Saturday, August 30, 2014

Chanteys Sung By Black Circus Work Crews

Edited by Azizi Powell

This post is a transcription of a May 27, 1957 Billboard magazine article entitled "Big Tops Boom But Chanteys Disappear" by Tom Parkinson [Chicago] (page 1-67). The subtitle of that article is "Mechanization Leaves Only Memories of Canvasmen’s colorful Work Chants" and the article can be found at

The book Folklore From The Working Folk Of America edited by Tristram Potter Coffin and Hennig Cohen (Anchor Press, 1973) includes a shortened version of this article "Circus Chanties" [pp 61-63). I read that article before finding the longer Billboard magazine article via Google. Notes about that book passage are given in the comment section below.

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

All copyrights remain with the owners.

Thanks to the singers and the collectors of these chanties. Thanks also to Tom Parkinson, the author of that Billboard article which may be the only source of information about and examples of circus chanties.


"Circus big tops are far from extinct, but what has disappeared are the distinctive chanteys of the big top crews.
Similar work chanteys of sailors and plantation workers have been written down and, in some cases, popularized. But circus canvasmen, like their fellow specialists in various show fields have escaped notice for the most part. Now their lore is all but gone.

Time was that the singing and chants of the Negro work crews were as much a part of the action as were the rhythmic pounding of stake hammer crew and long string drivers.
Now although there are almost as many big tops in the air as ever, it’s a different breed of men that works show canvas. The newcomers aren’t so inclined to sing as were their predecessors. Last year a big top boss tried to revive the old chanteys, but he had no luck.

First Time Published
As far as is known, these chanteys have never been written down before. The only exceptions are a couple of verses of the simplest chanty, the kind used by the advanced and experienced crew. One such version goes:
'Heave it, heavy
"Shake it; break it
"Shove it down

One of the last versions of this to be used was recorded by Edward Hogsband in a novel he wrote after being with the Ringling Brothers show a few seasons ago. He quoted it phonetically
Re-aar baack jump- jump- jump-vrawgaloong.
This translate into “Rear back, jump, jump jump, walk along” and it is as close as recent crew have come to the old chanteys. The earlier ones not only had more color and music to them, but they also avoided the near mechanical terms of this one.

More Loose Ends
Here is how the chanteys were used. After a big top is in the air, it’s necessary to tighten the ropes with which it is staked down. Around the edge of the tent are many side poles; on a 150 foot round top with three 50 foot middle pieces, for example, there are 50 poles.

At each pole position there are two ropes. One, the main guy, extends outward to a stake. The other is called a pull rope, and the canvasmen pulls at it, in time to a chantey, to tighten the knot. A man at the stake takes up the resulting slack in the main guy by pushing the half–hitch knot further down on the tent stake. Once the main- guy is staked down, the pull rope also is tied off, and it becomes a stores guy, an extra protection in bad weather.

An early chantey went like this:

“Oh you shake it and you break it;
"You fall back and take the slack;
"You pull with all your might.
"To get the old rag tight;
"The slack you must take,
"So he can push it down-stake;
"And now we’ll move along.

The rope caller’s polite last line was the crew’s clue to move to the next ropes. Once they worked clear of the 150 by 300- foot big top, and down- staked 80 main guys, they repeated the circle to guy out the other 80 extra guys. The purpose of these is to create a depression in the tent surface for rapid drainage of rain water. Side poles hold the tent edge high, extra guys between them pull the edge downward.

Like Square Dance
This means crew guyed out 160 ropes on a sample tent. To that were sometimes added 26 quarter-pole guy ropes. Finally, in some sections of the country or in some weather conditions, the boss canvasman ordered use of the so-called funny ropes. More properly, these are scissor ropes because they extend from one wall pole to the next stake, crossing over each other to give an added brace against heavy wind. The whole process is called ragging out.

Pearly Houser, who now keeps an eye on the canvas of the Al G. Kelly and Miller Bros. Circus, recalls when they “called the rope”, like calling a square dance, with a two-part chantey in which the caller used ballad-like lines and the crew answered with a version of “yo-heave-ho” as they pulled the rope.
When Houser was with Barnum & Bailey for a tour of Europe nearly 60 years ago, they called out this tune:
"I hit my wife (Yo, heave)
"With a singletree (Yo, heave)
"You ought to hear her holler (Yo, heave)
"Oh, Lordee, don’t murder me (Yo, heave)

Womenfolk of the big top gang had it rough, if the chanteys Houser recollects are a guide. A second one went:
"My Lula’s gone to Kansas(Yo, ho)
"I told her not to go (Yo, ho)
"And now she’s wading (Yo, ho)
in the cold and icy snow (Yo, ho)
"Next rope...

The labor sometimes had to be completed before the men could go to breakfast. George Werner, now with the Clyde Beatty Circus and recently boss canvasman on the Ringling-Barnum show, recalled when the flag was raised that the cookhouse was ready to serve, the rope caller took notice this way:
“Thar she be, heave it
“Flying flag in the breeze, shake it.
“Ups and over; break it.
”Ham hocks and bumble bees; down stake it.
“Graveyard stews and stacks of wheat; move along.

Maybe a long season of that menu-up and overs, “bumble bees”, and “graveyard stews” gave rise to the contrary comment of the rope caller remembered by another veteran tent man, Whitey Lehrter:

“Every time (Heave it)
“Ding dong ring (Heave it)
“Look at the table (Heave it)
“Same damn old thing (Heave it)

While the rope caller might irk the cookhouse boss with this sort of thing while ragging out the dining tents, the crews delighted in baiting performers, too. Take the time Pearly Houser says his rope men paraphrased somewhat greater literature to “commemorate an event in one performer’s life:

“Come back, come back, he cried in grief (Yo, heave-ho)
“Across the muddy, stormy lot (Yo, heave-ho)
"And I’ll forgive the big top chief (Yo, heave-ho)
My daughter, oh my daughter
"(Next stake)

Bewhiskered Joe Applegate, who first ragged tops with a circus in 1900 and now handles the Hagen Bros spread after years with Beatty, remembers a chantey with circuses perpetual travel as a theme:
“Heigh ho, heave, shake, break, shake, break ;
"Hold back, set back, fall back, shake break
"Omaha, St, Louis, Kansas City
"(San Antone)

In that one the name of the current day’s spot was inserted in the fourth spot. Similarly, another chant was adapted to fit the name of the show’s owner they were with at the time. As George Werner recalls, it was used for placing quarter poles rather than for guying out.
"Oh come on, you children come (Heigh-ho).
Put your hands on a pole and do your part (Heigh-ho).
"Let's puch them up and set them straight (Heigh-ho).
Yes sir, bossman says let's nor be late (Heigh-ho).
We all know it's a dirty old rag (Heigh-ho).
Oh, but it's a good old rag (Heigh-ho).
Yes, sir, it's a big old rag (Heigh-ho)..
Today it is a (wet) old rag (Heigh-ho).
Man, you know it's (Downie's) old rag (Heigh-ho).
And (Mr. Downie) wants it up (Heigh-ho).

Werner and C. A. Somnemberg, who has also seen wet and dry tents guyed out for Downie and a dozen other show owners whose names were inserted in similar chanteys, recall when Harvey (Lowdown Red) Beach had a big top with Yankee Robinson Circus and called the ropes this way:

“Heave ho, heave it, rock, bock, nock.
"Shake it, break it, take it
"Down the stakes…Walk along, gentlemen.

The way that elephant man Bill Woodcock remembers one, they worked in a pun with a circus name in the fifth line of this one:

“Heave it, heavy down;
"Hump back, jump back
"Take it back,
"Break your back,
“Down stake, next...

Tho the big top remains, and big top crews are ragging them every day, the chanteys have disappeared. Automatic stake drivers replaced sledge hammer crews. Mechanized spool trucks replaced the job of manhandling bulky bales of canvas. Tractors replaced teamsters. And as a leading tent manufacturer put it, “a different breed of cat” is working on canvas crews. This cat don’t dig the old chantey.”

My Notes
Words in italics mean that I'm not certain about this transcription because the quality of the printed page wasn't clear.

I wonder if the name "Pearly" (Pearly Houser) is a nickname that that man received because of his wide smile or white teeth.

In the chantey beginning with the line "Oh come on, you children come" the word "rag" refers to the canvas tents.

"A different breed of cat” is working on canvas crews. This cat don’t dig the old chantey.” = A different type of man is working on canvas crews. This man [these men] don't like chanteys.

The late 1950s was a time of emerging Black consciousness and group pride. Maybe the Black circus workers in the late 1950s not only felt more confident but also felt even a little bit more assurred that there would be less negative reprecussion if they didn't perform at the command of their White bosses. Previouly, singing chanties was an integral part of their job as it helped to coordinate the labor as well as helped the men tolerate their strenous labor. When singing chanties was no longer integral, then why should the men expend energy singing?

Also, similar to how Black people think about plantation songs, it's likely that those Black men associated the "olden days" when chanties were sung with negative times, and negative images of Black people. For example, consider the Walt Disney 1941 movie Dumbo with its offensive "Song Of The Roustabouts" and its equally offensive depiction of faceless Black circus laborors singing a song that is based on circus chanties. I wonder if that movie and song contributed to Black men's distaste for singing chanties or their distaste for the custom of singing (and dancing) on demand for White people's enjoyment.

Click for a pancocojams post about "The Song Of The Roustabouts".

Thanks for visiting pancocojams.

Visitor comments are welcome.

1 comment:

  1. Here are notes for the passage about circus shanties (chanteys) from the book Folklore For The Working Poor:
    "Circus Chanteys" Southern Folklore Quarterly, 1966, 298-99.
    Roustabout. Cited and described by Marcellow Truzzi. His source was an article by Tom Parkinson, "Big Tops Bloom but Chanteys Disappear", The Bill Board, May 27, 1957, who gives the text of eleven chanteys. The informant for the three presented heere was George Werner, formerly boss canvasman with the Ringling Brothers Circus. Tunes not given."

    The examples of shanties that were given in that passage were the first, fourth, and sixth example given in the original Billboard article that is transcribed above.