The title “Boil `em Cabbage Down” speaks of cooking cabbage by boiling it. “Cabbage” could have meant any leafy green vegetable such as collards, kale etc. The Southern style of cooking “greens” that have been cooked down into a gravy came with the arrival of the African slaves to the southern colonies. They boiled these greens down until they were soft, smoothing out their bitter flavor, and created the famous “southern greens.” The chorus of the tune also contains the term “hoe-cake.” This refers to a bread that African American field workers cooked in a round skillet or on the blade of a shovel (hoe) held over a fire like a griddle.
Hear Mark O'Connor play Boil 'Em Cabbage Down with Wynton Marsalis, below:
Hear Mr. O'Connor's version in Book I of the O'Connor Method.
The plantation “Juba” dance was brought from West Africa and is thought to be the predecessor of modern tap dancing. “Pattin’ the Juba” and “Hambone” (involving patting the arms, legs, chest, and cheeks) mixed with clogging and buck dancing were popular with fiddle tunes like “Boil `em Cabbage Down.”
Plantation owners and servants would often dance together. As the musicians became more and more intoxicated with the spirit of the dancing, they played faster and wilder, until finally no one could keep up any longer. Playing music and dancing was about the only good time to be had in early plantation life.
“Alas! Had it not been formy beloved violin, I scarcely can conceive how I could have endured ...”
- Solomon Northup
Variations of Boil 'em Cabbage Down in Books I, II and III.