[Ads-l] Possible Further Antedating of "Woke" and "Stay Woke"

Ben Zimmer bgzimmer at GMAIL.COM
Tue Feb 21 16:04:04 UTC 2023

In today's Washington Post:

Some credit blues singer Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter for helping to
popularize the term ["woke"] in his 1938 protest song, "The Scottsboro
Boys," in which he urges Black America to "stay woke" to social and
political injustice as well as physical violence.

That links to a Nov. 12, 2021 article from The Root:

"I advise everybody to be a little careful when they go down through
there," Lead Belly said of Alabama. "Just stay woke. Keep your eyes open."

The recording in question appears on the 2015 compilation _Lead Belly: The
Smithsonian Folkways Collection_. Lead Belly doesn't say "Just stay woke"
as part of the song lyrics, but in response to an interviewer (likely Alan
Lomax) after performing the song:

(relevant bit starts at 4:26)

According to the booklet accompanying the collection, Lead Belly debuted
the song "Scottsboro Boys" in Aug. 1937, but the Folkways recording was
made on Aug. 23, 1940:

(p. 34)

I don't know if there's any evidence of Lead Belly using "(just) stay woke"
before 1940.


On Sat, Feb 4, 2023 at 1:11 PM Shapiro, Fred <fred.shapiro at yale.edu> wrote:

> woke (OED 1962), stay woke (OED 1972)
> 1934 Indianapolis Star 18 Mar. 3/4 (Newspapers.com)  The otherwise good
> citizens who shirk their voting duty share the responsibility for our bad
> politics and the grafts, wastes and misgovernment flowing therefrom. If
> they will wake up and "stay woke," these first causes of the political
> evils which have messed up our government affairs can be largely removed.
> NOTE: The citation above has a different context from the African-American
> / jazz idiom that I have previously traced back to 1956. It is possible
> that this 1934 occurrence is an independent or coincidental coinage.
> Nonetheless, it closely matches the political meaning of the present-day
> usage.
> Fred Shapiro

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

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