day
He killed a man in Shallow Town
'Twas a sight to see John Hardy getting away, Lord, Lord
'Twas a sight to see John Hardy getting away
Song John Hardy. Sung by Ed McCurdy and many others, especially during the 1960’s.The McCurdy version is included in the album Blood, Booze ‘n Bones
John Henry was a railroad worker who was executed for killing a man whom he had accused of stealing twenty-five cents. He was hanged on January 19, 1894.
Folk Hero Songs
Songs about folk heroes have been sung for hundreds of years and I assume they will continue to be sung as long as we value them.
Born on a mountaintop in Tennessee
The greenest state in the land of the free
Raised in the woods so's he knew ev'ry tree
Kilt him a b'ar when he was only three
Davy, Davy Crockett, king of the wild frontier
Ballad of Davy Crockett written by Bob Hayes and was a top 40 hit record in 1955.
Since this hub is about Heroes and Outlaws I’ve been trying to find a song about a hero. The songs writers considered most of those I have previously written about heroes and maybe a hero is in the eye of the beholder.
This song is about a hero but it may be stretching the definition of folk song some but it was just about everywhere at the time and covered by numerous singers, including Tennessee Ernie Ford who I think was one of the better county/folk singers. The song has become something of a “standard” which I think has some of the characteristics of a folk song. It has entered into the tradition, it tells a story, may be sung by ordinary folks. I heard at least remnants of it at the folk festival in La Cross, Wisconsin the last time I went.
Davy Crockett is a “folk hero” even if the song is not a folk song. In the 1950’s Disney did a movies and television about him and we were not only bombarded with “The Ballad of Davy Crocket” but coonskin caps and other gear. Even politician, or especially politicians were sporting them on TV.
Crockett is probably best known for having died in the Battle of the Alamo. Also as a frontiersman, thus the later term used by the Kennedy administration “New Frontier.” He is probably less remembered for his role in politics. He served two terms in the Tennessee legislature and three terms in the United States House of Representatives. He was a legendary shooter and witty orator.
The outlaw such as Dick Turpin, and John Hardy and the hero like Davy Crockett are often portrayed in folksong and folk tales without much distinction between them.
© 2009 Don A. Hoglund
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