March 29, 2008

"Jimmy Crack Corn"

Stupid Question ™
Sept. 22, 2003
By John Ruch
© 2003

Q: What does “Jimmy crack corn” mean, and why does he not care?
—Matt, Columbus, Ohio

A: This strange phrase comes from a song first published in 1846 as “Jim Crack Corn, or The Blue Tail Fly.” (“Jimmy” is a modern mishearing.)

The song is credited to Daniel Emmett, a member of the then-popular blackface minstrel group the Virginia Minstrels.

Sung from a slave’s point of view, the song is about the slave’s task of shooing flies away from his master. A fly manages to bite the master’s pony, which bolts and throws the master to his death.

This story is told in seven verses separated by the chorus, “Jim crack corn, I don’t care [repeated three times]/Ole Massa gone away.”

“Jim” surely is the slave himself. It was a common minstrel-show generic name for a slave, a shortening of the term “Jim Crow,” the infamous title of one of the first blackface songs. (The modern version often inserts “and” before “I don’t care,” wrongly suggesting that “Jim” and “I” are different people.)

“Crack corn” probably refers to the common practice of “cracking” (crushing or breaking open) corn kernels for use in food, especially hominy. Corn-cracking was common in the South and would likely be the work of slaves.

In the context of the song, “I don’t care” implies that corn-cracking work isn’t so hard now that the master is dead, or that the slave has returned to work not caring about his death. In short, he’s happy the master is dead—a reading often taken by abolitionists, and the interpretation that keeps the song alive on children’s records and folk albums today.

However, it is possible that the “Jim crack corn” chorus actually had an independent life of its own.

“Jim Crack Corn” is just a rewrite of an 1844 song called “De Blue Tail Fly,” another minstrel song that tells the same story with some of the exact same verses. However, the chorus or refrain of that song consisted only of the single line, “An scratch ’im wid a brier too.”

“Jim crack corn, I don’t care” is such a weird phrase that it’s hard to believe Emmett completely invented it for use as a chorus.

Minstrel performers ripped off music from real African-Americans and from each other. It’s possible that the line came from an actual slave work song, with “I don’t care” referring to a put-on lack of concern at the monotony of the work. It’s also possible the line comes from another popular song in which it meant something different.

There is evidence for an independent existence of the phrase. A 1940 Federal Writers’ Project report recounted a South Carolina story about a “wandering musician” called James Pearson. He was known as Jim Crack Pearson for his signature ditty “Jim Crack Corn and I Don’t Care,” the lyrics of which consisted entirely of that phrase repeated over and over. (Note the lack of Emmett’s explanatory line, “Ole Massa gone away.”)

The Pearson story is dubious. But if it’s true, it indicates the phrase could have been a sheer nonsense line repeated for fun.

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