Went to the River and I Couldn't Get Across

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WENT TO THE RIVER AND I COULDN'T GET ACROSS. AKA - "Old Aunt Mary Jane," "Ho Babe." Old Time, Breakdown. USA, Oklahoma. A Aeolian. Standard or AEae tunings (fiddle). AABCCD. J.S. Price (Pottawatomie County, Oklahoma; Thede).

Went to the river, I couldn't get across;
I jumped on a bullfrog and thought he was a hoss.

Price's couplet was widespread in Southern tradition as a "floating verse" or rhyme and variants appear in a number songs, such as "Johnny Booker" and "Hook and Line." The stanza below was collected from a "Hook and Line" version in Kentucky around 1905 (MS of C.B. House):

I went to the river and couldn't get across;
Jumped on a 'possum, and thought he was a horse.
The river was deep, and the bottom was sand;
You ought to seed that 'possum racking through the land.

E.C. Perrow, in his collection Songs and Rhymes from the South (1914) gives several variants, all beginning with the protagonist at a river. Perrow grouped them under the title "The Old Gray Horse," with the first one from his own recollection in East Tennessee, sung by whites [Ed. Perrow's term] around 1908:

Went to the river at break uv day,
Couldn't get across, en' uh had to stay;
Paid five dollars fer un ole gray horse,
Wouldn't go erlong, en' 'e wouldn't stan' still,
But jumped up en' daown like un ole flutter-mill.

Perrow found a similar verse sung in Mississippi by "country whites" that appeared in the MS. of 'Miss Reedy', 1909:

I went to the river and I couldn't get across;
Paid five dollars for an old gray horse,
Horse wouldn't ride, horse wouldn't swim,
And I'll never see my five dollars agin.

A third version was from "mountain whites" in Virginia, from the MS of D.H. Bishop, 1909:

I went to the river and couldn't get across;
Jumped on a toad-frog and thought he was a horse.

The Ballad Index [1] notes that "'I came to a river' has had a long life as a make-weight verse in American play-party and minstrel songs." One of the oldest appearances of the couplet in print, continues the Ballad Index, is in the song "Clare de Kitchen, or Old Virginia Never Tire" composed about 1838 (compare also with "Charleston Gals" (Clear the Kitchen). A volume called Minstrel Songs, Old and New (1883, pp. 152-153) gives "Clare de Kitchen; or, De Kentucky Screamer" as a song written and composed in 1832 by Thomas Dartmouth (Daddy) Rice (1808-1860). The second verse goes:

I went to de creek, I couldn't git across,
I'd nobody wid me but an old blind horse;
But old Jim Crow came riding by,
Says he, 'old feller, your horse will die.

Vance Randolph collected several versions of the above rhymes from Ozarks Mountains sources, which he printed in his Unprintable Ozark Folksongs and Folklore: Roll me in your arms, Volume 1 (1992, pp. 110-112). The verses are primarily scatogolical as well racist in content, an example of which was collected in 1952 from an informant in Eureka Springs, who thought it was a fragment of a minstrel song:

Went to the river, couldn't get across,
Jumped on a nigger wench, thought she was a horse;
Got in the water, nigger couldn't swim,
Tickled up her ass with a hickory limb.

Source for notated version:

Printed sources: Thede (The Fiddle Book), 1967; p. 64

Recorded sources:

See also listing at:
Read the Ballad Index entry [2]

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