But What For Takeaways - No. 021 - The American Murder Ballad, About Face, Alexander Hamilton, Casinos & Origination

"She went a little further and what did she spy? A newly-dug grave with a spade lying by…"

Welcome to all our new subscribers! I write a weekly newsletter, sent out every Thursday, with curated quotes and one-line takeaways from material I think is worth reading. I also share my own thoughts, inspired by others’ writings, on Sundays. If you enjoy the newsletter, please share it with a few friends/colleagues.

As always, any suggested materials can be sent to social@butwhatfor.com. Thank you!


General Update

As suggested by me sending out this email today, going forward, I am going to change up the days of the week that I send out emails. In summary, I am going to be sending out the longer articles on Sunday (previously Tuesday) and the links email on Thursday (previously Sunday).

I looked back at subscriber additions over time, and ~2/3 of them originated from articles versus 1/3 having originated on the emails. However, the split of writing is roughly 1/3 articles and 2/3 emails. Thus, I feel like I need to do a better job getting out the articles.

However, given a few day job-related constraints, I think I can do a better job sending out the articles on Sundays. This sounds like a procrastination problem, and it most definitely is, but let me give Thursdays / Sundays a shot going forward and we can see what happens.

Once again - thank you for subscribing and please let me know if you would like to see anything specific/different in the future.


Preview from But What For?

… (Full article to be sent out on the 14th) …

On Sunday I wrote a short introduction about Doc Watson’s version of Ready for the Times to Get Better - here for those that missed it.

That got me thinking more about some of the folk songs that Doc popularized, and I ended up learning the chord changes to Omie Wise, a song with a chilling story - a murder ballad. The linked version has Doc’s son, Merle, playing the banjo - it was recorded shortly before Merle was unfortunately killed on the family farm in a tractor accident… maybe it is bad luck to dig in here, then again…

… was Omie’s story fiction? Or was it true - or somewhere in between?

The American Murder Ballad

But as I thought about it a bit more, I realized that murder ballads are not that rare in American folk and bluegrass music (Others had obviously already noticed this, but better late than never…). Nor are they rare historically. Many American folk songs have their origins in Europe (and some in Africa, which is also where the banjo is generally considered to have originated).

As to traditional American songs, you have ones such as “The Banks of the Ohio” (version by Doc Watson and Bill Monroe), where an unhappy potential suitor is rebuffed by his sweetheart, so…

I took her by her pretty white hand,
I led her down the banks of sand,
I plunged her in
Where she would drown,
An' watched her as she floated down.

You then have Pretty Polly (version by Abigail Watson and Bela Fleck, a husband-wife banjo duo), which most likely is a modified-and-shortened song inspired by The Gosport Tragedy, an old English ballad from the 1700s. That song tells the story of lust-turned-murder after an out-of-wedlock pregnancy threatens a sailor’s life at sea.

Back in Appalachia, Pretty Polly was led deep into the woods where…

She went a little further and what did she spy?
A newly-dug grave with a spade lying by…

Polly, Pretty Polly, you’ve guessed about right,
I dug on your grave the best part of last night…

He stabbed her in the breast and her heart’s blood did flow,
And into the grave Pretty Polly did go…

He threw a little dirt over her and turned to go home,
Leaving no-one behind but the wild birds to mourn.

A bit less popular than the above, The Knoxford Girl (version by the Louvin Brothers) is still sung today. Similarly, the song seems to have taken on a new form in the Americas after being inspired by events in England, this time in the late 1600s - a ballad called The Cruel Miller.

Again, an unwanted pregnancy scares a suitor into murder, with the Knoxford Girl following her lover into the woods where…

She fell down on her bended knees, for mercy she did cry
"Oh Willy dear, don't kill me here, I'm unprepared to die"
She never spoke another word, I only beat her more
Until the ground around me within her blood did flow

I took her by her golden curls and I drug her round and around
Throwing her into the river that flows through Knoxville town

A final example, for now, and less of a ballad - but still about murder - is the popular Tom Dooley (version by Billy Strings). Inspired by the 1866 murder of Laura Foster and subsequent conviction / hanging of her previous lover, Tom Dooley. While Tom was being sent to the gallows, there were still rumors going around that a jealous cousin murdered Laura in an attempt to get Tom to herself.

Depending on the version of the song, you have another lover-turned murder - or a young man convicted of a murder he did not commit. Sitting in a prison cell, it’s…

Trouble, oh it's trouble
A-rollin' through my breast;
As long as I'm a-livin', boys
They ain't a-gonna let me rest

I know they're gonna hang me
Tomorrow I'll be dead
Though I never even harmed a hair
On poor little Laurie's head.

But what about Omie Wise? What do we know about her story?

As might be expected, the truth is hard to find. But let’s start with what we do know for certain is true…

… (Full article to be sent out on the 14th) …


Elsewhere

(Underlined titles are links to sources)

About Face: The Odyssey of an American Warrior, by David Hackworth & Julie Sherman [Book]

  • Takeaway: Discipline equals freedom

I never wanted to die, but I never feared death either. I guess I always knew that the price of admission to life was one owed death; my father and mother both paid it before I was a year old, Uncle Roy just eight years later… With me, I figured when it came it would be with the roll of the dice. It was really a matter of luck and probability… And if you had to go, sure, you wanted to do it heroically, but real heroism, I believe, was just returning to the front - when you knew the score and how the game was played, and when you knew what it was like to have hot steel ripping through your body, and your wounds healed in a ward full of kids your age who might never walk, see, and think the same again.

Almost to a man, the wounded Raiders refused to leave the hill. Doc Brakeman was performing miracles in his ever-growing "field hospital" in a shell hole behind the trench below us; the kids determinedly returned to the fighting the minute they got patched up. Some, like Jimmie, didn't even bother with the patching— everyone knew we were a lean outfit and that every gun counted. It was that family bonding again: no one was going to let his brothers down, especially in a fight like this. Even at the cost of his life.

I spent the night at Division CP. At dawn I awoke to the sounds of running and the count of calisthenics; I looked out of the tent to see a superbly fit General Cleland double-timing down the road with members of his staff… Joe Cleland, fifty years old if a day, led the pack, shaping up the 40th Division from the top, by personal example.


Alexander Hamilton, by Ron Chernow [Book]

  • Takeaway: Don’t try to win a fair fight, only fight the ones in your favor

To confess my weakness, Ned, my ambition is so prevalent that I contemn the groveling and conditions of a clerk or the like to which my fortune &c. condemns me and would willingly risk my life, tho' not my character, to exalt my station. I'm confident, Ned, that my youth excludes me from any hopes of immediate preferment, nor do I desire it, but I mean to prepare the way for futurity. I'm no philosopher, you see, and may be justly said to build castles in the air. My folly makes me ashamed and beg you'll conceal it, yet Neddy we have seen such schemes successful when the projector is constant. I shall conclude [by] saying I wish there was a war.

If the sword of oppression be permitted to lop off one limb without opposition, reiterated strokes will soon dismember the whole body.

Let it be remembered that there are no large plains for the two armies to meet in and decide the conquest… The circumstances of our country put it in our power to evade a pitched battle. It will be better policy to harass and exhaust the soldiery by frequent skirmishes and incursions than to take the open field with them, by which means they would have the full benefit of their superior regularity and skills. Americans are better qualified for that kind of fighting which is most adapted to this country than regular troops.


Casinos as a Business Model [Article]

  • Takeaway: Prioritize goals by those that have a higher risk-adjusted probability of meaningful change, not by that which is most expedient

Casinos sell an unfair(worse than even) chance to win a prize. With iterated attempts, the odds are “forever in their favor.” The house does not always win, unless you play infinite times, then the house is winning 51% plus…

Say you want to buy a loaf of bread.
Or some iron.
Or a bicycle.

Which do you buy first?

Why, whichever one increases your reach, of course.

Because when you increase your reach, you increase your options. Your access and availability actually get an upgrade. If something on your to-do list has the potential to significantly re-sort your to-do list, it likely ought to be done earlier than later.

Every day he gets up, goes down to the beach, and starts shoveling sand full-force. The tide comes in and undoes his work. Others see he feels important doing the digging and the shoveling, and start to join him. Every morning they rush down to the shore, only to find him there first, shoveling and shoveling away…

One day, our main character stubs his toe on the way down to the beach and must sit above the beach, on a rock, helplessly observing while others move past him to start shoveling. At first he is annoyed, losing his most precious spot to others, but gradually, it dawns on him: “Wow, we’re all shoveling sand at the beach. The tides wash it all away. Our hard work does not seem to make a dent here.”

Is it wrong to pursue anything then? No, it is only wrong to pursue the wrong things in the wrong places. To shovel earth and clay anywhere else would leave a more lasting impression. To assist someone, to jolt them out of their mindless stupor is to make a dent. To invest in oneself and keep making strides in one’s skills and way of relating with the world is to make a dent. To contemplate how best one can make a dent is also to make a dent. As a parting remark, focus on what will leave a lasting impression. The treasures of the earth are ephemeral, the treasures of the spirit by ocean water are not washed away.


Origination [Article]

  • Takeaway: Saying no quickly is as important as saying yes thoughtfully

The more limitations you place on yourself at the point of outreach - the less likely you'll find the special opportunities. Whether it is about finding jobs or potential investments, you should aim to apply/reach out everywhere… 

There's a catch when it comes to considering everything. You need to be able to disqualify just as quickly. Your ability to disqualify opportunities is the best measure of focus. A lot of people focus on the 100+ acquisitions that Constellation buys every year or the number of houses that real estate investors purchase or even the number of job offers that an individual can receive. 

I think it's far more valuable to understand how people disqualify opportunities. I'll admit the hardest part of my job is to continue to considering everything while disqualifying the vast majority of the opportunities I source. It's a complete paradox but a big part of being a productive investor. 


Take care and have a great week,

— EJ


But What For? Writing about anything, as long as it’s interesting


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