Jimmy Crack Corn (children's song)

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"Blue Tail Fly"
("Jimmy Crack Corn")
Written1840s
LanguageEnglish
Formstrophic with chorus
Recorded byBurl Ives
 
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For the song by Eminem, see Jimmy Crack Corn (Eminem song)
"Blue Tail Fly"
("Jimmy Crack Corn")
Written1840s
LanguageEnglish
Formstrophic with chorus
Recorded byBurl Ives

"Blue Tail Fly," "De Blue Tail Fly," or "Jimmy Crack Corn" is thought to be a blackface minstrel song, first performed in the United States in the 1840s. It remains a popular children's song today.

Over the years, many lyrical variants have appeared, but the basic narrative remains intact. On the surface, the song is a black slave's lament over his white master's death. The song, however, has a subtext of rejoicing over that death, and possibly having contributed to it by deliberate negligence.[1] Most versions at least nod to idiomatic African English, though sanitized, Standard English versions now predominate.

The blue-tail fly mentioned in the song is probably Tabanus atratus, a species of horse-fly found in the American South.[2][3][4] As it feeds on the blood of animals such as horses and cattle, as well as humans, it constitutes a prevalent pest in agricultural regions. This species of horse-fly has a blue-black abdomen, hence the name.[3]

Abraham Lincoln was an admirer of the tune, calling it "that buzzing song." It is likely he played it on his harmonica[5] and it is said that he asked for it to be played at Gettysburg.[6]

Lyrics[edit]

When I was young I us'd to wait
On the master and hand him his plate;
And Pass down the bottle when he got dry,
And brush away the blue tail fly.
refrain (repeated each verse):
Jimmy crack corn and I don't care,
Jimmy crack corn and I don't care,
Jimmy crack corn and I don't care,
My master's gone away.

In the two verses that follow, the singer is told to protect his master's horse from the bite of the blue-tail fly:

An' when he ride in de afternoon,
I foiler wid a hickory broom;
De poney being berry shy,
When bitten by de blue tail fly.
One day he rode aroun' de farm,
De flies so numerous dey did swarm;
One chanced to bite 'im on the thigh.
De debble take dat blue tail fly.

The horse bucks and the master is killed. The slave then escapes culpability:

De pony run, he jump an' pitch,
An' tumble massa in de ditch;
He died, an' de jury wonder'd why;
De verdic was de blue tail fly.

The references to a "jury" and a "verdic[t]" imply that the slave was criminally charged: Some sources indicate this may have referred to a coroner's inquest or police investigation, but these "slang" terms were not used outside the context of a court proceeding at the time.

They buried him 'neath the sycamore tree
His epitaph there for to see
"Beneath this stone I'm forced to lie
The victim of a blue-tailed Fly."

In the 1930s (exact dates unavailable) radio series Pinto Pete in Arizona, the following verse is added.

Ol' massa's gone and I'll let him rest,
They say all things are for the best,
But I'll never forget 'til the day I die,
Ol' massa and that blue-tailed fly.
Jim crack corn, I don't care (x3)
Ol' massa's gone away

History and interpretation[edit]

Differing sources date "Jimmy Crack Corn" from 1844[7] or 1846[8] and differ as to who authored it. One early printing attributed it to Dan Emmett.[9] However, at the time it was usual for the recorder of a folk song to take credit. It is also thought that it was not originally a blackface minstrel song, but rather of genuine African American origins.[10] Unlike many minstrel songs, "Blue Tail Fly" was long popular among African Americans and was recorded by Big Bill Broonzy, among others. A celebrated live version was recorded by Burl Ives.[11] Folk singer Pete Seeger also made the song popular. Ives and Seeger performed the song together at the 92nd Street Y in New York City in 1993, in what turned out to be Ives' last public performance.[12]

There has been much debate over the meaning of "Jimmy Crack Corn." "Jim crack" or "gimcrack" means shoddily built.[13] Additionally, "corn" is considered an American euphemism for "corn whiskey." Other possibilities include:

Most etymologists support the first interpretation,[citation needed] as the term "cracker" appears to predate "corn-cracking." Also, "whipcracker" has no historical backing.[16] This suggests that, in the chorus, the slaves may be making whiskey and celebrating.

It is also said that Pete Seeger once maintained that the true lyrics were "gimmie cracked corn; I don't care,"[17] referencing a punishment in which a slave's rations were reduced to cracked corn and nothing else. In this case, the author would seem to have decided that this severe punishment would be worth the outcome: the death of the master.

Another interpretation is that "jimmy" was slang for a crow and that the phrase refers to crows being allowed feed in the cornfields. Normally it would have been a boy slave's responsibility to keep crows out of the corn.

The minstrel song from the same era (1840) "Jim Along, Josey" by Edward Harper may be used as a reference. In it "Jim Along" was probably the equivalent of the phrase "Get a-long," which Harper employs in the chorus of this song "Hey, get a-long, get a-long, Josey."

Hey, get a-long, Jim a-long, Jo!
Hey, get a-long, get a-long Josey,
Hey, get a-long, Jim a-long Jo!

Cover versions[edit]

In popular culture[edit]

Film and television

Animation and comics

Advertising

Parodies

There are innocuous folk songs,
But we regard 'em with scorn.
The folks who sing 'em have no social conscience,
Why, they don't even care if Jimmy crack corn.

References[edit]

Notes

  1. ^ "The Viking Book of Folk Ballads of the English Speaking World," edited by Albert B. Friedman, cited at "Jimmy Crack…" on Mudcat Café's site mudcat.org
  2. ^ Murphree, Steve. (2006). "Learn to live with and respect horse flies and deer flies". The Tennessee Conservationist 72 (4). 
  3. ^ a b Eaton, Eric R.; Kenn Kaufman. (2007). "Deer flies and horse flies". Kaufman Field Guide to Insects of North America. Hillstar Editions. p. 284. ISBN 0-618-15310-1. 
  4. ^ Mullens, Bradley A.; Lance Durden. (2009). "Horse flies and deer flies (Tabanidae)". In Gary Mullen (ed.). Medical and Veterinary Entomology. Academic Press. pp. 254–267 (254). ISBN 0-12-372500-3. 
  5. ^ Wayne Erbsen (1993), Front Porch Songs, Jokes Stories: 48 Great Southern Sing-Along Favorites, Page 10.
  6. ^ James J. Fuld (2000), The Book of World-Famous Music: classical, popular, and folk, Page 312
  7. ^ Lott, 1993, 177
  8. ^ Multiple citations on pdmusic.org, and at Mudcat.org. De Blue Tail Fly Jim Crack Corn… Lyr Add… Jimmy Crack…
  9. ^ "Lyr Add…," on Mudcat.org
  10. ^ "Jimmy Crack…" on Mudcat.org
  11. ^ Ron Sweetman, Big Bill Broonzy in France and England on Jazzhouse.org. Accessed 10 Sept 2005.
  12. ^ Stephen Holden, "The Cream of Folk, Reunited for a Cause," New York Times, May 19, 1993, p. C15.
  13. ^ "A Short Essay on the Modes Of Defence," pp. 53–54: "And, perhaps, some ages hence, when the memory of an undertaking so ridiculous shall be obliterated, their decayed jim-crack curiosities may furnish amusement and speculation to antiquaries."
  14. ^ "Lyr Add…," "Jimmy Crack…," both on Mudcat.org
  15. ^ Straight Dope: Who is Jimmy, and why does he crack corn?
  16. ^ Word Origins: Letter C
  17. ^ Pete Peterson, RE: Jimmy Crack Corn and I Don't Care on mudcat.org. Accessed Jan 2, 2006.
  18. ^ "Cingular Pulls Ad After Racism Complaints". CBS Broadcasting Inc. December 16, 2006. Retrieved November 16, 2008. 

Bibliography