Saturday, September 13, 2014

Three Examples Of African American Street Vendor Calls

Edited by Azizi Powell

This post presents three examples of African American street vendor calls. One of these examples (with an introductory comment) is included in the Notes section of Thomas W. Talley's now classic 1922 collection of Negro Folk Rhymes. The other two examples (with rather lengthy excerpted comments) are from Clyde "Kingfish" Smith and are excerpted from the 1981 published book Harlem Photographs 1932-1940 by Aaron Siskind. That book section showcases two additional street calls that Clyde "Kingfish" Smith recalled creating and singing.

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

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to the creators and collectors of these vendor calls.

I'm using the term "African American" in this post even though that term wasn't used as a referent for that population in the early 20th century. Also, I'm using the term "street vendor call" because it seems to be most often used for this rhyming composition that was used by people selling products in neighborhoods. However, it should be noted that the example that Thomas W. Talley gives is of a vendor selling lemonade at a "backwoods" Negro picnic."Backwoods" here means "country"/"rural" and probably with the added distinction of southern rural). Talley refers to that "call" as a "cry" (meaning it was shouted). Thomas W. Talley wrote that some of the material in his book was quite old. Judging from that comment and the dialectic English that is used, that "Lemonade Call" may be much older than the early 20th century.

Clyde "Kingfish" Smith referred to himself and other "vendors" as "peddlers" and he also referred to those calls as "cries".

From Negro Folk Rhymes: Wise And Otherwise by Thomas W. Talley (Study section; originally published in 1922, pp. 243, 244)
[The Project Gutenberg EBook edition]
"Possibly the thing which will impress the reader most in reading Negro Folk Rhymes is their good-natured drollery and sparkling nonsense. I believe this is very important. Many have recounted in our hearing, the descriptions of "backwoods" Negro [Pg 244] picnics. I have witnessed some of them where the good-natured vender of lemonade and cakes cried out:
"Here's yō' cōl' ice lemonade,
It's made in de shade,
It's stirred wid a spade.
Come buy my cōl' ice lemonade.
It's made in de shade
An' sōl' in de sun.
Ef you hain't got no money,
You cain't git none.
One glass fer a nickel,
An' two fer a dime,
Ef you hain't got de chink,
You cain't git mine.
Come right dis way,
Fer it shō' will pay
To git candy fer de ladies
An' cakes fer de babies."
My explanations of some of the terms used in this example:
"de" = the
"wid" = with
"sol"= sold
"fer" = for
"Ef you hain't got de chink" = If you don't have money [The word "chink" probably comes from the sound that coin money makes when it hits against other coins or something else.]
"dis" = this
'sho" = sure

EXAMPLES #2 and #3
From Harlem Photographs 1932-1940 by Aaron Siskind; recollections by Clyde "Kingfish" Smith [pp 11-17]
"I started singing when I started peddling; that was in 1932. "Heigho fish man, bring down your dish pan", that's what started it. "Fish ain't but five cents a pound." It was hard times then - the depression and people can hardly believe fish is five cents a pound so they started buying. There were quite a few peddlers and somebody has to have something extra to attract attention. So when I came around, started making a rhyme, it was a hit right away. One of the first things I learned about peddling was to be any success at all, you had to have an original cry. I known several peddlers that started out and they hollered Old Fish Man, but it doesn't work.

I've gone block where several fish men have gone alreeady and sold fish like nobody had been there. When I sing, a certain amount of people will be standing around, looking and listening, and that attracts more people. Whenever people see a crowd they think it's a bargain so they want to get in on it. Wheen I sing it will be so loud that people come to the windowss and look out. They come down with their bedroom shoes on, with bathrobes, and some have pans or newspapers to put the fish in.

When I first come to a block nobody pays any attention. Then I start singing, get them to laughing and looking and soon they start buying. A lot of them just hang around to hear the song. O alway try to give the best fish I can for the money and that makes repeated customers. A lot of people wait for my individual cry. The average day I cover about eight blocks and spend about an hour in each block, sometimes longer.

When I have crabs the kids like to see the crabs jump and bite, so they stand around in big crowds. Sometimes, when sing, the kids be dancing the Lindy Hop and Trucking. Women buy most of the fish. I find Home Relief and WPA people the best customers. They buy more. They have to budget more than the average family.

In white and Jewish neighborhoods I feature the words but in the colored neighborhood I feature the tune. In thee Jewish neighborhood they appreciate the rhyming and the words more, while in the colored neighborhood, they apprciate the swinging and the tune, as well as the words. I put in a sort of jumping rhythm for the colored folks. That swing music comes right from old colored folks spirituals.

I say whatever comes to my mind if I think it will be good. The main idea is wheen I got something I want to put over I just find something to rhyme with it. And the main requirement for that is mood. You gotta be in the mood. You got ot put yourself in it. You'v got to feel it. It's got to be more an expression than a routine. Of course sometimes a drink of King Kong helps.

A song like this I'd just look on the wagon and rhyme up something to match with it. When I sang this song, this morning, I was just thinking of something to rhyme then.

I got vegetables today,
So don't go away.
Stick around
And you'll hear me say,
Buy them by the pound,
Put em in a sack
Hurry up and get 'em
Cause I'm not coming back.
I got apples, onions, and collard greens.
I got the best string beans
That I ever seen
I got oranges, tomatoes, nice southern
sweet potatoes,
I got yellow yams
From Birmingham.
And if you want some,
Here I come
And if you don't want none
I don't give a
Yam, yam, yam
I got green greens
From New Orleans.
I got the greenest greens
I ever seen,
And I sure seen
A whole lot of greens
I got cauliflower
And mustard greens.
The best cauliflower
I ever seen.
So buy some,
Try some,
Take 'em home and fry some.

This was my first original fish song. I put words from this into some of the others. This was the first fish song in my own tune. So after the people begin to get too familiar with the tune, I grasped the idea of changing my tune to get the tune of the most popular song hit of that time.

Yo, ho, ho fish man!
Bring down your dish pan!
Fish ain't but five cents a pound.
So come on down,
And gather around.
I got the best fish
That's in this town.
I got porgies,
Crockers too.
I ain't got but a few,
So you know what to do.
Come on down,
And gather round,
Cause my fish ain't
But five cents a pound.
I've got 'em small;
I got 'em long and I got 'em tall,
I got 'em fried,
I got 'em broiled,
And I can't go home 'till I sell 'em all!
So yo, ho, ho, fish man!
Bring down your dish pan!
Cause fish ain't but five cents a pound.

I can't go home 'till all my fish is gone.
Stormy weather.
I can't keep my fish together,
Sellin' em all the time.
If you don't buy 'em
Old rag man will get me.
If you do buy'em
You folks'll kinda let me
Walk in the sun once more.
I don't see why
You folks don't come and buy
Stormy weather,
Let's get together,
Sellin 'em all the time.

I wouldn't sing this one in a Jewish neighborhood. They don't know the tune and they wouldn't appreciate that song. Only in a colored neighborhood.
In the what I refer to as the "Fruit and vegetable Call", lines "And if you don't want none/I don't give a Yam, yam, yam" is an example of profanity avoidance by saying a word that rhyme with that "bad word". This and other clever profanity avoidance techniques appear to have been quite popular in the early 20th century. Those who are familiar with the "Miss Suzy Had A Steamboat" children's rhyme may recognize other profanity avoidance techniques that are found in that rhyme.

I separated this "Fish Call" into two parts with the second part that which has the "stormy weather" phrases. That part may just happen to begin at the top of the second column of the page so it's just my guess that this is a second portion of that call which may have been added later, and may also have had a different tune and tempo.

Clyde "Kingfish" Smith refers to the song "Stormy Weather" as sung by Billie Holliday.

The "walk in the sun" line refers back to that stormy weather motif. The sung will be shining if people buy his fish, thus averting poverty (which is represented by the idea of an old rag man, i.e. an old man dressed in rags).

For the folkloric record, the other two calls that Clyde "Kingfish" Smith recalled for this book were about selling ice and about selling crabs.

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  1. About the word 'chink' in the first call, I'm sure you're right about it coming from the sound, but it may also be a survival of historic slang. According to the OED, 'chink' was slang for 'money' from the mid Elizabethan period till the 19th century.

    1. Oh, I didn't know that.

      Thanks for that information, slam2011.

  2. I didn't know it either, but the OED knows everything!!! :)) Although quite a few of their entries don't seem to have been updated for about a hundred years...