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.