Thursday, September 20, 2012

What "John Crow" Means In Jamaica

Edited by Azizi Powell

[Revised January 29, 2016]

This is Part I of a three part pancocojams series on the Jamaican character/symbol "John Crow". This post provides information about the meaning of "John Crow".

UPDATE January 29, 2016
This post isn't meant to provide complete information about the character/symbol John Crow (also known as Jancro).

Click for the pancocojams post entitled "More Information About What John Crow (Jancrow) Means In Jamaica". An additional post that showcases three Jamaican folktales that include John Crow will also be published ASAP. Those links will be included in this post.

End of Update January 29, 2016. Read Update March 15, 2016 below.

Part II of this series features two Jamaican mento songs that mention "John crow". Click for that post.

Part III of this series features the Jimmy Cliff song "John Crow".
Click for that post.

Also, click for a 2014 pancocojams post on the Ska song "John Crow Skank.

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

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to all those who are quoted in this post.

From "The John Crow - Graceful or Disgraceful Bird"
"John Crow, the common Jamaican vulture, was once widely known as a carrion crow or turkey vulture. In towns and throughout the countryside, these birds can be seen tearing at carcasses in the streets. Sometimes they circle in the sky or simply perch in trees or on housetops, often with outspread wings.

Many stories abound as to how the name John Crow came about...
[Frederic G. Cassidy and R.B. Lapage indicate that] the first record of the bird being called John Crow was 1826. In a later book Dictionary of Jamaican English by Mr. Cassidy and R.B. Lapage it is stated that the origin of the name John Crow may be linked to Jim Crow, the American term. There is however no evidence to show that they are linked. Whatever the story behind the name John Crow, it is deeply embedded in Jamaican folk life.

The John Crow is a bird of great symbolic importance. In the Jamaican setting it is associated with ugliness, blackness, evil and disgrace. In abusive arguments people will call each other names such as "dirty John Crow, black John Crow or heng man John Crow". The John Crow is also an omen of death. It is believed that if the John Crow perches on a housetop, someone inside will die. It is also believed that if a John Crow appears in an individual's dream, it signifies death or some other form of destruction in the person's family.

The name John Crow appears in a few Jamaican proverbs. "Every John Crow tink him pickney white". This means that everyone thinks that his own children or his possessions are the best in the world. "John Crow seh him a dandy man but same time him hab so-so feather". Here the John Crow is a symbol of someone who is being very vain and pretentious. "John Crow a roast plantain fi yuh" depicting someone who is very meager and emaciated who may soon die. "If yuh fly wid John Crow yuh wi nyam dead meat" expresses the idea that a person is capable of doing the things that are done in the company that he or she keeps. Two popular folksongs also exist which speak about the John Crow. They are "Peel head John Crow" and "John Crow Seh".

Whatever the John Crow represents or however the name originated, it is one of the most significant birds underlining the culture."

Source: Jamaica: The Fairest Isle by Phillip Sherlock and Barbara Preston (1992) Plants, Spirits and the Meaning of John in Jamaica: Article Written in Jamaica Journal by John Rashford (May 1984)"
The Jamaican "John Crow" doesn't have the same meanings in Jamaica that the similarly named "jim crow" does in the United States.

"Jump Jim Crow is a song and dance from 1828 that was performed in blackface by white comedian Thomas Dartmouth (T.D.) "Daddy" Rice."
. Thus the earliest documentation of "John Crow" predates "jim crow" by two years and the cultural meanings of these two symbols are quite different. In the USA, "jim crow" is a term used to describe a system of racial segregation that discriminated against Black people.

I'm not sure which came first- the use of the name "Jim" for the crow or the name "John" for the vulture. ("Jim" is a nickname for "James" and not "John", although a number of people aren't aware of that.)

To add to these names, I think that the nickname "jimmy" that is used for the crowbar tool is also related to the "Jim Crow" name, although I don't know which came first. As to why the tool is called a crowbar, here's a comment from response by d_r_siva "Why is a crow bar called a crow bar? where did the name originate?"

answer posted by Nathan, 2008
"Crowbar: The association of the crowbar, that useful tool, with the bird is one of mere appearance. The grappling, wedge-shaped beak at one end reminded people of a crow's foot. This, as it were, got stuck in the tool for all time.

The Book of Beginnings"
Nathan or that source book he quoted forgot to mention that the crowbar tool is black in color, as is the crow.

From Extracts from the 'Jamaica Journal' - "Plants, Spirits and the meaning of 'John' in Jamaica ; Published: Sunday | May 17, 2009
John Rashford, Contributor
“The word 'John' appears 33 times in the Dictionary of Jamaican English as a generic term in the compound common names of people, birds, plants and other objects. This paper will show that objects named 'John' are often associated in Jamaica with the world of spirits.

I will focus on the vine Abrus precatorious, which Jamaicans call John Crow Bead, and it links - by virtue of John as a generic term - to the Christmas dancing in Jamaica called John Canoe (also spelled Jonkonnu) and to the vulture called John Crow (Cathartes aura). This paper suggests that the dance, the bird and the plant all have the name John because of their relationship to the world of spirits and spirit possession.

Practice of obeah

It shows that John Canoe, who is the chief dancer of a troupe of dancers, is the spirit person or obeahman (variously described as a witch doctor, magician, jumbie-man or sorcerer) and both the John Crow and the John Crow Bead are associated with death and with materials used in the practice of obeah.

In the Caribbean, the common names for Abrus precatorious point to its association with the spirit world and suggests that John as one of the generic terms in its compound common names is an expression of this association. The link is made by the fact that in Jamaica and elsewhere in the Caribbean, the plant is known as Jumbie Bead, and in some places, as, for example, the Virgin Islands, it is also called Devil Bead (Williams (jumbi, jumby, jumbee, jumbay, jamby) or zombie are just different terms for spirits. These terms are more widely used in the eastern Caribbean than in Jamaica (Cassidy 1971, Beckwith 1929).

In Jamaica, spirits are most frequently identified as ‘duppies’. They are largely of human origin, being spirits of the dead. Usually considered more harmful than good, they interact with the living and in dong so directly affect the routine of daily life. They love the night, especially when perfumed by the aromatic basil (Ocimum basilicum L.) and the strong sweet smell of the night blooming jasmine (Cestrum nocturnum). They “feed upon bamboo root, ‘fig’ leaves and the gourd-like fruit of a vine called ‘duppy pumpkin'” (Beckwith 1929 p 89) and live at the root of cotton trees (Ceiba pentandra), in burial grounds and old abandoned buildings, and in dark places such as caves, mangrove swamps, bamboo thickets and forests"...
I added italics to highlight the term "John Crow beads", and the association of John Crow (the vulture) with dancing and with the spirit world.

UPDATE: January 29, 2014
These connections of John Crow with the spirit world and jumbie may explain the traditional association of John Crow with death and with the color black. However, death wasn't always considered something negative in traditional West African societies, and the color "black" wasn't always and/or wasn't only associated with death. For those reasons, it's possible that the very negative image of John Crow is an old development in Jamaican culture (which is heavily influenced by West African cultures). But John Crow may have originally or early on had a deeper meaning which wasn't negative.

UPDATE March 15, 2016
With regard to my comment "John Crow may have originally or early on had a deeper meaning which wasn't negative", here's information about the meaning of the "vulture" in Ashanti (Asanti, Asante) culture in Ghana, West Africa:
From Symbolizing the Past: Reading Sankofa, Daughters of the Dust, & Eve's Bayou by Sandra M. Grayson (University Press of America, 2000), Page 36
"Among the Akan, the scarab and the vulture symbolize self-begetting, self-creation, and self-birth. An Akan maxim says of Odomankoma [the infinite, the interminable, absolute being], ‘The animal that symbolizes Odomankoma who created the world is the vulture.’ “Odomankoma a oboadee ne kyeneboa ne opete. (Meyerowitz . The Divine Kingship in Ghana and Ancient Egypt. See also Danquan, The Akan Doctrine of God"
Notes from that book:
. After Nunu was killed later in the film [Haile Geima’s Sankofa] no one could find her body. Shola says that the people believed that Nunu did not die; rather that a buzzard swopped down and took her back to Africa.
7. Opete is the Akan word for vulture
Here's information about Nunu in the film Sankofa:
"Nunu African-born field hand who went about her day-to-day life with Africa still living in her heart and was characterized as a “strong motherly slave with a rebel mindset”

Here's another quote about the symbolism of the vulture in African culture, although no nation or ethnic group is mentioned:
"Tap Roots: The Early History of Tap Dancing
By Mark Knowles
Anthropologist Melvin Herkovits suggests that the name of the John Canoe dance is derived from the Ashanti people of Africa and is a reference for the yankoro or buzzard. In the United States the climax of the John Canoe included a buck dance known as the buzzard lope" [page 32].
"The Ashanti is the major indigenous tribe of the Akans in Ghana" []"
I haven't found any more information yet about the word "yankoro".

It's probable that the enslaved Africans in Jamaica and in the United States who were from the Asanti (Ashanti/Akan) people substituted the crow (John Crow) for the vulture. And, eventually, the positive meanings of the vulture were changed to the negative associations.
Hat tip to slam2011 for her March 14, 2016 comment below that motivated me to do more research on the symbolism of "John Crow and the vulture.

End of March 15, 2016 update.

*Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park is a national park in Jamaica

* Another "John Crow" proverb:
"Bird seed don't make John Crow sing." For any reader who is not Jamaican, a John Crow is the same thing as a vulture. What it simply means is that no matter how much bird seed you feed to the John Crow, it will never sing like a bird simply because it cannot."
From Prosperity requires new thinking" by Dennis Chung, March 08, 2013

*Jamaican folk song "John crow seh im naah wok pan sunday".
A Dancehall Reggae version of that song was recorded by Tenor Saw ("No Work On Ah Sunday").

*John Crow Skank [dance, records, and rhythm]
Click for a pancocojams post about this topic.

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Viewer comments are welcome.


  1. I remember the lovely song 'Long Time Boy' had a reference to John Crow in the chorus. The Nadia Cattouse version is at:

    Nothing whatever to do with Rice's Jim Crow I think.

    1. Greetings, slam2011!

      Here's the hyperlink to that video of actress, singer, songwriter Nadia Cattouse (from British Honduras (now Belize): actress who is best known for her acting roles in many British television programs:

    2. Nadia Cattous singing `Longtime Boy` is a treasure in my memory. Her haunting and sweet voice takes me back to some beautiful years of my younger self. She and the song are timeless. Elaine Milner from UK.

    3. Thanks Elaine Milner for your comment.

      I'm not familiar with Nadia Cattous but found a number of YouTube videos of her singing "Long Time Boy". Here's one of those videos whose summary includes biographical information about that singer:

  2. Lyrics for one of two versions of the children's game "Little Sally Water" that is part of a collection of Jamaican children's folk games published in 1922 mentions doing "the John Crow step". Martha Warren Beckwith, collector, Jamaican Folk Games, , [location] "Bethleham" #66, page 78.

    Here's that example:
    Little Sally Water, sprinkle in the saucer,

    Rise, Sally, rise and wipe your eyes,

    Turn to the east, Sally, turn to the west,

    Turn to the very one you love the best.

    Then you step them John-crow step,

    Jump up on the wall,

    Then you broaden, make them see you,

    Then you laugh "Ha ! ha ! ha !"

    You turn to the very one you love the best,

    Then you hug her up, then you kiss her up,

    Put her in a young girl's style.

    Johnny was a-rogue-in' Johnny was a-rogue-in',

    Johnny was a-rogue-in' by from morning,

    Johnny was a-rogue-in', Johnny was a-rogue-in,

    Johhny was a-rogue-in' man

    -end of quote-
    No explanation is given about how this movement was done, but presumably the John Crow step meant moving like a turkey vulture, perhaps with your arms outstretched.

    Those who have actually seen a turkey vulture would have a better idea than me how something called a "John Crow step" could have been done.

    I haven't found any other mention of a John Crow step.

    Have you ever heard about the John Crow step in relation to folk games or dancing? If so, please share that information. Thanks.

  3. Azizi, a book on dance (link below) suggests the John Canoe dance might take its name from a West African word 'yankoro', meaning 'buzzard'. It doesn't say which language 'yankoro' comes from, unfortunately, and I haven't found it in the online Twi Dictionary.

    But I'd guess that if 'yankoro' means 'buzzard' might have been used by Africans to refer to a similar bird, the Jamaican vulture, and whites might mishear it as 'john-crow'. Since whites did the writing-down, they would spell it as they heard it.

    1. Hello, slam2011

      For some reason, the link you gave resulted in the message "does not match any document". That happens a lot with links to google books which is why I usually just put the title, author, page numbers and the identifier "google books" in my posts.

      Was this the book that you found?
      "The Creation of Jazz: Music, Race, and Culture in Urban ...

      Burton W. Peretti - 1994 - ‎Music
      Possession religion took hold in these regions, as did such African-American rites as ... derived perhaps from the West African yankoro, or buzzard festival."...
      That quote is found on page 12 of that book.

      I also found this entry by searching for "West African word yankoro":
      Tap Roots: The Early History of Tap Dancing
      By Mark Knowles
      Anthropologist Melvin Herkovits suggests that the name of the John Canoe dance is derived from the Ashanti people of Africa and is a reference for the yankoro or buzzard. In the United States the climax of the John Canoe included a buck dance known as the buzzard lope" [page 32].
      "The Ashanti is the major indigenous tribe of the Akans in Ghana" []"
      Here's a link to a pancocojams post on the buzzard lope:

      I'll add that above quote about the Asanti people to that post if it's not already included.

      Thanks again!!

    2. I added an update to this post that includes more information about the meaning of the vulture in Asanti (Ashanti) culture.

    3. Yes, 'Tap Roots' was the book I meant. Next time I'll just list title and author since my links don't work :(

      I see M J Herkovits suggested the yankoro/john-crow etymology way back in 1948! But OED seem unaware, or at least, haven't addressed the suggestion. If I knew which West African language 'yankoro' comes from, I'd write and ask why not.

      Maybe I'll submit the suggestion anyway? and let them chase up the language of origin - they have a better chance of finding it than me.

    4. It would be great if OED researchers could suss out which West African language the word "yankoro" comes from. Any information would be very much appreciated.

      Here's another quote I found regarding positive symbolism for the vulture in West Africa -in
      this case, the language is Yoruba and the nation is Nigeria:
      "Symbolizing the Past: Reading Sankofa, Daughters of the Dust, & Eve's Bayou" by Sandra M. Grayson
      Page 23
      ..."In Ifa, the vulture [Igun] is associated with prospects of living to an old age and Igun plays a significant role in Ifa divination sacrifices. Igun helps in making sacrifices acceptable by eating them. In fact, according to ese Ifa, “ without igun, nobody performs sacrifice.” (Abimbola. Sixteen Great Poems of Ifa, pp 28-29. This variant between the vulture symbolism in “The King Buzzard” and in the Ifa literary corpus reflects the multiple African influences in the tale.”
      These quotes have got me thinking about writing a post that includes these and other excerpts about positive symbolism of vultures in African cultures. References that I've found online for positive West African spiritual meanings of the vulture probably influenced the USA "The Buzzard Lope" dance and the early symbolism of John Canoe and perhaps even John Crow.

      I'll probably publish that post soon.

    5. Well I filled in the submission form on the OED website, quoting the Herskovits source, so it's over to them now.

      I also had a look at vulture pictures on Wikipedia, and though the African vulture is a species distinct from the New World variety, they look pretty similar. Well, they do to me :) They look more like each other than either does to a crow I'd say. Wikipedia said about the American variety:

      'The turkey vulture is awkward on the ground with an ungainly, hopping walk. It requires a great deal of effort to take flight, flapping its wings while pushing off the ground and hopping with its feet.'

      But I suppose a bird that comes down from the high heavens and deals with the dead would naturally be seen as pretty awesome. Wasn't there a vulture goddess on Tutankhamun's regalia?

    6. Thanks for submitting a request to OED for more information about the word "yankoro"

      With regard to info about the vulture in Egyptian mythology, here's a quote that I'm going to include in that upcoming post that I mentioned in my last comment:
      "The sacred symbolism of birds is interwoven into the mythology and spirituality of early African tribes. Early Egyptian gods were zoomorphic; they had animal characteristics. The Egyptian god Horus was known as the Sky God. He is usually shown with hawk\’s head. The pronunciation of his name in the Egyptian hieroglyphs was Haru, meaning falcon, brother to the hawk. The Egyptian goddess Nekhbet was the protectress of the king and goddess of heaven. She is depicted as a woman with the head of a white vulture. Early African tribes worshiped these birdlike gods and honored their feathers as a means of sacred ritual."

    7. Here's a link to Part I of a pancocojams series about some spiritual/positive connotations of vultures/crows in Africa:

      That series focuses on the crow & vulture in traditional Akan religion of Ghana and The Ivory Coast, the vulture in traditional Yoruba religion & in traditional Edo religion in Nigeria, and the vulture in Egyptian mythology. The links to the other posts in that series are included in that post.

      Also, click for a related post. I believe that it's likely that 18th century and 19th century representations of buzzards or crows in Jamaica and among Black Americans (in the United States) were greatly influenced by the West African positive/spiritual connotations of vultures & crows.

  4. Growing up as a child in Jamaica, I wondered why Vultures were called Jancrows. I think the Anglicised (white) version being "John Crow." It makes so much sense to me now to read the African word "Yankoro." Accent is probably on the first syllable & almost no sound on the middle vowel; & hearing my grandmother's voice in my head with her heavy Jamaican accent, what sounded like "Jangcro," accent also on the first syllable. Also the connection to the fact that white colonists would have written what they heard as "JohnCrow." Amazing when the pieces come together. Thank you!

    I have seen vultures in Jamaica trying to take off from the ground. It is a lumbering, awkward gait. That is probably what the "buzzard lope" looks like. A big bird with a limping, lumbering run, wings flapping as it tries to lift its heavy body off the ground.

    1. Greetings, Melody Forbes.

      Thank you for sharing your comments about Jancrows in Jamaica. Your memories and observations enrich this post.

      One love!

  5. The alternate pronunciation used by many Jamaicans of old is dranco
    This is similar to a group of African birds large and black called the Drango
    I suspect that this is the origin of the name corrected by the English masters as John Crow

  6. Sorry the name of the African bird drongo

    1. Thanks for your comments fletchiski.

      Would you please share your source or sources for connecting the drongo species of birds with the bird called John Crow in Jamaica?