"Blue Tail Fly," "De Blue Tail Fly," or "Jimmy Crack Corn" is thought to be a blackfaceminstrel 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. Most versions at least nod to idiomaticAfrican 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. 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.
Abraham Lincoln was an admirer of the tune, calling it "that buzzing song." It is likely he played it on his harmonica and it is said that he asked for it to be played at Gettysburg.
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
Differing sources date "Jimmy Crack Corn" from 1844 or 1846 and differ as to who authored it. One early printing attributed it to Dan Emmett. 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. 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. 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.
There has been much debate over the meaning of "Jimmy Crack Corn." "Jim crack" or "gimcrack" means shoddily built. Additionally, "corn" is considered an American euphemism for "corn whiskey." Other possibilities include:
That "crack-corn" refers to the master "cracking" open his skull/head (the "corn" or kernel) in the fall, but the slaves were not allowed to rejoice openly, so it was done in code, "and I don't care, my master's gone away," meaning he died;
That it refers to "cracking" open a jug of corn whiskey;
That "crack-corn" is related to the (still-current) slang "cracker" for a rural Southern white.
That "crack-corn" originated from the old English term "crack," meaning gossip, and that "cracking corn" was a traditional Shenandoah expression for "sitting around chitchatting."
That the chorus refers to an overseer who, without the master, has only his bullwhip to keep the slaves in line.
Most etymologists support the first interpretation, as the term "cracker" appears to predate "corn-cracking." Also, "whipcracker" has no historical backing. 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," 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!
The 1930s radio series Pinto Pete in Arizona provides a version with the 'Jim crack corn, I don't care' chorus. See episode 5 here.
In the Scrubs TV series, in the 8th episode of the 2nd season, the character Turk impersonates Neil Diamond singing the song.
In the iCarly episode "I Hatch Chicks," the character Spencer sings a version of the song.
In Peewee's Big Adventure, a homeless man and Peewee sing this song while drinking some type of alcoholic drink and riding in an open train car, until Peewee is driven mad by it and jumps from the train.
In an episode of Pinky & the Brain, when Brain asks Pinky if he is pondering what he is pondering, Pinky responds: "I think so Brain, but if Jimmy Cracks Corn and nobody cares, why does he keep doing it?"
In the Bizarro comic strip featured in newspapers, a sheriff takes a child whose jersey reads "Jimmy" to a man's doorway. He tells the man, "I caught this little rascal crackin' your corn again." The man, holding a banjo, says, "How many times I gotta tell you, sheriff? I DON'T CARE!"
The E and J Gallo Winery used the tune as the basis for a commercial jingle in the 1960s, replacing the "Jimmy crack corn and I don't care, my master's gone away" line with "Gallo makes wine with loving care, especially for you."
The song raised some controversy when a small part of it was used in a December 2006 Cingular Wireless commercial. A person holding a phone conversation was talking to someone (unseen) named "Jim" and was referring to him by every variant of "Jim" that he could think of ("Jimbo," "Jimmy boy," "Jimmy crack corn..."). The sequence was edited out because of several complaints. Cingular stated that, although it only received a "half dozen complaints," it did not want to offend anybody who may have thought that the commercial was inappropriate.
Allan Sherman included a parody version of the song as the first entry in "Shticks and Stones" on his album My Son, the Folk Singer.
Tom Lehrer's satirical "The Folk Song Army" states:
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.
^"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
^Stephen Holden, "The Cream of Folk, Reunited for a Cause," New York Times, May 19, 1993, p. C15.
^"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."
Lott, Eric (1993). Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-509641-X.
Lyr Add: (De) Blue Tail Fly discussion on Mudcat.org gives several variants of title and lyrics, early publication information; its links include numerous other discussions of the song. Accessed 10 Sept 2005.