Root Hog or Die (1)

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X:1 T:Root Hog or Die [1] M:2/4 L:1/8 R:Clog dance tune S:Ryan’s Mammoth Collection (1883) Z:AK/Fiddler’s Companion K:A E | A/B/c/d/ e/c/z/e/ | e/c/a/c/ Bz/B/ | B/c/d/e/ f/d/z/f/ | f/d/b ez/e/ | e/f/g/a/ b/b/z/g/ | a/g/f/e/ az/c/ | d/B/c/A/ B/e/z/e/ | e/c/d/B/ A2 || (3a/a/a/a (3g/g/g/g | (3f/f/f/f c/e/z/e/ | E/A/F/A/ G/A/z/A/ | c/A/B/c/ F/A/z/A/ | .a.a .g.g (3f/f/f/f c/e/z/e/ | E/A/F/A/ G/A/z/A/ | c/A/B/G/ A ||



ROOT HOG OR DIE [1]. American, Dance Tune and Air (2/4 time). A Major (Cole/Ryan): G Major (Ford). Standard tuning (fiddle). AB (Cole/Ryan): AABB (Ford). The phrase 'root hog or die,' whose exact meaning is unknown but whose general meaning is 'to become productive or perish,' first appears in print in the 1834 publication A Narrative Life of David Crockett[1]. It is thought to have originated with the early colonial practice of turning pigs loose in the woods to fend for themselves, and the term is an idiomatic expression for self-reliance.

The tune is listed as a 'jig' in Ryan’s Mammoth Collection, referring not to the familiar Irish 6/8 time jig, but rather to a type of 19th century American syncopated duple-time banjo tune. These jigs were often called ‘straight’ or ‘sand’ jigs (the latter derived from the practice of spreading sand on the stage to reduce friction and facilitate foot movements). It was perhaps named for the type of dance to it (i.e. jig-dancing, a term borrowed from England) or perhaps from a derogatory term for African-Americans. It appears in a list of standard tunes in the square dance fiddler's repertoire, according to A.B. Moore in History of Alabama (1934). Charles Wolfe, commenting in his 1991 edition of African-American collector Thomas Talley’s Negro Folk Rhymes (originally published in 1922), says the song “has obscure origins in the pre-Civil War minstrel stage.” Talley gave a dialect stanza under the title “The Thrifty Slave”:

Jes wuk all day,
Den go huntin’ in de wood.
Ef you cain’t ketch nothin’
Den you hain’t no good.
Don’t look at Mosser’s chickens,
Caze dey’re roostin’ high.
Big pig, liddle pig, root hog or die!

There have been several songs with the title or prominent line "Root, Hog or Die." One of the more popular such songs is generally attributed to Richard J. McGowan[2]. It is advertised as an "Ethiopian Song" sung by J.H. Budword of George Christy & Woods Minstrels, published in New York in 1856, and goes:

I'm right from old Virginny wid my pocket full ob news,
I'm worth twenty shillings right square in my shoes.
It doesn't make a bit of difference to neither you nor I
Big pig or little pig, Root, hog, or die.

CHORUS:
I'm chief cook and bottlewasher,
Cap'n ob de waiters;
I stand upon my head,
When I peel de Apple dumplins.

I'se happiest darkee on de top ob de earth
I get fat as possom in de time ob de dearth
Like a pig in a tate patch dar let me be
Way down in old Virginny whar its Root, hog, or die.

De Boston dandies dey look so very grand
Old clothes hand me down gloves upon de hand
High heel boots boots moustaches round de eye -
A perfect sick family ob Root, hog, or die.

De Boston gals dey de beat dem all
Dey wear high heel shoes for to make demself's tall
If dey dont hab dem de Lor how dey'l cry
De boys hab got to get dem or else Root, hog, or die.

De Shanghie coats dey're getting all de go
Whar de boys get dem I realy dont know
But dey're bound to get dem if dey dont hang too high
Or else dey make de Taiors run Root, hog or die.


Additional notes

Source for notated version: -

Printed sources : - Cole (1000 Fiddle Tunes), 1940; p. 84. Ford (Traditional Music of America), 1940; p. 60 (lyrics on p. 424). Ryan’s Mammoth Collection, 1883; p. 118.

Recorded sources: -



Back to Root Hog or Die (1)


  1. David Crockett, A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett of the State of Tennessee; Philadelphia, E.L. Cary and A. Hart (1834).
  2. Sigmund Spaeth, A history of popular music in America, p. 131