A square dance in Minnesota (MNopedia)
“No one will believe that I like country music,” writes James Alan McPherson, in the first sentence of his Pulitzer-winning short story collection, Elbow Room. Who is ‘no one?’ we might wonder. The speaker’s wife, Gloria, can endorse blues and bebop but not “hillbilly stuff.” The speaker, an African American man, establishes his fondness for the stringed sounds of banjos and fiddles. “But most of all,” he reveals, “(I) like square dancing — the interplay between fiddle and caller, the stomping, the swishing of dresses, the strutting, the proud turnings, the laughter.” The title of the story, “Why I Like Country Music,” prepares the reader for a defense, a quiet rebuke ostensibly aimed at the speaker’s wife.
The story travels to the South Carolina of the unnamed fellow’s childhood, an infatuation with “a pretty, chocolate brown” fourth-grader named Gweneth Lawson. Even as his rival, Leon Pugh, threatens to monopolize Gweneth’s attention, the speaker triumphs by dancing with the girl at the best moment, at a school-wide square dance in celebration of spring. Yet the ‘no one’ might include a larger swath of skeptics. Surely, square dancing must be the province of Appalachian whites. Upon witnessing the celebration by the black schoolchildren, the fictional superintendent of schools states, “Lord, y’all square dance so good it makes me plumb ashamed us white folks ain’t takin’ better care of our art stuff.”
That statement may not signal an attempt, by the superintendent, to gerrymander the estimable history of the square dance. To the contrary, it implies that both groups—blacks and whites alike—had been performing the dance for quite some time. According to scholar Philip Jamison, enslaved black fiddlers played music at white dances in the late 1600s, and throughout the tens of decades of their servitude. In an article published in The Journal of Appalachian Studies, Jamison describes the arrival of European dances and dance figures—allemande, quadrille, dos-a-dos, cotillion, promenade, and others—in the early years of the fledgling republic. Enslaved people not only served as musicians for these dances, but began to dance these steps themselves, alongside their own traditions. Jamison writes that cotillions, quadrilles, the Virginia Reel, and African dances “co-existed at plantation ‘frolics’ during the first half of the nineteenth century.” Many were performed in “squares.”
The Bog Trotters Band, photographed in Galax, Virginia in 1937 (Unknown
photographer, courtesy of Lomax Collection at the U.S. Library of Congress).
The Mississippi slave narrative of Isaac Stier not only chronicled that men on his plantation “clogged and pigeoned,” but called the dances as well. Stier recalled that “I use to call out de figgers: ‘Ladies, sasshay, Gents to de lef’, now all swing.’ Ever’body lak my calls an’ de dancers sho’ moved smooth an’ pretty. Long after de war was over de white folks would ‘gage me to come ‘roun’ wid de band an’ call de figgers at all de big dances. Dey always paid me well.” Referring to the callers of square dances, Jamison, in his article, asserts that the first callers were African American and that dance calling was common in black culture before it was adopted by whites and became an integral part of the Appalachian dance tradition. Perhaps it followed naturally from the call-and-response convention of African drum music, with the response, in this case, being the dance steps themselves.
According to a variety of sources, including Jamison, JStor Daily, and Smithsonian.com, the standard imagery of white farmers engaging in country or “contra” dances, reels, and other social jamborees, doesn’t often credit African American and even Native American musicians, who, collectively, played banjo, fiddle, bass, and bugle, and struck the tambourine with “terrible energy” while “crying out the figures.” Numerous historical accounts situate African American slaves as well as free African American musicians calling or “prompting” square dances in the pre-war south and southern Appalachian regions, yet other accounts situate similar events in the Great Lakes, New England, Canada, and England. Eventually, white musicians adopted square dance calling, which included instructions to the dancers and an element of improvisation. The “caller,” once a fiddler himself, eventually became an emcee without instrumental duties, one who would explain the movements to the dancers.
Even as recording technology developed in the early twentieth century, few traditional African American square dance callers dedicated versions of their craft to cylinder or vinyl. Some recorded examples of square dance calls, however, can be found. Father and son duo, Andrew and Jim Baxter, recorded “Georgia Stomp” on the Victor label in 1929. Andrew (father, fiddle) and Jim (son, guitar, vocals) notably performed with a white band, The Yellow Hammers, in 1927, which represents one of the first examples of integrated recordings in Georgia. Another musician, Henry Thomas—featuring “voice, whistle, and guitar”—recorded “The Fox and the Hounds” on Vocalion in 1927. Samuel Jones, also known as Stove Pipe No. 1, and billed as “one man band with singing,” recorded “Turkey in the Straw,” on the Columbia label in 1924. Pete Harris, one of the so-called “Black Texicans,” recorded “Square Dance Calls (Little Liza Jane)” in 1934, a tune that was collected by folklorist John Lomax. [Nota bene: There’s America’s favorite poor gal, Liza Jane, once again.]
“Ho didy ho / Your baby just come from Kokomo.”
Other black recording artists carried notable square dance recordings into the mid-twentieth century. Look for Long John Hunter’s “Old Rattler” on Yucca (1961) or Magic Sam’s “Square Dance Rock, Part 2” on Chief (1960). Above, you can listen to Buddy Lucas’ “Ho Didy Ho,” which appeared on Savoy in 1956. Lucas played tenor saxophone and harmonica throughout his career. In addition to leading some memorable sessions of his own, he turns up as sideman on quite a few stellar tracks and albums: Little Willie John’s “Fever” (1956), Nina Simone Sings the Blues (1967), Albert Ayler’s New Grass (1968), The Blue Yusef Lateef (1968), and Count Basie’s Afrique (1971).
Many years before McPherson published his story, “Why I Like Country Music,” the great Ray Charles released his crossover album, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music (1962). Charles, a celebrated African American pianist and singer, reinvented twelve tunes typically associated with country artists, including “Hey Good Lookin’” by Hank Williams. By then, perhaps, Charles had taken hold of a style that had been influenced by both African American and white communities, maybe more than once. It’s worth remembering that much American folklore and mythology is precisely that—American, with far-ranging influences drawn from numerous quarters. In an era when America is noteworthy for its divisions, we ought to remember that call and response has influenced hillbilly tunes, and so forth. In “Why I Like Country Music,” the schoolteacher, Mrs. Boswell, attempts to deconstruct the aversion that the speaker initially professes, with respect to square dancing. “The worse you are at dancing,” she says, “the better you can square dance.” Representatives from each culture will blame the other for this sentiment. Either way, the record player croons, “When you get to your partner pass her by / And pick up the next girl on the sly.”
Howard University students square dancing in 1949 (Smithsonian Institution)
SOURCES OF INFORMATION
Articles and Books
Erin Blakemore. “The Slave Roots of Square Dancing.” JStor Daily. June 16, 2107.
Kat Eschner. “Square Dancing Is Uniquely American.” Smithsonian.com. November 29, 2017.
Alan B. Govenar. Texas Blues: The Rise of a Contemporary Sound. Texas A&M University Press (2008).
Philip Jamison. Hoedowns, Reels, and Frolics: Roots and Branches of Southern Appalachian Dance. University of Illinois Press (2015).
Philip Jamison. “Square Dance Calling: The African American Connection.” Journal of Appalachian Studies 9:2 (Fall 2003).
James Alan McPherson. “Why I Love Country Music.” From Elbow Room. Little, Brown (1977).
Clarence Page. “Cultural Appropriation? Try Cultural Sharing.” Chicago Tribune. April 11, 2017.
Isaac Stier. Slave Narrative
Pete Harris “Square Dance Calls (Little Liza Jane)” (1934)
Long John Hunter “Old Rattler” (1961)
Magic Sam “Square Dance Rock, Part 2” (1960)
Stovepipe No. 1, aka Samuel Jones, “Turkey in the Straw” (1924)
Henry Thomas “The Fox and the Hounds” (1927)