It’s called “Run, Nigger, Run.”
This tune – under the variant title “Run, Boy, Run” – is an old-time country music standard. It has been recorded by famous fiddlers such as Eck Robertson and Earl Collins, and by banjo-pluckers like Uncle Dave Macon and Jim Smoak.
But those were instrumental versions. You can click here and sample Fiddlin’ Eck Robertson’s rendition from the 1920s, streaming on my Vox audio stash.
Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Catchy little melody, isn’t it?
Now, ready for a version with lyrics? Click here for “Run, Nigger, Run” as recorded in 1927 by the Skillet Lickers (pictured). Again, I’ll wait.
Oh, I wish I could see your face right now. In case you couldn’t make out the words, he’s saying:
Run nigger run, the pateroller catch you,
Run nigger run, well you better get away...
Nigger run, nigger flew,
Nigger tore his shirt in two,
Run, run, the pateroller catch you,
Run nigger run, well you better get away.
Just so you know, the Skillet Lickers were NOT the house band for the Ku Klux Klan. They were a popular and influential group that recorded this song (and more than 100 others) for Columbia Records!
Also, they didn’t write it. “Run, Nigger, Run” was already a part of Southern folklore. Click here to listen to a verse recited by a white woman in Tennessee, as documented by folklorist John Quincy Wolf.
Now here’s the real surprise: “Run, Nigger, Run” was originally a black folk song. More precisely, a song sung by slaves.
And that, of course, gives a whole different meaning to the lyric. “Run, nigger, run” isn’t supposed to be a threat; it’s a cheer... and a word to the wise.
Listen for yourself. The only black version I can find is a half-minute fragment by prison inmate Mose “Clear Rock” Platt, recorded by folklorists John and Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress. Click here.
There is much documentary evidence that this was a popular song amongst colored folk. Joel Chandler Harris, that famous white expert on Southern Negroes – (he wrote the “Uncle Remus” stories) – mentions the song by way of defining the black term “patter-rollers” (“patrols”).
“In the country districts,” Harris wrote, “order was kept on the plantations at night by the knowledge that they were liable to be visited at any moment by the patrols. Hence a song current among the negroes, the chorus of which was: ‘Run, nigger, run; patter-roller ketch you – Run, nigger, run; hit’s almos’ day.’ ”
Another white gent, Abraham Hoss Yeager, wrote in his autobiography about a folk song which “grew out of the custom of appointing patrols to see that the Negroes stayed in their quarters at night.”
“It gave them extreme pleasure to elude these nocturnal guards,” Yeager continued, “and they celebrated their narrow escapes by song. The Negroes called these guards ‘patty rollers,’ and they embalmed the name in the chorus: ‘O! run Nigger run the patty roler’l catch you; O! run Nigger run it’s almost day.’ ”
Deeper still, the song was referred to by elderly ex-slaves in various documented “slave narratives.”
Harre Quarls of Texas remembered: “[U]s couldn’t go anywhere ’cept us have pass from our massa to ’nother. If us slips off, dem patterrollers gits us. Patterroller hits 39 licks with de rawhide with de nine tails. Patterroller gits 50 cents for hittin’ us 39 licks.
“Captain, here am de words to de patterroller song: ‘Run, nigger, run, patterroller cotch you...’ ”
Likewise, Cresa Mack of Arkansas told an interviewer: “I remember that they used to sing: ‘Run nigger run, The paddy rollers catch you...’ Course if they catch you without pass, they’d beat you nearly to death, and tell you to go home to your master.”
The most detailed recollection comes from a man named Sylvia Floyd of Mississippi. Here is what Mr. Floyd told a U.S. government interviewer, exactly as it was rendered in the official transcript:
SYLVIA FLOYD: ... Dey never let ’em leave de plantation wid out a pass, an’ dey had patrole riders to go out an’ git ’em ifen dey didn’t come in. Dey didn’t hab to be much late ’fore yo’ could hear ’em commin’ after ’em.
De darkies use to pull pranks on de patrole riders by strechin’ grape vines across de road to throw de horses. At other times de slaves ’ud git a little riled up an’ jump de traces a little by fightin’ back wid fire, but dey couldn’t never do much fer dey never was allowed to git together enough to carry out nothin’. De patrole riders kept ’em purty well rounded up an’ seperated only ’cept long enuf fer a little frolicin’.
Dey use to sing dis ole song ’bout ’em:
Run, nigger, run, de patrole’s a commin’,
Run, nigger, run, de patrole’s a commin’,
Dat nigger run, dat nigger flew
Dat nigger tore his shirt in two
Run, nigger, run!