Monday, February 24, 2014

Jonny Boker

This past Saturday I finished reading The Birth of the Banjo: Joel Walker Sweeney and Early Minstrelsy by Bob Carlin. This interesting book gave me an enormous amount of background information on the rise of minstrelsy to nineteenth century pop culture status. Sweeney was born in then Buckingham County (later Appomattox County), Virginia, in about 1810. Sweeney likely learned how to play crude forms of the banjo from neighboring slaves. His documented banjo career started in about 1836 with local shows in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia; often as entertainment at horse racing tracks. An overseas trip to England in the early 1840s brought additional acclaim. Sweeney's career included playing solo and with groups of other musicians. The innovator died an early death in 1860.

A number of Sweeney's most popular songs were about rural slave life and related to places the banjoist grew up around. It is unknown if he wrote these songs or if he just adapted songs he heard from slaves in the neighborhood. One of these songs "Jonny Boker" (Booker) is the one for which Sweeney is documented to have played the earliest. Here are the sheet music lyrics from 1840.

"Jonny Boker, or De Broken Yoke in De Coaling Ground"

As I went up to Lynchburg town
I broke my yoke on de coaling ground
I drove from dare to bow ling [Boiling] spring
And tried for to mend my yoke and ring

O Jonny Boker
Help dat nigger
Do Jonny Boker do

I drove from dare to Wright's ole shop
Hollered to my driver and told him to stop
Says I Mr. Wright have you got a yoke
He seized his bellows and blew up smoke


Says I Mr. Wright habat long for to stay
He cotched up his hammer knocked right away
Soon as he mended by staple and ring
Says I Mr. Wright do you charge any thing


Says he to me I neber charge
Unless de job is werry large
For little jobs dat is so small
I neber charge any thing at all


I drove from dar to Anthony's Mill
And tried to pull up dat are hill
I whipped my steers and pushed my cart
But all I could do I couldn't make a start


I put my shoulder to the wheel
Upon de ground I placed my heel
Den we make a mighty strain
But all our efforts prove in vain


Dare cum a waggoner driving by
I sat on de ground and 'gan for to cry
Says us to him some pity take
And help me up for conscience sake


Says he to me I will help thee
He tok out his horses No. 3
I wiped from my eyes the folling tears
He hitched his horses before my steers


Den to me he did much please
He pulled me up wid so much ease
His horses were so big and strong
De way dey pulled dis nigger along.

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