The first association a modern audience has with this song is probably its legacy in the unjust “Jim Crow Laws” of the 20th century. However, if we can hold our revulsion & peer through the immediate racist imagery and dialect (admittedly hard as that is for modern listeners), we find some shocking critique and surprisingly liberal views in the lyrics.
For example, what do we make of this intriguing commentary on 1830s politics (especially issues like Nullification), a full 30 years before the Civil War?:
De great Nullification,
And de fuss in de south,
Is now before Congress,
To be tried by de word ob mouth.
Dey hab had no blows yet,
An I hope dey nebber will,
For its berry cruel in bredren,
One anoders blood to spill.
Wid Jackson at de head
Dey soon de ting may settle
For ole Hickory is a man,
Dat’s tarnal full ob mettle.
Jim Crow then proceeds to preach the doctrine of a future generation of “radical abolitionists“:
Should dey get to fighting,
Perhaps de bracks will rise,
For deir wish for freedom
Is shining in deir eyes,
An if de bracks should get free,
I guess they’ll feel some bigger,
An I shall consider it,
A bold troke for de niggar.!
I am for freedom,
An for union altogeder,
Although I am a brack man,
De white is called my broder.
What stuff it is in dem
To make de debil brack,
I’ll prove dat he is white,
In de twinkling of a crack.
For you see lobed brodders,
As true as he hab a tail,
It he berry wickedness,
What make he turn pale.
(Hmmm… For more about that pale devil concept, see the Mary Kingsley quote on our “Raising Cain” source page… >> )
And while we’re at it, here’s another songsheet that comments more directly on the folly of southern fire-eaters & secessionists:
Now Jim Crow takes a tour around the Northern states, wanders the hallowed freedom trails of Boston, and co-opts the South’s most vaunted Founding Father:
If nature make me black man, and oder folks white,
I went to ole Boston, where dey learn me left and right.
I went into de cradle, where dey rock’d sweet Liberty,
And dare I saw de names ob those who made their country free.
I went across to Charlestown, and on to Bunker Hill,
Which once de British tried to climb, but found it diffikil.
‘Twas dare I saw de Navy Yard, likewise de Dry Dock,
‘Twas lin’d by de best ob stone, dug out ob Quincy Rock.
Near it lay de ship ob war, among dem de Constitution,
Which our brave heroes sail’d in, and put England in confusion.
Dare’s a place dey call de Boson, once fought for liberty,
Dey’d throw de nullifiers overboard, as once dey did de tea.
Dar’s two ole sogers, whose names me no forget,
One was massa George Washington, de oder Laughayit.
When de war was ober, and ebery ting content,
De people make George Washington de great President.
Den he put all de States togedder, and tied a string around,
And when de string is broken, boys, dey’ll tumble to de ground.
When dey was first set up, dare was only a dozen and one,
But now dare is twenty-four, and a number more to cum.
Dese twenty-four children belong to Uncle Sam,
And hab been bery dutiful, except now and den.
He’s got a handsome fortune by industry’s made,
And new his chief concern is, to gib his children a trade.
He’s got one sassy daughter, her name is Caroline,
I’m ‘fraid he’ll hab to tie her up and gib her 39.
Now as for South Carlina, she’d better keep her passion in,
Or else she’ll get a licken now, before she does begin.
Johnny C. Calhoun is courting her, dey say he’s got de wedding ring.
And when de wedding’ ober, dey are going to make him king.
When he walks up to Caroline, her sun-bright hand to take,
Be careful de wedding don’t turn out to be an Irish wake.
Dey say South Carolina is a fool, and as for Johnny C. Calhoun,
He’ll be worse dan Davy Crockett, when he tried to fool de coon.
Oh, he took up his crooked gun, and fired round de maple tree,
De ball came back in de same place, and hit him on de knee.
The imagery here is rich & deliberate — the slave recognizes Boston as the cradle of liberty; George Washington ties all the states together permanently; John C. Calhoun courts secessionist South Carolina; the mythic Davy Crockett was no stranger to the minstrel stage...
Remember that these lines are sung by a white performer in blackface, to an audience that was immensely diverse in race, class, & social background. Dale Cockrell’s book Demons of Disorder documents the popularity of Rice’s “extravaganza” among New York City street urchins (black, white, & otherwise) and high-class English aristocracy alike, and its pervasive influence on the early formulations of the blackface musical performances that Frederick Douglass would later call (with more than a touch of class-based disgust) “our national music.” So what did these lyrics of caricature, critique, political warning, & racial unity mean to their Jacksonian audiences? Why did Rice have to assume a blackface character in order to be heard (and lauded)? Could it be that Jim Crow began as a kind of coded warning, or even a political pressure release valve, for all who could hear it — and only later became engulfed in the developing organized racism of future generations?
Interesting artifacts come in threes — here’s a later wartime songsheet that updates Jim Crow for the 1860s:
This time, old Jim engages in some fairly sophisticated political logic & biblical history to refute an unjust system of color-based discrimination:
The dixies say the darkey’s head for learning is not fit;
But they wont let him try to learn; they fear he has the wit.
If the darkey has no human soul, as we do of’n hear,
The dev’l may get the master, but the darkey will get clear.
If the darkies are not persons, tell me why, you dixie men.
When you elect for Congress, you make darkies persons then.
When the peop’l are represented, of them the slaves are part;|
Another time they are chattels–O, gosh! but that is smart.
Jim Crow has, it seems, more depth to him than first meets the eye…
The Jim Crow Origin Myth
SEE: Robert Christgau (“The Dean of American Rock Critics”) on the “Jim Crow” origin story: “In Search of Jim Crow: Why Postmodern Minstrelsy Studies Matter”:
In 1828 or 1829, so the story is told, in free Cincinnati or down the river in slave Louisville, or maybe in Pittsburgh (or was it Baltimore?), an obscure actor named Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice came across a crippled black stablehand doing a grotesquely gimpy dance. “Every time I turn about I jump Jim Crow,” the stablehand would sing, illustrating his words with an almost literally syncopated dance (“syncope”: “a partial or complete temporary suspension of respiration and circulation due to cerebral ischemia”). The effect was comical, all accounts agree; it was also rhythmically compelling or exciting, though how this effect is achieved through a discontinuity in which one half of the body is acrobatic and the other immobilized is apparently too self-evident to be addressed. Rice was so impressed that he bought the black man’s clothes and made off with his song and dance. “Jump Jim Crow” became a major smash–in Gilbert Chase’s words, “the first big international song hit of American popular music.”
Like many European-American entertainers in the 1820s and a few going back some 50 years, Rice was already appearing regularly in blackface. Not until 1843 would the Virginia Minstrels, the first (professional) (white) (“white”) fiddle-banjo-tambourine-bones music group, kick off a craze that would soon accommodate interlocutors and endmen and skits and variety acts and pianos and what-have-you. In expansive mutations of fluctuating grotesquery and brilliance, the craze would dominate American show business until the end of the 19th century. And after a long period of shame-faced obscurity cemented by the civil rights movement, its daunting tangle of race and class and pop culture and American music would render it a hot topic of historical debate at the end of the 20th century. Nevertheless, Rice’s strange cultural appropriation continues to stand at the headwaters of what we now call minstrelsy–its foundation myth. As a myth, the incident retains explanatory and illustrative power even though there’s no way we can ascertain whether any version of it occurred.
Raising Cain: Blackface Performance from Jim Crow to Hip Hop
by W. T. Lhamon, Jr.