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Tuesday, March 22, 2016

"Possum-La" Singing Game & Its 19th Century Source "Pas Ma La"

Edited by Azizi Powell

This post provides information about the 19th century African American secular song & dance "Pas Ma La". This post also provides information and two examples of the 20th century African American singing game entitled "Possum-la" whose title has its source in the 19th "Pas Ma La" song.

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

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to all the composers and collectors of these songs/dances and thanks to all those who are quoted in this post.

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THE 19th CENTURY "PAS MA LA" SONG & DANCE
From Out of Sight: The Rise of African American Popular Music, 1889-1895 By Lynn Abbott, Doug Seroff [Google book]
Page 444
“The Possum A La” or “Pas Ma La” is generally considered to have a “characteristic” African American folk dance. The title appears to be a phonetic corruption of a colloquial French term. Music historian Isaac Goldberg speculated in 1930 that it derived from “the French pas mele or mixed step. One 1895 sheet-music version is sub-titled “La Das [sic] Pas Malaise” (The Difficult Step).

“The Pas Ma La” may have been the dance pointed out by a correspondent from Louisville, Kentucky, in the April 1, 1893, edition of the Freeman, “Prof. J.T. Guillard, a dance master, lectured to young ladies and gentlemen about the dance called “Possum”. It is likely that Guillard was admonishing his pupils to refrain from indulging in this low- brow, up-from-under dance. Several months later, in 1894, Irving Jones introduced his sheet music of “Possumala Dance” which ragtime historians had cited for its “few measures of real ragtime scoring”...

Irving Jones’ “Possumala Dance” appears to have been the first of a run of sheet music renditions of “Pas Ma La”...

Page 434
In 1895 [African American composer Earnest] Hogan wrote a drama called “In Old Tennessee” in which he introduced his famous song “Pas Ma La” – being the first ragtime song published. [Hogan] then followed [that song] with the world famous hit “All Coons Look Alike To Me”.
-snip-
As an aside, late in his life Earnest Hogan wrote that he very much regretted composing the "All Coons Look Alike To Me" song. In that song "coons" was a referent for "Black people".

Click http://pancocojams.blogspot.com/2012/10/la-pas-ma-la-songs-dance.html for more information about the Pas Ma La song/dance. That post includes videos of musicians playing the Pas Ma La song.

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POSSUM-LA SINGING GAME
Excerpt #1:
From http://research.culturalequity.org/get-audio-detailed-recording.do?recordingId=23406
"Title :: Commentary by Bessie Jones on Possum-la
....

Setting :: Alan Lomax's apartment, 3rd Street...
New York City (New York), New York (United States)
....

Culture :: Southern U.S., African American, Sea Islands, Georgia
Date :: 6/26/1961

....
Recording Notes :
[Bessie] Jones describes Possum-la as a swing more than a balling the jack dance. "Possum La, I don't see nothing but the 'simmon seed," she sings.

Taken from text in "Step It Down": "In 1937 John. A and Alan Lomax recorded a version of this for the Library of Congress, sung by an African American girl from Alabama. The Lomaxes suggest that perhaps she was saying "pas-ma-la", a corruption of the French phrase referring to a dance step. Mrs. Jones's version, however, seems clearly focused on a fat possum up in a tree, happily gorging himself and littering the ground below with persimmon seeds." [Source: Step It Down]
-snip-
Citation for the "Step It Down" book is found in Excerpt #2 below.

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Excerpt #2:
From Step It Down: Games, Plays, Songs, and Stories from the Afro-American Heritage by Bess Hawes & Bessie Jones (Brown Thrasher Books Ser.) September 1, 1987
pages 127 [Page 128 is a musical notation of the "Possum-La" song that Bessie Jones shares in that book.]

[Pancocojams Editor: These notes and lyrics follow the quote that is given in Excerpt #1 above.]

"She [Bessie Jones does know a dance step by the same name [of possum la]. and describes it as being "about like the Kneebone Bend"*. "The "Possum-La" dancer shuffles and "cuts up" casually, or perhaps skips around in a circle, until the word "possum-la, when he gives a slight jump or "chug" to one side, landing with his knees deeply bent. The same action is taken on the word "seed". In the refrain, he makes five such jumps, swinging his body from side to side and jumping first at one angle and then at another.

FORM: Indefinite; may be danced alone or in a group. Solo or group singing with patting, heel tapping, or clapping. Even the song is fluid, this is my reconstruction of Mrs. Jones' highly varied melody.

Possum up-a that 'simmon tree,**
Possum up-a that 'simmon tree,
I don't see nothing but the 'simmon seed.

Possum-la, possum-la, possum-la,
I don't see nothing but the 'simmon seed.

I want you to catch that possum for me,
I want you to catch that possum for me,
I want you to catch that possum for me,
I don't see nothing but the 'simmon seed.

Possum-la, possum-la, possum-la,
I don't see nothing but the 'simmon seed.
-snip-
*Here's a description for the "Kneebone Bend" dance move that Bessie Jones gave in Step It Down as one of the movements that was done for the religious ring shout entitled "Daniel":
"KNEEBONE BEND- a slight sliding jump landing on both feet with the knees bent sharply; the impact should be timed to the word "bend". (the same step as the secular "Possum-La".)" page 144
-snip-
The McIntosh County Shouters performance of the ring shout "Move Daniel" at 19.19 - 21.13 of the video embedded below is similar if not the same as the performance described by Bessie Jones for the religious song "Daniel".
McIntosh County Shouters: Gullah-Geechee Ring Shout from Georgia



LibraryOfCongress, Uploaded on Apr 12, 2011

The McIntosh County Shouters perform Gullah-Geechee Ring Shout at a concert at the Library.

Speaker Biography: The McIntosh County Shouters is a ten-member Gullah-Geechee group that began performing professionally in 1980. They have educated and entertained audiences around the United States with the "ring shout," a compelling fusion of counterclockwise dance-like movement, call-and-response singing, and percussion consisting of hand claps and a stick beating the rhythm on a wooden floor. African in its origins, the ring shout affirms oneness with the Spirit and ancestors as well as community cohesiveness. The ring shout was first described in detail during the Civil War by outside observers in coastal regions of South Carolina and Georgia. Its practice continued well into the 20th Century, even as its influence was resounding in later forms like spiritual, jubilee, gospel and jazz. By the late 20th century, the ring shout itself was presumed to have died out until its rediscovery in McIntosh County in 1980; thus, the beginning of the McIntosh County Shouters.
-snip-
The lyrics for The McIntosh County Shouters' version of "Move Daniel" can be found at http://www.civilwarheritagetrails.org/civil-war-music/move-daniel.html. Those lyrics don't include the "kneebone bend" verse that is included in the ring shout "Daniel" that Bessie Jones shared in Step It Down. However, otherwise, the performance style demonstrated by The McIntosh County Shouters' for that song appears to me to be very similar if not the same as the performance style described by Bessie Jones.
-snip-
**Possum up that 'simmon tree" is a floating line from a secular 19th century African American song with that title (also given as "Possum Up The Gum Tree". That line and verse/s from that song which begin the with that line are floating verses that can be found in a number of African American folk songs.

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