Why I don’t play Turkey in the Straw

Every year around Thanksgiving, Turkey in the Straw gets a bit of a resurgence in jams. Since I get weird looks when I leave the jam during this song, I figured I’d take a minute to explain my position on this tune. If you enjoy playing this tune and don’t want me to ruin it, you may want to stop reading.

I used to love playing Turkey in the Straw at jams. It was a safe song that I knew instinctively because I heard it all through my childhood. When I was a kid, it was a happy song that usually meant I was about to get some ice cream!! When I started playing bluegrass, I can remember getting excited when someone called this tune because it was a rare fiddle tune that I knew and could play (sort of)!

As I progressed in the bluegrass world, I naturally learned more fiddle tunes and would call them more frequently at jams. Turkey in the Straw was on my short list of tunes at the beginning of my journey – it was easy and most people knew it. I called it frequently.

Eventually, I started finding that some of my favorite fiddle tunes had lyrics. Songs like Whiskey Before Breakfast, Old Joe Clark, and the Girl I Left Behind all have lyrics which vary slightly depending on the author. Some were funny (Old Joe Clark lyrics make me laugh at least), others are just like any other song (Big Sciota comes to mind). It’s super rare that I hear anyone sing the lyrics for these fiddle tunes – but from a historical perspective, it provides some additional context into either the author or the times the tunes were played. Big Sciota for example is about a river in Ohio and the lyrics make that more obvious. Whiskey Before Breakfast is a tough-in-cheek song about getting drunk and having fun. etc.

Then I found out that Turkey in the Straw, released in 1861, was the original instrumental version of the minstrel show song Zip Coon by George Washington Dixon. In the song, the chorus includes the below which is how the Turkey in the Straw title came about. Note, there’s a few variations of the chorus depending on the charts you read – but they are effectively the same.

Turkey in the hay, in the hay, in the hay.
Turkey in the straw, in the straw, in the straw,
Pick up your fiddle and rosin your bow,
And put on a tune called Turkey in the Straw.

The title character in Zip Coon was the dandy (or fancy / well off) opposite of the more well-known and infamous Jim Crow character who was a poor uneducated African American. Both Zip Coon and Jim Crow were of course blackface caricatures designed to mock African Americans.

Not a great start for this “Thanksgiving Classic” – but it gets a little worse.

Have you ever wondered “what do Turkeys in straw have to do with ice cream?” Well the reason Turkey in the Straw is the ice cream song is due to the lyrical adaptation of this song. In 1916, the melody for Zip Coon / Turkey in the Straw was adapted for the song “N**** Like a Watermelon Ha Ha Ha” which starts off with the narrator telling some African American kids to get some “colored man’s ice cream – watermelon”. This tune was then adopted by many ice cream truck companies for years. While many ice cream truck companies have stopped using this song because of the obvious racial overtones – some still do.

I hear two common retorts to my refusal to play this song.

  1. “It’s a just traditional tune that everyone knows the melody to. Most people don’t know the lyrics at all”. That may be true, but I know them. Second, Turkey in the Straw is not a fiddle tune that had racist lyrics added – it was a racist song that had the lyrics stripped away. So the song was born in negativity. It’s hard to justify playing it for that reason. In my opinion, that’s enough reason for me to not play it.
  2. “A lot traditional songs from that time have similar racist backstories”. Since music like all art usually is based on current or events, it’s certainly true that many songs written during slavery, during Jim Crow era, or immediately after have similar racist overtones. In some cases, the racist elements were added to otherwise non-racist songs / tunes. In nearly all cases that I can think of modern players have removed those racists elements from songs (I don’t hear the “Little man pick the cotton” line too often in Take Me Back to Tulsa for example). In this case however, the tunes origins are so overtly racist in my opinion that you can’t even change it around enough for me to not hear it as such. All that said, knowing the backstory of every traditional / old time song is nearly impossible. So, if you catch me playing a song with racist overtones, please let me know.

You can draw your own conclusions and decide to play or not play this song on your own. However, you’ll know why I step out when this tune is called. Feel free to join me.