Annotation:Sugar in the Gourd (1)

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X:1 T:Sugar in the Gourd [1] N:From the playing of John Ashby (1915-1979, Fauquier County, Va.) M:C| L:1/8 R:Reel Q:"Fast" D:County 774, John Ashby & the Free State Ramblers - D:"Down on Ashby's Farm" (1974). D: Z:Transcribed by Andrew Kuntz K:A V:1 clef=treble name="1." [V:1] [ce]-[e2e2][ef] [e2e2][e2e2]|[ce]-[e2e2][ef] [e3e3]e-|fefg f2e2|[ce]-[e2e2][ef] [e2e2]fg| afeg fecc|egfe B-c2B|cBAc BAFD|(E[A2A2])[AB] [A4A4]:| |:B-|cBAc BAFF|AB2c B3B|cBAc BAFD|(E[A2A2])[AB] [A4A4]:|]

SUGAR IN THE GOURD [1]. American, Reel (cut or 2/4 time). USA; Virginia, West Virginia, North Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas, Missouri. G Major (Brody, Perlman, Reiner & Anick): A Major (Carson, Frets, Silberberg). Standard tuning (fiddle). AB (Silberberg): AABB (Brody, Perlman, Reiner & Anick): AA'BB'C (Frets). There are several “Sugar in the Gourd” tunes, related and unrelated. This version of “Sugar in the Gourd” is melodically related to "Turkey in the Straw," and historically predates it, the words having been printed in the 1830's (Charles Wolfe). It was mentioned in an account authored by William Byrne describing a chance encounter with West Virginia fiddler ‘Old Sol’ Nelson during a fishing trip on the Elk River. The year was around 1880, and Sol, whom Byrne said was famous for his playing “throughout the Elk Valley from Clay Courthouse to Sutton as…the Fiddler of the Wilderness,” had brought out his fiddle after supper to entertain the company on a hunting trip (Milnes, Play of a Fiddle, 1999). The name proved to be popular and became attached to a number of tunes in several different genres and styles; in this sense the title was a 'floater' in much the same way that popular word couplets became attached to various melodically unrelated songs.

There are a few explanations of the meaning of the title. Formerly it has been thought that ‘sugar in the gourd' might refer to a practice of hanging sugar-filled vegetable gourds around a dance floor—to ease the friction for dancers sugar would periodically be thrown on those sections of the floor where the traffic was the heaviest. This explanation rests on the assumption that sugar was a plentiful enough commodity that it could be wasted in such a manner; sand spread on the floor could render the same result and much more cheaply. Another explanation, not mutually exclusive, is that ‘sugar in the gourd’ is a euphemism for completed coitis—in other words, depositing sperm into a womb is putting ‘sugar in the gourd’. It may simply be that sugar (if one were fortunate enough to have some) was stored for household use in a vessel made from a gourd. Around the time of the American Civil War, half of the country's sugar came from Cuba and half from Louisianna (jump-started by producers fleeing the Haitian revolution). Cuba did not end slavery util 1886, however, and it was American interests that dominated the island's sugar production. After the Mason Jar was invented in 1858 sugar consumption increased, as canning required white sugar. In a homage to Louisiana's sugar industry, Miss Louisiana was carved from a five-foot lump of sugar for the St. Louis World’s Fair.

“Sugar in the Gourd” is one of the tunes fiddlers would play to vie with each other in some older fiddle contests; the best version of “Sugar” and a few other 'universally' known tunes won the fiddler the prize, as, for example, was documented in 1899 in an account of a Gallatin, Tenn., contest (Charles Wolfe, The Devils Box, vol. 14, No. 4, 12/1/80). Similarly, the name of the title appears in the lists of tunes played by fiddlers at the Berea, Kentucky, fiddlers’ gatherings in the second decade of the 20th century, and a version was played in the 1919 Berea fiddle contest. The melody was played by Rock Ridge, Alabama, fiddlers around 1920 (Bailey). The Clarke County (Alabama) Democrat of May 9, 1929, described it as one of the "popular old time tunes" that would assuredly be "rendered in the most approved fashion" at a fiddlers' contest in Grove Hill, while the Northwest Alabamian of August 29, 1929, listed it as one of the tunes likely to be played at an upcoming convention in its area (Cauthen, 1990). The title appears in a list of traditional Ozarks Mountains fiddle tunes compiled by musicologist/folklorist Vance Randolph, published in 1954. Ken Perlman (1996) writes that this American southern tune was in circulation on Canada’s Prince Edward island in the pre-radio 1920's, although how it got there is a mystery. His P.E.I. collected version is similar to one printed by Reiner & Anick, from the playing of Georgia fiddler John Carson who recorded the melody in 1924, and it seems possible that this recording was obtained by an unknown P.E.I. fiddler who learned the tune from it.

Although there are words that are often sung to the tune, just as often it exists solely as an instrumental.

Well I'm goin' down the road and I met her on a board,
And the wind from her shoes knocked Sugar in the Gourd;
Sugar in the Gourd and the gourd upon the ground,
Well you wanna get to sugar got to break it all around.

Sugar in the Gourd and you can't get it out,
When you wanna get to sugar got to break it all about.

I had a little hen who had a wooden leg,
That's the best hen that ever laid an egg;
Laid more eggs than he had around the farm,
And another drink of liquor wouldn't do you any harm.

I went down in the old clay field,
Blacksnake grabbed me by the heel;
I turned around to do my best,
And drove my head in a hornet's nest.

Went to the church want to climb the steeple,
Looked right down upon them people;
Some looked black and some looked blacker,
And some looked the color of a plug of tobaccer. ...[Kuntz]

I met her on the road and I laid her on a board,
Tune up the fiddle give her Sugar in the Gourd.

Sugar in the Gourd and I can't get it out,
The way get sugar out, roll the gourd about. ... [Carson]

Barren County, southern Kentucky, fiddler Milo Biggers played a version of "Sugar in the Gourd (1)" under the title "Sleeping in a Corncob Bed." Compare also John Carson's version with "Jones County" by Charles Long and Sam Neal[1].

Additional notes

Printed sources : - Brody (Fiddler’s Fakebook), 1983; p. 269. Stephen F. Davis (Devil's Box), vol. 18, no. 4, Winter 1984; p. 15. Frets Magazine, "Byron Berline: The Fiddle," October 1987; p. 64. Kuntz (Ragged but Right), 1987; pp. 301-302. Perlman (The Fiddle Music of Prince Edward Island), 1996; p. 64. Phillips (Fiddlecase Tunebook), 1989; p. 41. Reiner & Anick (Old Time Fiddling Across America), 1989; p. 108. Silberberg (Tunes I Learned at Tractor Tavern), 2002; p. 153.

Recorded sources : - Briar 0798, Earl Collins - "That's Earl." Carryon Records 002, "Ace Weems and the Fat Meat Boys." Columbia 15612-D (78 RPM), The Skillet Lickers (1930). County 745, John Ashby - "Down on Ashby's Farm" (1974). County 507, Kahle Brewer and Stoneman's Dixie Mountaineers - "Old Time Fiddle Classics." Front Hall 021, John McCutcheon "Barefoot Boy With Boots On" (1981. Learned from Uncle Charlie Osborne, Russell County, Va.). Gennett 6483 (78 RPM), 1928, Tweedy Brothers (three W.Va. brothers, Henry, Charles, and George, who played twin fiddles and piano). Missouri State Old Time Fiddlers' Association, Pete McMahon - "Kansas City Rag." OKeh 7003 (78 RPM), Fiddlin John Carson {1924}. Rounder 1003, Fiddlin' John Carson - "The Old Hen Cackled and the Rooster's Going to Crow." Rounder 1005, Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers "Hear These New Southern Fiddle and Guitar Records." Rounder CD 7014, Sidney Baglole– “Fiddlers of Western Prince Edward Island” (1997. Baglole claimed to have leaned it from fiddlers in his community before the days of broadcasting).Sugar Hill 3750, Byron Berline & John Hickman "Double Trouble." Victor 19449 {1924} and Edison {1925} (78 RPM's), Fiddlin' Cowan Powers 1877 1952? (Russell County, S.W. Va.). Voyager VRCD 344, Howard Marshall & John Williams – “Fiddling Missouri” (1999. An ‘A’ major version).

See also listing at :
Jane Keefer's Folk Music Index: An Index to Recorded Sources [1]
Hear north-central Virginia fiddler John Ashby's version at Slippery Hill [2]

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  1. "Mr. Long's bowing, although cruder, is surprisingly similar to Carson's" [Liner notes to Rounder 1003, Fiddlin' John Carson - "The Old Hen Cackled and the Rooster's Going to Crow."