Duncan and Brady

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"Duncan and Brady"
Song by Wilmer Watts & his Lonely Eagles
GenreBallad, Murder ballad

"Duncan and Brady", also known as "Been on the Job Too Long", "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star",[2] or simply "Brady",[3] is a traditional murder ballad about the shooting of a policeman, Brady, by a bartender, Duncan. The song's lyrics stemmed from actual events, involving the shooting of James Brady in the Charles Starkes Saloon in St. Louis, Missouri. Harry Duncan was convicted of the murder, and later executed.[4] Originally recorded by Wilmer Watts & his Lonely Eagles in 1929, it has been recorded numerous times, most famously by Lead Belly, also by Judy Henske, Dave Van Ronk, The Johnson Mountain Boys, New Riders of the Purple Sage, David Nelson Band, and Bob Dylan.


Lyrics to the song, including the main characters Duncan and Brady, originated from a barroom shooting in St. Louis, Missouri. On October 6, 1890,[5] several police officers, including James Brady, arrived at the Charles Starkes Saloon in downtown St. Louis, where a bar fight was taking place. The officers tried to arrest patrons of the bar suspected of starting the fight, which prompted a gunfight. Brady was shot by an unknown man, supposedly by the bar's owner, Charles Starkes.[4] Harry Duncan claimed such when he was arrested for Brady's murder; Starkes denied the claim.[4] Duncan was convicted and was sentenced to hang, but through several appeals, the case made its way to the Supreme Court.[4] However, this appeal was denied, and Duncan was hanged on July 27, 1894. It was rumored that Charles Starkes later confessed to the murder on his deathbed.[4]

However, a Mrs. Tom Barrett (or Barret), a resident of Marlin, Texas, wrote to folklorist Dorothy Scarborough about the song's lyrics and origins. She identified Waco as the scene of the shooting, although she did not specify whether or not it occurred in a bar.[2] The song may bear a close relation to the tune of the traditional Negro ballad "Bad Man Ballad".[6]


"Duncan and Brady" is a typical "bad man" murder ballad, such as "Frankie and Johnny" or "Stagger Lee".[2] The song begins with Brady, a policeman, riding around in an electric car, with a "mean look in his eye", looking to "shoot somebody just to see him die".[1] He walks into a bar, which Duncan is tending, and arrests him.[1] Duncan then shoots Brady, and Brady then dies. However, in the next verse, Brady is told that he "knew he done wrong", because he was,

Walkin' in the room when the game was goin' on
Knockin down windows, breakin' down the door[1]

Women hear of the death of Brady and all dress in red.[1] In a second variation recorded by Lead Belly, there is also mention of Brady's wife, who expects to get a pension from his death.[7]

It's interesting to note that even though the detailed news article and lyrics from Leadbelly and others identify Brady as the policeman and Duncan as the civilian, Wilmer Watts who first recorded the song places the star on Duncan's chest:

Brady was a worker on the telephone wire
Long come Duncan with a shining star[8]

Wilmer Watts was born and lived in North Carolina [9] and only recorded for Paramount in Chicago in 1929. The Duncan and Brady incident happened in 1890. Therefore, it is likely Watts heard the story or the song after it had passed through many singers.


Performer Album Year Variant Notes
Wilmer Watts & Lonely Eagles Paramount Old Time Recordings 1929 "Been on the Job Too Long"
Blind Jesse Harris Field Recordings, Vol. 4: Mississippi & Alabama (1934-1942) 1937 "Brady" Recorded by John Lomax
Camp No. 1 convicts N/A 1941 "Duncan and Brady" Recorded and transcribed by John and Alan Lomax in 1933 for the 1941 book Our Singing Country
Lead Belly Where Did You Sleep Last Night 1947 Recorded both a cappella and with guitar
Win Stracke Americana
Paul Clayton Wanted for Murder: Songs of Outlaws and Desperadoes 1956
Dave Van Ronk Ballads, Blues, and a Spiritual 1959
Tom Rush Got a Mind to Ramble 1963
Koerner, Ray & Glover Lots More Blues, Rags, and Hollers 1964
Whiskeyhill Singers Dave Guard & Whiskeyhill Singers 1962
Judy Henske High Flying Bird 1963
Hoyt Axton The Best of Hoyt Axton 1964 "Been on the Job Too Long"
New Riders of the Purple Sage Powerglide 1972 "Duncan and Brady"
Tom Akstens Original and Traditional Music 1975 Recorded as a medley with the song "Mole's Moan"
Greg Brown and Bill Morrissey Friend of Mine (Greg Brown album) 1993
Chris Smither Drive You Home Again 1999 "Duncan & Brady"
Nathan Rogers True Stories 2005 "Ballad of Duncan & Brady"
Martin Simpson Prodigal Son 2007 "Duncan & Brady"
Bob Dylan Bootleg Series Vol. 8: Tell Tale Signs 2008 Originally recorded with David Bromberg for an unreleased album
Big Smith Roots, Shoots, & Branches 2010 "Brady and Duncan"
Creek Snakes Bastille Day 2011 "Duncan & Brady"


  1. ^ a b c d e "DigiTrad: DUNCAN AND BRADY". mudcat.org. June 15, 2010. Archived from the original on June 15, 2010.CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)
  2. ^ a b c Scarborough, Dorothy; Gulledge, Ola Lee (1925). On the Trail of Negro Folk-songs. Harvard University Press. p. 85. ISBN 978-0-674-01262-2.
  3. ^ Place, Jeff (1996). Where Did You Sleep Last Night: Lead Belly Legacy Vol. 1 (Liner notes). Smithsonian/Folkways Records.
  4. ^ a b c d e "The Truth: Duncan and Brady". tdblues.com. March 16, 2012. Archived from the original on March 16, 2012.
  5. ^ "State v. Duncan". The South Western Reporter. Vol. 22. West Publishing Company. 1893. p. 699. |volume= has extra text (help)
  6. ^ Lomax, Alan (1 January 2000). Our Singing Country: Folk Songs and Ballads. Courier Corporation. p. 333. ISBN 978-0-486-41089-0.
  7. ^ "Duncan and Brady [Laws I9]". The Traditional Ballad Index. California State University.
  8. ^ Been on the job too long by Wilmer Watts & The Lonely Eagles – via YouTube.
  9. ^ Gastonia Gallop (Liner notes). Old Hat Records.

External links[edit]

  • Lyrics of Bob Dylan's and Lead Belly's versions