Before he was selling sausages for your breakfast, Jimmy Dean was an actor and singer before his passing in 2010. However, while he’s mostly known for his variety show The Jimmy Dean Show, also notable for the first appearance of the Muppet piano playing dog Rowlf, there’s only one song of his I really know, 1961’s “Big Bad John”. Even then all I remembered was the refrain, but for some reason, despite never hearing the song in years that was playing in my head this week so I checked it out.
I thought the song was going to be like “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown”, which I should totally do someday, only set in the Old West. I just got that from the name though, because when you actually hear the song it’s about a drifter who comes to work in a mine and is very much not meaner than a junkyard dog. If anything, Big John wasn’t bad, he was a hero. Hero enough that they didn’t let him die in the sequels. Yep, this was one of those songs that had sequels, only one of them by Dean himself. Let’s start were all stories start, where the legend began.
I like how when Dean reads the epitetet the music cuts out. It adds a bit of extra weight (no pun intended) to the emotion of the message. John may have gotten a reputation, mostly from rumors and his own social distancing as well as his size, but the man died saving everyone else in that mine and you have to respect that. On the radio the line was changed to “At the bottom of this mine lies a big, big man”, a change demanded by censors because it was 1961. Personally I don’t think the line changes much narratively but it does alter the tribute a tad because “a hell of a man” speaks more to how much respect the miners had for Big John.
John himself was inspired not by an actual miner but Dean’s friend and fellow actor, John Mentoe. (Insert your own candy joke here.) They had met at summer stock and Mentoe stood about six feet tall. Floyd Cramer was brought in to play piano but inspiration hit and he switched to hitting a piece of metal, symbolizing working in the mine that claimed Big Bad John.
Or did it? Unlike John Henry it seems this John wasn’t going to be bested. A month later Dottie West recorded “My Big John”. In this song there indeed was a Cajun queen. Whether Dean had intended this to be rumor or based on some level of fact determines if this is a retcon…which would be an odd thing to happen in a song. Have you heard of many songs retconning another song?
This song is obscure as hell because, while I granted didn’t have a lot of time by post time to do a deep dive, I couldn’t find a copy of the lyrics in any form. No lyric video, no listing of the lyrics through the usual sources…big old nada. However, you can hear the story. The unnamed “Cajun Queen” goes looking for John after hearing about his death and finds a town grateful for his sacrifice and honored to meet the woman who intentionally or not sent him here where he could save the other miners, including men who would have had grieving families if not for John.
This is what’s known as an “answer song”, a song one performer or group makes in response to another performer or group’s song. We’re going to have to check out more of these in the future. It’s a fascinating idea when approaching songs from the perspective of storytelling, someone being inspired by someone else’s song to continue the legend. I looked down a list just now and some answer songs are actually more famous than the song they were answering. Funny little world.
Oh, but this story doesn’t end there. In 1962, a year later, Dean himself would continue the story in “The Cajun Queen”, which tells what happens next. I guess Dean liked the answer song and decided to keep the answers coming. Now YouTube needs to explain this to me: how can I find the lyrics without the song, the song without the lyrics, but not the song as a lyric video? How does this make sense? Just give it a listen, as the Queen’s arrival is retold and she’s not willing to leave him down in that mine.
This one admittedly isn’t as good as the other two. The other miners just assumed John couldn’t survive and yet this almost makes them look bad for not trying. I don’t know how long he was down there before the Queen comes in with CPR but one has to wonder what his reaction was to being left behind while everyone assumed he made a noble sacrifice. Even as a song it just isn’t as good as the other two. “My Big John” played off the same music and style of “Big Bad John” while “Cajun Queen” is pretty much a spoken word song that turns John from mysterious hero to a tall tale hero…except their stories never end happy, do they? John Henry beat the steamdriving machine but he died to do it. Pecos Bill lost his true love because his horse was a jerk and she was a dummy. Here, unless you count 110 grandchildren, with no mention of how many kids they had to make those grandchildren, John gets a happy ending. Or is this Queen’s tall tale for bringing John back to life?
And we’re STILL not done. Even more obscure is the 1962 epilogue “LIttle Bitty Big John”, where one of those very fertile boys learns of his father’s heroism. No lyric video on this one, either. Wait, did I say epilogue? I meant a definite retcon.
So in two years Dean made TWO DIFFERENT VERSIONS of what happened to Big Bad John? Who does that? I could see if some other writer came along, or like I’ve seen with comic companies ignoring tie-in comics made by a previous company (for example Robotech) but to put out two songs (if my info is accurate mind you) in the same year with two different endings? As it is you’re only paying attention to any of these if you were that invested in John’s story.
I’m guessing here John and Queen had a kid out of wedlock and if we follow the whole story, John ran from Louisiana after killing some guy (possibly accidentally but that’s the part of the original story NOT confirmed) she raised him after John’s death. If he died and mom didn’t rescue him….you know, I never thought I’d be confused by the timeline of a song series, but here we are. Just goes to show you…life is weird sometimes.
None of these other songs every made it to any level of fame like the original and I’m actually okay with that. “My Big John” is a decent “what happened next” that tells us about the Queen and makes at least that part of the story true since Dean himself makes her an actual character in his two follow-ups. “Little Bitty Big John” makes a lot more sense than “The Cajun Queen” as far as what happens after that, keeps his noble sacrifice without making the miners look like chumps, and just feels like a better conclusion to John’s story.
Makes you wonder how many other songs have sequels like this? This is why I love doing this article series, folks! I learn so much about these songs I never knew before.