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Hell of a Thing (York’s Lament)

By Reggie Garrett

REGGIE GARRETT has been performing throughout the U.S. and Canada for a number of years. Based in Seattle, Washington he performs mostly original songs mixed with pop covers and more traditional style folk ballads. He is the purveyor of a unique urban strain of (mostly) acoustic music incorporating a number of diverse influences, including: Folk, Latin rhythms, Blues, Gospel, Celtic, Rock, Jazz and more.

Ben Hunter, half of the Seattle-based Americana folk duo Ben & Joe, lends his skillful and evocative string playing to Reggie’s Fatality Records song.

Reggie Garrett has been compared to acoustic legends Richie Havens and Bill Withers by the national folk publication Dirty Linen. As a songwriter Garrett’s specialty is creating and enhancing a mood.

He is the founder of Reggie Garrett & the SnakeOil Peddlers (his performing ensemble). The band travel and perform regularly as an acoustic trio (including Richard Middleton on lead guitar and Will Dowd on percussion) and as an acoustic/electric quartet with the addition of bassist Keith Lowe. Garrett has five CD releases to his credit. Welcome to My World, Time Stands Still, Seasons and Something New (his most recent release) were all recorded with his SnakeOil Peddlers ensembles. Kates Front Porch was his debut release as half of the Garrett & Westcott acoustic duo.

Lyrics & Story

Lyrics by Reggie Garrett

It’s a Hell of a thing - to be dead when you are still alive

A Hell of a thing - to see that blue sky

And to know the world don’t care when you suffer and cry

Or that you’ve died inside

It’s a Hell of a thing - to roam this mysterious land

And to have an adventure so big and so grand

When those Red Folks rubbed my skin so hard with that sand

I sacrificed my blood to this brand new land

And I helped feed those men ‘most every day

I saved their lives in so very many ways

You know, the People could have killed us if they’d had their way

But they feared me and my Black, supernatural gaze

Hmmm . . .

Oh, the People named me Raven’s Son

And I got to hunt with my very own gun

I never felt so free as under that Western sun

Or slept so soundly when the day was done

Oh, we roamed by Presidential decree

Oh, we roamed from sea to shining sea

For my service to the nation they should have set me free

But now that I’m back here and no one sees me. . .

It’s a Hell of a thing - to be dead when you are still alive

It’s a Hell of a thing - to be dead while you are still alive

It’s a Hell of a thing . . .

A Hell of a thing . . .

A Hell of a thing . . .

Track Credits

Reggie Garrett - Vocals & Guitar

Ben Hunter - Violin

Recorded and Mixed by Reggie Garrett

Mastered by Moe Provencher at Jack Straw

© Copyright m, R. K. Garrett 2019


By Jonathan Shipley

How many ways can you die? Did York die the moment he knew he was a slave? Born to be a slave in the house of Clark? Someone passed him down through a white man’s will to be William Clark’s slave from boyhood until… when? When his fiancé, also a slave, was sold and sent away to Mississippi? Did York die then? Knowing that he’d never see her again?

William Clark, explorer with Meriwether Lewis on the Corps of Discovery, was York’s owner. And did York die when he returned to Saint Louis after exploring America to the blue of the Pacific to just be a slave again? He had tasted freedom out in the wilds. He had been of value. He had a valued member of the crew. He hunted. He sailed. He built. He toiled and sweat as deep as any man. He dazzled the Indians. They had never seen such a man. They tried to wipe the black off of him with sand. He had a say. He got to vote on their journeys and his vote was written down and counted like all the men. Did he die returning to Saint Louis to see that life hadn’t changed much, but he had? Did York die when Clark refused his freedom? Clark once told Washington Irving that he had granted York his freedom but that York wasn’t cut out for free living. He was bad at business. York was bad at everything, Clark suggested. York died of cholera, it was said. Did York die of cholera? Did he die a hundred times before he died?

Or did he escape death but for a while? Did he go down south to try and find his fiance whom he loved? Or, perhaps, did he go west again to live in that brief taste of freedom he had once felt as an explorer? A man, a trapper named Leonard, wrote of a man living among the Crows in north central Wyoming in 1834. “In this village we found a negro man, who informed us that he came to this country with Lewis & Clark,” he wrote. “With whom he also returned to the State of Missouri, and in a few years returned again with a Mr. Mackinney, a trader on the Missouri river, and has remained here ever since - which is about ten or twelve years.” Leonard continued, “He has acquired a correct knowledge of their manner of living, and speaks their language fluently. He has rose to be quite a considerable character, or chief, in their village; at least he assumes all the dignities of a chief, for he has four wives, with whom he lives alternately.” Could York have lived liked that, after having died so many times?

York was born in 1770. He was enslaved at birth. He, his siblings, Nancy and Juba, his mother and father, were all owned by the Clark family. York was a slave to William Clark since boyhood.

“A little cloudy this morning,” Clark wrote in his journal on November 18, 1805. “I set out with ten men and my man York to the Ocian by land.” York was a big man - some say 6-feet-tall and over 200 pounds. He was given a gun during the expedition and killed game for the party. “Our hunter and fowlers killed 2 Deer 1 Crain & 2 Ducks, and my man York killed 2 geese and 8 Brant.” My man, York. He navigated trails. He forded rivers, swam across them when many of the men in the party couldn’t swim at all. He broke trails. He worked. He near froze. “Several men returned a little frost bit...servents feet also frosted,” Clark wrote on Saturday, December 8th. How cold was York’s heart after beating for so long?

The Indians were enraptured by the man. The Nez Perce called him ‘Raven’s Son.’ The Mandan tried to rub the black off his skin with sand to such a degree that York near bled. The Shoshone were unwilling to barter with Lewis and Clark until Lewis promised the tribal leaders that they would get a glimpse of York. A Nez Perce legend, recorded in 1966, has it that the Shoshone were going to slaughter the party when they exited the mountains but feared retaliation from ‘the black man.’ How many times did York die and how many times did he live?

When the Corps of Discovery returned to Saint Louis triumphant, given pay and accolades, none were given to York. Clark refused to release York from bondage. In Saint Louis, and on to Washington, DC, York was there by Clark’s side. How must that have burned? How cold was York’s heart?

But what then? Did Clark, three full years after their return, have a falling out with his boyhood slave? Did Clark send York away to Kentucky to be owned by a man named Young? A man notorious for physically abusing the enslaved? Did Clark release York free and clear? “Damn this freedom, said York, I have never had a happy day since I got it. He determined to get back to his old master,” William Clark said to Washington Irving. How many times did York die?

By 1815 York was given his freedom, or escaped into it. His fate is unknown, although, he did die. But, buried, where? With whom? Where are York’s bones? Under a tree in Tennessee where Clark said York died? With his fiancé? Along some river bank in Wyoming? He lives in mystery.

For further reading:
National Park Service
Smithsonian Magazine
Discovering Lewis & Clark