"Tippy" Rhodes: A Black Street Dancer in
This study is the result of several months of investigation,
interviews, and recorded conversations concerning the life of
Clarence Harris Rhodes, who, for approximately fifty-five years,
danced on the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia. During these
years, Rhodes' dancing was confined to a three-block area of Main
Street in commercial downtown Charlottesville, although he made
many trips uptown into the University of Virginia area, and
several journeys to other cities in Virginia. In the areas of
Charlottesville where he danced and worked, literally everyone
knew him. If you asked specifically for Clarence Rhodes,
however, it is very doubtful if anyone downtown would have known
the name; for as long as Rhodes or anyone else can remember, he
has been known simply as "Tippy." In Tippy's own words, the name
refers "to the way I tips my hat all the time, that, or I'm
always asking for a tip."
Some of the issues this study will discuss concern Tippy as an
individual, and others as a representative of a type of black
expression. I do not intend to draw conclusions about the
situation of the black man in the small Southern city, but a
great deal of the material presented here cannot help but relate
to the subject. A large portion of the study will deal with a
generic consideration of the nature of folk street dancing, an
area in which very little actual collecting has been done. The
reason why became apparent as I tried to find a suitable method
of recording or noting Tippy's dances. Visual recording has
traditionally been too expensive or unavailable; labanotation has
been too technical for all but the very studied in this
technique;1 and verbal description has been extremely
subjective or, as is more often the case, incomprehensible. I
will give only
[End page 31]
general description of Tippy's art, the characteristics of his costume, his changing rhymes, his accompaniment, and associated items of folklore.
Jerry Jeff Walker, a popular country-rock musician, wrote a
well-known song titled "Mr. Bojangles," about a black
street dancer. That song is basic to my impression of Tippy
Rhodes. What Tippy represents is not the dancer of the
professional minstrel tradition nor the stage tap-dancer at all.
Tippy's style is representative of the folk form from which
these professionals have drawn their material. More precisely, he
is an example of a return of folk expression to the folk after
its assimilation in a professional setting.
In Jazz Dance, Marshall and Jean Stearns discuss
the origins of the professional side of popular
dancing.2 The influence of the "Mr. Bojangles"
is made very clear. The first black "greats" ("King" Rastus
Brown, Bill Robinson, et al) came from a tradition of African,
and then Afro-American expressive dancing. Bill "Bojangles"
Robinson, moreover, shares a common heritage with Walker's Mr.
Bojangles. And Tippy reflects this heritage dually, coming from
the tradition and yet learning from it.
My interest in Tippy began in September, 1971. I was sitting
on my front porch, not very far from downtown Charlottesville,
Michael Otis passed by. Suddenly he stopped and began to
tap dance; he danced for about ten seconds in a rather clumsy
manner, stopped as suddenly as he had started, and tipped his
hat. I said something like, "Hey, that's pretty good!" He thanked
me profusely and just stood there. After several uncomfortable
moments, I realized that he wanted a payment for his performance
so I gave him a beer and began to ask him about his dancing. He
said that he wasn't very good, but he was good enough to get a
beer from me. And he said he'd seen Tippy do it all his life, and
that Tippy was so good he made "his whole income just
buck-dancing and kissing ass!" By the time Otis left my porch, I
had decided to find out more about this "Tippy" and this aspect
of black folklore.
[End page 32]
What I found was that almost all the serious folklore
scholarship was aimed at either European derived folk-dance such
as the square dance3 or at anthropological studies of
"primitive" dances such as those of the American
Indian.4 Studies of non-professional black dancing
were only glossed over in studies like the Stearns'. So I decided
to investigate Tippy first hand.
Finding Tippy was not hard at all. I went to the general
vicinity that Otis had mentioned, and the first person I asked
told me to go to the Yellow Cab dispatcher's office. At the
dispatcher's office, I was told that Tippy comes in every day at
approximately six o 'clock in the morning to empty the trash and
to socialize. I was also told about several other places in the
area where Tippy might be at that time of day. After following
these leads, I learned that Tippy went home to his sister's house
each day at five o'clock. I also learned that everyone in the
three-block area Otis mentioned,
The next day, I arrived earlier and found Tippy in the
poolhall of L.P. Wood. He agreed to talk about himself and his
dancing, and we were on our way. I have excerpted a rather
sketchy biography from taped interviews with Tippy and Mrs. Helen
R. Davis, who has known Tippy for over thirty years.
Tippy was born in White Hall, Virginia, a very small community
about ten or fifteen miles west of Charlottesville, Tippy is
uncertain of the day, month or year of his birth, but he thinks
it was sometime in the year 1900. Tippy lived in White Hall with
his sister and two brothers until his mother died in 1909. At
that time, he was taken to the home of a Mrs. Pitzier, a white
woman living in Charlottesville. He said that he stayed with Mrs.
Pitzier for a few years, but implied that she demanded a
[End page 33]
great deal of work in exchange for her hospitality. When Tippy left her home, he worked odd jobs on Main Street in Charlottesville.
At this point there is a large gap in the biographical data.
Presumably, it was during this period that Tippy began to dance
on the street. He lived in basements and garages of local
residents in exchange for work, and he washed windows for
a living. Tippy has never really been hired at a set salary at
the jobs he has worked, with one exception--his tenure as a
porter on the Trailways bus between Charlottesville and
Washington, D.C, a job he got sometime in the 1930's and kept for
about ten years. (The Trailways Company has no record of his
working for them.) Tippy seems to have become overly fond of wine
during this period, and he implied that he lost his Trailways job
for this reason. He also washed bottles for Pepsi-Cola for four
Tippy married sometime in the 1930's. His wife was killed in
1955, and this was not a subject Tippy would dwell on. In fact,
Mrs. Davis said she had never heard him even mention a wife. One
of Tippy's brothers lives in Philadelphia, and the other was
killed in a knifing in Charleston, West Virginia, some years
ago. While working for the bus company, Tippy traveled to
Richmond and Washington for the first time. He said that he
danced in Washington, and that he learned some techniques from
dancers he saw in Richmond, especially Bill Robinson, whom he saw
dance his ladder routine.
Gillie Hughes, a custodian at the University of Virginia, said
that Tippy was coming to the University regularly when he first
started there in 1962. Tippy himself said that he had been
dancing at the school since he was a boy. His association with
students at the school seems to have centered around the
fraternity houses, where he would dance for reportedly lucrative
tips and refreshments. The local chapter of the Veterans of
Foreign War has been another audience. Mrs. Davis' brother,
George Wyant, frequently took Tippy there to entertain after
[End page 34]
In June, 1971, Tippy was taken "out in the country" by a group
of young people. He was gone for the entire weekend, and when he
returned he stopped dancing. Mrs. Davis, who hires Tippy to wash
the windows in her flower shop, describes the incident as
Barden: When did he stop?
Mrs. Davis: Last June (1971)
Barden: Do you have any idea why?
Mrs. Davis: We think, I don't know now really, but we think he was with a bunch of boys. White boys.
Barden: Why do you think they were white?
Mrs. Davis: Well, I don't think he would have gone with colored ones. I think he went with this group of boys, and they gave him something--to drink or something. Something he wasn't accustomed to and it just upset him. He was very sick when he got back...I tried to question him when he got back but he wouldn't say.
This event in Tippy's life was of great significance. In June
of 1971, he stopped drinking and he stopped dancing. But Tippy's
previous dancing years were enough to make him somewhat
legendary. In one interview I learned that in a restaurant "The
Nook," which burned in 1963, there had been a mural of Tippy in a
Main Street scene. The painter of this mural was "Stubby Stubbs,
a local sign painter. Stubby, who is 52 years old, said he had
seen Tippy on the street ever since he could remember.
Before discussing the community's opinions of Tippy, which I encountered during my investigation, I would like to describe Tippy's dancing and the other elements of folk expression which are associated with it.
Costume: The most notable
item is Tippy's red baseball cap, which enhanced the overall
comic effect which was central to his concept of the performance,
and which doubled as a receptacle for tips after he finished his
dance. Tippy said that he usually wore a tie each day and other
informants indicated that it was inevitably a large and
"outlandish" one. Tippy was given an intern's jacket by a medical
student at the University, and for one
[End page 35]
With his hat, tie, tunic & buttons - 1972
[End page 36]
period he wore this jacket covered with buttons on which were
printed comic epigrams and slogans. The shoes that he wore were
outfitted with large half-moon taps on the heel and small ones on
one side of the toes. Tippy said this was so he could have the
toe taps make noise when he wanted them to and not make any noise
when he wanted that effect.
Nomenclature: Tippy had
few technical names for his styles and steps of dancing. Those
terms and definitions I could elicit from him follow:
Buck Dancing: This is a generic expression describing any form of black folk dance.
Stomp: Tippy used this term to denote a dance in which the emphasis is on rhythm, without the express use of tapping.
Shuffle: This term indicated the muffled sound derived by using the non-tap side of the toe, and dragging the heel rather than snapping it. Tippy made no distinction between any of his shuffling movements, whether they were in double tempo, side, back, or forward--they were all termed "shuffle."
Tapping: [D]enotes any dancing which is not a shuffle, that is, any dance in which the metal taps are used to produce the loud rhythmic beat.
Wing: This style is executed by leaving the stationary stance of tapping or shuffling and moving in a circle (Tippy seemed to consistently move counter-clockwise), dipping on a strongly accented upbeat of the feet.
Trucking: This term is not Tippy's own. It was used by several informants, and seemed to indicate any dance which moves in a straight line. Whether this relates to the dance described by Stearns or not is not clear.6
Leaning and Crotching: These terms described the attitude of the body during the dance. Tippy called any stance which made him appear to be falling over backwards "leaning," and any which made him appear to be slouched or hunched forward "crotching," which I presume is a variant of the word "crouching."
Rhyming Verses: Tippy
recited verses to accompany his dancing.The purpose seemed to be
two-fold: while maintaining the rhythm of his dance with these
stanzas, Tippy added to the overall comic nature of his
performances. Some of his rhyming verses were comic variations of
standard folk rhymes like:
[End page 37]
Ching, Ching, Chinaman, sittin' on the fence,
Tryin' to make a dollar out of fifteen cents.
Ching, Ching, Chinaman, sittin' on the fence,
If you ain't got a dollar give me fifteen cents.
When he was dancing, Tippy apparently performed differently
for different audiences. Mrs. Davis said that he never recited
more than "Roses are red" type verses, whereas Stubby Stubbs said
that Tippy never recited a clean verse in his life. Mrs. Davis
Ace, King, Queen, Jack,
White folks tips but not the black.
You a white man, I's a shine,
But yo' ass-hole smells just like mine.
Not all of Tippy's "patter" was rhymed verse. Stubbs said that
he would stop talking and dance silently for several seconds and
then give comic dialogue--an example:
Hey Rastus! What do you like bestus?
Rastus say, "I like ass-bestus."
Miscellaneous: One aspect
of Tippy's routine was his
"gimmick" of holding out his hat while he was still dancing in
order to catch money thrown at him. Often, he said, the people
watching would throw the coins far into the air to make it more
difficult. Or they would roll them at him so that he would have
to stoop down without losing the step. Another item which Tippy
used as gimmick was his practice of finding the metal slab
sections of the sidewalk to dance on. With these or man-hole
covers, Tippy claimed he could make enough noise to be heard for
After Tippy learned to dance on his toes the chance to "trick"
dance was always taken. He said that he could do a version of
Robinson's "Ladder Dance," that he used this sort of routine on
the steps of college fraternity houses, and that he once even
danced up the steps of the University itself (he presumably means
[End page 38]
A more specific description of the dancing of Tippy Rhodes
would require movie film or labonotation, but I think the above
notes show that, while Tippy falls into the category of a folk
dancer, he considered himself a performer in the professional
sense. And since his income has been from his dancing for a great
part of his life, this impression can hardly be questioned.
A general description of Tippy's dancing was given by Mrs.
Tippy would be on the street, right out front here, and somebody would see him a long ways off and yell at him. He'd look up and down the street and tap real loud just a second. If they yelled again he'd tap again; and when they got closer he'd tapdance straight down the sidewalk in their direction. Usually a few people would stop to watch. Sometimes a crowd of people would gather around him. Then he'd really get to dancing. He'd dance over to the gutter and hop up and down off the sidewalk, or kind of scoot around in a circle. He never used his hands or anything, just his feet; sometimes he'd pretend his feet were running out from under him, and he'd say these funny things about the people watching so they'd start throwing money. Then he'd run around after it while he was still dancing and he'd tip his little hat every time the money would come...
Another description was given by Gillie Hughes:
Well, I saw Tippy mostly at night you know, mostly on Preston Aveune or someplace like that. He was always drinking you know and he'd bother people. Every now and then somebody would come by and kind of hit Tippy or tease him and say, 'Hey Tippy, shuffle for me.' And he'd take his hat off and dance around a little bit and hang around. But he usually just bothered people. Somebody would tell him to shut up when he got too [t]ight you know. He'd be makin' noise and dancing and carrying on.
And L.P. Wood said:
Tippy only danced during the day right out here on Main Street. He'd get a circle of folks standing around and then he'd do this hambone and tap and pass his hat around; the police didn't mind, because Tippy never bothered anybody. And the folks that watched used to pay him pretty good tips. ... And he was funny with his little jokes and his hat.
Tippy was received most favorably by the white population of
his area. I see this as significant in a number of possible
[End page 39]
First of all, Tippy represents a kind of black expression that
developed in a context of racial prejudice. The black dancers who
became professional generally found ways of freeing themselves of
total dependence on white approval in a white world, or at least
crossed an acceptance barrier, when the tenor of the times
permitted this. Many others, of course, died before they became
an anachronism. The condescending, paternal attitude of the white
informants suggests that Tippy is a comforting presence to the
older white citizens of the area; his image, a harmless clown
with perhaps a bit of the standard "trickster" figure thrown in,
fits the cultural picture of the white informants I interviewed.
The black informants, however, consider Tippy in another
light--he is a figure that represents an almost total negation of
cultural pride. The innate sadness of the "Mr. Bojangles" figure
of Walker's song is to me the crux of the anachronistic position
Tippy was in. The black community considered him an "Uncle Tom,"
not because of his dancing, but because of his willingness to
prostitute himself and his Afro-American art form to a group
which generally viewed him as a humorous though ridiculous
caricature. I see a parallel between Tippy and "Shorty," the
elevator operator in Richard Wright's Black Boy:
I'll do anything for a quarter, Shorty sang. What, for example?, the white man asked. Shorty giggled, swung around, bent over, and poked out his broad fleshy rear end. You can kick me for a quarter, he sang, looking impishly at the white man out of the corners of his eyes... I witnessed this scene or its variant at least a score of times, and I felt no anger or hatred, only disgust and loathing.7
Although I was unable to definitely determine the race of the
young people who "convinced" Tippy to stop dancing, I feel that
this act itself substantiates my premise. If the group was black,
the motive would seem to have been to instill racial integrity or
at least update the thinking of a "brother," and if the group was
white, the motive would most likely have been amusement on a
boring week-end--the object of amusement having been Tippy.
[End page 40]
My informants, both black and white, were more than willing to attest to the state to which Tippy had perfected his dancing. It was to Tippy himself that the reaction was so varied, and I feel the reason is that Tippy was a reminder of a social situation, comfortable to older Southern whites, but disgusting to blacks--a situation in which a totally uneducated but clever black man had to take on the role of a harmless buffoon for fifty-five years and please another group in order to survive.
Thomas E. Barden
University of Toledo
1 Rudolph Laban, Principles of Dance and
Movement Notation, London, MacDonald and Evans, 1956. Ann
Hutchinson's, Labanotation, New York, New
Directions, 1954, also discusses the method.
2 Marshall and Jean Stearns, Jazz
Dance, New York, Macmillan, 1968, pp. 1-55, discuss the
history of the origins of Afro-American dance.
3 For example, Cecil Sharp's The Country
Dance Book, London, Novello, 1909, or Anne Duggan's
Folk Dances of the United States and Mexico, New
York, Barnes, 1948.
4 Such as Paul Radin's The Story of the American Indian, New York, Garden City, 1937.
5 See Stearns, p. 36. "That dance came along before
tap,"says Leigh Whipper. "All they did was stomp."
6 Stearns, p. 417, Richard Wright, Black
Boy, New York, Harper, 1945, p. 249.
[Ed. note: This paper was originally written before the
publication of Lynne Fauley Emery's Black Dance in the
United States from 1619 to 1970, Palo Alto, Calif.,
National Press Books, 1972. This is a fine book on the history of
black dance with many citations of original documents. Further,
we should report that Tippy Rhodes has passed away since the
writing of this paper.]
[Note: The report of Tippy Rhodes death in this issue of the VFS Journal was "greatly exaggerated" and premature. The unconfirmed report from an ostensibly good source was, in fact, an error: Rhodes was still alive at the time of this publication and lived for some years afterward in the high-rise apartments for low income or elderly persons in downtown Charlottesville. The combination of having quit dancing and his change in living arrangements reduced Rhodes's visibility in the eyes of a white public and surely contributed to the false reports of his demise. The Society regrets having unwittingly furthered that notion.]
[End page 41]
Insult and Slander in Seventeenth-Century
Folklorists, for the most part, study the traditional culture
of living people, but a case also can be made for the study of
folkways in history, through documents which unconsciously
reflect traditional ways of behaving and speaking.
Documents recorded by seventeenth-century Virginians, for
instance, reveal their medieval peasant background. Certain
documents, especially depositions and probate inventories,
exhibit folk systems of classification, spontaneous speech, and
uncalculated actions of ordinary people.1 Court
produced as a result of an expanding secular bureaucracy that
regulated many aspects of daily life. Different types of
documents were written for different reasons, allowing some to be
informal and full of detail about peoples' day-to-day concerns.
One of the problems that concerned early Virginians was their
reputation, and this is reflected in the serious attention given
in seventeenth-century court proceedings to cases of slander and
The insults discussed in this article are drawn from
found in seventeenth-century county court records from
Northampton, York, and Westmoreland Counties in
records contain court orders as well as transcripts of documents
relevant to court proceedings, such as letters of attorney,
deeds, wills, inventories, indentures, and depositions.
Depositions are of particular interest because they were made in
order clarify to the court, actions which took place, or words
that passed, between individuals in cases involving
assault-and-battery, adultery, and slander. In other words, they
deal with cases judged on the basis of testimony of eye-witnesses
[End page 42]
than upon the evidence of supporting documents. In such instances, several witnesses were sworn and examined, and their exact words were recorded.
In slander cases, witnesses testified to the content of
conversations. Therefore, many depositions may be viewed as
reasonably reliable accounts of past speech events. Evidence
given in a case by a number of witnesses may corroborate details
of interest to the court, but it may also point to subtle
differences in the way various onlookers perceived an event.
A series of depositions was taken in York County in 1689 to
determine the antagonist in an assault-and-battery case. At least
eight deponents had witnessed an altercation between Peter Wells
and John Macarty, but depending upon the social position and
personal prejudices of each, the onlookers attributed the start
of the fight to different individuals. A few of the witnesses
blamed Wells, an indentured servant, but several accused Macarty,
a free-holder. One deponent placed the blame upon a Negro who
had been drinking in company with the white men, and one person
stated that there had been no fight at all. On the other hand,
the surgeon who examined Wells testified that Wells's jaw had
been broken as a result of Macarty's having kicked him in the
None of the insults found in the seventeenth-century court
records may be classed as "ritual" or structured in nature or
content; rather, they are highly personal in both respects.
William Labov notes in his essay, "Rules for Ritual Insult," that
personal insults are characterized by a direct attack upon the
character or background of an individual, followed by a denial or
excuse on the part of the person attacked. The recipient of a
personal insult bases his or her response upon considerations
such as how serious the antagonist is: Does he want to start a
fight? Does he mean it? Are people going to believe this is
true?"4 It is evident that cases of slander which
appear in court
records are there precisely because the person insulted
[End page 43]
to a verbal assault by recognizing that the attacker meant what he or she said, and that the community-at-large would believe the accusation if it were not rebutted through public, i.e. legal, channels.
In the following essay, three relevant aspects of insult and
slander in seventeenth-century Virginia will be discussed: the
categories of insult which were considered slanderous by
seventeenth-century legal standards; the social and emotional
motivations which sparked such controversial verbal assaults or
exchanges; and the means through which slanderous attacks might
Verbal abuse vicious enough to be deemed slanderous usually
took the form of accusations or allegations. The defamed person
might be accused of thievery, prostitution, fornication,
adultory, bestiality, or lying. For example, in 1640 Robert Wyard
deposed that he and others were in the house of George Dawe when
William Berryman came in and exclaimed that Dawe was "an idle
pratinge and lyinge knave" who went up and down prating and lying
from house to house. William Evans confirmed that Berryman had
"set people together by the ears," especially in his
disparagement of Dawes's profession as Clerk.5
Allegations often shifted to the level of name-calling and
vilification. Widow Taylor, according to the evidence of three
witnesses, resoundingly insulted Goody Curtis when she came to
her cowpen to milk her cow, calling her "draggle-tayle," and badd
her goe goe you slutt who replied slutt in her face and bad her
to go to Bantomes house and play the whore with Lawrence if she
would, or gather strawberries."6
In 1643, Robert Wyard was sentenced by the Northampton Court
because he had "in a disgraceful and barbarous manner blemish't
the reputation of Alice the wife of George Travellor in most base
and ignominious language by which defamation hath taken away the
reputation of the said Alice." Wyard's offence was telling
[End page 44]
Rowland Mills that he had "sucked" Alice Travellor, and when asked by William Denham if this were true, he replied, "What dost thou thinke that goodwife Travellor doth perswade me from marrying for?" As punishment for slandering Alice Travellor through his claim of having committed adultery with her, Wyard was forced to stand in church three consecutive Sundays "in a white sheete with a white wann in his hand" and ask forgiveness of Alice in a manner dictated by the Churchwardens.7
While Wyard's defamation of Alice Travellor was retracted
through his public humiliation, other persons convicted of a
similar offense might receive corporal punishment. In 1644, the
Justices of Northampton ordered that "Whereas Thomas Parks hath
most infinitely disparraged and defamed the wife of Andrew Jacob
in the face of open court by saying that he did lye with her in a
Chayre at Fleet Bridge," he is to receive thirty lashes and ask
her forgiveness in open court. In a case involving a third party
who claimed to have witnessed an act of adultery to which no
other witnesses could attest, the slanderer was forced to
publicly ask forgiveness of both of the wronged
Defamation did not always consist of criminal allegations.
Often it took the form of aspersions against a person's social
rank or background. Insults against an individual's social rank
might focus on his or her parentage. In Northampton County in
1643, Roger Marshall and Richard Hill both testified that Thomas
Parks had slandered a Mr. Yardley by claiming that Yardley's
father had been a tailor and his mother a midwife, "not to
honourable citizens but to byeblows."9
In the York County example previously mentioned, Peter Wells
struck John Macarty because Macarty had insulted his status as an
indentured servant by repeatedly calling him "Tayler." Wells grew
angry and exclaimed that "he was as good a man as the best of
them all" and that "he was not Christened Taylor." When Macarty
antagonized him by saying "Are you not Humphrey Brownings
Tayler?", Wells replied "God Damne Humphrey Browning & you,
[End page 45]
hee...was as good a man as Humphrey Browning." A vigorous fight ensued, and Wells was later convicted of committing an assault upon Macarty.10
This incident indicates both the sensitivity to social station
and the friction which existed within a community structured
by class differences--differences which were being challenged in
the Virginia colony by opportunities for social mobility. It also
serves to emphasize the social power of names: "They embody a
whole range of social relationships, and violations of
the conventions of which name to use in which social situation
are often regarded as serious, even insulting."11
Wells's fight with Macarty in 1681 stemmed from his resentment at
being called by the name of his trade--Tailor--instead of his
rightful Christian name. In a situation already fraught with
social tension, this indignity was more than he could bear.
When considering the significance of names and name-calling,
it is worth noting that many terms which by our standards seem
mild were considered highly derogatory in the
seventeenth-century. For instance, "rascal" nowadays has an
almost jocular connotation, but in seventeenth-century parlance a
"rascal" was a man without genitals.12 While calling
someone a "rascal" might on the surface refer to criminal acts
such as thievery or cheating, the implication was sexual and
Insult and slander frequently revolved around sexual behavior
and sex words; the language of an insult was especially
objectionable when it accused a person of violating sexual taboos
in words which, because they referred directly to taboo acts,
were themselves subject to public censure.13 Several
of the examples given illustrate the disapproval with which
unlawful or abnormal sex acts were received by county courts.
Most slanderous were accusations of sexual promiscuity or
prostitution; women were always the targets of such attacks. The
term "whore" was applied to women who exercised any form of
[End page 46]
liberty: fornication, promiscuity, adultery, or sex for remuneration. In Westmoreland County in 1659, Roger Laddamore's wife was tried for slandering Goodwife Williams. John Stowell deposed that Laddamore's wife had "Abused Goodwife Williams & Called her whore & sayd & swore that she was Capt. Douglass whore," claiming that she herself had "never swive for a tammy gowne" (that is, she had accused Goodwife Williams of engaging in sex in return for a dress of fine worsted cloth).14
When a woman accused another woman of being a whore the insult
may have been motivated by jealousy or rivalry. A heated quarrel
would normally ensue if the two women were face-to-face when the
insult was delivered, and this sometimes resulted in a fight or a
However, men were often tried for slandering women by calling
them "whore" before a number of people, and jealousy seems not to
have been the major motive in most of these cases. After
examining a number of depositions of this nature, I have drawn
the conclusion that a man was most likely to accuse a woman of
sexual promiscuity if he contracted venereal disease as a result
of having had sexual relations with her. No doubt this is the
reason that many a man would claim that he could "prove" that
a woman was a whore.
An example from Northampton County points to this conclusion.
In 1642, John Charles deposed that Elizabeth Bacon was in bed at
his house and John Little "come in late in the night & took
the cloathes of the said and would have burned them & said
you are a whore and I will prove you a whore."15 Edwyn
Conoway and Arther Turner also testified that they had heard
Little call Bess Bacon a whore and say that "she was as common as
the milking payle."16
Little's behavior toward Elizabeth Bacon bears a resemblance
to the eighteenth-century custom known as "docking." It was a
punishment inflicted by sailors on the prostitutes who had
infected them with venereal disease; it consisted of cutting off
[End page 47]
clothes, petticoats, shift and all, and turning them into the streets.17
Venereal disease itself was rarely mentioned in the court
records, despite the fact that it was obviously the cause of
personal misery to many. It was the source of many altercations,
such as the one between Robert Woolterton and Rebecca Jackson in
Northampton County in 1643. At least five people drinking
together in George Smyth's house testified that Woolterton laid
his hand on the plackett of Rebecca saying, "Here is a base
thing." She replied, "It is better then thou carried over the
Bay." To this Woolterton responded, "It is better then thyne,"
but Rebecca said that this was "A Lye, for yours is a 'pockyfyed
one', and struck him. When Woolterton struck her in return, James
Jackson, Rebecca's husband. joined in and a bloody fight
ensued.18 The apparent cause of dissension in this
case was an accusation by each party that the other was infected
with venereal disease--accusations which were met with
indignation and denial.
It is possible that a slander involving a woman who called
another woman "whore" "twice or thrice" as well as "you
Longneck", "thou pissa bedd Jade" was referring to what she felt
to be her infected state.19 A carrier of venereal
disease, it is clear, would be viewed as a potential threat to
the health and bodily cleanliness of the entire community.
Personal hygiene and cleanliness may not have received the degree
of attention in the seventeenth-century that they do in the
twentieth, but persons deemed unclean in their bodily habits
often were objects of derision. Incontinence, infection with
venereal disease, or slatternliness were understandably abhored,
and insults that challanged a person's state of bodily
cleanliness--whether they were justified or not--were considered
A form of insult which appeared infrequently in slander cases,
but which often caused fights between people, centered around
terms of abuse derived from names of common domestic animals.
[End page 48]
Grose explains in his Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785) that to call a woman a "bitch" was to level at her the worst insult that an Englishwoman could receive. It is likely that this was due to the attribution of the sexual habits of a dog to a human female. Men might receive the epithet of "dogg," but the intended meaning seems not to have been as cutting as the term "bitch." In an example mentioned previously, a woman was called a "jade": the Oxford English Dictionary defines this term in its secondary usage as a derogatory term applied to females; its primary meaning, however, is "a worn-out horse or hag."20
Edmund Leach demonstrates in his article "Animal Categories
and Verbal Abuse" that terms of abuse derived from names of
domestic animals tend to be especially powerful because such
creatures are in many ways manlike and their attributes may be
extrapolated to humans. Because humans often equate themselves
with animals such as dogs and horses, the creatures become
subject to certain taboos (especially with respect to food
categories).21 I would like to suggest here that the
power of insult found in terms like "bitch" or "dogg" stem from
their reference to the non-human attributes of domestic animals.
While a dog may be a pet and "man's best friend" it is still an
animal, and those habits which cannot be readily equated with
human behavior are viewed as base and sometimes obscene. But I
should point out that the fact that the comparison of like
attributes occurs in the first place makes the application of
unlike and undesirable attributes possible and, therefore, all
the more potent.
It should by now be clear that insults in seventeenth-century
Virginia focused upon the same areas of sensitivity that
characterize insult behavior today: sex taboos, social position,
personal appearance, and hygiene.22 An insult
considered slanderous, however, charged a specific
individual with behavior which transgressed the moral standards
imposed upon the community by its institutions. The language in
which slanderous remarks were expressed was powerful and
potentially damaging to an individual
[End page 49]
because of the logical mental transition between forbidden words and forbidden acts.
Mary C. Beaudry
This paper was presented at the First Annual Meeting of the
Middle Atlantic Folklife Association, Annapolis, Maryland, May13,
1 For a brief discussion of documents as sources
for folklife studies, see James J. P. Deetz, In Small
Things Forgotten: The Archaeology of Early American Life,
Garden City, New York, Anchor Press, 1977; works dealing with
folk taxonomies in inventories include: Mary C. Beaudry, "An
Analysis of Ceramics in York County, Virginia Inventories,
1730-1750," MA thesis, Brown University, 1975; idem, "Worth its
Weight in Iron: Categories of Material Culture in Early Virginia
Probate Inventories," Archeological Society of Virginia,
Quarterly Bulletin 33 (1): 19-26; Susan Geib, "Folk
Taxonomies in Rural Household Inventories," Paper delivered at
the First Annual Meeting of the Middle Atlantic Folklife
Association, Annapolis, Maryland, May 13, 1978.
2 The Northampton examples are taken from Susie
Ames, editor, County Court Records of Accomack-Northampton,
Virginia, 1640-1645, Charlottesville, University Press of
Virginia, 1973. For convenience, the county is called simply
Northampton throughout this article. York County
depositions were transcribed by the author from microfilm records
at the Colonial Williamsburg Research Library; the Westmoreland
depositions were transcribed by Fraser D. Neiman from original
records in the Westmoreland County Court House. All dates have
been changed to conform with the Gregorian calendar; therefore,
for example, 1636/37 in the records appears as 1637 in the
3 York County Deeds, Orders, Wills No. 6, pp.
4 William Labov, "Rules for Ritual Insult," in
Thomas Kochman, editor, Rappin' and Stylin' Out,
Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1972, p. 335.
5 Ames, County Court Records of
Accomack-Northampton, pp. 28-29.
6 Ibid., p. 103. A "draggle-tayle" is a slattern
according to Francis Grose, Classical Dictionary the Vulgar
Tongue (1785), reprint, Northfield, Illinois, Digest
7 Ibid., pp. 235-236, 238.
[End page 50]
8 Ibid., p. 395 (Parks vs. Jacob); the third party
was George Vaux, who accused Alice Travellor--the same woman
slandered byRobert Wyard earlier--of committing adultery with
Capt, Francis Yardley. Both Alice Travellor and Capt. Yardley
appear to have been rather unpopular, as they were defendants in
more than one slander case apiece (Ibid., p. 238; see below).
9 Ibid., p. 313; a "bye-blow" is defined as a
"bastard" in Grose, Classical Dictionary.
10 See note 3 above.
11 Herbert Kohl and James Hinton, "Names, Graffitti
and Culture," in Thomas Kochman, editor, Rappin' and
Stylin' Out, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1972,
12 Grose, Classical Dictionary.
13 Edmund Leach, "Anthropological Aspects of
Language: Animal Categories and Verbal Abuse," in Eric H.
Lenneberg, editor, New Directions in the Study of
Language, Cambridge, Massachusetts, M.I.T. Press, 1966,
14 Westmoreland County Deeds, Wills, Patents,
Accounts, 1653-1659, f. 131; Oxford English
Dictionary for definition of "tammy."
15 Ames, County Court Records of
Accomack-Northampton, p. 189.
16 Ibid., p. 190. I have been unable to trace the
meaning of the phrase "milking payle" or "common as the milking
17 Grose, Classical Dictionary.
18Ames, County Court Records of
Accomack-Northampton, p. 298. A "placket" is the opening
to a woman's skirt; the word also refers to a pocket according
to the Oxford English Dictionary. The term is used,
presumably, in a euphemistic sense in this deposition.
19 Ames, County Court Records of
Accomack-Northampton, p. 292.
20 One assumes that the implication of the terms
"bitch" and "jade," therefore, is that a person has been debased
or worn out from over-activity of a specific sort.
21 Leach, "Animal Categories and Verbal Abuse."
22 This is true of both personal and ritualized
insult behavior; cf. Labov, "Rules for Ritual Insult."
I wish to thank Dell Upton for providing the inspiration which prompted me to write this article; Fraser Neiman for depositions from Westmoreland County records; Charles Perdue for his helpful comments; members of the Colonial Williamsburg Research Department for giving me access to their resources and expertise;and to Cynthia Carter, for editorial advice.
[End page 51]
Communicating With Critters
In a conversation with an aged mountaineer the subject somehow
turned to the destructive nature of rats and the great loss that
can be attributed to those rodents. He said, "Nowadays they have
chemicals and traps that can help eliminate them, but in earlier
times, around our neighborhood, we used special words we called
'giving away the rats'."1
He explained that the procedure required finding a blacksnake
which was then killed but kept intact. The snake was then buried
near the rat infested house with its head pointed in the
direction where the rats should go--a specific residence had to
be selected, not a stand of woods, mountain or other uninhabited
place. The informant noted, "We done it here, and after awhile
people on the farm down the road complained they was being
In the same neighborhood, which borders Highland and
Rockingham Counties in Virginia and Pendleton County in West
Virginia, other elderly residents told of similar practices with
minor variants. Some claimed the snake must be buried after
sunset or before sunrise, others said special words as part of
the process, and still others carried the blacksnake around the
homestead three times before burial in its special
As unusual as this practice may appear, it reminded me of an
experience recounted by Cornelius Weygandt, Professor of
Literature at the University of Pennsylvania, who bought a farm
in New England a half century ago and in preparing the place for
his summer occupancy found an old letter addressed to rats which
asked them to leave the basement of the home.3
[End page 52]
it unique; nevertheless it was a practice known in widely separated places in America and in Virginia too.
One such letter was dated October 31, 1888 in Maine, and
addressed to "Mssrs. Rats and Co." The opening paragraph reads:
"Having taken quite a deep interest in your welfare in regard to
your winter quarters, I thought I would drop you a few lines..."
The writer then offered persuasive reasons why the rats should
leave, citing the cold winter months, the lack of food, and the
planned remodeling of the interior of the home. He told the rats
that they would be uncomfortable and perhaps destitute. The
writer then recommended an alternative consisting of a specific
address of a neighbor to which they could go, adding that "...you
will find a splendid cellar well filled with vegetations...a barn
with a good supply of grain, where you can live snug and happy."
The letter ends with a mild threat, "Shall do you no harm if you
heed my advice."
A similar letter written in New Hampshire in 1845 was much
less friendly and more demanding (perhaps this was a second or
third letter of a sequence), "I have borne with you till my
patience is gone...depart from this place with all
speed!...Begone, or you are ruined!" The consequences of staying
were emphatic, "We are preparing water to drown you; fire to
roast you; cats to catch you; and clubs to maul you." Yet the
writer offered the rats an alternative by suggesting they
"...quit here and go to Ike Nutes!"
In 1882 an elderly Maryland farmer near Cockneyville wrote
such a letter which he read aloud to the rats which infested his
home. He read it at night in the belief they were perhaps more
active and receptive at that time. His occult activities became
widely known when his children used the letter as evidence
against him in court seeking a legal declaration of his
In recent years two specimens of similar letters were made
available to this writer. One used in Rockingham County was
[End page 53]
on a single sheet and "delivered" to the rodents through a hole in a baseboard of the homestead near rural Tenth Legion. The other was similar in structure and theme and was merely placed in the cellar near food supplies that rats had been eating, on a farm located in western Shenandoah County.
A lifetime resident of the region offered instructions for the
procedure, "lf you find rats or mice in your house write them a
cordial note saying how bad the facilities are and suggest they
leave. Put the note where they will see it. If this doesn't work,
write another letter and say it's the second notice and be firm
but cool. If this doesn't work, write a third notice but be mean
and tell them to "get the hell out!" Warn them you'll use poisons
and traps--they'll be gone in just a few days after
In seeking to reduce the loss of grain caused by rats, John
George Hohman's pow-wow booklet (1819) included a method used by
many Pennsylvania Germans. This was in a sense a harvest ritual
in which the first three sheaves of grain were presented to the
rats with an announcement, "Rats these sheaves I give to you, in
order that you may not destroy any of my wheat."5. The
rest of the harvest was then stored in the barn. This practice
assumes the logical and reasonable nature of the rodent.
Moths were destructive to clothing made of wool and
particularly so when not in use during the summer months. Various
means have been used to protect stored clothing. One noted in the
diary of John Conrad (1783-1853) in Rockingham County instructs
(in German) how to use written words placed on a sheet as
follows: "Moth, you shall vanish, you shall not destroy my
clothes, I adjure you." These words, followed by the Trinity
6 was placed on clothing which was then wrapped in
born [sic, brown?] paper and stored.
[End page 54]
Two techniques have been used to protect a kitchen garden from
damage by cutworms. The first is as follows: "Take the first
three cutworms you find in your garden to the nearest fence,
separating your property from adjoining land. Turn so your back
faces the fence and throw the three cutworms over your shoulder
saying, "Go to these fields and cut the grass."7
The second procedure, from western Rockingham county, also
involves gathering the first three cutworms found. These were
placed at the base of a white oak tree while saying, "Now cut
this tree." It is said that within a few days the cutworms will
leave the garden and accumulate at the trunk of the tree.
In Paul Christians's "Supernatural Sciences and
Curiosities"8 it is noted that an early conjuration to
protect a garden against the invasion of caterpillars included
the writing of a special line of words ("Christus Regnat;
Christus Vincit; Christus Vobis Imperat, etc. ...") on a
parchment long enough to stretch around the tree trunk. The
similarity of this ancient Old World practice and that used by a
few elderly regional farmers is obvious.
Bed-bugs were the scourge of all housewives. At one time they
were common to most inns and homes alike, with the result that
numerous means were devised to kill them or to ward them off.
None were quite as simple as the procedure that follows:
If you have bed-bugs and want to get rid of them, say the proper words and stretch a board across the creek nearest your property. The bugs will then have the means to follow the directions and go to the neighbors you recommend.9
This practice, known in Rockingham and Shenandoah Counties,
varies with practitioners primarily in details such as: the
migration must be toward the east; the insects must cross water;
and the full name of the head of the household the insects are to
[End page 55]
to must be used in the instructions.
Spiders were used by some people in the belief that spells
could be cast on an enemy. The so-called "writing" spider was the
object used in such proceedings, which involved shouting the name
of the person at the spider in his web. The spider later wrote
the name of that person in the center portion of his web and
misfortune was the expected or intended result. The writing
spider has also been used as a means of prognostication,
particularly pertaining to the seeking of the name or initials of
a future mate. Females could watch the spider web for any
posslble evidence of letters; this was done most often after a
rain or in the early morning after a heavy dew.
In the summer season wasps were both a nuisance and a threat
because their sting is unusually painful. It is little wonder
that an occult method of protection was available. A lifelong
resident of western Shenandoah County recalled the ritual verse
used to ward off the sting of a wasp:
You wisp - you wasp.
Thou cannot sting me.
No more than the dead.
Can say these words.10
The "words", of course, were the Trinity. This ritual, handed
down over the generations from one sex to the other, was usually
uttered in whispered tones.
Conjuration of critters was not always negative for there were
times when an insect was viewed as valuable and beneficial. The
honey bee was such a resource offering man one of nature's few
sweeteners--a widely cherished product.
This writer was told by a longtime keeper of bees that "If a
[End page 56]
dies, the bees must be told before sun-up the next morning or else the bees will die."11 Others have noted that bees should be told of any death in the family of a beekeeper and if this were to be neglected the bees would swarm and abandon their hives and never return.
According to Bertram S. Puckle, the early authority on death
the proper method of procedure is to knock at the hive...as in giving invitations to a funeral. The hive is then tied around with a band of crepe, whilst the little inmates are solemnly informed of the catastrophe.12
An aged Negro employee in the orchards of Albemarle County was
reported to have decorated the trees with strips of black crepe
paper on the death of an employer who kept bees.l3
This practice was also known in early times in the orchards of
Rockfish Valley in Augusta and Albemarle Counties.
It has been noted by some people acquainted with this practice
that bees should be allowed to share in the good news and glad
tidings, as well as the sorrowful events, as do all members of
the family of which they should be considered a part. This
conception was portrayed in the poem "The Bee-Boys Song" by
Marriage, birth or buryin'
News across the seas,
All your sad or merryin'
You must tell the bees.
The conjuration practices noted are interestingly devoid of
violent behavior in spite of the obnoxious nature of the subjects
involved, whether they be rats, moths, cutworms, wasps or bees.
Although undesirable to most men, they were nevertheless treated
as creatures of the Creator and were thereby assumed to have a
proper place on earth.
It is satisfying to a collecting folklorist to find that
remnants of occult practices derived from ancient origins
[End page 57]
in spite of dramatic modifications of our agrarian heritage and the contemporary emphasis on science and technology. It is one evidence of the resilience of the traditional folk culture in our region of America.
Elmer L. Smith
James Madison University
1 Taped interview with Jesse Crummett, Crummets
Run, West Virginia, November 27, 1964.
2 Interview with E. Frank Rader, near Sugar Grove,
West Virginia, June 14, 1963; Artie H. Recode, Briery Branch,
Virginia, October 17, 1962; and Susie Simmons, Brushy Fork, West
Virginia, July 17, 1966.
3 Cornelius Weygandt, The White Hills,
Mountain New Hampshire, New York, 1934.
4 Interview with Ella H. Bowman, Runions Creek,
Virginia, November 15, 1963.
5 John George Hohman, Long Lost Friend or
Pow-Wows: Arts and Remedies for Man and Beast, Grille,
6 The Trinity, "God, The Father; God, The Son; God,
The Holy Ghost," is used in numerous occult rituals.
7 Interviews with Goldie Crawford, Rockingham
County, September 2, 1965; and Myrtle Shifflett, near
Harrisonburg, Virginia, September 2, 1965.
8 Paul Christians, The History and Practice
of Magic, translated from the French, seven-volume
original edition (1870) by James Kirkup and Julian Shaw, New
York, Citadel Press, 1963.
9 Interview with Amos Eaton, Runions Creek,
Virginia, October 14, 1964; Emmert Sager, near Broadway,
Virginia, July 30, 1965; and Cora Hepner, Hudson Crossroads,
Virginia, October 15, 1962.
10 Interview with Thomas Miller, Dellinger Gap,
Virginia, August 29, 1962. Floyd Puffenbarger, Pendleton County,
West Virginia, uses a variant verse to ward off pain after
a wasp has stung a person; from an interview on August 21,
11 Interview with William Eisenbrown, rural
Muhlenberg Township, Pennsylvania, November 16, 1964.
12 Bertram S. Puckle, Funeral Customs: Their
Origin and Development, London, 1926.
[End page 58]
13 According to tradition this employee worked for the Jarman Gap orchard near Crozet, Virginia.
Julia Oxrieder, P.O. Box 443, Williamsburg, Va. 23185,
Can anyone help me annotate these items collected off the Blue Ridge Parkway in Floyd and Patrick Counties?
Lift your eyes to mine, my darling,
Let me see the sunlight there.
We will be happy to print brief notes or solicitations of specific information regarding folklore and folklife in Virginia. Send "Notes & Queries" for future issues of the Journal to Editor, Virginia Folklore Society, 115 Wilson Hall [now: 219 Bryan Hall], University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va. 22903.
[End page 59]
Black Music and Tales From Jefferson's
There was no way of growing up at Monticello without being
aware of music. The air was full of it. Martha and Maria both
played the harpsichord and later, when that instrument was
introduced, the piano. Jefferson himself had once practiced the
violin for three hours a day until a broken wrist had made it
impossible. Jefferson Randolph tells us, "My earliest
recollections are of my grandfather playing on the violin, his
grandchildren dancing around him." (Randolph's "Memoirs").
There were, however, sounds of a different music at
Monticello, African as well as European, black musicians as well
as white. In his Memoirs of a Monticello Slave,
Isaac tells us that Madison Hemings played the fiddle. Isaac
himself was a drummer. When he had been in Richmond with
Jefferson during the Revolution, a fife and drum corps of mixed
black and white soldiers often marched in front of the Governor's
mansion. As Isaac tells it, Bob Anderson, white, was a fifer, and
Mat Anderson, black, was a drummer.
Mat 'bout that time was sort a-makin love to Mary Heming...Bob Anderson would go into the house to drink; Mat went into the kitchen to see Mary Hemings. He would take his drum with him into the kitchen and set it down there. Isaac would beat on it and Mat larned him how to beat. (Memoirs..).
The Christmas holiday given the slaves was a great time for
fiddling. One Christmas on her way to the smoke house, Cornelia
Randolph was caught by the sound of a fiddle. Pausing to look,
she saw "the fiddler as he stood with half closed eyes and head
thrown back, with one foot keeping time to his own scraping in
the midst of a circle of attentive and admiring auditors."
(Cornelia to Virginia, December 27, 1821).
This music was not made for white ears, although we may be
[End page 60]
that it was often overheard. Isaac speaks of the dances, where "Old Master's brother, Mass Randall used to come out among black people; play the fiddle and dance half the night."
A marriage celebration was a prime occasion for black music.
Bride and groom joined hands and leapt over a broomstick; after
this they were considered man and wife. And the young white
people at Monticello often sang and danced in the evenings,
either to the music of a black fiddler or to the old
There were more formal occasions in Richmond, where Martha
Randolph and her daughters had taken part in the local balls. The
two most celebrated black musicians there were Sy Gilliat, a
fiddler, and his companion, London Brigs, who played flute or
clarinet. The spring and fall race meetings in Richmond and
Petersburg would bring these two to perform at the Race
Ball, vividly described in the book, Richmond in By-
Gone Days. The order of this entertainment is important,
as it illustrates both the aspirations toward European elegance
and the natural, home-grown tastes of the participants. This ball
was held in the large ballroom of the Eagle Tavern in Richmond,
as were all the regular assemblies of the winter season.
Etiquette required shorts and silks, and pumps with buckles, and powdered hair. The ball was opened by one of the managers and the lady he thought proper to distinguish, with a minuet de la cour, putting the grace and elegance of the couples to a severe ordeal.
Such bowing and curtseying, tip toeing and tip fingering, advancing and retreating, attracting and repelling, all in the figures of Z or X, to a tune which would have served for a dead march! A long silken train following the lady, like a sunset shadow; and the gentleman holding a cocked hat under his arm, or in his hand, until at last the lady permitted the gentleman, at full arms-length, to hand her by the very tips of her fingers to a seat, when, with a most profound bow, he retreated backward to seek one for himself.
Then commenced the reel, like a storm after a calm--all life and animation. No solemn walking of the figure to a measured step-- but pigeon wings fluttered, and all sorts of capers were cut to the music of Sy Gilliat's fiddle, and the flute or clarinet of his blacker companion, London Brigs.
Contra dances (these were country dances imported from England) followed, and sometimes a congo, or a hornpipe; and
[End page 61]
when the music grew fast and furious, and the most stately of the company had retired, a jig would wind up the evening.
Jefferson was not inclined to take black music seriously. His
measured judgement arrived at nothing further than the oft quoted
In music they are more generally gifted than the whites with accurate ears for tune and time, and they have been found capable of imagining a small catch. Whether they will be equal to the composition of a more extensive run of melody or of complicated harmony, is yet to be proved. (Notes on the State of Virginia).
Although Jefferson's ears seemed to be closed to all but the
European mode, his daughter Martha kept her ears open. She had a
large store of songs and tales that she had picked up from the
black people around her. It was authentic material, of which the
later minstrel shows were no more than a caricature. This
material she passed on to Eugene A. Vail.
In 1816, Ellen Randolph (Martha's daughter) had met Vail in
Washington. This young man had lived in France and Ellen
described an accent "by no means unbecoming to him," (Ellen
Randolph to Martha Jefferson Randolph, December 30, 1816). In
1841, Vail published a book in Paris, De la litterature et
des hommes de lettres des Etats Unis d'Amerique, in which
he included Martha's songs and tales. Most of them came directly
from Monticello, although "The Dairy Key" she had probably heard
in Richmond. That song was the composition of an old Negro man
called "Titus," who also sang the song about Old Colonel Tom,
Martha's father-in-law. Titus played the mandolin and sang for
people of his own race. He is shown in a picture that has now
disappeared, but that was known to Vail at the time that he
wrote. Unfortunately the music has been lost; if Martha set down
the notes, Vail did not use them.
The tales were told to the children by Mammy Ursula, who had
nursed Martha and then Martha's children. No doubt they were
repeated many times. Vail's translation is formal and makes no
attempt at dialect. The present English versions follow the
[End page 62]
French texts closely. [Ed. note: Titles have been given to the songs and tales for purposes of identification.]
While old Colonel Tom lived and prospered,
There was nothing but joy at Tuckahoe.
Now that old Colonel Tom is dead and gone,
No more joy for us at Tuckahoe.
(Vail says that he has omitted the chorus as "being gutteral sounds impossible to imitate on paper.")
Young Mary was the dairy maid,
But Nancy lost the dairy key.
Oh! For forty days and forty nights,
We looked in vain for the dairy key!
We were so far beyond the sun,
Searching for the dairy key,
That we could see there blacks that we couldn't understand,
All that, alas, without finding the dairy key.
I was an old hare, I was born in the snow,
I was pursued by the black horse of Shields.
Grass grows green, tears roll down my cheeks,
Still Shields is mayor of the town.
Oh! Mr. Koon, you come too soon,
Just let us rest until tomorrow.
(Captain Shields was a police officer in Richmond noted for harassing the Negroes.)
I bought me a fine horse in Baltimore County,
Oh! Nancy, Oh!
And then a house with seven chimneys,
Oh! Nancy, Oh!
I bought me a chair to sit next to my Nancy,
Oh! Nancy, Oh!
And boots of leather to walk with my Nancy,
Oh! Nancy, Oh!
[End page 63]
Oh Miss Nancy is proud and haughty,
Oh! Nancy, Oh!
Oh Nancy dear, Nancy my dear, why don't you marry me?
Oh! Nancy, Oh!
(One voice will start these songs, then all together will join in the chorus.)
My old mistus don't love me,
Cause I won't eat her black eyed peas,
Oh yo! Oh yo! Oh yo!
Up there on the mountain, I whipped up my horse,
Then I galloped further than Diffiki,
Oh yo! Oh yo Oh yo!
I tied my horse to the doctor's post,
The poor beast caught the whooping cough,
Oh yo! Oh yo! Oh yo!
I went behind the turkey barn,
There I fell upon my knees;
I almost died of laughin',
Listening to those turkeys sneeze.
I went behind the turkey barn,
I didn't want to stay;
But how could I keep from laughin',
When I saw those gluttons pray?.
There was once a woman they called Mammy Dinah [In the
French she is called "Diah"]. She had three dogs, George,
Ring, and Duncan, who were so mean and so strong that she could
hardly hold them behind nine doors locked with nine keys. These
dogs obeyed her always, and were so devoted to her that wherever
she might be, even out of sight and hearing, Mammy Dinah had only
to sing a certain air which she used to call them, for them to
surmount all obstacles and make their way to her side. This
woman, with her dogs, enjoyed supernatural power; but as she was
good natured she never used it to do harm to anyone. For the very
reason of this power and her virtue there was an evil spirit who,
jealous of her and hating her bitterly, never ceased his efforts
to destroy her.
One day Mammy Dinah locked up her dogs as usual, and went
early to the woods. There she met the evil genie, who ran toward
her at full speed, in order to slay and devour her. As it was
[End page 64]
to run as fast as he, she did her best to escape by climbing a tree. The devil could not climb, but he was an experienced wood cutter, and never went out without carrying two hatchets. In order the quicker to reach his prey he took a hatchet in each hand, and began to chop the tree with terrifying speed. Mammy Dinah's heart trembled. However she did not lose her nerve. Perched in her tree she began to sing the tune which possessed the magic charm for her dogs. It went something like this:
Oh help Mammy Dinah, George! and you, my Duncan!
And you also, Ring! Come then, Oh my Ring!.
How slow you all are in coming to me!.
To which the Devil replied:
Death to you! I'll kill you. Death to you, Caby.
Soon I'll have you. Oh! I'll get you at last.
Go on! Soon I'll have you! You will be mine!
And all this time the hatchet was going at a great rate:
pan, pan, pan, ducka, ducka, ducka...
(Dinah's part is taken in a voice slow and plaintive; the
Devil is abrupt and rapid.)
At the first call from Mammy Dinah her dogs forced three of the doors closed against them, at the second they broke down three others, and finally at the third the last three fell. Before she could sing for the fourth time they were at her side. They fell upon the evil genie and tore him to pieces, thus delivering Mammy Dinah forever from her mortal enemy.
[Note: An article by William Bascom containing an
extensive bibliography, discussion, and numerous versions of this
tale ("Escape on the Tree," part IV. of the Aarne-Thompson tale
type 315A, The Cannibal Sister) was published in
Research in African Literatures, 12 (1981), 460-519.
The article was subsequently reprinted in a collection of
Bascom's essays published posthumously (he died in September
1981). See "Dogs Rescue Master in Tree Refuge," in African
Folktales in the New World (1992), pp. 155-200, for this
critical monograph. It does not include any reference, however,
to either Vail's early French publication of the "Mammy Dinah"
variant of the tale or to its translation as cited here in the
One day a fox, pursued by hounds, fled to a rabbit hole,
begging the rabbit to let him in, so that he might hide. "None of
that, replied the rabbit, "I am afraid that you will eat me if I
let you in." "Oh no," said the fox, "I wouldn't do that for the
world." But knowing that the rabbit had little faith in his
words, he added: "Let me just put my nose in your home; you know
that with all the rest of my body outside I could not hurt you."
The rabbit was good natured, and although he hardly understood
what good it would do the fox to have only his nose in the hole,
nevertheless he opened his door just a crack, enough to let in
the nose. But hardly had he done this when the fox begged him to
let in one of his ears; this being granted, he made the same
request for the other. Soon it was a matter of one paw, then
another, then for the body, and then, one after another, for the
two hind paws, and when the whole was in except for the tail
which the rabbit held pinched in the door, thus still holding the
fox in his power, the latter said in the most submissive tone
[End page 65]
the world: "I am sure, my dear sir, that you will not be so cruel as to allow the dogs to tear me to pieces in your very house, which they will certainly do if they see my tail sticking out, as it is at present."
The rabbit, not being cruel by nature, yielded out of pity,
and decided to take the risk he would run in shutting himself up
with the fox, who moreover never ceased his promises to do no
harm. So he let the tail enter. Once in, the fox, claiming that
he did it for security, locked the door from the inside.
The two pretended friends sat down opposite one another in
front of the fire, where a large pot of water was boiling in
preparation for the rabbit's supper. The latter, feeling uneasy
so close to the fox, spoke little; the other, for his part, was
equally silent, and seemed to be thinking of something very
pleasant, for he was smiling and looking pleased with himself.
Meanwhile he was staring so hard at his companion that the rabbit
became more than ever uneasy, but, hiding his agitation as best
he could, he said: "Neighbor fox what pleases you so much, why do
your teeth shine so brightly? "That," said the fox with a grimace
that made the other tremble, "is because I am in a hurry to feast
on some of your tender bones." Still the rabbit did not entirely
los[e] his presence of mind, and, seeming to pay little
attention to the fox's remark, he walked in a casual manner
toward the window, and stood there looking out for several
minutes. At last the fox in his turn asked: "What are you looking
at out there, Mr. Rabbit, with so much attention?" "I am only
watching the hunter and his hounds," replied the rabbit, "who are
coming nearer and nearer." "The hunter and the hounds!," cried
the fox. "For the love of God, dear Rabbit, hide me somewhere. I
am afraid that if they come near they will break down your door
and take me." "If you wish you may hide in that box," the rabbit
said, showing him the box and lifting the lid. The fox jumped in
at once, the rabbit closed the lid and turned the key. He took a
gimlet, and pierced a number of holes in the lid. "Why do you do
that?," asked the fox. "So that you may have more air," and the
rabbit continued to drill more holes until the lid was completely
Taking boiling water in a gourd he poured it over the fox who cried: "Rabbit, your house is full of fleas, I feel them biting over my whole body." The rabbit replied by pouring a second gourd of boiling water over the fox, who saw soon enough that it wasn't fleas that were bothering him. He opened his mouth to cry out, and received the whole contents of the pot down his throat, which ended his days.
Various studies of Monticello use the term, "inventing
America," to describe the importance of the ideas and the way of
life that flourished at the Jefferson estate. The studies,
however, have not normally included the black component of
[End page 66]
The songs and tales presented here--preserved in a forgotten book of French essays--are intended to shed some light on black culture at Monticello. They are as vital an expression of the black half of Monticello as we are likely to find.
Bear, Jr., James A., ed. Jefferson at Monticello: Memoirs of a Monticello Slave.
Charlottesville: The University Press of Virginia, 1967.
Carson, Jane. Colonial Virginians at Play.
Colonial Williamsburg, 1956.
Cripes, Helen. Thomas Jefferson and Music.
Charlottesville, The University Press of Virginia, 1974.
Farish, Hunter Dickinson, ed. Journal & Letters of Philip Vickers Fithian, 1773-1774:
A Plantation Tutor of the Old Dominion.
Colonial Williamsburg, 1943.
Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia.
New York, Harper Torchbooks (reprint edition), 1964.
Mordecai, Samuel. Richmond in By-Gone Days, by An Old Citizen.
George M. West, 1856.
Randolph, Thomas Jefferson. "Manuscript memoirs."
Manuscript Department, Alderman Library, University of Virginia, Charlottesville.
Stoutamire, Albert L. "A History of Music in Richmond, Va., 1742-1865."
M.A. thesis, Florida State University, 1960.
Tate, Thad. W. The Negro in Eighteenth Century Williamsburg.
Colonial Williamsburg, 1965.
Vail, Eugene A. De la litterature et des homme de lettres des Etats Unis d'Amerique.
[End page 67]