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Jack L.B. Gohn: ‘Lawyer Clark Blues’ and the life well-lived

Jack L.B. Gohn: ‘Lawyer Clark Blues’ and the life well-lived

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In a 1940 Who’s Who publication, now an online database, titled “Prominent Tennesseans, 1796 – 1938,” there is a brief entry on Hugh L. Clarke. It reads, in part: “Attorney, of Scotch-Irish descent…. Attended public schools of Haywood Co., and Haywood Co. High, 1923. State Bar and American Bar Associations; ….Passed the State Bar Examination in Aug., 1924, and began the practice of his profession in Brownsville. Elected to the State Senate from the 31st Senatorial District in the 20th General Assembly of Tenn. ….His hobby is farming.”

And that is the sum and substance of what the vast majority of us would have learned about Clarke, had he not been immortalized the year after the Who’s Who book by another Haywood Countian, noted blues singer Sleepy John Estes. Apparently, Sleepy John was a satisfied client, and recorded a testimonial, “Lawyer Clark Blues.” (Sleepy John chose his own spelling of his advocate’s name.)

Estes turned to Clarke after he found himself in some kind of criminal trouble. One has the sense, though it’s not absolutely commanded by the lyrics, that it was an emanation of race-based policing in the Jim Crow world Clarke and Estes both lived in. Whatever the charge, one senses that it was both absurd and not worth specifying the details of. From a few deft phrases, one gets a very clear sense of the absurdity and the lawyer-client relationship.

Now, once I got in trouble, you know I was gonna take a ride

    He didn’t let it reach the courthouse, he kept it on the outside

One can guess that Clarke’s facility as a politician might have had something to do with the outcome. But there’s also this:

    Now, Mist’ Clark is a good lawyer, he good as I ever seen

He’s the first man that prove that water run upstream

This suggests that there might have been some basis to the charges against Estes, and also that Clarke might not have scrupled to urge miraculous thinking upon the court as a way around the facts and/or common sense.

Whatever legerdemain with facts or inferences Lawyer Clarke may have indulged in, he communicated confidence to his client:

    Boys, you know I like Mist’ Clark, yes, he really is my friend

He say if I just stay out the grave, poor John, I see you won’t go to the pen.

Most of us would be terrified to make a categorical promise like that to a client, but we have to admire the assurance of a man so unafraid to make it. And it’s easy to understand the gratitude and confidence of a client thus reassured. “Don’t overpromise” is drilled into modern lawyers; not so much, apparently, in 1941.

Clarke had another trait that endeared him to Estes:

    Now, he lawyer for the rich, he lawyer for the poor

    He don’t try to rob nobody, just bring along a little dough

I’d be willing to bet that when Clarke lawyered for the rich, he charged more. But he was reasonable with Estes, who was not rich. You can check out the online photos of Sleepy John’s home, which is maintained as a landmark by the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Association: a small, meanly-built shotgun shack of unpainted boards.

He had lost sight in one eye in his youth, and after World War II, which America was about to join when he recorded Lawyer Clark Blues, Estes was completely blind and destitute.

Clarke, on the other hand, was probably quite comfortable:

Now, got offices in town, resident out on Century Road

He got a nice little lake right inside the grove

And if, as “Prominent Tennesseeans” suggests, Clarke was able to farm as a hobby, he was obviously in a completely different situation in every way from that his blues-singing client had to endure.

Admirable trait

Given all these facts, it’s a very interesting professional relationship to contemplate. In his youth, Sleepy John had had dreams of accomplishing something like what Clarke had done with his life. He told an interviewer in 1964 that he had started out wanting to be a lawyer or a preacher. Then he had made himself a one-string guitar out of a cigar box, and one thing had led to another.

One of those other things it led to was being the kind of man who needed Lawyer Clarke’s sort of services rather than being the kind of man who provided them. But one also senses just how hard it would have been for Estes to have realized that ambition. This was the South in 1941. Of course there were black lawyers in Tennessee then, but only a few.

Clarke no doubt was the beneficiary of what we now call white privilege, but one senses from the song that he wore it lightly. Estes clearly did not resent Clarke’s prosperity. And one senses as well that Estes saw in Clarke someone he might have become himself, in a different world.

What I most admire about Clarke, based on the song and the database entry, is a little different. A lawyer whose services were sought by rich and poor alike, who practiced with his brother (“and tell him what to do” according to Estes’ lyrics), who could establish a rapport with his poor clients, who could communicate such confidence and engender such trust, and who could serve as a legislator – and not just any legislator, but one chosen for “most of the leading committees,” and who could farm on the side, simply must have been an extraordinarily talented and fulfilled person. And, I strongly suspect, a happy one.

To do so many things and to do them well, to be so connected with family and clients and peers – that’s the life too few of us get to lead, and more of us should try for. When new lawyers are sworn in, the courts that administer the oath could do worse than play Sleepy John’s song first.

Jack L.B. Gohn is a partner with Gohn, Hankey, Stichel and Berlage LLP. The views expressed here are solely his own. See a longer version, with links to his authorities, at

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