Willie, John T, and Me

In which Willie sits around in his underwear, his friend John T sells sheets to the KLan, and I get suspended.

Back on September 26th, a listener to one of our prerecorded shows (I’ll call him ‘Mr S’), wrote to the Program Director at WHRB, who forwarded the email to me:

I’ve been a loyal listener of Hillbilly at Harvard for decades.  Am listening again this morning and strongly object to the song “Shotgun Willy” that just played.  It memorializes a member of the KKK, whose family made money selling sheets!  This song should NEVER be played on your station.

I am a white person, who grew up in a KKK area.  Even white folks were scared.  Please delete this song from your music library.


This threw me for a loop, as I remembered nothing about the Klan in any Willie Nelson songs, but then I couldn’t recite lyrics for most of them anyway. ‘Shotgun Willie’ was of course the title song of the 1973 Atlantic album that Willie mostly wrote and in which he joined the ‘Outlaw’ revolt against the then-reigning Nashville ‘countrypolitan’ style. The song was not a profound piece of work; my favorite from that album was ‘Sad Songs and Waltzes (Aren’t Selling This Year)’. I had to look up the lyrics to ‘Shotgun Willie’ on the ‘Net:

Shotgun Willie sits around in his underwear
Biting on a bullet and pulling out all of his hair
Shotgun Willie’s got all of his family there

Well, you can’t make a record if you ain’t got nothing to say
You can’t make a record if you ain’t got nothing to say
You can’t play music if you don’t know nothing to play

Shotgun Willie sits around in his underwear
Biting on a bullet and pulling out all of his hair
Shotgun Willie’s got all of his family there

Now, John T. Floores was a-working for the Ku Klux Klan
At six foot five, John T. was a hell of a man
Made a lot of money selling sheets on the family plan

Shotgun Willie sits around in his underwear
Biting on a bullet and pulling out all of his hair
Shotgun Willie’s got all of his family there

OK, so Willie does write about some guy selling sheets—maybe to the Klan? And who was John T. Floores? So I did a little more research, coming up with the response to a query on Reddit that linked to an interesting article in The Texas Monthly by John Spong. What I found led me to conclude that Willie was not ‘memorializing’ either John T or the Klan. So I wrote to Mr S:

You are mistaken about ‘Shotgun Willie’.  Willie is clearly making fun of John T. Floores, who (as I learned today, thanks to your comment) was a dance-hall owner (the John T. Floore Country Store in Helotes, TX) and good friend of Willie’s, who helped him when he couldn’t make it in Nashville.  Willie was making fun of himself, too (“Well, you can’t make a record if you ain’t got nothing to say”).

‘Shotgun Willie’ was the title song of the groundbreaking album Willie Nelson released in 1973.  We’ve been playing it on Hillbilly at Harvard ever since, and yours is the very first complaint we’ve ever had.

So was John T. Floores a member of the Klan?  An article on Texas dance halls in The Texas Monthly sheds a little light (but not much):

The outside world knows John T. from Nelson’s song “Shotgun Willie” and its line connecting him to the Ku Klux Klan. The second-most-asked question at Floore’s, right behind “Did Willie really used to play here every Saturday night?”—a reference to another of Floore’s jokey signs—is “Was John T. really a Klansman?” Some old-timers deny it, but others say that when he was growing up in East Texas, that was just part of doing business. And they say that he really did sell sheets to the Klan. They add that he was married two times, to a Native American and a Jew. “The Klan was just another vehicle to sell something,” says Willie’s bassist, Bee Spears, who grew up in Helotes.

Good article, by the way.  Floores was reportedly quite a character.

Willie wasn’t ‘memorializing’ the Klan, any more than Hillary Clinton was when she called the late Senator Robert Byrd, the Grand Kleagle of the Klan in West Virginia, her ‘mentor’ in the Senate.

Cheers, Lynn

Willie reported that he dashed off ’Shotgun Willie’ while on a trip to the bathroom. It sounds completely tongue-in-cheek to me, and the lines about John T. Floores were just throw-away filler. I must say it always struck me as ludicrous that a vicious, terrorist organization like the KKK would be wearing bedsheets and pointy hats as uniforms; it made them look silly. I expect it struck Willie the same way. John T. Floores, before he was a club owner and Willie’s friend, was in various businesses, which apparently included retailing sheets.

I’d be interested to hear from other listeners. Do you agree with me or with Mr S, who says that the song ‘memorializes’ ol’ John T. and/or the Klan, and should be deleted from our music library?

Now I didn’t hear back from Mr S, so I assumed the matter was settled. But to my surprise it wasn’t: the management of WHRB (the undergraduates, not the Trustees) were concerned that I failed to assure the listener that I wouldn’t play the song again. They viewed this as an act of insubordination, and decreed that I should be ‘suspended’ for four weeks. Of course, ever since my Exile on August 23rd, when Harvard banned non-students and non-employees from the premises, all of the HAH shows have been pre-recorded, so it was those that got suspended.

Now you know why the show has disappeared for the past four weeks.

Of course there was more. The station managers brought up other listener complaints over the past year or two. I won’t reiterate them now (maybe later if some of you want to discuss). A couple you’ve seen debated here. None are quite so obscure as ‘Shotgun Willie’; some have to do with cultural stereotypes with language now considered ‘slurs’. As you know if you’ve been listening and reading the blog, I take the position that when we’re playing a hundred years or so of country music, we have to appreciate the historical and traditional context of songs, and we have to avoid allowing excesses of political correctness to become the cancellation of history. It depends on where you draw the line, and folks do differ, especially outside the academy. However, WHRB considers itself a voice of Harvard, and is hyper-sensitive to complaints. I program on the fly, and beyond watching new songs for ‘FCC clean’ I can’t pre-emptively screen lyrics. So we agreed to consult if the station gets a complaint and to keep a list of songs problematic for Harvard air. Obviously, if you have a complaint, I’d prefer that you contact me first.

What about the immediate future? We’ll be playing pre-recorded shows for the next month or two, maybe longer. Harvard has indicated that they will continue with on-campus restrictions for the Spring term. That likely means I’ll still be exiled from the building (only students and employees allowed), so no live shows, unless a few volunteers like me are granted exceptions during December and January, when no students will be on campus. We’ll see. If not, then I might be able to cobble some archived material here, and maybe produce some new segments live from my office. But my broadcast style relies on ‘physical media’ (records and CDs), not Internet downloads, so it would be hard without professional equipment. But again, we’ll see.

Let me say also that I greatly appreciate all the expressions of support here and by email. Patience is the highest virtue: stay tuned! /CL

This entry was posted in Administrivia, Country History, Hillbilly Journal, Program Notes, Radio Talk, Songwriting and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Willie, John T, and Me

  1. Roderick J Holland says:

    Oh, for Pete’s sake! If the same undergraduates who suspended you are the ones producing the insipid fare of the last few weeks, they should be ashamed of themselves. They’ve made the station and themselves look ridiculous.

    • Now, Rod, don’t be so harsh. They have different tastes in music, to be sure. And they don’t know as much about traditional country as you and I. /CL

      • Roderick J Holland says:

        A good and generous point. Most of us have something embarrassing to look back on from our undergraduate days, after all. So this is theirs. They’ll have years to properly appreciate it.

  2. steve kilbride says:

    Hang in there CL -I DJ for a very left -wing (and I myself am progressive/Democrat) independent radio station and go through the same knee jerk hyper-sensitivity. You can’t burnish history or the way people talked back in the day. I once played a Charlie Pride live track where he was introduced as a ‘boy’ by the club owner! -but it is a painful moment in history that we can’t cover up. I used it as a teaching moment, and you tried hard to do the same thing with your complainer. And the lyrics of a song don’t in any way represent the views of the person playing it. Maybe you need a disclaimer?

    • Thanks, Steve— I’ve been thinking along ‘disclaimer’ lines, too. Maybe a generic one from time to time, as I can’t possibly catch all possibly offending words—nor do I want to; most of the time they are completely incidental to the music. Of course there are exceptions, but most by now are well-known. /CL

  3. Steve N says:

    CL, I came here from Texas 42 winters ago and your program has allowed us to two-step around the kitchen many a Saturday morning. Any visit I make to Central Texas and the Hill Country includes an evening at John T. Floore Country Store where I have heard just about any good Texas country artist you can think of. The arrogance of Harvard is abominable; you are far too good for them. My source for real country music is KGNB from New Braunfels via live streaming. It is small town local radio that is true to its roots. I hope we get you back. If not, thank you for decades of enjoyment and enlightenment.

    • Thanks Steve N—For the flattering words. Never been accused of enlightenment before! I’m checking out KGNB now. Used to listen some to KHYI in Plano (same frequency as WHRB!), but they seemed to be departing from country. /CL

  4. Ken Ward says:

    Lynn: I’m curious what other complaints you’ve gotten, just for the sake of comparison. I get relatively few complaints on my country show here in Memphis, and fortunately none as obscure as the one about John T. Floores. One man chewed me out awhile ago for playing “The Knoxville Girl” because it glorified violence against women (the killer spends his life in a dirty old jail, so his violence doesn’t seem very glorious to me). Another caller, a young mother who was driving to work, yelled at me for playing “Mama please stay home with me” because she thought it dissed moms like her who had to work to support their families (well, no…. the song is about a woman who leaves a sick, pleading child at home to go out drinking, singing, and dancing). Last week, a caller was upset that an announcer encouraged people to vote — not that he encouraged listeners to vote for anyone in particular — but merely encouraging people to vote is de facto evidence of political bias these days. I’m always polite, but fortunately I’m not expected to change my programming based on the strange notions of a handful of listeners. At any rate, I’m glad your pre-recorded shows will return next week, and I hope you’re there again in living color very soon!

    • Howdy Ken— Imagine if we had to outlaw murder ballads! ‘Banks of the Ohio’, ‘Pretty Polly’, ‘Omi Wise’, and so many others!

      I am considering a post on my other sins; this one was getting too long. In the meantime, have a look at the lengthy comments from an obnoxious fellow named George Hicks on the Paper and Pen page from back in July, ranting because I called the Illinois State Fair banning Confederate Railroad ‘insanity’. And about that time, see the discussion of ‘pickaninnies’ HERE (with Hicks again in the Comments). /CL

  5. Steve Bartlett says:

    It seems that the virtual (pre-recorded) HAH has received what amounts to a virtual suspension.
    If all history is eliminated, these people (who would b—h if they were hanged with a new rope) will no longer have the information necessary to condemn the descendants!

    As Andy Griffith once observed, “Some people have been educated beyond their intelligence.”

  6. Steve Bartlett says:

    Glad you’re back, even by pre-recording, and that HAH is no longer teetering on the brink…

  7. John from Billerica says:

    I echo all of the replies above.
    With all the stress/anxiety going on in this country, I was elated to turn on the radio and find HAH back!!
    Some sense of normalcy!!
    I’ll take the recordings over the program I’ve heard the last few weeks.
    Can’t wait to get back to live broadcasts.
    Keep the faith Cuz.
    RIP – Jerry Jeff and Billy Jo.

  8. john from Billierica says:

    er – Billy JOE
    don’t want him to womp me up the side of the head
    unless he stays awhile to play some and have a couple too many

  9. Tom Greaves says:

    Hmm. Trigger warnings for Willie Nelson songs? That could get confusing.
    I’m so glad you’re back.

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