Tuesday, October 29, 2013

"Such A Getting Upstairs" (History Of The Song In The United States & England)

Edited by Azizi Powell

This is Part I of a two part series on the 19th century song "Sich A Gittin Upstairs" ("Such A Gettin Upstairs").

Part I focuses on the history of this song in the United States and in England.

Part II of this series provides several examples of lyrics for this song and three video examples of Morris dancing to this tune.

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

All copyrights remain with their owners.

The once highly popular 19th century song "Such A Gittin Up Stairs" ("Such A Getting Upstairs") is now mostly known as the Headington (Cotswold) Morris dance "Getting Upstairs".

Here are some excerpts from various online articles & discussion forums about the history of that song & dance.

These excerpts are presented in no particular order of preference.

From “Morris Dancing And America Prior to 1913” Rhett Krause, M.D.
"Influence on the 19th-Century English Morris
Long before the "traditional" English Morris dances had been recorded, they had been influenced to some extent by popular American culture. At least three English Morris tunes have American origins. The Bampton tune "Bobbing Around" was written in 1856 by William Jermyn Florence (1831-1891), an American composer of popular song. The Catalogue of the British Library lists a copy of this, already printed in London by 1856, over 50 years before it was collected by Sharp. Next is the Headington tune "Getting Upstairs." The original version ("Such a Getting Upstairs") was written and composed sometime in the early 1830's by Joe Blackburn for blackface performers. The song travelled to England with American minstrel shows, and versions were soon published in London. Five decades later, Percy Manning would record a variant of the chorus as one of the songs of the Headington men:

Such a getting upstairs and playing on the fiddle,
Such a getting upstairs I never did see.

Years later the music and dance "Getting Upstairs" were collected by Sharp. Finally, there is "Buffalo Girls," another American minstrel show tune. Joe Trafford, the Headington squire, had heard it played by a military band and taught it to the team musician, with "Buffalo Gals" becoming one of the Headington men's tunes.

Minstrel shows were extremely popular in England from 1843 until the first years of this century, and their effects on British folk culture are not limited to the few Morris tunes listed above"...

From a Getting Upstairs [hereafter known as Mudcat: Getting Upstairs]
posted by Steve Gardham; 20 Sep 10 - 07:08 PM
"It [Such A Getting Upstairs] predated Dan Emmett who rose to fame in the 1840s. Emmet was an essential part and instigator of the Minstrel TROUPES, but there were plenty of SOLO blackface performers both in the UK and US before this even going back to the 18thc. I have 'Sich a Gittin' Upstairs' as from Daddy Rice in the early thirties at Baltimore. It gets a mention in Nathan's 'Dan Emmett and The Rise of Early Minstrelsy' but not in connection with Emmett himself.

I have a copy of the song sheet music as performed by Sam Cowell later in England but no doubt he picked it up while in America in his youth as a performer with his family, possibly from T D Rice himself"...

posted by Jim Dixon, 22 Sep 10 - 09:35 AM
"The oldest reference to the song I can find with Google Books is in The New-York Mirror, Volume 16 (Feb. 2, 1839), page 256:
"By late London papers before us, we perceive that Race has found out a new way to please John Bull. The popularity of "Jim Crow" seems to be eclipsed by the "new fancy song" of "Sich a gittin up stairs." "
"Race" here is a reference to blackfaced minstrels. "John Bull" is a reference for people from England" and "Jim Crow" is the song "Jump Jim Crow".

posted by Billy Weeks, 25 Sep 10 - 10:46 AM
"I have sheet music of 'Sich a Getting Up Stairs' published by Purday in London, probably before 1840. This 'only authentic edition' gives no author credit but it is 'as sung by' T D Rice, with the music 'arranged by' W West. The front has a striking uncoloured lithograph of Rice dancing and playing an invisible fiddle.

The sheet can be confidently dated to 1836 (when Rice first appeared in London) or perhapsthe a year or so later. I find it interesting that Rice did not claim authorship of the song on its first publication here.

Whatever might have been claimed and by whom, it is always difficult to establish authorship of earliest minstrel songs. There was an ungoverned trade in musical material at this level of popular entertainment and there were no enforceable copyright procedures. A few singers,including Rice, said that they had taken or adapted some of their songs from slave originals. I can't see much advantage in making such claims if they were untrue."
Italics added by me to highligh those sentences.

posted by Jim Dixon, Date: 25 Sep 10 - 01:06 PM
"The Levy sheet music collection has 10 copies of different editions of "The Crow Quadrilles." Most say, "Arranged with Figures [i.e. dance instructions] for the Piano Forte by John H. Hewitt"; some editions credit others. Most are dated 1837; the rest have no date. These are tunes only, no lyrics"...
That list of tunes includes "Sich A Gittin Up Stairs". The word “crow” in that title means “Black” (actually, “the n word”) as evident from the song titles “Coal Black Rose”, “Jim Crow”, Sambo’s Dress To He Bred’ren”, and “Zip Coon”.

Although this next comment refers to another American minstrel tune, it is relevent in that it points out the tremendous popularity of blackfaced minstrels in mid 19th century England.

From "Help: Buffalo Gals"
posted by Steve Gardham, 18 Nov 09 - 06:14 PM
"The Ethiopian Serenaders came over to Britain after about a year of their successful touring in the States and here they were also a great sensation. They were the Beatles of their day. That would have been about 1844 but I could easily confirm the date. I believe it is from this early impact many of the minstrel tunes were adopted for various uses in this country, perhaps even the Lancashire song posted above. Two minstrel tunes at some point in the mid 19th century became the staple tunes for the Flamborough Sword Dance in Yorkshire, near to where I live. One is 'Buffalo Gals' and the other is 'De Blue-tail Fly' which is one of the widest used tunes in England for all sorts of songs and ditties. They also in Flamborough have set words to these tunes and some of the comic words to 'Old Johnny Walker' (set to Buffalo Gals) are from much older songs adapted to the 'new' tune"...
The 1844 date was corrected in that discussion by this citation from Q: "The UK dates for the Ethiopian Serenaders, has, I think been posted in another thread, but your c. 1844 is close enough.

Copies are in the Bodleian Collection, one printed in Birmingham c. 1845"..."

In the "Mudcat: Getting Upstairs" discussion whose link is provided above, the consensus was that "such a getting upstairs" referred to sexual activities that occurred on the floor above the tavern.

It seems to me that the phrase "such a getting upstairs" was expanded -or cleaned up-to mean "a commotion", a "disturbance", a "ruckus", or some occurance that was out of the ordinary but also exciting and perhaps even fun.

Click for a review of the 2008 book Blackface Minstrelsy in Britain by Michael Pickering, Loughborough University, UK.

Here's a brief excerpt from that review:
"The historical study and cultural analysis of minstrelsy is important because of the significant role it played in Britain as a form of song, music and theatrical entertainment. Minstrelsy had a marked impact on popular music, dance and other aspects of popular culture, both in Britain and the United States. Its impact in the United States fed into significant song and music genres that were assimilated in Britain, from ragtime and jazz onwards, but prior to these influences, minstrelsy in Britain developed many distinct features and was adapted to operate within various conventions, themes and traditions in British popular culture. Pickering provides a convincing counter-argument to the assumption among writers in the United States that blackface was exclusively American and its British counterpart purely imitative.

Minstrelsy was not confined to its value as song, music and dance. Jokes at the expense of black people along with demeaning racial stereotypes were integral to minstrel shows. As a form of popular entertainment, British minstrelsy created a cultural low that offered confirmation of white racial ascendancy and imperial dominion around the world. The book attends closely to how this influence on colonialism and imperialism operated and proved ideologically so effective. At the same time British minstrelsy cannot be reduced to its racist and imperialist connections. Enormously important as those connections are, Pickering demonstrates the complexity of the subject by insisting that the minstrel show and minstrel performers are understood also in terms of their own theatrical dynamics, talent and appeal."

Thanks to all those who are quoted in this post.

Thanks for visiting pancocojams.

Visitor comments are welcome.


  1. The 1839 date for its being a hit in England must be right. First mention of the song I can find in ‘The Times’ is in a review of a performance at the Pavilion Theatre shortly after Christmas 1838. On the bill was a melodrama, an entr’acte, and a concluding pantomime. The entr’acte was Rice:

    ‘Next came Mr. Rice, and jumped “Jim Crow” to a bran new version at least six times with as much agility as his Parliamentary namesake ever did on a budget night, and sang “Such a getting up stairs” with as much feeling as if he had really experienced the difficulty of it at a crowded levee at St. James.”
    [The Times (London, England), 27 December 1838, p. 5]

    (The Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time, who’d recently set the budget, was Thomas Spring Rice: hence the joke about a ‘Parliamentary namesake’. )

    And though I don’t know what the song’s title originally referred to, from the wording of the review it seems the early lyrics as sung in England were only about a comic struggle to get up a flight of stairs rather than anything more sexual. A news report from October 1839 bears this out. It’s about a flooded town :

    ‘The ground floors and cellars of the lower part of town were soon flooded, and then commenced a scene of bustle and confusion amongst the families inhabiting these houses, and it might well be said (quoting the popular song at present in vogue) there was “such a getting up stairs I never did see.” ‘ (From the Sherborne Journal of 23 October 1839, reprinted in ‘The Times’, 26 October 1839, p.6)

    Also, in all six verses of the Marryat pastiche in ‘Poor Jack’, the sailor is having difficulty ascending somewhere. In verse 1 he is getting up the side of a ship; 2, climbing to the mast head; 3, struggling to haul up the anchor; 4 reefing topsails; 5, boarding the side of a French ship one-handed while holding a sword ; 6, ending as a one-legged pensioner, climbing up to the ward upon his ‘wooden peg’.

    1. Thanks again for sharing your research!!

      Your comments that "the early lyrics as sung in England were only about a comic struggle to get up a flight of stairs rather than anything more sexual"
      are particularly interesting to me.

  2. Re-reading the entries above, I think the quote from the New York Mirror for 1839 contains a misprint. '"By late London papers before us, we perceive that Race has found out a new way to please John Bull. The popularity of "Jim Crow" seems to be eclipsed by the "new fancy song" of "Sich a gittin up stairs." " Surely this is not a reference to 'Race' but to [Thomas D.] 'Rice' and his recent success with the song in London c. 26 December 1838.

    1. Thanks. Anonymous. I'm sure you're right about that typo.

      Now that you've pointed it out, it makes no sense that the "r" in the word "race" would be written in an upper case letter. The last name "Rice" definitely fits that sentence.

  3. Can I add I'm entirely persuaded by your argument that sea shanties developed from African American work songs? In Chapter 17 of 'Poor Jack' Marryat describes a sort of friendly song contest between a black sailor and a white. The white man sings 'Spanish Ladies' and then provokes the other into singing a particular song, which the white sailor calls 'N***** General'. I was thrilled to realise it's not only obviously a sea shanty, but its hero is 'Gin'ral Gabriel...who almost ruined old Virginny'. This is surely the leader of Gabriel's Rebellion? If you wish, you can see what I mean at the Project Gutenberg site where they have an edition of 'Poor Jack' ( The song appears in Chapter 17.

    1. I love your research!! It's a great present for Christmas, Kwanzaa, or any ole time. I'll check out that page you mentioned. Right now I'm transcribing comments about Lead Belly's version of "Give The Fiddler A Dram". If you've not done so already, check out those pancocojams posts such as I'd love to read your comments about my opinions about the meaning [at least in the context of Lead Belly's particular recollections) of that "Give a dram/don't give a damn" verses.

      Here's the hyperlink for that Gutenberg file:

      And thank goodness for Project Gutengerg for increasing awareness of and accees to these historical treasures!!

    2. Anonymous, I again thank you for alerting me to the "Poor Jack" book and, in particular to the two songs sung by the character "Opposition Bill" in chapter 17. I published this post about those songs in this post

      Also, I want to clarify that I think that some but not all sea shanties are from Black American plantation work/dance songs. I learned a lot about the subject of sea shanties from the blogger who posted/posts? on Mudcat Cafe as Guest Gibb or Gibb Sahib and who has a series of YouTube sea shanty videos under the name hultonclint. I noted his research in my pancocojams post