2015 Louisiana Studies Conference Presentation Abstract
“Hambone, Hambone, Where You Been?”
Presented by Ed Huey, Retired Instructor of Music, The Baylor School
The setting is The South on a cotton plantation. Dusk signals quitting time in the fields. Slaves start for their quarters. Bare feet pad along in the soft dusty earth. The sun is setting with a light that makes the red dirt glow. Tired and hungry, holding their heads down, they have worn the slave face since dawn, but with the evening comes a herald of their community.
“Hambone.” The cry echoes in the crude settlement. A man picks up his homemade one string guitar and plays a rhyme.
“Bomp, ba bomp ba bomp, bomp bomp.
Hambone, hambone where you been?
Round the world and I’m going again.
Hambone, the holler circles again.”
The call and response of the field has become interwoven in this slave community’s culture. A woman calls out: “Hambone, Hambone.” Her rich voice carries inflection, tune, a solo signal that the hambone can be passed. Food was insufficient for the amount of energy people put forth. In order to survive every tidbit was used and reused.
“Families passed the hambone on from one cabin and family to another, from one soup to another, from pot to pot, neighbor to neighbor to flavor the soup, each time picking up new flavors and depositing the remains of the previous meal.” (Ming Fang He and JoAnn Phillion)
The phrase: “Hambone, Hambone, where you been?” is a valid question. And the answer:
“Around the world and back again” is probably true. A little piece of the neighbor’s carrot might remain on the hambone as it was handed to the next family. The only way for slaves to resist enculturation by the whites was to form their own community within the plantation setting. And they did this in part via call and response, sharing food, and making music with rhythm and rhyme.
A man claps his hands, pats his chest, and slaps his open mouth creating a unifying rhythm. The woman cries, “Hambone” with a dip and rise in the tune. Others join in making up verses, clapping in time and stomping their feet. A new music culture melds, Africa and America.