Southern food and Southern music are close kin. Both draw from diverse global traditions (particularly Western European and West African). Some of the most powerful and inspired creations of both Southern cuisine and Southern sound were born out of poverty and hardship. And both continue to evolve in exciting ways as new populations, ingredients, and instruments influence regional culture.
As several of these Smithsonian Folkways songs demonstrate, food, music, and love are bound up in interesting, often humorous ways in the Southern vernacular. Others songs are more straightforward, eschewing double-entendre for honest praise of simple ingredients that sustained a region’s working class. Many of those ingredients, from corn to greens to catfish, are still regional staples for reasons both practical and nostalgic.
Track 1: “King Biscuit Stomp” by Big Joe Williams from Mississippi’s Big Joe Williams and His Nine-String Guitar
Originally sponsored by King Biscuit Flour, the King Biscuit Time radio show debuted in 1941. Today, this program out of Helena, Arkansas, is the longest-running daily broadcast in U.S. history.
Tracks 2 & 3: “Hominy Man” and “Cantelope [sic] Vendor” by Adelaide Van Wey from Street Cries and Creole Songs of New Orleans
Southern port cities, especially New Orleans, were once home to robust street economies. The vendors, mostly men and women of African descent, developed lyrical cries to advertise their wares.
Track 4: “A Young Man That Wouldn’t Hoe Corn/I Wonder When I Shall be Married” (medley) from The Ritchie Family of Kentucky
It would be difficult to overstate the importance of corn in the South. Though Western Europeans brought a preference for wheat to the Americas, corn in all its many iterations has defined the Southern diet. Think cornbread, grits, hushpuppies, tamales, tortillas, maque choux, and bourbon.
Track 5: “Custard Pie Blues” by Sonny Terry from Sonny Terry’s Washboard Band
Custard pie is a classic Southern dessert made from eggs, milk, sugar, salt, vanilla, and sometimes a touch of nutmeg. Sweet potato pie and chess pie, other Southern favorites, also fall into the custard pie category in that they consist of a liquid (or puree) thickened with eggs and cooked in the pie’s crust. Baking a custard pie is simple. Waiting for it to cool long enough to set? That takes practice.
Track 6: “Bile Them Cabbage Down” by The Old Reliable String Band from The Old Reliable String Band
This classic song references two hearty, humble staples of the Southern Appalachian diet: corn and greens. In this case, the corn is baked into hoe cakes, and the greens are cabbage.
Track 7: “Grits Ain’t Groceries” by Little Milton from The Mississippi River of Song: A Musical Journey Down the Mississippi
“If I don’t love you baby, grits ain’t groceries….” The conditional logic that sets up Little Milton’s 1969 soul hit calls out cornmeal grits as the grocery exemplar. Many Southerners today would agree.
Track 8: “The Chicken and Burger World Blues” by Luna Tune from CooP – Fast Food Musical Magazine (Vol. 1, No. 9)
This year the Southern Foodways Alliance has looked at Southern food’s relationship to pop culture, which often plays out in restaurants. We literally buy into the charm of the rundown diner or the polish of the chic, chef-driven restaurant serving up New Southern cuisine. And in either type of place, chances are that the staff isn’t taking too much time off for Thanksgiving (or any other) holiday. This is our thank-you to those service industry soldiers for keeping us fed year-round.
Track 9: “Mardi Gras Song” by Dewey Balfa, Tony Balfa, Tracy Schwarz, and Peter Schwarz from Les Quatre Vieux Garçons
Cajun Mardi Gras is a world away from its New Orleans counterpart. In small prairie towns, costumed men run or ride horses from house to house, collecting ingredients for a communal gumbo. A live chicken is the prize catch. (Note: If you’ve never heard of this tradition, it’s worth looking up the English translation of this song’s lyrics to get an idea.)
Track 10: “Cornbread and ’Lasses & Sassafras Tea” by The Lilly Brothers & Don Stover from Bluegrass at the Roots, 1961
The benefits touted in this tune may not be so far-fetched, since blackstrap molasses is surprisingly rich in vitamin B6, calcium, magnesium, iron, and manganese. Then again, too much sassafras tea might leave you with liver cancer, according to the FDA. Maybe just stick with the cornbread & molasses.
Track 11: “Catfish Blues” by David “Honeyboy” Edwards from Honeyboy Edwards: Mississippi Delta Bluesman
“If I was a catfish swimming in a deep blue sea, all these women would be fishing after me,” sings Honeyboy Edwards. In reality, Southern catfish swim in fresh water, and today most are farmed in manmade ponds that dot the Delta of Mississippi and Arkansas. Whether “noodled” in the wild, purchased from the grocery store, or ordered in a casual restaurant, catfish are beloved in the Deep South, especially when dusted in cornmeal and fried.
Track 12: “Taters and Gravy and Chicken-Fried Steak” by Kenny Bill Stinson from The Mississippi River of Song: A Musical Journey Down the Mississippi
Soul food scholar Adrian Miller explains that soul food—basically everything listed herein—originally had more to do with economic status than with race, though the 1950s and 1960s cemented its definition as the traditional food of African Americans. Chicken-fried steak can be found in much of the Deep South, but it’s especially beloved in Texas.
Track 13: “Old Corn Liquor” by Joe and Odell Thompson from Black Banjo Songsters of North Carolina and Virginia
Corn has long been a mainstay in the Southern field and at the Southern table. For a time, the most profitable thing to do with the crop was to distill it into corn liquor, aka moonshine.
Track 14: “Rooster Call” by John Henry Mealing and the Gandy Dancers from Blues Routes: Heroes and Tricksters: Blues and Jazz Work Songs and Street Music
In a region that has been largely defined by agriculture, it’s no surprise that Southerners often connect work with food. Slaves, sharecroppers, servants, cooks, and farmers’ livelihoods have revolved around food for centuries. This song also taps into issues of race and gender that are always present on the Southern plate, though it playfully turns them on their heads.
Track 15: “Mustard Greens” by Daddy Hotcakes from The Blues in St. Louis, Vol. 1
Along with cornbread and fried chicken, greens—turnip, mustard, or collard—may be one of the foods most readily identified with the South. Greens are easy to grow and cook, flavorful and affordable, and rich in nutrients. Traditionally cooked down with a ham hock, a pot of greens produces what Southerners call pot liquor (or potlikker), perfect for sopping up with a hot piece of cornbread.
Track 16: “Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy” by Doc Watson and Clarence Ashley from Original Folkways Recordings of Doc Watson and Clarence Ashley, 1960–1962
A cast-iron skillet is a staple of Southern cooking. It can do just about anything on the stove or in the oven, from smothering greens to frying chicken to baking cornbread. As for the greasy part, for generations many cooks kept a can by the stove to save and reuse pan drippings—many folks still do.
The Southern Foodways Alliance documents, studies, and celebrates the diverse food cultures of the changing American South. We are a member-supported nonprofit institution of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi. Our projects include documentary film, oral history, a quarterly magazine, and a bi-weekly podcast (those last two share the name Gravy).