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View Diary: Racist song in my kid's music class, Part 2 (313 comments)

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  •  Great job! (none)
    By the way, the reason I find Blue Tail Fly/Jimmy Crack Corn fun to sing with my kids is that I read it as the story of a slave who kills his master and escapes the jury's verdict by concocting the story about the blue tail fly.  Maybe this was discussed in your previous diary, which I missed.
    •  As I recall it... (none)
      Jimmy Crack Corn dates from
      the Civil War and "Massa's gone away"
      refers to plantation owners fleeing the approach
      of units of the Union Army. Or possibly
      plantation owners leaving to join the
      Confederate Army.  If you
      know the details of the reference to a slave
      killing his owner subtext in this song, please
      let me know.
      (no axe to grind here, I'm just curious.)

      faith is no substitute for empirical evidence

      by Rudyard on Thu Mar 09, 2006 at 11:22:06 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  I think I learned that song (none)
        from a Bugs Bunny cartoon.

        We are all insurgents now.

        by The Gryffin on Thu Mar 09, 2006 at 11:36:29 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

      •  "He died and the jury wondered why" (none)
        I found the song's lyrics here. Essentially, the master's horse throws him after being startled by the fly's bite. Not that the servant is too broken up about it. A darker reading might even suggest that the servant allowed the fly to bite the horse!

        Ironically enough, this is a elementary-school themed website!

      •  I think the song predates the Civil War (none)
        ... at least in some forms.  I just googled the lyrics and found some discussions about its meaning(s).

        For me, the song is ambiguous until the end:


           The pony jumped, he bucked, he pitched
           He threw my master in a ditch
           He died, and the jury wondered why
           The verdict was, a blue tail fly

           Jimmy Crack Corn etc.

           He lies beneath a 'simmon tree
           His epitath is there to see
           Beneath this stone I'm forced to lie
           Victim of a blue tail fly

           Jimmy Crack Corn etc.

        Mindful that there are different versions of the lyrics, I think that the master being "forced to lie" [about being] victim of a blue tail fly clinches it.  He wasn't victim of a blue tail fly, he was killed by his slave, who was under sufficient suspicion of murder that he went to trial.  But on his headstone it says it was a blue tail fly, so he is forced to "lie" for eternity.

        Admittedly one could read the lyrics differently, but to me, this makes the most sense, and brings the most enjoyment.

        •  Interesting. I read "lie" (none)
          to mean "come to rest in a supine position" rather than "make a false statement" in this case.  That reading implies the "accidental death" theory.

          Interesting that an old song creates so much work for interpreters, and that the interpretations that strike different people are so different.

          The Republican party: An alliance of madness and greed.

          by jem6x on Thu Mar 09, 2006 at 12:27:14 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  well (none)
            I mean, to me it's both.  The master-cide story is obscured by the double meaning.

            From Time magazine, 9/24/45:

            According to Carl Sandburg, it was one of Abe Lincoln's favorite songs. Nobody knows who wrote it, but its words got into print in 1848, in the Ethiopian Glee Book.

          •  Yes, but (none)
            it was the slave's duty to keep the blue tail flies from biting the horse. At least indirectly the death was due to the slave's failure to perform his duty. Who's to say he didn't go a little farther than neglecting to swat a particulary blue and shiny fly.

            I've often thought there must be a million stories that could be told about slaves and their ability to subtly or not so subtly sabotage their "owners." Simply neglecting to point out problems or dangers could be very destructive.  

      •  They left out a good bit in elementary (4.00)
        I took 'crack corn' in the most literal sense.

        It wasn't til much, much later that I realized that 'cracking' could refer to distillation...of alcohol.  So Jimmy could have been cooking up a mess of celebratory hooch!  

        We must never lose it, or sell it, or give it away. We must never let them take it from us.

        by Fabian on Thu Mar 09, 2006 at 12:23:25 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  and I've read (none)
          that the "crack corn" part was related to the term some find offensive for some Floridians (although many I've met call themselves this): Florida crackers. In other words, what I've heard is that "crackers" got the nickname from eating hard corn while working in the fields, thus cracking it with their teeth.
          •  I hope it was parch corn! (none)
            That's be easier on the teeth.

            You know the natives were pretty smart when by the time the white man showed up, they had not only bred teosinte into something highly productive but had different strains for: parch corn, popcorn, corn for meal, corn for flour.  They may have had sweet corn as well, but that would have to be a seasonal luxury.

            We must never lose it, or sell it, or give it away. We must never let them take it from us.

            by Fabian on Thu Mar 09, 2006 at 12:49:32 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

          •  Florida crackers (none)
            The term "cracker" as applied to Florida country folk was a reference to the bull whips of Central Florida cattle drovers of the post Civil War period.  These "whip crackers" were Florida's cowboys, famous for being lawless and troublesome to everyone--especially to free blacks trying to homestead. . .

            It is easy for non-Floridians to miss that Florida
            was predominantly poor and predominantly agricultural until the last few decades.  

            •  My 2 cents. (none)
              As a third generation Floridian, I have to comment on the origin of the term Cracker. Here is a site that adds some weight to some of the above comments.
              See the "What is a Cracker?" page. And yes, my Grandfather and Great Uncle raised Scrub cows, shot and ate Piney-woods rooters and made Low-bush lightning as well as Rot gut.

              The interpretation that I always heard was that it was derived from the Shell Cracker, an easy to catch and tasty main staple of the Florida pioneers diet.

              It was not until a few years ago that I learned that the term also has a negative connotation.

              The present administration is rolling back the Great Society, the New Deal, the Enlightenment, and the Renaissance.

              by JohnInWestland on Thu Mar 09, 2006 at 03:04:07 PM PST

              [ Parent ]

              •  thanks (none)
                That first link you give is quite interesting. I actually read the cracked-corn version in a book I edited, written by a Florida native from a small town on the Panhandle not too far north of Apalachicola (near where I currently live). The link you give says the cracked-corn story is the Panhandle's version, so that explains it!
              •  Word-Detective (none)
                sides with the first of those possible etymologies.  You can check the full article here.

                But the actual source is almost certainly the much older slang sense of "to crack" meaning "to boast or brag," first seen around 1460, and its derivative "cracker," meaning "braggart," which appeared around 1509. The earliest use of "cracker" used in the "poor white" sense discovered so far bears out the connection. In a letter written to the Earl of Dartmouth in 1766, an observer named Gavin Cochrane, referring to bands of outlaws operating at that time in the Southern U.S., noted: "I should explain to your Lordship what is meant by crackers; a name they have got from being great boasters; they are a lawless set of rascalls on the frontiers of Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas and Georgia, who often change their places of abode."

                Evidently these outlaws were so successful that their exploits, along with their bragging habits, became legendary throughout the eastern United States. By the early 19th century, "cracker" had become a term applied to poor Southern whites in general.

                Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

                by pico on Thu Mar 09, 2006 at 04:22:08 PM PST

                [ Parent ]

        •  What I've heard cracking corn was... (none)
          I always heard that heard that "cracking corn" was a slang term for sitting around chatting, from the fact that unlike things like picking cotton, where the slaves had to keep moving, cracking corn was a more restful, much more preferred job that allowed for more socializing.

          I might also add that a lot of people consider the song to have originated in the minstrel shows of the pre-Civil War era, and thus was probably at least mildly mocking in tone, though I still don't think it's especially racist.

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