Is Johnny Horton Racist?

Note: This page was originally a post titled ‘Lileks Blew It’ from February 19, 2004 by co-blogger Jim. It has generated a bit of traffic for this site. Which is to say, a few dozen people came here versus the random scattering of individuals we usually get. I didn’t want it to get lost in the detritus of the internet so I’ve made it a seperate page. Also of note is the fact that Mr. Lileks seems to have removed any reference to Johnny Horton from the entry in question.

Apologies to all who have checked in recently expecting daily pearls of wisdom from yours truly. I’ve been busy at work and at home lately and have not had much time to devote to keeping up with the blog. I could probably still have posted short blurbs but I’ve become somewhat obsessed with an accusation that Lileks recently made in a Bleat posting that accuses country singer Johnny Horton of recording one of the most virulently racist songs I’ve ever heard called “Some N****** Never Die, They Just Smell That Way. (Go read the link, I am not going to quote the lyrics here)

When Lileks first heard the song he was stunned:

“Jaw on sternum. I mean, here it is: not just the open wretched racism you knew was common currency in the old days, but recorded by a popular artist for a wide audience with the expectation that no one will complain.”

I’m sure anyone who read the Lileks piece was probably also stunned. Just one problem, other than the lyrics and song title, almost everything Lileks wrote about the song is not true. The person singing the song was not Johnny Horton, and the song was not recorded by a popular artist for a wide audience. It turns out that the song was actually recorded by a guy going by the name of Johnny Rebel, just as Lileks claims it wasn’t, and its release has pretty much been limited to a select number of jukeboxes and white power music fans.

My first reaction to Lileks’ accusation was simple surprise. Johnny Horton? You mean the guy who sang, “Sink the Bismarck,” “Battle of New Orleans” and stuff like that? I’d always thought of Johnny Horton as a kind of corny country boy, not as a racist fuck. But I nonetheless accepted the accusations as true at first.

The more I thought about it, though, the less sense this made. I used to listen to Johnny Horton when I was a kid because my parents had old Horton records lying around, and I couldn’t ever remember hearing anything even remotely racist (other than references to the “bloody British”). Anyway, I finally broke down and dropped by my dad’s house to dig through the old records in his garage. Sure enough, one of Johnny’s records was still there, and it had no racist references that I could find.

One record proves nothing though, so I broadened my search to P2P networks. Bingo! There was the song that Lileks was talking about, and it was credited to Johnny Horton. The only problem was that what appeared to be the same song (same name, same length, same file size, same recording quality) was also credited to Johnny Rebel and to David Allen Coe. Although different singers were credited with the song, the fact that each version appeared to contain the exact same number of bytes and was the exact same length means that the different credits are probably meaningless. It’s highly unlikely that the songs listed were actually different versions.

The next step was to attempt to download this filth. I was unable to get most of the offered songs to download, but eventually managed to get a full version of the David Allen Coe-credited song. It aint David Allen Coe. But neither did it sound like Johnny Horton. I did notice that although the song title credited David Allen Coe, the tag info listed Johnny Rebel as the singer. Curious.

So like Lileks, I turned to Google to try and figure out what the heck was going on here. I started by Googling “Johnny Horton” and “Johnny Rebel” (I left Coe out of it at first since I doubted that it was him). Googling Horton brought up a long list of country music and fan sights that contained discographies and biographical material. I read the bio material and checked every discography that I came across and found no mention of anti-black recordings and no listing for the song that Lileks claims is Horton’s. That still doesn’t prove it wasn’t Horton, though.

It was only when I tried Googling “Johnny Rebel” that the pieces began to fall into place. A man by the name of CJ Trahan recently came out and claimed to be Johnny Rebel. This was the guy who Lileks picked up as being interviewed on Howard Stern and concluded could not be the guy singing on the recording in question. It’s possible that Lileks was right about that, as the cited article notes that there is some controversy over whether Trahan really is Johnny Rebel. That does not mean that the singer must have been Johnny Horton, though, as Lileks concluded.

According to the Trahan article, Johnny Rebel recorded the songs in the late 60s in a Louisiana recording studio. And while it is not entirely clear from the article, it appears that Trahan/Rebel not only recorded the song in question and about a dozen others with similar themes, he also wrote them. The origin of the songs is important regardless of whether Trahan is really Rebel because in all of the searching I’ve done, I have yet to find anyone, anywhere who claims that the song in question existed in any form prior to November 5, 1960.

That date is critical because it is the day that Johnny Horton was killed by a 19-year-old drunk driver near Milano, Texas. So regardless of whether Trahan is actually Rebel, if the Rebel songs themselves really did appear for the first time in the late 60s, it is impossible for Johnny Horton to have ever recorded a version of the song.

After reading the article about Trahan, I went back and downloaded a couple more songs by Johnny Rebel. As with the Lileks song, several of these were also credited to either Johnny Horton or David Allen Coe. This time I had a bit more luck (?) in getting multiple versions of the songs. As with the Lileks song, the multiple versions of the other songs (whose titles I will not list here in order to minimize skinhead visitors to this site) were all the same length and same file size regardless of who was listed as the singer. Like I suspected, this was because they turned out to be the same version of the same song. And the songs credited to Johnny Rebel in the Trahan article all sound like they are sung by the same guy singing the song Lileks wrote about.

Still, Lileks had noted that in his attempt to figure out if the singer was really Horton he “Googled the track name, and it popped up on “white power” sites attributed to Horton and someone named ‘Johnny Rebel.’” So I tried this. Again, Lileks is right. On some sites the song is attributed to Horton. The problem is that the Horton attributions appear to be mainly Mp3 playlists. None of the sites that I found listing this attribution contained any additional information regarding who actually wrote and originally recorded the song. There are a number of white power sites that actually sell the Johnny Rebel songs on records, and none of those credit Horton for the song or sell alternative Horton versions.

In fact, a when you Google the title of the song Lileks refers to you get more David Allen Coe credits than Johnny Horton credits for the song. The reason for this is explained in the Trahan article, which notes that David Allen Coe is rumored to have been Johnny Rebel. Coe denies the rumor. It’s unclear how Horton’s name got attached to the song. Based upon what I’ve seen, the most likely explanation is that some white power moron mistyped the artist’s name when he ripped the Mp3.

With the exceptions noted above, I couldn’t find anyone, anywhere who alleges that Horton had anything to do with the song. In fact Lileks appears to be the first person who has gone beyond listing Horton’s name with the song and actually come out and accused him in print of being responsible for the song. Not even the ADL, which lists Johnny Rebel as racist country music singer [who] recorded songs such as “N****r Hatin’ Me” mentions Johnny Horton as having recorded racist songs.

Based upon what I found as listed above, and in the absence of any evidence that the song in question even existed before Horton died, I have to conclude that Lileks blew it and slandered the memory of an innocent man.

So why is this so important to me? Good question. The short answer is that I don’t like to see innocent people slammed for being racists, and Horton sure appears to me to be innocent of the charges that Lileks levels against him. But I was even more troubled by the fact that Lileks, who is a helluva writer and generally a pretty level-headed guy, would so easily accept the idea that such a vile song would have been put out by a mainstream country singer for a wide audience with little or no protest.

I know that the US has some pretty ugly skeletons in its closet, but we don’t need our best and brightest writers jumping to conclusions that would pack the closet any tighter. C’mon James, it’s the Indymedia crowd’s job to try to make this country look like the most racist nation that ever existed, not yours.

Y’all excuse me now while I go take a bottle of disinfectant and a scrub brush to my hard drive.

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