Wednesday, July 4, 2018

"Too-La-Loo", A Fourth Of July Song & Dance That Was Very Popular In The 1870s Among Black People In Charleston, South Carolina

Edited by Azizi Powell

This pancocojams post provides two article excerpts about "Too-La-Loo", a dance/song that was very popular among African Americans in Charleston, South Carolina in the 1870s on the Fourth of July.

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

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to the unknown composers of this song and thanks to all those who are quoted in this post.
Click for a pancocojams post on a similarly spelled term "toodala".

Excerpt #1:
From Too-la-Loo for the Fourth of July
Friday, June 29, 2018
..."Charlestonians first celebrated the Declaration of Independence in August 1776, just a few weeks after the text of the document was ratified by our Continental Congress.... Charleston’s first celebration of the Fourth of July took place in 1777, when the townsfolk commemorated the first anniversary of our nation’s birth with the ringing of church bells, the firing of seventy-six cannon, a military parade, and lots of feasting and toasting.[1]

From that first grand celebration in 1777 onward, our community has observed the anniversary of our Independence Day with public festivities every year, with four notable exceptions in 1861, 1862, 1863, and 1864. The long-brewing political tension between Unionists and advocates of “States’ Rights” reached a fever pitch in 1860, but Lowcountry residents still celebrated the Fourth of July that year.[2] Following South Carolina’s secession from the United States in December 1860 (our own sort of “declaration of independence”), and the commencement of a civil war in April 1861, however, South Carolina’s political leaders deemed the Fourth of July to be the enemy’s customary holiday, and it was not observed here. That same spirit prevailed for three more years, until the United States military occupied South Carolina and brought the war to an end in the spring of 1865.

Annual public celebrations of the Fourth of July resumed in Charleston and throughout South Carolina in the summer of 1865, but the spirit of these commemorations was quite different in the immediate post-war era. For more than a decade after the conclusion of our Civil War, the celebration of Independence Day was almost exclusively an African-American holiday in the Lowcountry of South Carolina. The formerly-enslaved population embraced the Fourth of July as a time to celebrate their delivery from the yoke of slavery and their new civil rights, while the majority of the white population (including Confederate veterans) stayed home and lamented the failure of secession.

In the late 1860s and throughout the 1870s, when celebrating the Fourth of July was almost exclusively a black phenomenon, the city’s annual celebrations commenced with a parade down Meeting Street, featuring brightly dressed citizens, politicians, brass bands, and uniformed members of the South Carolina National Guard, which, in the post-war era, was composed almost exclusively of formerly-enslaved black men. The parade ended at White Point Garden, where thousands of people would gather for a great picnic and a shady rest. The focal point of these events was a public reading of the Declaration of Independence, followed by political speeches delivered by the black Republican leaders of the day. After all the official business was over, the citizens would eat and drink, nap, frolic, and dance.

The white newspaper reporters who described these events in the late 1860s and 1870s were generally pretty vague and rather condescending about the music and dancing that accompanied the predominantly-black celebrations of the Fourth of July. We know, for example, that “Shoo Fly, Don’t Bother Me,” was the big hit of 1870, but most of the tunes and the dance steps of the era are long forgotten.[3] In a newspaper story about the 1876 celebration, however, a reporter for the Charleston News and Courier actually took the time to describe, in some detail, the appearance of a “new” dance performed by the black folks gathered at White Point Garden on the Fourth of July. This was the “Too-la-loo,” which the reporter described as “the favorite melody” of the day.

Despite calling it a “favorite melody,” this 1876 newspaper description doesn’t include the actual melody of the “Too-la-loo,” and I haven’t been able to locate a tune called “Too-la-loo” anywhere on the Internet.[4] Nevertheless, we can sort of reconstruct the rhythmic outline of the song by looking at clues from the 1876 newspaper description. First, the newspaper says the song and the dance were performed in “jig time.” Now, if you’re talking about seventeenth or eighteenth century European music, “jig time” means compound duple meter (two groups of three notes, like “one-two-three | four-five-six”), indicated by a six/eight time signature. In mid-nineteenth-century American pop music, however, the phrase “jig time” indicates a lightly-syncopated duple meter, like you hear in “O Susannah” or “Camptown Races.” This sort of “jig time” rhythm was popularized in blackface minstrel shows, in which white men put on black makeup and imitated (with a hearty dose of artistic license) the sounds and mannerisms of African Americans in the South.

This nineteenth-century American “jig time” was also used to accompany a new form of popular dancing known simply as the jig, or jigging. That’s right—folks were “gettin’ jiggy” in the Lowcountry more than 150 years ago. At that time, however, the term “jig” was applied to any sort of duple-meter-dance that included stomping or percussive footwork—an early form of what we might call tap dancing. A quick look at the lyrics of the “Too-la-loo,” as printed in the local newspaper in 1876, shows that the scansion of the words fits neatly into the simple duple meter of nineteenth-century “jig time.” Why am I telling you all this? Because I’m going to read aloud that 1876 newspaper story with the words to the “Too-la-loo” and I want you to understand the rhythmic clues imbedded in the text.

Charleston News and Courier, 5 July 1876:
“The Fourth in the City. . . As is usual on such occasions, the rustic damsels from the sea island cotton fields and their dusky swains indulged all day in their favorite pastime, called in the expressive vocabulary of the plantation, ‘gin around.’ The music and style on this occasion, however, was varied, a new song and dance called | Too-La-Loo | being the favorite melody. The process of this entertainment, which is performed in the open air under the rays of the sun, is about as follows: A ring is formed by about a dozen damsels and as many men. One of the ladies steps into the ring, and while she walks around the others sing and clap their hands to jig time. The refrain [of the Too-la-loo] is as follows:

Go hunt your lover, Too-la-loo!

Go find your lover, Too-la-loo!

Nice little lover, Too-la-loo!

Oh! I love Too-la-loo!

The lady then selects a gentleman, and the two get into the ring, when they perform a jig. While the gentleman dances, the crowd sing the following verse:

Gentleman motion, Too-la-loo!

Watch dat motion, Too-la-loo!

Bull frog motion, Too-la-loo!

Oh! I love Too-la-loo!

Then the lady performs and the crowd sings:

Lady motion, Too-la-loo!

Nice little motion, Too-la-loo!

Pigeon motion, Too-la-loo!

Oh, I love Too-la-loo!

Then the lady and gentleman have a pas-de-deux, during which the refrain is changed by an injunction:

Salute your lady, Too-la-loo!

Kiss dat lady, Too-la-loo!

Berry nice lady, Too-la-loo!

Oh I love Too-la-loo!

At this stage of the performance the gentleman gives the lady a turn, embraces her, smacks her lips and permits her to retire. He then goes through the same performance, selecting another ‘lover’ for the occasion

At a very moderate calculation, there were fifty rings performing this dance, in different portions of the Garden, and it was entered into with a zest which kept up the sport from 8 o’clock in the morning until after midnight. By sundown ten hours of the performance had worked up the participants into a moist state of patriotism which was equal to the (s)centennial emergency, and it was kept up by moonlight until long after midnight.”[5].

As you can see from this 1876 description, the “Too-la-loo” was what ethnomusicologists would call a “ring dance”; that is, a relatively simple dance performed by a large number of people arranged in a circle, all of whom execute the same steps, more or less, at the same time. The ring dance is an ancient cultural form found in many communities around the world, from Africa to Scandinavia to South America. If you’ve ever done the Hokey-Pokey, you’ve participated in this timeless tradition. The 1876 description of the “Too-la-loo” also mentions rhythmic clapping and the periodic pairing of two solo dancers in the center of the circle. Again, these are common characteristics of ring dances in different cultures, especially those in sub-Saharan Africa. In short, the “Too-la-loo” represents a fusion of ancient African traditions with the popular culture of mid-nineteenth-century America. To put it another way, the “Too-la-loo” is a forgotten part of our community’s Gullah-Geechee heritage.

The “Too-la-loo” was apparently a “new” phenomenon in the summer of 1876, and it was danced to celebrate the centennial anniversary of our nation’s Independence Day. Later that year, however, the political landscape of South Carolina changed radically, as the post-Civil War project known as Reconstruction came to a crashing end in our state. After twelve years of watching over South Carolina politics to ensure the maintenance of law and order, the Federal government pulled out and allowed the conservative Democratic party to resume control. The Republican party, then dominated by formerly-enslaved African Americans, was suddenly out of power, and out of favor. From 1877 onward, celebrations of the Fourth of July in the Charleston area became increasingly subdued. The black community continued to celebrate the Fourth, and the black National Guard troops continued to parade, but there was far less newspaper coverage, far less enthusiasm, and far less political rhetoric.

On the Fourth of July, 1877, one year after the debut of the “Too-la-loo,” the Charleston newspaper press wondered aloud if the crowds of black folks would even turn out for the holiday. “Whether there will be any civic ceremonies at the battery could not be learned,” said the News and Courier. “The impression was that there would be no oratory or reading of the Declaration of Independence as heretofore. The legion of cake, sweet beer and peanut vendors will be at the Battery, and doubtless a large number of men, women, youths and girls to take part in celebrating ‘Too-la-loo.’”[6] Here in 1877, just one year after its first appearance, the phrase “Too-la-loo” was being used as a sort of shorthand for the black community’s celebration of Independence Day. The day included much more than just a ring dance with kissing, of course, but to the white newspaper press, the black celebration was hereafter subsumed under the simple rubric of “the Too-la-loo.”

As conservative white politicians regained control of city and state government here in the late 1870s, they began enacting laws designed to restrict the movement and freedoms of the African-American population. One such law, ratified by Charleston’s City Council in the spring of 1881, specifically targeted the black community’s traditional celebrations of Independence Day and other holidays at White Point Garden. Without specific reference to any group or demographic, the text of the 1881 city ordinance made it illegal “for any persons, company or companies, organization or organizations, to use that portion of the South Battery known as White Point Garden, for public proceedings, celebrations or festivities of any kind whatsoever.”[7] In late June of 1881, the local newspaper noted there would be “no ‘Too-la-loo’ this year” in White Point Garden, in accordance with the new law. Instead, the mayor “made arrangements to allow the colored military, and street vendors the use of the Citadel Green on the Fourth of July.”[8]

Once the “Too-la-loo” had been exiled from White Point Garden, the city kept pushing it away. Citadel Green was renamed Marion Square in late 1882, and in the first of half of 1883 the city completely re-landscaped the site, transforming it into the sort of public park we see there today. In the wake of that project, the city denied permission for the black celebration of the Fourth of July at Marion Square. Instead, the “Too-la-loo” moved again to Hampstead Mall, at the intersection of Columbus and America Streets. Three years later, in the summer of 1886, city officials denied permission for the black community to celebrate Independence Day at Hampstead Mall. Instead, the “Too-la-loo” festivities moved to a new site west of the Ashley River called “Pleasure Grove,” where it flourished for a few more years.[9]

In the 1890s and the early years of the twentieth century, as racial tension continued to increase in South Carolina and throughout the “Jim Crow” South, the black community’s enthusiasm for celebrating the Fourth of July became less distinctive in the Charleston area. They continued to mark the holiday, to be sure, and even occupied White Point Garden on a few occasions, but the excitement and novelty of the “Too-la-loo” were gone. As the new century dawned, white Charlestonians became increasingly active in celebrating Independence Day—no doubt inspired by the economic boom that accompanied the opening of the Charleston Navy Base in 1901. In the summer of 1906, one local newspaper observed that “all [of] Charleston keeps the Fourth,” and offered this useful explanation:

“The celebration of the Fourth, which was a colored festival a few years ago, has now grown into larger significance, and the day is more observed by the white than colored people. No longer are the Too-la-loo celebrations given across the Ashley river bridge, no longer are the streets swept by a large throng of people of various color in remarkable dress and costume, with many gateways a place of rest and feasting, where the colored folks satisfied their appetite on a diet of fish, doughnuts and watermelon, and no longer does a military parade add to the boisterous behavior of the colored people.”[10]

A century later, in present-day Charleston, the Fourth of July is a universal holiday celebrated by everyone in more or less the same fashion. That’s a good thing, in many ways, but as a historian, I also think it’s a bit sad that we’ve lost some of the cultural quirks that made our community distinctive. The forgotten “Too-la-loo,” for example, was a song and dance phenomenon that became synonymous with the African-American community’s joyous celebration of Independence Day. I’m not suggesting that we need to resuscitate the “Too-la-loo” and add it to the schedule for next year’s festivities, but I think that sometimes it helps us appreciate what we have when we contemplate the past. We live in a vibrant, diverse community, with a fascinating history and a bright future. As we celebrate the 242nd anniversary of our nation’s Independence Day this year on the Fourth of July, I encourage you all to be safe and be merry. Too-la-loo!"
Here's a note from this article:
[4]"Note that the Charleston “Too-la-loo” of 1876 is unrelated to the chart-topping pop song of 1914, “Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral (Irish Lullaby),” written by James Royce Shannon and performed by Chauncey Olcott."
"The lyrics "Pigeon motion" probably refers to the once popular "Pigeon wing" (bird) dance.

Also, notice that at the end of the article excerpted above, it appears to me that the writer conflates the “too la loo” dance/song term with the vernacular goodbye phrase "toodle loo". "Toodle loo" is sometimes written as "tooda loo", but not "too-la-loo".

Here's an excerpt from an article about the term "toodle loo":
From What's the meaning of the phrase 'Toodle-oo'?
...What's the meaning of the phrase 'Toodle-oo'?
A colloquial version of 'goodbye', now rather archaic.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Toodle-oo'?
The British term 'toodle-oo' is a fellow-traveller of various terms associated with walking or departing in a carefree manner - toddle, tootle and their extended forms toddle-off and tootle-pip. Let's also not forget tootle-oo, which is a commonly heard alternative form of toodle-oo, and also its Irish variant tooraloo.


The first known record of toodle-oo came just a few years earlier, in a 1907 edition of Punch magazine, which was surely essential reading for the young Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, who was a contributing author to Punch at that date, and so may have written this himself:

"Toodle-oo, old sport." Mr. Punch turned round at the amazing words and gazed at his companion.

The mixing up of all of these terms may also have been influenced by 'toot-toot' and 'pip-pip', which were used in the early 1900s to denote the sounds of early car horns.


Tootle-oo is first known from a date that is near enough to that of toodle-oo as to make it difficult to be certain which came first. This variant is recorded in the Letters of T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia), in 1908. The other famous Lawrence, D.H. Lawrence, is coincidentally the first known user of the Irish form tooraloo, also recorded in a letter, this time from 1921, and published in 1968 in Phoenix II:

"So long! See you soon! Too-ra-loo!"

Before closing, I ought to mention another commonly repeated theory on the origin of 'toodle-oo' - that tootle-oo, and by extension toodle-oo and tooraloo, derived as a slang version of the French à tout à l'heure, meaning "I'll see you soon". There's no evidence at all to support this theory, which relies entirely on the co-incidence of sound. There is also some circumstantial evidence against a French origin. Whilst the English and French nobility were closely enough mingled in the Middle Ages for the English then to have taken on many French terms verbatim, by the turn of the 20th century France had long become an unpopular rival. Very few French idioms were granted the status of a popular English slang version in the early 1900s. Just off the top, I can't think of any. It is difficult to imagine a French term being adopted as slang by the hostile and predominantly non-French speaking English populace in 1907."...
All this to say, I wonder if the dance/song title & refrain "Too-La-Loo"and refrain had the same source and meaning as the goodbye word "toodle-lo". If so, we'll never know, but that meaning fits the words of the song really well.

I think the phrase "too la loo" in this song might be the source of the refrain "toodala" and the community dance gatherings that were named after that refrain in early-1940s [?] Texas.

Excerpt #2
From When the Fourth of July Was a Black Holiday

After the Civil War, African Americans in the South transformed Independence Day into a celebration of their newly won freedom.
..."Before the Civil War, white Americans from every corner of the country had annually marked the Fourth with feasts, parades, and copious quantities of alcohol. A European visitor observed that it was “almost the only holy-day kept in America.” Black Americans demonstrated considerably less enthusiasm. And those who did observe the holiday preferred—like Douglass—to do so on July 5 to better accentuate the difference between the high promises of the Fourth and the low realities of life for African Americans, while also avoiding confrontations with drunken white revelers.

Yet the tables had turned by July 4, 1865, at least in the South. Having lost a bloody four-year war to break free from the United States and defend the institution of slavery, Confederate sympathizers had little desire to celebrate the Fourth now that they were back in the Union and slavery was no more. “The white people,” wrote a young woman in Columbia, South Carolina, “shut themselves within doors.”

African Americans, meanwhile, embraced the Fourth like never before. From Washington, D.C., to Mobile, Alabama, they gathered together to watch fireworks and listen to orators recite the Emancipation Proclamation, the Declaration of Independence, and the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery when it was ratified in late 1865.


As we document in our new book, Denmark Vesey’s Garden: Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of the Confederacy, the most extraordinary festivities were held in Charleston, South Carolina, the majority-black city where Southern secession and the Civil War had begun. At the 1865 commemoration in Charleston, one speaker noted the altered meaning of the holiday for black Americans, who could at last “bask in the sunshine of liberty.”

The martial displays at this and subsequent celebrations underscored his point. Each year, thousands of black South Carolinians lined up early to watch African American militia companies march through city streets. Led by mounted officers, some of whom were ex-slaves, these black companies were often named for abolitionists and other black heroes. The 1876 Fourth of July parade included the Lincoln Rifle Guard, the Attucks Light Infantry, the Douglass Light Infantry, and the Garrison Light Infantry.

The Charleston parades typically ended at White Point Garden, a beautiful park at the base of the city peninsula, where enormous crowds bought peanuts, cakes, fried fish, and sassafras beer from vendors camped out in shady spots. “The whole colored population seemed to have turned out into the open air,” reported the Charleston Daily News on July 5, 1872, “and the gardens were so densely thronged that it was only with the utmost difficulty that locomotion was possible amid the booths, stalls and sightseers.”


At Charleston’s White Point Garden, freedwomen joined freedmen in annual performances of songs and dances, including one called the “Too-la-loo” that had subversive meaning. About two dozen participants—evenly split between men and women—formed a ring, into which one of the female dancers would move while the others sang and clapped. “Go hunt your lover, Too-la-loo!/Go find your lover, Too-la-loo!” they urged the lady in the center, who eventually chose a suitor to join her. The Too-la-loo allowed ex-slaves to poke fun at the elite courtship rituals of their former masters while also engaging in a raucous celebration of their own emancipation. In 1876, 50 groups danced the Too-la-loo from early morning until after midnight. The dance was so popular among the freed population in Charleston, in fact, that Too-la-loo eventually became shorthand for the Fourth of July there.


In the years that followed, as white Southerners began implementing segregationist laws and customs, they quashed official black celebrations of the Fourth. Beginning in 1881, Charleston city leaders pushed Too-la-loo to parks further and further away from downtown until finally, in 1886, they succeeded in removing it from the peninsula altogether. African American families and friends continued to meet in more informal gatherings in the city, but by the early 1900s both Charleston and Atlanta had forbidden vendors from setting up food stalls along the streets where black residents had long congregated on the Fourth. The African American, noted a Memphis newspaper, now marked the holiday by “going way off by himself,” celebrating behind closed doors in black churches and cultural institutions or with family.

As they removed black commemorations from public spaces, white Southerners deployed racist tropes to question black affection for the holiday. The Atlanta Constitution declared on July 4, 1901 that African Americans seemed “a little hazey” as to why they actually celebrated the Fourth: “One shiny black-faced old darky said he reckoned they celebrated ‘jest ‘cause hit was watermelon season!’ and to the average brother in black that is reason quite sufficient.”

Beneath the ridicule was something more serious: a concerted effort to delegitimize black claims to the holiday. African Americans did not observe the Fourth, white critics sneered, out of a sincere sense of patriotism or an accurate understanding of what the day meant. After all, they insisted, the Fourth of July did not apply to black Americans. It neither represented their freedom nor testified to their status as people worthy of equal citizenship.

In 1902, white Atlantans completed their commemorative coup with an elaborate Fourth of July program. A children’s chorus sang three “patriotic” songs: “Dixie,” “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and “America.” A parade of local dignitaries, among them both Confederate and Union veterans, wound through the city. The nation’s birthday was back where it belonged—in the hands of “true” Americans."

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