Friday, February 12, 2016

"Rain Fall And Wet Becca Lawton" - A 19th century African American Ring Shout & Rowing Song

Edited by Azizi Powell

This post showcases the 19th century African American religious song & secular song "Rain Fall And Wet Becca Lawton" . This song is included in the 1867 book Slave Songs of the United States, edited by William Francis Allen, Charles Pickard Ware, and Lucy McKim Garrison. That song's lyrics and comments about that song from that book are featured in this post. An excerpt from Slave Songs of the United States about ring shouts is also included in this post.

In addition, this post includes my speculative comments about the meaning of some of the terms in the song "Rain Fall And Wet Becca Lawton".

The Addendum of this post features an excerpt from a Blues article that categorizes "Rain Fall And Wet Becca Lawton". as a "near Blues" song.

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

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to the unknown composer of this song. Thanks also to the collectors this song, thanks to the scanners and encoders of the electronic version of this book, and thanks to all those who are quoted in this post.

"Rain Fall And Wet Becca Lawton" is a religious song that was also used for non-religious purposes.

The following information about "Rain Fall And Wet Becca Lawton" are from the 1867 book Slave Songs Of The South. This information is given in that book after the musical score and the lyrics for that song.
"Slave Songs of the United States:
Electronic Edition.

Allen, William Francis, 1830-1889, Charles Pickard Ware, 1840-1921,
and Lucy McKim Garrison 1842-1877.

Funding from the Library of Congress/Ameritech National Digital Library Competition supported the electronic publication of this title.

Text scanned (OCR) by Robin Roenker
Images scanned by Robin Roenker
Text encoded by Andrew Leiter and Jill Kuhn
First edition, 2000
ca. 275K
Academic Affairs Library, UNC-CH
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,

(title page) Slave Songs of the United States.
William Francis Allen, Charles Pickard Ware, and Lucy McKim Garrison
xliv, 115 p.
New York
A. Simpson & Co.

© This work is the property of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It may be used freely by individuals for research, teaching and personal use as long as this statement of availability is included in the text.

...p. 21
"[Who," says Col. Higginson, "Becky Martin was, and why she should or should not be wet, and whether the dryness was a reward or a penalty, none could say. I got the impression that, in either case, the event was posthumous, and that there was some tradition of grass not growing over the grave of a sinner; but even this was vague, and all else vaguer."

Lt. Col. Trowbridge heard a story that "Peggy Norton was an old prophetess, who said that it would not do to be baptized except when it rained; if the Lord

Page 22
was pleased with those who had been 'in the wilderness,' he would send rain." Mr. Tomlinson says that the song always ends with a laugh, and appears therefore to be regarded by the negroes as mere nonsense. He adds that when it is used as a rowing tune, at the words "Rack back holy!" one rower reaches over back and slaps the man behind him, who in turn does the same, and so on.]"

LYRICS - "RAIN FALL AND WET BECCA LAWTON" [#29 in Slave Songs Of The South, p. 21]

Oh . . . . Rain fall and wet* Becca Lawton,
Oh! Brudder ^ cry holy!

1. Been§ back holy, I must come slowly;
Oh! Brudder cry holy!]

2 Do, Becca Lawton, come to me yonder.

3 Say, brudder Tony, what shall I do now?

4 Beat back holy, and rock salvation.

* Sun come and dry.

+ All de member, &c.

^ We all, Believer, &c.

§ Beat, Bent, Rack."
The symbols and lyrics that are found at the bottom of verse #4 are substitutions for the word or phrases that precede those symbols in the song's verses.

&c = etc.

Given its lyrics, I believe that "Rain Fall And Wet Becca Martin" was probably used as a ring shout (when it was sung as a religious song). Here's an excerpt from Slave Songs Of The South about "shouting": [pps xiii - xvi]
..."The most peculiar and interesting of their customs is the "shout," an excellent description of which we are permitted to copy from the N. Y. Nation of May 30, 1867:

"This is a ceremony which the white clergymen are inclined to discountenance, and even of the colored elders

Page xiii
some of the more discreet try sometimes to put on a face of discouragement; and although, if pressed for Biblical warrant for the shout, they generally seem to think 'he in de Book,' or 'he dere-da in Matchew,' still it is not considered blasphemous or improper if 'de chillen' and 'dem young gal' carry it on in the evening for amusement's sake, and with no well-defined intention of 'praise.' But the true 'shout' takes place on Sundays or on 'praise'-nights through the week, and either in the praise-house or in some cabin in which a regular religious meeting has been held. Very likely more than half the population of the plantation is gathered together. Let it be the evening, and a light-wood fire burns red before the door of the house and on the hearth. For some time one can hear, though at a good distance, the vociferous exhortation or prayer of the presiding elder or of the brother who has a gift that way, and who is not 'on the back seat,'--a phrase, the interpretation of which is, 'under the censure of the church authorities for bad behavior;'--and at regular intervals one bears the elder 'deaconing' a hymn-book hymn, which is sung two lines at a time, and whose wailing cadences, borne on the night air, are indescribably melancholy. But the benches are pushed back to the wall when the formal meeting is over, and old and young, men and women, sprucely-dressed young men, grotesquely half-clad field-hands --the women generally with gay handkerchiefs twisted about their heads and with short skirts--boys with tattered shirts and men's trousers, young girls barefooted,

Page xiv
all stand up in the middle of the floor, and when the 'sperichil' is struck up, begin first walking and by-and-by shuffling round, one after the other, in a ring. The foot is hardly taken from the floor, and the progression is mainly due to a jerking, hitching motion, which agitates the entire shouter, and soon brings out streams of perspiration. Sometimes they dance silently, sometimes as they shuffle they sing the chorus of the spiritual, and sometimes the song itself is also sung by the dancers. But more frequently a band, composed of some of the best singers and of tired shouters, stand at the side of the room to 'base' the others, singing the body of the song and clapping their hands together or on the knees. Song and dance are alike extremely energetic, and often, when the shout lasts into the middle of the night, the monotonous thud, thud of the feet prevents sleep within half a mile of the praise-house."

In the form here described, the "shout" is probably confined to South Carolina and the States south of it. It appears to be found in Florida, but not in North Carolina or Virginia. It is, however, an interesting fact that the term "shouting" is used in Virginia in reference to a peculiar motion of the body not wholly unlike the Carolina shouting. It is not unlikely that this remarkable religious ceremony is a relic of some native African dance, as the Romaika is of the classical Pyrrhic. Dancing in the usual way is regarded with great horror by the people of Port Royal, but they enter with infinite zest into the movements of the "shout." It has its

Page xv
connoisseurs, too. "Jimmy great shouter," I was told; and Jimmy himself remarked to me, as he looked patronizingly on a ring of young people, "Dese yere worry deyseff--we don't worry weseff." And indeed, although the perspiration streamed copiously down his shiny face, he shuffled round the circle with great ease and grace.

The shouting may be to any tune, and perhaps all the Port Royal hymns here given are occasionally used for this purpose; so that our cook's classification into "sperichils" and "runnin' sperichils" (shouts), or the designation of certain ones as sung "just sittin' round, you know," will hardly hold in strictness. In practice, however, a distinction is generally observed. The first seven, for instance, favorite hymns in the St. Helena church, would rarely, if ever, be used for shouting; while probably on each plantation there is a special set in common use. On my plantation I oftenest heard "Pray all de member" (No. 47), "Bell da ring" (No. 46), "Shall I die?" (No. 52), and "I can't stay behind, my Lord" (No. 8). The shouting step varied with the tune; one could hardly dance with the same spirit to "Turn, sinner," or "My body rock 'long fever," as to "Rock o' Jubilee," or "O Jerusalem, early in de morning." So far as I can learn, the shouting is confined to the Baptists; and it is, no doubt, to the overwhelming preponderance of this denomination on the Sea Islands that we owe the peculiar richness and originality of the music there[.]

Page xvi

The same songs are used for rowing as for shouting. I know only one pure boat-song, the fine lyric, "Michael row the boat ashore" (No. 31); and this I have no doubt is a real spiritual--it being the archangel Michael that is addressed."...
In this excerpt, the term 'deaconing' is probably the same as "lining out" a song. In "lining out" - a leader singing one line of the song and the congregation exactly repeating that song.

Click for a pancocojams post that features video examples of reenactments of ring shouts.

"Brudder Tony" (Brother Tony) = It's likely that this referent was personalized when this song was sung (for example: Sister Sally, Brother Ben).

"All de member" = all the members (of the church)

"Beat back holy" - may mean during the ring shout "turn around and move in the opposite direction" to the beat of the song while "shouting" (participating in the ring shout)

"rock salvation" - may mean "move back and forth (or side to side) while "shouting". If so, "rock salvation" has the same of similar meaning as "feeling the [Holy] Spirit", "getting happy" etc except instead of being the type of dance moves that a person does because he or she feels the Holy Spirit, "rock salvation" may be part of the effort that the people do to help bring down the Holy Spirit.

"beat, bent, rack" - "beat [move to the beat by], bending (bowing down) and "rocking" (moving from side to side or from front to back).

"Rain Fall and Wet Becca Lawton

The earliest example of a 'near' blues is found in "Slaves Song of the Untied States," published in 1867. We probably will never be able to identify when the first 12 bar blues was played. Some scholars have stated that they have found traces in tribal Africa. Many believe the blues, having various chordal progressions (the 12 bar being the most popular) evolved in the Delta area of the Mississippi River. In 'slave songs' we find the song 'Rain Fall & Wet Becca Lawton.

It is not know who Becca Lawton was and there is no concrete knowledge of the meaning of the song. It has been said that there was some tradition of grass not growing over the grave of a sinner. It has also been said that if the Lord were pleased with those who had been 'in the wilderness' he would send rain. It was also said that the song always ended with a laugh. The song was also used as a rowing song and when used as such, during the words 'rack back holy' one rower reached over back and slaps the man behind him. Who in turn does the same, and so on. In this small example, if one does not take the repeat we find the 12 bar blues form."

Thanks for visiting pancocojams.

Visitor comments are welcome.

No comments:

Post a Comment