Blues Jumped A Rabbit
(an Englishman’s viewpoint on some background to the Rabbit Foot Minstrels of Port Gibson, Mississippi)
by Max Haymes
While I was in Port Gibson during the first week of September 2006 I was thrilled to be introduced to the great museum which featured the Rabbit Foot Minstrel Show. This is the Mississippi Cultural Crossroads which is displaying ‘The Blues in Claiborne County : From Rabbit Foot Minstrels to Blues and Cruise’; sadly closing on 30th. September when it should be on permanent exhibition for posterity of future generations!
As a blues historian I was ostensibly promoting my first book on this short U.S. trip which features railroads in the early blues from the 1920s and ‘30s. Titled Railroadin’ Some, it includes a chapter on circuses and carnivals. One of this book’s 118 illustrations was of the Rabbit Foot’s two-car show in 1934,* which the museum staff had not seen! (see below)
Famous Rabbit Foots with original railroad – detailed text. Ma Rainey would have traveled the lonesome rail on these cars!
Now, it was my turn to be surprised. It was a revelation to me to learn that the original owner of the ‘Foots’ was an African American, Pat Chappelle, down there in Tampa in Florida. Of all the traveling shows in the earlier part of the 20th. Century this was the most famous in the South and in the world of the Blues, along with Silas Green From New Orleans; which also featured 100% black artists although white- owned.
The title I have used for this short piece comes from a verse in ‘Rabbit Foot Blues’ [Paramount 12454] by the great Blind Lemon Jefferson around December, 1926, at Paramount’s studios in Chicago. The complete stanza runs:
Blues jumped a rabbit, run ‘im one solid mile;
Blues jumped a rabbit, run ‘im one solid mile.
This rabbit sat down an’ cried like an adult child. (1)
* Taken from The Circus Moves By Rail. Tom Parkinson & Charles Philip Fox. Pruett, Boulder, Col. 1978
This was a reference to starvation which was so prevalent in black communities (and some white ones too) during the 1920s and ‘30s. The rabbit’s foot was/is a popular lucky charm either worn round the neck or carried in a pocket. A belief/superstition (like many others) that originated across the Atlantic in the British Isles.
Back in the mid-17th. Century the famous diarist and founder of the Royal Navy, Dr. Samuel Pepys, had plenty of trouble with gall stones and other abdominal ailments. Without the advanced knowledge and technology of the present day, Pepys resorted to an old ‘folk-cure’. Only in this case it was a hare’s foot. On the last day of 1664, Pepys is worrying about his unusually good state of health: “But am at a great loss to know whether it be my Hare’s foote, or taking every morning a Pill of Turpentine, or my having left off the wearing of a gowne” (2). Again, on June 20th., 1665, Pepys noted “Mr. Batten in Westminster hall…showed me my mistake, that my hares- foot hath not the joint to it, and assures me he never had his cholique since he carried it about him. And it is a strange thing how fancy [i.e. imagination] works, for I no sooner almost handled his foot but my belly began to be loose and to break wind; and whereas I was in some pain yesterday and tother day, and in fear of more to-day, I became very well, and so continue.” (3).
The hare’s foot must be the precursor of the rabbit’s foot which was still popular in parts of society in the mid-twentieth century. In 1939 it was claimed that many people in England “still carry an old potato or a hare’s foot as a preventative of rheumatism.” (4).
It seems to have ‘evolved’ into the rabbit’s foot once it landed on the shores of American South*. In a report from 1888, re black communities, “A rabbit-foot kept in the vest pocket or worn as a charm about the neck, will ward off evil, and will, also bestow great strength upon its keeper.” (5).
*See also Philippa Waring (p.p.184-185) in A Dictionary Of Omens And Superstitions. Souvenir Press. 1997 (Rep.). 1st. pub. 1978.
But many blues singers, by the late 1920s, had discarded this belief (unlike the vast majority of blacks and a good number of whites in the South) and in 1927 Hattie Hudson, who like Lemon Jefferson was from East Texas, gently lampooned superstitions generally. After claiming she is going to put a ‘gold horse shoe’ on her door and referring to other good luck charms, Ms. Hudson takes a side-swipe at religion as well as the old British belief:
Oh! Cool little rabbit, you can hop all in my yard,
Doggone my good-luck soul;
Heyyy! Hop all in my yard.
I ain’t goin’ to take your feet nor fill your head with God.” (6)
The ‘blues jumped the rabbit’ verse, with some variation, appeared in other early blues (prior to 1943) and it was the famous Mississippi Delta blues composer/double bass player Willie Dixon who gave the starvation explanation much later in the 1980s: “A guy was asking me one day, ‘Since you feel all blues songs are related to the facts of life, can you tell me what a line like “Blues jumped a rabbit, and rode it for a solid mile” would mean?’ The dog jumping the rabbit in the morning meant a great thing. Everybody knew if you jump a rabbit in one place, he’s going to make a circle and come right back across the same place. A lot of times, we didn’t have shotguns but we had clubs waiting on him when he came back. I remember [c. early 1920s] many days that if my old man hadn’t shot a squirrel or killed a rabbit that morning, we wouldn’t have had anything to eat.” (7).
So countless blues singers such as Ma Rainey, Charley Patton, Jim Jackson, Barbecue Bob, Memphis Minnie, and many unrecorded artists cut their musical ‘teeth’ on the ‘funny little shows’ as Blind Willie McTell called them; and one of these was the famous Rabbit Foot Minstrels. Created by an African American, Pat Chappelle, in 1900, it was acquired by Fred S. Wolcott in Columbia, SC. and soon moved to that good old Southern town of Port Gibson in Mississippi (8). But its name has socio- cultural links that go back into mid-17th. Century England with Samuel Pepys and his hare’s foot.*
* For interested readers see British Superstitions And The Blues.1990. Max Haymes. Unpublished dissertation at Lancaster University, Lancaster, UK.
- ‘Rabbit Foot Blues’ – Blind Lemon Jefferson vocal, guitar. December, 1926. Chicago, Ill.
- Ollard R. p.110
- Ibid. p.111
- Hole C. p.35
- Jackson B. p.250
- ‘Doggone My Good Luck Soul’ – Hattie Hudson (probably Hattie Burleson) vocal; Willie Tyson piano. 6 December 1927. Dallas, Texas.
- Dixon W. & D. Snowden. p.p.2-3
- Abbott L. & D. Seroff. See p.p. 3,19,& 28
|Abbott Lynn & Doug Seroff||A Rabbit’s Foot Comedy Company [1900-1911] & The Rabbit Foot Minstrels [1912-1959] Mississippi Cultural Crossroads. Port Gibson, MS.2006|
|Dixon Willie & Don Snowden||I Am The Blues [The Willie Dixon Story] Quartet Books 1995 (Rep.) 1st. pub 1989.|
|Hole Christina||English Folklore B.T.Batsford. London.1944-1945 (Rep.) 1st. pub. 1940|
|Jackson Bruce (Ed)||The Negro And His Folklore In Nineteenth Century Periodicals American Folklore Society. University of Texas Press. 1969 (Rep.) 1st. pub.1967|
|Ollard Richard||Pepys A Biography Hodder & Stoughton. London. 1974|
Discographical details from Blues & Gospel Records 1890-1943 (4th. Ed. Fully rev.)
Robert M.W. Dixon. John Godrich. & Howard Rye. Clarendon Press, Oxford. 1997.