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Corn Shuckin’ on the Plantation

Corn Shuckin on the Plantation

Sources

Ritual. Corn was a truly American crop, and the task of husking, or shuckin, the corn became a harvest ritual throughout the nation. In addition to consuming corn as meal or hominy, American farmers used it to feed their hogs and to make liquor. The process of taking the corn from the stalks and piling it in the yard or barn began in early November. Sometime between then and the middle of December the husk had to be removed from the corn. This was a time when most of the farm work was completed and laborers were fairly idle, so husking was a good reason for a gathering. It was called an affair of mutual assistance since the task was rarely done by one family. But even though corn shuckin was performed throughout the United States, there were variations in the way it was organized and practiced. These variations were primarily regional, but other factors such as wealth also had an influence.

Regional Differences. In the western territories and the upper South, husking was male dominated and competitive.

In these regions only men and boys husked while women prepared the food. The husking usually took place on a moonlit night. It began after two young men, nominated as captains, chose their teams and set up on opposite sides of a four-foot-high pile of corn. The side that shucked the most corn won. Liquor was provided throughout the evening but particularly after the work was completed. When the husking was done, the food was served, and by midnight the sober were found assisting the drunken home. In the coastal regions of the South and New England corn shuckin took on a different style. Men and women, and sometimes children, sat alternately in a circle around the pile of corn and husked together. Drink was usually a part of the ritual for men, but the emphasis in these regions was on familial relationships rather than competition.

Plantation South. In the Deep South corn shuckin was an elaborate celebration that entwined many different activities. On a plantation the owner initiated the event by sending out word that there was going to be a corn shuckin. As evening approached, slaves from neighboring plantations began to arrive singing. Whites, invited to watch the activities, also gathered on the portico with the planter and his family. When the slaves were gathered in the yard, which was lit by burning pine knots, the planter addressed them, in some instances even giving a formal speech to initiate the festivities.

Choosing Sides. Teams were formed and captains selected. Being chosen captain was a high honor, not only a recognition of his speed and skill as a shucker but a mark of his leadership abilities. A captain also had to be able to sing. The captains were given badges and paraded around the yard, accepting honors from slaves and whites alike. After the captains parade each team positioned itself on one side of a pile of corn and the shuckin began.

Singing. As the two sides competed, the captains, often seated atop the pile, sang to keep their teams moving and working together. The captain sang a verse and the team gave a response. A typical song went as follows:

Massas [slaves] am slick and fat,
Oh! Oh! Oh!
Shine just like a new beaver hat,
Oh! Oh! Oh!
Turn out here and shuck dis corn,
Oh!Oh!Oh!
Biggest pile o corn seen since I was born,
Oh! Oh! Oh!
Joness [slaves] am lean and po
Oh! Oh! Oh
Dont know whether dey got nough to eat or no,
Oh! Oh! Oh
Turn out here and shuck dis corn,
Oh!Oh!Oh!
Biggest pile o corn seen since I was born,
Oh! Oh! Oh!

The captain had songs to keep the pace going or speed it up, to encourage the team, or to entertain and lighten the work.

Chairing. When the shuckin was over and the winning side was recognized, the host was sought out for a ride around the yard on a chair that was hoisted above the shoulders of the slaves. Since the shuckin usually ended late at night, it was sometimes necessary to get the host up out of bed for the chairing. After the chairing the master called for food to be served. The meal added to the festive quality of the event. It was not only the quantity of the food and drink, which alone was special for the slave, but also the variety of dishes prepared. One description listed: Fresh meats, chicken-pie, ham, cold turkey, fried chicken, hot coffee, and several kinds of plate pies. Another recorded: loaf, biscuits, ham, pork, chicken pie, pumpkin custard, sweet cakes, apple pie, grape pie, coffee, sweet milk, buttermilk, preserves, in short a rich feast of everything yielded by the farm. During the dinner one of the slaves, usually a captain or a particularly good speaker, acted as a master of ceremonies, commenting on the evening and toasting the host and hostess.

The Dance. When the dinner was completed, the tables were cleared away, the fiddler was called for, and the dance began. Like the corn shuckin, the dance took place in a circular pattern, or ring, on a wooden platform dance floor. The fiddler was accompanied by hand clapping; finger snapping; patting of the arms, legs, or chest; and the rhythmic sound of feet dancing on the boards. A variety of dance steps were performed to show the skill of the dancer. The dance was not reserved for any particular age group, and all of the slaves, young and old, joined in. Sometimes there were contests between dancers that continued until one gave up. The celebrations continued for hours, sometimes lasting until daybreak, at which time the slaves returned to their respective homes.

Sources

Roger D. Abrahams, Singing The Master, The Emergence of African American Culture in the Plantation South (New York: Pantheon, 1992);

Jack Larkin, The Reshaping of Every Day Life, 17901840 (New York: Harper & Row, 1988).

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