Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Lead Belly's Comments About "Shoo Fly" & Other 19th Century & Early 20th Century Dances

Edited by Azizi Powell

[revised March 26, 2014]

This post focuses on various 19th century African American instructional dances – (dances that are performed to directional [instructions or commands, i.e. “calls”) that folk singer/performer Lead Belly made about the "shoo fly" dance or dance movement and other dance movements that he recalls some African Americans performing in the late 19th century or early 20th century.

This post also includes my comments about the continuity of the instructional dance tradition as evidenced by some 20th century, and 21st century African American & Caribbean dance songs.

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

All copyrights remain with their owners.

"Shoo" = an exclamation that means "Go away"; "Get out of here", usually said while waving hands, motioning the person, animal, or insect (such as a fly) to move away.

“Shoo Fly, Don’t Bother Me” was first published in 1869 by White, Smith & Perry. It is not entirely clear who wrote it, but Thomas (T.) Brigham Bishop is often given credit. Bishop was a colorful fellow. He was born in Maine in 1835, and from an early age had success as a musician. He was a performer on the “negro minstrel” *circuit, and wrote, or claimed to have written, co-authored, and composed a handful of very popular Civil War era songs, such as “Glory, Glory Hallelujah” and “John Brown’s Body.” He was undoubtedly involved in producing some popular music, but other composers have also laid claim to some of the same songs, and there is little evidence to provide a definitive answer...

[Bishop] reportedly wrote “Shoo Fly” during his time as a commanding officer of a black regiment, referred to as ‘Company G’ in the song, during the Civil War. There are a couple of versions of the story, but the common thread is that he heard one of the soldiers say, “Shoo, fly, don’t bother me!” and it ignited his imagination. He wrote the tune and lyrics and then taught the song to his men. It quickly caught on. After its military run, the song became a regular part of black and blackface comedy routines, with an accompanying dance. Other people also published versions of the song, but Bishop claimed that it had been pirated from him".
*"negro minstrel circuit" - performance circuits for performers of songs that were purported to be or were actually from Southern African American sources or were pertaining to Southern African Americans (These weren't the same performance circuits as the 20th century "Chitlin Circuit" that refers to the usual performance sites throughout the USA for Black non-religious performers; Also to be clear, Brigham Bishop was an Anglo American

Click “Shoo Fly!” for more information about the history of the song "Shoo Fly". That article and the Wikipedia page whose link is given above also include the original lyrics to that song.

WARNING: The original lyrics for "Shoo Fly Don't Bother Me" contain offensive language [the n word fully spelled out].

Also, click for information about the play party song "Skip To My Lou" which includes the phrase "shoo fly shoo".

From Google Books The Life & Legend Of Huddie Ledbetter by Wolfe/lornell, pps 20-21
"De white folk ‘low dem [allow them] to have de frolic* with de fiddle and or banjo or windjammer. Dey dance out on de grass, forty or fifty n-----rs**, and dem big girls nineteen year old git out dere barefoot as de goose. It jes’ de habit of de times, 'cause dey all have shoes. Sometimes de call*** de jig dance and some of dem sure dance it, too. De prompter*** call “All git ready.” Den de holler . “All balance,” and den he sing out “Swing your partner”, and dey does it. Den he say “All promenade”, and dey goes in de circle****. One thing that dey calls “Bird in de Cage”. Three join hands round de girl in de middle, and dance around her, and then she git out and her partner git in the center ***** and dey dance awhile.”...

These turn-of- the century gatherings featured a number of different styles of dancing. The older people preferred the classic Texas square dance, which had developed from the French cotillion and contra dances decades earlier.

[Huddie Ledbetter's comments]
“They called the sets all the time when they danced”, said Huddie. “They called “Shoo Fly”, uses [sic] “shoo fly” mean square dance. It worked this way: a couple would get on the dance floor, and on cue from the caller, begin to circle to the right. And then, said Huddie, when you get back to your home [starting place], grab your partner, the first man on the head “shoo fly”. When they begin to “shoo fly” then they holler
“Shoo fly, shoo fly
Shoo fly, shoo fly”

Then they commence to hollering
One dollar bill baby, won’t buy you no shoes.
One dollar bill baby, won’t buy you no shoes.
One dollar bill baby, won’t buy you no shoes.
One dollar bill baby, won’t buy you no shoes.

Then the next man would head “shoo fly”: get his partner and circle around. This continued until each couple had circled to home; they would make a ring and circle again, find their partners, and begin to “dance on ahead and dance toward the candy stand”.

Younger partners preferred a faster beat and a faster tune, and did a complex set of dance steps that Huddie later referred to as “breakdowns” or “the old buck and wing”. “You got to do it real fast”. And when you breakdown, you ain’t tapping, you just work your legs. Now a long time ago, my grandfather, my great grandfather say you ain’t dancing till you cross your legs.” The Baptist church tried to discourage African religious practices among slaves. It forbade not only drumming, but any kind of dancing – with dancing defined as movement that involved crossing the legs...

Another account from the twentieth century describes a dance called the Dog Scratch being done by two individuals surrounded by a circle of men who shouted encouragement , and clapped, and eventually joined in. Mance Lipscomb recalled two dancers engaged in “cutting contests...seeing who could outdance the other. You ever seen two roosters flappin’ up alongside the other? It was like that.” Leadbelly also recalled a dance called “Knocking the Pigeon Wing”."
* "frolic" = a dance gathering

**"n----rs" - what is now known as the "n word"; That word is fully spelled out in this book.

***"call" here means "dance instructions given by a person serving as a 'caller' while couples danced", "prompter" means "the caller".

****This probably means “move around the circle” similar to or the same as “skip around the circle”, and not “go inside the circle”.

***** I think this means “and then she gets out [of the inner circle made by the three people surrounding her; she remains in the center] and her partner gets in the center” and they dance awhile.
The authors also mention “the Short Dog”, “cutting the pigeon wing”, doing the “Eagle Rock”, and "tap dancing", which is described as “the newer dance derived from these old dance steps.“

In the quote given below as Excerpt #1, Lead Belly indicates that "shoo fly" was used by African Americans as a dance call (in the late 19th century or early 20th century). As such that call appears to have been a caller's directional command to move [or perhaps "to move away" fast]. Also, if I understand that same excerpt correctly, Lead Belly indicates that "shoo fly" was a general referent for square dancing, although perhaps that quote means that when the phrase "shoo fly" was used, it meant that a particular type of dancing was occurring or would occur i.e. "shoo fly" signaled or referred to a particular type of couples dance movement or movements that were performed in a ring (circle) when a caller indicated what moves were to be performed). Those usages undoubtedly came from the "Shoo Fly Don't Bother Me" song as evidenced by the fact that Lead Belly recalls people singing a portion of that song while they did that "shoo fly" movement during that ring (circle) dance.

The Appalachian square dance call "shoo fly swing" probably is a different dance call than that 19th century African American "shoo fly" call. However, watching videos such as may provide some ideas about how African American ring dances which were "called" were performed.

That said, even though he talked about circle dances and not line dances, Lead Belly's descriptions of the "shoo fly" and other ring dance movements also remind me of the Liberian Grand March. Like the Virginia Reel, the Liberian Grand March was derived from American dances that had their sources in European contra dances. Click for a pancocojams post on the Liberian Grand March.

From "American Folk Songs Of Black Origin"
Magneto, 12-15-2010, 03:55 PM Post #28
"According to Eric Partridge's Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, one meaning of the word "sukey" (circa 1820) was a general servant or "slavey." Hence a "sukey jump" referred to a dance or party in the slave quarters; after slavery, it was simply a term for a house dance.

In the following conversation, recorded by Library of Congress folklorist Alan Lomax in Washington in 1940, Huddie gives us some idea of all the dancing going on at a sukey jump, circa 1900. The conversation is being recorded onto discs which contain perhaps three or four minutes each, and are spinning around at 78 revolutions per minute. There is no time for long pauses or considered answers. While the interview sounds a bit like a word association game, it does gives an impression of what the dances were like.

Lomax: I want Huddie to tell you about the way they put on the square dances down in Louisiana when he was a boy, growing up, in the backwoods. Huddie, what did they call square dances?

Ledbetter: Called them sukey jumps.

Lomax: Why did they call them sukey jumps?

Ledbetter: Well, because they danced so fast, the music was so fast, and the people had to jump, so they always called them sukey jumps.

Lomax: Do you know what "sukey" means?

Ledbetter: Sukey - well, that's a cow sometimes when you tell her, "Sukey, sukey, sukey," you know, keeping the cow away.

Lomax: Did they ever holler that at the dances when they had them?

Ledbetter: They'd just holler "Sukey jump!" and they'd holler, "One dollar bill, baby, won't buy you no shoes," just anything they feel like singing in there.

Lomax: What kind of music did they have?

Ledbetter: Well, they had a fiddler in them times; and accordions.

Lomax: And what were the names of some of the tunes they played?

Ledbetter: The tunes was "Poor Howard," he was a poor boy and he played the fiddle. He was the first fiddler after the negroes got free from slavery time. Poor Howard was a negro used to play for them at the sukey jumps. And the number he played was "Poor Howard, Poor Boy."

Lomax: How does that go?

Ledbetter: [Plays and sings.] "Poor Howard, Poor Boy" goes like this.

Lomax: Huddie, did they call the sets [as in square dance calls] at these dances?

Ledbetter: They called the sets all the time when they danced; they called "Shoo-fly," you could shoo-fly, and the square dance.

Lomax: How did that sound? Give us a sketch of how they called the sets down there.

Ledbetter: When they called the sets, they holler,

"Hey, man, you swing mine and I'll swing yours,"
but when they first get on the floor, they holler,
"Grab your partners, step the right way round,"
they always drive right way,
"Now, man, you know you're going wrong,
now circle left way round,
and when you get back to your home,
grab your partner,
the first man on the head, shoo-fly."
When you get the shoo-fly, then they holler,
"Shoo-fly, Shoofly"
then they come to the holler,
"One dollar bill baby won't buy you no shoes."

[Huddie goes on singing and playing, calling the set "One dollar bill. . ."]

Lomax: Huddie, did they have any real fast numbers at these dances? Do you remember any of those?

Ledbetter: They'd pick 'em up.

Lomax: When they'd do the hoedown and. . .

Ledbetter: They'd pick 'em up, you know, they'd have some fast ones when they'd just go, like, "Green Corn, Come Along Charlie," "Gonna Dig a Hole to Put the Devil In," and, "Tight Like That," sometimes they'd holler, say, "Tight like this!"
[They are both talking at once through here.]

Lomax: What did they mean by that Huddie, really? I mean, tell us confidentially what they mean by "tight like that."

[Lomax may have been fishing for some sexual innuendo, but Huddie wasnt playing along, perhaps realizing there was nothing confidential about this interview.]

Ledbetter: "Tight like that" means when you got your partner, grab and hug her tight, and keep her going, but when it comes time the boy grab his partner, he grab her and giving her a hug, he says, "Tight like this, it was tight like this, but now it's tight like this." And the boys'd be jumping on "Tight like that."

Lomax: What were some of the dance steps, Huddie, when they were playing some of these fast tunes?

Ledbetter: Well, ain't no dance steps you could do but "breakdown," and that's a fast number. You can't dance no tap dance, I don't think, a fast breakdown number, course you might, but that's where all the tap dances [Huddie is talking very fast, as though he's afraid of being interrupted] . . . all the tap dances come from the old "buck and wing" what they used to do. Well, the breakdown dance, nobody do 'em now, but I don't guess nobody know nothing about it very much, but me, and I do the breakdown. When you do it you got to do it real fast, and when you breakdown you ain't tapping, you just working your legs. Now, a long time ago my grandfather, great-grandfather, say, "you ain't dancing til you cross your legs." So I guess now, nobody dancing because they don't cross their legs hardly ever. But when you do that old breakdown, and wing down, and green corn and that old ground shovel and, uh . . .

Lomax: What about "knocking the pigeon wing?"

Ledbetter: . . . pigeon wing and . . .

Lomax: . . . cutting the back step?

Ledbetter: . . . cutting the short dog, well, you got to cross your legs.

Lomax: Huddie, play us one of those tunes, something like "Gonna Dig a Hole to Put the Devil In," and tell us what it means, too, you know.

Ledbetter: "Gonna Dig a Hole to Put the Devil In" - long years ago, that was when they see the boss coming, you know? And the boys would see the boss coming, well, they didn't like him, you know, but they'd be together, nothing but negroes all piled up there together. When they'd see him coming, they'd say, "Well, we're gonna dig a hole to put the devil in," boy they'd start a-jumping. [plays "Gonna dig a hole. . ." with very fast accompaniment on guitar.]

Lomax: Huddie, can you play "Green Corn" on the twelve-string guitar?

Ledbetter: I think I can.

Lomax: Let's hear a little of "Green Corn." [Huddie starts to strum his guitar. Lomax interrupts] Slow and easy and sweet, Huddie! [Huddie slows the tempo] What is green corn, anyhow? Tell us about it when you sing the song.

Ledbetter: [Strumming and explaining] Now, this is a fast sukey jump too, but the boys take it easy sometimes when they want to sukey jump; keep them dancing so hard and take it easy on the ground, shuffle around with your partner, [sings, but doesn't explain "green corn". Lomax tries to interrupt with "What is green corn?" but Huddie either doesn't hear, or ignores him.]

Lomax: [Just as the song ends] What is green corn? What is green corn, Huddie? [Lomax likely wants to hear that green corn is some form of white lightning, but, again, Huddie is not co-operating. He keeps it simple.]

Ledbetter: Green corn is an ear of corn - when it's green. What they mean by green corn, they're just putting that in the words, you know, 'cause the man is green and they didn't know what they was talking about themselves. What they was speaking about is an ear of corn when it's green. Down south when the corn gets dry, why then that's corn - hard corn, then. But when they say "green corn", that means it's green, you can go out in the field and pull it and roast it. . .

Lomax: I thought you meant green corn whiskey.

Ledbetter: No, not no green corn whiskey, they didn't know nothing about no corn liquor at that time. They had old-time liquor, you know, that's real good liquor, wasn't no bootleggers then. Couldn't make no liquor. How are they going to make liquor when they're all slaves? [Huddie sounds condescending] The old boss they wouldn't get no liquor till the boss would give it to them.

Lomax: Huddie, at these old-timey sukey jumps, did people dance in their bare feet, or with shoes on?

Ledbetter: Well, them that could get shoes, they would dance like that and lots of them didn't have 'cause I know plenty boys in my time

Lomax: [interrupting] . . .what about the women? Would they wear shoes or not?

Ledbetter: Well, when they could get them. If they couldn't, they just go barefooted.

Lomax: Would they ever circle left in these dances, or

Ledbetter: They's circle left right, they'd start out right. . .

Lomax: . . .they'd start right first?

Ledbetter: That's right. . .

Lomax: [talking on top of Huddie] How many times would they go around right?

Ledbetter: Well, you see, when they'd first start right, they'd go around right and then the man would holler, "Circle left way round,"

Lomax: And they'd gone one time around?

Ledbetter: That's right and then he'd holler, "Circle right way around again, and when you get back home, grab your partner," so when they first start out circling right way around he'd tell them to skip on up ahead and catch the next partner in front of them, and they'd keep on catching and he'd say, "Now, when you get home, circle left way around" and when they get home, they circle left way around, he says, "Now circle right way around, and when you get back to the spot, settle down. First man on the head, grab his partner and shoo-fly." That's the way they do that down there. (Library of Congress)"
Click for a recording of portions of this recorded interview of Lead Belly by Alan Lomax. That post also includes my transcription of and comments about Lead Belly's rendition of the song "Dig A Hole Put The Devil In" as he sung it in that interview.

19th century African American plantation dances such as “Juba” and “Jim Along Josie” are precursors to 20th century & 21st century African American dance instruction songs (records whose lyrics wholey or to a large extent consist of dance instructions). Those 20th century & 21st century dance instruction songs also have their source in the custom of calling square dances.

A significant percentage of 20th century/21st century African American non-religious songs are dance instruction records. Three examples are Wilson Pickett's "Land Of 1000 Dances", 69 Boyz's “Tootsie Roll” and DJ Casper's “Cha Cha Slide”.

Marcia Griffin's “Electric Slide”, and The Soca Boys' “Follow The Leader” are two examples of Caribbean dance instruction records. A 2012 example of a Caribbean dance instruction record is Fowko's "Bouyon Danse"

Thanks to Lead Belly for his musical legacy and his information about African American dances. Thanks to all others who I quoted in this post.

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Visitor comments are welcome.

1 comment:

  1. Leed Belly's description of the fast dancing "breakdowns" reminds me of the fast steps of contemporary African American dances such as the "Chicago footwork" and Detroit jittin. These dances appear to me to be similar if not the same as the buck dancing of the Mardi Gras Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs & their second lines.
    AND it seems to me that those secular dances have a lot in common with the manner of doing the Pentecostal holy dance ("cutting a step", shouting).

    Also, speaking of Pentecostal cutting a step, some people equate those fast paced foot stomping movements as stomping on the devil's head. It was therefore interesting to me to read Lead Belly's comment about the song ""Gonna Dig a Hole to Put the Devil In" and how it was used way back when...

    To read more about the "stomp on the devil's head" phrase, click "Cut A Step" And Other Black Pentecostal Words, Phrases, & Sayings, Part II