Tag Archives: song

Cornbread peas and black molasses

During his session at the Dundee Jazz Festival, at the Frigate Unicorn on 18 November, Mike Whellans performed the blues classic Cornbread, peas and black molasses. Memories…

Made popular in folk and blues clubs this side of the Atlantic by Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, it was a work song – forced work – a complaint on a monotonous diet. The song leads back to a dark history, but also to an enlightened discovery of the cause of a serious dietary deficiency that was thought to be an infectious disease.

The constituents

Cornbread is made from maize flour (maize is corn in the Americas) and black molasses from cane sugar (known as black treacle here). So that’s two members of the grass family, originally accompanied by fatty preserved meat, constituting the food of slaves, chain gangs and many rural poor. In fact, the words go Cornbread meat and black molasses in some versions of the song.

Not a healthy diet therefore and the cause of the disease pellagra, a deficiency in the vitamin niacin (B3 or nicotinic acid). Symptoms include sores covering large areas of the skin, vomiting, diarrhoea and eventually dementia.

At some point ‘peas’ entered the title, but they would probably have made little difference to the prevalence of the disease unless they were fresh.

Pellagra and niacin deficiency

The discovery by Joseph Goldberger in the USA that pellagra was a vitamin deficiency was a victory for logic and experiment over presumption and superstition. (See the links below under Sources.)

So where does the vitamin niacin come from. It is made in plants. They take up minerals from the soil and with the products of photosynthesis, make, for their own purposes, what we know as vitamins.

The deficiency has been associated with areas that consume maize (or sorghum) as the main staple carbohydrate, notably in the south of the USA, but including parts of southern Europe in the 1700s. Maize contains niacin, but not in a form readily available to humans.

A note on the Linus Pauling Institute’s page on niacin reads: “Interestingly, pellagra was not known in Mexico, where corn was also an important dietary staple and much of the population was also poor. In fact, corn contains appreciable amounts of niacin, but it is present in a bound form that is not nutritionally available to humans. The traditional preparation of corn tortillas in Mexico involved soaking the corn in a lime (calcium oxide) solution, prior to cooking. Heating the corn in an alkaline solution results in the release of bound niacin, increasing its bioavailability.’

Foods rich in niacin include pulses such as peas and groundnut (peanut), some fresh fish and meat, wheat bread, green leafy vegetables and fruits; and it’s this sort of food that the poor or enslaved pellagra victims did not get.

Sources

Pellagra and niacin

Linus Pauling Institute, Oregon State University: Niacin
http://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/vitamins/niacin

Poverty, slavery and the discovery of dietary deficiency

Middleton J. 2008. Pellagra and the blues song ‘Cornbread, meat and black molasses’. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 101, 569-570. Also Middleton J. 1999. The blues and pellagra: a public health detective story. BMJ 319, 7218.

National Institute of Health Office of History (USA) Dr Joseph Goldberger & the war on pellagra.

US Slave blogspot http://usslave.blogspot.co.uk/2012/01/slave-diet-low-in-niacin-causes.html (Note: includes images of people afflicted by the disease)

Singers and songs

Mike Whellans web site: http://mikewhellans.co.uk/biography.htm

The Mudcat Cafe (discussion forum on trad songs):  Cornbread peas and black molasses.

Worksongs.org  http://www.worksongs.org/blog/2013/01/25/cornbread-and-peas-black-molasses

See Worksongs.org link above or search U-tube for the song title + Sonny Terry & Brownie McGee, Johnny Silvo or Mike Whellans.

Links to other livingfield pages that touch on slavery: Empire at Wall projects II MontroseIt was slavery days.

Ed: first heard Cornbread peas and black molasses sung by Johnny Silvo quite some time ago, but no idea at the time what cornbread and molasses were. Good, also, to listen to Mike Whellans again. He played for a time with Ali Bain on fiddle, touring the folk clubs in the 1980s; never forget their versions of Sweet Georgia Brown and  Jimmy Clay (on a vinyl LP called Ali Bain – Mike Whellans).

Great venue, the Frigate Unicorn – an upper room stretches almost the whole length of the ship.

Contact: geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk

Dust bowl ballads

“On the 14th day of April / Of 1935, there struck / The worst of dust storms / That ever filled the sky. “

Reports suggesting the infamous 1930s north american dust bowl could happen again have been circulating in recent years (links below).  Recent analysis suggests that it could be worse this time due to higher temperatures! … on which more to follow.

The singer Woody Guthrie had first hand experience of the dust and its destruction of the means to produce food and earn a living.

Science argued then that the dust bowl was of man’s own making. True to form, the record label Folkways did not shy away from the environmental and political.

Dust bowl ballads by Woody Guthrie

lf_noim_dbb_cvr_750Woody Guthrie wrote a set of songs   on life in the US dust bowl. His performances  were published by Folkways Records as a vinyl long-playing record (LP).

The record cover (right, scanned from editor’s own copy) is a photograph of a group of three people, a man and two children, walking past a shack and posts that are being buried in dust. Not credited on the LP, but by Arthur Rothstein, taken 1936, it is one of many images commissioned to record the story of the dust bowl.

Guthrie and Folkways included a paper insert of comments by the performer, the words of the songs, some further images and an extract from a book The Story of Plants by John Asch published in 1948.

Woody Guthrie’s notes were dated ‘later days of May, 1950’.  He writes: “I just beat my way from NYC to L.A. and then back home again to Coney Island.”

“I rolled a ways with experts of every kind. I stood a while, I rode a while, I talked a mite with young and old weather birds, about too much or not enough water, too much wind or not enough wind, too much mud or not enough mud, too much work or not enough work, too much money or not enough money, too much of everything and not enough of nothing. ”

“I heard folks talk and cry about the dust storms all out across our 16 middlewest states. I saw that lost gone look on their faces when they told me the government didn’t follow the plan of FDR and so our land is still a dustbowl hit by dust-storms and the duststorms are getting higher  and wilder and meaner, and the hearts of the people are sickly worried.

“No job, low pay, high prices, higher taxes, bum houses, slummy houses. Great diseases are running and great sores are spreading down across our map and the duststorms and the cyclone and the dirty winds and the twisters ride high and wide, low across our whole land. Government experts tell me these dusters will get a lot worse.”

“The old dustbowl is still there, and that high dirt-wind is still there. the government didn’t fix that and the Congress couldn’t put a stop to it. Nobody tried very hard.”

[FDR is Franklin D Roosevelt who not long into his presidency initiated a plan for rehabilitation of the dust bowl lands.]

Notes on soil erosion by John Asch

The insert had this extract on soil erosion from a book The Story of Plants by John  Asch published 1948.lf_noim_dbb_schtx_750

Sources, references, links

lf_noim_dbb_nsrt_500Dust Bowl Ballads by Woody Guthrie was originally published by Folkways Records, Album No FH5212, 1964. Reissued as a CD and download, and available from Smithsonian Folkways http://www.folkways.si.edu.

John Asch. 1948. The story of plants. Illustrated by Tabea Hofmann. Publisher: Putnam’s Sons, 407 pages or thereabouts.

Images reproduced here are scanned directly from an LP bought and owned by GS.

“My good gal sings the dust pneumonee blues / my good gal sings the dust pneumonee blues / she loves me cos she’s got the dust pneumonee too.” 

Further

Nature Conservancy (US based) article When the dust settled with images and slideshow of the dustbowl, opening with some of Woody Guthrie’s best lines.

The Dust Bowl – a film by Ken Burns: highly informative  web site – perhaps begin with  Photo gallery and Legacy.

Steinbeck J. 1939. The grapes of wrath. (A novel about a family’s experiences and losses in the dust bowl.

Bennett HH, Chapline WR. 1928. Soil erosion a national menace. Circular No. 33, United States Department of Agriculture.  [A technical article warning on erosion in the USA before the main dust bowl years. Available online as a downloadable pdf: search ‘Bennett’ + ‘soil erosion’ + ‘1928’]

Hugh Hammond Bennett and the Creation of the  Soil Erosion Service at the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Examples of recent reports of a new dust bowl

Smithsonion.com: Are we headed for another dust bowl?

National Geographic: Parched: a new dust bowl forms in the heartland

Yale Climate Connections: Avoiding a second dust bowl across the UK.

Author/contact: geoff.squire@hutton.ac.uk