Friday, March 1, 2013

A Textual Analysis Of Two Versions Of "Rufus Rastus Johnson Brown"

Edited by Azizi Powell

This post is Part I of a two part series on two versions of the song that are known as "Rufus Rastus Johnson Brown".

Part II features lyrics and sound files of the original 1905 version of this song and of Rufus Thomas' 1969 version of this song.

Click for Part II of this series.

I first heard about the 1905 Rufus Rastus Johnson Brown in 2007 when I read about him on this Mudcat Cafe discussion thread: "What You Goin' Do When the Rent Comes 'Round?" [hereafter given as Mudcat: Rufus Rastus].

I confess that I really don't like the image of Rufus Rastus that was drawn by Andrew B. Sterling, that song's lyricist. Sterling's description of Rufus Rastus fits the stereotype of a Negro coon, only he-Von Tilzer-following the customs of his time-would have written "Negro" with a small "n". Sterling's caricature of Rufus Rastus was that of a good for nothing man who stayed out late, and didn't have the sense to not gamble away his rent money. Von Tilzer's Rufus Rastus also fit the stereotype of a coon in that he was dominated by his wife - or at least his woman- who is actually the one who speaks in that 1905 song. The reason why I'm not sure if that was his wife or not was that Rufus Rastus didn't have a key to his own home. But maybe in the beginning 20th century USA folks, or just struggling poor folks didn't have keys to their homes. Maybe they secured the door with some kind of latch, and that is why that 1905 Rufus Rastus Johnson Brown couldn't get in to his house unless someone from the inside let him in.

And it seems to me that Rufus Rastus must have stayed out late more than just that one time that is recorded in that song. And it seems to me that he must have done some other real triflin things for his wife -or his woman- to have such a strong reaction to him staying out late that time. Maybe Rufus Rastus had a habit of gamblin away his money, even down to the rent money. Otherwise why did she jump to that conclusion that Rufus had been gambling just because he stayed out real late that night? But am I right in detecting some acceptance of Rufus Rastus gambling since she asked him "Did you win?" and "Where’s all the money that you said you’d bring"? Isn't that enabling Rufus Rastus' gambling habit? Hmmm.

Yet, according to how Andrew B. Sterling tells it, even before she asked if Rufus Rastus had won any money from his gamblin, his wife or woman- who was given no name in that song- was clearly not happy with Rufus Rastus. She called him out of his name (by calling him a coon), and she said that he didn't have any sense, and he wouldn't have sense to judgment day-which after all, is probably still a long time coming. And Rufus Rastus' wife (I'll give her that benefit of the doubt) called her husband "Honey" and "babe" and said she loved him. But she also said that she wished that he would freeze out in the snow. That was some strange kinda love...

While Andrew B. Sterling's depicted the silent Rufus Rastus as a coon, and even has Rufus Rastus' wife referring to him as such, Sterling's characterization of Rufus Rastus also has elements of the pretentious, living above his means, urban Zip Coon. It seems to me that the main thing in the song that implies that Sterling pictured Rufus Rastus as a Zip Coon was the fact that he gave that character four names instead of a total of three names that most Americans have. Three names - regular. Four names - pretentious. Not only that, I'm sure that it was no accident that Andrew B. Sterling gave that character the names "Rufus Rastus Johnson Brown".

It's possible that in 1905 the name "Rufus" didn't bring to mind a picture of a poor, country Black man. However, although I only have anecdotal proof to back up this assertion, I believe that the name "Rufus" has carried those connotations for some time. My claim that the name "Rufus" is largely associated with Black males is supported by this comment by a blogger on that Mudcat Folk & Blues discussion thread that I referred to earlier:
"In _A Death in the Family_ by James Agee, a little white boy whose name happens to be Rufus is taunted by the neighborhood bullies for having a "n****r name"*, and they use that song. That would have been about 1915.

Then there was

"What does you lahk bestes', Rastus?"
"Ah lahks asbestos, Rufus."

So, yes, the names carry some baggage. Maybe they will manage to shed it by & by." "[Mudcat: Rufus Rastus; Joe_F, Date: 11 Sep 07 - 09:21 PM]
* The "n word" is fully spelled out in this comment.

The name "Rastus" has a long tradition of being associated with Black males. From
" "Rastus" has been used as a generic, often derogatory, name for black men at least since 1880, when Joel Chandler Harris included a Black deacon named "Brer Rastus" in the first Uncle Remus book. However, "Rastus" has never been particularly popular as a Black name. For example, the 1870 census reported only 42 individuals named "Rastus" in the United States, of whom only four were Black or mulatto.[2]

Rastus—as a stereotypically happy black man, not as a particular person—became a familiar character in minstrel shows. This is documented in Every Time I Turn Around: Rite, Reversal, and the End of Blackface Minstrelsy,[3] and Racism and Poverty in Ford City, PA, 1959: Minstrel Show,[4] and in fiction such as Adventures of Rufus Rastus Brown in Darktown (1906)[5] and Rastus Comes to the Point: A Negro Farce,[6] and in popular songs such as Rastus, Take Me Back (1909)[7] and (Rufus Rastus Johnson Brown) What You Going to Do When the Rent Comes 'Round (1905),[8] on radio,[9] and in films, most notably the Rastus series of short films,[10] with titles that included How Rastus Got His Chicken[11] and Rastus Runs Amuck.[12]"

I'm not sure whether in the late 19th century and the early 20th century the surnames "Johnson" and "Brown" were associated with Black Americans more than with Americans of any other race or ethnicity. However, if people make that connection now they might be surprised to know that, according to the 1990 United States census, "Johnson" is the second most common last name, and "Brown" is the fifth most common last name in that nation ("Smith" is the #2 most common last name in the USA). Yet, however many White "Browns" there are, I've no doubt that Sterling selected the last name "Brown" for Rufus Rastus as a reference to that character's race. The name "Rufus Rastus Johnson Smith" doesn't have the same connotations as "Rufus Rastus Johnson Brown".

By the way, in one line of that song, another way that Rufus Rastus' wife showed her disrespect for her man was by sneeringly referring to him as "Mister Rufus Brown", and not by his full name. I read the use of the title "Mister" as a taunt, as if Rufus Rastus' wife was implying that he really wasn't man enough to use the title "Mister". And, indeed, the use of "titles" for Black Americans was a new custom, particularly in the South, where before the end of slavery, the only "honorific" that could be used for a Black adult was "auntie" or "uncle".

Before I turn to Rufus Thomas' 1969 version of "Rufus Rastus Johnson Brown", I feel compelled to note the 19th century, early 20th century stereotypical "Negro" dialect that Andrew B. Sterling used in his lyrics to that song. Sure, some poor Black folks then said "dat" instead of "that". And some Black folks - then and now-incorrectly use incorrect grammar such as "I hopes you freezes to death", "If I goes to bed without a bite or sup", and what you goin' to do when the rent comes ‘round". But non-Black Americans also use such incorrect standard Emglish grammar. Nevertheless, that dialect is associated with negative stereotypes of Black folks. And because of the negative stereotypes associated with the depiction of Rufus Rastas & his wife, including the dialectic English, I believe that it would be very problematic if this 1905 version of "Rufus Rastus Johnson Brown" were to be sung to the general public nowadays in any way except a part of an educational historical presentation.

Also, before turning to my briefer analysis of Rufus Thomas' Rufus Rastus song, here's an interesting comment from another Mudcat blogger which provides some background about how Harry Von Tilzer came up with the idea for this song:
"This rent lament is a classic from the late 19th century minstrel song school, and is also known by the compound name of its protagonist, Rufus Rastus Johnson Brown. Music historian Sigmund Spaeth describes how the author became inspired to write this song:

Harry Von Tilzer was standing on the platform of the railway station at Miami listening to the conversation of two negroes. The woman was berating the man, and after using every possible adjective to describe his low-down shiftlessness, she worked up to a climax with the question, "What you goin' to do when de rent comes 'round?" The rest was easy."" [Mudcat: Rufus Rastus; Charley Noble, Date: 01 Sep 01 - 03:25 PM]

In contrast to that 1905 depiction of Rufus Rastus Johnson Brown, Rufus Thomas' 1969 character of the same name is much more sympathetically drawn. In that 1969 song there is no mention of Rufus Rastus gambling, nor is there any wife taunting him- callin him out of his name- and refusing to let him in out of the cold. Unlike that earlier song, in Rufus Thomas' record, Rufus Rastus Johnson Brown actually says something. He says "I'm broke. I'm broke". And as any American of any race or ethnicity could tell you, there's more ways of being broke in the US of A then gambling. However, I get the impression from that R&B song that Rufus Rastus Johnson Brown must have been broke quite often, and that the lead singer is used to him coming to him to give him some money to help him pay his rent and his other bills. Yet, the picture I get from this song is that the lead singer is shaking his head and saying to himself or to Rufus Rastus "What am I going to do with you". He's not taunting Rufus Rastus, refusing to help him, or wishing that Rufus Rastus were dead.

Rufus Thomas' song is written in a form of African American vernacular English, for example the lines "Ain’t got no money, you can’t pay/Ain’t gonna have no money till judgment day." Then again, the Rufus Rastus character in that 1969 song says "I'm broke" and not "I'se broke". And the lead singer says "what you goin' to do when the rent come around" and not "what youse gwine do when the rent come 'round". As a 20th/21st century African American, that latter pronuciation and the rest of that 19th century/early 20th century "Negro dialect" associated with that 1905 "Rufus Rastas" song isn't at all funny to me.

I don't think that Rufus Thomas' depiction of Rufus Rastus Johnson Brown has any elements of Zip Coon. Those four names & some of the lyrics are lifted from that earlier song, and those names don't appear to be meant to convey pretentiousness as I believe they are meant to convey in that 1905 song. But, while I wouldn't say that Rufus Thomas' depiction of Rufus Rastus Johnson Brown is that of a coon, I believe that that 1969 depiction definitely has some coonish elements. Notice that the 1969 Rufus Rastus isn't described as a hard-working man or a man who has tried to find work and for some reason is down on his luck. Instead, Rufus Thomas says that "I can see ole Rastus comin down the path/He’s runnin, and skippin, and a-jumpin, and a yellin/He got a pot full of chitlins and they are smellin." That description fits the happy-go-lucky, irresponsible coon stereotype. However, when Rufus Thomas refers to Rufus Rastus as "ole Rufus", I think that word "ole" softens that description, and shows that singer has some affection for that man. (Of course, that may be an incorrect transcription of that word, and Rufus Thomas may have said "old" instead of "ole". Even so, I think that word also conveys some affection toward Rufus Rastus".)

I wonder whether the lead voice in that 1969 song was supposed to be a friend of Rufus Rastus or if he was supposed to be kin to Rufus Rastus. If that lead voice and Rufus Rastus were related, then the implication that Rufus Rastus hoped to get help from that lead voice fits the findings in one recent study that one reason why the household wealth of middle class Black American families is so much lower than the household wealth of middle class White American families is that Black American families give more money to assist their poor relatives. [ Family Members in Need: Why Some Middle Class Blacks Can’t Get Ahead, Lisa Wade, Feb 18, 2013, at 12:00 pm]

There are many causes for poverty besides people gambling their money and otherwise being irresponsible. That brings me to my first reaction to the 1905 song "What You Goin' To Do When the Rent Comes 'Round? (Rufus Rastas Johnson Brown)" when I first read about it on that Mudcat Cafe discussion thread that I've previously cited:
..."Fwiw, I've never heard this song or the chicken song. And I doubt very much that many contemporary African Americans sing this song as the name "Rufus Rastus Johnson Brown" is quite stereotypical and the names "Rufus" and "Rastus" in particular remind folks of what weren't good ole days for many people. Maybe Rufus Rastus would have been able to pay his rent if there wasn't so much institutional and personal racism around.

And yes, I know this song is to be sung just for fun. But still."...
[Mudcat: Rufus Rastus; Azizi, Date: 11 Sep 07 - 02:39 PM]

Information about the coon and Zip Coon stereotypes are given in these articles and "Deconstructing The Caricature of Zip Coon & Other Minstrel Black Dandies"

I can't bring myself to thank the composer & lyricists of that 1905 song. Yet, I recognize that in the early 20th century, the characterizations of Black people found in that song may have even been thought to be progressive. At least, the n word wasn't used in that Rufus Rastus Johnson Brown song.

I do acknowlege Rufus Thomas' writing and performance & I thank him for his musical legacy. I also thank each of the commenters and authors who are quoted in this post.

Thank you for visiting pancocojams.

Visitor comments are welcome.


  1. The idea for this post came from my remembering the "Rufus Rastus Johnson Brown" after reading a referent to the 1910 shortie movie "How Rastus Got His Turkey". That reference was included in a Huffington Post article about Bloomberg Businessweeks' racist magazine cover: Bloomberg Businessweek Goes Racist-Chic For Housing Bubble Cover
    Posted: 02/28/2013 12:09 pm EST | Updated: 02/28/2013 5:33 pm EST
    ..."Bloomberg Businessweek has apparently decided to fill [the void left by another now defunct magazine] with a cover story on the return of the housing bubble, which they've chosen to doll up in the style of "How Rastus Got His Turkey" by filling their cover image with a collection of vile depictions of blacks and Hispanics:”
    The title "How Rastus Got His Turkey" was given as this hyperlink:
    Movie: How Rastus Got His Turkey

  2. Since I'm also interested in name orgins & meanings, I was curious about the etymology of the name "Rastus". Here's what I found out by searching online:

    Rastus, boy’s name, Diminutive of “Erastus” (Greek) “loving”
    Here's information about the name "Rufus"

    Rufus \r(u)-fus\ as a boy's name is pronounced ROO-fuss. It is of Latin origin, and the meaning of Rufus is "red-haired". Most common in the 19th century. Biblical: the name of two first-century Christian
    A study of 50 common last names by race of babies that were born during 1992-2001 in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania (Pittsburgh area) found that "Johnson" was the most common last name for African American babies born then. "Brown" was the fifth most common last name for African American babies born during those years.

    In contrast, "Brown" was the third most common last name for non-African American babies born in that county during that time, and "Johnson" was the sixth most common name for that population of babies in that county.

    Click this page of my Cocojams website to find that enter study:

    1. Also, "Rastus" shouldn't be confused with "Rasta" or "Rastas" which are colloquial shortened forms of the Caribbean religion "Rastafari" or refers to followers of that religion.


      "The Rastafari movement, or Rasta, is a spiritual movement that arose in the 1930s in Jamaica. Its adherents worship Haile Selassie I, Emperor of Ethiopia (ruled 1930–1974)...

      The name Rastafari is taken from Ras Tafari, the pre-regnal title of Haile Selassie I, composed of Amharic Ras (literally "Head", an Ethiopian title equivalent to Duke), and Haile Selassie's pre-regnal given name, Tafari.
      The title "Ras" is commonly translated in English as “Prince”.

  3. Stumbled across this while trying to find guitar chords for this song so i could perform it . I'm really glad i read this first. I had no clue what the song was really about. I'm a white chick who's never heard the name Rastus before today, and my great-grandfather is named Rufus, so the title of the song didn't clue me in. Also, the version of the song i have, ina piano anthology of popular songs from 1900-1909, the publishers (or someone) replaced the word "coon " with "Hon ". I was shocked to learn the original lyric. Thanks so much for the informative post!

  4. Forgot to add : now i will NOT be learning or performing this song.

    1. Thanks Anonymous for your comments.

      I appreciate you taking the time to add them.

      I can also understand your not wanting to perform this song, but for those who do want to learn it & peform it, I think it's important to know what this song is all about.

  5. Looking for any info related to a small card that was found in a 1890,s trunk we bought at an estate sale. It is very derogatory but here is the first of two stanzas in exact wording;
    Rufus, Rastus, Jackson Brown,
    What you gwine to do if I don't come 'round?
    What you gwine to say, what you gwine to pay?
    I done told you to get me a whirlin' spray?
    I'se takin' fills of tausy tea
    An' I'm as sick as Ah can be
    Thar's gwine to be hell if I don't come 'round.

    If you have any info on this at all, please e-mail me at:

    1. Greetings,

      I know nothing about the stanzas you quoted except that they seem to be a part of a variant form of "Rufus Rastas Jackson Brown".

      Best wishes.

  6. "Rufus Rastus Johnson Brown, kissed the girls and made them frown" in contrast to Georgy, Porgy, Puddin' and Pie, Kissed the girls and made them cry..."

    1. Hello, gloria alee.

      Thanks for that example.

      Best wishes!