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Sparky and Rhonda Rucker Celebrate Hope in the Traditions of Slaves

Air Date: Week of

Multi-instrumentalists Sparky and Rhonda Ruckers sing songs and tell stories from the American folk tradition. (Photo: courtesy of Pam Zappardino)

Slaves in the American South sang and shared stories to keep their sense of hope alive. Husband and wife duo Sparky and Rhonda Rucker share stories of what slaves could expect at the holiday season, and a hog tale of the trickster High John the Conqueror, along with old-time spirituals.


CURWOOD: It's the Living on Earth holiday special, I'm Steve Curwood.

[MUSIC: Sparky and Rhonda Rucker, “Blues At Winter Solstice,” original tune recorded live in-studio, not commercially available]

CURWOOD: At this time we take a break from the pressing issues in the news cycle and celebrate the season with storytelling. And we’re listening to music from Sparky and Rhonda Rucker now. They’re a husband-and-wife duo, folk and blues musicians and storytellers based in Tennessee. Their performances are filled with original and traditional songs and tales. Welcome to Living on Earth.

RHONDA: Well, thank you.

SPARKY: Yeah, thank you, Steve, good to be here.

CURWOOD: Now, as I understand it, both of you have preachers in your family. How much did life revolve around the church?

SPARKY: Well, I'll tell you, in my family it was everything. My grandfather, Bishop John Lindsey Rucker of the Church o’ God, comma, Sanctified Church! And I always liked to say it that way because, you know, just by the very name of it, it implies that all of the other churches are not sanctified. You know that old saying, “Everyone thinks they're going be the only ones gonna be in heaven, you know. [LAUGHS]

CURWOOD: How about you, Rhonda?

RHONDA: Yeah, my uncle was a preacher. He was a preacher in the Methodist Church, excuse me, the United Methodist Church, comma, Unsanctified. [LAUGHS] But they move people around in the Methodist Church, and the preachers, they kind of do musical chairs every so often, and so he would be moved in various places out in the state of Kentucky, and so, come holiday season, that's where we would go. We'd go to their house and everybody would gather there, but it was always a new town that we were going to, a new house and whatnot, but it was great gathering. That’s one of my favorite things about the holidays, is getting to be around the family members.

SPARKY: Yeah, especially gathering together with the family and, you know, I was fortunate to get to know my grandmother. There at my grandmothers table, gosh, she was a wonderful cook. She could cook the beaten biscuits, and I know a lot of people don't know about beaten biscuits, but there was a special way that she’d mix ‘em up and then they put these put these fork holes in ‘em, and she would put ‘em in a big old mixing bowl and put a linen cloth over the top of ‘em, and they would stay fresh for a week. And the reason I know that because she’d cook ‘em on Sunday and I’d come over there the next Saturday, and, before I'd say anything else, I'd come running in and she'd just point to the kitchen.

"They're in there."

And I'd go in and grab one of those biscuits out of that bowl, bite into it, it was just like it had just come out of the oven. Oh, and of course, like I said, it was a big family. There were six boys, six girls in the family and every one of those women had their own specialty that they would cook. My aunt Babe, she made chow-chow. Now I don't know if northern folk know about chow-chow, but some people, I guess they call it “relish.” [LAUGHS] But we actually call it “cha-cha,” and she would make this stuff and, I mean, it was hot. You know, it had peppers and cabbage in it, and whatnot, and, ya’ know, she died with that recipe. Nobody ever learned how to make Aunt Babe's cha-cha. But, you know what? Everybody had jars of it after she died. It was like gold. You'd be at a meal and somebody’d go in and come out with a jar and they'd say, "I've got one of Aunt Babe's jars of cha-cha." And it was after she had died, and there we were, sitting there eatin’ that cha-cha. Oh, it was good.

RHONDA: It was her legacy. [LAUGHS]

SPARKY: And, you know, it's what you put on pinto beans and turnip greens. Oh, it was good!

CURWOOD: Rhonda, what was it like for you at the holidays when it came to food?

RHONDA: Well, we usually had turkey and dressing and that kind of thing on holidays, and somebody usually did a ham as well, but I tell you what excited me more than anything was the dessert, and it usually included chocolate, [LAUGHS] which I still love. We would go to my aunt's house. She always bought these ice cream things that were in the shape of a Christmas tree or a Santa Claus or something like that—

SPARKY: Aunt Elsie.

RHONDA: —Aunt Elsie, yeah, and, boy, we just didn't get that at home, you know, my mom wouldn't do that. But the big thing was being around all my cousins and visiting and that kind of thing.

SPARKY: Oh yeah. You're all sitting around this huge, huge table and everybody telling stories. So it was a wonderful time. Then the church, oh, man, there was some wonderful people in church. In fact, I'm old enough that there was always somebody down in the front row in the “Amen Corner” and people whispering, "You know, that’s Sister Lucy. You know, Sister Lucy used to be a slave.” And it's amazing to me to realize that in my lifetime I met people who’d been slaves.

Rhonda Rucker is the author of “Swing Low, Sweet Harriet”, a historical novel based on Harriet Tubman’s work as a spy and scout during the Civil War. (Photo: courtesy of Rhonda Rucker)

CURWOOD: So, Sparky, you're not only a performer but you're a historian of sorts, and a teller of traditional African-American tales. And I understand that some of your stories do go back to slave times. Now, our theme for this holiday special is hope. What was there in the way of hope for slaves on a plantation in the south?

SPARKY: Well, you know, Christmas, for one thing, it meant you would have a couple of days off, and it was time for you to get that one present from the master and usually it was just another pair shoes so you wouldn't have trouble working out there in the fields, or if you were one of the younger kids, you'd get a new — you know, the kids usually ran barefoot but they'd get this one, sort of a long shirt that they would wear that would come down to about their knees. But it also meant that they would get finally one good meal. The master would maybe let the slaves have one of his suckling pigs. And that was a story that they used to tell.

You know, every culture has tricksters. The people who come from the British Isles, they tell stories about Jack, the Jack tales: Jack and the beanstalk, Jack the giant killer. The, uh, Native Americans, they would tell stories about Old Man Coyote. He was the trickster. You know, the trickster is there not to be something mean to you, but the trickster’s there to give you another way. You know, it’s like coming to a fork in the road, the trickster’s there make you take the road you wouldn’t take, and that’s to keep your life from becoming so stale.

And so they would tell stories to the kids about Br'er Rabbit because, you know, Br'er Rabbit was the rabbit that — he was the animal that all the other animals, even though they were supposed to be his friends, they were all meat eaters. Br'er Rabbit was a vegetarian. And of course, Br'er Rabbit was also on the menu for everybody else. So he had — he was too small to be able to fight Br'er Bear, Br'er Fox, and Br'er Wolf, so he had to use his brains instead of his brawn to overcome. But, when the slaves at night, the adults, they wouldn't tell the stories of Br'er Rabbit to each other, but they’d tell stories about a slave who could not be controlled, who was a trickster, and his name was High John the Conqueror, and one of my favorite stories is telling about John and the master's pigs.

Because John — you know, even today everybody's always talking about bacon, everything and all the hamburger places are always talking about loading bacon on the things and whatnot.

Well, with that suckling pig, you know, just coming around once a year, John kept thinking,

"Well, I oughta be able to have some suckling pig more than once a year.” And he'd notice, you know, “the master, there's just lots of them running around squealing and stinking up the place. Seems like he wouldn't miss if I just took one pig.”

And so, John kept thinking about that and finally one night the devil got a-hold to him or something there, and he said, "I've got to go and get me one of their pigs."

So he snuck in, climbed over the fence, picked up one of them. [SQUEALING] He run back down to the cabin and took that thing in, and cut him open, dressed him up there, and put him and cut him up, put him in the pot -- big old iron pot, you know, the kind that you can hang over the fireplace there -- and he just let that thing cook down, just cook it on down, oh, ‘til the meat was just falling off the bone and it just smelled so good. And he had him some cornpone left over from the night before and he'd take that, you know, and he'd sop it in the gravy, and oh, he was, oh, that was just, lay back and belching, you know. Oh, this was a good meal, you know.

Well, the next day, he couldn't get the taste of that pig out of his mouth, and he kept thinkin’ about it, and he kept thinkin’, “Well, you know, seems like maybe I can get me one more pig. You know, the master — well you know, there's so many of them."

So that night he got him another pig. Well, that happened, six, seven days and finally, you know, even the master started noticing.

"Uhh, seems like I had more pigs around here than this." And, you know, John was his overseer. So he called, John. “John, have you noticed that some of the pigs been missing?"

"You know, uh, Master, you know, I heard some barking down in the cane break, and I believe there's a family of foxes down there and I believe ole’ Br’er Fox been in there and got one of them pigs, you know."

"Well, John, we better try to keep ‘em out of..."

So John’s like, "Man I got away from that! Maybe I better to go back eating possum again, and…”

But, you know, once you done had the taste of pig, possum just won't do, you know, and so after a couple of days eating possum, he said,

"Maybe the master forgot about it. Maybe I can just go in there and get me another, another one o’them squealers."

So sure enough, he went down there two or three nights, got him a pig, cooked it up, and the master starting noticing again.

He said, "You know, I'll be, that fox is just gettin’ me. I'm gonna to have to go down there and check on this myself."

So that night, Master went down, hid up in the bushes, and had his eye on the pig pen there, and, sure enough, he saw something kind of heading toward the pig pen there, and he said,

“Well, you know, that, that looks too big to be a fox. Why, why, you know, I believe, I believe that's John!”

And, sure enough, John climbed over the fence, got the [SQUEALING], headin’ back down to the cabin.

Master thought, “Well, that couldn't have been John, ‘cause John's, you know, John’s a faithful servant.”

He went back up to the big house and was sittin’ there trying to think on it, and the more he thought about it, he more he said,

“You know, I believe that WAS John.” Well, he said, “I'm going to give him enough rope to hang himself, you know.”

So he waited, waited right good ‘til he thought probably the pig was cookin’ pretty good down there. He went down to the cabin and sure enough John's in there, just getting ready. Oh, it's smellin’ up the room good.

“Man, I can't wait to eat me some of this pig."

‘Bout that time he heard a [KNOCKING SOUND] knock on the door.

"Who's that?!" You know, actin’ all mannish and whatnot.

"It's me, John, Master. Open up!"

"Oh, uh-uh, what you want, Master?"

"Let me in, John, I got to talk to you about..."

"No, master, it w-wouldn't do for you to come into a lowly cabin. You know, why don'chu go on back up to the veranda. I'll be up there to see you in a little bit."

"John, let me in."

"Well, no, Master, now this just a lowly cabin. You big shot. You ain’t s’posed to go…"

"John, let me in."

Well, what could he do? He went to the door and opened up the door. [CREAKING SOUND]

Master came in, and John kept thinkin’, “That pig's smellin’ there”, but Master didn't say anything. He just set down at the little table there and started discussing the futures, you know, cotton futures and whatnot, and what he planned to do next year, and talked about the south 40s, time to get that planted and whatnot. And John thought, well, maybe I’m goin’ to get away with it, and ‘bout that time Master said,

"John, what's that smell so good?"

"Oh, oh, oh, it’s just, just ole’, ole’ possum that I caught. You know, a scrawny old thing, didn't mean much, but I thought I'd cook him up for dinner."

"Well, John, that sure smells good. I'd love myself some o’dat, some o’dat possum."

"Oh, no, master, it wouldn't do. You know, all your friends be talkin’ about you eatin’ possum like a slave. No, Master, you don't wanna be eatin’ ‘em!"

"John, I believe I do want to try some."

"No, master! Uh, mmm…"

"John, I want some of that possum."

Well, what could John do? He got up from the table, walked over to the pot there, reached up over there on the shelf, got down this old wooden bowl, and got a spoon. And just as he was about to reach, to open up the lid of the pot, he looked over t’Master.

He said, "Master, now when I put this thing in this pot, it was a possum. Now, don’chu be blamin’ me if it comes out a pig."


And the master, master tried his best not to laugh, but he couldn't help himself. And he thought, well,

“You know, John, maybe I’ll let’chu have yourself, just every now and then, you gave me such a good laugh, I’m gonna let’chu have a pig. And sure enough, to his word, every now and then he’d give John a suckling pig.

CURWOOD: So, John was a trickster, and keeping with our theme of hope, his tricks must have given hope to slaves who knew this story, but did he really exist? I mean, how often were slaves actually permitted to steal the animals they were supposed to be tending?

SPARKY: Well, the thing is, on the big plantations. They're stealing the chicken, stealing somethin’ out of the ‘tater patch or the watermelon patch or whatnot because they had to survive. I'm going to use an improbable word, here, a benevolent master, he would let them have a truck patch. I don't know if you folks use that expression, but a truck patch is like a small garden that you’d have for yourself, and if you were lucky enough to have somebody that would let you have a little truck patch, you ate pretty good, but, other than that, you'd just have to eat the leftovers. In fact, there's lots of stories that I’ve heard that the kids, ‘specially when they would sell the mothers and fathers away to another plantation, there was usually an older slave woman who had charge of the kids, and they would give them the slops, basically, the things like the guts, which, you know — chitlins — or the snouts or the pigtails, and they would kind of cook all that together in sort of a stew kind of thing, and they would actually pour it out into a trough, and those kids would eat at a trough like animals.

So these kinds of stories, whether John really existed or not, gave ‘em hope. They never gave up hope. They always thought that someday, that they would be free. You can enslave a person's body, but you can't enslave their mind, and, as long as they had hope, they were free in their minds, and that these songs and stories reflect that. They never gave up hope. They never gave up hope.

RHONDA: A lot of that body of work, the traditional songs, a lot of them were protest songs. I grew up singing a song called "I Got Shoes." It was a slave song, and Sparky was talking about how even the basic necessities for a slave, they were hard to get. Shoes, shirts, piglets. [LAUGHS] But in this song, "I Got Shoes,” they talk about "I got a robe, I got a crown, I got a harp." Luxuries! When I get to heaven, not only am I going to have the basic necessities, but I'm also gonna have these luxuries. And furthermore, the Master, you know, at church talking about God and love and then comes home and presides over the decidedly un-Christian institution, you know, enslaving their fellow man—

SPARKY: That's why that verse, “Everybody talking about heaven...”

RHONDA: —yeah, “Everybody talkin’ about heaven ain't going there.” There they are singin’ it, I guess the masters didn't even get it, you know, what they were singing. But we can do a little bit of that —

SPARKY: A snippet.

RHONDA: —a little snippet of that song.

[MUSIC: Sparky and Rhonda Rucker, “I Got Shoes,” traditional African-American, recorded live in-studio, not commercially available]

I got shoes, you got shoes,
All God’s children got shoes.
When I get to heaven gonna put on my shoes,
Gonna walk all over God’s heaven, heaven, heaven.
Everybody talkin’ ‘bout heaven ain’t goin’ there,
Heaven, heaven, heaven.
Gonna’ walk all over God’s heaven.

I got a robe, you got a robe,
All God’s children got a robe
When I get to heaven gonna put on my robe,
Gonna’ shout all over God’s heaven, heaven, heaven.
Everybody talkin’ ‘bout heaven ain’t goin’ there,
Heaven, heaven, heaven.
Gonna’ shout all over God’s heaven.

I got wings, you got wings,
All God’s children got wings.
When I get to heaven gonna put on my wings,
Gonna fly all over God’s heaven, heaven, heaven.
Everybody talkin’ ‘bout heaven ain’t goin’ there,
Heaven, heaven, heaven.
Gonna fly all over God’s heaven.

CURWOOD: [SINGING] I got a crown, you got a crown . . .

RHONDA: [SINGING] All God's children got a crown. [LAUGHS] So that song, to me, kind of means hope. I've lived long enough now I can see that the moral arc of the universe is long, but it does bend toward justice.


SPARKY: You know, I've got my guitar here, and I'd like to sing a song here. It's an old slave song, but it was one that was sung at the Christmastide.

[MUSIC: Sparky and Rhonda Rucker, “Go Tell It On the Mountain,” traditional African-American, recorded live in-studio, not commercially available]

Go tell it on the mountain
Over the hills and everywhere.
Go tell it on the mountain
That Jesus Christ is born.

When I was a seeker
I sought both night and day.
I asked the Lord to help me
He showed me how to pray.

Go, tell it on the mountain
Over the hills and everywhere.
Go, tell it on the mountain
That Jesus Christ is born.

When I was a sinner
I prayed both night and day.
I asked the Lord to help me
He showed me the way.


CURWOOD: Thanks to Sparky and Rhonda Rucker who celebrate their holidays in Maryville, Tennessee.



The Ruckers’ website

Rhonda Rucker’s publications include “Swing Low, Sweet Harriet”

The Ruckers perform “The Blue and Gray in Black and White”

Sparky and Rhonda Rucker perform at the 2011 Big Muddy Folk Festival

Sparky Rucker performs “Stagger Lee”


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