Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Old Time Music Song "Johnny Booker" - (Information, Comments, & Videos)

Edited by Azizi Powell

This post is Part I of a two part series on "Johnny Booker" songs. This post focuses on American versions of this song whose titles include "Jonny Boker", "Old Johnny Booker", "Mister Booger" "What Johnny Booker Wouldn't Do" etc.

Part II focuses on the song "Old John Booker [You] Call That Gone" as performed by Gus Cannon. Click for that post.

The Caribbean shanty "Johnny Bowker" (also known as "Do My Jolly Boy") and the British song "Old Johnny Booger" are related to the American "Johnny Booker" songs. Links to information about those songs can be found below in the Related Links section.

The content of this post is presented for folkloric, entertainment, and aesthetic purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Part I
"JOHNNY BOOKER. AKA and see "Knock John Booker," "Mister Booger," "Old Johnny Booker," "Old Johnny Bucker Wouldn't Do."

This widely disseminated song/tune is known as a banjo piece and stems from the minstrel era where it was called "Old Johnny Bigger," among other titles. Sheet music published around 1840 gives the song as "Jonny Boker or the Broken Yoke" [1], "as sung by J. W. Sweeney" [Sweeney's Virginia Melodies]. Gene Winnans mentions an African-American banjo player named Gus Cannon, who worked medicine shows from 1914 to 1929. Cannon's first two tunes (learned in "strumming style") were "Old John Booker You Call that Gone" and "It Ain't Gonna Rain No More," learned from "Old Man Saul" Russell, who "just played around the house fro his own amusement." The New Lost City Ramblers also report the song's use in by minstrel and medicine show comedians "up until 1910, most of them using a tune derived from 'Turkey in the Straw'. There are also some sea shanteys about Johnny Booker" (1964, p. 194). The musical West Virginia Hammons family had members who played this tune, as did Tygart Valley banjo players (Gerald Milnes, 1999). Verses to the song include "floaters" that appear in other songs ("Old Dan Tucker," for one).
Another floating verse in some "Johnny Booker" songs is "I went to the river and I couldn't get across".

From "An Annotated Bibliography of the Folk Songs of the English-Speaking World"
"Johnny Booker (Mister Booger)
...DESCRIPTION: About the troubles experienced by a teamster/sailor along the way: A broken yoke, a stalled cart, etc. Chorus something like "Do, Johnny Booker, oh do, do me do, Do, Johnny Booker, oh do" or "So walk a Johnny Booger to help that ni***r"...
Note that early versions of this song used the fully spelled out referent which is now known as "the n word". For instance, the chorus: "O Jonny Boker, help dat n****r do, do Johnny Booker do".

Three comments from Lyr Req: Old Johnny Bucker /Johnny Booker [Hereafter given as Mudcat:Johnny Booker]
NOTE: The n word is fully spelled out in these comments.

Subject: RE: Lyr Req: Old Johhny Bucker
From: Dave Sutherland
Date: 21 Feb 04 - 08:28 AM
"It is in the forum under "Old Johnny Booker". It started life as a minstrel song called "Old Johnny Bigger" with the politically incorrect chorus "Old Johnny Bigger was a gay old n****r". It later changed to Booker and was a favourite among soldiers in both the first and second world wars..."
[Quoted from an earlier post]
Thread #54642 Message #847172
Posted By: Richie
14-Dec-02 - 01:20 AM
...Here's an example of the lyrics by J.W. Sweeny from 1840:

As I went up to Lynchburg town,
I broke my yoke on de coaling ground;
I drove from dare to bowling spring,
And I tried for to mend my yoke and ring.

Chorus: O Jonny Boker, help dat n****r do,
Jonny Boker, do.

"Notes: From Jerry Jordan, Supertone 9407:
According to Randolph (Vol. II as Mister Booger) this song comes from an ante-bellum Negro reel (Scarborough, On Trail of Negro Folk Songs) Versions are reported from minstrels and medicine show comedians up until 1910, most of them using a tune derived from "Turkey in the Straw." There are also some sea shanteys about Johnny Booker. and Cousin Emmy (Kentucky) recorded a lively banjo version of this song."
anti-bellum - before [the USA civil] war
"reel" = dance song

As indicated above, the earliest form of the name "Jonny Boker" was the earliest form of the name in this song. The name "Boker"/"Booker" is also found in versions of this song as are “Bugger”, “Booger”, "Pucker", "Bucka", "Bucker", "Bucca",
"Bowker", etc. The name "Jonny Bigger" was also used to rhyme with the now pejorative word "n****r".

The "n word" is usually given now as “old man”. I've also found an example of this song online that uses the referent "young man". And in the following example, the word "coon" was used instead of "the n word", "old man" or "yound man":

"There was an old man* and he went to school,
And he made his living by driving a mule.

And what Johnny Booker wouldn't do- do-do,
And what Johnny Booker wouldn't do.

*Walter Smith says "coon"
-posted by Joe Offer, 2004 Mudcat:Johnny Booker
In the line "O Jonny Boker, help dat n****r do", the n word is used as a self-referent (meaning a Black man is saying that word as a referent for himself).

Although some Black Americans in the 19th century-particularly in the Southern region of the United States- used the n word as a self-referent and as a referent for other Black people, by no means was that word used by or accepted as a referent by all Black Americans. Furthermore, throughout the 20th century and nowadays an increasing number of people, including many African Americans, consider the n word to be a pejorative. Consequently, fewer people use that word as either a self-referent or as a referent for other people.

In contemporary colloquial American English the chorus "Do, Johnny Booker, do, or "Do, Johnny Booker, oh do, do me do" has a sexualized connotation. However, those words and the words "what Johnny Booker wouldn't do [or "won't do"] have a much different meaning in the context of that 19th century song.

Instead of that sexualized meaning, "Do [me] Johnny Booker, Do [me] simply means "Help me, Johnny Booker, Help me". Another way of saying that is "Do [this for] me". For instance, Johnny Booker, "do what needs to be done to repair the damage to the wagon yoke (or help in some other specified way).

"Johnny Booker" - Cathy Barton and Dave Para

Uploaded on Dec 31, 2010

Filmed by Brian Lee Bauer at the Midwest Banjo Camp 2010

Cousin Emmy and her Kinfolks - 1939 1947 Johnny booker

MrWolve1973, Published on Feb 9, 2013
"Cousin Emmy" = Cynthia May Carver (March 14, 1903 - April 11, 1980)

For lyrics to American versions of this song, click Mudcat:Johnny Booker

For information about the Caribbean shanty "Johnny Bowker" or click

For information about the British song "Johnny Booger", click
Old Johnny Booger
"NOTES: Yates, Musical Traditions site Voice of the People suite "Notes - Volume 14" - 8.9.02: "When I first came across this song, from a singer in Oxfordshire, the title was 'Old Johnny Bigger', the final word rhyming with the now unacceptable word 'n***r'. I presume that the song comes from the American Minstrel stage of the mid-19th century."
The n word was fully spelled out in this citation.

Thanks to all those who are quoted in this post. Thanks also to the featured artists and the publishers of these videos.

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  1. Was the eccentric and accident-prone hero of these songs necessarily black? In the the late 18th-early 19th century, 'Buckra' was the usual West Indian slang word for a white man.

    1. Thanks for your comment, slam2011

      The way that I interprete the "Johnny Booker" song, the man named Johnny Booker [Bucka] wasn't the one who had the accident. Johnny Booker was asked to help the Black man who had the accident.

      I agree that there's nothing in that song that indicates what race Johnny Booker is.

      I also think that the name "Bucka" is a way of writting "Booker" so that it would be close to the pronunciation that some folks [Black and non-Black] used.

      The word "bucka" is spelled similarly but isn't the same as "buckra".

      Btw: here's a quote from about that word:
      "Buckra is a slang offensive term primarily used by African-Americans in the Southeast United States to describe a white man or a boss. It is generally thought to derive from a word in the Efik and Ibibio languages, "mbakara", meaning "master." "
      The online resource "Rasta/Patois Dictionary and Phrases/Proverbs" contains this entry for "bakra" [not buckra]
      "white slavemaster, or member of the ruling class in colonial days. Popular etymology: "back raw" (which he bestowed with a whip.) "

      I think that the Efik and Ibibio languages etymology for that word is more likely than the explanation that "bakra" comes from "back raw" [because of whippings.]

      Thanks for prompting me to share information about the words "bakra"/"buckra" in this comment section for informational purposes and definitely not to promote any contemporary use of "buckra".)

  2. Johnny Booker appears on Oscar Brand's Rollicking Sea Shanties back in 1964. It's a very fast and rolling banjo and guitar song about a sailor who tries to get a job on a boat and instead is the sole crew of a floating log. Not sure how much is 19th Century Sea Shanty and how much is Oscar Brand's version in 1964, but it is a very different vein and lyrics, though it still has

    Do Johnny Booker oh do do do
    Do me Johnny Booker oh do

    which seems to be the central anchor within all these versions.

    1. Thanks for that information, John Pavlakis.

      I appreciate you sharing it with pancocojams readers.