The African American Origins Of "The Crawdad Song" (2023)

Edited by Azizi Powell

A number of songs that are categorized as "American folk songs" have African American roots*. "The Crawdad Song" is one example.

*Sometimes "African American roots" means that the song came exclusively from African Americans, but often that phrase means that while the exact origin of certain American songs can't be determined, those songs have floating verses and structural patterns that are associated with African American songs. Also the term "African American roots" can mean that songs such as "The Crawdad song" which is categorized as "American folk songs" reflect the extensive musical cross-pollination that occurred between between African Americans and Anglo-Americans during that time, previously, and since.

This post provides historical information about "The Crawdad Song" as well as soundfile/video examples and a version of the lyrics of that song, as well as hyperlinks to other versions.

The content of this post is presented for folkloric, entertainment, and aesthetic purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owner.

Example #1: Crawdad Song - Woody Guthrie

T.A. Sedlak, Published on Aug 8, 2009

Woody Guthrie Crawdad Song The Asch Recordings Vol. 2 (1944)

Example #2: "The Crawdad Song"

TeachinTV, Published on Feb 5, 2013

Emily and the Miami-Dade County Public Schools Elementary Honor Choir sing "The Crawdad Song" at the annual Superintendant's performance held at the Lehman Theater at Miami-Dade College North Campus Friday Feb. 1, 2013

From[hereafter known as "[Mudcat: Crawdad Song]

DESCRIPTION: "You get a line and I'll get a pole... And we'll go down to the crawdad hole, Honey, baby mine." "What you gonna do when the lake runs dry, honey...." Sundry verses about catching crawdads, rural life, and (presumably) sexual innuendo

AUTHOR: unknown
EARLIEST DATE: 1917 (Cecil Sharp collection)
KEYWORDS: animal fishing nonballad
"Notes: Songs with this tune and metrical pattern turn up throughout North American tradition; like the limerick, this skeleton seems to have become a favorite framework for humorous material. - PJS

This song poses a conundrum (hinted at in Paul's comment), because it merges continuously with the "Sweet Thing" family; they use the same tune (at least sometimes) and ALL of the same verses. Roud lumps them.

Chances are that they are "the same" song (whatever that means). But the tenor of the song changes somewhat with the presence or absence of a crawdad; after initially lumping the song, the Ballad Index staff decided to split them, based solely on mention of a crawdad. But one should definitely check all versions of both to get the complete range of material. - RBW

Just to confuse things further, the version of "The Crow-fish Man" in SharpAp (which uses a "This morning so soon" refrain) mentions crawdads, whereas the one in Sharp/Karpeles-80E apparently doesn't. So the former is filed here, the latter under "Sweet Thing (I)."Sharp also notes that his informant learned the song from an African-American singer.

The versions called "Sugar Babe" should not be confused with "Sugar Baby", aka "Red Rocking Chair." " - PJS
Italics added to highlight this sentence.

Version #1:
Subject: RE: Lyr Req: Crawdad Song
From:Reiver 2
Date: 23 Mar 10 - 01:29 AM [Mudcat: Crawdad Song] ;

"I learned the "Crawdad Song" MANY years ago from the singing of Burl Ives. Used to sing it to my kids when they were young. This version is from the Pocket Book entitled "More Burl Ives Songs," Ballantine Books, 1966.There is this notation, "Originating as a Negro blues sung in levee camps and juke joints, this tune with a variety of lyrics spread at the turn of the [20th] century among hillbillies, cotton mill workers and other poor folk throughout the South [of the U.S.]. With different words it is known as "Sweet Thing," "Sugar Babe," etc. This version is sung by people who eke out a living by catching fresh-water crayfish."

[Fast and with a driving rhythm]

1] Wake up little girl, you slept too late this mornin'
Wake up little girl, you slept too late, babe.
Wake up, little girl, you slept too late,
The craw-dad man just passed your gate
This mornin', this evenin', so soon.

2] You get a line, I'll get a pole, honey,
You get a line, I'll get a pole, babe,
You get a line, I'll get a pole,
I'll meet you down by the crawdad hole,
Honey, babe of mine

3] Put your hand on your hip, let your mind roll by, honey,
Put your hand on your hip, let your mind roll by, babe,
Put your hand on your hip, let your mind roll by,
'Cause your body gotta swivel when you come to die;
Honey, babe of mine.

4] Settin' on the ice, feet got cold, honey,
Settin' on the ice, feet got cold, babe,
Settin' on the ice, feet got cold,
Watchin' that crawdad dig his hole,
Honey, babe, of mine.

5] Settin' on the bank, feet got hot, honey,
Settin' on the bank, feet got hot, babe,
Settin' on the bank, feet got hot,
Watchin' that crawdad rack and trot,
Honey, babe of mine,

6] Ol' crawdad, you better dig deep, honey,
Ol' crawdad, you better dig deep, babe,
Ol' crawdad, you better dig deep,
'Cause I'm gonna ramble in my sleep,
Honey, babe of mine.

I found other verses, somwhere, that I liked better, so I used verse 2 above as my verse 1..."

Version #2:


You get a line, I'll get a pole, honey
You get a line, I'll get a pole, babe
You get a line, I'll get a pole
We'll go down to the crawdad hole
Honey, baby, mine


Hurry up, babe, you slept too late, honey
Hurry up, babe, you slept too late, babe
Hurry up, baby, you slept too late
The crawdad man went past your gate
Honey, baby, mine


Yonder come a man with a sack on his back, honey
Yonder come a man with a sack on his back, babe
Yonder come a man with a sack on his back
He’s totin’ all the crawdads he can pack
Honey, baby, mine


Whatcha gonna do when the lake runs dry, honey
Whatcha gonna do when the lake runs dry, babe
Whatcha gonna do when the lake runs dry
Sit on the bank, watch the crawdads die
Honey, baby, mine



What did the hen duck say to the drake, honey
What did the hen duck say to the drake, babe
What did the hen duck say to the drake
Ain't no crawdads in that lake
Honey, baby, mine


The following information about "The Crawdad Song" is found on that page:
Historical Era
Era 5: Civil War and Reconstruction

Tags: Play Party

About Crawdad Song
This song evolved from Anglo-American play-party traditions and African-American blues. Workers building levees to prevent the flooding of the Mississippi River in the South were among the first to sing it.

ADDENDUM Updated March 18, 2014
The verse "What you gonna do when the well runs dry" is also found in some examples of the "Sugar Babe" and other titles of Old Time Music songs that include verses that begin with the line "What you gonna do when..." Those family of songs are very closely related to "The Crawdad Song". Click text (words only) examples of those songs.

Also, the line "What you gonna do when the well runs dry" is also found in some versions of the Caribbean children's song "Brown Girl In The Ring". It's likely that that line is lifted from the Sugar Babe et. al songs, but I'm not sure about that.

Thanks to the unknown original composer/s of this song. Thanks also to the featured performers of this post, the publishers of these YouTube examples, and all those who I quoted in this post.

Thank you for visiting pancocojams.

Visitor comments are welcome.


The African American Origins Of "The Crawdad Song"? ›

Of “Crawdad Song,” says: Folksong originating in the southern United States and first published in a collection of songs in 1917 by Cecil Sharp. This song is apparently a variation of an older traditional work, “Sweet Thing”, which is of African-American origins.

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Where did the African American music come from? ›

The music of African Americans can be traced back to the days of slavery. In the fields as slaves were working you could hear them singing songs to pass the time. These songs were a way for them to share their life stories.

What is an African American song called? ›

Afrobeat began during the early twentieth century when artists from Ghana and West Africa combined their music with Western calypso and jazz.

What is the history of African American folk music? ›

African American folk music arose as a result of the transatlantic slave trade. Africans were dispersed into an international web of subjugation, torn away from their homes and all things familiar. However, even as they were forced into bondage, enslaved Africans held onto memories of African customs.

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What was the black music during slavery? ›

Music was a way for slaves to express their feelings whether it was sorrow, joy, inspiration or hope. Songs were passed down from generation to generation throughout slavery. These songs were influenced by African and religious traditions and would later form the basis for what is known as “Negro Spirituals”.

What is the oldest African American music? ›

The earliest form of black musical expression in America, spirituals were based on Christian psalms and hymns and merged with African music styles and secular American music forms. Spirituals were originally an oral tradition and imparted Christian values while also defining the hardships of slavery.

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Fearing that black literacy would prove a threat to the slave system -- which relied on slaves' dependence on masters -- whites in many colonies instituted laws forbidding slaves to learn to read or write and making it a crime for others to teach them.

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A slave would sing “Steal Away” when they were planning on escaping soon. “Sweet Chariot” was sung to let slaves know that they would be escaping soon. This was Harriet Tubman's favorite song. In the spring, they would sing “Follow the Drinking Gourd” to remind the slaves of the clues to find their way north.

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Although the Negro spirituals are the best known form of slave music, in fact secular music was as common as sacred music. There were field hollers, sung by individuals, work songs, sung by groups of laborers, and satirical songs.

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Through singing, call and response, and hollering, slaves coordinated their labor, communicated with one another across adjacent fields, bolstered weary spirits, and commented on the oppressiveness of their masters.

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Early American folk music. Most songs of the Colonial and Revolutionary periods originated in England, Scotland and Ireland and were brought over by early settlers.

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In reality, just like most popular music genres, country music in the U.S. began with Black People. More specifically, the story of country begins with the banjo. The modern-day banjo is a descendant of a West African instrument, made from gourds, called the Akonting.

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Henry Ossawa Tanner was the first successful African-American artist. He triumphed in a world that was predominantly white to create paintings of power, beauty and poignancy. Tanner's mother was a black slave who had dramatically escaped via a railroad.

Who was the black artist first? ›

Henry Ossawa Tanner was the United States' first African-American celebrity artist.

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The short answer is: No one knows who invented music. No historical evidence exists to tell us exactly who sang the first song, or whistled the first tune, or made the first rhythmic sounds that resembled what we know today as music. But researchers do know it happened thousands of years ago.

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