Remembering The Old Songs:


by Lyle Lofgren
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, March, 2010)

This song is a remnant of the heyday of steamboats, a romantic time unless you had to work on one. The first regular steamboat service on the Mississippi began about 1814, between New Orleans and Natchez, Mississippi. The boats mainly hauled cotton and sugar, along with a few passengers. River boatmen floated cotton down the river as far as Natchez, where it was transferred to the steamboats.

A typical steamboat needed about 50 workers, called roustabouts. Almost all of them were African-American, often slaves leased by their cash-strapped owners to steamboat companies. The labor included loading and unloading cargo, and also supplying wood for the steam engines. Wood is not an efficient fuel — the energy density of anthracite coal is more than five times that of wood, but the coal was in Pennsylvania, and there were plenty of trees along the river. The roustabouts had to cut the wood, load it, and, when the boat was running, form a log brigade to keep a continuous supply of wood for the boilers. The co-ordination required led to a work song, Haul the Woodpile Down. The earliest version I know of was published in the 1890 Merchant's Gargle Oil Songster (an indication that the song had already migrated to become a medicine-show minstrel song):

The muskrat hide in the old burnt log, away down in Florida;
The Chipmunk laugh at the old house dog, now haul the woodpile down.
There's Captain Jim of the old Bob Lee, away down in Florida;
He drinks more rum than he does hot tea, now haul the woodpile down.
Then traveling, traveling, as long as the moon is round,
That black gal mine on the Georgia Line,
Now haul the woodpile down.

The elimination of slavery didn't change the conditions much for the roustabouts. The forty-acres-and-a-mule promise was never fulfilled, and one couldn't live on 40 acres there anyway, as the land had been farmed out. The South never had much industry, leaving roustabouting as one of the few jobs available.

When he was a teen-ager in the mid-1880s, Dave Macon's family owned a Nashville hotel frequented by traveling entertainers, and he probably learned this song from them. By then, both verses and chorus had lost most of their work song references and picked up floating verses from other comic songs. Or perhaps Uncle Dave Macon could only remember the chorus, and cobbled together the verses. Somewhere along the way, "haul" was changed to "hold" to create a refrain that makes no sense, as gravity already does a fine job of holding woodpiles down. He recorded it with the Fruit Jar Drinkers (Sam & Kirk McGee plus Mazy Todd) in 1927 (Vocalion 5151, reissued on Uncle Dave Macon Classic Sides, 1924-1938, JSP CD 7729). Here's Uncle Dave's words (the parenthesized lines are sung by the rest of the band, a holdover from the song's call-and-response history. They're the same for every verse):


Complete Lyrics:
1. Saw my love the other night,
(Hold the woodpile down);
Everything's wrong, just a-nothing was right,
(Hold the woodpile down);
She give me a love-lick, it made me glad,
(Hold the woodpile down);
I kissed her, then in come her dad,
(Hold the woodpile down).

But I was a-travelin', travelin',
As long as the world rolls round,
Oh, the black gals shine on the Georgia Line,
Oh, hold the woodpile down.

2. Come to town the other night (etc.),
Heard a little noise and I seen a little fight;
Police walking and a-running all around,
Load of moonshine done come to town.

3. Bookkeeper swallowed a nickel one day,
Drived him 'most crazy, I must say;
Oh, listen now and I'll tell you all it's about,
It's a nickel in and a nickel out.

4. Down to the packing house, stole a ham,
Folks don't know how bad I am;
Carried it home and a-layed it on the shelf,
Just so bad, I'm a-scared of myself.

5. Love my wife, I love my baby,
Love them biscuits a-floating in gravy;
Gather my dice for to throw my passes,
Love them flapjacks floating in 'lasses.

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