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shameless pleading

Sukey jump

At the hop

Dear Word Detective: I’m troubled by the phrase “sukey (or sukie) jump.” (The “sukey” part is pronounced like the beginning of “soup”). I’ve come across it in scattered places referring to a party held by enslaved people in the South, away from the white folks. But it also appears in Leadbelly’s version of “Frankie and Albert,” where Frankie and Mrs. Johnson were in the graveyard after Albert’s funeral, “just pulling a sukey jump; they didn’t want to go home.” That reference seems to imply that there’s more shades of meaning to the phrase than I had thought. So can you give any insight into the phrase, where it comes from, etc? I can’t seem to find any authoritative reference to it anywhere. — John Roby.

That’s a darn good question. I must admit that until you asked I had never, as far as I recall, heard the expression “sukey jump.”

trueblood

No relation.

You mention a song by Leadbelly in your question, and while he didn’t invent the term “sukey jump,” his fame seems to have assured the continued existence of (and interest in) “sukey jump.” Born Huddie William Ledbetter in Louisiana in 1888 to parents who had been born into slavery, Leadbelly was an enormously creative and influential folk blues musician in the first half of the 20th century. Leadbelly used “sukey jump” in songs and interviews in a number of senses: the kind of impromptu party among slaves you mention, a roadhouse or house party featuring live music, or a kind of quick, lively dance tune.

In “The Life and Legend of Leadbelly” by Charles K. Wolfe and Kip Lornell (Da Capo Press, 1999), the man himself is quoted explaining the origins of the term: “Most of the parties and dances … were held in rural houses miles from the nearest town and often miles from the nearest white homestead. ‘They call them sukey jumps,’ Huddie recollected many years later. Sukey or sookie was apparently a Deep South slang term dating from the 1820′s and referring to a servant or slave. A sukey jump, therefore, was once a dance or party in slave quarters. Huddie himself once explained the term by saying, ‘Because they dance so fast, the music was so fast, and the people had to jump, so they called them sooky (sic) jumps.’ Sookie, Huddie thought, was derived from the field term for a cow, and was used to call a cow. Whatever the case, these late nineteenth century country dances gave Leadbelly the first public platform for his music.”

Leadbelly was absolutely right about the roots of “sukey.” The word “sook” has long been used in rural dialects in England and Scotland to mean livestock, specifically young animals (the word itself is a form of “suck,” as in nursing). In the US, “sook” is applied to mature cows as well, and “sook” or “sookie” is commonly used to call cows, pigs, etc. It’s certainly not difficult to imagine the term being applied in a demeaning sense to servants and slaves in the early 19th century US.

6 comments to Sukey jump

  • Jenny

    As I’m reading all the way through this, I can’t wait for you to finish with a current pop-culture reference in HBO’s True Blood: The lead character is named Sookie and her best friend is named Tara. Sookie is white and Tara is black. Tara makes a comment in the pilot episode about how cruel it is for a southern black girl to be named Tara, but no one ever mentions the irony of a pretty white girl being named Sookie, except that it’s an unusual name.

  • words1

    You’re right — I should have thrown that in, but the column was already too long (for newspapers). Sookie and Sukey are forms of Susan, so they’re unrelated to “sukey jump” as far as I know. I haven’t read the books on which the HBO series is based, so maybe that Tara/Sookie inversion is a deliberate cultural reference.

    By the way, stay away from the Wikipedia page on Sookie Stackhouse — it’s full of spoilers.

    Bill is a schlub. I like Eric. And Lafayette, who seems to be regaining his flair.

    Eric

    Best line of the season: Eric to small child: “Don’t you like vampires, little girl?”

  • Your article made me think of two things. Like you, I’d never heard of “sukey jump” before, but I recall “Aunt Sukey” being a name for a mule (Li’l Abner, I think, or Snuffy Smith, or maybe just some folksong).

    And the sound us urban kids used to enjoy shouting at the tops of our lungs, the hog-calling cry of “SUUU-EEEEE, pig-pig-pig”.

  • I have Welsh friends who frequently use the word “chooks” to mean “chickens,” and the term “chooky-boots” as an affectionate nickname. As I’m an old farm-gal, I visualized the boots that you leave outside the house after collecting the eggs, because their soles are smeared with fecal matter. (Ewwh!) Slightly off the topic, I know. My apologies!

  • Harold Kercher

    I grew up on a dairy farm in Oregon. We would yell ‘Sookie! Sookie! Sookie!’ to call the cows in for milking. This was in the 1950′s. Whether is was just a noise or a name, I can not attest to. I got the habit from my father who grew up on a farm in S. Dakota in the 1920′s. Just a similar thread I thought I’d share.

  • Eric lerche

    According to liner notes to ‘Leadbelly sings for children’ (SmithsionFolkeways (SFW CD 45047) by Jeff Place, Leadbelly started playing to Sukey Jumps in his teens and became to prefer the guitar on the cost of his ‘windjammer’.

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