Wilder Wednesday – The Dark Side of Old Dan Tucker

Wilder Wednesday posts are inspired by the Little House on the Prairie series of books.

“Play, Ingalls!” he said. “Play me down the road!” So while he went down the creek road and out of sight, Pa played, and Pa and Mr. Edwards and Laura sang with all their might,
“Old Dan Tucker was a fine old man;
He washed his face in the frying-pan,
He combed his hair with a wagon wheel,
And died of the toothache in his heel…”
Far over the prairie rang Pa’s big voice and Laura’s little one, and faintly from the creek bottoms came a last whoop from Mr. Edwards.
“Git out of the way for old Dan Tucker!
He’s too late to get his supper!”

~Little House on the Prairie, by Laura Ingalls Wilder

The Ingalls family loved music, most often supplied by Pa’s fiddle. Laura recorded dozens of songs that the family enjoyed. One of these is Old Dan Tucker, more strongly associated with Little House on the Prairie due to the character of Mr. Edwards, who sang it often on the TV show.

The song dates from the middle of the nineteenth century. It is not certain who wrote it, although it is often attributed to Dan Emmett (who also wrote Dixie). It is certain that his blackface troupe Virginia Minstrels made it popular.

Wait…did I just say “blackface?” Yes, I did, and that term should be explained for those unfamiliar with it. Merriam-Webster defines it as “makeup applied to a performer playing a black person, especially in a minstrel show; also: a performer wearing such makeup.” What the definition does not say is that blackface minstrel theater was more than just makeup; it was an exaggerated, stereotypical portrayal of caricaturized black people, meant to be humorous. (I’ll discuss minstrel shows, including Pa’s – Pa’s! – participation in one, more in a future post.)

A poster for a 1900 minstrel show

A poster for a 1900 minstrel show

In the case of Old Dan Tucker, the original words were written to be performed by a troupe, with some verses sung – and acted out, an essential ingredient in minstrels – by “Dan” and other verses sung by other members as observers of Dan’s antics. Despite some claims to the contrary, there is no doubt that Dan was supposed to be black. The vernacular of the song, particularly Dan’s own verses, was overplayed Black English (now often called Ebonics). An early playbill calls the show “a Virginian Refrain, in which is described the ups and downs of Negro life.”

It was the usual practice for blackface troupes to portray people of color as ignorant and uncouth, or worse. Old Dan Tucker, according to the 1843 lyrics (which can be found at the end of this post), was a fighting, drunken glutton who had no sense of, or didn’t care about, social mores. He sometimes speaks of himself in the third person, as a child might, which is to further show his simple-mindedness. Part of the appeal of this portrayal is that it allowed “lower class” whites to poke fun at the culture of the “upper class” in an analogous way, as opposed to outright finger-pointing, which would only further cement their own lesser-mannered class.

It is important to note that both black and white performers used blackface. Black minstrel performers often satirized the behavior of whites, including their racist attitudes, and promoted abolition. By the 1870s, white minstrel shows were giving up blackface (often incorporating other ethnic stereotypes, such as the blarney-filled, drunken Irishman, or greedy, conniving Jews, instead) and black performers were taking over blackface theater. Some African Americans saw it as a means of spreading their own culture, while others realized that it was a much easier way to earn a living than most avenues available to them (which was mostly menial labor). This does not, of course, excuse the caricaturizations of black people by white minstrel performers in blackface.

Old Dan Tucker was immediately successful and became a popular song across the country. In fact, it was one of the top 3 most popular songs in 1843, thanks in large part to the Virginia Minstrels.

Virginia_Minstrels,_1843

However, its lyrics did not remain static. Performers added, deleted, and changed verses as it suited them. Hundreds of different versions have been recorded. Some of these promoted specific causes; for example, in 1844 a group called the Hutchinson Family Singers turned it into “a song for emancipation” with abolitionist lyrics. Other versions were designed to eliminate the racist portrayal of blacks and convert it into a generic, fun tune.

That is how we today think of Old Dan Tucker. Its history should not make us shun the song, but learn from it. Let its modernized verses bring to mind Mr. Edwards and his helpfulness and neighborliness – to everyone, regardless of their race or color – and enjoy it as an entertaining bit of Americana. Here’s a mix of that version.

What do you think? Does the dark history of Old Dan Tucker change how you think about the song? Should it?

dan music

1843 sheet music for Old Dan Tucker

1843 Lyrics of OLD DAN TUCKER as sung by the Virginia Minstrels

I come to town de udder night,
I hear de noise an saw de fight,
De watchman was a runnin roun,
Cryin Old Dan Tucker’s come to town.

Gran’ Chorus:
So get out de way! Get out de way!
Get out de way! Old Dan Tucker.
Your too late to come to supper.

Tucker is a nice old man,
He use to ride our darby ram,
He sent him wizzen down de hill,
If he hadn’t got up he’d lay dar still.

Gran’ Chorus.

Here’s my razor in good order,
Magnum bonum—jis had bought ‘er,
Sheep sell oats, Tucker shell de corn,
I’ll shabe you soon as de water get warm.

Gran’ Chorus.

Old Dan Tucker an I got drunk,
He fell in de fire an kick up a chunk,
De charcoal got inside he shoe,
Lor bless you honey how de ashes flew.

Gran’ Chorus.

Down de road foremost de stump,
Massa make me work de pump;
I pump so hard I broke de sucker,
Dar was work for ole Dan Tucker.

Gran’ Chorus.

I went to town to buy some goods
I lost myself in a piece of woods,
De night was dark I had to suffer,
It froze de heel of Daniel Tucker.

Gran’ Chorus.

Tucker was a hardened sinner,
He nebber said his grace at dinner;
De ole sow squeel, de pigs did squal
He ‘hole hog wid de tail and all.

Gran’ Chorus.

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