That's right, friends--it's crawfish season. We're at the peak of mudbug madness here in New Orleans, so I thought it only fitting to pay tribute to the tiny crustacean with a TOTW whose origins are none too certain, but quite fun to speculate about.
It appears that "Crawdad Song" hearkens back to a genre called "play party songs." A play party was an acceptable form of socialization during more Puritanical times, especially post-Civil War. These are tunes and songs commonly associated with children's games, but they also serve as skeletons for innovation. I think I hear the tune to "Crawdad Song" in "Froggy Went A-Courtin'," and I'm sure there's others.
Lyrically, the song shares similarities to folk songs of African-American origin. According to the Roud Folksong Index,
"Folksong originating in the southern United States and first published in a collection of songs in 1917 by Cecil Sharp. This song is apparently a variation of an older traditional work, 'Sweet Thing', which is of African-American origins. 'Crawdad Song' is collected as number 4853 in the Roud Folksong Index. The tune to 'Crawdad Song' is used for several other folksongs."
So as not to directly copy from the author, here's a link to a very thorough treatment on the African-American origins of "The Crawdad Song":
What I love about this song and songs like is the synthesis of Afro and Anglo traditions that have yielded what we have today. For although this song may have begun in the black tradition of the South, whites contributed their own flourishes during the song's long history.
Finally, I owe you a version. In the attached soundclip I decided to sing 4 verses based on the singing of Cisco Houston (ciscohouston.com/lyrics/crawdad_song.shtml). The tuning is listed in the great-grandaddy of banjo tunings website (zeppmusic.com/banjo/aktuning.htm) as an alternate "Little Birdie" tuning. I thought it was a lot of fun to work this tune out in this somewhat limited "atmosphere."
According to the liner notes on the Smithsonian/Folkways album of Moses Asch's recordings of Woody Guthrey, Vol 2, the earliest recording of the Crawdad Song was by "Honeyboy and Sassafras" in 1929 (maybe 1930 from other sources). I haven't found a copy of that recording, but here is an image and some info on the duo.
Honeyboy & Sassafras were two white Vaudevillians who performed in blackface, exploiting racial stereotypes, and one of several such duos that came into being after the "Amos 'n' Andy" radio show. Indeed, "Honeyboy & Sassafras" was a radio program broadcast in the southern United States. The members of the duo were George Fields (Honeyboy) and Johnnie Welsh (Sassafras).
In the face of this discussion of the differences between the Louisiana national dish, and free range Crawdads of California, I should mention that I never had a crawdad growing up in Brooklyn. I probably never saw (or ate) one before we moved to Bangkok, Thailand, where I gladly ate plenty of them.
So, here’s my crack at the tune, which in Brooklyn I guess we’d call The Little Lobster Rag.
An interesting tidbit about the word lagniappe, which I have known since childhood and assumed to be French, since it was always associated with New Orleans. It is actually from Quechua, by way of the Spanish la ñapa. (The initial ñ is an archaic Spanish feature.) en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lagniappe