It’s not often a fiddle tune becomes controversial, but that’s happening this week, thanks to a blog post by Theodore R. Johnson, III over at National Public Radio. Johnson discusses a well-known tune, with many versions in Library of Congress collections, and raises interesting and important issues, so I thought we might feature the piece here on Folklife Today.
The tune in question is “Turkey in the Straw,” one of the most widely-distributed American tunes, and one that in popular culture has become iconic of rural America. In case you don’t know what the tune sounds like, here’s a version that comes with a nice story: when John A. Lomax was collecting folk music in Texas with his wife Ruby in 1939, he was introduced to a fiddler named Elmo Newcomer. Newcomer was tickled to meet Lomax, because twenty-eight years previously, he had bought Lomax’s first book, Cowboy Songs and Other Frontier Ballads, directly from Lomax by mail. He greeted Lomax with the following words:
Shake, boy. I’ve heared about you all my life. Me an’ a neighbor boy was both left to live alone with our fathers. We read in a paper when we was about fourteen years old, that you was sellin’ a book of cowboy songs. So we scraped our savings together an’ sent’ em to you an’ sure ‘nough here come the book. Here, Clyde, Bring me that cowboy song book. Can you reach it? (It’s put away up high where the baby can’t reach get to it). We read it and sung from it so much and loaned it out so much that it’s might nigh tore up.
Like many old-time fiddlers, Newcomer knew words for the tune, but he played it mostly as dance music, so he rolled the tune over many times and only occasionally sang a verse. The two verses he came out with in this performance were the following:
Went out to milk an’ didn’t know how
I milked a goat instead of a cow.
Saw a turkey settin’ in a pile o’ straw
Winkin’ at his mother-in-law
I went out to milk an’ didn’t know how
I milked a goat instead of a cow.
Picked up a rock an’ whacked him on the jaw
And he kicked up a tune called “Turkey in the Straw.”
Let’s hear it:
Most Americans probably recognize the tune, and associate it with stereotypes of rural southerners and westerners, mostly white, doing square dances on farms and in mountain hollers. The reason for the controversy, though, is that, as Johnson points out, “Turkey in the Straw” has been associated with other stereotypes as well. Specifically, it has been used to carry virulently racist words. Not wishing to repeat anything hurtful or derogatory here, I’ll just say that Johnson’s blog post details what those words are. I’ll also mention that one common title for the piece was “Zip Coon.”
The racist associations of the tune are only part of its legacy, though, and are neither the oldest part nor the most recent. The tune has roots in much older music, and has continued in forms largely devoid of racial connotations. The origins of “Turkey in the Straw” hearken back to British and Irish dance music. In her 1939 book Folk Songs of Old New England, Eloise Hubbard Linscott (whose collection of recordings and photographs is part of the AFC archive) identified “Turkey in the Straw” as a variant of the British tune “The Rose Tree,” which is also related to the Irish piece “The Rose Tree in Full Bearing.” You can hear a cylinder recording of William Nathan “Jinky” Wells playing “The Rose Tree” in the player below, from the James Madison Carpenter Collection. The recording is AFC 1972/001 Cylinder 110.
The identification of “Turkey in the Straw” with “The Rose Tree” was independently made by Alan Jabbour, who says of the two tunes:
The only conspicuous difference in the melodic contours is that ‘The Rose Tree’ drops to the tonic in the third phrase of the second strain, while the American tunes thrust up to the octave for rendering much the same melodic material.
Jabbour cites “The Rose Tree” as appearing in a 1795 manuscript, predating any of the racist versions of the song. Samuel P. Bayard concurs with Jabbour, adding several more useful notes and references. Jabbour’s main touchstone as a fiddler was Henry Reed, who had several versions of the tune, including the one below:
In addition to its use for dancing, “The Rose Tree” has been used for a number of songs over the years, including “My Grandmother Lived on Yonder Little Green” and “The Miller Boy.” Once the tune came to America, possibly in connection with these songs, it developed several related variants, and several different titles. Common names for the tune include the racist “Zip Coon,” but also many neutral ones, such as “Sugar in the Gourd,” “Natchez Under the Hill,” and “The Jolly Old Miller.”
In the early days of commercial recording, “Turkey in the Straw” was often recorded in medleys with other tunes, especially on the banjo. Below, hear virtuoso banjo player Vess Ossman play the tune; it turns up at 1:46 in the medley, which also includes “Dixie” and “The Arkansas Traveler.”
“Turkey in the Straw” also became the basis of classical and jazz compositions such as Otto Bonnell’s “Ragtime Fantasy,” which, judging by the cover art, clearly drew on the song’s racial connotations. Pietro Deiro recorded this piece on the accordion—hear it below.
Both before and after the advent of commercial recordings, “Turkey in the Straw” turned up in folk tradition as a fiddle and banjo tune. Some of these bear the typical “Turkey” title and sound like standard versions of the tune, like the one played by Mrs. Ben Scott and Myrtle B. Wilkinson for Sidney Robertson Cowell in 1939:
Others are more unusual, such as the one Vance Randolph got from Lon Jordan, who called it “Natchez Under the Hill,” and realized it was a little different from most versions:
One of our most interesting versions of the tune is the one played by Burl Hammons, because it comes with a ghost story. Hammons recalled a skeletal ghost who visited his home when he was a child. The skeleton entered the house with his fiddle, played “Turkey in the Straw,” and left:
Well, I was—where we lived, we lived down on the Williams River, when the—when I saw this thing, and so—And we always went to bed pretty early, my dad did, and—about eight, nine o’clock we always went to bed—and I laid down and I, didn’t seem like I could go to sleep. And I laid there a while and just directly I heared the click, open come the door, and in walked this skeleton of a man. And he was the tallest man, Lord, I’ve — he was really tall, a—must’ve been six or seven feet tall or looked like that.
And he had — I noticed he had a fiddle in his hand when he walked in; and he walked about the middle of the floor where I was a-sleeping. And he took off on that “Turkey in the Straw,” and boys I never had heared nothing played like that in my life. And I shut my eyes to keep from looking at the skeleton of a man, but I was still listening at that tune. And, when I opened my eyes, he’d — I waited till he finished the tune before I opened my eyes, but he — when he finished it he was still a – standing but he just turned and walked to the door, and just “click” open come the door, and out he went.
You can hear the rest of the story, and the tune itself, in the player below.
When the tune entered twentieth-century pop culture, it usually didn’t refer to African American people, or at least it didn’t seem to. In fact, it sometimes didn’t refer to people at all: it was a major part of the Disney animated short Steamboat Willie, which introduced the characters of Mickey and Minnie Mouse. In the film, while Minnie turns a goat’s tail into a crank and plays the animal like a barrel-organ, Mickey plays music using a variety of found objects, including other unfortunate animals: a cat becomes a musical saw, a goose becomes a bagpipe, a litter of suckling piglets becomes an organ, and a cow’s teeth become a xylophone. On all of these hapless animals, Mickey plays “Turkey in the Straw”—although, strangely, no turkey appears in the sequence! As the first cartoon with synchronized sound, Steamboat Willie gave “Turkey in the Straw” very prominent placement in the history of film. As a pioneering work, it was placed on the Library of Congress National Film Registry in 1998.)
Later in the twentieth century, “Turkey in the Straw” was used for other purposes. A 1941 “soundie” (what we’d call a music video today) by the Schnickelfritz Band shows Freddie Fisher and his bandmates in a barn wearing overalls and straw hats, as stereotypical white country bumpkins, playing the tune on their signature mix of jazz and jug-band instruments; a 1983 ad for Murphy’s Oil Soap shows a white suburban family singing the tune with the words “now the dirt is finished, but the finish is fine;” and, as Johnson notes in his blog post, many ice-cream trucks employ the song as well.
Throughout this period, the tune continued to be used in old-time music, primarily as a dance tune, but also as a nonsense song. In 1959, Alan Lomax recorded Charlie Everidge playing the tune on a mouthbow, or as he called it, a “pickin’ bow.” Neil Morris, a talented singer and guitarist, performed dance calls with Everidge. You can hear that version at this link.
One more unusual version from our collections deserves a mention: the fiddling and singing of Senator Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia. Byrd was well-known as a fiddler, from the Grand Ole Opry stage to the TV show Hee-Haw, and he often played his fiddle at political rallies and events on Capitol Hill. In 1975, Library of Congress researchers Alan Jabbour and Carl Fleischhauer visited the Senator at his home and recorded his fiddle tunes, including “Turkey in the Straw.” In 1977 and 1978, the Senator came the Library, and the team re-recorded many of his tunes on the stage of the Coolidge Auditorium. They captured several versions of “Turkey in the Straw” in that session, too. You can hear a recording of Byrd singing and playing this tune at this link, provided by the Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative Studies.
So what do we make of the song and its racist connotations? Johnson says that, for him, “there is simply no divorcing the song from the dozens of decades it was almost exclusively used for coming up with new ways to ridicule, and profit from, black people.” I think we can soften this slightly: for one thing, there’s no evidence the melody was “almost exclusively” used for any one set of ideas. In fact, there’s plenty of evidence that it was used steadily as a fiddle tune, a nonsense song, and a ballad air, with no mention of black folks at all, before, during, and after its more offensive employment in racist songs. For another thing, there aren’t dozens of decades between the time the tune seems to be first associated with racist ditties and the time it was again primarily about rural whites, as in the Schnickelfritz soundie; there are possibly a dozen decades there, but it’s a stretch.
But still, these are quibbles. Johnson’s main point is one we must consider: when do the uses of a piece of music spoil it for listeners? The answer is likely to be personal, and different for each of us. Our best defense is to inform ourselves about the music’s history and let our minds and hearts give us the answer.
For more information on the recordings above, and to hear more, please follow this link.