Great Big Taters in Sandy Land
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GREAT BIG TATER(S) IN SANDY LAND. AKA - "Great Big Taters." AKA and see "Big Sweet Taters in Sandy Land," "Sandyland," "Sandy Land," "Sandy Lot," "Better Quit Kickin My Dog Around," "Grease that Wooden Leg Sally Ann," "Sail away Ladies (1)." Old-Time, Breakdown. USA; Oklahoma, Missouri, Arkansas, Texas, Alabama, Mississippi. A Major (Silberberg): G Major (Beissweger & McCann, W.E. Claunch, Kuntz, Sweet). AEae or Standard tuning (fiddle) ABB (Rankin): ABB' (Phillips/Wills): AABB' (Sweet): AA'BB' (Beisswenger & McCann): ABC (Silberberg): AABBCC (Phillips/Eck Robertson). The melody is directly related to "Sail away Ladies (1)" (and thus to "Sally Ann") and some indicate it is merely a variant of that tune, though the title "Great Big Taters" and its variations is considerably disseminated in the South and Old Southwest. Drew Beisswenger (2008) states that fiddlers in Arkansas and neighboring states call the tune by the "Great Big Taters in the Sandy Land" or "Sandy Land," while in other regions of the U.S. it is called "Sally Ann" or Sail Away Ladies." It has also been linked to a song/tune, primarily in the Mid-west, called "Hound Dawg Song (The)" or "Every Time I Go to Town (the boys keep kicking my dog around)," published in 1912, but likely much older (perhaps as early as the mid-19th century, according to Alan Lomax and Vance Randolph). Arizona fiddler Kenner C. Kartchner knew a tune by the "Great Big Taters..." title in the very odd key of C Major (for this kind of tune), which he learned from Frank Pruitt, about 1900. The title was one of those in a list of traditional Ozark Mountain fiddle tunes compiled by musicologist/folklorist Vance Randolph, published in 1954, and it was mentioned in an article entitled "Fiddler's Jubilee" in the Fayette Banner (Fayette County, Alabama) of January 2, 1908 (Cauthen, 1990).
The tune is mentioned in a passage in Missouri physician William Percival King's Stories of a Country Doctor (1891), in his chapter called "Old Time Dances and Parties." After a community barn-raising...:
...the young men would repair to the house in the dusk of evening. If the quilt was done it would be taken out of the frames; if not it would be wound up--that is lifted to the ceiling or "loft," and then securely tied overhead. If there was a bed in the "big room" it would be taken down and removed. The fiddlers would get ready while everybody ate a hasty supper. This evening meal was enjoyed most by the old folks, for the younger ones would be so elated with the prospect of what was to come they could not eat. The "fiddlers" (there were no violinists in those days) would take their places i the corner and begin to "tune up." Four young men would seek partners and take their places for a cotillion. Then the fiddlers would strike up a familiar strain and the dancing would begin."
And it was dancing.
None of your gliding and sliding to and fro, a little hugging here and there, touching the tips of fingers and bowing and scraping. Oh, no. This was dancing. The music was such as "Fishers," "Durangs," "Rickett's," and "The Sailor's" hornpipes, "The Arkansas Traveler," "Cotton Eyed Joe," "Nancy Rowland," "Great big 'taters in sandy land," "Pouring soapsuds over the fence," "The snow bird on the Ash bank," "The Route," "The Rye Straw," "Run, nigger, run," etc. Sometimes one of the fiddlers would act as "prompter," or, if he could not, then some one would be selected. ... [pp. 48-49].
Another of Ira Ford's (1940) improbable tales goes:
From a fiddler who played 'Great Big Taters in Sandy Land' as his favorite tume, comes the following tradition obtained by the writer thirty years ago. The fiddler was then a man more than seventy years old, who had 'larned' the 'chune' when a you fellow of twenty, from the 'feller' who composed it (c. 1860?). It appears that Steve, the composer homesteaded 160 acres of land in the rough sandstone hills in a remote section of the country, it being the only land left open for homesteading. Steve was engaged to be married to a beautiful young girl of the community and the wedding was to take place as soon as he developed his farm and got his place built. He broke the new ground, which was all in patches on the tops of the hills, the remainder of the farm consisting of steep rocky hillsides and gullies. As his first crop he planted oats and corn. The oats only came up a few inches and the corn did not even make 'nubbins'. So the wedding had to be postponed. The boys teased Steve considerably about trying to make a living on the sandy land, but he took it all good-naturedly, as did the girl. That same year there was a shortage in the potato crop, and, as the land around there was not suitable for potato growing, the farmers had to pay exorbitant prices for the potatoes they had to ship in. Betty, Steve's girl, suggested that he plant potatoes for his next crop. The following spring he planted all his ground accordingly, to the great amusement of his friends. But their amusement was changed to astonishment when that fall Steve harvested 300 bushels to the acre of high grade potatoes and sold them to the farmers as a good price. The wedding was elaborately celebrated with a big supper, followed by a dance that lasted until morning. This tune, composed by Steve and afterwards played at all the dances, was commonly known as 'Steve's Tune', but it was Betty who originated the verses. To get even with those who had 'poked fun' at Steve and his sand farm, she invented the verses, singing them at the dance that night much to the amusement of the guests."
Thede says the Henry Hilderbrand referred to in the lyrics that she collected with the Oklahoma version given in her book was a farmer who lived near West Plains, Missouri, and that Eli was a mule.
Great big tater in the sandy land,
Plow it up Henry Hilderbrand;
Great big tater in the sandy land,
Git there Eli of you can. (Thede)
Great big taters in sandy land,
We-all dig 'em out as fast as we can.
The folds all buy 'em from a foolish man,
Raisin' great big taters in sandy land.
Sow them oats, but you can't get a stand,
Corn won't grow in that sandy land.
Folks won't think you're much of a man,
If you can't make a livin' on sandy land. (Ford)
Sift the meal and save the bran,
Goodby gals I'm goin' in
Raise big taters in sandy land,
Raise big taters in sandy land. (W.E. Claunch)
As with several popular old-time tunes, there is a play-party lyric called "Sandy Land" that mirrors the sung ditties of the fiddle tune. The earliest sound recording of the tune under the "Great Big Taters in Sandy Land" title is by Texas fiddler Eck Robertson, in 1929.