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Go on, Jimmy — crack your corn

For some reason this morning, I could easily picture myself standing in line during elementary school, all of us with our backs toward cubby holes of instruments and music books, facing the classroom of chairs and the teacher’s desk at the far end.

The lucky few were handed tiny metal triangles or kazoos to add creative clinks and buzzes to the ensuing cacophany. The rest of us had to sing.

The joy of music class lasted less than an hour at a time, and I don’t think it was even once per week. Maybe it was.

But at least we learned some great songs. We learned songs about the struggles of a tiny spider just trying to make it up a gutter downspout during the pouring rain; or about a twinkling little star that we wondered what it was … um, it was a star.

Then we sang about the possible joys of adulthood in learning that our beloved had left us while we slept, only to love another. Having stolen my only sunshine, she would live to “regret it all some day.”

Charming.

But the song that I most heavily associate with those days of choruses in the room flanked by miles of glass windows where the hot sun poured in is a song about a blue-tail fly.

We sang, “Jimmy crack corn,” and we didn’t care.

I always wondered who Jimmy was, why he was cracking corn and what it all had to do with a fly with a blue tail. But the song kind of answered it for me and put my mind at rest. I didn’t care.

But today I’ve done a little research into the song.

It comes as no surprise it’s rooted in slavery. It became popular during the 1840s and has gone through some changes since — mainly in its use of exaggerated slang and racial epithets. But throughout its various forms, it seems to focus on the tale of the singer, who apparently had once been the master’s servant/slave at the dinner table, whose secondary job was to keep the pesky blue-tail fly away from the master while he ate and drank.

His job then was to keep away the fly while the master slept, then while the master rode his pony in the afternoon. But one afternoon, the horse is bitten by a swarm of flies and bucks the master off into a ditch where he died.

The jury — evidently with the singer on trial — concludes his death came as the result of the blue-tail fly, not by the hand of the slave.

The master is buried beneath a persimmon tree where the epitaph on his stone reads, “Beneath this stone I’m forced to lie, all by the means of the blue-tail fly.” Now, with the master gone, the slave says let him rest — all things are for the best.

Jimmy crack corn, and he doesn’t care.

Was the cracked corn for making hominy, or for liquor production? Most likely, according to various researchers, the phrase was originally “Give me (gimme) cracked corn and I don’t care” — meaning the slave was reduced to eating chicken feed as a punishment for the death of the master, but he didn’t care. He knew what had really happened and he was innocent.

Mercy. Quite a song to lay on the unsuspecting minds and tongues of 8-year-olds.

What were our elders thinking? They may as well have taught us songs about the plague — about the red circular rashes on skin, flowers or herbs carried to try to ward off disease, the ashes of death … Yeah, never mind the ring around the rosies.

Oh, well. Triangle players, kazoo-ists, ready your clangers and wet your lips and let’s sing.

Clink-clink, bzzzz, clink, and crack your corn, Jimmy.

I don’t care.

Brett Campbell can be reached at brett.campbell@dailyleader.com or 601-265-5307.