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Don't Mess Around With Jim

I've been thinking about the Jim Croce song, "Don't Mess Around With Jim." SPOILER ALERT: If you don't know the song, and want to be surprised by the final verse thereof should you someday listen to it, don't read further.

It's a song about what is sometimes nowadays called "micro-history." Micro-history is a term for scholarly inquiries into a narrow slice of space and time, a specific and localized event, and usually not one that strikes a non-professional reader as the obvious concern of History with the capital "H."

So, for example, a careful study of a miller brought to trial by the Inquisition for heretical views in the 16th century became a micro-historical classic. This is in part because the narrow slice of time and space involved, but also because the miller at the heart of the story  was an ordinary fellow, not an aristocrat, diplomat, judge.

And that brings us back to Jim Croce. The song tells the tale of a conflict between Jim and Slim. It is set in the narrator's present time, and in the midtown neighborhood in Manhattan. Uptown got its hustlers, downtown got its bums ... 42d Street got Jim Walker, a pool shooting son of a gun.

With verbal economy, the lyrics establish a certain gray-lit world in midtown where Jim ruled as a not-so-benevolent micro-despot. "When the bad folks get together at night/ You know they all call big Jim boss."

Anyway, after establishing this, the lyrics tell the story of the overthrow of Jim's despotism by virtue of the arrival of a pool-shooting boy named Willie McCoy, known as Slim.

The story can be taken either of two ways. If you -- like me, like Carlyle, like James -- see history micro or macro, as a stage of unpredictable human initiative, you can see Slim's victory in that pool hall as an instance of the decisive consequences of an individual's idiosyncrasies for a changed world.
But if you -- like Spencer, like Pete Townshend -- think the flow of events is determined by iron laws, that individuals essentially execute something none of us can legislate -- then you will focus on the likelihood that Slim and Jim were essentially indistinguishable once the revolution was over., That "You don't mess around with Slim" sounds a lot like "You don't mess around with Jim," and it probably worked out much the same so long as impersonal 'conditions' in the poolhall and its neighborhood stayed the same.

Which view was Croce's? I leave to you.


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