" tree-top tall" (was: Re: "sugar daddy")

Cohen, Gerald Leonard gcohen at UMR.EDU
Sat Jun 24 19:05:15 UTC 2006

   Again, my thanks for the replies on "tree top tall" and "damper."

  Also, I've done a bit more checking on the song with these terms. It's real title is "Sweet Mama Tree Top Tall; Wont You Kindly Turn Your Damper Down." (There's no apostrophe in Wont).  The song appeared in sheet music, with words and music by Lasses White, 1920, as listed on Historic American Sheet Music (1850-1920), from Duke University.  The website is:

The picture on the front of the sheet music shows a stylish African-American couple, obviously but demurely interested in each other.  The above webpage also contains a picture of Lasses White in blackface. "Lasses," incidentally was a nickname (from "molasses"); his first name was really Leroy.

Here is an excerpt about Lasses White from an entry on Lee Wilds in http://www.answers.com/topic/wild-honey:

"...Although many of the details of his life remain sketchy, it is known that Lee David Wilds was born into abject poverty in southeastern Texas in 1902. His father, the owner of a brickyard, died of pneumonia at the age of 32. Wilds grew up in a racially mixed community, learning to play the blues from the black musicians who performed at a nearby theater. He also took up the ukelele. In the mid-'20s, he joined a minstrel show, forming a duo with Lasses White, a blackface comedian and veteran of vaudeville. White, who had earned his nickname as a child because of his sweet tooth, was known for giving his partners complementary stage names, and so Honey Wilds was born.

"Although music accounted for a large share of Lasses and Honey's act, the two men were primarily comedians. They performed novelty songs, often parodies of current hits. Like Al Jolson and Emmett Miller before them, their act consisted of material appropriated from African-American culture, allowing white audiences the opportunity to experience, albeit secondhand, a form of entertainment which the society at large otherwise deemed wholly inappropriate. (There also existed a parallel circuit where black performers appeared in whiteface, again as a means of crossing color lines.) Most blackface performers insisted that their work sprung not from racism but from a deep admiration for black popular culture; the validity of such statements is debatable, although in Wilds' case it appears to be true, especially given his background and adult friendships with the likes of DeFord Bailey, one of country music's few black acts. ..."

* * *
     As for "tree top tall" in the lyrics, this is likely intedend to convey the sense of "powerful, mighty," which fits in well with the theme of the woman being too much sexually for the singer.  Note the use of "mighty" (= sexually powerful) in the 1948 song "Good Rockin' Tonight":
"I heard the news, there's good rockin' tonight.
Gonna hold my baby tight as I can,
Tonight she'll know I'm a mighty man.
I heard the news, there's good rockin' tonight."

Gerald Cohen

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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