Who is Jimmy, and why does he crack corn?
Illustration by Slug Signorino
I don’t care. OK, so it’s obvious. Sue me.
As you know from this column’s previous attempts, song interpretation is not a science, and the passage of time hasn’t made things any easier. A hundred years from now God knows what they’ll make of “Stairway to Heaven.” “Jimmy Crack Corn” (originally “Jim Crack Corn”) tells the story of a slave whose job is “to wait on Massa and hand him de plate / Pass down de bottle when he git dry / And bresh away de blue-tail fly.” Among the things he’s supposed to bresh away de blue-tail fly from is Massa’s pony, using a hickory broom. One day when the flies are especially thick, one gets through and bites … well, either Massa or the pony, you can’t quite tell. Anyway, the pony bolts, Massa pitches into the ditch and dies, and the coroner’s jury blames the blue-tail fly. “Jim[my] crack corn, I don’t care / Ole Massa gone away.”
Scratch around and you’ll find some interesting takes on this song. When we consulted Tom Miller, Straight Dope curator of music, he told us about an interpretation he’d picked up from Charlie Maddox, a musician in Shenandoah, Virginia. Maddox said “crack corn” came from the old English term “crack,” meaning gossip, and that “cracking corn” was a traditional Shenandoah expression for “sitting around chitchatting.” Maddox claimed “Jimmy Crack Corn” was an abolitionist song, and that “blue-tail fly” referred to federal troops in their blue uniforms overthrowing the slave owners.
A conspicuous defect of this theory is that “Jimmy Crack Corn,” published in 1846, is attributed to an outfit called the Virginia Minstrels. The Virginia Minstrels helped originate the blackface minstrel show, not one of your prime vehicles for abolitionist sentiment. The author of the song, though not definitely known, was probably a Virginia Minstrel named Daniel Emmett, a popular songwriter and musician whose best-known composition was the southern anthem “Dixie” (1859). Like his contemporary Stephen Foster, Emmett was a northerner who wrote sentimental songs about the south in black dialect. So don’t go looking for any deep social message.
Still, who is Jimmy and why did he crack corn? Maybe it’s about gossip, like the man said. But an equally plausible theory I’ve heard is that “cracking corn” means cracking open a jug of corn liquor. Try it next time your Massa goes away, and after a half dozen verses you won’t care either.
Send questions to Cecil via firstname.lastname@example.org.