Monday, August 5, 2019

Two Examples Of The African American Children's Singing Game "Johnny Cuckoo" (By Bessie Jones & By Joan Baez)

Edited by Azizi Powell

This is Part III of an ongoing pancocojams series on African American versions of the English children's singing game "Two Dukes A-Riding".

Part III presents my thoughts about the meanings of the words "Johnny Cuckoo" in the African American singing game with that name. Part III also showcases a text (word only) example and a YouTube video of the singing game "Johnny Cuckoo" as sung by Bessie Jones and children from St. Simon's Island, Georgia along with a YouTube sound file and lyrics for a version of "Johnny Cuckoo" as sung by Joan Baez.

The Addendum to Part III presents an article excerpt about Black men in the United States Civil War's Union army and Black men in the Confederate army.

Click for Part I of this pancocojams series. Part I presents excerpts from two Mudcat folk music discussion threads: "Help: johnny cockaroo" [comments from 2008, 2009] and "Lyr Req: Playground songs" [one singing game example which I collected in 1992 and posted on that forum in 2007].

Click for Part II presents text (word only) examples of and sound files for a few versions of the children's singing game "Two Dukes A-Riding" (or other titles for versions of that singing game.)

Click for Part IV of this series. Part IV presents an excerpt from the record notes for the album Been In The Storm Too Long and lyrics for a South Carolina version of the "Johnny Cuckoo" singing game that was sung by Janie Hunter. A link to a sound file for that version of "Johnny Cuckoo" is also included in that post.

Part IV also includes information about the Gullah culture that is documented as the original site of examples of the singing game "Johnny Cuckoo". (The example given in Part III is a more widely known example of "Johnny Cuckoo" and also comes from the Gullah culture.)

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

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to Bessie Jones, Joan Baez, and all those who are featured in these embedded YouTube video and sound file. Thanks to all those who are quoted in this post and thanks to the publisher of these examples on YouTube.

I believe that the African American children's singing game "Johnny Cuckoo" is an adaptation of the United Kingdom children's singing game "Two Dukes A-Riding". The words for certain verses (such as "you look to black and dirty"/"I'm just as good as you are"), and the two horizontal line formations indicate the connections between these two singing games. One difference between these two singing games is that "Dukes A-Riding" is a "courting" game (the Dukes are seeking a woman to marry) while "Johnny Cuckoo" is an "army enlistment" game (the Johnny Cuckoos want to be accepted as soldiers in an [un-named] army).

My assumption is that this singing game was probably created in the Southern region of the United States by Black people shortly after the end of the Civil War.

My position is that the name "Johnny" in the referent "Johnny Cuckoo" probably was partly lifted from "Johnny Reb", a common nickname for Rebel soldiers and partly lifted from the name of the herbal mojo root that Black folks called "John the Conqueror" and the folk hero who was named after that root.

The word "cuckoo" means "crazy". I wonder if the word "cuckoo" was purposely chosen to convey one or both of these hidden in plain sight messages:
1. that some Black people and many non-Black people in those days might consider a Black person who wanted to be a soldier in the (Rebel?) army as being crazy.

2. that some Black people and many non-Black people then (and even now) may consider Black people to be crazy if they/we had/have strong positive self-esteem.

Be that as it may, I think it's most likely that the word "cuckoo" developed by folk processing from the mojo root and folk character "John The Conqueror". Here's some information about "John The Conqueror" from
"John the Conqueror, also known as High John de Conqueror, John, Jack, and many other folk variants, is a folk hero from African-American folklore. He is associated with a certain root, the John the Conqueror root, or John the Conqueroo, to which magical powers are ascribed in American folklore, especially among the hoodoo tradition of folk magic. Muddy Waters mentions him as Johnny Cocheroo pronounced Johnny Conqueroo in the songs, "Mannish Boy" and "I'm Your Hoochie Coochie Man". In "Mannish Boy" the line is "I think I'll go down/To old Kansas too/I'm gonna bring back my second cousin/That little Johnny Conqueroo", and in "I'm Your Hoochie Coochie Man" it is called "John De Conquer Blue".

Folk hero
Sometimes, "John" is an African prince who was sold as a slave in the Americas. Despite his enslavement, his spirit was never broken. He survived in folklore as reluctant folk hero, a sort of trickster figure, because of the tricks he played to evade those who played tricks on him. Joel Chandler Harris's Br'er Rabbit of the Uncle Remus stories is a similar archetype to that of High John the Conqueror, out doing those who would do him in. Zora Neale Hurston wrote of his adventures ("High John de Conquer") in her collection of folklore, The Sanctified Church."...
-end of quote-
I don't think that Black children who played Johnny Cuckoo" were echoing their fathers' or uncles' or older brothers' desires to be part of the Confederate army*. My position is that whoever created this "Dukes A-Riding" adaptation did so for two reasons:
1. to provide opportunities for creative dramatic play :with accompanying hand clapping and dance

2. to help Black children develop and reinforce positive self-esteem and coping mechanism when they encountered people who believed that they weren't as good as "other" people.

Contrast my interpretation of the "you look all black and dirty" and "I'm just as good as you are" with my interpretation of those same words in "Two Dukes A Riding" songs (given in the comment section below).
*Read a brief excerpt from an online article about Black Confederates in the Addendum below.

SHOWCASE VIDEO - Little Sally Walker Bessie Jones

ichagall, Published on Apr 20, 2010

Little Sally Walker Bessie Jones
The "Johnny Cuckoo" singing game begins at 3:28 in this video.

(as sung by Bessie Jones)

1st verse:
Here comes one Johnny Cuckoo
Cuckoo; Cuckoo
Here comes one Johnny Cuckoo
On a cold and stormy night

2nd verse:
What did you come for
Come for
Come (here) for
What did you come for
On a cold and stormy night

3rd verse:
I come for me (We come for us)
A soldier, soldier,
I come for me (We come for us)
A soldier
On a cold and stormy night

You look too black and dirty
Dirty dirty
You look too black and dirty
On a cold and stormy night

5th verse sung by Johnny Cuckoo/s
I'm (We're) just as good* as you are
You are. You are.
I'm (We're) just as good as you are
On a cold and stormy night

* sometimes given as "just as clean as you are"
The song immediately repeats from the beginning with the first Johnny Cuckoo picking another player to act the role of the second Johnny Cuckoo along with her. The group sings "Here comes two Johnny Cuckoos etc

This continues with multiple Johnny Cuckoos until the game ends.

Source: Bessie Jones, Bess Hawes Lomax: Step It Down: Games, Plays, Songs & Stories from the Afro-American Heritage.

The singing game "Johnny Cuckoo" is also included as as #10 on the 3rd CD of A Musical Journey From The Georgia Sea Islands To The Mississippi Delta, edited by Alan Lomax; 1993 Atlantic Recording

One person in the group (male or female) plays the role of “Johnny Cuckoo”. The rest of the group stands in a horizontal line some distance from the girl but facing her. The group perform individual hand claps [clap their own hands) to the beat while singing this song.

“Johnny Cuckoo” starts strutting/marching toward this line when the group sings the first and second line verses. Sometimes the Johnny Cuckoo appears to stand in the same spot but moving like she is strutting (or marching) back and forth.

Everyone sings the entire song although technically the third (and 5th verse) is supposed to be Johnny Cuckoo singing alone.

All of the players in the line turn their backs on the "Johnny Cuckoo/s and switch their hips to the rhythm.

There is a significant increase in the speed of the singing in the 4th first as the group sing and perform a double offbeat clap.

The line turns around again and keeping the same tempo the Johnny Cuckoo turns away from the group and does the same hip swinging dance while clapping his or her hands.

Johnny Cuckoo begins strutting/ marching until he or she reaches the line and arbitrarily picks someone to be the second Johnny Cuckoo with her.

The song immediately repeats from the beginning with the group singing "Here comes two Johnny Cuckoos etc

This continues with multiple Johnny Cuckoos until everyone is a Johnny Cuckoo.
*This is my description of the performance of this singing game, although these directions borrow heavily from the instructions that are given in the Bessie Jones & Bess Hawes Lomax book Step It Down.

SHOWCASE SOUND FILE - Joan Baez Johnny Cuckoo

bbaaeezz, Published on Feb 27, 2011

Joan Baez - Johnny Cuckoo

(as sung by Joan Baez)

"Here comes one Johnny cuckoo
Here comes one Johnny Cuckoo
On a cold and stormy night

What did you come for
Come for,come for?
What did you come for
On a cold and stormy night?

I come to be a soldier
I come to be a soldier
On a cold and stormy night

You are too black and dirty
You are too black and dirty
On a cold and stormy night

I'm just as good as you are
You are,you are
I'm just as good as you are
On a cold and stormy night"


From Black Confederates: Truth and Legend By Sam Smith
..."Many Southern slaves took advantage of the fog of war to escape towards freedom. Before the Emancipation Proclamation was officially adopted, these escapes usually meant congregating around the Union armies that were operating in Southern territory. Vast columns of escaped slaves followed almost every major Union army at one point or another. These people, sometimes called “contrabands,” as in “confiscated enemy property,” frequently served as scouts and spies for the Union soldiers.

When the Emancipation Proclamation took effect on January 1, 1863, Union forces had regained control of large swaths of the South. Although many now claim that the Proclamation was effectively useless because it established policy for a foreign nation, the practical reality is that the Union, by force of arms, had every necessary power to establish policy in its occupied territories, just as Confederate armies exercised their power to capture and enslave free black people during their brief occupations of Northern territories.

After the Proclamation, the refugees in the contraband camps, along with free black people throughout the North, began to enlist in the Union Army in even greater proportion than Northern white men. After some time in legal limbo, many Southern black men took up arms against their former masters and distinguished themselves on campaign and on the battlefield. By the time the war was over, black soldiers made up 10% of the Union Army and had suffered more than 10,000 combat casualties.

Some black Southerners aided the Confederacy. Most of these were forced to accompany their masters or were forced to toil behind the lines. Black men were not legally allowed to serve as combat soldiers in the Confederate Army--they were cooks, teamsters, and manual laborers. There were no black Confederate combat units in service during the war and no documentation whatsoever exists for any black man being paid or pensioned as a Confederate soldier, although some did receive pensions for their work as laborers. Nevertheless, the black servants and the Confederate soldiers formed bonds in the shared crucible of conflict, and many servants later attended regimental reunions with their wartime comrades.

This is not to say that no black man ever fired a gun for the Confederacy. To be specific, in the “Official Records of the War of the Rebellion,” a collection of military records from both sides which spans more than 50 volumes and more than 50,000 pages, there are a total of seven Union eyewitness reports of black Confederates. Three of these reports mention black men shooting at Union soldiers, one report mentions capturing a handful of armed black men along with some soldiers, and the other three reports mention seeing unarmed black laborers. There is no record of Union soldiers encountering an all-black line of battle or anything close to it."...

This concludes Part III of this four part pancocojams series.

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  1. Here are two comments that I wrote and shared in Part II of this pancocojams series about the meaning of the "you look too black and dirty" verse and its response "I'm just as good as you are" verse in examples of "Two Dukes A- Riding" singing games:

    Azizi Powell August 3, 2019 at 12:06 PM

    I believe that the word "black" in the lyrics "black and dirty" or "black and browsy" in "Duke A-Riding" children's singing games refers to a White person who has dark hair and/or dark eyes and/or a skin complexion that is tanner than that of blue eyed, blond hair "fair complexioned" White people.

    That said, those lines in these "Duke A-Riding" songs can easily be misinterpreted as referring to people with black or brown skin.

    I don't think that the "Duke A-Riding" singing game is performed that often anymore (at least not in the USA) either as part of children's independent play or taught to children as part of a school's music classes.

    However, if children are taught this song in schools, even if an adult shares that the word "black" in these songs doesn't mean "Black race", I'm very concerned about the underlying message and the possible consequences of these lyrics for anyone who sings them regardless of their skin color.

    I have these concerns even when the people in the next verse sing "We're just as good as you are"- since one group of people who are described as "black and dirty" or "black and browsy" have to assert that they are "just as good as you" but the other group of people with fairer skin who taunt them never have to question their inherent "goodness".

    Azizi Powell August 4, 2019 at 1:16 PM
    Perhaps it's easier to see how problematic the "you are too black and dirty"/ and "we just as good as you are" verses in "Two Dukes A-Riding" children's singing game are if we "flip the script" to these verses:

    [sung by one group] "You are two white and sickly"
    [sung by another group] "We're just as good as you are".

    Do you see what I means about the underlying message and the possible consequences of these lyrics?

    1. In contrast, in the African American singing game "Johnny Cuckoo" the word "black" refers to the skin color of the person being addressed and most (or all) of the children singing this verse in the embedded YouTube video are also Black- although it's possible that children who played this singing game* may have been pretending to be White people when they said those words.

      As is the case with the verse in the "Duke A- Riding" singing game "black and dirty" is meant to be an insult. The children's response "I'm just as good as you are" is an affirmation that should be understood in the context of those times.

      *I don't know if "Johnny Cuckoo" or "Two Dukes A-Riding" are still being played by children. I doubt it and I think its for the best that these games aren't played. Yet, I strongly believe that these games can help us better understand race in the United States then and now.