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American Folk Song
When we decided on the word “judge” for our theme this week at Word & Song, I have to admit I was stumped for a moment about how I might tie in a popular song with our posts from the rest of the week. But then a once-beloved old folk song came to mind. I say “once-beloved” not just because that’s true of “The Blue-tail Fly.”
Sadly, the same term could said of most of the fine old songs which were so popular during the great folk music revival of the 1ate 1940 through the 1960’s. But the poor “Blue-Tail Fly” suffers in a way that is sadder even than being entirely forgotten. It has been greatly twisted and reviled — misjudged — in recent years. The song’s delightful and ironic humor has been purposely misrepresented, and interpretations have been imposed on the lyrics by many who seem to have have forgotten both how to laugh and how to sing.
Hard as it may be for some to imagine, there was a time when ordinary people joined their voices in song spontaneously and laughed together publicly over human foibles and frailties put before them in the form of lighthearted entertainment. Sometimes a Song can open a portal to such a time, and that’s exactly what today’s selection does.
Also known as “Jimmy Crack Corn,” our song relates a comic little story in which the wheel of fortune takes a spin and throws down the guy on top, leaving his former servant to tell about what happened — from his own point of view and rather cheerfully. And what are we supposed to do when we hear the outcome of this tale? Why, laugh, of course, and participate in a little mischievous enjoyment of the story and the “poetic justice” of the jury’s verdict.
That’s exactly what the audience does in the clip below of the incomparable Burl Ives — folk singer and actor — singing “Jimmy Crack Corn” live to a quite ordinary television audience in 1965. I don’t want to mention any spoilers, but keep an eye on Burl Ives’ face, his body language, and the way he walks down stage closer to the audience as he sings the song that he himself was the first to record commercially, in 1944 and again in 1948 for a big hit with the Andrews Sisters.
DIFFERENT UNIVERSE ALERT!!
A Final Note about Our Song
“Blue-Tail Fly” dates to before 1840, and like many folk songs admits of a wide variety of verses and melodic variations. The version I like to use myself is from The American Song Treasury, by Theodore Raph. In his introduction, Raph mentions that Lincoln loved the song and probably played it on his harmonica; that it almost certainly originated as a plantation slave song; and that via minstrel shows, very popular at the middle of the 19th century, the song “seemed to have traveled every covered-wagon trail. Wherever it went it was sure to capture the people’s fancy through its strong folk appeal. The song became a national hit just before the California Gold Rush got going. Today this song [and by today he meant 1964] .. is frequently heard over radio, television, in the street, and on recordings.”
Lyrics from The American Song Treasury
When I was young I used to wait
On my master and give him his plate.
I’d pass the bottle when he got dry,
And brush away the blue-tail fly.
Chorus: Jimmy crack corn and I don't care,
Jimmy crack corn and I don't care,
Jimmy crack corn and I don't care,
My master's gone away.
One day he rode around the farm,
The flies so numerous they did swarm;
One chanced to bite him on the thigh.
The devil take the blue-tail fly.
The pony run, he jump, he pitch,
He threw my master in the ditch;
He died, and the jury wondered why:
The verdict was the blue-tail fly.
They laid 'neath a ‘simmon tree.
His epitaph there for to see:
"Beneath this stone I'm forced to lie,
The victim of a blue-tail fly."
Old Master’s gone, now let him rest.
They say all things are for the best;
I won’t forget till the day I die,
Old Master an the blue-tail fly.
Word & Song is an online magazine devoted to reclaiming the good, the beautiful, and the true. We publish six essays each week, on words, classic hymn, poems, films, and popular songs, as well a weekly podcast, alternately Poetry Aloud or Anthony Esolen Speaks. To support this project, please join us as a free or paid subscriber.