Friday, December 13, 2013

"The Negro General" & "Going To Ohio" songs from the 1840 book "Poor Jack"

Edited by Azizi Powell

This post presents a portion of chapter seventeen of the 1840 book Poor Jack by Frederick Marryat. Poor Jack is book eleven of the "Poor Jack" fictional series. Click for a review of that book. In that review Federick Marryat is described as "the Father of Modern Nautical Fiction".

I'm particularly interested in Federick Marryat's portrayal of the Black fiddler/singer Bill White, who was given the nickname "Opposition Bill". This post features the two songs from that chapter that Opposition Bill sings. I'm not sure where Frederick Marryat got those songs, but it seems probable to me that, like the song "Spanish Ladies" (which is included in chapter seventeen and is "the earliest known set of complete lyrics to [that] classic sea chanty"), Marryat transcribed those two songs' lyrics from actually hearing renditions that he heard of those songs.

The title for the first song "The Negro General" was given in that book. The second song wasn't given a title in that book. I named it "Going To Ohio" because of its lyrics. Note: The folk song "Banks Of The Ohio" isn't the same song as "Going To Ohio".

The content of this post is presented for folkloric, historical, and educational purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER SEVENTEEN OF POOR JACK by FREDERICK MARRYAT The Project Gutenberg EBook of Poor Jack, by Frederick Marryat [EBook #21575]

Chapter Seventeen.
A morning concert, in which the opposition is as great as black to white.

"Among my father’s associates there was a man of about forty years of age, Dick Harness by name. He had received a wound in the hip from a grape-shot, and his leg having in consequence contracted, it occasioned him to limp very much; but he was as strong and hearty in all other respects as a man could be. He was a very merry fellow, full of jokes, and if any one told a story which was at all verging on the marvellous, he was sure to tell another which would be still more incredible. He played the fiddle and sang to his own accompaniments, which were very droll, as he extracted very strange noises from his instrument; sometimes his bow would be on the wrong side of the bridge, sometimes down at the keys; besides which, he produced sounds by thumping the fiddle as well as by touching its strings as a guitar; indeed, he could imitate in a certain way almost every instrument, and most of the noises made by animals...

There was, however, another man who contributed much to the fun created by Dick Harness. He was an American black, who had served as cook in the Majestic, and had been wounded in the battle of the Nile; he had received a bullet in the knee, which had occasioned a stiff joint; and, as his leg was bent, he wore a short wooden stump. He also could play his fiddle and sing his songs, but in neither case so well as Dick Harness, although he thought otherwise himself. We used to call him Opposition Bill, but his name was Bill White, at least that was the purser’s name that he went by when on board of a man-of-war. His pleasure was to follow Dick Harness everywhere; and if Dick sung he would sing, if Dick played he would play also—not at the same time, but if Dick stopped Bill would strike up. Dick used to call him his black shadow; and sometimes he would execute a flourish on his fiddle, which would be quite a puzzler to Opposition Bill, who would attempt something of the kind, which invariably set every one laughing. At last Dick Harness’s performances were not considered to be complete if Opposition Bill was not in his company; and, as they were both very good-tempered funny fellows, they were a great amusement, especially in the fine weather, when they would sit on the benches upon the terrace about six or eight yards apart, for they seldom came nearer, and play and sing alternately. The songs sung by Dick Harness were chiefly old sea songs; those of Opposition Bill were picked up from every part of the world, principally, however, those sung by the negroes who worked on the plantations in Virginia and Carolina...

“Now, then, Billy, fire away.”

“You tink I ’bey your order, you Dick? No sar, suppose I fire away, I go off. I not go off, I stay here.”

“Well, but if you play, you’ll get in trouble, Billy.”

“How I get in trouble?”

“Why you’ll get in a scrape, won’t you?”

“He! you just got out of one, anyhow.”

Dick Harness then said to those who sat by him, “I’ll make him sing the Negro General.”

“Well, if you will howl, Mr Billy,” cried out Harness, “at all events don’t give us that abominable “Now, then, Billy, fire away.”

“You tink I ’bey your order, you Dick? No sar, suppose I fire away, I go off. I not go off, I stay here.”

“Well, but if you play, you’ll get in trouble, Billy.”

“How I get in trouble?”

“Why you’ll get in a scrape, won’t you?”

“He! you just got out of one, anyhow.”

Dick Harness then said to those who sat by him, “I’ll make him sing the Negro General.”

“Well, if you will howl, Mr Billy,” cried out Harness, “at all events don’t give us that abominable N----r* General; it always gives me the toothache.”

“Now I tink dat very fine song; so you may have whole jaw-ache for all I care. I sing dat, Mr Dick; you jealous of dat song, I know.”

Opposition Billy flourished a little, and then commenced—

“Listen, my boys, and I will tell you—
Tell you a leetle ’bout Gin’ral Gabriel.
Oh-e-oh! Oh-e-oh!

“Dey advertise de N----r* Gin’ral,
A dousand pounds dey advertise him.
Oh, my boys, I’m most done!

“And who betrayed de N----r* Gin’ral?
A leetle boy betrayed de Gin’ral.
Oh-e-oh! Oh-e-oh!

“A leetle boy by de name of Daniel,
Betrayed him down at Norfolk Landing.
Oh, my boys, I’m most done!

“He says, how do, my uncle Gabriel?
But dis is not your uncle Gabriel.
Oh-e-oh! Oh-e-oh!

“Yes, it is my uncle Gabriel;
For I do know you, uncle Gabriel.
Oh, my boys, I’m most done!

“De man belonged to Major Prosser,
So cum and hang de N----r* Gin’ral.
Oh-e-oh! Oh-e-oh!

“For he’s ruined old Virginny!
Hard times in old Virginny.
Oh, my boys, I’m most done!

“Dey wrote a letter to de tailor,
To cut out de Gin’ral’s ruffles.
Oh-e-oh! Oh-e-oh!

“Dey cut de ruffles out o’ iron!
So they handcuff and chained him.
Oh, my boys, I’m most done!

“Dey went and called a troop of light horse
To come and guard de N----r* Gin’ral!
Oh-e-oh! Oh-e-oh!

“To guard him all to de city of Richmond,
To guard him up unto de justice.
Oh, my boys, I’m most done!

“De justice tuk him to de gobnor—
(Monroe he set up for gobnor).
Oh-e-oh! Oh-e-oh!

“Command him to de Penetenshy;
On Thursday week come on his trial.
Oh, my boys, I’m most done!

“Dey went and called all de country
For to come and see de N----r* Gin’ral.
Oh-e-oh! Oh-e-oh!

“Some dey call him Archy Mullen—
‘My right name is John Decullen.’
Oh, my boys, I’m most done!

“‘I’m here to-day and gone to-morrow;
I did not come for to stay for eber.’
Oh-e-oh! Oh-e-oh!

“So den day tuk him to de gallows,
Drive him down dere in a waggon.
Oh, my boys, I’m most done!

“Dey drive him down unto de gallows,
Dey drive him down with four grey horses.
Oh-e-oh! Oh-e-oh!

“Price’s Ben, he drive de waggon.
Very sad loss to Major Prosser.
Oh, my boys, I’m most done!

“Dey drove him right beneath de gallows,
And den dey hang him and dey swing him.
Oh-e-oh! Oh-e-oh!

“And dat de fate of de N----r* Gin’ral,
Who almost ruined old Virginny!
Now, my boys, I’m quite done!”

[Dick Harness sings a song and Opposition Bill says]

“You call dat singing! Stop now! I sing a song you nebber hear in all your life,” cried Opposition Bill, tuning his fiddle.

“And never wish to hear again, most likely,” replied Dick. “Out with it, Bill; your face shines beautifully this morning.”

“I take de shine out of you, Massa Dick; now you listen:—

“Now your fader is asleep, maid, listen unto me;
Will you follow in my trail to Ken-tuck-y?
For cross de Alleghany to-morrow I must go,
To chase de bounding deer on de O-hi-o.

“And will you lub me truly, and kind to me will be,
If I quit my fader’s roof for Ken-tuck-y?
And will you nebber leave me, if I consent to go
To your shanty by de stream of de O-hi-o?

“Her fader’s not asleep, and he will not agree,
Dat you take away his dater to Ken-tuck-y.
So alone by yourself; good hunter, you must go,
Where the Ingin’s rifle cracks on de O-hi-o.

“Your moder, too, is near, aldough you did not see,
And wid her leave you nebber go to Ken-tuck-y.
He hab a wife already, as I do surely know,
Who weeps for his return to de O-hi-o.

“Man, I have dis purse of gold, half of it for ye;
Woman, I hab ne’er a wife in Ken-tuck-y;
Your dater is my only lub, so pridee let us go
To where my corn is ripening on de O-hi-o.

“De fader weighed de purse, he took his half wid glee,
De modor said her child might go to Ken-tuck-y.
So de hunter and de maid, arm in arm dey go
Across de Alleghany to de O-hi-o.”

"Bravo, Billy, that’s not so bad,” said some of the pensioners.
“I tell you, Dick, I take de shine out of you. You nebber believe till I make you fall in my wake, and den you soon be where de little boat was—long way astarn.”

“I’ll tell you what, Billy,” said Dick Harness, “you do improve, and we’ll allow you to sing that song once more before you die, just by way of encouragement..."

* That pejorative referent for Black people which is now known as "the n word" is spelled out in full in this song. The now retired referent "Negro" could replace "the n word" in this song if it were sung now.
One of the songs that Frederick Marryat documented was sung by Dick Harness was Spanish Ladies. Marryat gives this reason for including that song in his book "As this song was very popular at that time among the seamen, and is now almost forgotten, I shall by inserting it here for a short time rescue it from oblivion.”
The song "Spanish Ladies" has a Wikipedia page and is sung in YouTube videos. However, the only mention I can find for those two songs sung by Opposition Bill are in several other Google books.
"The Battle of the Nile (also known as the Battle of Aboukir Bay, in French as the Bataille d'Aboukir or in Egyptian Arabic as معركة أبي قير البحرية) was a major naval battle fought between the British Royal Navy and the Navy of the French Republic at Aboukir Bay on the Mediterranean coast off Egypt from 1 to 3 August 1798."
"Gabriel (1776 – October 10, 1800), today commonly – if incorrectly – known as Gabriel Prosser, was a literate enslaved blacksmith who planned a large slave rebellion in the Richmond area in the summer of 1800. Information regarding the revolt was leaked prior to its execution, and he and twenty-five followers were taken captive and hanged in punishment. In reaction, Virginia and other state legislatures passed restrictions on free blacks, as well as prohibiting the education, assembly, and hiring out of slaves, to restrict their chances to learn and to plan similar rebellions."...
Regarding the use of "uncle" in "The Negro General" song, "uncle" was a title of respect for older Black males (as "aunt" was for older Black females) people. The titles "Mister", "Missus", and "Missie" (for girls and young ladies) were reserved for White people.
I was interested to find the saying "fire away" and "take the shine out of [a person] in the Poor Jack book. With regard to "take as shine out of a person", that colloquial expresion means to "spoil the brilliance or excitement of": [example: the absence of new jobs has taken some of the shine off his stellar popularity ratings"

When it was addressed to the Black man known as "Opposition Bill", the saying "take a shine out of a person" was a play on words that carried the alternate meaning (or the added meaning) of taking away some of the "brightness" of the Black man's skin (with the assumption that Black people's skin is so dark that it shines at night like blue-black shoe polish.) The word "Shine" was also a colloquial, offensive referent for Black people. However, I don't know whether that particular slur was in use in England in the early 19th century when the book Poor Jack was published.
I think that the nickname "Opposition Bill" may have been given to the Black man named Bill White because (from what is documented of him in that one chapter of Poor Jack) he had a quick retort for those who attempted to talk down to him. Although he was described as the White singer/fiddler's "black shadow", Bill White was by no means a submissive man who acted like a fool around White people. The very act of singng "The Negro General" song about Gabriel Prosser, a man who led a slave revolt, showed that "Opposition Bill" didn't take no stuff off of White people.
The "Going To Ohio" song was particularly interesting to me because I live in Allegheny County in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. That county is named for the Allegheny river. The Ohio and Monongahela rivers are also located in Pittsburgh, which is about two hours from the state of Ohio.
Nursery rhyme excerpts are found throughout the Poor Jack book. Another song that was sung by Dick Harness and included in chapter 30 of Poor Jack is given below in the comment section of this post.

My thanks to Frederick Marryat for writing this book, and Project Gutenberg for publishing it as an ebook. Thanks also to an anonymous reader of this blog for alerting me to this book in a comment to the pancocojams post on

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1 comment:

  1. Here's a song that was sung by the character Dick Harness in chapter thirty of the 1840 book Poor Jack by Frederick Marrryat:

    "Come, sit down a minute; here’s a song for you you’ve never heard, one I don’t often sing, because they say it’s all about myself.”

    “Well, then, I should like to hear that.”

    “Here goes, then.

    “Sam Swipes, he was a seaman true
    As brave and bold a tar
    As e’er was dressed in navy blue
    On board a man-of-war.

    “One fault he had—on sea or land
    He was a thirsty dog;
    For Sammy never could withstand
    A glass or so of grog.

    “He always liked to be at sea,
    For e’en on shore, the rover,
    If not as drunk as he could be,
    Was always ‘half seas over.’

    “The gunner, who was apt to scoff,
    With jokes most aptly timed,
    Said Sam might any day go off,
    ’Cause he was always ‘primed.’

    “Sam didn’t want a feeling heart,
    Though never seen to cry;
    Yet tears were always on the start,
    ‘The drop was in his eye.’

    “At fighting Sam was never shy,
    A most undoubted merit;
    His courage never failed, and why?
    He was so full of ‘spirit.’

    “In action he had lost an eye,
    But that gave him no trouble;
    Quoth Sam, I have no cause to sigh,
    I’m always ‘seeing double.’

    “A shot from an unlucky gun
    Put Sam on timber pegs;
    It didn’t signify to one
    Who ne’er could ‘keep his legs.’

    “One night he filled a pail with grog,
    Determined he would suck it:
    He drained it dry, the thirsty dog!
    Hiccupped, and ‘kicked the bucket.’”

    “There’s Bill’s fiddle, Dick,” said I, getting up; “I thought you would bring him out.”

    “Yes, I was sure of that. I’ll sing another verse or two, and then be off to the park, and leave him in the lurch.”

    “I can’t wait any more, Dick; I must go to my father,” said I. “Well, off with you, then, and I’m off too. Sing tura ha, tura ha, tura lura ha. Bill’s coming down. How savage the n-----r* will be!”
    The "n word" is fully spelled out in this book.

    I wonder if there is any connection between thhat song and "More Work For The Undertaker", which also is about a Sam or Sammy who ‘kicked the bucket.’”

    Click for a pancocojams post about "More Work For The Undertaker".