Friday, December 7, 2012

Mississippi John Hurt - Shortnin' Bread (sound files, lyrics, comments)

Edited by Azizi Powell

This post features a sound file of Mississippi John Hurt performing the folk song "Shortnin Bread". This post also contains information about Mississippi John Hurt. Two versions of the lyrics for "Shortnin Bread", and my comments about the meaning of that song are also included in this post.

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

All copyrights remain with their owners.

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


Mississippi John Hurt - Shortnin' Bread.wmv [1928]

sambobla·Uploaded on Jan 22, 2011

Born July 3, 1893, Teoc (Carroll County) MS
Died November 2, 1966, Grenada, MS

...Mississippi John Hurt's quiet dignity, humor, superb guitar style, and his tender and expressive voice made him the most popular artist of traditional country blues re discovered by the public in the sixties.

John was not a real blues man but was a collector of popular songs who arranged them to entertain his neighbors on Saturday evenings.

Mississippi John never pursued success. In 1928 a mobile unit of the Vocalion company came to Avalon, Mississippi to look for new talents. An audition in Avalon resulted in John being called several months later to go to New York for a recording session under the direction of Lonnie Johnson. The depression led to the reduction in pressing of records and John stayed in Avalon and lived quietly on his farm with his 14 children.

Guided by the words of one of the titles recorded in 1928 by Hurt, "Avalon My Home Town", the folklorist Tom Hoskins decided in 1963 to go to Avalon. He met Hurt, who was shocked to see that someone remembered his 1928 recordings that had brought him only twenty dollars a song.

John Hurt's new career lasted only three years, but at Newport Festival, on college campuses, and in the folk clubs of Washington D.C., he displayed his talents as storyteller, entertainer, and singer. He overwhelmed the public with his outstanding mastery of the guitar.(Source: Encyclopedia of the Blues by Gerard Herzhaft, 1992 University of Arkansas Press)

(as sung by Mississippi John Hurt, 1928)

Put on the skillet, put on the lid
Mama's gonna cook some shortnin bread

Oh Mammy loves shortnin bread.

Two little boys layin in the bed
One turned over and the other one said
My mama cookin shortnin bread


Two live chickens ?] off that lid.
Pour he [?]

[guitar playing]

Oh, mammy loves shortnin bread.


Two little boys layin in the bed
One turned over and the other one said
My mom's ???
My mama cookin shortnin bread

Transcription by Azizi Powell from the sound file.

Additions and corrections welcome.

"Notice how simple the [Shortnin Bread] ingredients are–cornmeal, flour, salt, egg, baking powder, shortening, molasses, sugar, and water. Slaves would have used the least expensive grain available to them, which would most often be cornmeal, with the addition of some more refined flour in a smaller quantity if they had it. They either used baking soda or baking powder, but may have even made it at times without any leavening agent at all if it wasn’t available, sort of like a fried flatbread. The short’nin’ would have been lard, which they probably just called pig fat. They would have most ready access to some type of unrefined cane, such as molasses, for sweetener, but sugar isn’t entirely out of the question as an ingredient in times and places where it was available. Any sweetener at all is a debatable issue in this recipe as some quarters believe it to be a “poor man’s” cornbread, but the sense of the song tells another story–this was a treat. We’re thinking it was sweet! That, at least, is my theory, based on the song and its era and circumstances, and so is the direction I took when developing this recipe. Notice what the song is telling us. Children love it! SUGAR!! (Froot Loops, anyone?) It makes a man fall in love with a woman who knows how to make it. It’s worth going to jail over!"
I appreciate the information what this blogger wrote. However, what she didn't consider was that "Shortnin Bread" would have been a treat for enslaved Black people who were near starvation even if that bread wasn't all that sweet.

Although "Shortnin Bread" is now considered a light hearted children's folk song, its beginning verses reflect the near starvation diets of many enslaved Black Americans.

In contemporary versions of this song, the first verse is given as "two little boys/laying in bed/one was sick/and the other almost dead". The reason why the boys were in those conditions was because they were sufferring from malnutrition because of the inadequate food rations that enslaved families were given.

Although "Shortnin Bread" is now considered a light hearted children's folk song, its beginning verses reflect the fact that Black Americans often lack/ed adequate food.

In this song, the doctor was called to examine the children. His prescription was that the children be given some food. However, in actuality, enslaved Black people rarely saw any doctors. Also, shortnin bread and coffee were rare treats for enslaved Black people.

The scarcity of sugar and sweets like candy in the diet of enslaved African Americans gives added meaning to other songs from that time such as "Who'll Take Sugar In The Coffee-o"; "He Loves (Likes) Sugar & Tea" and other such songs.

It's also interesting that Anglo-American collector Dorothy Scarborough included versions of "Shortnin Bread" in the lullaby section of her book. Apparently, at some point, a faster tempo was used for that song. Versions of this song that I've heard, including Mississippi John Hurt's version) certainly aren't lullabies.

Click for another post about Fats Waller's version of the song "Shortnin Bread"

Click for a page on my cultural website for another 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

Thanks to Mississippi John Hurt for his interpretation of "Shortnin Bread". Thanks also to Dorothy Scarborough and other folklorist for collecting early examples of this song.
My thanks also to the uploader of this sound file and the sound file that is featured in the related links section.

Finally, thank you for visiting pancocojams.

Visitor comments are welcome.


  1. I'm not a food nutritionist but I wonder if simply frying the dough and browning the outside of the shortning bread shouldn't make it taste sweet? If one added sweeteners like sugar or molasses that caramelize when heated, the sweetening effect would be even stronger. Apart from that, any food probably is like a treat when you're starving.

    1. Thanks for your comment, DrK.

      I'm not a food nutritionist either, but I agree with those possibilities that you mentioned and co-sign your last point that "any food probably is like a treat when you're starving".

      The fact that many enslaved African Americans and post slavery African Americans had a subsistence diet isn't often noted in our history of those times.

  2. Hi, I appreciate the cooking comments that the previous people posted. I have a somewhat different interpretation, which I got over 50 years ago from my college roommate. He had studied jazz piano in Berkeley from a black jazz pianist, who told him, "'Shortnin' bread' is bordello talk for a certain kind of intercourse." But he had no further details...sigh.

    1. Thanks for sharing that comment, geodejerry.

      I've never read or heard a sexualized meaning of "shortnin bread" before. I was curious if that meaning is included in online Jazz slang dictionaries such as

      That site has "Bread --- A jazzman's word for money.Alright, Jack, if ya want me to play, ya gotta come up with some "bread."

      But nothing for "shortnin bread".

      I also checked out

      That site had an entry for "cake-eater" - a ladies man.

      I didn't see an entry for "jelly roll". I guess that came later. That term means sex (intecourse) and/or vagina.

      So I guess I can see how "shortnin bread" might have also had a sexualized meaning. Like you, I wish there were more details about this anecdotal information about that use of that term.