"keep shady"

Landau, James James.Landau at NGC.COM
Fri Mar 2 14:06:47 UTC 2007

On 3/1/07, George Thompson <george.thompson at nyu.edu> wrote:
>         [reaction of "the better sort of colored people" to John 
> Brown's insurrection; our reporter] found them disposed to "keep 
> shady" on the subject, and it was hard to draw from them any opinion 
> whatever on the matter at issue.  This is a characteristic of the 
> negro race, even in the most trivial matters.  [a phrenological
explanation of this quirk]
>         NY Evening Express, October 19, 1859, p. 1, cols. 4-5
> OED has no applicable sense under "shady"; it has the phrase from 
> 1871, (under "simmer", verb, 1d) and 1897 (under "hang", verb, II:20.
> The Express was a vehemently anti-abolitionist newspaper.  All who are

> surprised that one of "the better sort of colored people" would "keep 
> shady" when approached by a white man and asked for his opinion on 
> Harper's Ferry, please raise your hand.
> I thought so.  Me neither.
> George A. Thompson
> Author of A Documentary History of "The African Theatre", Northwestern

> Univ. Pr., 1998, but nothing much lately.

An example of what George Thompson is talking about, in this case
involving a famous piece of American folklore:

The sole eyewitness to Casey Jones's famous fatal train crash was
Casey's fireman, Sim Webb, who was black.  According to Webb's
testimony, Casey had his train moving too fast to stop when the
locomotive detonated a "torpedo" (an explosive device used to warn other
trains that there is a stopped train ahead), and also that Casey ordered
him to jump from the locomotive.  That is, the crew of the stopped
freight train had properly set a torpedo (and also flagmen) to warn
other trains that they were stopped on the main track and the crash was
solely Casey's fault.

Webb's story was accepted and the railroad cleared the crew of the
freight train.

However, at least one writer (I think it was the railroad historian
Freeman Hubbard) theorizes that the freight train crew failed to set the
torpedo and maybe failed to set flagmen as well, and therefore the fault
was theirs.  To cover themselves, they warned Webb of what would happen
to a black man who failed to back up their story (the sole evidence that
there was a torpedo is Webb's testimony).

OT: Joel S. Berson quoted "he came in full 'act in one' for he has long
been a favorite recitalist of American folk-sings with audiences the
land over ...". 

Is "folk-sing" a typo for "folk-song" or is it in the original, in which
case it is a synonym for "hootenanny"?  

And a thank-you for explaining the most likely answer to why "President
of the United States" appeared in Baron Munchausen (that it was a later
addition to the 1785 original).

   - Jim Landau

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

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