Florida’s pioneer settlers faced a number of hardships when they first arrived, but that didn’t stop them from having a little fun every now and then. Rural families often lived a few miles apart from one another, but they would come together when one of them had a major project that needed to be done. Fodder pulling, which involved pulling the leaves off corn stalks for use as food for the stock animals, was one such task. Others included splitting rails and rolling logs to a home site for a new cabin. No matter what the day’s work entailed, once everyone was finished the families often enjoyed a good hearty meal and a little music and dancing. In North Florida, these informal parties were known as “frolics.”
Frolics were simple, of course, but imagine how much fun they must have been for young folks living so far apart from one another! Dancing was frowned upon if not entirely forbidden by a number of the prominent churches in pioneer Florida, but it happened nonetheless. Perhaps as a compromise, much of the dancing resembled what we would call square dancing, where the participants followed a prescribed set of moves rather than pairing off and dancing however they pleased. One favorite was the cotillion, which involved eight persons, four of each sex. Someone would call the steps as the musicians played, and the dancers would react accordingly. W.T. Cash, Florida first State Librarian and an early resident of Taylor County, remembered some of these steps in the cotillion:
“Honor your partner! Lady on the left! Balance all! All promenade!”
And when it was time for the dance to end:
“Right hands to your partners, gents to the center, and ladies to your seats!”
The fiddle and harmonica were the main instruments used in making the music, and the musicians were usually just folks in the neighborhood who had picked up their craft from a relative or friend. The instruments, Cash reported, rarely cost more than about $10.
When they weren’t playing the more upbeat dancing tunes, the musicians drew from a wealth of folk songs that most of the party-goers would have known by heart. Songs like “Arkansas Traveler,” “Hell after the Yearling,” “The Girl I Left Behind Me,” “Cindy,” and “Turkey in the Straw” were popular numbers in North Florida.
The Florida Folklife Collection holds many recordings of these traditional songs being played by celebrated folk artists. Click on the Play button below to hear “Turkey in the Straw,” played by Telleta Arwell and Mary Ann Bows at the 1987 Florida Folk Festival. The lyrics follow.
Note: This is one of those songs with a hundred different variations; we’ve just chosen a few of our favorite verses.
Turkey in the straw, hee haw haw!
Turkey in the hay, hey hey hey!
Roll ‘em up and twist ‘em up a high tuck a-haw,
And hit ‘em up a tune called Turkey in the Straw!
As I was a-goin’ on down the road,
With a tired team and a heavy load,
I cracked my whip and the leader sprung,
I said Hey! Hey! to the wagon tongue.
I came to the river and I couldn’t get across,
So I paid five dollars for a big bay hoss,
Well he wouldn’t go ahead, and he wouldn’t stand still,
So he went up and down like an old saw mill!
Well I met this catfish comin’ down the stream,
I said, ‘Mr. Catfish, what do you mean?’
Caught Mr. Catfish by the snout,
Turned Mr. Catfish wrong side out!
With so much distance in between families, folks had to get every bit of enjoyment they could out of these gatherings. They often lasted far into the night. One musician, remembering these days, commented that after a night of playing the harmonica at a frolic his mouth hurt so bad he couldn’t laugh for a week!
If this kind of folk music gets you tapping your feet, we recommend you check out our Audio section for more recordings from the Florida Folk Festival, as well as Florida Memory Radio, our 24-hour Internet radio station.
Also, if you don’t have a copy of our bluegrass and old-time music CD, “Look A-Yonder Comin’,” contact us and we’ll send you a complimentary copy.