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 Playing Advice: Clawhammer and Old-Time Styles
 ARCHIVED TOPIC: TOTW (OT) 11.7.14: Cuffy

Please note this is an archived topic, so it is locked and unable to be replied to. You may, however, start a new topic and refer to this topic with a link:

ChuckJo - Posted - 11/07/2014:  14:07:07

Cuffy is a tune I have always enjoyed.  I hope you will like it too. Like many tunes, it has a number of interesting threads that when woven together make the tune richer than its melody alone.  The sources for the information below come from internet searches and from correspondence with Kerry Blech, and Armin Barnett Armin Barnett.  My appreciation for the cited and uncited authors from whom I pilfered, and to both Kerry and Armin.

My interest in the tune was recently reawakened by the fiddle playing of my friend Mike Stapleton.  After playing with Mike, I found myself playing the tune on the banjo incessantly, until it settled in to the version presented here.  My version has drifted some distance from the original.  I fear that there is some contamination from the memory of another tune, perhaps Magpie.  My apologies as always.

The source of the tune is fiddler Nicky (N. H.) Mills of Boone's Mill, Virginia. Seattle Violin Maker and old-time and Cajun fiddler extrordinaire, Armin Barnett visited and recorded Mr. Mills playing Cuffy in 1972. Armin learned about Mr. Mills from Dave Milefsky. who had visited Mr. Mills a bit earlier than Armin, perhaps by a year or two. Mills has been described as a rather taciturn individual, who did not want to encourage other visits.  He told Armin "If anyone asks about me, tell them I'm dead."   Armin honored this wish.  It is generally agreed that Armin became the vehicle through which the tune was spread to a new generation of old-time music enthusiasts.  The Highwoods String Band recorded Cuffy on their influential Rounder album, No.3 Special (1976).

Cuf´fy    (k f`f)



A name for a negro.

Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary, published 1913 by C. & G. Merriam Co.


“Sometimes Cuffy Idle, Then He Catch fum-fum

Sometimes Cuffy work hard, then he drink good rum!

Then he dance and caper to the shake-shake’s sound

Then the banjoe make frisk the antic round!”

 From “Cuffy The Negroes Progress Of Sugar (1823)”

(This is an amazing source, an illustrated book that can been read and downloaded for free at It is included as a pdf here))


Runaway slave advertisement,1779: “a negro lad Cuffy, about 16 years old, very well known in Charlestown… had on when he went away a blue jacket, white shirt and breeches, and a good handkerchief on his head.”[1] South-Carolina  and American General  Gazette, March 18, 1779,  ibid., 552-553

It is a custom with the Ewe people of the Volta region of Ghana to name a child after the day of the week on which it is born, and Cuffy is a variation of the Ghanaian Kofi the name given to boys born on a Friday.  Think of Kofi Annan, the Ghanaian diplomat who served as the seventh Secretary-General of the United Nations (January 1997 to December 2006).  (Other common slave names were Kwaku (Wednesday) and  Kwasi (Sunday) which became anglicised as Quack and Quash).

According to

The name ‘Cuffy’ has a long history in America as a slave name, especially on the minstrel stage where it was regularly employed by blackface dancers and musicians. “For example,” says Hans Nathan (Dan Emmett and Negro Minstrelsy, Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1962, pg. 44), “{the period actor} Edwin Forrest lent his great talents to a personification of Cuffee, a Kentucky Negro, opposite the black Miss Philisy, in the play The Tailor in Distress; or, A Yankee Trick. Performing in Cincinnati in 1823, Forrest probably enlivened his act with singing and dancing.

There are at least two slave rebellions linked to Cuffy: The New York Slave Insurrection of 1741, and the rebellion in Guyana in 1763.

According to Peter Linebaugh & Marcus Redikers book The Many-Headed Hydra The Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. (Verso 2000), two men called Cuffee were among thirteen slaves burned at the stake following the New York insurrection of 1741. One of them had been spotted leaving a building that had been set on fire by the insurgents. The uprising turned out to have been a conspiracy of Irishmen, Caribbeans, and Africans who were accused of plotting to burn New York to the ground and murder its white citizens. The leading cell was composed of Gold Coast (Ghana) slaves, the Irish cell mainly of soldiers with a grudge against Protestant England, and hatred for the army.

Fiddle music was an integral part of the conspiracy, socially and militarily. Cuffee’s group, The Long Bridge Boys, met regularly at a waterfront tavern run by a John Hughson, well known for its subversive clientele, its connections with the underworld, and its raucous fiddling, dancing, and singing. The conspiracy resulted finally in the hanging of sixteen blacks, and four whites (publican John Hughson and his wife amongst them), as well as the burning of Cuffee and the other twelve black, so-called, conspirators. Interestingly, included in the judge’s list of White Persons taken into Custody on Account of the Conspiracy was one John Corry, Dancing Master

Cuffy was also the leader of the Guyanese Slave Rebellion of 1763

It was because of Cuffy’s (Kofi, Coffy) immense contribution and leadership that nearly led to one of the most successful slave rebellion in Guyana. For this reason a statue has been erected in his honor for the struggle against slavery. His story is quite a unique one. Cuffy was captured from his native land West Africa. The revolt took place in 1763 at the time the Dutch was occupying Guyana. Cuffy was a slave in the Berbice colony on a plantation called Lilienburg. He was a house slave for barrel maker. The revolt originally broke out at the Madgalenenburg plantation. It quickly spread to other plantation where the slaves acquired guns and gun powered from the plantation they conquered.

              Eventually they conquered the plantation that Cuffy was a slave on. Because Cuffy was house slave he was more educated, and the rebels accepted his as their leader. Cuffy appointed his trust worthy friend Akara as his general. The Rebellion had by then grown to a number of over five hundred. Cuffy strove to establish order and discipline in his troop. Cuffy tried to avoid bloodshed by writing to the governor proposing a partition of Berbice where the Dutch would get the coastlands and the rebels would occupy the interior. The governor however was very clever and kept writing back and forth to Cuffy in order to stall him until reinforcement arrived. Cuffy realized this too late and when he did decided to attack it was too late and they were driven back. This defeat brought disunity in the ranks and Akara broke became the leader of the group that was opposing Cuffy and fight broke out between the rebels. In the end Cuffy lost and took his life in belief that by taking his own life his soul would return to Africa. on every 23rd of Feburay Guyana celebrates it Republic day in memory of Cuffy's struggle. This is a rich part of Guyana that shows the will and might of the Guyanese people to secure their freedom at any cost.










VIDEO: Chuck Levy plays Cuffy on the Clawhammer Banjo
(click to view)

VIDEO: Presidential Sweet Plays Cuffy at the Florida State Fiddlers Convention, 10.14
(click to view)

Cuffy The Negro's Progress of Sugar

Cuffy Coin


Cuffy The Negro's Progress of Sugar

J-Walk - Posted - 11/07/2014:  16:25:37

Great tune, and excellent write-up. I first heard this at a jam with Dan Levenson. Like you, I always get it confused with Magpie.

JanetB - Posted - 11/08/2014:  10:02:21

Thanks, Chuck, you always deliver an interesting tune with interesting history for the TOTW.  Your solo is delightful, and your band name is delightfully clever.  Glad you got the last pie!  I listened to your source recording in the key of E but transposed it to the key of G, like you and your band do.   Played on the cello banjo, it comes out to the key of D.

Cuffy (CB)--TOTW

Cuffy tab

banjo_brad - Posted - 11/08/2014:  13:15:25

Like J-Walk, I heard this first from Dan Levenson (actually, I believe Miss Jennifer played it the first time I heard it), and have tended to confuse it with Magpie.  I've sort of gotten past that by learning to play the two tunes as a medley.

I haven't played it out as a medley, but I bet it would put some players into a bit of a bind!

banjered - Posted - 11/08/2014:  13:23:35

That was wonderful Janet! Thanks for the tab. You are one of the few that make the cello banjo sound like an actual musical instrument. Of course other folks may say the same about any banjo, but that's a whole 'nother topic. Ha! Banjered

blanham - Posted - 11/09/2014:  05:40:23

Chuck: Thanks for putting this together, and nice solo banjo video!  I especially liked viewing the "Progress of Sugar" booklet.

Janet: I was blown away by your cello banjo rendition!

ChuckJo - Posted - 11/09/2014:  10:34:18

Thanks John, Janet, Fred, Tom, and Bob for your comments and kind remarks.

Janet thanks for your fine cello banjo rendition. 

Here's a is a little more regarding Nicky Mills, from Dave Spilkia"

"Chuck, just to give you a little more about N. H. Mills. Armin Barnett actually had told me about him and basically said he lived in Boones Mill. Ray Alden and I hunted him up and spent an afternoon with him and he invited us to stay for dinner. We had planned on recording him but there was no electricity and Ray had not brought his second tape recorder with him which worked on batteries. We would have loved to return the next day, but despite a nice day with him, it was made clear not to return. He played a lot of tunes, and I have a list of what he played somewhere in my house."

Paul Meredith - Posted - 11/11/2014:  19:46:29

Chuck - this is a new tune for me, its a good one!   Thanks for the thorough write up and excellent renditions.  As others have mentioned, Janet's low version is really nice.

janolov - Posted - 11/12/2014:  07:22:46

I googled around and found two other nice versions of Cuffey (note the alternative spelling):

Jerry Trusty, melodic banjo

Yigal Zan (fiddle) Michael Muldawer (guitar), and Psycho the Cat join Adam Hurt (posted by Banjojudy who once started the TOTW).



David Moore - Posted - 11/13/2014:  11:23:19

Thanks Chuck,  you always share so much.  Not just music but history as well. .  I saved the mp3 and tab...perhaps in 2016 !

Tomasi1949 - Posted - 11/20/2014:  06:07:36


Nice tune and wonderful documentation. Thank you.

bertozzi - Posted - 11/30/2014:  12:53:57

great job as always someday maybe i can play that

EggerRidgeBoy - Posted - 12/03/2014:  11:07:39

Thanks for the great tune and the excellent write-up.   I appreciate all the fascinating historical information - I knew nothing about the background of the name "Cuffy", nor of the Guyanese slave rebellion.  That's one of my favorite things about researching old-time tunes - they often lead to all sorts of interesting people and events. (I also liked the "tell them I'm dead" insight into Nicky Mills' personality).




ChuckJo - Posted - 12/21/2014:  07:15:59

Here is a second take on Cuffy, which I posted previously.  My earlier version was assembled from memory and from playing with friends.  After listening to Armin Barnett's field recording of Nicky Mills, I thought the tune merited a second try, this time closer to the Nicky's melody.  I am playing a banjo with a Wyatt Fawley neck attached to an anonymous spun-over rim.

A little more about the name "Cuffy" from Wikipedia tying the name Cuffy (Kofi, Cuffee) to West Africa:

The Akan people of Ghana and the Ivory Coast frequently name their children after the day of the week they were born and the order in which they were born.

This tradition is shared throughout West Africa due to Akan Influence, from Benin/Dahomey (Fon) and Togo (Ewe), to the Ga, to other West Africans and throughout the African diaspora. For example, in Jamaica the following day names have been recorded: Monday, Cudjoe; Tuesday, Cubbenah; Wednesday, Quaco; Thursday, Quao; Friday, Cuffee; Saturday, Quamin; Sunday, Quashee. English translations of these names were used in the United States during the nineteenth century; Robinson Crusoe's Friday may be conceptually related.

Most Ghanaians have at least one name from this system. Ghana's first president, Kwame Nkrumah, was so named for being born on a Saturday (Kwame) and being the ninth born (Nkrumah). Also, the seventh Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Atta Annan, was so named for being born on a Friday (Kofi) as one of a pair of twins (Atta).

In the official orthography of the Twi language, the Ashanti versions of these names as spoken in Kumasi are as follows. The diacritics on á a̍ à represent high, mid, and low tone (tone does not need to be marked on every vowel), while the diacritic on a̩ is used for vowel harmony and can be ignored. (Diacritics are frequently dropped in any case.) Variants of the names are used in other languages, or may represent different transliteration schemes. The variants mostly consist of different affixes (in Ashanti, kwa- or ko- for men and a- plus -a or -wa for women). For example, among the Fante, the prefixes are kwe- and e-, respectively. Akan d̩wo is pronounced something like English Joe, but there do appear to be two sets of names for those born on Tuesday.

VIDEO: Chuck Levy Plays Nicky Mill's Cuffy on the Clawhammer Banjo
(click to view)


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