Monday, June 18, 2012

Oscar Brown Jr - "The Signifyin Monkey" (Video, Lyrics, Comments)

Edited by Azizi Powell

This post presents a video & lyrics of and information about the African American toast "The Signifyin Monkey".

The content of this post is presented for historical, folkloric, entertainment, and aesthetic purposes. The copyrights remain with their owners.

My thanks to Oscar Brown Jr for composing & performing a "clean"* version of this African American toast. My thanks also to the producer and uploader of this video, as well as to the authors of the quoted information.

* An explanation of the term "clean" in the context of this composition is provided in the NOTES section below.


Oscar Brown Jr on Chic-A-Go-Go (1996)

Uploaded by chicagogo on Sep 20, 2009

Legendary Chicago poet/singer/playwrite/activist visits Miss Joy on the first season of our cable access dance show (for more info visit ). He sings his version of the legendary toast Signifying Monkey

(by Oscar Brown, Jr.)

Said the signifyin' monkey to the lion one day:
"Hey, there's a great big elephant down the way
Goin' 'round talkin' ,I am sorry to say,
About your momma in a scandalous way.
He's talkin' 'bout your momma and your grandma, too
And he don't show so much respect for you.
You want to chat? I sure am glad.
'Cause what he said about your momma, it made me mad".

Signifyin' Monkey, stay up in your tree.
You are always lyin' and signifyin'
But you better not monkey with me.

The lion said "Yeah well, I'll fix him.
I'll tear that elephant limb from limb.
Then he shook the jungle with a mighty roar and took off like a shot out of a 44.+
He found the elephant where the tall grass grows
Said "I come to punch you in your long nose."
The elephant looked over at the lion in surprise
Said, "Boy you better go pick on somebody your own size."
But the lion wouldn't listen, he made a pass.
Then the elephant slapped him down in the grass.
The lion just roared and sprung from the ground.
And that's when the elephant really went to town.
He whipped that lion for the rest of the day
And I still don't see how the lion got away.
But he dragged on off, more dead than alive.
And that's when that monkey started his signifyin' jive.


The monkey looked down and said "Ooo-whee!
What is that beat up mess I see?
Is that you lion? Well do tell.
He beat your head to a fare-thee-well.
He gave you a beatin' that was a run for nothin'.
And you s'posed to be king of the jungle? Well ain't that somethin'.
You big overgrown pussycat, don't you roar
Or I'll hop down there and whup you some more."
The monkey got to laughin' and a-jumpn' up and down
But his foot missed the limb, and he plunged to the ground.
The lion was on him with all four feet -
Gonna grind that monkey into hamburger meat.
The monkey looked up with tears in his eyes
Said "Please Mr. Lion, I apologize.
I meant no harm, so please let me go
And I'll tell you somethin' you really need to know."


Well the lion stepped back to hear what that monkey had to say
And the monkey scampered up a tree and got away
What I want to tell you, the monkey hollered then
"If you fool with me I'll sic the elephant on you again."
The lion just shook his head and said "You jive.
If you and your monkey children want to stay alive
Up in them trees is where you better stay."
And that's where they are till this very day.


Hat tip to dwditty for posting these lyrics on "Lyr Req: Signifyin' Monkey (Oscar Brown Jr.)"

[I made several minor corrections, and added quotation marks, some other punctuation, and italics to better clarify what was being said and how I believe that it was meant to be said.]

+This line had been omitted. Thanks, mogliettina for this correction!

"Oscar Brown, Jr (October 10, 1926 – May 29, 2005) was an American singer, songwriter, playwright, poet, civil rights activist, and actor."

Oscar Brown Jr's "Signifyin Monkey" is from his 1960 album "Sin and Soul"

Here are some explanations of words & phrases used in this post and in this composition:

"clean" version - a version of a composition that doesn't contain any profanity or sexually explicit content; the opposite of "dirty" (bawdy)

"'Toasts' are performed narratives of often urban but always heroic events...As with any oral tradition, many versions of the same toast exist. The toast is a dynamic performance within the Black community of recognizable and popular central characters."

Traditionally, African American toasts are usually bawdy ("dirty", obscene).

"Signifyin" is an African American way of pronouncing and writing the word "signifying".
"Signifying — the origin of the term is obscure — is the process of semi-witty insults by which black American male adolescents attempt to cut their buddies down to size...As with any sort of repartee, whether you really mean it depends on the situation.

The exact definition of signifying (also known, in various times and places, as sigging, sounding, woofing, wolfing, burning, icing, joning, etc.) is a bit vague. To some it means any kind of ritual insult; to others, it must include an element of indirection — i.e., the victim doesn't realize he's being insulted, you egg the victim into a fight with somebody else, or in general you just lay on the BS. One form of signifying is "doin' the dozens," which usually means making fun of the other guy's relatives, particularly his momma"...

UPDATE 4/23/2016
I added this definition [which I came up with] and comment to this pancocojams post about the song "Run On For A Long Time" That song includes that word in its lyrics:

One meaning of the African American Vernacular English meaning of "signify" is to "talk bad about someone but blame what you are saying on another person. This is done to be spiteful and to "enjoy" the fall out when those two go after each other. The African American folktale/folk song "Signifying Monkey" is an example of "signifying".

Put-downs given in the African American insult game called "the dozens" might be a form of "signifying" but the insults that are exchanged aren't blamed on anyone else.

[End of Update]
"Signifying jive" = signifyin talk; what you say when you are signifyin (also known as "talkin trash" (trash talk)

"You jive" = "You are jive." meaning "You are worthless, no good.

"you better not monkey with me" = ["monkey with me" means "to mess with me", "to play around with me"; "to treat me without respect"; "to fool with me"

"...I'll sic the elephant on you again." = to urge or incite the elephant to attack your again" [by signifyin]

"he really went to town" = he started doing something with a lot of energy.

"He beat your head to a fare-thee-well" = "He beat you up real bad". [The term "fare- thee-well" is used here for rhyming effect. It wasn't/isn't part of African American vernacular.

Signifying monkey

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  1. The song "Signifying Monkey" is still being performed.

    Here's a link to a video that I received from my Internet friend dwditty:

    Thanks, dwditty!

  2. Very nice but you missed a line.
    After "I'll tear that elephant limb from limb" you need to add:
    "Then he shook the jungle with a mighty roar and took off like a shot out of a 44".
    (you're welcome!)

  3. I appreciate your help, moglieettina!