Monday, July 16, 2012

Fats Waller - Shortnin Bread (Sound File, Lyrics, Comments)

Edited by Azizi Powell

This post showcase Fats Waller's 1941 version of the song "Shortnin Bread".

The content of this post is presented for folkloric, entertainment, and aesthetic purposes. All copyrights remain with their owners.

My thanks to Fats' Waller, and the other vocalists and musicians featured in this sound file. My thanks also to the YouTube uploader of this sound file.

As referred to in the song with that title, "shortnin bread" is homemade bread that is mixed with bacon bits or bacon gravy. "Shortnin bread" was sometimes called 'cracklin' bread.

The Wikipedia article on the song "Shortnin Bread" describes it as "a fried batter bread, the ingredients of which include corn meal, flour, hot water, eggs, baking powder, milk and shortening."'_Bread

Fats Waller - Shortnin' Bread

Uploaded by TheBluesfan12 on Nov 17, 2010

(Fats Waller - 1941)

Shortnin bread.
Shortnin bread.
Shortnin bread.
Mama’s gonna make some shortnin bread.

Shortnin bread.
Shortnin bread.
Shortnin bread.
Mama’s gonna make some shortnin bread.

Verse #1
Get that wood out out of the shed.
Oh mercy! Lookee there.
Boys, mother’s gonna make some shortnin bread.

Verse #2
Two Senegambians* layin in bed.
One turned over to the op** and said
“Fine, fine, fine fine bread”
Spoken “Serve it. Serve it mama. Serve it!”

Verse #3
Hey delivery man, where have you been?
Oh mercy, it sure is a sin.
Mama mama don’t be fast.
Do not show your big fine……shortnin bread.


Instrumental portion

Yelled over instruments playing
Come on mama!
Open it up!
Open it!

Spoken at the end of the recording
What kind of bread is that?
It must be good bread.

[Transcription by Azizi Powell, July 16, 2012 from sound file]

*Shortnin bread = also known as 'shortening bread' is bread mixed with bacon bits or bacon gravy. "Shortnin bread" was sometimes called 'cracklin' bread.

**Senegambians = a general referent for "Black people"

*** turn over to the op = [a vernacular way of saying "turned over to the other", with "op" [pronounced "ohp" and meaning the word "other"]

(Thanks William for your comment below that emphasizes this point.)

In a number of ways Fats Waller's Shortnin Bread significantly diverges from the song as attributed to the early 20th century United States black faced minstrel and/or southern African American folk tradition. In contrast to those who adhere to the traditional words of the song, the African American jazz artist Waller pointly doesn't use the referent "mammy", a word which had come to be seen [at least by Black people] as disrespectful to Black women. Instead Fats Waller used the words "mama" and "mother". Furthermore, as another sign of respect for Black people, Waller uses the African geographical/cultural term "Senegambians" to refer to the people laying in the bed. Click for information about "Senegambia". In most versions of "Shortnin Bread" that line is usually now given as "two little children" or "two little boys" laying in bed. However, previously that same line was given as "two little chilluns" and even earlier what is now known as "the n word" was used instead of the words "black boys".

What isn't recognized about the traditional versions of "Shortnin Bread" is that the story is about Black children suffering from near starvation. That is why the boys are laying in bed "one just sick and the other 'most dead". That is why the doctor recommends that they be fed shortnin bread, and that is why the boys are revived after eating that bread.

With regard to that point, I believe that it's important to recognize that the large number of 19th century African American slave songs that mention chicken pies, or stealing the master's chicken, and shortenin bread and other such songs that mention food point back to the insuffient rations that those enslaved people had. And if, as some people indicate, the song "Shortnin Bread" was a post slavery composition (the first composition being collected in the early 20th)*, the nutrition levels for many Black people living in the South weren't that much better after slavery ended.

Rather than focus on children laying in bed near starvation, in verses #2 & #3 Fats Waller departs from the traditional "Shortnin Bread" storyline by adding sexual allusions. In both of those verses, the term "mama" is used in placed of "woman". In verse #2, the implication is that a man and a woman are laying in bed and the woman's buttocks referred to as bread. And verse #3 uses the then popular profanity avoidance technique of setting up a rhyme that ends with a taboo word but then saying a politically correct word. In that line the word "ass" is the obvious word that rhymes with the word "fast". The remainder of the song continues this sexual allusion with plausible deniability up until the very last lines of the song when Waller asks "What kind of bread is that? It must be very good bread".

I'm not sure how many people recognize how risque this Fats Waller song is. But, in my opinion, this type of risque song is far preferable to the just come right out and say it songs about sex of the early 21st century.

* The folk song "Shortnin Bread" was first collected from "Tennessee mountain whites" in 1912.

Click for a page on my cultural website for a text version of "shortnin' bread" and other songs/rhymes that mention food & beverages in Thomas W. Talley's 1922 book Negro Folk Songs: Wise & Otherwise

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  1. Replies
    1. Thanks William for your comment. I agree with you that "op" [pronounced "ohp"] was indeed a slang way of saying "other".

      I clarified that information in the above post along with a hat tip to you.

  2. Getting the wood out of the shed in verse 1 is also not mentioned in the other versions of the song you quote. Could there be a double entendre in this verse already?

    1. I hadn't thought of that possibility, DrK.

      But since you mentioned it, it's possible that getting wood out of the shed could have a sexual meaning..