“Some Folks Say that a Preacher Won't Steal”


"Some folks say that a (preacher/nigger) won't steal, But I caught (one) in my cornfield." This stanza floats but sometimes is used as a platform for various complaints about the raiders on the singer's field


This is one of those big messes, since it may just be a floating fragment grafted into other pieces. It's hard to tell, given the brevity of the Brown texts.

It's not clear, looking at the evidence, whether it was originally a "preacher" or a "nigger" accused of the thefts. But I strongly suspect that it was a preacher; the rules of textual criticism say, "Prefer the harder reading," and "preacher" is the harder reading; many people would be reluctant to accuse a minister of stealing, but -- in the south at least -- Negroes were suspected even when there was compelling evidence of their innocence.

Dr. David E. Chinitz, however, sends me this note, "The lines in question--'Some folks say that a (preacher/nigger) won't steal, But I caught (one) in my cornfield'--are the opening lines of 'Way Down Yonder in the Cornfield,' a once-popular barbershop quartet. I believe that this song dates from the 1890s, and it is not to be confused with the 1901 hit with the same title by Gus Edwards and Will D. Cobb. The last line of the 1901 song alludes to the earlier song.

"If the original source of the 'floating fragment' is indeed the song I mentioned, then the correct reading is not 'preacher" but "nigger.' In his book _Barber Shop Ballads and How to Sing Them_ (1925), Sigmund Spaeth suggests in a footnote that 'preacher' was an alternative adopted by 'colored' singing groups (p. 41). But Spaeth doesn't seem entirely reliable on this issue. On that same page, he assures his readers confidentially ('between ourselves') that African Americans 'really prefer the forthright "nigger" to the patronizingly polite "darkey."'

"I have seen the line quoted using 'darkie.' But the one early recording I've heard of the song (I'm sorry I don't know the year) used 'nigger.' And it was two, not one, that the speaker claimed to have 'caught' in his cornfield -- one with a shovel, and one with a hoe."

Until we know how the song became traditional, of course, this cannot be the final word. But it's interesting.

Incidentally, John Hartford eventually sang it with the guilty party being a hippie. - RBW

Cross references


  1. BrownIII 423, "Some Folks Say that a Nigger Won't Steal" (3 short texts plus 1 fragment, 2 excerpts, and mention of 2 more. Almost all are mixed; "A" is this piece, but "G" has the chorus of "Run, Nigger, Run" while "E" and "F" have the "Mourner, You Shall Be Free (Moanish Lady)" chorus); see also the "B" text of 435, "The Dummy Line"; also 511, "The Preacher Song" (1 text, a complex mix of verses from "Turkey in the Straw" and this song with the "Uncle Eph" chorus)
  2. Scarborough-NegroFS, pp. 224-225, (no title) (1 short text, with the "My ole mistus promised me" and "Some folks say a nigger won't steal" verses and the 'Mourner, you shall be free" chorus)
  3. Roud #6707
  4. BI, Br3423


Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1919 (Brown)
Found in: US(SE)