hoe-down in the OED

Joel S. Berson Berson at ATT.NET
Thu Feb 6 20:01:22 UTC 2014

In New England's February of 2014 it takes a while for my brain to
warm up, but --

OED2 does not provide any etymology for "hoe-down".  I suggest an
origin in the rhythmic hoeing by slave and prison work gangs, which
would be accompanied by singing. (See "12 Years a Slave".)  All the
hoes would be struck down on the ground simultaneously, at the
accented points in the tune.  The duple meter work-songs became
dance-songs, which were thus called "hoe-downs" (see Wikipedia
definition); and a dance (assembly) at which hoe-downs were danced
became a "hoe-down".

The Online Etymology Dictionary makes the following suggestion:
"apparently originally the name of a specific dance, perhaps from
perceived parallel of dance motions to those of farm chores, hence
from hoe (n.)."  I think there is evidence that it comes more
specifically from work-gang hoeing, perhaps with the "dance motions"
mimicking hoeing.

While looking for folk songs using the word "hoe", I saw John and
Alan Lomax's _American Ballads and Folk Ballads_ (first published
1934; GBooks has the 1994 edition, in Preview).  Page 57 has the
following description of a prison work gang:

"Thirty men in stripes are 'flat-weeding' a ditch; every hoe strikes
the ground at the same instant. ... Presently some big buck with a
warm, powerful voice throws back his head and begins [lists titles of
3 songs] ... At the chorus the gang joins in ... Thus the song is
begun, and thus it goes on through the 'long hot summer day' ... No
stanza is ever sung in the same way as another. ... But the whole is
dominated and swept along by the heavy rhythm of the hoes."

Page 68 has "The following stanza illustrates the way Stewball is
sung by a gang of Negro workmen in the fields. The accents mark the
hoe or ax blows."  This is followed by first, the words of one stanza
with the accents marked, then both melody and words.

The Lomax's description is surely based on the their on-site research
at Texas prison farms and elsewhere in the South (See Wikipedia,
"John Lomax", section "Field recordings").

wiseGEEK suggests:  "The origins of the term hoedown are believed to
simply be derived from putting the hoe down or stopping work in the
fields.  This is what the hardworking farmer would do to attend an
evening of dancing and merrymaking."
http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-a-hoedown.htm  Others have the same
hypothesis.  Unless there is some document supporting this, I'm
skeptical.  The two earliest OED2 quotations include "hoe corn and
dig potatoes" and "hoe down, corn-field", both suggesting to me that
"hoe-down" is associated with working, not with ceasing work.

Jonathan Green can offer nothing more than the OED quotations, and
says "surprisingly, the term is not included in the usually
magisterial Dict. American Regional
English."  http://www.wordwizard.com/phpbb3/viewtopic.php?f=18&t=17562


At 2/6/2014 12:15 PM, Joel S. Berson wrote:
>Dance:  The "hoe down".
>      OED definition definitely needs amendment:  "A noisy riotous
>dance."  (The quotations give the appearance that after first
>publication in 1899, quotations were added without noticing that the
>meaning had changed.)  E.g, visualize the scene described in the 1961
>quotation: "The hoe-down sequence in Seven Brides for Seven
>Brothers."  Wikipedia is more like it: "A hoedown is a type of
>>American folk dance or square dance in duple meter, and also the
>musical form associated with it."  Although I perceive "hoedown" also
>as extended to the gathering as a whole (like "dance" as an assembly).

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

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