Please help me restore this early American folk song that passed down through my family!
This catchy song is so obscure that there is nothing to be discovered about it from an Internet search. I’m a choral composer and conductor and I want to set this song for my community choir, to be accompanied by a Bluegrass band. I’ve got a lot of it done already, but I’m missing the second section of the song, and only remember two of the words to it.
This page will tell you everything I know about the song, from the lyrics, to where we think it may have originated. I would be thrilled to discover even the tiniest scrap of information about this song, or even ideas or hunches about where it originated. I’ll keep editing this page to include new information that I discover.
Here are the lyrics as they were passed down to me. Surely, it’s in English, though much of it is corrupted.
Chichy wolly wog in a hoe gal lone.
Chichy wolly wog in a valiant show.
Shoo’, shoo’, shoot a come-arou’.
Shoot a poppa coon, shoot a jack-a-rou.
Cross-cut a vander
Chichy wolly woglin splendor.
(These are the only words I can remember, and I remember nothing of the tune of this part. The primary goal of researching this song is to restore this section.)
See further speculation about the lyrics below.
Origin (Who knew the song?)
I have traced the song back as far as the late 1800s. It may go back farther, but if so, I haven’t verified that yet. Here are the family members that I know knew the song, starting with the earliest ones first. One hypothesis is that it might possibly have passed through (or originated on) the Bennett Plantation in Henry County, Alabama (Shorterville), or on the plantation’s Early County, GA side, across the Chattahoochee River, south of Fort Gaines, GA.
Indianna C. (Mears) Varnum
(Wife of Colon Shaw Varnum)
My great great grandmother. Born 1841, somewhere in Georgia, to Levin Mears and Sarah (Pumpford) Mears. Places lived: Henry County, AL, Houston County, AL, Clay County, GA, and possibly, Early County, GA or Jackson County, FL. Husband (Colon) may have been employed on the James Bennett Plantation .
Eliza Byrd “Lila” (Varnum) Pelham
Wife of Henry Albert Pelham
My great grandmother. Born 1872 in Henry County, AL. Died 1957 in Bay County, FL.
J. C. Pelham
My grandfather. Born 1910 in Jackson County, FL (Graceville). Died 1996 in Bay County, FL (Panama City).
Jackie “Jack” Dean Pelham
My Dad–who taught it to me in the 1980s, along with his brother, Billy Gene Pelham. Uncle Bill died in 1998, and Dad died in 2019.
At this point, my sister Sandy and I know the song the best, and neither of us remembers the second section.
This map shows the areas where I would expect the song to be most likely still known by anybody.
Further Speculation about the Lyrics
Dad’s and Uncle Bill’s Hypotheses
The following are the ideas I remember discussing with Uncle Bill and Dad on a camping trip in the early 80s.
- Chichy Wolly Wog—My Uncle Bill always had a hunch that this might be a corruption of “catch a polliwog” (tadpole). Adding this to the next phrase, he had a stronger sense, still.
- In a hoe gal lone—“Gal lone” reminded Uncle Bill of the word gallon. And that the song might be about catching polliwogs left us wondering if this part might be about a one-gallon container of some sort. We had also wondered whether the word I spelled hoe here might have been whole.
- Valiant show—We assumed these lyrics to be uncorrupted and supposed there might have been something about catching polliwogs that seemed valiant to the songwriter. If so, then we would have interpreted this line as tongue-in-cheek.
- Shoo’, shoo’, shoot a poppa coon—Dad and Uncle Bill took this line quite plainly as about shooting a racoon.
- Shoot a come arou’—Uncle Bill took this as “come-around”, as in a person or critter that “comes around” and ought not. An intruder.
- Shoot a jack-a-rou—This they took as “jackrabbit”.
- Crosscut a vander—This brought to mind either a crosscut saw, or possibly, the act of cutting across something, such as a valley. They had no idea what “vander” meant, as I recall.
- Helgro / Shelgro—I recall so little about this section of the song, and have no idea whether they thought they knew what these two words might have meant.
NEW TEXTUAL CONSIDERATIONS
The following are ideas that friends and family have suggested for research. (Thanks, friends and family!)
- Chichy—I have nothing other than what is previously stated above.
- Wolly Wog—I’ve already noted the similarity with polliwog. Also similar is golliwog. The black ragdoll was very popular, but if that popularity began before the 1910s, I have yet to discover that fact. And given that Ma Varnum (Indianna C. Mears Varnum) is believed to have been the one that taught the song to her children, and given that she is believed to have died circa 1915, I find it less likely that golliwogs would be the subject than if the dollars had been popular earlier.
- Wog—One consideration is that the term “wog” is a racial slur in Australian and British English. As with golliwog, however, it is not clear that the term was in widespread use during Ma Varnum’s early to mid-life years. Further, I’ve seen no evidence that the term was adopted in the United States.
- In a hoe gal lone—To further the discussion between Dad and Uncle Bill and me, it occurs to me now that this phrase could be something like “in a whole gallon”—which would raise the question, “a whole gallon what?” But it could also be “and a whole gallon”—as in “Catch a polliwog–and a whole gallon!” I have no evidence of this; it’s just speculation.
- Valiant show—I have nothing new on this.
- Shoo’, shoo’, shoot a poppa coon—This seems to obvious to me that I’m not inclined to go looking for further interpretations anytime soon.
- Shoot a come arou’—I’m also fairly satisfied with the interpretation of this line from back in the 80s.
- Shoot a jack-a-rou—This is similar to jackaroo, an Australian term for a trainee, but the connection seems unlikely without more evidence to place the Australian term in an early American song.
- Crosscut a vander—Nothing new here.
- Helgro / Shelgro—Nothing new here.
THE NONSENSE LYRICS HYPOTHESIS
Another possibility worth considering is that the lyrics in question are not corrupted words or backwoods dialects, but that they may have been intentionally used as nonsense lyrics, such as the fa-la-la-la-la in Deck the Halls (to give a common and vanilla example)—or, more dramatically, the lyrics to Froggy Went A’Courtin’ as sung by the mailman in the classic film, Sgt. York. See the clip below.