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.
Fascinating — thanks! I’ve passed this along to my fiddle-playing son & his teacher.
Thanks for yet another thoughtful, entertaining, well-researched and well-written story. After reading it, I had a question for you and then I realized, upon re-reading the article, that the answer to my question was spelled out clearly right in the middle of the story. Jeez, you’re thorough.
It’s always a pleasure to read your articles and listen to the recordings that you select.
Nice post. Your comment, however, that today most “associate it with stereotypes of rural southerners and westerners, mostly white” says more about stereotypes today than reality in the past. I’ve gone through numerous newspaper stories about early (1890s-1910s) fiddling contests. These show that, although played all over, the tune was generally more Northern than Southern. Here is the data:
“[Old] Zip Coon” – Indiana (1899, 1910); Georgia (1901); Kansas (1906, 1912); Michigan (1913, 1927); Iowa (1923, 1928); Ohio (1925).
“Turkey in the Straw” – Indiana (1899, 1910); North Carolina (1909); Kansas (1912); Michigan (1913, 1926); Kentucky (1915); Tennessee (1915); Alabama (1920); Illinois (1921); Missouri (1922, 1923); Ohio (1925, 1926); Iowa (1923, 1928)
In other words, the tune wasn’t played much at fiddlers’ contests (and I have numerous clippings from the South) in the Southern states. “Natchez under the Hill” was a tune more or less exclusive to the Old Southwest and so was probably popularized by flatboat fiddlers.
Also, despite the Harry C. Browne and the 1834 Zip Coon sheet music, I haven’t found it particularly associated with racist verses (in contrast to “McLeod’s Reel”). For some examples of vulgar, obscene songs to this tune I recorded in Michigan, see numbers 27, 31, 33, and 35b on my site (www.giffordmusic.net, then go to the “Songs” page). This will offer you more sources if you decide to expand this article!
Paul, you’re certainly right that I was discussing current stereotypes, not historical reality, in that sentence. But also, I didn’t mean people from the Southwest, but people from the South and people from the West. Of the states you cite, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, Alabama, and Georgia are Southern. Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, and Ohio are really Midwestern, but when this tune was published they were the Western frontier. Still, the tune was found in New England too, mostly as a ballad tune; see the Linscott book for an example. And Bayard found it as a healthy part of Pennsylvania tradition from the 1930s through the early 1960s. So it has a pretty good claim for being found all over the U.S., especially when you take into account regional variations such as “Natchez Under the Hill.”
Thanks for the song references, and for the information that you haven’t found the racist versions in oral tradition. That’s good to know!
Maybe we should recall as well the old camp song “Do Your Ears Hang Low?” That variation is frequently part of the medley that you hear from ice cream trucks along with “Turkey in the Straw”.
Jon, thanks for your comment. Many of my friends have reminded me of “Do Your Ears Hang Low,” which also has variants such as “Does Your Hair Hang Low.” (It has several “unmentionable” alternatives too!) A complete accounting of the tune’s influence on popular culture would mention its influence on kids, which this version exemplifies.
Thanks for the great legwork, Stephen! Regarding the photo of Alan Jabbour recording Burl Hammons, I can add this little side note. When I drove down from Morgantown, West Virginia, (where I lived at the time) to visit the family, I used to carry a sleeping bag and foam rubber pad that I rolled out every night. On the occasion shown, Burl’s foot-tapping jiggled the microphone, producing a bit of breakup on the recording, so I made daytime use of the pad to dampen the vibration. That worked great, but the microphone stand started to tilt in Burl’s direction, so I pulled out my wallet and used it as a wedge to keep the stand vertical. Meanwhile, if Alan tapped his feet, it didn’t matter: you can see his shoes next to the doorway on the right.
Really enjoyed reading this, both as a fiddller and as a folklorist! Very thought-provoking.
I can see a passing resemblance between Turkey in the Straw and the Rose Tree but there is another English tune which is much more similar, namely “The Forester” a Morris tune collected in Oxfordshire. Check out http://abcnotation.com/tunePage?a=www.themorrisring.org/sites/default/files/music/Fieldtown/0007.
Thanks for your comment, Gwilym. I’m glad you mentioned “The Forester,” because it’s not commonly cited as being similar or related to “Turkey in the Straw,” while the case has been made several times for “The Rose Tree.” I’ve had lively conversations, both online and off, about this question; many of my friends are not convinced of the connection with “The Rose Tree,” and not all scholars are either. As an example, Cazden, Haufrecht and Studer, in the book “Folk Songs of the Catskills,” state that the Virginia folklorist Winston Wilkinson independently made the identification of “The Rose Tree” with “Turkey in the Straw.” But they disagree with him!
To some extent, deciding which tunes are the most similar to others will always be a matter of personal judgment. I find “The Foresters” quite close to “Turkey in the Straw” in terms of note values, but “The Rose Tree” more similar to “Turkey in the Straw” in melodic contour. The melodic similarity is clearly what Jabbour, Linscott, Bayard, and Wilkinson were responding to as well. But the larger point we all agree on is that “Turkey in the Straw” seems clearly to be descended from British and Irish folk tunes.
Thanks again for another interesting connection to ponder!
Nice article, Steve. The sound clip of Lon Jordan playing Natchez Under The Hill sounds closer to Sugar In The Gourd (which is in itself somewhat close to Turkey In The Straw) than it does to Turkey In The Straw.
An interesting note about Rose Tree: Kenny Hall and his band from around Fresno, California were playing “Rosetree” around in the 1970s, but it was a completely different tune than the one here. Turns out (Kenny said) that he learned it from an Irish record titled “Rose Tree Medley.” He didn’t know which tune in the medley was Rose Tree – he assumed it was the first one, but on that recording it was the last one. Nobody remembers what was in between. So to the folkie fiddlers out west during that period, there was a different melody for Rose Tree. I’ll bet some still remember it, and by that title, and (as I did at the time) think of Rose Tree as the melody for a song that The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem sang, Port Lairge.
Thanks, Steve. Another fascinating essay. I just recorded a shape-note version of “The Rose Tree,” with a text from Alexander Campbell. Who could have imagined that the tune attached itself to everything from Campbell to Old Zip Coon. Well, it IS catchy.
On the subject of ice-cream trucks, the one that has come through my neighborhood for the past several summers only plays the ‘a’ part. It drives me batty. Play the ‘b’ part… please!
My grandfather was born in 1914 in Hamburg, Iowa. I grew up with this melody by way of a song he would sing that would make us all laugh. Dad said he sang it the same way when he was a child. My grandfather’s lyrics are these:
Momma bought a turkey & she thought it was a duck.
She set it on the table right side up.
It poopied on the table & it poopied on the floor.
Naughty little turkey, don’t ya do it any more!
Many years ago a well known Florida folklorist sang this tune with bawdy lyrics, but stopped after the first two lines and refused to continue. The tune is well known for being sung with obscene lyrics. I wonder if anyone knows the rest of this version? (I hope this is not overly offensive to readers). The lyrics are reminiscent of The Chisholm Trail.
Well, the whorls on her belly go ’round and ’round
And the crabs in her p——- say I’m Alabamy bound
Wonderful sharing, really enjoyed it. An interesting note about Rose Tree: Kenny Hall and his band from around Fresno, California were playing “Rosetree” around in the 1970s, but it was a completely different tune than the one here.
Growing up in the ’40’s in Ontario, Can. this was a schoolyard song known as the Jolly Miller. The lyrics that I remember/in fragments) went: ‘Jolly is the miller who lives by the mill. The wheel goes round like a western /reel)? One hand in the hopper and the other in the sack. The lady steps forward and the gent steps back. There was a chorus which said something like ‘work all day, and sing/dance all night……til morning light. Can’t believe I remembered this after all these years.
Thanks for another great piece, Stephen (which I’m just now discovering. For what it’s worth, I trace some of the history of “The Rose Tree” and its roots and branches (pun unavoidable!)in a couple of obscure articles. I’ll just add here that the melody pre-dates Jabbour’s 1795 citation by about three decades. As “The Gimblet” it appears in vol. 10 of James Oswald’s “Caledonian Pocket Companion,” published in London c. 1760. As “The Dainty Besom Maker” it was published by James Aird c. 1782. There is said to be an Irish variant titled “Little Mary Cullenan,” that dates from around 1775, but I have never seen this. The melody owes its identity as “The Rose Tree” to its use for a song of that title in the 1782 comic opera “The Poor Soldier,” music by William Shield and text by John O’Keeffe, that was hugely popular in Britain, Ireland, and the U.S. So, yes, indeed, the racist associations of the melody form only a portion of the tune’s long history.
I’m trying to find the origin of, and the lyrics to a song that is to the tune of Turkey in the Straw. I thought it was by Smiley Lewis, but it must have been someone else as I have looked at lists of all the songs recorded by Smiley Lewis and it does not appear to be there. I also thought it might be by Cab Calloway (already well known for “Chicken Ain’t Nothing but a Bird”). I’m not sure what the title would be. If anyone has a clue please let me know.
It’s a trick to pick a chicken when it’s clucking in the coop
Some are layin’ some are lyin’ some are labeled chicken soup
Doo whak a doo, fricassee a nous
Doo whack a doodle, jams and apple strudle
Out in the country that’s a style
Sweet as the kisses from a honey child
When you wake up in the morning to the cock a doodle do
And you sneak into the chicken shack to pick a chick or two
Pick a dollar nickle rooster or a dollar nickle hen
For some ricky ticky chicky pickin’ right from the bin
Now the farmers got a gander and a gobbler and a goose
And a mighty pretty daughter but he’ll never turn her loose
If you like the farmer”s daughter she’s a chicken you can steal
If you swing her while the fiddle plays a real chicken reel
Neti, the artist you’re looking for is Louis Jordan, who recorded this song with the title “Cock a Doodle Doo.” Find the licensed video on YouTube, at this link. Jordan also recorded many other songs about chickens and other farm animals, including “Barnyard Boogie,” “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens,” and “A Chicken Ain’t Nothin’ But a Bird.”
The earliest recording of the song was recorded by Billy golden a pioneer recording artist on a brown wax cylinder in 1893/94 he recoded the song hundreds of times throughout the 1890s and early 1900s he first started singing it in mintrel showes in the 1870s even he didn’t always sing it exactly the same way
The song was first recorded by Billy golden a pioneer recording artist on a brown wax cylinder in 1893/94 he recorded it along with other songs hundreds of times throughout the 1890s and early 1900s he first preformed it in minstrel shows in the 1870s
Bringing in Byrd does not exactly help. While his public politics followed upper South Democrats from strict segregationist to relative neutrality and then formal support of Civil Rights for Black people, in Washington on into the 1960s and 70s he was known as an inveterate racist in his personal views and behavior. I have heard the anguished complaints of an African American police officer detailed as security for Byrd’s home complaining at the abusive treatment she received from Byrd in the 70s or early 80s made here feel it was back in the days of Jim Crow
My dad played the harmonica and the one tune that we loved the most, as kids,was his version of Turkey in the Straw. My dad was the son of working-class Irish-Americans from Berkeley, California and starting playing the harmonica as a young boy. He was drafted at age 28 during WWII and stationed in Europe. Among his fellow GIs, Turkey in the Straw was his most requested tune. Tunes like “On Top of Old Smokey” tended to make everyone homesick. “Turkey in the Straw”, though, really cheered up the boys.
Thank you for this but if history and showing that the origins were from “Rose Tree.” I hope more people can see this research and appreciate such a beautiful fun melody for what it really is and it’s roots.