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Tracks Unwrapped

Short'nin' Bread



Fats Waller


I have always liked Fats Waller’s 1941 recording of Short'nin’ Bread. There is the usual cheeky drive from the pianist but I am taken by the way Fats’ vocal energy is clearly responded to by trumpeter John Hamilton (not Herman Autrey on this occasion), saxophonist / clarinettist Gene Sedric and guitarist Al Casey, who then really party with Fats as the recording closes.


Listen to the track.




But I have always wondered about the lyrics. What I heard was something like ...’Two sennacampians laying in bed, one turned over to the ope and said “fine, fine, fine, fine bread”. I had searched for ‘sennacampian’ online and found nothing. Given the rest of the song about ‘Mama’s big fine .....’ I supposed there was another meaning behind what the 'sennacampians' were doing. I imagined, whoever they were, perhaps they were in bed smoking reefers. I had searched for ‘sennacampian’ online and found nothing. For a long time, the lyrics to Fats Waller’s songs were not online, whether that was down to copyright or other reasons, I don’t know, so I was not sure of the word, but now the lyrics are available and they are quite different to the traditional song on which they are based - and to my suppositions.

The traditional lyrics begin:

Put on the skillet, put on the lid
Mama's gonna make a little short'nin' bread
That ain't all s Mama's gonna do
She's gonna make a little coffee, too

Mama's little baby loves short'nin', short'nin',
Mama's little baby loves short'nin' bread
Mama's little baby loves short'nin', short'nin'
Her little baby loves short'nin' bread

Three little children, lyin' in bed
Two were sick and the other 'most dead
Sent for the doctor and the doctor said
"Feed those babies some short'nin' bread"

‘GeoSilver Away’ on YouTube helpfully summarises the back story of Short'nin’ Bread although the lyrics differ. On that YouTube page we get to hear four different versions of the song played in different styles by The Andrews Sisters, The Viscounts, Paul Chaplain and his Emeralds and an instrumental by The Fabulous Playboys. (It was) then done by many others like Fats Waller (1941) and Paul Robeson. In the 1950s, rock and roll singers started picking it up - The Collins Kids, Tony Crombie ... The reason it attracts so much attention now is the hard rock recording by Paul Chaplain and his Emeralds in 1960. It wasn't a big hit but has now rightfully become a legend. The Bellnotes also released a rock version that year. Meanwhile back in England it achieved better hit status sung by the vocal trio The Viscounts..... I have also found a definitive rock instrumental recording by The Fabulous Playboys, who appear to be a US surf group. ...... The Paul Chaplain is from my Zirkon single, with digital cleanup. If some of the words aren't clear, it involves the "lid" on the skillet, and one of the children is 'most dead, meaning almost.’




Slipped to the kitchen, slipped up the led
Slipped up the pockets full of short'nin' bread
She stole the skillet, she stole the led
Stole the gal makin'…

Oh, Mama's baby loves short'nin'
Oh, Mama's baby loves short'nin'
Oh, Mama's baby loves short'nin' bread

The short'nin' bread is always the thing to have, the thing to have, ah-da-dah
They must have their bread
They caught me with the skillet, they caught me with the lid
They caught me with the gal makin' short'nin' bread
Paid six dollars for the skillet, paid six dollars for the led
Spent six months in jail eatin' short'nin' bread
Mama's little baby loves short'nin' bread



‘GeoSilver Away’ writes: '(Short'nin’ Bread) ‘Originated in the Old South USA. First generally popularized by Lawrence Tibbett in the early 20th century. Then sung by Nelson Eddy in 1937/38. In 1938 it was a big charted hit for The Andrews Sisters.


Andrews Sisters



[Of these, the recording by the Andrews Sisters is probably the one that approaches a jazz / swing version with a band that included Frank Froeba (piano); John McGee, Vic Schoen (trumpets); Tony Zimmer (clarinet); Dave Barbour (guitar); George Mazza (trombone); Haig Stephns (bass) and Sammy White (drums).]






Returning to jazz interpretations there is an interesting recording of Short'nin' Bread by the Dave Brubeck Quartet on their 1959 album Gone With The Wind. This version belongs to drummer Joe Morello as it is almost entirely interpreted through a drum solo:






On a helpful web page by Azizi Powell (click here) Fats Waller’s lyrics have been transcribed, and Azizi Powell goes on to offer some explanation to them.

Short'nin' bread.
Short'nin' bread.
Short'nin' bread.
Mama’s gonna make some short'nin' bread.

Get that wood out out of the shed.
Oh mercy! Lookee there.
Boys, mother’s gonna make some short'nin' bread.

Two Senegambians layin in bed.
One turned over to the op * and said
“Fine, fine, fine fine bread”
Spoken “Serve it. Serve it mama. Serve it!”

Hey delivery man, where have you been?
Oh mercy, it sure is a sin.
Mama mama don’t be fast.
Do not show your big fine……short'nin' bread.

* [Fats pronounces 'op' as 'ope' - I haven't been able to find a reference to the use of this word as Fats used it; presumably it means 'other' but that is a guess].

Here is an extract from Azizi Powell's comments (but do read them all if you get the chance) and it explains my confusion over what I took to be 'sennacampions': ‘In a number of ways Fats Waller's Short'nin' Bread significantly diverges from the song as attributed to the early 20th century United States black faced minstrel and/or southern African American folk tradition. In contrast to those who adhere to the traditional words of the song, the African American jazz artist Waller point(ed)ly doesn't use the referent "mammy", a word which had come to be seen [at least by Black people] as disrespectful to Black women. Instead Fats Waller used the words "mama" and "mother". Furthermore, as another sign of respect for Black people, Waller uses the African geographical/cultural term "Senegambians" to refer to the people laying in the bed......’.

‘In most versions of "Shortnin Bread" that line is usually now given as "two little children" or "two little boys" laying in bed. However, previously that same line was given as "two little chilluns" and even earlier what is now known as "the ‘n’ word" was used instead of the words "black boys". What isn't recognized about the traditional versions of "Short'nin Bread" is that the story is about Black children suffering from near starvation. That is why the boys are laying in bed "one just sick and the other 'most dead". That is why the doctor recommends that they be fed short'nin' bread, and that is why the boys are revived after eating that bread. .......’

‘......Rather than focus on children laying in bed near starvation, in verses #2 & #3 Fats Waller departs from the traditional "Short'nin' Bread" storyline by adding sexual allusions. In both of those verses, the term "mama" is used in placed of "woman". In verse #2, the implication is that a man and a woman are laying in bed and the woman's buttocks referred to as bread. And verse #3 uses the then popular profanity avoidance technique of setting up a rhyme that ends with a taboo word but then saying a politically correct word. In that line the word "ass" is the obvious word that rhymes with the word "fast"......’.


In the 1977 documentary Triumph Of The Underdog, Charles Mingus, frustrated because the microphone hasn't been turned on, does not avoid 'popular profanity' and goes one further when he plays Who Says Mama's Little Baby Likes Short'nin' Bread?





The Gambia

On his page, Azizi gives a link to more about Senegambians where we find that the word ‘Senegambia’  was used by the British as early as 1765 to refer to their settlements on St. Louis and the Island of Gorée in Senegal, as well as the British settlements on James Island in The Gambia. ‘The Gambia and Senegal are almost moulded into one territorial distinction. The former being the smallest nation, is surrounded entirely by its much larger sister state on all sides of its national boundary. And although both were under different colonial masters, (French-Senegal, English-Gambia) both nations share deep historical, cultural and ancestral ties.

Even more significant is the fact that the Island of Bathurst was built by immigrants from the Island of Goree (Senegal), which was the last port of call for the Africans that were being hauled off to slavery to the outer world in the mid-1700’s - until abolition of the trade in 1860.’

Wikipedia tells us that: ‘About 24% of the African slaves brought to America, were from Senegambia. The Africans from Senegambia were found nearly everywhere in the United States before the American Civil War, both in the North and South. Senegambia was strongly Muslim. This means that many African slaves in the US had been exposed to Islam much more than the rest of the Americas. Because of the need for field workers up to two-thirds of Africans taken captive were men. In the Senegambia region due to the high demand by buyers, men and boys were taken from all over the region.'



Dark Town Is Out Tonight posterThat doesn't tell us why Fats Waller particularly chose 'Senegambians' for his lyrics. Juliet E.K. Walker, in her book The History of Black Business in America: Capitalism, Race ..., Volume 1 writes that planters in the American slave markets preferred Senegambians as they had a good reputation for expertise in equestrian, cattle-raising tradition and rice tillage. We are unable to ask Fats Waller why, but Ate van Delden in his book Adrian Rollini: The Life and Music of a Jazz Rambler, quotes reviewer Louis Sobol talking about the Tap Room, a club Adrian Rollini started up in 1934 in the basement of the President Hotel in New York .....'on this night , Fats Waller is at the piano and Ellen Logan chants ... Four thinnish Senegambians who wait on you furnish most of the paid entertainment ....They wail weird blues, they dance, they moan, but they deliver your mug of beer at the same time

Earlier, in 1898, African-American violinist and composer Will Marion Cook had staged Clorindy, or the Origin Of The Cakewalk a one-act musical that was the first Broadway musical with an all-black cast and that featured ragtime music - you can read more about it if you click here ... 'The 'hot song' repertory was a popular contemporary staple. These songs exploited the connection between sexuality, body heat and uninhibited black fun. A Hot Time In The Old Town of 1896 is another example. As the end of the summer of 1898 approached. Clorindy was transformed and renamed Sengambian Carnival, becoming a musical pot pourriwith a tinge of African identification ...'


Here's a video of a Cakewalk from the 1936 film San Francisco.





Betty Smith recorded Hot Time In The Old town Tonight in 1927 and years later the song became a regular feature in Ottilie Patterson's vocals with the Chris Barber band.




At least we know that Senegambians were present in the entertainment industry before and during the time Fats Waller recorded Short'nin' Bread and perhaps that gives a clue to inclusion of them in the lyrics.



Today, the music of Senegambia is reflected by the Senegambian Jazz Band from Australia whose 'sound has developed through melding the traditions of west African melodies and rhythms with everything from jazz, latin and funk to “doof doof”. With 6 musicians from 5 countries, The Senegambian Jazz Band’s music is a melting pot of sounds, influences and cultures intricately woven to create a magical sonic experience, unlike anything in the Australian music scene.' Here is a video of them playing Sarayela from their self-titled 2017 album.





Which leaves us with the shortening bread. On her website Chickens In The Road, Suzanne McMinn writes: '.....What is short’nin’ bread? ..... we researched it and discovered there is really not a lot of clear documentation, at least not that Shortnin Breadanyone agrees on, but there are a lot of theories that you can find proposed around the internet. (Which is a sometimes good, sometimes iffy, source of information.) What can be ruled out, with most accord, is any relation to the Scottish shortening bread, or shortbread. .......notice how simple the ingredients are - cornmeal, flour, salt, egg, baking powder, shortening, molasses, sugar, and water.

Slaves would have used the least expensive grain available to them, which would most often be cornmeal, with the addition of some more refined flour in a smaller quantity if they had it. They either used baking soda or baking powder, but may have even made it at times without any leavening agent at all if it wasn’t available, sort of like a fried flatbread. The short’nin’ would have been lard, which they probably just called pig fat. They would have most ready access to some type of unrefined cane, such as molasses, for sweetener, but sugar isn’t entirely out of the question as an ingredient in times and places where it was available. Any sweetener at all is a debatable issue in this recipe as some quarters believe it to be a “poor man’s” cornbread, but the sense of the song tells another story–this was a treat. ....'

Click here for Suzanne's recipe for Short'nin' Bread.


Let's end with another pianist's version of Short'nin' Bread - here are the Three Sounds: Gene Harris (piano); Andrew Simpkins (bass) and Bill Dowdy (drums) playing the number from their Beautiful Friendship album. ' "This strangely packaged LP gives no indication that the trio is actually augmented by additional musicians, most of whom are unidentified, though Bud Shank, Buddy Collette and Larry Bunker are mentioned briefly in Leonard Feather's liner notes ...' (allmusic).




'What kind of bread is that? It must be good bread!'



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More Tracks Unwrapped:

Big Butter And Egg Man
Fables Of Faubus
Hittin' The Jug

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