The 1937 Flood Watch
The 1937 Flood Watch Podcast
"I Got a Secret (Shake Sugaree)"

"I Got a Secret (Shake Sugaree)"

#228 / June 30 Podcast

Okay, up front let’s just get this out of the way. We don’t know what “sugaree” is, or why you would want to shake it, or what’d happen if you did.

And apparently nobody else knows either.

Our Story Begins…

Let’s start our story in the mid-1960s, when folk music legend Elizabeth Cotten recorded her new album, Shake Sugaree.

“That’s more my grandchildren’s song,” Libba Cotten later told Mike Seeger about the title tune. “They made the verses and I played the music. The first verse my oldest grandson, he made that himself, and from that each child would say a word and add to it.”

Apparently it was Cotten herself who added that memorable — if enigmatic — chorus (Oh, lordy me / Didn't I shake sugaree? / Everything I got is done and pawned), though “to tell the truth,” she added, “I don’t know what got it started.

“That’s practically how all my songs, I pick up,” she said. “There’s somebody’ll say something or something done and then... something will come into your mind.”

Enter Fred Neil

A couple years later, singer/songwriter Fred Neil revisited the song, but in a radically different way.

While Cotten’s original was a jaunty tune, Fred framed her lyrics with his own slow and positively pensive melody, transforming it from something playful into a poignant meditation on loneliness and loss.

The arrangement was so different from Cotten’s, in fact, that Capitol Records felt justified in giving Neil co-credit for the composition.

Of course, that decision led to further confusion about the song. For instance, when Pat Boone (uh-huh, Pat Boone … !) recorded the song in 1969 on his Departure album, Fred Neil was listed as its only composer, with Cotten nowhere to be found in the credits.

But What Is Sugaree?

Apparently, nobody bothered to ask Elizabeth Cotten to define “sugaree.” They didn’t ask Fred Neil either. Nor Jerry Garcia when he and The Grateful Dead recorded a completely different song with the same name in 1972. (Maybe Pat Boone knows sugaree’s secret, but he ain’t saying.)

All this mystery has led data detectives on a great what-is-sugaree scavenger hunt on the Internet, producing some wildly weird theories.

An African-American dance featuring sugar spread on the floor? A variation on a native America word or perhaps an ancient tribe’s name? A Gullah term from Cotten’s native Carolinas? A corruption of the word shivaree (itself a corruption of the French charivari.)

Or Maybe the Question is WHO is Sugaree?

Wait. Let’s add to the puzzle. What if Sugaree is a person? That’s what one prominent early rock ‘n’ roll singer/songwriter thought.

A decade before Elizabeth Cotten and her grandchildren created their tune, Marty Robbins — yes, Marty (Out in the West Texas town of El Paso) Robbins — wrote a song called “Sugaree” that was released by The Jordanaires.

Its lyrics made it clear that for Marty and the boys “Sugaree” was a girl (I got a letter from my baby, Sugaree, wrote me today. / It was the first one that she wrote me, first one since she went away.)

And that bit of business prompts an intriguing theory.

Could be it be that the Marty Robbins song — which was recorded by several other groups besides The Jordanaires and got wide airplay in the late 1950s on radio and TV — was a favorite of Libba’s grandkids? (After all, it was a catchy number … and of course, “sugar” does have famously universal kid appeal.)

Maybe that the reason the kids worked it into the song that they were creating with Grandma. If that’s the case, it would mean that “sugaree” was simply a cool sound. Cotten and her kids might have just liked the ear tickle they got from the alliteration when they let “shake” shimmy up next to “sugaree.”

Our Take on the Tune

“Folk progress” is a term that Charles Seeger — folksinger Pete’s pop — came up with about a hundred years ago to describe the tendency of melodies and lyrics to change, a little or a lot, as they pass from person to person and generation to generation.

It’s a process that greatly pleases us in The Flood. From our earliest days, we’ve done everything we can to carry it on by putting our own stamp on every song we do.

This particular number grew out of a recent Flood jam at which a riff Charlie started noodling with on his new resonator guitar had him remembering that old Fred Neil take on the Libba Cotten song. In a flash, Dan and Sam were bringing their own magic to the moment. Here’s the result.

The 1937 Flood Watch
The 1937 Flood Watch Podcast
Each week The 1937 Flood, West Virginia's most eclectic string band, offers a free tune from a recent rehearsal, show or jam session. Music styles range from blues and jazz to folk, hokum, ballad and old-time. All the podcasts, dating back to 2008, are archived on our website; you and use the archive for free at: