Tag Archives: Southern

The Foot of the Bed Song

Have you ever slept at the foot of the bed

when the weather was a-wizzin’ cold?

The wind was a whistlin’ through the cracks

the moon was a-yeller as gold

You’d give your good warm mattress up

to Aunt Lizzy and Uncle Fred

Too many kin folks on a bad night

so you went to the foot of the bed.


I always liked it when the kin folks came

and the children brought brand new games

See how fat all the old folks was,

learn all the babies’ names.

They’d eat biscuits and custard and chicken pie,

they all got Sunday fed.

But you knew darn well when the nighttime fell

you was headed for the foot of the bed.


They say some folks don’t know what it is

havin’ company all over the place.

Fightin’ for cover on a winter night,

big foot stickin’ in your face.

Cold toe nails scratchin’ your back,

footboard scrubbin’ your head

I’ll tell the world you ain’t missed a thing

Never sleepin’ at the foot of the bed.


The informant was my father, a 49-year-old engineer who currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, but who grew up in the area surrounding Austin, Texas. His parents owned various pieces of rural Texas land, ending with a cattle ranch an hour outside of Austin. This is a song his father would sing to him and his siblings. This was not a “nighttime song,” because his job wasn’t to put them to bed. Often, his father would sing it “on the road, whilin’ time away driving to the ranch.” He says his father had forgotten most of it and was toying with it when they first started singing it together and “over the years, we had worked out what the entire song was.” The informant has no idea where it came from, but he says he tried to “consciously collect the songs” from his parents and wanted to “know the full version of every song that they sang to us.” He says his mother would listen to his father singing it and say “’Yeah that’s pretty much exactly the way it was, growing up.’ That this was sung as a joke, but that this was actually a real practice, that you’d have a full size bed in the house and two kids, or three or four kids, sleeping next to each other in the bed, and they weren’t actually long enough to fill up the bed so you’d lay another one cross-wise across the bottom of the bed . . . and, uh, you know, that was always the worst place to sleep. You know, in a cold, a drafty house, you didn’t want to be on the floor.” He likes that it feels like a joke, but that it is actually just a part of Southern culture.


This song was collected while I was home for Spring Break and performed in my living room. It was interesting to me because my father also used to sing it to me and my sister when we were children. I think it is meant to be an entertaining representation of something that happened occasionally in the South, although I don’t think it happened as recently as the informant thinks. On the other hand, his mother grew up in extreme poverty, so there is a chance that what she said about it was true. I think it was mainly composed for comic effect and represented an exaggerated version of something that happened among poor Southern families at one time.


In fact, this song has been performed by country singers since at least 1949. Little Jimmy Dickens released it as a single that year (“A-Sleeping at the Foot of the Bed”), although it was quite different from the song that was presented to me. In Dickens’s version there are two extra verses, the verses are in a different order, and many of the words are different. The song is recognizable, even though the tune has been somewhat changed. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_tkEotkyjHU

Dickens, James. "A-Sleeping at the Foot of the Bed." Raisin' the Dickens. Columbia Records, 1949. CD.

“Clean your plate” and Central Texas Supper

“The other thing I remember is my grandmother on my dad’s side, when we would go eat dinner with them, well first of all it was called ‘supper.’ ‘Dinner’ is lunch and ‘supper’ is supper and there would always be at least three meat dishes on the table. So you’d always have, like, venison, there was always fried fish, and there was usually like ham or a roast as the third meat. And then for dessert there were always at least three choices for dessert. And the saying was, ‘You have to clean your plate.’ So . . . yeah, I never felt that great after eating there. So full. But ‘you have to clean your plate.’ If you put it on your plate, you have to eat it. So then you just learn to put less on your plate, unless you’re just gonna make yourself eat it. You can’t throw anything away.”


The informant was a 50-year-old woman who works as a middle school teacher teaching English, dance, and history to 7th and 8th graders. Although she has spent the last 19 years living in the San Francisco Bay Area, she grew up in Lubbock, Texas and Austin, Texas. She is also my mother, and this interview took place over Skype one afternoon when we were talking about things she did when she was growing up. She learned it from both of her grandmothers who “both grew up in the Great Depression and during the war when there wasn’t a lot of, when they used coupons to get their food.” She thinks this proverb is “about not wasting any food. And they didn’t have iceboxes, or well they had iceboxes which didn’t keep the food as well.”


I included the details about central Texas supper because it struck me as interesting and unusual that there always had to be three different kinds of meat on the table. I have no idea why this might have been, but it seems like it was a pretty hard and fast rule. I also thought it was interesting that different people refer to different meals differently, even if they reside in the same country. I agree with the informant that “Clean your plate” is probably related to the time period in which the two women grew up. In addition to there being the Great Depression and WWII, food was generally less abundant in all times before this one. I have often heard this saying in American households and I think it reflects the negative attitude most people have towards wasting food.

Christmas in Kentucky

Informant Bio: Informant is my mother.  She was born in West Virginia and spent her childhood moving around the country, eventually settling in Massachusetts.  She was exposed to many different traditions as she moved around the country as a child and still carries some with her to this day.


Context: I was interviewing my mother about traditions, stories and rituals she remembers from her childhood.


Item: “Our family was spread out across the US and Christmas was the one time that everybody went back home to be together, back in the Kentucky hills.  As a child I loved being with my many cousins.  It was a fantastic time.  We generally stayed with my paternal grandparents.    My grandmother woke up early Christmas morning and started preparations for the large Christmas breakfast.  Always consisting of biscuits, gravy, fried potatoes, eggs, sausage, fried apples and for the kids, my favorite – hot molasses and peanut butter sopped up with a biscuit!  After breakfast, the children opened presents.  Then my grandmother began the Christmas dinner.  They had a huge table; yet, the kids ate in the kitchen.  Actually, you were allowed to eat at the grown up table after you turned 13.  It was sad for me, when my older cousins left the kitchen table!  Dinner was incredibly good.  My grandmother and mom were terrific cooks.  After dinner in the afternoon, the kids got to play with the toys.  Then we began visiting other families in the community”.


Analysis: The Christmas breakfast was the first moment that all of the family members got to be together for; it was a celebration of the family being back together again.  The informant remembered the food the most vividly, maybe because the meals proved to be the most memorable times (when everyone was gathered around tables seated next to each other).


The fact that the children had to sit at a separate table until they were thirteen shows how, in the U.S., society truly separates childhood from adulthood.  With different schools, laws, and expectations, children do not get to have the privilege of a full life experience until they are old enough.  Thirteen years old seems a little young for the transition when compared to the voting age of 18, drinking age of 21 and other “marking” periods that occur much later in ones life, but, thirteen does represent a time in which most people have at least begun to hit puberty (and thus moved on from being a true child).


Christmas seemed to be a period of time that was sacrosanct.  Nobody missed it and it was a time when everyone came together.  The children were the ones who exchanged gifts while the adults merely treasured it as a time to be around their loved ones and catch up.  Despite the religious nature of the holiday, Church/religion does not seem to play a significant role in the informant’s celebration.

Easter in Kentucky

Informant Bio: Informant is my mother.  She was born in West Virginia and spent her childhood moving around the country, eventually settling in Massachusetts.  She was exposed to many different traditions as she moved around the country as a child and still carries some with her to this day.


Context: I was interviewing my mother about traditions, stories and rituals she remembers from her childhood.


Item: “Growing up in the Kentucky hills, Easter celebration is special.  Everyone dresses up in beautiful new spring clothes; the girls wore hats and white gloves.  First we went to church.  As a child it seemed to take FOREVER.  We had to wait for the service to end, the socializing after the service to end, AND THEN the good stuff started.  We got to go to my grandfather’s house.  He hid Easter eggs all over his yard. He had a HUGE yard and he loved to watch his grandchildren running all over frantically trying to find the most eggs!  We got a new basket to hold our eggs each year.  Also, my grandfather always gave my grandmother a chocolate rabbit as a gift!  Also, she didn’t like chocolate; but, it was his tradition, he always did it, and they laughed about it each year”.


Analysis: Easter seemed to be a very religious event for the adults but not for the kids.  Like Christmas, it seemed to bring people together (but to not as great an extent).  Easter also served as a way to usher in the changing of seasons, with the wearing of spring-type clothes, hats (for the sun) and white gloves (a southern tradition, but again showing the coming sun, brightness and purity that spring brings).


The grandfather’s house serves as the rendezvous point for the entire family, showing the prominent and important position that elders held in Southern families.  The inclusion of eggs and an egg hunt is prevalent throughout many Christian cultures and seems to define the whole experience for the children.  This may have served as a way to blend tradition and religious context with fun in a way that would reinforce the message about Jesus Christ while helping the children have an enjoyable experience and make memories after sitting through the lengthy Church service earlier in the day.

May Day in Kentucky

Informant Bio: Informant is my mother.  She was born in West Virginia and spent her childhood moving around the country, eventually settling in Massachusetts.  She was exposed to many different traditions as she moved around the country as a child and still carries some with her to this day.


Context: I was interviewing my mother about traditions, stories and rituals she remembers from her childhood.


Item: “As a young child I enjoyed our May Day celebrations.  The flagpole in front of the county court house was “dressed” up with brightly colored ribbons.  The girls would each hold one ribbon and run around the pole.  The younger girls succeed in making a big mess of the ribbons; but, as the girls got older, the movements improved and the spectacle was really beautiful and choreographed by a teacher at the elementary school”.


Analysis: This May Day celebration centered around the Maypole, and was directed by an elementary school teacher.  It was a community wide event, much like May Day celebrations throughout history.  The above account, with brightly colored ribbons, seems to celebrate the arrival of summer but does not have the sexual influences of European versions.


Historically, May Day has been a very political issue in the United States, with the first one on May 1, 1886 that had workers garnering support for lighter working hours.  After World War II and in the wake of the Cold War, May Day was strongly associated with Marxists and the USSR and was thus white-washed from American culture and history.  This may be why there is no major prevalence of May Day celebrations in the U.S. unlike many other major holidays.  Recently, the Occupy movement has revitalized May Day in an effort to raise awareness and support for worker’s rights.  This is in contrast to many parts of the world in which May Day has a strong and consistent history of celebration.

Folk Medicine: Cobwebs

Note: My informant was originally born in Mississippi.




My informant told me a story of his mother healing his injuries. He said that when he was 16 or 17 he was shaving off a corn on my foot and cut to deep. Blood was squirting out and I was mashing it trying to stop the bleeding but it wouldn’t stop bleeding. Then his mother comes. He went to his mother for treatment. He says that his mother took a cobweb, took out a match, singed the web slightly, and then placed the cobweb on the wound. The web stopped the bleeding. He thought there some sort chemical in the web that stopped the bleeding

She only used that remedy once on him. He has never used it on himself because not that severe has happened to him again. He doesn’t know where exactly she learned it. He did mention that she grew up on a property in the country part of Mississppi and they didn’t have access to doctors in those days.

I think this story is kind of interesting. A lot of the time folk beliefs are considered superstitious and inaccurate. This brand of folk medicine was born out of necessity an actually works. It’s a shame I can’t talk to the woman herself. I’d really like to know where she learned this from and what sort of trial and error it took to figure this out.


Folk Medicine: Hot Toddy


Lemon juice

Lemon Rinds



  1. Mix all ingredients in a saucepan
  2. Bring the mixture to a boil
  3. Cook slowly until it thickens to a syrupy consistency.

After the mixture is finished the sick person is supposed to drink it.  My informant used this as a remedy for colds and congestion. She used learned from her mother. She used it on herself, her children, and her husband. Her children did not use this on their children, well at least her daughter didn’t. She thought it was gross and thought that Vic Vapor rub was a preferable substitute.  The informant says hasn’t used it in years. She says it is because she is lazy, there other things on the market, and no one has the time to do that anymore.


This is an example of a tradition falling out of practice due to it being inconvenient. This bit of folk medicine was passed down through the family but feel out of practice because modern medicine is more widely available. It didn’t fall out of practice because it didn’t work or that modern medicine was better. It fell out of practice because it became impractical.   My informant also grew up in the South and mentioned that folk medicine was popular because doctors were scarce. It came into existence out of necessity then fell out use when it became impractical.

“Two shakes of a dead sheep’s tail”

This proverb is used to mean a short amount of time. Saying “I’ll be there in two shakes of a dead sheep’s tail” means that you will be there quickly. The informant first heard this proverb from his mother when he was five years old. His mother is from Georgia, and the informant always believed that this was a Southern proverb. It was memorable because he could never figure out why it had to be a sheep’s tail, let alone a dead’ sheep’s tail. There is nothing about dead sheep’s tails that lend them to being shaken fast, making this proverb somewhat absurd and silly. The saying seems to have gone out of style, so the people who use it are usually older. It is also a very motherly saying, used to reassure impatient children that dinner will be ready soon, or that they will leave soon, etc.