Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Cuffy, or Cuffee?

I learned this tune about ten years ago, which is quite recent in my tune learning history. Most of the tunes I play I learned in the '70s. This tune, "Cuffy" or possibly "Cuffee," is rather like a tune I've known since my time with the Fuzzy Mountain String Band, which was called "Magpie." Alan Jabbour had collected this "Magpie" from either Henry Reed, his primary source fiddler, or perhaps a fiddler more local to Piedmont NC. If you compare the two tunes you will hear their relationship. I've found that if I play "Cuffy" first I have a hard time switching immediately to "Magpie," because the similarities draw my fiddling mind back into the first tune. I've found that little mental feature of either my mind or the tunes themselves to appear in various other tune pair settings. Where are you Bishop Berkeley?

The way the fiddler in the video plays "Cuffy" is rather different in style from how I play it, although the notes are almost identical. I hear "Cuffy" as a very "swingy" tune, with a lot of syncopation, a sort of "strut" or maybe "cakewalk." Back when I was in the musical play "Diamond Studs," about the life of Jesse James and his gang as romanticized by some southern college boys so as to entirely whitewash the story of unreconstructed rebels (except for the acapella singing of the actual ballad "Unreconstructed Rebel" by Jan Davidson, who went on to become the chancellor of the John C. Campbell Folk School where they taught such things), we had a song called "Cakewalk into Kansas City," written by Jim Wann and Bland Simpson. It had something of that "strut" feeling I hear in "Cuffy." If I could play you some of this music I'm pretty sure you'd hear what I'm talking about. As it is, this digression is probably pointless. Oh well.

It should be noted that Jim Watson and I performed Henry C. Work's "Kingdom Comin'" in the play as well, as a kind of counterpoint to "Unreconstructed Rebel." Work's song is actually rather hilarious on one level. The slaves revolt when they see the "Lincoln gumboats" coming down the river and throw "massa" down the well. This song was very popular after the Civil War, in minstrel shows, and appears in some movies depicting that world as Hollywood did in the era of Gone with the Wind. But just as the name Cuffee turns out to be laden with implications of white supremacy, so too the "Negro dialect" Work uses to tell the tale of liberation. Thank god some of the monuments to this ongoing American fantasy are at last coming down. Our 4th graders should all be required to read Malcolm X.


Today I came upon this very interesting historical post on Lawyers, Guns, and Money, a great blog I read more or less daily. Here's the post:


We tend to forget most of the history of America. It's not seriously taught except at a graduate school level, which means the only Americans who get a pretty good idea of American History as it really is are a relative handful of people who hope, perhaps vainly in many cases, to eventually teach the subject in various colleges. There are no doubt a few other people--again a relative handful--who are just interested enough, on their own, to do the research and reading to educate themselves. The entire cohort of these folks, educated in true American History, are probably far short of the number of citizens capable in theory of electing one Congressman, even in a place like, say, Montana.

As you'll see if you click over to the post, there was a man named Cuffee who holds a significant place in American History. He was a slave and lived in the early 1700s in New York City, and he was suspected of committing arson, and was burned at the stake after being tortured into giving up (true or not) other names of slaves to the fearful white property owners in New York.

I don't know--no one can know--whether the tune "Cuffy" is a reference to this slave martyr, "Cuffee." I've always wondered just what the name of the tune "meant." Fiddle tune names fall into a small variety of classes. A lot of tunes are named for people. In some regions, such a Nova Scotia, this style of naming is very common. In other areas tunes tend to be named after tasks, or daily events. The other day I was reminding myself of how "Bull at the Wagon" goes. It's a western feeling tune. The name might mean or describe oxen pulling a wagon. Or maybe it's cowboys bulls**tting around the chuckwagon. There's "Cattle in the Cane." That's pretty easy to get. Then there's "Dog Passed a Ryestraw." That's actually a kind of scatological song, and also one of the greatest of American fiddle tunes at least in its rendering by the Indiana fiddler John Summers. A lot of tunes come from song names. "Fortune," a great Mt. Airy tune in Tommy Jarrell's hands, comes from a temperance hymn. Tommy and the rest of the Round Peak bunch would sing a verse or two of the song with more than a little irony, since they were usually sitting close to a jar of moonshine.

Generally, I think a lot of fiddle tune titles are in one way or another "commemorations." They remind people of something else. It might be someone who's moved away, or married, or died. It might be something that was fun, missed, regretted, something from the even older days when the fiddlers all played without cross-tuning, or perhaps when they all cross-tuned.

I think maybe we should remember Cuffee. There's already a ready made tune, and a good one at that, which bears his name. From now on, I'm going to spell the tune that way. It makes a damn good Memorial Day commemoration, better than an overflight of Steath Bombers surely. While we're at it, let's give some consideration to Ben Franklin's recommendation for the National Bird. He nominated the Wild Turkey. Which could certainly be sipped whilst playing Cuffee the last weekend of any May that might come along.


The excellent comment, that "Cuffy" is noted at Wikipedia as a "name for a Negro," cuts deeper than one might first imagine. On the surface my suggestion for renaming the tune is little more than a suggestion to alter the spelling of the word, which would be the same word. Also, it's very interesting that there are other similar stories of black slaves martyred in revolt in other lands, and with the same name. Deeper perhaps is the implication that, in the dominant culture, which has the power to name, there are "names for Negroes." Just as in the culture there are "names for cats, horses, dogs." So Cuffee was a name for a black man in the sense that if you saw or heard the name you would know that it referred to a black man. And parallel, if you heard someone talking about "Fido" you would know the reference was to a dog. The other part--these names, which float in the sea of human culture, mostly do not exist in a world where "spelling" is much of an issue. Most people in the 1700s didn't write and couldn't read. And that would in turn be one cultural reason why some names are understood by everyone to be "names for black people." Information is imparted. If the suspect is named Pedro he is likely to be Hispanic. A lot of this stuff is there. All you have to do is read it.


  1. Wikipedia has an article about a slave named Cuffy (or Kofi)who led a slave rebellion in present-day Guyana in 1763, for which he is today a national hero. A 1913 Webster's dictionary has "Cuffy" as "a name for a Negro."

  2. It is a name from Africa which means, I think, Friday. It was/is a way of naming children by the day of the week they were born.