Bile Them Cabbage Down with a Louisiana Twist

“Bile Them Cabbage Down” is an old, Southern fiddle and banjo tune which is perhaps the first song learned by most dulcimer players. In fact, it is probably one of the first songs learned by most stringed instrument players. With just a couple of notes which repeat over and over, the tune is easy to play. Lagniappe members were recently invited make a video recording of a performance which will be aired on Facebook during the virtual “SugarFest” on October 3rd and 4th which is sponsored by the West Baton Rouge Museum. The sugarcane crop, which is harvested in the fall, is an important Louisiana industry. And so we played, “Bile them Sugar Cane Down, Chere” in our set of songs. And we gave the tune a slight twist — playing it in three different keys.

Sugarcane is a major agricultural crop in South Louisiana. The cane, which grows to be about ten to thirteen feet tall, is harvested in autumn.

If you ever come to visit rural Louisiana during the harvest time, the harvest is an impressive sight. For a few weeks, large “star wars” looking vehicles take the stalks down narrow country roads to the sugar mills where it is processed.

The West Baton Rouge Museum (where our Lagniappe Dulcimer Fete is held) holds a “SugarFest” each fall in early October to celebrate the sugar harvest. This will be the 25th annual Sugar Festival. But, alas, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the festival cannot be held in person. Instead, the museum is planning to host a “virtual” festival featuring many activities including traditional folk artists who carry on the old fashioned ways of doing things by hand, musicians and bands which typically play during the weekend activities. Other activities will be broadcast, too, such as recipe readings by renowned Cajun chef — John Folse.

Lagniappe members were invited to play and video-record a set of songs. We included “Bile Them Cabbage Down.” The tune is an old southern fiddle tune with both European and African components. The verse is, “Bile the cabbage down, down, turn them hoecakes round, round; Only song that I can sing is “Bile Them Cabbage Down.” A hoecake is a thin, flat cake made from cornmeal, originally baked on a hoe and cooked over a fire. There seem to be many nonsense lyrics to the song. We can easily adapt the verses to fit to our Louisiana culture such as, “Bile them crawfish down” or “Bile them sugarcane down.”

So for this event, song could be renamed, “Bile Them Sugar Cane Down, Chere.” Sugarcane has been grown on Louisiana plantations since the early 1800’s. It was brought here from early 18th century European sugar colonies in the Caribbean. Each plantation along the bayous in the Cajun part of our state had its own “sugar house” when the cane was processed. Traditionally. the cane was crushed using an animal-powered three-roller.

The juices were cooked in cast iron large vats or “sugar kettles.” Then liquid was evaporated off to produce molasses and sugar. Modern sugar mills are much more advanced, of course, with the molasses spun off by centrifuges and the remaining sugar distilled off. The West Baton Rouge museum is the heart of sugarcane country. The museum includes displays of the sugar and production process complete with antique equipment. The large wheel which serves as the flag post anchor in the photo above is one of these components. Here are some of the types of sugar produced by modern mills.

Lagniappe Dulcimer Society members have been part of the “SugarFest” celebration for a number of years. However, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, only a few dulcimer members were able to record a performance for a “virtual” recording which will be included in the Facebook festival.

Playing a tune in different keys without a capo

The first tune played by our “Lagniappe group” was “Bile Them Cabbage Down.” To give the tune a twist and some pizzaz, we played the song in three different keys. For this post, I have added a fourth key and a second octave, too. At the SugarFest recording, we did not play Part B of the tune (sometimes called the “break”) and I omitted it here. We only played the song’s melody part.

Since the tune only has three notes — the first three notes of a diatonic scale — you can play the song at several places on the dulcimer fretboard. Using barre chords, it is easy to change keys without a capo. Use your middle, ring and fifth fingers across the fret to make a “sliding capo.”

First, play the song in the Key of D in DAD tuning. Then slide your fingers up to the third fret to play in the Key of G. Make a “capo” across all the three strings. Use your thumb and index finger to play the song’s melody while holding the “capo” down all the time. To play the song in a third key, Key of A, slide up to the fourth fret.

Then, technically, If your dulcimer has an eight-and-a-one-half fret, you can slide up to the sixth fret (not the six-and-a-half fret) to play in the Key of C. This “1/2” fret gives an “F” note and chord which is used in the Key of C. Finally, play the song in the Key of D again, just an octave higher. For our “SugarFest” song, we ended back an octave lower back on the open fret in the Key of D.

It’s challenge to play in different keys using your hand and fingers as a capo, but it provides interest to your performance. And to liven things up even more, Marie added a limberjack for rhythm and Willy added a bass line. Lots of fun! We hope the SugarFest will return “live” in 2021, but in the meantime, stay tuned for our “virtual” performance on the West Baton Rouge’s Facebook page.

Here is a PDF file of the tune:

And here are images of the tune:

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