Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Wearing Red Dresses For Mourning (Song Examples & Comments)

Edited by Azizi Powell

This post presents seven examples of Black American Old Time Music or early Blues songs in which red dresses symbolize mourning. This compilation isn't meant to represent all such songs.

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

All copyrights remain with their owners.

(These examples are presented in alphabetical order.)

Example #1: "Ella Speed"
Lyric Excerpt:
"When the women all heard that Ella Speed was dead
All goes back home and they re-ragged in red"
[re-ragged = re-dressed; changed their clothes] [This link includes the song lyrics and the history behind the song.]

Sound file:
Lead Belly ~ Ella Speed

Jimsters, Published on Nov 20, 2012
The song Ella Speed by Lead Belly off of the CD You Don't Know My Mind.
The publisher's summary also includes the song lyrics.

Example #2: "Casey Jones"
Lyric Excerpt:
"Womens in Kansas all dressed in red,
Got de news dat Casey was dead.
Womens in Kansas all dressed in black,
Said,in fact, he was a crackerjack."

Dorothy Scarborough's 1925 book On The Trail Of Negro Folk Songs, p. 250

Example #3: "Duncan And Brady"
Lyric Excerpt:
“Women all heard that Brady was dead,
Goes back home and they dresses in red
Come a sniffin' and a sighin' down the street,
In their big mother hubbards and their stockin' feet

Sound file:
Duncan and Brady Leadbelly

songs1994, Uploaded on Feb 25, 2009

Example #4: "John Henry"
Lyric Excerpt:
"John Henry had dat pretty liddle wife,
An' she went all dress up in red.
She walk ev'y day down de railroad track
To de place whar her steel-drivin' man fell dead."

Thomas W. Tally, Negro Folk Rhymes ,p. 105

Example #5: "John Henry" [Furry Lewis' version]
Lyric Excerpt
"When the womens in the West heard of John Henry's death
They couldn't stay at home in their beds
Some were dressed in white, some where dressed in red
Sayin Take me where John Henry fell dead...

Sound file:
'John Henry (The Steel Driving Man)' FURRY LEWIS (1928) Blues Guitar Legend

RagtimeDorianHenry, Uploaded on Apr 19, 2009

"John Henry (The Steel Driving Man) " (1928)

Example #6: "Louis Collins"
Lyric Excerpt:
"Oh, when they heard that Louis was dead
all the people they dressed in red"

Sound file:
Mississippi John Hurt - Louis Collins (1928)

fulanodetal4, Published on Jun 21, 2012

Example #6: "Poor Howard"
Lyric Excerpt:
Ol' Howard, po' boy
(plays the tune he just sung)
Ol' Howard he is dead an' gone
left me here to sing this song
left me here to sob and mourn (or moan)

Pretty little girl with a red dress on
(above line repeated two times)
God knows, pretty little girl with a red dress on"

Sound File:
Leadbelly - Poor Howard

3006khz, Published on Dec 30, 2012

Poor Howard (Green Corn). The audio is hard to hear, but, i think this is one of Lead Belly's coolest tunes.

Black Americans -along with other people in the United States- have long considered wearing the color red to be highly inappropriate at funerals or at public or private gatherings before the funeral service such as "viewings" or "wakes" (both of these may mean the same thing in the United States).

However, it seems to me that lyrics in those old songs about Black women wearing red were more than a rhyming device, but were a reflection of an expectation in [at least] some communities for Black women to wear red as an expression of their mourning. That conclusion led me to assume that this tradition was a remnant of African culture which was passed on as a normative custom, but was later disgarded in order to conform with mainstream American culture.

This speculation led me on an online search for information about and examples of traditional West African or Central African cultures in which the color red was associated with death or with mourning someone's death. I focused on those geographical regions because the African ancestors of most Black Americans came from those parts of Africa.*

Prior to a new search I re-read a Mudcat Folk & Blues forum discussion thread "The death of Louis Collins" That thread includes lyrics of & comments about the song "Louis Collins" and some other Old Time Music/Early Blues songs which include references to women wearing red for mourning. I particularly focused on this comment that Guest,Bruce, Date: 04 Oct 02 cited and McGrath of Harlow 04 Oct 02 - 08:39 PM quoted from a Grateful Dead lyric blog:
Catherine Yronwode helpfully explains a bit more about the reference to "dressed in red":
"White folks, accustomed to black being the colour worn both for funerals and for post-funereal mourning, sometimes think that references in blues songs to dressing in red signify a party atmosphere or happiness over a person's death. Not so. In Africa, and among African-Americans in earlier times, drssing in red has been a funerary custom. As such, it is reminiscent of burial with red ochre pigment, which was used among neolithic people (the "red paint people") the world around. The religious idea behind this custom is that as a baby is born from the mother's womb through blood, so will rebirth occur (after interrment in Mother Earth) through blood."
While that comment interested me, the references to red being a funeral custom in Africa and among African Americans in earlier times was much too general for me. And as my online search for information about early Black American funeral customs was yielded no information about standard colors worn by mourners, I changed gears and started looking for more details about traditional African funeral customs.

According to
"In Central Africa, Ndembu warriors rub themselves with red paint during celebrations. Since their culture sees the color as a symbol of life and health, sick people are also painted with it. Like most Central African cultures, the Ndembu see red as ambivalent, better than black but not as good as white.[123] In other parts of Africa, however, red is a color of mourning, representing death.[124] Because red bears are associated with death in many parts of Africa, the Red Cross has changed its colors to green and white in parts of the continent.[125]"
Note: It seems to me that "bears are associated" in that sentence is a typographical error for "bears [carries] an association with". In any event, I'm not satisfied with the much too general comment of red having that meaning in "many parts of Africa".
A number of websites indicate that the color red is used in South Africa to symbolize mourning or death. However, most of those websites don't indicate whether "South Africa" refers to the nation or the geographical region. Furthermore, hardily any of those websites indicate the specific ethnic group/s in South Africa where it was or it is traditional to wear red for mourning.

Here's one exception to those much too general websites about the meaning of colors in African cultures:
"Across Zimbabwe, red rags signify a nation in mourning"
By Daniel Howden in Mpopoma township , Matabeleland
Friday 27 June 2008

"Red rags have been tied around lamp posts that don't light and hung from bus shelters. Giant V-signs have been painted over the pot-holed thoroughfares. Bulawayo, the opposition stronghold, awakes today to find it has been painted red. As Zimbabweans turn out to vote in a one-man election, a final message of defiance was being daubed overnight on the only public space available to the opposition: the roads.

One of the key organisers of the Movement for Democratic Change's "red campaign" who identified himself only as Thomas, said the symbolism was clear. "Red is the colour of the MDC. In African culture, it is also the colour of mourning. We are mourning the death of democracy, or the little we had of democracy."
Notwithstanding that quoted comment, red is NOT the standard color of mourning in all African cultures.

Another website,%202011%20Cultural%20Competence%20Summit/Tues.Jun28_300-430_WS-8A_Blanch_Handout1.pdf provides these meanings for red:
"Red: mourning = Cote d’Ivoire and South Africa"
Red: Nigeria –wealth, vitality, aggression

Red: Some areas [of Africa]- good luck
But, for instance, that same website indicates that the color "orange" means mourning in Egypt.

It wasn't until I found online articles & videos of Ghanaian funeral customs that I find information about red being used for mourning. In that West African nation, the standard colors for funerals are black or red and black. Could this traditional Ghanaian custom be the source of the Black American Old Time Music & early Blues lyric feature of referring to women wearing red for mourning? I think so.
Update: December 13, 2015
This article about color symbolism in Ancient Egypt indicates that "Red (desher) was the color of life and of victory. During celebrations, ancient Egyptians would paint their bodies with red ochre and would wear amulets made of cornelian, a deep red stone. Seth, the god who stood at the prow of the sun's barque and slew the serpent Apep daily, had red eyes and hair.

Red was also a symbol of anger and fire. A person who acted "with a red heart" was filled with rage. "To redden" meant "to die". Seth while the god of victory over Apep, was also the evil murderer of his brother Osiris. His red coloration could take on the meaning of evil or victory depending on the context in which he is portrayed. Red was commonly used to symbolize the fiery nature of the radiant sun and serpent amulets representing the "Eye of Re" (the fiery, protective, and possibly malevolent aspect of the sun) were made of red stones.

The normal skin tone of Egyptian men was depicted as red, without any negative connotation."
That same article notes that "In ancient Egypt, black (kem) was a symbol of death and of the night. Osiris, the king of the afterlife was called "the black one." One of the few real-life people to be deified, Queen Ahmose-Nefertari was the patroness of the necropolis. She was usually portrayed with black skin, although she was not a negro. Anubis, the god of embalming was shown as a black jackal or dog, even though real jackals and dogs are typically brown.

As black symbolized death it was also a natural symbol of the underworld and so also of resurrection. Unexpectedly perhaps, it could also be symbolic of fertility and even life! The association with life and fertility is likely due to the abundance provided by the dark, black silt of the annually flooding Nile. The color of the silt became emblematic of Egypt itself and the country was called "kemet" (the Black Land) by its people from early antiquity."
I wonder if the color red was/is worn in Ghana, West Africa to symbolize the victory of life over death (the color black).

Be that as it may, it still seems likely to me that the references to wearing red in associating with death that are found in African American Blues songs and folk songs can be traced to Ghana and perhaps also other African customs.

Click for a pancocojams post about colors worn at Ghanaian funerals.

Also, click for a pancocojams post on various other African funeral traditions including the nation of South African custom of "after tears parties".

Thanks to all the known and unknown composers of these featured songs. Thanks also to all the performers who are featured in this post. And thanks to all those who are quoted in this post and thanks to the publishers of these YouTube examples.

Thank you for visiting pancocojams.

Visitor comments are welcome.

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