daddy rice

Songs often inspire dances, which then become fixtures of the culture. Chubby Checker’s 1960 “The Twist” inspired a post-WWII generation to twist their hips to his, and other, rock music. Long before baby boomers discovered the joys of twisting, however, were such ballads as “The Tennessee Waltz,” which encouraged slow dancers to take to the dance floor. How far back in history does this trend go? Some claim that the first American rock star, and his accompanying dance, dates all the way back to the late 1820s. His name, points out author Paul Merry, was Thomas Dartmouth “Big Daddy” Rice (1808-60) who not only encouraged a dance but inadvertently provided the label for the most repressive movement in American history – the suppression of the rights of African Americans, even after their Emancipation. The “black codes” made the suppression legal and were not reversed until the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act the following year.

Merry writes: “To the tune of an Irish jig, Daddy Rice caricatured on stage the plantation song and shuffling dance of a limping old slave he’d once seen when touring the USA with his theatre group. The disabled old slave, full of backchat [rude or cheeky remarks], sang what they called black ditties while tending to his master’s horses. Rice called this ragged, impertinent but affable character, Jim Crow.” Starting in 1828, Rice performed in blackface on vaudeville stages as the character called Jim Crow, singing the song and demonstrating the accompanying dance called “Jump Jim Crow.”

The sheet music written by Rice was published in 1832. Some of its lyrics go like this:

“Come, listen all you gals and boys, Ise just from Tuckyhoe;
I’m goin’ to sing a little song, My name’s Jim Crow.

CHORUS [after every verse]
Weel about and turn about and do jis so,
Eb’ry time I weel about I jump Jim Crow.

I went down to the river, I didn’t mean to stay;
But dere I see so many gals, I couldn’t get away.

And arter I been dere awhile, I tought I push my boat;
But I tumbled in de river, and I find myself afloat.”

In his book How Blues Evolved (volume one), Merry continues: “As a measure of the Jim Crow persona’s incredible drawing power, on 1 December 1832, in New York’s Bowery district, a crowd three hundred strong noisily demanded Thomas Dartmouth Rice repeat his Jim Crow song and dance act a remarkable twenty times. A poster in Eric Lott’s 1993 book, Love and theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the Working Class, shows Rice dancing at the American Theatre in New York on 25 November 1833. Surrounding Rice is a throng of fans who have left the audience to join him on stage. The scene is hardly different to those at rock concerts or music.”

There can be little doubt that Rice’s fame as a black-faced minstrel making fun of a downtrodden, crippled slave on a southern plantation fed the flames of white superiority claims at that time and later. By 1838, the term “Jim Crow” had become a pejorative term for African Americans and from this the laws of racial segregation became known as Jim Crow laws. Naturally then, these laws became the focus of black hatred in the years that followed. They also contributed heavily to blues lyrics which subtly pointed out the inherent unfairness of Jim Crow laws such as the black codes, which detailed what African Americans could not do (or say publicly).  

But is there a direct connection to the blues, you may ask. A Website called wordsinthebucket.com answers: “To put it simply: the blues wouldn’t exist without ‘Jim Crow.’ It’s the American system of racial inequality and segregation that made life a hell for African-Americans in the South.”

Once the blues era began, the term started to show up in several songs making an overt protest against the racist system. One of the earliest examples is “North Bound Blues”by American singer and pianist Maggie Jones. This 1925 song contains trenchant references to the “Jim Crow laws” that are unusual for a classic female blues singer.

“Got my trunk and grip all packed
Goodbye, I ain’t coming back
Going to leave this Jim Crow town
Lord, sweet pape, New York bound

Got my ticket in my hand
And I’m leaving Dixieland

Going north child, where I can be free
Going north child, where I can be free
Where there’s no hardships, like in Tennessee

Going where they don’t have Jim Crow laws
Going where they don’t have Jim Crow laws
Don’t have to work there, like in Arkansas

When I cross the Mason‑Dixon Line
When I cross the Mason‑Dixon Line
Goodbye old gal, yon mama’s gonna fly

Going to daddy, got no time to lose
Going to daddy, got no time to lose
I’ll be alone, can’t hear my north bound blues.”

Maggie Jones sings “North Bound Blues: