The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #122362   Message #2683332
Posted By: Gibb Sahib
19-Jul-09 - 12:33 PM
Thread Name: Ship Margaret Evans, songs
Subject: RE: Ship Margaret Evans, songs

I do tend to agree with many of your observations. I will admit that I already assumed, without opening the whole can, that "Clear the Track" was based in some minstrel STUFF -- it's on the label! (Ingredients: Bulgine)

However, I have to be critical of the way you have so positively stated the scenario, leaping from "It's uncertain" (well, it was uncertain to you...though you were certain before starting that there "is no evidence that it is Caribbean or black") to "I'm pretty confident this is what happened."

The scenario you suggest in you last post is quite plausible one for a given chantey. However, I don't believe there is enough info yet to say it applies to this particular chantey. As I said in my last post, the minstrel song "De History ob de World" is not similar to the chantey. Only the lyrics of its verses correspond to lyrics presented by one collector (Whall). Solo verses are the least stable aspect of a chantey of this type. Often the verses of one are fitted to the form of another, ex. one can do the verses for "The Fishes" upon the structure of "Blow the Man Down." (The identity of a given chantey, I believe, is found in its rhythmic-melodic structure and its chorus.) So Whall's "Clear the Track" can be shown to have its verses inspired by the minstrel song, like so many other many where anyone has yet to find a specific minstrel song that matches it.

The solo phrases may be drawn from the popular minstrel music that sailors were listening to, but with most of these songs for which we find no published source, we have to assume they may have been made up uniquely amongst sailors. I have used verses from Punk rock songs and Rap in my singing of chanteys because they work and because they are in my head!

We are not dealing with Anglo-Celtic ballads here, where if you dig deep you'll expect to find something in print on the same story-structure lyrical theme. I think there is this sense that "traditional song" means a broadsheet or music hall number that has been altered through oral transmission. That works with a certain type of song. But how are you going to find the origin of a Blues song? Is it a "song" that can be tracked down? Or is it not actually a form with certain characteristic modes of expression and lyrical phrases? I believe that the type of chantey to which "Clear the Track" belongs, the more common type of chantey, is in its nature more like Blues song (i.e. in these respects).

An aside: Problematically, I believe there is something African-American about minstrel music. It would be a different discussion for me to explain all my reasons, but the main point is that it is contradictory for me to hear that something has minstrel song origins and at the same time "no evidence of black origins." I realize that the case may be completely opposite for Q and others, so I am just stating this as an aside, not integral to my argument.

So there is not (yet) any evidence to say "Clear the Track" derives from a published song. It have phrases from the vernacular tradition at the time that were shared with minstrel songs. I think "bulgine" is a key word, as rightly dwelt upon, however I disagree with Q's characterization earlier.

C. J. Lovell (American Speech, v. 21, 1946, pp. 116-119)calls the word a "Negroism," although its origin is clearly uncertain- minstrel, sailor, railroader, novelist, white or black.
It is also clear that the word was widely known. It still is a common railroaders term for locomotive.

Like Q's earlier premature statement about "there is no evidence that it is Caribbean or black in origin," this sounds biased. Why is it that when it seems something may be the product of Blacks that it is "uncertain"? The origin of the Blues is also uncertain, can't we accept it as mainly a Black contribution? If a published record is the only form of evidence that makes something certain, then relatively very little produced by Blacks in the 19th century will ever be able to called certain. You may say it is a simple case of certainty (proof) versus uncertainty, uninterested and without bias. Yet the bias comes in the very assumption that one type of evidence is the only relevant kind. Lovell (above) may have had good reason to call "bulgine" a "Negroism." Just look at all its noted uses-- most are in minstrel songs that were meant to evoke a Black dialect. I will add these examples (text copy-pasted from another posting of mine) to Q's list:

1843, Dan Emmett's "The Fine Old Color'd Gentleman":
"He swallow'd two small railroads
Wid a spoonful of ice cream
And a locomotive bulgine
While dey blowin' off de steam."

Stephen Foster's original "Oh! Susanna" from 1847, although that verse is rarely heard:
"De bulgine bust and de hoss ran off,
I really thought I'd die;
I shut my eyes to hold my bref
Susanna don't you cry."

1850, Stephen Foster, "Dolly Day:
"Ive sung about de bulgine
Dat blew de folks away,
And now Ill sing a little song
About my Dolly Day."

1854, Edwin Christy, "Who's Dat Knocking at the Door?":
"De bulgine scared me so I tought I was no more,
An I run so hard aginst de house, my head went through the door."

The sources suggest that that, moreover, the term was only really popular during the 1840s-50s. From my reading, it looks like "bulgine" was a strongly marked term that, when used, evoked Black speech. While we don't know how or for how long Black speakers tended to use it, it emerged in popular culture at this time with such a connotation. Compare with 2009's word "shawty" (shorty), which has definite connotations as Black slang but only recently is experiencing in White-consumed popular culture (especially in parody songs). People knew "bulgine" was a Black dialect term. If sailors and railroaders of all ethnicities sang it in their songs, that doesn't dilute its connotation as Black speech.