Sunday, February 26, 2017

What "Breakdowns" Mean In The Context Of 19th Century/ Early 20th Century American Dance Music

Edited by Azizi Powell

This pancocojams post provides a compilation of online excerpts about the meaning of the term "breakdowns" in reference to 19th century music and early 20th century music.

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

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to all those who are quoted in this post.
Click for the related pancocojams post: Information About Two Very Old (African American Originated) Dance Forms: "The Breakdown" & "The Breakaway".

These excerpts are given in no particular order and are numbered for referencing purposes only.

Excerpt #1
What does "breakdown" mean?
1. Gconklin, 9/17/96
"In article <51lleo$> (Nancy K. Martin) writes:
“I am wondering if any of you country boys can explain to me why a breakdown is called a breakdown (or, for that matter, what a breakdown is)? It is one of those terms, like hoedown, that intrigues me."....
-end of quote-

Okay, I'll be the first country boy to venture out on your limb --actually, out on your twig. I don't recall ever hearing a definition of "breakdown" in my native Blue Ridge. My buddy John Cephas, country bluesman from Caroline County, Virginia, says it comes from house dances, that some dancing became so energetic that the puncheon floors of cabins were literally broken down by the dancers. John talked about this with three other Piedmont bluesmen (John Jackson, Archie Edwards, John Dee Holeman) when we were filming the documentary, "Blues House Party," in the early 80s and they all knew about it. (But I'm not sure the discussion is in the video; it may have been cut.) Their acoustic branch of the oldest blues draws upon the old black string bands (fiddle, banjo, rhythm groups) for repetoire, performance settings and many terms, so I suspect that you have here a Tidewater term that reveals some of the oldest roots of the American musical tree." Joe Wilson

2. Paul M. Gifford, 9/18/96
"In traditional Canadian terminology (and in areas in the U.S. under Canadian cultural influence, like the U.P. and Thumb of Michigan), "breakdown" is a fast tune (reel) used for the third change of a square dance. The old Michigan (and New York State, I believe) name for the third change was "jig." How it
came to be called those terms, I don't know, but I assume from minstrel shows.

Quadrilles and cotillions seem to have been introduced in the 1840s, and minstrel tunes were used for the (then) five changes, and so maybe the breakdown term was introduced then. Joe's probably describing the original slave term."

3. Yatesian, 9/23/96
"According to the OED (never thought I'd be looking up "breakdown" in the OED), a breakdown is: "A riotous dance, with which balls are often terminated in the country. A dance in the peculiar style of the negroes." It goes on to say the term was coined in the U.S. but was often used humorously in England.
Also, it mentions that a breakdown frequently followed the quadrilles. But I wonder whether, once the term entered common usage, a specific musical form evolved, like the chord change every measure. Anyone?"

4. Kerry Blech, 9/23/96
"I can't answer this question even yet, but I can quote an intersting monologue that is somewhat relevant. This appeared in the liner notes to Folk Music in America Volume 3 (LBC 3) "Dance Music: Breakdowns & Waltzes." This was part of a 15 volume LP issue by the Library of Congress for the Bicentennial, edited by Richard K. Spottswood. The booklet for this record was written by John H. Cowley, and he wrote, in part:
"... The examples included here are mainly from commercial recordings of the 1920s and 1930s and represent only a tiny fraction of European national music which managed to survive and flourish in this country,
even while often incorporating musical elements used here.

Though some of the music heard here is from minority cultures, the feeling and tempos are those associated with most country dancing in the south, both east and west. Designation of the fast pieces as "breakdowns" would be somewhat arbitrary. Uptempo dance tunes have been given many names -- rag, reel, blues, and special are only a few. Unlike the waltz, no special dance or dances were universally designated for breakdowns. Dancing varied according to regional, community, and even individual tastes.

The waltz, of 18th-century German origin, had spread over Europe and the United States by the early 19th century. Because it is strictly a dance for couples it was the subject of frequently bitter controversies. The waltz was almost universally popular until the 1920s, although it was never an important part of black
dancing. Black and black-inspired dances which have become dominant in this century have made the waltz obsolete except in isolated areas. It remains fashionable, for example, among the Acadian French in Louisiana and in the Mexican and Mexican-influenced dancing in the southwest. The vitality of the selections on this record should prove that the waltz is anything but a genteel relic...."

5. Paul M. Gifford, 9/23/96
"I'm not sure what you mean, but I wonder what the OED means by "following the quadrilles." As I mentioned earlier, Canadian terminology defines "breakdown" as the third and final change of a square dance (quadrille). Thus the OED definition is close. I gather that the term "change" is not generally
known around the country, but here in Michigan (and also Canada and no doubt elsewhere), it is a call; the first change is an easy one, often to 6/8; the second change a bit more complicated; and the third change faster and more complicated. The partners stand and pause for a bit between each change. I'm pretty sure these derive from the cotillions introduced in the 1840s, with five changes; then about 1855-1860, they began to be called quadrilles (but in fact seem to be the same as cotillions). I'm not sure when the five changes began to be reduced to three, but probably by 1880-1890.

I once knew a Scottish immigrant who played something called the "Banjo Breakdown," so the term obviously went over there and seems to be associated with the minstrel stage."

Excerpt #2
From What's a breakdown?
1. From: Desert Dancer
Date: 09 Oct 08 - 12:27 PM

"Here are two good responses for the same questions from The Session:

[Fiddle Tunes of the Old Frontier: The Henry Reed Collection]
1. Breakdown: instrumental tunes in duple meter (2/4 or 4/4) at a quick dance speed. This general term in the American South is roughly equivalent to the term "reel" elsewhere in the English-speaking world. But it does not imply a particular type of dance; a "breakdown" tune may be used for square dances, longways dances, or other group dances, as well as for solo fancy dancing.

Reels: a class of dance tunes in duple meter (2/4 or 4/4 time), played at a fast tempo. The reel as a dance was originally a "longways" dance with couples forming facing lines, but the reel as a tune class is used for all sorts of group dances. In the American South the reel class has expanded into the large and generic breakdown class of dance tunes.
# Posted on October 19th 2007 by wyogal

2)In American Old Time fiddling the term "Breakdown" is used mostly in the Southern mountainous regions of the U.S ranging from the Appalachian chain westward into the Ozarks - with some spill over into the bordering areas.

In these regions the term "Breakdown" means an up-tempo dance tune that's played mostly by bowing two adjacent strings simultaneously while noting one or the other of'em. The two adjacent string pairs that are bowed will change as the tune's played.

This technique's especially effective when the fiddle's "cross-tuned" usually to ADAE for the key of D or AEAE for the key of A. The effective is to create a louder sound and to impart greater energy to the dancers - who are usually clogging.

In these regions a tune that's played by using mostly single note sequences to impart the melody and rhythm is often called a "Hornpipe" - without regard the how the term's used outside these regions - dotted eighth rhythm.

Southern OT fiddlers who prefer to render a tune using mostly single notes sequences are sometimes referred to as "Hornpipe Fiddlers". This usually a derisive term unless the target's especially good at it. Probably Cyril Stinnett from Missouri was one of our best - if not the best - American "hornpipe fiddler".

Most OT fiddle tunes combine a bit of both styles of playing. Any of these might be called a Breakdown, or sometimes a Reel, or sometimes even a hornpipes, though usually they just have a name that doesn't include any of these terms. We don't really have a rule book... ;-)

In Texas and points West the term "Breakdown" has been replaced by the term "Hoedown". I don't know the origin of the newer term. In Texas - and many of the Prairie states" - it's too hot to clog so the dance of choice there is the "Two step" that wants a slower tempo than that used for clogging. As dancing to live fiddling as has died off over the years, Texas fiddlers have used the slower tempo of the Hoedown as an opportunity to improvise on the older Breakdown tunes - creating the newer "Texas Style" of contest fiddling.

# Posted on October 19th 2007 by OTJunky

and, from the Online Etymology Dictionary under the entry for "break dancing":
breakdown "a riotous dance, in the style of the negroes" is recorded from 1864.

The Slang Dictionary: Or, the Vulgar Words, Street Phrases, and ... (Google Books Result) by John Camden Hotten - 1869
"BREAK-DOWN, a noisy dance, and violent enough to break the floor down ; a jovial , social gathering, a FLARE up; in Ireland, a wedding"

~ Becky in Tucson
Googling in the morning"

Excerpt #3
flange5st - Posted - 12/31/2008
"..........a" breakdown" is a tune that's designed to let the individual, whether a dancer or musician, interpret the song in their own style.......when you play for a square dance, some call it a quadrille, it is danced a certain way by the dance "caller" and at a certain tempo also chosen and maintained by the caller.......when you do a breakdown, you just " break down", ( as we say around this section of the woods), and give it your all......I've played Sally Goodin' for a dance and at the end just rip into it and seen folks dance like a free for all.......some of the best dancing and picking you'll get to see and hear are during these times..IMHO.........a "hoedown" is a dance party because you have gathered to party and not to you put you hoe down.......hoe, the thing you dig in the ground with.. and over time the term has been used to discribe a happy " up-medium" timed melody.......and a "special" is a melody designed for a certain musician and their instrument that shows off it's own character..........this is the way I understand these terms and I'm sure that there are alot more learned folk's who can give a better definition/ discription than me, too.............good thread....peace"

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  1. O.E.D.:
    ‘A riotous dance, with which balls are often terminated in the country. A dance in the peculiar style of the negroes.’ Bartlett Dict. Americanisms (U.S.; but frequently humorously in English.)

    a1864 New Eng. Tales Don't clear out when the quadrilles are over, for we are going to have a break~down to wind up with.

    Also, in 'The Slang Dictionary,or, The Vulgar Words, Street phrases, and "Fast" expressions of high and low society,' John Camden Gotten, (1864, UK):
    "BREAK-DOWN, a noisy dance, and violent enough to break the floor down; a jovial, social gathering, a FLARE-UP; in Ireland, a wedding - (Qy, American?)"

    Even earlier, Washington Irving in 'Salmagundi'(published 1807 but apparently written in 1798) refers to a precursor of break-down,'hoe-down', a dance associated with black farmworkers:
    "[1807 ... As to dancing, no Long-Island negro could shuffle you ‘double trouble’, or ‘hoe corn and dig potatoes’ more scientifically.]"

    This sounds as if 'hoe-down' came first, and was an African-American dance based on the actions of someone hoeing corn and digging potatoes. After that name became established, 'hoe-down' gave rise to 'break-down', a riotous dance often performed at the end of a ball. Whether the 'break' part refers to breaking the floor or simply the 'break up' of the company at a ball's end, we may never know.

    1. Thanks for that info, slam2011.

      That the term "hoe-down" may have come from an African american dance imitating hoeing corn & digging potatoes sound feasible, but then again so do other some theories about that term..

      Washington Irving's 1798 comment "As to dancing, no Long-Island negro could shuffle you ‘double trouble’, or ‘hoe corn and dig potatoes’ more scientifically.]", doesn't it sound like "double trouble" and "hoe corn and dig potatoes" were both names of dances or dance movements? And/or does "shuffle double trouble" mean "doing a shuffle movement in double time?"

      There's an example in Thomas W. Talley's 1922 collection Negro Folk Rhyme called "Gooseberry Wine" that includes the line "git over double trouble":

      "Oh walk chalk, Ginger Blue!
      Git over double trouble.
      You needn' min' de wedder
      So d win' don't blow you double."
      Talley, "Negro Folk Rhymes"

      Somewhat off topic, here's what I wrote in April 2005 about that verse on the Mudcat folk music forum
      "Walk the chalk" might be a reference to "walking the chalk line" which I read in a book on Black dance {title?] referred to the practice of enslaved African American dancing or walking in a straight line with a 'glass' of water on their head..The one who didn't spill any or who spilled the least was the 'winner'.

      If I remember correctly, "walking the chalk line" was a precusor to the doing the cakewalk.

      "Getting over double trouble" is a floating phrase that can be found in a number of folk rhymes. I interprete this verse as an exhortation from one Black person to another {or to Black people in general} to be extra careful. Regardless of the weather {what ever comes their way}..they must walk a chalk line {walk as carefully as they would walk doing the chalk line dance}."

      IMO, "Ginger Blue" is probably a referent for a gingered colored Black person. This referent is similar to or the same as what some Black people still call a "Red bone" i.e. a Black person with reddish hues to his or her skin color."

  2. I checked OED for "double trouble", and they define it as:
    "double-trouble n. (U.S.) a step of a rustic dance originating among the black people of the plantations.". But then they give the Washington Irving quote again.

    I looked in The Times (London), and the phrase doesn't appear there before the 1830s. Also it doesn't refer to a dance, it's just an expression that means 'extra trouble'. So I think it was originally an Americanism that spread over here; but whether the phrase, like the dance, began among plantation workers is likely to remain speculation.

  3. OED also has a related word 'gingerly', meaning:
    "a. Of persons and their movements: Dainty, delicate (obs.).

    b. Of manner of walking or handling: Extremely cautious or wary; showing fear of making a noise, hurting oneself, or injuring what is touched or trodden upon."

    That style of delicate movement would fit with the Chalk Walk?

    1. Good find! I'm glad to learn that "double trouble" was both a dance step and an expression meaning "extra trouble".

      Regarding your comment about "gingerly", I don't think those definitions fit what I've read about how Black people carefully navigated the chalk walk. Being careful isn't the same thing as being fearful, cautious, or wary. I also don't think "delicate movements" fit.

      Instead, I think that Black people (and/or others oppressed people) carefully "walking the chalk line" meant being attentive and always aware of one's situation and circumstances which were likely to be either dangerous or potentially dangerous.

      Also, I'm not convinced that that definition for "gingerly" has anything to do with the nickname or referent "Ginger Blue". Instead, my guess is that the "Ginger Blue" in that rhyme/song refers to a Black person who has a reddish complexion. Another term that has been used in the USA (if not elsewhere) for Black people with those complexions is "Redbones".

      But unlike the negative connotation that "ginger" often seems to have in the UK (from my reading anyway), I don't think that Black people with reddish hues to their skin color were considered or are considered negatively by other Black people because of their skin color.

    2. Here's a pancocojams post about "Redbones" and other color referents used by/for Black Americans: What "Redbone", "Yellowbone", and "Browning" Mean

    3. Hopefully, this discussion thread will include comments about the 19th century music term "breakdowns".

      But before I leave the discussion about the term/nickname "Ginger Blue", I wanted to clarify that I'm not aware of "Ginger Blue" being a referent for Black people with reddish hues apart from that rhyme/song in Thomas Talley's Negro Folk Rhyme book.

      In contrast, the nickname "Red" and the term "redbone" was relatively common among Black Americans (USA) in the 20th century and I think is still relatively common today.

    4. My usual historical source, The Times (London), is a flop as far as 'break-down' is concerned. There are no references to the dance, and very few even to the word used to describe a mechanical failure, at least in the early 19th c. Basically, I think 'breakdown' in both senses was originally an Americanism.

      So I tried the NYT, but I can't access the articles without paying :(.

      I can check the index though, and in 1855 there's an advert for a book or publication of some which seems to be using 'breakdown' as a dance name, already firmly associated with Virginia. In part the ad goes '...With its pipe of Old Virginny, With the echo of the Breakdown, With its smack of Bourbon whisky...'. I'm pretty sure, even without reading the full text, that this is meant to be a listing of 'typical' Southern, if not Virginian, items. Banjos are mentioned too.

    5. Thanks for sharing that research slam2011.

      It's interesting to wonder if people in the future might have as much difficulty trying to reconstruct the meaning of contemporary music and dance forms that are relatively well known nowadays - say for instance Hip Hop - as the difficulty that we are having trying to figure out what 19th century (or earlier) "Breakdowns" were.

    6. Nice to think of future historians sternly debating the development of early 21st c. dance. :)

      We struggle for lack of recorded evidence and documentation; their problem will be sifting through a planetsworth of selfies.

    7. "their problem will be sifting through a planetsworth of selfies."

      I suppose that if written material that mentions "selfies" survives, so will definitions and examples of "selfies".

      However, written material about other things and about other people throughout the world might not survive, or the information that does survive might be incomplete and/or (therefore) erroneous and/or might be biased.

      But anyway this blog is for people now and for people in the immediate future- with "immediate" meaning 100 years or so give or take a few decades ;0)