The Ballad of Ben Johnson

04:50
Becky Reyes
06/30/1998

Story

When I first got to Bisbee, I was struck by the buildings. Some of them were these beautiful old buildings and some were old miner's shacks. I knew there was a rich history here. One morning, I woke up and thought, "Today, I'm going to write a song set in 1917". I don't know why I picked that date, but I remember thinking that 1917 was probably when Bisbee was really booming. I was walking through town, taking in the local sights, trying to find inspiration, and as I passed Atalanta's Book Store, I saw a booklet in the window called "The Great IWW Deportation of 1917" by Robbie Hansen. I read the booklet cover to cover and when I recovered from my outrage, I wrote this song. It came out in about a half an hour. Robbie Hansen is no longer with us but I want to thank him for publishing that booklet just the same. Those were his words, I just rhymed 'em up a bit and put them to music.

Lyrics

 

The Ballad of Ben Johnson

I am a Bisbee Miner Ben Johnson is my name
I came here from Nogales to work the company claim
I left my wife with two young boys and headed out one day
That was five long years ago I came here on that train

I joined up with the union when I came to this town
I signed on with the company and made my way around
They gave me sticks of dynamite to bring the mountain down
I worked as hard as any man tearin' up the ground

They paid us very little and paid in company script
We lost a bunch of miners when a hole caved in
No showers and no lockers, no time to warm our skin
We'd walk home shiv'rin' from the mines, pneumonia took a friend

The Wobblies called a meeting and called a picket line
We had to show the company their policies weren't right
The great world war was raging then, but we had our own fight
The Company came up with a plan and tried to break the strike  

"Kaiser sympathizers", the local papers said
The company asked the sheriff to deputize some men
1200 able bodies were given guns and then
July 12, 1917 they came to get the "reds"

In the early hours of dawn they snuck up on their prey
The vigilantes killed James Brew when he shot McRea
Eleven-hundred eighty two were rounded up that day
They marched us into Warren and put us on a train

They took us to New Mexico and left us at a camp
With soldiers all around us we didn't have a chance
All of us were ordered never to come back
And then they closed off Bisbee, a gun at every pass

That was 20 years ago I still recall that day
I found work in a factory, ten years I stayed away
They say time heals everything but some things stay the same
When I came back to Bisbee, I had to change my name

I am a Bisbee miner, John Benson is my name
I came here from Nogales to work the company claim
My boys are grown with families, Ruth died in '28
25 long years ago, I came here on that train
(8/25/96)

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