Stace England tackles Old Slave House

By Brian DeNeal, Staff Writer

Stace England performed on stage with his band The Salt Kings in Carbondale Sept. 22 for the local release of "Salt Sex Slaves."

 
Brian DeNeal photo

EQUALITY - The Sisk family told the story of the Old Slave House near Equality for decades before George Sisk closed the house in 1996 and sold it to the state in 2000.

The stories of the house and its history have been told since in newspaper and magazine articles, web Blogs, books and speeches and now Stace England of Cobden is telling some of the story in music.

England performed some of the songs at Hangar 9 in Carbondale Sept. 22 and sold some of the first copies of his CD, though its official release is Nov. 13.

He believes the 13 songs on "Salt Sex Slaves" will draw a new group of people to examine the dark history of the house and, hopefully, learn something from it.

The images throughout the CD booklet are bordered with the tangled silhouettes of tree limbs.

"It's a briary kind of story," England said.

Locals are familiar with the story of the Old Slave House that John Hart Crenshaw had built when he owned the Wabash Salines salt works operation. Though Illinois was a free state, slave labor was legal to work the Wabash Salines because salt was such a vital part of the economy.

The third floor of the Old Slave House has a series of cells built into it. The Crenshaw story has it the third floor was a prison of free blacks who had been kidnapped and were sold back into slavery, a sort of supplementary income for Crenshaw. The house is a National Park Service National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom site in recognition of its role in a "reverse underground railroad."

 

The history of a salt works operator who also kidnapped slaves may seem an unlikely subject for a rock album, but England could not imagine another musical style to use in telling the story.

"I just let the music go where it wants to go. It feels like a Southern Illinois nod, to me, to 'Brown Sugar,'" England said.

Liner notes tell of the fervor of Emancipation Baptists who opposed the leasing of slaves to operate the salt works and who were regarded as trouble makers. England imagined the impassioned preaching in the churches decrying legalized slavery.

"I don't know if you can pull off the intensity of that in a folk tradition," England said.

"Muscle and Bone" is a slower country/rock song telling England's story of how a slave caught Crenshaw unawares and chopped off his leg with an axe. There is scant evidence on how Crenshaw actually lost his leg, though legend has it black men plotted the act as retaliation for a kidnapping. In England's fictionalized account the slave's final thought as he swings from a rope is that when he sees Crenshaw in hell he will cut off his other leg.

"Crenshaw did a lot of bad stuff, but he never did get his come-uppance. The only thing that probably affected him in his life was the incident with the axe," England said.

In the CD booklet is a portrait of Crenshaw and his wife Sina. Crenshaw holds his crutches and his wife holds the stump of Crenshaw's leg in her lap.

The Slave House story is rich in material for ballads. There is the story of Uncle Bob, the stud slave, who claimed to have fathered 300 children. The haunting by spirits of the third floor is also an important part of the Slave House mythology. "Shawneetown" tells the fictional story of two slaves falling in love.

"There are so many stories the challenge almost became weeding away to get at the nuggets," England said.

"Kidnapping Venus" is about one of several stories of slave kidnapping associated with Crenshaw's operation, telling the story of Venus Davenport. One stinging lyric indicates a justification of the kidnappers for the act: "She'll be atop the block on market day/The U.S. Constitution says/ She's just three-fifths of a person, anyway."

"On Kidnapping Venus it basically refers to the three-fifths compromise of 1787 where each slave was given the value for census purposes of three-fifths. This was to hold down the southern census and avoid complete taxation, according to most accounts I've read. I felt it was a further humiliation to blacks," England said.

In researching the house, talking with Old Slave House historian Jon Musgrave, author of "Slaves, Sex, Salt and Mr. Crenshaw," talking with former owner and current caretaker George Sisk and in visiting the house himself, England said the lyrics came naturally.

"I found the lyrics came pretty easy. The subject matter really had its hooks in me," he said.

After several talks with state officials, England received permission to visit the house, which is not open to the public. He said the place had not changed.

"It took a lot of lobbying," England said.

"I really needed to get back in. One of my goals was to really absorb the place. I hadn't been there in years and it was like it was frozen in amber."

He let the legends of the house sink into him and though he does not believe in ghosts in the supernatural sense, he said the ghosts of Uncle Bob and whippings and chains live in the third floor as real as the beams of wood, themselves. He sings of the haunted atmosphere of the third floor in "As Real as Real Can Be": The walls remember you'd best believe/ All them stories and bad dreams/ Can't shake it as you go to bed/ Were them noises real or just inside your head/ Brother, they were as real as real can be.

In his recordings, England likes to invite guests to perform. He plays live with his band "The Salt Kings" with Ron Johnson, Dane Spalt and Charlie Tabing.

Guest musicians include Jason Ringenberg of Jason and the Scorchers, Mark Stoffel and Wil Maring of Shady Mix, Alex Kirt of the Woodbox Gang and other friends from the area.

The recording began September 2006 and ended July of this year. He is looking into marketing the CD by setting up concerts in Southern Illinois, hopes to play in Saline or Gallatin counties, Chicago, Memphis and abroad.

"I plan to get back overseas," he said.

He and his band traveled to Holland in support of his last CD "Greetings from Cairo, Illinois" and crowds responded.

"We did really well there. The folks want to hear intriguing content," he said.

He said Europeans are interested in hearing stories of the founding of America, especially stories in the border areas of the north and south.

"They want to know how America got its sea legs," England said.

Last week England was one of the subjects of a Welsh BBC film crew shooting a documentary on Cairo.

England believes the Old Slave House story is a lesson that our society has not fully learned. We may shudder at the treatment of blacks during the salt mining days, permitting slavery to exist in the Land of Lincoln, but England thinks it is worth remembering that at that time the practice was rationalized away as a necessity for the salt production on which the region depended.

In the liner notes there is a form where listeners are invited to insert their own era, country, region, skin color, political party and commodity of choice.

"The point is, insert your own commodity. Look at the British fighting wars for goods and at the different eras. It happens to be oil at the moment. In Crenshaw's time it was salt," England said.

"One hundred years from now people may look back on the U.S. and ask why we allowed things to happen like wars in the Persian Gulf shipping lanes. There is some really bad stuff happening so we can fill up our gas tanks."

Currently, "Salt Sex Slaves" is available only through England's website staceengland.com. He hopes to stock copies at the Saline Creek Pioneer Village and Museum in time for the Oct. 6 Barbecue and Bluegrass Festival.

-- DeNeal receives e-mail at bdeneal@yourclearwave.com.