peonage and the blues

Peonage, also called debt slavery or debt servitude, is a system whereby an employer compels a worker to pay off a debt with work (and thus not be paid in money). Legally, peonage was outlawed by Congress in 1867, but did that stop the practice? Some argue no, that it survived all the way into the present, or at least until the early post-WWII era. By the 1940s, according to records in the National Archives, only rare cases of long-term peonage survived, mostly in rural areas and small towns. But some, such as bluesman Mance Lipscomb, have argued that sharecropping is just another form of peonage. We’ll take a look at an incident in one small south-central Texas town in the late 1940s that may illustrate the point.

The incident in question allegedly happened on the Tom Moore farm, originally owned by a handful of brothers, which lies near the small Texas town of Navasota. Black blues singers often referred to the “repression of black workers” on the farm. This “maltreatment”  became the catalyst for the creative reaction that sprang up in opposition, in turn producing a unique blues sound.

There have been multiple versions of “Tom Moore’s Farm,” a blues standard sometimes accredited to Lipscomb, a Texas-born sharecropper who later became world famous for his blues, and other, songs. Mance (a shortened form of emancipation), who denied writing the Tom Moore Farm song, was particularly influential to blues rockers such as Janis Joplin and Bob Dylan, who both traveled to Navasota to hear the blues master play.

One of the few incidents of Moore brutality to ever break into public view was the July 1948 beating of a black parolee named John Roe. John recalled the incident from his Austin hospital bed, explaining that he had asked Tom Moore (the main owner) to use a farm truck to take his sick child to the doctor. Moore denied the request and told him to get back to work. When Roe persisted, Roe said Moore struck him with a shovel, then pistol-whipped him and chased him, bumping him with a truck fender, as Roe ran for his life with a broken arm and other injuries.

The farmworker managed to get to Austin, more than 100 miles away, where he reported the incident to the state parole board. He was admitted to Brackenridge Hospital and told his story to a Texas Ranger, the chief of the parole division, a Salvation Army captain and a stenographer. According to newspaper accounts, investigations were launched by a Brazos County grand jury, the Rangers and the FBI, as well as the Austin branch of the NAACP and the local Communist Party, to determine if peonage was being practiced on Tom Moore’s farm.

What if anything ever came of these investigations is unclear, and Moore descendants say that Tom Moore was cleared of any wrongdoing. An article on the Roe incident in the Pittsburgh Courier, an African-American newspaper, noted that a similar incident had involved Harry Moore (Tom’s brother), a few months before. The victim in that case was identified only as “Mr. Walker.”

One can only surmise that there were other such incidents that went uninvestigated and/or unreported. However, there can be little doubt that the original Tom Moore farm, where many blacks saw much evil lurking, became the main antagonist for blues song creation in the Brazos Valley of Texas. But some writers, like Russell Cushman, see a great irony there as well. “In some strange twist, it is many of Navasota’s white population who are the ones that have preserved the blues, loved them and celebrated them, as if they know just how important they are as documents of a time and a history locked up in the iron box.”

Lightnin’ Hopkins sings “Tom Moore Blues”