Monday, September 1, 2014

"Knock Jim Crow" - The REAL Origin Of The Dance Song "Jump Jim Crow"

Edited by Azizi Powell

This post provides information about the African American game song "Knock Jim Crow" and the minstrel song & dance "Jump Jim Crow" that was adapted from it.

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

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to the composers and performers of "Knock Jim Crow" and thanks to all those who are quoted in this post.

From Step It Dowm: Games, Plays, Songs & Stories from the Afro-American Heritage by Bessie Jones and Bess Lomax Hawes (The University of Georgia Press, 1972), pp. 55-57
Bessie Jones: “When I was a little girl, I thought Jim Crow might have been a bird, because it was “going down to the new ground”, and they always shoot them birds out of the corn. “New ground” is ground where the trees have been cut off, but it’s never been planted in. So that was what I understood at the time, that was my idea. But we don’t know what the old folks meant, we sure don’t.”

John Davis: “ I don’t believe that the old folks knew what they were talking about their ownselves. Anyway they didn’t tell nobody”...

“Jim Crow” developed from a dance imitating the motions of birds and hunters, and quite possibly magical in nature, into a commercial caricature. No wonder the term, when used in a political context, has a bitter taste today. The Islanders, however, clearly regard this as a pleasurable dance, probably about birds, and “knock Jim Crow” with enthusiasm and alacrity.

FORM: Indefinite; group of children standing in a line of ring. There may be a lead singer or the children may all sing together.

Lead and Group Voice
Where you going, buzzard?
Where you going, crow?
I’m going down to the new ground
To knock Jim Crow
Up to my kneecap
Down to my toe,

And every time I jump up
I knock Jim Crow.
(Speed increases)
I knock.
I knock Jim Crow.
I knock.
I knock Jim Crow.
I knock, knock,
I knoc Jim Crown.
(repeat ad lib).

Step on the right foot, raise left leg with knee straight (like a high goose step)
and clap hands together around it; repeat raising alternate legs until
On to, raise right knee (bent) and slap it with right hand.
On cap raise left knee (bent), and slap it with left hands.
On to point down to ground with right index finger.
On beat after “toe” point down to ground with left index finger.
Resume raising alternate legs and clapping around them as in first step.

Dancers increase speed, continuing to lift legs and clap while turning round in place until exhaustion sets in.

Be sure that the steps are on the downbeat, so that the claps can come on the offbeat.
where you go-ing buz-zard, where you go-ing crow?
step clap step clap step clap step clap
My comment:
I believe that the word "knock" as used in the song "Knock Jim Crow" (and as it is used in another African American children's plantation game "Gon' Knock John Booker") means "to dance" (and probably "to dance very well"; I believe that this use of "knock" is very much like the phrase "He knocked it out of the park (or out of the box") to refer to somebody doing something-other than playing baseball very well.

This slang use of "knock" in those old Southern USA plantation songs reminds me of the Hip-Hop (Rap) dance songs that began with the phrase "Crank dat" ("Crank that"). The first song in that category is entitled "Crank That (Soulja Boy") by the rapper known as Soulja Boy (2007). "Crank That" (also given as "crank dat") means "to do that particular dance very well". The word "crank" used that way suggests starting up a movement similar to how the old record players had to be cranked to begin playing music.)

Google Books: Carrion Dreams 2.0: The Hagetaka-tan Version
By Benjamin Joel Wilkinson; pp. 374-375
...”[Thomas] Rice developed his [Jump Jim Crow] routine from an already extant song and dance tradition among southern blacks known as “Knock Jim Crow” which consisted in part of imitating the movement of birds. Whether the birds that were imitated were the genuine Jim crow-vultures- or the common American Crows, or both, it is impossible to say for certain.

The trademark movements of a vulture might seem like an odd inspiration for a popular dance routine, but we’ve already seen the Amerindians across the hemisphere employed just such inspiration for their ritual dances. Additionally, there was at least one other traditional [Black American] slave dance that was also popularized by a white minstrel, dubbed the “Buzzard Lope” which had much the same imitative origin as “Jump Jim Crow”. A dictionary published in 1890 defined Buzzard Lope as “the latest social institution in America….a dance taught to a Georgian negro by the turkey buzzard. Unlike Jump Jim Crow, this dance survived in one form or another into the 20th century; in Ben Burman’s 1938 book Blow For A Landing is found a description of the “buzzard dance” in which the dance would “wheel in long, doleful circles. His arms became gaunt, flapping wings; his head swung jerkily from his cadaverous neck, peering, searching.” Similar, if not identical dances were found by anthropologists studying the customs of African Americans living along the Georgia coast; and as late as 1958 there’s a description of an old man demonstrating “a kind of buck- and- wing dance dubbed the “Buzzard Flop”. Despite its vulturine origins, “Jump Jim Crow” proved to be a smash hit for Rice, who soon began to bill himself as “Jim Crow” Rice, and by the mid 1830s “Jim Crow” had entered the common parlance of white Americans, initially as a derogatory attachment. For example, editorial comment in a newspaper might call a disliked politician’s behavior a “Jim Crow” performance.

Along those same lines, abolitionist newspapers of the 1840s applied that term to railroad cars that separated their passengers by the color of their skin, in hopes of generating the appropriate amount of outrage about such bigoted arrangements. The name stuck so well that, during the post Civil War era, Jim Crow was used as a catchphrase description for the system of institutional segregation that was practiced in the American South until the 1960s. All and all vultures seem to have had a remarkable amount of influence upon African American dance culture, for good or ill.”...
"Black American" in brackets is my addition to this passage to clarify which enslaved people the writer is referring to (since historically there were other enslaved people besides Black people and Black Americans.]

"Jump Jim Crow" is a song and dance from 1828 that was done in blackface by white comedian Thomas Dartmouth (T.D.) "Daddy" Rice. The number was supposedly inspired by the song and dance of a crippled African slave named Jim Cuff or Jim Crow, who is variously claimed to have resided in St. Louis, Cincinnati, or Pittsburgh.[1][2] The song became a great 19th century hit and Rice performed all over the country as "Daddy Jim Crow".
"Jump Jim Crow" was a key initial step in a tradition of popular music in the United States that was based on the imitation of Blacks. The first song sheet edition appeared in the early 1830s, published by E. Riley. A couple of decades would see the mockery genre explode in popularity with the rise of the minstrel show. It was also the initial step in the extant tradition in popular music of incorporating African styles and subject matter.
The tune became very well known not only in the United States but internationally; in 1841 the US ambassador to Central America, John Lloyd Stephens, wrote that upon his arrival in Mérida, Yucatán, Mexico, the local brass band played "Jump Jim Crow" under the mistaken impression that it was the US national anthem.”...
[excerpt from that song's original lyrics]

"kneel to de buzzard, an, I bow to the crow;
An eb'ry time I weel about I jump jis so.

Other verses, quoted in non-dialect standard English,
Come, listen, all you girls and boys, I'm just from Tuckahoe;
I'm going to sing a little song, My name's Jim Crow.
Chorus: Wheel about, and turn about, and do just so;
Every time I wheel about, I jump Jim Crow."
Click for "A recreation of the Jump Jim Crow refrain the way it was performed by Thomas Dartmouth "Daddy" Rice (1808-60). This clip is so short I repeated it three times so you can get a good look. This is the only clip I've ever found that shows a performer singing and dancing the actual tune. This clip is from a Vitaphone." (Video published by ikachina Published on Jan 26, 2013).

Click for Part I of a pancocojam post on the Caribbean term "John Crow".

A pancocojam post on the African American children's game "Gon' Knock John Booker" (To The Low Ground) will be published ASAP.

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