“Carry Me Back to Old Virginny”–how should we feel about it?

In our readings and listenings on minstrelsy, we have come across the minstrel song, “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny,” a sentimental tune seeming to long for simpler slave life back in the South. In an address to the State Legislature of Missouri, Dr. Joseph McDowell mentions this song as “the song of the old African,” arguing that it holds such a special place in the hearts and minds of former slaves because “no negro over left her soil but carried in his bosom a desire to return, and a vivid recollection of her hospitality and kindess”.1 The lyrics, pictured below, begin “Carry me back to old Virginny, There’s where the cotton and the corn and tatoes grow…. There’s where the old darkey’s heart am long’d to go.”

“Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” notated music, composed by James Bland. https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas. 200000735/

“Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” notated music, composed by James Bland. https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas. 200000735/

Written in 1878, the song was a “longtime staple” of minstrel shows2, a renowned favorite, bearing what we would deem now to be controversial lyrics. It was performed by many minstrel troupes, notably by the Georgia Minstrels, the “first successful all-black minstrel company,” of which the composer of this song was a prolific member.3 Furthermore, in 1940, the song was adopted by the state of Virginia as the official state song, and remained as such until 1997 when it was withdrawn due to complaints that the lyrics were racist, and was instead made the state song emeritus (an honorary state song).4

James Bland’s 3 Great Songs
http://www.blackpast.org/files/ blackpast_images/James_A__Bland __public_domain_.jpg

The element of this that I find most intriguing and complex is that the song was written by a black man, James Bland, to be performed in blackface minstrelsy. As we discussed in class, white people performing in blackface is an inappropriate and, quite frankly, a disgusting practice, but the morals get a bit trickier when it comes to black people performing in blackface. Bland used minstrel shows to his professional and financial benefit, using the stage as a platform to broadcast his musical compositions.5 In light of this, should we reconsider his song, “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny”? Is this a racist song? Or could it be a satire, “illustrating Southern white slaveholders’ longing for the past when they were masters and African Americans were under their subjugation”?6 Either way, is it wrong to discount a song that was a prominent feature of a man’s career that likely would not have come to fruition if it wasn’t for the popularity of minstrel shows, for better or for worse, blurring the color line and giving blacks the opportunity to participate in American popular culture?

What’s a Stavin’ Chain?

In 1938, American ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax and the self-proclaimed inventor of jazz Jelly Roll Morton came together to lay down the definitive timeline for the birth of jazz. Their recording session resulted in a 9-hour collection of Jelly Roll Morton songs and interviews between Morton and Lomax. In the first song recorded during these sessions, Winin’ Boy Blues, Morton sings the lines

I’m the winin’ boy, don’t deny my name

I can pick it up and shake it like Stavin’ Chain’s

 

(Caution: this song contains some of the most explicit lyrics I’ve ever heard)

The phrase Stavin’ Chain stood out to me. What exactly is a Stavin’ Chain? Upon investigation, I found that this is not the only instance of a blues/jazz singer singing about Stavin’ Chain. There were songs by Lil Johnson (Stavin’ Chain) and “Big” Joe Williams (Stavin’ Chain Blues) that refer to Stavin’ Chain. From browsing various blues forum websites, I have found a variety of interpretations to what a Stavin’ Chain is. Some say it is a tool used to make barrels. Others claimed that Stavin’ Chain is a figure in African-American folklore famous for conducting trains. One man claimed that it’s an expression for having sex. Luckily, I was able to find an interview between Lomax and Morton about this very subject in Jelly Roll Morton: The Complete Library of Congress Recordings.

Taken from the recording Bad Men and Pimps

Lomax: And what about Stavin’ Chain?
Jelly Roll: Stavin’ Chain, well he was a pimp. Supposed to have more women in this district than any other pimp.
Lomax: Did you actually know Stavin’ Chain?
Jelly Roll:  No, I heard everybody talk about him, never get into his way…
Lomax: What what did you hear about him, this is very interesting cause, you know, they have a song about Stavin’ Chain
Jelly Roll: Well, you know, he slept like Stavin’ Chain.
Lomax: Good tune, too.
Jelly Roll: Yes, I like the tune, I can’t, couldn’t  memorize the tune, you know…
Lomax: Popular around New Orleans as well.
Jelly Roll: Yeah, at one time it was. Let’s see… that was around….19….8.
Lomax: Was Stavin’ Man a white man or colored one?
Jelly Roll: A colored one.
Lomax: Supposedly good looking.
Jelly Roll: Yes, he………. Women was supposed to be crazy about him.

As it turns out, Lomax knew this Stavin’ Chain character that Morton was singing about. Stavin’ Chain, also known as Wilson Jones, was an American blues musician that Lomax photographed and recorded in 1934. Stavin’ Chain was famous for his sexual prowess became a legend in the American blues scene. I’ve found that American blues music is one with an extremely rich history and is full of similar, obscure references. Hours of research can be done unpacking and contextualizing the lyrics from this music. For being able to do this, we owe much gratitude to Alan Lomax for preserving this music for future study and enjoyment.

Sources

“Bad Men and Pimps.” YouTube. February 11, 2015. Accessed October 02, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iwxP8uT-zQ4.

“Jelly Roll Morton – Winin’ Boy Blues – Library of Congress 1939.” YouTube. June 02 2015. Accessed October 02, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fxkvu_gWlQI

Lomax, Alan 1915-2002. “Lomax Collection.” [Stavin’ Chain playing guitar and singing the ballad “Batson,” Lafayette, La. (fiddler in the background)]. January 01, 1970. Accessed October 02, 2017. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/lomax/item/2007660070/.

“Winin’ Boy Blues.” Community Guitar Home. Accessed October 3, 2017. http://www.communityguitar.com/students/Songs/WininBoy.htm.