Fiddling the Cakewalk

Cakewalk Fiddling that Takes the Cake

You may be using the cakewalk rhythm in your fiddling and not even know it. It’ very distinctive and instantly recognizable. I used to think of it as the Texas bow kick. Then I heard a presentation by Bill Messenger, professor at the Peabody Conservatory. Here is a restatement of his story about the origins of the cakewalk.

It is almost certainly a rhythm native to west Africa. Historians have traced the beginnings of the cakewalk to the 1800s before the Civil War. It was common amongst the slaves at that time to have a party that sent up the manners of the white people in the big house. They wouldn’t mock them openly. But they did a satire on the ballroom dances of that time by having the cakewalk march.

By the end of the 19th Century the cakewalk dance was spreading to mainstream culture.
By the end of the 19th Century the cakewalk dance was spreading to mainstream culture.

On a flat enough field they would set up a table with a cake on it. At the other end the young men would line up. At the onset of rhythms produced by the bones and the banjo, both instruments developed by African slaves, the men would march down the field in an exaggerated manner, backs arched and legs stepping high to the beat.

The man who was deemed the best of the group was awarded the cake as a prize. You may have heard an oldster saying that something “takes the cake.” That venerable cliche comes from this long ago event.

White Men Steal the Cakewalk

At some point in the 1800s white men began daubing black color on their faces and entertained people. The first one featured himself as Jim Crow. Soon he had many imitators. Before many years passed Dan Emmet put a small group together and called his performance a minstrel show. That led to the biggest form of entertainment before vaudeville started.

Songs from this time show the influence of the cakewalk, as well as ragtime, both closely related. “Hello, my honey, hello my baby, hello my ragtime gal” is one you have surely heard, if only on a cartoon about a frog. The one that is played even up to our time is “At a Georgia Camp Meeting.”  The second bar has that cakewalk lick.

European composers noticed this musical activity and used the rhythm in their compositions. Claude Debussy wrote a tune called “Gollywog’s Cakewalk” that, among other riffs, sends up a Wagner motif to this rhythm. Does the rhythm itself somehow invite satire?

Cakewalk Goes Mainstream

White people imitating black people imitating white people in cakewalk
White people imitating black people imitating white people in cakewalk

The Cake Walk (or Cakewalk) was the first of the new dances for the new Century, emerging into mainstream white popular culture somewhere after 1890 and remaining popular until the early 20th Century. It originated with African Americans lampooning the affected manners of the White Folk, but the White Folk either didn’t get the joke or agreed that the manners of the White Folk needed a little satire, and joined in the fun.

It had been a mainstay of Minstrel, Vaudeville and Music Hall performers for years before it became a popular dance and they used it as a medium for all manner of comic and eccentric dancing. Once it became a mainstream dance that everyone was doing, it created something of a dialogue, with performers mimicking and then adding to what the public was doing with the public then being inspired to even more eccentric feats by what they saw on stage.  

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Cakewalk Bowing

Playing this rhythm on the fiddle is not a difficult move. You can play it simply by moving the bow back and forth to fit the rhythm. Or, you can get your bowing organized so that you play down-up-up-down-up for the rhythm. That leaves you with a useful down bow for the next note on the beat.

You know it can’t be hard because saying something is a “cakewalk” is the same a saying it’s a “walk in the park.” In other words, very easy. But the rhythm doesn’t lend itself to a groove. Neither can it be called a shuffle. It has its place. You use it and then move on.

For example, you may have heard Bill Cheathum started with this rhythm. The second part of Whiskey Before Breakfast featurew this rhythm. If you look through the rags in The Fiddler’s Fake Book, you see snippets of this rhythm along with the repeating three note rag rhythm. Black and White Rag, and Dill Pickle Rag for example.


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