When I was a kid in the 70’s I watched a lot of cartoons, and I of course watched Bugs Bunny countless times. One episode burrowed itself deep in my brain. In it, Bugs sang a song while he was mining giant carrots. The song haunted me all the way to 47 years old, when I decided to research its origins. All I could remember was the chorus ‘Jimmy Crack Corn and I Don’t Care’. What I discovered left me shook.
Bugs was up first and an edited version of the cartoon popped right up on YouTube. OK, so Bugs was mining giant carrots from the master and giant Paul Bunyan despite interference from his enormous dog. As he worked he sang the song still swirling around in my childhood memories. The first line he sang – which I didn’t understand as a kid, set off the alarm.
“When I was young I used to wait, on master and hand him his plate.”
Master? A quick step over to Wikipedia and I discovered Dan Emmett, who was credited with the song in 1846. Emmet led the Virginia Minstrels and is known historically as the first person to achieve success with a large group of white people in blackface, primarily a quartet. I initially thought Emmett wrote the song and after finding a picture of him in blackface I thought I had discovered another new low in an endless supply of so called American acts that can only be considered anti-human. I went deeper, even though I wish I hadn’t.
I discovered a book published in 1925, entitled “On the Trail of Negro Folk Songs” by by a white woman named Dorothy Scarborough. She was obsessed with Black culture and saw herself as a collector. The credentials which she proudly presented appear to have been that both of her grandfathers had owned large plantations with many slaves, granting her access to what she called “a wealth of Negro folk-lore”. Scarborough traced Jimmy Crack Corn back to a woman named Lucy Dickinson who recalled hearing her grandmother singing the song, and said that she had learned it from slaves. In fact, the original lyrics are from a song in which a slave is singing that his master promised him freedom after his death.
According to a book by James Fold about world famous music, the copyright records for the song list Dan Emmett only as the arranger. So, Dan Emmett stole a song from slaves and then turned it into white blackface minstrel music, ultimately selling thousands of copies. Supposedly Abraham Lincoln was a big fan of Emmett. Now that I knew where the song I had plugged into my brain as a kid had come from, I had to see what else happened to the song. Once again, I wish hadn’t.
After discovering and listening to versions of the song by Leadbelly, Big Bill Broonzy, and Pete Seeger, I encountered a truly disturbing sing along led by Burl Ives. I recognized his voice from another cartoon I used to watch as a kid – Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Ives was a white guy who apparently, was completely at ease singing this song to an audience of white people who joined him on the chorus, all just ready to crack corn and not care. Did these people have any idea what they were singing about? I can’t shake just how easy it was for everybody to be so out in this video. I felt a little glimmer of hope however, when I discovered what many people already knew, that Eminem himself had gotten a hold of Jimmy Crack Corn, and he went all in on the song as only he could.
My translation of Eminem’s version is that American society is his master, and as the slave he’s going to take full advantage of everyone and everything that comes his way. Em tells us that he doesn’t discriminate against anyone he can take advantage of. He’s Jimmy and money, fame and success are the corn. The piece is a collaboration with rapper 50 Cent, though it seems that Em is the one setting the tone on this one. So now we have a white and black collaboration that uses the song for it’s own purpose. I have to wonder, is this the end of the road for Jimmy Crack Corn? There’s also, by the way twisted versions for kids.
What do I do with this song as a Jazz Musician? I have always enjoyed using folk song like material. For years, I’ve been playing a variation of another theme song from a kids show in the 70’s called the New Zoo Revue. I hear folk type music from both Sonny Rollins and Ornette. When I decided to go back in time and discover what Bugs was singing about I thought I might find some more material to both construct and deconstruct with. I have an idea for how to play it, but I must change the lyrics. What would Albert Ayler do with this? What gets me about the song is the way the major thirds catch your ear, I’ll have to reverse their direction or make them them minor.
Thomas D. Rice, the so called father of minstrelsy, died from paralysis that took his movement and even his speech. If you speak evil, maybe the penalty is you lose your ability to speak. (Keep bullshitting us Trump.) As for Dan Emmett, numerous schools, businesses, and other institutions in Mount Vernon, Ohio, are named after him. The official memorial to him is a large boulder with a placard attached, located in front of the Knox County Historical Museum. There’s a monument to destroy!
Who’s with me?