Old Wells and Rabbit Holes: A Reflection on Classism in the South.

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Concerning the summer months in the South I love them solely for two reasons; being that Fall is the next season away and the pleasure I get at despising the heat and humidity. However, I might need to revise and add a third to my shortlist. Higher education forcible imposes on one a list of readings every semester, while the summer allows one to lean into personal interest and preferred learnings.

I’ve devoured much of Will D. Campbell’s writings over the past two years. Yet, there remain selections I’ve only skimmed for one purpose or another. Providence is one such work. Campbell chronicles the story of a square mile acre farm in Mississippi and how the land changed hands over the years. In one chapter I came across a line which took me back to my own upbringing. Here Campbell has returned to his family’s farmland in Amite County, Mississippi and is drawing water from an old well.

I had forgotten how heavy a well bucket full of water is. I strained to bring it up from the sixty-five foot hole in the ground, wondering if it would be clear and cold as I remembered it being when I was a boy. I tilted the bucket and drank directly from it. It had no taste at all: pure water never does. (Providence, 113)

While Campbell and I are two if not three generations apart in age, I too grew up on a family farm which still had a traditional well on the property. It was located at the “old homestead” where my great grandfather John Addison Stigall had raised, among other children, my two great aunts Emmie and Minnie. These two women remained in this structure, some of which had been built right after the Civil War, until the 1990s. My childhood summers were spent at the homestead, and drawing well water was an everyday occurrence. We would draw the water and dip a large metal ladle into the cool extract of the earth and drink deeply.  My memory too makes me believe the water was tasteless just like Campbell describes.

The thing with memories is one us usually produces another and down a “rabbit hole” I went. I begin recalling other times with aunt Emmie and Minnie. Both loved to play games; Emmie more of the table variety such as Rook while Minnie, who my entire family affectionately referred to as “Mole,” would play outdoor games such as “kick the can” and “roller-bat.” It was thinking of these games which caused me to conjure up and old “tag” game the two women taught me and other children in the family. The game was attached to a song/rhyme.

How far is it to Molly Bright?

Three scores and ten.

Can I get there by candlelight?

Yes, if your legs are long and light…

But you better watch out for two red-headed witches on the way.

I hadn’t thought of that rhyme in years and was surprised how easily I was able to draw it, much like the well water, from memory. Where had this song come from? I decided to sit aside Campbell’s book for a moment and do a quick Google search to see what was out there on the subject. Not four hits down I came across a source from a work entitled Stolen Childhood, Slave Youth in Nineteenth-Century America. The author, Wilma King, writes,

Sometimes black and white children played together and learned from each other. Similarities in the play of children of different cultures and national origins male it possible to say definitely where an activity originated. Formal European games became part of the slave child’s repertoire, but regional color and flavor added distinction. Children of African descent gave songs unique sounds and added clapping rhythms, dance steps, and body motions that were unmistakably a part of their own culture. (122)

On the following pages King gives an example of what young bondservants (someone bound in service without wages) sung during the period.

Can I git to Molly’s bright?

Three course and ten.

Can I get there by candlelight?

Yes, if your legs are long and light.

This version was derived from a British game called “Barley Break” which when it crossed the Atlantic became “Marlow Bright.”

Marlow, marlow, marlow bright,

How many miles to Babylon?

Threescore and ten.

Can I get there by candlelight?

Yes, if your legs are long as light.

Upon further searching, I discovered a mention of a “witch” in Folklore and Folklife, An Introduction. In this rendition, the above rhyme is the same, but a final verse is added. “But take care of the old gray witch by the roadside!” This is the game I remember from my youth where groups of players stand at opposite ends of a designated play area and began reciting the rhyme back and forth to one another. The game is afoot after the mention of the witch who attempts to tag players in hopes of making them witches as well. The game ends when only one player is left untagged. Games in a similar style have been played since Elizabethan times. (Robert George, 178-179)

Because correct wording matters little to children, Marlow Bright became Molly Bright to young African-American adolescents. Reading this, I became aware the version my aunts had passed down to me shared more in common with the African-American slave children tradition. Why?

Because my people, poor rural working-class whites born before and after a Reconstructed South, had more in common with their black counterparts than they had with their fellow white, but aristocratic, neighbors. Make no mistake, both groups suffered differently, but both suffered under manufactured oppression. While I would never want to make comparable the treatment of those who were sold in chains from Charleston to the Chesapeake Bay as the same as those coming from European countries as either serfs or indentured servants, I believe a shared distinction of classism was thrust upon both by a benefiting “third party.”

I took my eyes off the computer screen and flipped back to the previous chapter in Campbell’s Providence. Campbell had something to offer concerning the social status of poor whites,  

Standing in the wings with both envy and awe, watching the prosperous few alter forever the world they had known, were the early white settlers who had eked out a meager existence on ground they often claimed by impinging extralegally upon Indian territory but which the newcomers, interlopers to these simple and hardworking folks, were quick to point out they did not own and probably never would. Yet they stayed on. To become the tools of the new aristocracy. To serve as plantation overseers on horseback, supervising the black slavedrivers who prodded their fellow slaves to greater productivity with bullwhips. Stayed on to become their ‘white trash,’ disregarded in matters of government, education, and commerce until they would be needed to fight a war in which they had no stake at all. It would be they who would swell the ranks of the Confederate army, would, for the first time , be needed and evangelized by the learned chaplains of the patricians who would convince them theirs was a holy war, and that, incidentally, there were human beings - black people - to whom they were superior. Down the road lay a revolt of these whom the carriage trade callously referred to as ‘rednecks,’ but for now, in this formative period of the Cotton Kingdom, they were not needed. (Providence, 100)

White trash, redneck, or whatever derogatory title imposed upon a people group; these are distinctions between the “haves and have-nots.” People exploited for their work and their need to be seen as equal. Manipulated in order to ensure another group of people’s rights be kept from them. Both parties suffering while casting blame in the wrong direction.

But not children. There we find hope.

Somewhere, and I’ve got some digging to do, is an intersecting an interesting story of how my great aunts learned a song sung by the children of former slaves. My hunch is that somewhere in the hot humid summers of the South’s past a game was played by children and sides were picked. Teams were not based on “color,” but on the willingness to participate. Their parents had worked alongside each other for the same patron but had been pitted against one another for the purpose of division. When the game was over and the children returned home, this spirit of disunity was allowed to fester in their segregated communities. That’s the story, that’s the shared tragedy, which has been left at the bottom of the universal well of the South.

I mean to draw it out, but I’m going to need some help.

As you were,

~tBSB