Jimmy Crack Corn
|"Jimmy Crack Corn (Blue Tail Fly)"|
|Song by Virginia Minstrels|
"Jimmy Crack Corn" or "Blue Tail Fly" is an American song which first became popular during the rise of blackface minstrelsy in the 1840s through performances by the Virginia Minstrels. It regained currency as a folk song in the 1940s at the beginning of the American folk music revival and has since become a popular children's song. Over the years, several variants have appeared.
Most versions include some idiomatic African English, although sanitized General American versions now predominate. The basic narrative remains intact. On the surface, the song is a black slave's lament over his white master's death in a horseriding accident. The song, however, can be—and is—interpreted as having a subtext of celebration about that death and of the slave's having contributed to it through deliberate negligence or even deniable action.
|Jim Crack Corn or the Blue tail Fly
|De Blue Tail Fly. A Negro Song.
|Jim Crack Com'.
|Jim Crack Corn! I Don't Care.
|Jim Crack Corn.
|Blue Tailed Fly.
|From Children of Destiny
The melody is similar to "Miss Lucy Long" and was originally set for piano accompaniment, although "De Blue Tail Fly" was marketed in Boston as one of "Emmett's Banjo Melodies". The four-part chorus favors a single bass and three tenors: the first and third tenors harmonize in thirds with the second completes the triads or doubles the root, sometimes crossing the melody line. The versions published in 1846 differed rather markedly: "De Blue Tail Fly" is modal (although Lhamar emends its B♭ notation to C minor) and hexatonic; "Jim Crack Corn", meanwhile, is in G major and more easily singable. Its simplicity has made it a common beginner's tune for acoustic guitar. The melody is a chain of thirds (G-B, F♯-A, G-B, [A]-C, B-D, C-E) harmonized a third above and below in the manner of the choruses in Italian opera.
The first verses usually establish that the singer was initially a house slave. He is then charged with protecting the master out of doors—and his horse as well—from the "blue-tailed fly". This is possibly the blue-bottle fly (Calliphora vomitoria or Protophormia terraenovae), but probably the mourning horsefly (Tabanus atratus), a bloodsucking pest with a blue-black abdomen found throughout the American South. In this, the singer, ultimately, is unsuccessful; the horse goes wild, and the master is thrown and killed. A coroner's jury is convened to investigate the master's death, or the singer is criminally charged with that death, but owing to the "blue-tail fly," the slave escapes culpability.
The chorus can be mystifying to modern listeners, but its straight-forward meaning is that someone is roughly milling ("cracking") the old master's corn in preparation for turning it into hominy or liquor. There has been much debate, however, over the subtext. In the 19th century, the singer was often considered mournful and despondent at his master's death; in the 20th, celebratory: "Jimmy Crack Corn" has been called "the baldest, most loving account of the master's demise" in American song.
The debate has been further muddled by changes to the refrain over time. Throughout the 19th century, the lines referred to "Jim", "Jim Crack", or "Jim Crack Corn" and lacked any conjunction across the line's caesura; following the rise of highly-syncopated musical genres such as ragtime and jazz, anaptyxis converted the name to "Jimmy" or "Jimmie" and the "and" appeared, both putting more stress on their measures' backbeat. This has obscured some of the possible original meanings: some have argued that—as "Jim" was a generic name for slaves in minstrel songs—the song's "Jim" was the same person as its blackface narrator: Speaking about himself in the 3rd person or repeating his new masters' commands in apostrophe, he has no concern with his demotion to a field hand now that his old master is dead. Another now-obscured possible meaning derives from jim crack being eye dialect for gimcrack ("worthless"): The narrator is so overcome with emotion (be it pleasure or sorrow) that he has no concern at all about his gimcrack cracked corn, his substandard rations. Since "corn" was also a common rural American ellipsis and euphemism for "corn whiskey", it could also refer to the slave being so overcome that he has no concern about his rotgut alcohol.
Other suppositions include that "cracking" or "cracking corn" referred to the now-obsolete English and Appalachian slang meaning "to gossip" or "to sit around chitchatting"; that the singer is resting from his oversight duties and allowing Jim to steal corn or corn liquor; that "Jim Crack" is simply a synonym for "Jim Crow" by means of the dialectical "crack" to reference the crake; or that it is all code for the old master "Jim" cracking his "corn" (skull) open during his fall. The 1847 version of the song published in London singularly has the lyrics "Jim Crack com’", which could refer to a poor Southern cracker (presumably an overseer or new owner) or a minced oath for Jesus Christ (thus referencing indifference at the Judgment Day); the same version explicitly makes the fly's name a wordplay on the earlier minstrel hit "Long Tail Blue", about a horse. A number of racehorses have been named "Jim Crack" or "Blue Tail Fly" and, in at least one early-20th century variant of the song, it's given as the name of the horse that killed the master, but that is not a common element of the song. (Another uncommon variant appeared in the 1847 Songs of Ireland published in New York: it has the slave being given away by the master.)
Explanations of the song based upon "jimmy" or "jimmie" being slaves' slang for crows or mules (here being allowed into the old master's corn fields instead of being chased away) or deriving "jimmy" from "gimme" are unsupported by the existing records. Pete Seeger, for instance, is said to have maintained that the original lyrics were "gimme cracked corn" and referred to a punishment in which a slave's bacon rations were curtailed, leaving him chickenfeed; the same lines could also just be asking for the whiskey jug to be passed around. The idea that Jim or Jimmy is "cracking open" a jug of whiskey is similarly unsupported: that phrasal verb is attested at least as early as 1803 but initially applied to literal ruptures; its application to opening the cap or cork of a bottle of alcohol was a later development.
The present song is generally credited to Dan Emmett's Virginia Minstrels, whose shows in New York City in the mid-1840s helped raise minstrelsy to national attention. Along with "Old Dan Tucker", the tune was one of the breakout hits of the genre and continued to headline Emmett's acts with Bryant's Minstrels into the 1860s. It was also a common song of Tom Rice's. The song was first published (with two distinct sets of lyrics) in Baltimore and Boston in 1846, although it is sometimes mistakenly dated to 1844. However, as with later rockabilly hits, it is quite possible Emmett simply received credit for arranging and publishing an existing African-American song. The song was certainly picked up by slaves and became widely popular among them. The chorus of the song not uncommonly appeared in the middle of other African-American folk songs, one of which may have been its original source. The song differed from other minstrel tunes in long remaining popular among African Americans: it was recorded by both Big Bill Broonzy and Lead Belly after World War II.
Abraham Lincoln was an admirer of the tune, calling it "that buzzing song". Throughout the 19th century, it was usually accompanied by the harmonica or by humming which mimicked the buzzing of the fly (which on at least one occasion was noted disrupting the parliament of Victoria, Australia.). Lincoln would ask his friend Ward Lamon to sing and play it on his banjo and likely played along on his harmonica. It is said that he asked for it to be played as the lead-in to his address at Gettysburg.
Following World War II, the "Blue Tail Fly" was repopularized by the Andrews Sisters' 1947 recording with the folk singer Burl Ives. It then became part of the general Folk Revival through the '50s and early '60s before losing favor to more politically-charged fare, as parodied by Tom Lehrer's "Folk Song Army". A 1963 Time article averred that "instead of... chronicling the life cycle of the blue-tailed fly", the "most sought-after folk singers in the business"—including Pete Seeger, Theodore Bikel, and Bob Dylan—were "singing with hot-eyed fervor about police dogs and racial murder". All the same, Seeger claimed to have been present when Alan Lomax first taught the song to Burl Ives for a CBS radio show and their duet at the 92nd Street Y in New York in 1993 was Ives's last public performance.
An instrumental rock version of the song was recorded by Johnny and The Hurricanes in 1960, and released on Warwick Records, catalog number M-520. It charted Billboard number 15 in the US and number 8 in the UK.
Seeger maintained that the song's subtext gave it a social justice element but began (with 1953's American Folksongs for Children) to perform and market the work as a children's sing-along. Usually under the name "Jimmy Crack Corn", it remains common at campfires and summer camps. It is also sampled in a number of rap songs—including Tuff Crew and Eminem's compositions (both titled "Jimmy Crack Corn")—playing on the present usage of "crack".
In popular culture
- "Shoo, Fly, Don't Bother Me!"
- "Polly, Wolly, Doodle", another minstrel song still sung by American children
- Slave Songs of the United States
- Songs of the Underground Railroad
- "De Blue Tail Fly" was published by both Keith's Music House and Oliver Ditson in Boston in 1846, but Eric Lott (citing Hans Nathan) gives the version a date of 1844. This probably refers to Christy's Minstrels' Ethiopian Glee Book, which has sometimes been mistakenly attributed to 1844; in fact, that series did not begin publishing until 1847 and did not include Christy's version of this song until its 1848 edition.
- The Virginia Minstrels, No. 5. "Jim Crack Corn or the Blue tail Fly, Composed for the Piano Forte". F.D. Benteen (Baltimore), 1846. Hosted by the Temple Sheet Music Collections at the Temple University Libraries. Accessed 1 July 2014.
- Mahar, William J. Behind the Burnt Cork Mask: Early Blackface Minstrelsy and Antebellum American Popular Culture, pp. 234 ff. University of Illinois Press (Champaign), 1999.
- Harris, Middleton & al. The Black Book, 35th ann. ed., p. 32. Random House (New York), 2009.
- Lott, Eric. Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, pp. 199–200. Oxford University Press (Oxford), 1993. ISBN 0-19-509641-X.
- Friedman, Alfred B. (ed.). The Viking Book of Folk Ballads of the English Speaking World cited in "Jimmy Crack…" at Mudcat.org.
- "De Blue Tail Fly." Keith's Music Publishing House (Boston), 1846. Reprinted in Mahar, pp. 237 f.
- "De Blue Tail Fly. A Negro Song." Oliver Ditson (Boston), 1846. Hosted in Pre-1852 Minstrel Songs at Uncle Tom's Cabin & American Culture at the University of Virginia. Accessed 1 July 2014.
- Nathan, Hans. Dan Emmett and the Rise of Early Negro Minstrelsy, pp. 429–431. University of Oklahoma Press (Norman), 1962.
- Place, Jeff & al. "Blue Tail Fly" (liner notes). American Favorite Ballads, Vol. 1. Smithsonian Folkways, 2002.
- Fuld, James J. The Book of World-Famous Music: Classical, Popular, and Folk, 5th ed., p. 312. Dover Publications (New York), 2000.
- "Jim Crack com’" in The Vauxhall Comic Song-book, pp. 202–203.
- Songs of Ireland and Other Lands; Being a Collection of the Most Popular Irish, Sentimental and Comic Songs, pp. 271 f. D. & J. Sadlier & Co. (New York), 1847.
- Scarborough, Dorothy. On the Trail of Negro Folk-Songs, pp. 200 ff. Harvard University Press (Cambridge), 1925. Hosted at Archive.org. Accessed 3 July 2014.
- Dorothy Scarborough's 1925 On the Trail of Negro Folk-Songs records a variant replacing "South Carolina" with "old Virginia".
- 'Chaff, Gumbo'. The Ethiopian Glee Book: Containing the Songs Sung by the Christy Minstrels, with Many Other Popular Negro Melodies, in Four Parts, Arranged for Quartett Clubs, No. 2, p. 64. Elias Howe (Boston), 1848.
- Sometimes mistakenly attributed to 1844.
- Minstrel Songs, Old and New, a Collection of World-Wide, Famous Minstrel and Plantation Songs, Including the Most Popular of the Celebrated Foster Melodies; Arranged with Piano-Forte Accompaniment, p. 211. Oliver Ditson (Boston), 1882.
- With some minor change of punctuation, this is the version that was republished by Oliver Ditson in subsequent song books.
- "Blue Tailed Fly." in Christy's Nigga Songster, Containing Songs As Are Sung by Christy's, Pierce's, White's Sable Brothers, & Dumbleton's Band of Minstrels, pp. 45–47. T.W. Strong (New York), c. 1850. Hosted in Pre-1852 Minstrel Songs at Uncle Tom's Cabin & American Culture at the University of Virginia. Accessed 1 July 2014.
- Seawell, Molly E. Children of Destiny, p. 2. D. Appleton & Company (New York), 1893.
- The Boston Musical Gazette, Vol. I: 1846, p. 62: "New Music by C.H. Keith". A.N. Johnson (Boston), 1846.
- John Pearse's 1963 Teach Yourself Folk Guitar, e.g., uses the tune as its first two lessons, on tuning the guitar and performing basic scratch.
- The Traditional Ballad Index: "The Blue Tail Fly [Laws I19]".
- Oxford English Dictionary. "Appeals: blue-arsed fly" 27 Sept 2012. Accessed 8 Jul 2014.
- The blue-bottle fly now appears in British proverbs as the "blue-arsed fly" but this name does not seem to predate the 20th century.
- See, e.g., Kirkland, A.H. Letter of 20 Sept 1897 in the "Report of the Commissioners on Inland Fisheries and Game for the Year Ending December 31, 1897", p. 12. Wright & Potter Printing (Boston), 1898.
- Eaton, Eric R.; Kenn Kaufman. (2007). "Deer flies and horse flies". Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America. Hillstar Editions. p. 284. ISBN 0-618-15310-1.
- Murphree, Steve. (2006). "Learn to live with and respect horse flies and deer flies" (PDF). The Tennessee Conservationist 72 (4).
- Mullens, Bradley A.; Lance Durden. (2009). "Horse flies and deer flies (Tabanidae)". In Gary Mullen (ed.). Medical and Veterinary Entomology. Academic Press. pp. 254–267 (254). ISBN 0-12-372500-3.
- Cooper, James Fenimore. The Last of the Mohicans, Ch. xxviii.
- Cooper, James Fenimore. The Prairie, Ch. ii.
- See, e.g., James Fenimore Cooper's notes using the expression "cracked corn" to explain succotash in The Last of the Mohicans and a hominy-mortar in The Prairie.
- See, e.g, Foote, Elmer. Elmer L. Foote Lantern Slide Collection. "Corn Cracking (Step in Moonshine)". c. 1915.
- Sharp, J.W. (ed.). "Jim Crack Corn" in The Vauxhall Comic Song-book, p. 92. Lewis & Son (London), 1847.
- Eppes, Susan B. Through Some Eventful Years, p. 205, "1 Sept 1863". J.W. Burke (Macon), 1926. Accessed 2 Jul 2014.
- As early as the next year (1847), a minstrel song devoted to the travails of Jim Crack Corn's wedding day appeared in the same London songbook as the first British version of "Jimmy Crack Corn", which is given as "Jim Crack com'". Susan Eppes's diary of her Civil War years reports he also appeared as a figure in Southern nursery rhymes: "This dress, you must know, is 'made of Mammy's old one' like Jim Crack Corn's coat—Little Diary, I am afraid you do not know very much of Mother Goose."
- Oxford English Dictionary, 1st ed. "gimcrack, n. and adj." Oxford University Press (Oxford), 1899.
- Chambers's Twentieth Century Dictionary. "Jimcrack". W. & R. Chambers (London), 1908.
- The British Oxford English Dictionary dates the variant spelling to the 17th century but the American Chambers's Twentieth Century Dictionary still included it as a separate entry as late as 1908.
- Farmer, John & al. Slang and Its Analogues Past and Present, Vol. III: Fla–Hyps. 1893.
- Clemens, Samuel (Mark Twain). The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Ch. xxvi. Chatto & Windus (London), 1884.
- In its noun sense of "trinket" or "bauble", it appears in Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn: "There was an old hair trunk in one corner, and a guitar-box in another, and all sorts of little knickknacks and jimcracks around, like girls brisken up a room with.
- Oxford English Dictionary, 1st ed. "corn, n.¹ Oxford University Press (Oxford), 1893.
- Attested by the Oxford English Dictionary as occurring by 1820.
- Kroes, John. Cracked. "5 Terrifying Origin Stories Behind Popular Children's Songs". 21 Sept 2012. Accessed 6 Jul 2014.
- Adams, Cecil. The Straight Dope. "Who is Jimmy, and why does he crack corn?" 30 Oct 1998. Accessed 6 Jul 2014.
- A usage attested as early as the 18th century.
- From Dorothy Scarborough's On the Trail of Negro Folk-Songs, credited to Garnett Eskew of West Virginia:
I won't forgit till de day I die
How Master rode de blue-tail fly.
Dat pony r'ar, dat pony kick,
An' flinged old Master in de ditch.
- Peterson, Pete. "RE: Jimmy Crack Corn and I Don't Care" on Mudcat. Accessed 2 Jan 2006.
- Atkinson, Edward. "Food and Land Tenure" in Popular Science Monthly, Vol. 59. Oct 1901.
- As, for instance, in Mabel Hawley's Four Little Blossoms at Brookside Farm (Ch. viii, p. 84).
- In fact, cracked corn in the form of hominy or grits was (and remains) a Southern staple, but the rougher milling involved in its production has associated it with livestock in other regions.
- Mitchill, Samuel & al. The Medical Repository, and Review of American Publications on Medicine, Surgery, and the Auxiliary Branches of Science, Vol. VI. T. & Y. Swords (New York), 1803.
- "Dan Emmett" in The Encyclopedia of New York City, 2nd ed.
- Hi Fi/Stereo Review, Vol. 18, p. 55. Ziff-Davis, 1967.
- Lhamon, W.T. Jr. Jump Jim Crow: Lost Plays, Lyrics, and Street Prose of the First Atlantic Popular Culture, p. 21. Harvard University Press (Cambridge), 2003.
- Adler, Mortimer J. The Negro in American History, Vol. III: "Slaves and Masters, 1567—1854", p. 52. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1969.
- See, e.g., Scarborough, p. 224, where it appears in "My Ole Mistis":
My ol' master promised me
When he died he'd set me free.
Now ol' master dead and gone
An' lef' dis Nigger a-hoein' up corn.
Jim crack corn, I don't care...
- Victoria. Parliamentary Debates, Vol. XXXII: Session 1879–80, p. .1961: "November 25, 1879". John Ferres (Melbourne), 1880.
- Wright, John. The Language of the Civil War, p. 35: "Blue Tail Fly". Greenwood Publishing.
- Erbsen, Wayne. Front Porch Songs, Jokes, & Stories: 48 Great Southern Sing-Along Favorites, p. 10. 1993.
- "They Hear America Singing" in Time. 19 Jul 1963. Accessed 2 July 2014.
- Seeger, Peter. American Favorite Ballads. Music Sales (New York), 1961.
- Seeger related that Lomax claimed to have learnt the song from Dorothy Scarborough's collection On the Trail of Negro Folk-songs.
- Holden, Stephen. "The Cream of Folk, Reunited for a Cause" in The New York Times, C 15. 19 May 1993.
- Pinto Pete in Arizona, Ep. 5. Hosted at Archive.org.
- PRI Records: SPL-2.
- "Cingular Pulls Ad After Racism Complaints". CBS Broadcasting Inc. December 16, 2006. Retrieved November 16, 2008.
- Full lyrics of Dorothy Scarborough's 1925 account in On the Trail of Negro Folk-Songs at Archive.org
- Full lyrics of Burl Ives's 1947 version at MetroLyrics
- "Jimmy Crack Corn", a modern version recorded in From My People: 400 Years of African American Folklore (Google Books)
- "The Blue Tail Fly [Laws I19]" at the Traditional Ballad Index
- Lyr Add: (De) Blue Tail Fly discussion on Mudcat.org gives several variants of title and lyrics, early publication information; its links include numerous other discussions of the song. Accessed 10 Sept 2005.
- Jimmy Crack Corn – Man or Myth discussion on Mudcat.org includes discussion of lyrics, cites further sources. Accessed 10 Sept 2005.