Little is known about the circumstances in which the popular folk song “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” was written several centuries ago. While clearly intended to preserve the memory of an important political event – the defeat of Brown, believed to be a 21st-century ruler who controlled an area then known as the “south side of Shi-ka-go” – there are no other contemporary sources about this event, and most later sources are probably speculation based on the song. Much like Brown himself at the end of the narrative, our understanding of his era is like a “jigsaw puzzle with a couple of pieces gone”. However, as some historians have recently argued, the similar folk song “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim” may be a corrupted or coded reference to the same event. In this article, I will argue that the comparison between the two songs is a fruitful avenue for further research, if ultimately still speculative.
For those unfamiliar with the first song, “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” centers around the collapse of Brown’s regime, which is sparked by the ruler’s attempt to exercise his power of primae noctis with a married woman known as “Doris”, whose unnamed husband then defeats him in unarmed combat. If this appears to be an anti-climactic end to such a tyrannical rule, keep in mind that most historians no longer take the story literally; rather, “Doris” represents the spirit of the people and culture of Shi-ka-go which Brown is attempting to defile, while her anonymous husband represents the mass of the people that overthrew the ruler.
At first glance, the similar folk song “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim” would appear to describe an entirely different story, albeit one that plays out similarly. The setting is not clearly stated, but it may be located on the “south side of Shi-ka-go”: while recent archaeological studies at a site southwest of Lake Michigan have not uncovered anything known as “the bowery”, the central location of the “forty-second street” would fit with the city’s gridded pattern. The song’s antagonist, “Big” Jim Walker, appears to be a warlord or chieftain much like Leroy Brown, but there is no similarity between their names. The protagonist, Willie “Slim” McCoy, is not only named but has entirely different motives from the hero of the Brown song: he attempts to recoup his gambling losses from Walker, and ends up defeating him in combat and usurping his power, becoming a similarly feared tyrant as stated in the final chorus of the song.
As previous papers on the subject have persuasively argued, the changes that could have been made to turn “Brown” into “Jim” took place in no more than a hundred years, and the content of each song has remained remarkably consistent over the course of widespread proliferation in the ensuing centuries. Therefore, if the two songs are indeed intended to refer to the same event – and the striking musicological similarities between them suggest that this is true – then one of them must have had key details deliberately changed to avoid being identified as such.
Which of the two songs, if this theory is true, is the obfuscated one, and how did it get that way? Most historians who accept this interpretation of the songs argue that “Brown” is the original and “Jim” is the coded message, determining this by a variety of different methods. In this article, I will present a novel argument, based on an analysis of their differing dramatic structures, which arrives at the same conclusion. It is evident from the song that the protagonist of “Brown” had noble intentions of defeating Leroy Brown and liberating the “south side of Shi-ka-go” from him. In contrast, in “Jim”, McCoy wanted to take Walker's power away from him only so he could have it for himself.
This difference is made all the more stark by the fact that the protagonist of “Brown”, being a metaphorical representation of “the people”, remains unnamed. As a character, his intentions were apparently so pure-hearted that he didn't even want to take credit for defeating Brown. Politically speaking, “Brown” is not only a statement of opposition to the regime of Leroy Brown, and a celebration of its ultimate defeat, but also a statement of support for the government that replaced it, and it casts that government in a light of populist solidarity.
On the other hand, “Jim” pessimistically illustrates how, in the view of its author(s), the government that supplanted Walker (and/or Brown) was ultimately just another oppressor, but the defeat of the ruler remains something to be celebrated. Considering the well-established pattern of the various post-American fiefdoms of the time period, and the disillusionment of a people which had been through several decades of sustained and devastating conflict, the far more negative outlook of “Jim” strongly suggests that “Brown” predates it.
Although we still lack further information to substantiate it, we can begin to establish a tentative timeline of the leadership of southern “Shi-ka-go” in the 21st and 22nd centuries. Leroy Brown was a powerful ruler in the region in the early part of the post-American era, who was unexpectedly defeated by a populist movement at the height of his influence. The new regime established after this successful coup soon became tyrannical in its own right, crushing the hopes of those who had fought for it, and the faction founded by Brown eventually retook power.
Within this proposed framework, “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” appears to have been written shortly after Brown was defeated, but the fact that it has been passed down and preserved up to the present day shows that it continued to resonate with people even in times when the song was actively being suppressed. “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim”, on the other hand, seems to be a product of that very suppression, and this is reflected in both its political worldview and the careful self-censorship of its lyrics. The names Jim Walker and Willie McCoy, for that matter, may be those of prominent anti-Brownist and pro-Brownist figures of their time, respectively, as this would help ensure the transmission of its message in Brownist-controlled regions.
Again, however, the fact that Shi-ka-gan people felt the need to continue embodying and preserving the core of hope that is perfectly symbolized by the defeat of Leroy Brown, through much darker times than the authors of “Brown” would have ever envisioned, certainly illustrates the continued importance of the event for them.
At the same time, we must remember that this is the only contemporary sentiment about Brown which has been recorded, and without any points of comparison, it would be irresponsible to make the assumption that this analysis leads us to: that Brown was a uniquely bad historical ruler, even in the context of his time and place, and that he had no popular support. We cannot estimate the ratio of Brown’s supporters to opponents at any point in time, and indeed the song may be preserving only the propaganda of an unpopular post-Brown government.
This is, of course, the position of modern Brownists, who argue that Brown can be identified as the ideological or hereditary ancestor of many of the benevolent leaders of our own time, and thus despite the lack of any attested contemporary support for his reign, we should stop vilifying him in our culture and start celebrating him. At the risk of sounding biased, I take issue with this approach to historical research, and in previous publications I have debunked some common Brownist claims which simply cannot be substantiated.
The systematic study of post-American historical figures is, as of this writing, still a field in its infancy, and I offer this article only as one of many possible frameworks through which the archaeologists stationed southwest of Lake Michigan may be able to make sense of what they are currently finding. I also offer it in recognition of the fact that Brownists, while representing only a minor group in opposition to the historical consensus, have had disproportionate influence over those same archaeologists, simply because most historians have not attempted to respond to such theories seriously.
Finally, for those fringe theorists who argue that Leroy Brown was not real just because we have so little direct evidence for his existence, I would like to remind them that we have about as much contemporary documentation as we do for such iconic and unquestionably real historical figures as Jesus Christ, George Washington, Rocky Raccoon, or Adolf Hitler. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, and it is common for the passage of centuries to wipe away the most valuable sources. What is important, however, is that successive generations have found the examples of each of their lives, for good or ill, so consistently meaningful that they have ensured their stories will never be forgotten.