Back in 2014 I wrote a blog about one of my favorite dance songs, “Buffalo Gals.” I have thought a lot about it since and explored more of the history of similar and related songs. More is available online today as well, so that more examples can be readily presented here.
“Buffalo Gals” from its earliest known printed versions has been changed and adapted to different audiences, different locations, and different uses on the stage. It has so many names and variations that it is difficult to search for similar versions. With its most familiar lyrics, it had its heyday as a minstrel show song. I think it also may have ties to African American dance song lyrics. The minstrel shows had a complex and often disturbing history of both demeaning representations of African Americans and the blending of African and European American culture. Both white and African American performers shared the stage wearing blackface. Both white and African American artists could write songs and skits for the stage. It created venues where, behind their makeup, performers could speak out for abolition, even as they perpetuated negative stereotypes of African Americans. American popular music was born as this form of entertainment arose and the beginnings of the song we know as “Buffalo Gals” are found there.
The history of variations of the song before the published versions is obscure. It is the minstrel versions that were published as sheet music for people to buy for their parlor pianos beginning in the 1840s. One of the reasons the history is confusing is that historians tend to look at those published dates and start from there. But songs can have a history long before they are published.
The earliest versions of the song that can be found today are not called “Buffalo Gals.” Many people start with “Lubly Fan,” by John Hodges (1821-1891), also known by his minstrel character “Cool White.” He was a Philadelphia-based minstrel who began performing in 1843. His version of the song is sung in the role of an African American man meeting a girl, Lovely Fanny (Lubly Fan), and has a familiar chorus where he calls her to come out and dance. This was published in 1844. “De New York Gals,” a different but related minstrel show song praising the beauty of the women of New York published by C. G. Christman, was also published in 1844. The Ethiopian Serenaders adapted the song for audiences in different towns they performed in. They produced sheet music for “Philadelphia Gals” in 1845, a version attributed to George Willing with the familiar chorus.
It was in the early 1840s that the minstrel show phenomenon was just taking off and audiences wanted more of it. Songs were published at that time because of the new demand. The fact that multiple minstrel show versions and variants of this song calling girls out to dance were published in 1844 and 1845 for fans of the songs already in performance to sing and play on their pianos at home is evidence that there were unpublished songs that developed into versions for the stage and then into the first sheet music for “Buffalo Gals” published by the Ethiopian Serenaders in 1848. So I doubt that any of the early published versions we have can be declared the “first version” of “Buffalo Gals” with any certainty, but as far as my research has taken me so far, they are the first versions with dates on them. This was a hit song that people wanted to capitalize on and everyone with a song to sell was rushing to publish at the same time.
The most important of the early published versions may be “Bowery Gals” published in the Negro Forget-Me-Not-Songster in 1845. It is introduced in the collection of songs as having been sung by W. B. Donaldson, a banjo player and a songwriter from New York. It is a song with the most familiar lyrics compared to “Buffalo Gals.” Undated song sheets for “Bowery Gals” also were published and probably date from the same period. One example is pictured at the top of this blog. Sheet music for a different version of “The Bowery Gals” was published in 1845 and credited to William Clifton — which can only mean that he is the author of this particular version of the song. He could not have been the original composer of the tune as claimed on the sheet music, as that was a traditional dance tune that likely existed long before any of these songs. Still another version of “Bowery Gals” was published in The Ethiopian glee book: containing the songs sung by the Christy Minstrels in 1849. A copy digitized by the Boston Public Library is available at the link from archive.org. So while there was one printed version of “Lubly Fan” and a variant called “New York Gals” by 1844, there were at least two printings of “Bowery Gals” by 1845 and undated song sheets. It continued to be published in songsters in the 1850s.
Here are the lyrics for “The Bowery Gals” as sung by William Donaldson, with the first dated publication appearing in 1845:
As I was lumbering down de street,
O down de street,
O down de street,
Dat pretty color’d gal I chanced to meet,
O, she was fair to view.
Den de Bowery gals will come out to night.
Will you come out to night,
Will you come out to night,
O de Bowery gals will you come out to night.
And dance by de light ob de moon.
Den we stopp’d awhile and had some talk,
O we had some talk,
O we had some talk,
And her heel cover’d up the whole side-walk
As she stood right by me.
Dem de Bowery gals, etc.
I ‘d like to kiss dem lubly lips.
Dem lubly lips.
Dem lubly lips,
I tink dat I could lose my wits,
An drop right on de floor.
Den de Bowery gals, etc.
I ax’ed her would she go to a dance,
Would she go to a dance,
Would she go to a dance,
I thought dat I might have a chance
To shake my foot wid her.
I danced all night, and my heel kept a rocking
O my heel kept a rocking,
O my heel kept a rocking,
And I balance to de gal wid de hole in her stocking
She was de, prettiest gal in de room.
I am bound to make dat gal my wife
Dat gal my wife,
Dat gal my wife,
O, I should be happy all my life
If I had her along wid me.
Den de Bowery gals, etc.
One thing that surprised when I first saw this song was the verse including “O my heel kept a rocking” and “I balance to de gal wid de hole in her stocking.” These are very similar to the lyrics of the version popular in the 1940s, “Dancing with the Dolly,” by Tony Pastor and his Orchestra. I had accepted the word of writers who said that the lyrics “dancing with the dolly with a hole in her stocking, her knees kept a knocking, etc.” were original to Pastor et al. “Dolly” and the phrase “her knees kept a knocking” seem to have been new additions based on older lyrics, but the Pastor version is simply a very old song updated for new audiences.
I found the meaning and source of “my heel kept a rocking” when I began to look for it in other dance songs of the period. This song has elements that date to the appearance of the comic character Jim Crow and the early acts that led to the development of the minstrel stage. The invention of the character is credited to Thomas (Tom) D. Rice who performed as Jim Crow starting in about 1828. By 1832 he was known for the role. The wild dance that was meant to be African American was often described in song with the line “my heel kept a rocking,” which seems to come from African American song. No one knows exactly what the dance looked like. But Rice and others who imitated him, such as William Donaldson who first played “Young Jim Crow” at the age of thirteen in 1836, were likely inspired by real African American dances such as juba dancing.
Juba dance was an energetic African American dance style that drew inspiration from African, Haitian, and European American dance. I wish there had been film in that era so that we could see examples of the original. Its closest relatives emerged in the 19th century and are still known today as hambone, wing dance, and buck dance. Features of it survive in many modern styles of African American dance. Tom Rice would most likely have encountered juba in the person of African American performer William Henry Lane, who was known as “Master Juba” on the minstrel stage and was responsible for popularizing the dance style. The importance of Lane to the development of the minstrel stage is indicated by one story. The Ethiopian Serenaders toured England in 1846. They were understandably criticized for being fake — white men in black-face pretending to present African American music. So on their next trip to London in 1848 they took Lane with them, billing him as Master Juba. They knew him and regarded him as a worthy talent to add to their show, and from this we can guess that he might have been in some way a mentor as well.
This helps explain the dance, but where were white performers who imitated African American dance wearing blackface getting their song ideas? One of the stories about Tom Rice was that he learned from African Americans in the South where he performed. I think it is likely that he and other white performers made up a lot of his lyrics and presented them as if they were African American, as was a common part of the minstrel tradition that followed. African Americans were represented as comical and uneducated by white performers and much of that was created by those performers. But mixed in were also lyrics that came from interaction with African American performers.
Songs from African American tradition that may have helped to inspire “Bowery Gals” and its related songs were not published until much later, and so what we have are later versions of an oral tradition that no doubt included a lot of improvisation and change over time. African Americans in the 1850s and 1860s were exposed to songs from the minstrel stage, and likely some of the lyrics we have include lines adapted from those popular songs. So the flow of music between white culture and African American culture make it difficult to be sure about origins. But there are some guesses that can be made.
1. As I walked down the new-cut road,
I met the tap and then the toad;
The toad commenced to whistle and sing,
And the possum cut the pigeon wing.
Along come an old man riding by:
Old man, if you don’t mind, your horse will die;
If he dies I’ll tan his skin,
And if he lives I’ll ride him agin.
Hi ho, for Charleston gals!
Charleston gals are the gals for me.
2. As I went a-walking down the street,
Up steps Charleston gals to take a walk with me.
I kep’ a walking and they kep’ a talking,
I danced with a gal with a hole in her stocking.
Collected in Pine Bluff, Arkansas by Mr. E. J. Snow, published in 1867.
Slave Songs of the United States, edited by William Francis Allen, 1830-1889, edited by, Charles Pickard Ware, 1840-1921, edited by, and Lucy McKim Garrison, 1842-1877. Made available online by the Library of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (page 88, song number 109).
Above is one of the earliest songs collected from African American slaves to have been published. Slave Songs of the United States was compiled and published shortly after the Civil War, long after “Bowery Gals,” “Buffalo Gals,” and related songs were first published. But this song gives some idea of the African American songs that may have inspired minstrels. The tune, which can be found at the link on the title, is not the same. The phrase “cut the pigeon wing” refers to a dance move that imitates a bird, movements that became wing dancing. The appearance of talking animals harks back to animal tales brought from Africa, although the possum was a newcomer from America. “I met the tap and then the toad” is the terrapin and the toad found in many old African American songs — here “tap” must either be a nickname or a misunderstanding by the transcriber. The last verse ties the song to “Buffalo Gals” but the lyrics could have been inspired by the popular song by the time this song was collected. I have not found other examples of that verse in the early African American songs, so I don’t see this as clear evidence of African American origins for the lyrics. But the elements of admiring a young lady’s dress and feet are found in another common dance lyric from African American tradition.
“Cut the pigeon wing” shows up in the lyrics of Tom Rice, for example in “Old Jim Crow.” As does this verse collected in several African American songs and “Clare the Kitchen” as Tom Rice performed it. These or similar lyrics can be found in so many early African American songs from so many different places in the United States that it is almost certainly African American in origin:
There is a gal in our town
She wears a yellow striped gown
And when she walks the streets around
The hollow of her foot makes a hole in the ground.
(See Jim Crow, American: Selected Songs and Plays, by T. D. Rice, edited by W. T. Lhamon Jr., Belknap Press, 2009, pp. 36-38 for lyrics to “Clare the Kitchen” as Rice sang it.)
This verse recalls, and might have inspired, the outlandish verse about the Bowery gal whose heel covered the whole sidewalk — which I hope means that her dancing covered the sidewalk and not that her feet were huge. Perhaps this verse about the “hollow of her foot” inspired the line about dancing with the girl with the hole in her stocking.
Dorothy Scarborough, who published a collection of African American songs in 1924, speculated exactly this line of creation between African American dance song, the songs of Tom Rice, and “Buffalo Gals” starting with “Ol Virginny Never Tire,” a song that has been collected in many versions from many African American communities, and includes the verse above about the girl in the yellow striped gown (On the Trail of Negro Folk Songs, pp. 109 to 114, available online from archive.org at the link). But the pieces that are missing from her discussion are the song “Bowery Gals” and the contributions of William Donaldson and the Ethiopian Serenaders. These help to make a stronger connection between the songs and the minstrel performers. Donaldson, who, like Rice, performed comedy and songs before black-face performances became the minstrel shows, certainly took inspiration and some material from Rice. But “Bowery Gals” is most clearly identified with him as a performer of the song (though no source points to him or anyone else as the author). “Buffalo Gals,” was first published as sheet music by the Ethiopian Serenaders.
My feeling is that “Bowery Gals” is the key to understanding not only where “Buffalo Gals” came from, but what it was originally about and who the “gals” were. Scarborough was right that white performers who first worked in black face were finding ideas in African American dance songs. Some of these they no doubt heard in their travels performing in the south. But Rice and Donaldson, among other performers, were headquartered near the Bowery Theater in New York City and had examples of African American music much closer to hand.
New York, on the lower East Side, was a developing culture of music and dance began in the late 1830s attracting working class young people to clubs where European Americans and pople of color mingled freely. By 1840 descriptions of the wild music and dance began to appear. In a recent book, ethnomusicologist Dale Cockrell worked to piece together the history from news, books and articles by shocked missionaries, articles in men’s sports magazines, police reports, and other information of the times to learn as much as possible about this moment in the beginning of American music (Everybody’s Doin’ It: Sex, Music, and Dance in New York 1840-1917, W.W. Norton, 2019). Much of what he found was distorted, negative, exaggerated, and focused on the brothels and sexual aspects of the club scene. So Cockrell worked to read between the lines of these sources to piece together what was really going on in this vibrant music and dance culture that contributed to the musical forms we know today.
For this discussion, what is most important is that the Bowery girls and “b’hoys” (boys) were a phenomenon that was capturing people’s interest in New York. They were working class people of all ethnic groups creating their own colorful fashions, dances, and music. For New York men who were the main early audience for performances by artists such as Tom Rice, William Donaldson, and William Henry Lane, the Bowery gals were exciting and they wanted to hear about them. This places the song “Bowery Gals” at the beginning of the phenomenon that became the minstrel show. I wonder if it could even have started earlier. Could there have been a version that came out of the clubs themselves? It is, after all, a dance song. But the printed versions on their own do not take us back that far.
As minstrel songs go, “Bowery Gals” is a fairly positive song — excepting the mimicked African American dialect and the questionable line about her heel covering the sidewalk. The song does praise the young lady. She is said to be beautiful and the singer says that he wants to marry her. With so much of the existing documents about the Bowery girls and boys of the 1840s criticizing their dance, their music, their fashions, and their morals, “Bowery Gals” seems to be a little glimpse of the culture that might be more true to the ideals of the young people who owned it.
The Ethiopian Serenaders called the Bowery home, and whether they wrote a song about the “Bowery Gals,” learned one in the dance clubs there and took it for their own, or adapted a song for their purposes, they made it a hit. As the Ethiopian Serenaders traveled, they began changing the song to fit other audiences and call other young women from other cities to dance. “Philadelphia Gals” was next to be published. How did the “Bowery Gals” become the “Buffalo Gals?” One of my colleagues, Nancy Groce, pointed out that in those times one of the first places a New York City performing group might travel to was Buffalo, because the canal took them directly there. So the song developed with many names, mainly adding local place names, but “Buffalo Gals” is the name that has been remembered with additional meanings added as the song traveled far from Buffalo, NY.
The Ethiopian Serenaders performed at the White House for President Tyler in 1844 and this experience early in the development of the minstrel shows led them to try to be more refined and respectable than some of the other performers. They were an important for bringing the minstrel show to a wider audience. It is not surprising, then, that their published songs, including “Buffalo Gals,” tend to be less rowdy than that of other groups and tend to present African Americans in a somewhat better light than other minstrels. Their published version of the song, “Buffalo Gals” took off and survives to this day because it could be a song of admiration about any young ladies.
America Singing: Nineteenth-Century Song Sheets, Library of Congress Rare Books and Special Collections
Hall, Stephanie, “Buffalo Gals,” Folklife Today, 2014
Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music, ca. 1820 to 1860, Library of Congress Music Division