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Tom Chaney: Big Harp, Little Harp, and Billie Potts

Of Writers And Their Books: Big Harp, Little Harp, and Billie Potts. Tom discusses Robert Penn Warren’s poem, "The Ballad of Billie Potts” depicting the terrors of travel in the days of flatboats on the rivers and the disaster that can come from an ‘innocent’ deception. This column first appeared 3 April 2005.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: Slip F-18, Bahia Mar, Fort Lauderdale

By Tom Chaney

Big Harp, Little Harp, and Billie Potts

In December 1811 while the Lewis brothers were butchering and burning the slave George on the first night of the New Madrid earthquake, an alarming man-made portent was making its belching, whooping way past Rocky Hill down the Ohio headed for New Orleans.

Nicholas Roosevelt, shipbuilder, was aboard The New Orleans, the first steamboat to steam from Pittsburg to New Orleans -- proving to his partners, Robert Fulton and Robert Livingston, that such a vessel could navigate the rough, western rivers as well as the placid Hudson

While a harbinger of the new era, 'twould be years before the steamboat replaced the earlier flatboats on The Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. And the flatboat era was the heyday of the river bandits around Cave-in-Rock. Big Harp, Little Harp, and a gang of desperados waylaid the slow-moving flatboats, killing the crews and stealing the goods.

Traveling by foot to the West was not any safer.

Robert Penn Warren sets a fine poem, "The Ballad of Billie Potts," in the land between the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers.

Big Billie Potts and his wife own a tavern in the land between the rivers. The hospitable host found out all he could about his guests, sent word by runner ahead to outlaws who waylaid, robbed and murdered the unsuspecting travelers. In the Warren poem, the runner fails to show one night and Big Billie sends his "whickering boy" Little Billie to alert the robbers.

Little Billie decides to cut out the middleman, lies in wait for the traveler and attempts to rob him. The traveler, smarter than the average mark, gets the drop on Billie and shoots him -- not fatally.

Little Billie hightails it back home, and his pap packs him off to the west.

The story of Little Billie is interlaced with the 20th Century traveler fleeing west to the last motel on the last beach after getting the message -- "Flee, all is discovered!"

Like the salmon, Little Billie, the modern traveler, and the tens of thousands of easterners learn little from the flight west. Little Billie comes home. He is unrecognized by an old friend, Joe Drew, and decides to have some fun with Big Billie and his mammy who don't recognize him either.
He joked them and teased them and he had his fun
And they never guessed that he was the one
Had been Mammy's darling and Pappy's joy
When he was a great big whickering boy
In the land between the rivers.
After supper he asks for fresh water,
'this here ain't no fresher than a horse puddle.'
And the old woman said: 'Pappy, take the young gentleman down to the spring so he kin get it
good and fresh.'
The old woman gave the old man a straight look.
She gave him the bucket but it was not empty but it was not water
He kneels at the feet of his father who is ignorant and evil and old. Whilst Little Billie drinks through the reflection of one star and his face, Big Billie takes the hatchet from the bucket and plants it in Little Billie's head. Then he robs him and buries him by the spring.

While Big Billie and Mammy are counting their takings figuring their luck has turned, Joe Drew arrives and asks after Little Billie.
'Air you crazy,' said Big, 'and plum outa yore head,
For you knows he went West nigh ten long year?'
'Went West,' Joe said, 'but I seen him here
In the section between the rivers . . . .'
Joe Drew leaves, they go to the spring and dig up the traveler. Mammy denies it's Billie and mentions a birthmark 'below his left tit -- shaped for luck.'
The hour is late,
The scene familiar even in shadow,
The transaction brief,
And you, wanderer, back,
After the striving and the wind's word,
To kneel
Here in the evening empty of wind or bird,
To kneel in the sacramental silence of evening
At the feet of the old man
Who is evil and ignorant and old,
To kneel
With the little black mark under your heart,
Which is your name,
Which is shaped for luck,
Which is your luck.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney -

This story was posted on 2016-02-28 03:55:26
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