At the hop
Dear Word Detective: I’m troubled by the phrase “sukey (or sukie) jump.” (The “sukey” part is pronounced like the beginning of “soup”). I’ve come across it in scattered places referring to a party held by enslaved people in the South, away from the white folks. But it also appears in Leadbelly’s version of “Frankie and Albert,” where Frankie and Mrs. Johnson were in the graveyard after Albert’s funeral, “just pulling a sukey jump; they didn’t want to go home.” That reference seems to imply that there’s more shades of meaning to the phrase than I had thought. So can you give any insight into the phrase, where it comes from, etc? I can’t seem to find any authoritative reference to it anywhere. — John Roby.
That’s a darn good question. I must admit that until you asked I had never, as far as I recall, heard the expression “sukey jump.”
You mention a song by Leadbelly in your question, and while he didn’t invent the term “sukey jump,” his fame seems to have assured the continued existence of (and interest in) “sukey jump.” Born Huddie William Ledbetter in Louisiana in 1888 to parents who had been born into slavery, Leadbelly was an enormously creative and influential folk blues musician in the first half of the 20th century. Leadbelly used “sukey jump” in songs and interviews in a number of senses: the kind of impromptu party among slaves you mention, a roadhouse or house party featuring live music, or a kind of quick, lively dance tune.
In “The Life and Legend of Leadbelly” by Charles K. Wolfe and Kip Lornell (Da Capo Press, 1999), the man himself is quoted explaining the origins of the term: “Most of the parties and dances … were held in rural houses miles from the nearest town and often miles from the nearest white homestead. ‘They call them sukey jumps,’ Huddie recollected many years later. Sukey or sookie was apparently a Deep South slang term dating from the 1820′s and referring to a servant or slave. A sukey jump, therefore, was once a dance or party in slave quarters. Huddie himself once explained the term by saying, ‘Because they dance so fast, the music was so fast, and the people had to jump, so they called them sooky (sic) jumps.’ Sookie, Huddie thought, was derived from the field term for a cow, and was used to call a cow. Whatever the case, these late nineteenth century country dances gave Leadbelly the first public platform for his music.”
Leadbelly was absolutely right about the roots of “sukey.” The word “sook” has long been used in rural dialects in England and Scotland to mean livestock, specifically young animals (the word itself is a form of “suck,” as in nursing). In the US, “sook” is applied to mature cows as well, and “sook” or “sookie” is commonly used to call cows, pigs, etc. It’s certainly not difficult to imagine the term being applied in a demeaning sense to servants and slaves in the early 19th century US.