Edited by Azizi Powell
[Revised January 29, 2016]
This is Part I of a three part series on the Jamaican character/symbol "John Crow". This post provides information about the meaning of "John Crow".
UPDATE January 29, 2016
This post isn't meant to provide complete information about the character/symbol John Crow (also known as Jancro).
Click http://pancocojams.blogspot.com/2016/01/more-information-about-what-john-crow.html for the pancocojams post entitled "More Information About What John Crow (Jancrow) Means In Jamaica". An additional post that showcases three Jamaican folktales that include John Crow will also be published ASAP. Those links will be included in this post.
End of Update January 29, 2016. Read Update March 15, 2016 below.
Part II of this series features two Jamaican mento songs that mention "John crow". Click http://pancocojams.blogspot.com/2012/09/two-jamaican-mento-songs-that-mention.html for that post.
Part III of this series features the Jimmy Cliff song "John Crow".
Click http://pancocojams.blogspot.com/2012/09/jimmy-cliff-john-crow-lyrics-video.html for that post.
Also, click http://pancocojams.blogspot.com/2014/10/derrick-morgan-john-crow-skank-example.html for a 2014 pancocojams post on the Ska song "John Crow Skank.
The content of this post is presented for historical & folkloric purposes.
All copyrights remain with their owners.
Thanks to all those who are quoted in this post.
INFORMATION ABOUT JOHN CROW
From http://www.golocaljamaica.com/readarticle.php?ArticleID=784 "The John Crow - Graceful or Disgraceful Bird"
"John Crow, the common Jamaican vulture, was once widely known as a carrion crow or turkey vulture. In towns and throughout the countryside, these birds can be seen tearing at carcasses in the streets. Sometimes they circle in the sky or simply perch in trees or on housetops, often with outspread wings.
Many stories abound as to how the name John Crow came about...
[Frederic G. Cassidy and R.B. Lapage indicate that] the first record of the bird being called John Crow was 1826. In a later book Dictionary of Jamaican English by Mr. Cassidy and R.B. Lapage it is stated that the origin of the name John Crow may be linked to Jim Crow, the American term. There is however no evidence to show that they are linked. Whatever the story behind the name John Crow, it is deeply embedded in Jamaican folk life.
The John Crow is a bird of great symbolic importance. In the Jamaican setting it is associated with ugliness, blackness, evil and disgrace. In abusive arguments people will call each other names such as "dirty John Crow, black John Crow or heng man John Crow". The John Crow is also an omen of death. It is believed that if the John Crow perches on a housetop, someone inside will die. It is also believed that if a John Crow appears in an individual's dream, it signifies death or some other form of destruction in the person's family.
The name John Crow appears in a few Jamaican proverbs. "Every John Crow tink him pickney white". This means that everyone thinks that his own children or his possessions are the best in the world. "John Crow seh him a dandy man but same time him hab so-so feather". Here the John Crow is a symbol of someone who is being very vain and pretentious. "John Crow a roast plantain fi yuh" depicting someone who is very meager and emaciated who may soon die. "If yuh fly wid John Crow yuh wi nyam dead meat" expresses the idea that a person is capable of doing the things that are done in the company that he or she keeps. Two popular folksongs also exist which speak about the John Crow. They are "Peel head John Crow" and "John Crow Seh".
Whatever the John Crow represents or however the name originated, it is one of the most significant birds underlining the culture."
Source: Jamaica: The Fairest Isle by Phillip Sherlock and Barbara Preston (1992) Plants, Spirits and the Meaning of John in Jamaica: Article Written in Jamaica Journal by John Rashford (May 1984)"
The Jamaican "John Crow" doesn't have the same meanings in Jamaica that the similarly named "jim crow" does in the United States.
"Jump Jim Crow is a song and dance from 1828 that was performed in blackface by white comedian Thomas Dartmouth (T.D.) "Daddy" Rice."
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jump_Jim_Crow. Thus the earliest documentation of "John Crow" predates "jim crow" by two years and the cultural meanings of these two symbols are quite different. In the USA, "jim crow" is a term used to describe a system of racial segregation that discriminated against Black people.
I'm not sure which came first- the use of the name "Jim" for the crow or the name "John" for the vulture. ("Jim" is a nickname for "James" and not "John", although a number of people aren't aware of that.)
To add to these names, I think that the nickname "jimmy" that is used for the crowbar tool is also related to the "Jim Crow" name, although I don't know which came first. As to why the tool is called a crowbar, here's a comment from http://au.answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20090505044409AAEFfdV response by d_r_siva "Why is a crow bar called a crow bar? where did the name originate?"
answer posted by Nathan, 2008
"Crowbar: The association of the crowbar, that useful tool, with the bird is one of mere appearance. The grappling, wedge-shaped beak at one end reminded people of a crow's foot. This, as it were, got stuck in the tool for all time.
The Book of Beginnings"
Nathan or that source book he quoted forgot to mention that the crowbar tool is black in color, as is the crow.
From http://jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20090517/arts/arts1.html Extracts from the 'Jamaica Journal' - "Plants, Spirits and the meaning of 'John' in Jamaica ; Published: Sunday | May 17, 2009
John Rashford, Contributor
“The word 'John' appears 33 times in the Dictionary of Jamaican English as a generic term in the compound common names of people, birds, plants and other objects. This paper will show that objects named 'John' are often associated in Jamaica with the world of spirits.
I will focus on the vine Abrus precatorious, which Jamaicans call John Crow Bead, and it links - by virtue of John as a generic term - to the Christmas dancing in Jamaica called John Canoe (also spelled Jonkonnu) and to the vulture called John Crow (Cathartes aura). This paper suggests that the dance, the bird and the plant all have the name John because of their relationship to the world of spirits and spirit possession.
Practice of obeah
It shows that John Canoe, who is the chief dancer of a troupe of dancers, is the spirit person or obeahman (variously described as a witch doctor, magician, jumbie-man or sorcerer) and both the John Crow and the John Crow Bead are associated with death and with materials used in the practice of obeah.
In the Caribbean, the common names for Abrus precatorious point to its association with the spirit world and suggests that John as one of the generic terms in its compound common names is an expression of this association. The link is made by the fact that in Jamaica and elsewhere in the Caribbean, the plant is known as Jumbie Bead, and in some places, as, for example, the Virgin Islands, it is also called Devil Bead (Williams (jumbi, jumby, jumbee, jumbay, jamby) or zombie are just different terms for spirits. These terms are more widely used in the eastern Caribbean than in Jamaica (Cassidy 1971, Beckwith 1929).
In Jamaica, spirits are most frequently identified as ‘duppies’. They are largely of human origin, being spirits of the dead. Usually considered more harmful than good, they interact with the living and in dong so directly affect the routine of daily life. They love the night, especially when perfumed by the aromatic basil (Ocimum basilicum L.) and the strong sweet smell of the night blooming jasmine (Cestrum nocturnum). They “feed upon bamboo root, ‘fig’ leaves and the gourd-like fruit of a vine called ‘duppy pumpkin'” (Beckwith 1929 p 89) and live at the root of cotton trees (Ceiba pentandra), in burial grounds and old abandoned buildings, and in dark places such as caves, mangrove swamps, bamboo thickets and forests"...
I added italics to highlight the term "John Crow beads", and the association of John Crow (the vulture) with dancing and with the spirit world.
UPDATE: January 29, 2014
These connections of John Crow with the spirit world and jumbie may explain the traditional association of John Crow with death and with the color black. However, death wasn't always considered something negative in traditional West African societies, and the color "black" wasn't always and/or wasn't only associated with death. For those reasons, it's possible that the very negative image of John Crow is an old development in Jamaican culture (which is heavily influenced by West African cultures). But John Crow may have originally or early on had a deeper meaning which wasn't negative.
UPDATE March 15, 2016
With regard to my comment "John Crow may have originally or early on had a deeper meaning which wasn't negative", here's information about the meaning of the "vulture" in Ashanti (Asanti, Asante) culture in Ghana, West Africa:
From Symbolizing the Past: Reading Sankofa, Daughters of the Dust, & Eve's Bayou by Sandra M. Grayson (University Press of America, 2000), Page 36
"Among the Akan, the scarab and the vulture symbolize self-begetting, self-creation, and self-birth. An Akan maxim says of Odomankoma [the infinite, the interminable, absolute being], ‘The animal that symbolizes Odomankoma who created the world is the vulture.’ “Odomankoma a oboadee ne kyeneboa ne opete. (Meyerowitz . The Divine Kingship in Ghana and Ancient Egypt. See also Danquan, The Akan Doctrine of God"
Notes from that book:
. After Nunu was killed later in the film [Haile Geima’s Sankofa] no one could find her body. Shola says that the people believed that Nunu did not die; rather that a buzzard swopped down and took her back to Africa.
7. Opete is the Akan word for vulture
Here's information about Nunu in the film Sankofa:
"Nunu ....an African-born field hand who went about her day-to-day life with Africa still living in her heart and was characterized as a “strong motherly slave with a rebel mindset” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sankofa_(film)
Here's another quote about the symbolism of the vulture in African culture, although no nation or ethnic group is mentioned:
"Tap Roots: The Early History of Tap Dancing
By Mark Knowles
Anthropologist Melvin Herkovits suggests that the name of the John Canoe dance is derived from the Ashanti people of Africa and is a reference for the yankoro or buzzard. In the United States the climax of the John Canoe included a buck dance known as the buzzard lope" [page 32].
"The Ashanti is the major indigenous tribe of the Akans in Ghana" [buzzghana.com]"
I haven't found any more information yet about the word "yankoro".
It's probable that the enslaved Africans in Jamaica and in the United States who were from the Asanti (Ashanti/Akan) people substituted the crow (John Crow) for the vulture. And, eventually, the positive meanings of the vulture were changed to the negative associations.
Hat tip to slam2011 for her March 14, 2016 comment below that motivated me to do more research on the symbolism of "John Crow and the vulture.
End of March 15, 2016 update.
SOME OTHER USES OF THE NAME "JOHN CROW" IN JAMAICA
*Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park is a national park in Jamaica
* Another "John Crow" proverb:
"Bird seed don't make John Crow sing." For any reader who is not Jamaican, a John Crow is the same thing as a vulture. What it simply means is that no matter how much bird seed you feed to the John Crow, it will never sing like a bird simply because it cannot."
From http://www.jamaicaobserver.com/business/Prosperity-requires-new-thinking_13800705 Prosperity requires new thinking" by Dennis Chung, March 08, 2013
*Jamaican folk song "John crow seh im naah wok pan sunday".
A Dancehall Reggae version of that song was recorded by Tenor Saw ("No Work On Ah Sunday").
*John Crow Skank [dance, records, and rhythm]
Click http://pancocojams.blogspot.com/2014/10/derrick-morgan-john-crow-skank-example.html for a pancocojams post about this topic.
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