I’m rereading the novel Gone with the Wind to analyze it’s portrayal of the Reconstruction period of government and multi-racial enfranchisement. Like most Americans GWTW was my first exposure to that period of US history. For now I’ll just say the book is better than I remembered, but the historical viewpoint for the Reconstruction era is far worse than I remembered. More on that later. But, as a random, weird sidebar I thought I’d post some links to a Southern folk song that was mentioned in passing that I did some digging on.
The passage on page 178 of GWTW mentions “rollicking strain of Johnny Booker, he’p dis Nigger” performed at the Atlanta charity ball. This is the event in the book (and film) where newly widowed Scarlett is allowed to attend in order to sell items for charity behind a booth–under ordinary peacetime circumstances a widow this recent wouldn’t have attended a ball whatsoever. Anyway, the only sound clip I could find of this song mentioned was this one from the Missouri State University archives from 1970 of an elderly man singing the song a capella. Apparently the university conducted a wide scale project in the 1960s to preserve local folk music.
Yet this song–as sung here–hardly seems so upbeat and rollicking that “Scarlett thought she would scream” (178) and dance her feet behind the booth. However, I did find another version recorded in the 1940s–only referred to as “Johnny Booker” which is much more lively. It’s sung by an early 20th Century folk singer who went by the performance name Cousin Emmy. Although this version is accompanied by a banjo only, I can imagine the spirited dancing to this when accompanied by a full band. This one is catchy. Interestingly, the lyrics are entirely different: altered far beyond just excising the obvious offensive word.
Any regional/folk music experts out there know more about the lyrical evolution of this song?
While only tangentially related, here is an awesome segment on NPR about the recently published Dictionary of American Regional English, much of the research having occurred taping elderly speakers in the 1960s and 1970s like the Missouri State University project. Listen to the samples of a Brooklyn, Wisconsin, and South Georgia accents–so much more distinct than I suspect we would hear today (for the most part). The Georgia one is much more lilting and almost Scotch-Irish at times than current portrayals of Southern accents usually are. I’ve heard this disparagingly referred to as the “Texasification” of modern Southern accents. The Wisconsin one sounds extreme–but recognizable–for one who has been accused of sounding more like a Wisconsinite in direct correlation to how many beers I’ve consumed!