Aunt Caroline Dye: The Gypsy in the "St. Louis Blues"

By John Quincy Wolf
Southern Folklore Quarterly
Volume 33. 1969.

In a memorable interview with Dorothy Scarborough, W.C. Handy said that the gypsy woman in his "St. Louis Blues" was Aunt Caroline Dye, of Newport, Arkansas. The song, he explained, was of folk origin, made up of Negro sayings, and in the second stanza the reference to the fortune teller was based on the saying, "I've got to go to see Aunt Ca'line Dye." Miss Scarborough then quotes from the song:
Been to de Gypsy to get mah fortune tole,
To de Gypsy done got mah fortune tole,
'Cause I'se wile about mah Jelly Roll.
Gypsy done tole me, "Don't you wear no black.
Go to St. Louis, you can win him back." 1

De Toledano gives another version of the first lines quoted above:

Went to de gypsy to have my fortune tol',
Gypsy tol' me, "doggone you, girlie, doggone yo' bad-luck soul." 2

Handy was sufficiently impressed by the reputation of the gypsy to use her in a second song, wherein the singer hopes to drive her unfaithful lover back to her by using magic: The words of "Sundown Blues" run in part as follows:

My two-timing papa is aggravating me;
He's running wild but I just can't let him be.
Tomorrow I'll be racing with the rising sun:
Hurry, Sundown, and let tomorrow come.
For I'm goin' to Newport-
. . .
I mean Newport, Arkansaw!
I'm goin' there to see Aunt Car'line Dye.
Why, she's a reader
And I need her,
Law! Law! Law! She reads your fortune, and her cards don't lie.
Chorus:

I'll put some ashes in my sweet Papa's bed,
So that he can't slip out,
Hoodoo in his bread,
Gopher dust all about,
I'll fix him! 3

These two songs and the remark about the Negro folk-saying show that in Handy's day Aunt Caroline Dye was a household name of importance in the Mid-South. When "The St. Louis Blues" was published in 1914 Aunt Ca'line was at the height of her fame, known of in every home on Handy's Beale Street and far beyond. Though she never used mysterious apparatus or spectacular hocus-pocus, and though she stated in her will in 1918 that she could not write her own name, she had a following that was nationwide-people in Newport say international. If a circle were drawn four hundred miles in diameter and centering in Newport, it is almost certain that the majority of adults living within that circle in 1918 would have heard of her: it is doubtful that even the name of President Wilson was more generally known (I have lived in two parts of this area and have personal knowledge of her repute). In 1968, a half-century after her death, a second and a third generation in the Mid-South, both white and colored, have heard of her.

Her home town, Newport, Arkansas, is a hundred miles by road or rail northwest of Memphis, and during the thirty-year period when the reputation and the following of Aunt Caroline were most extensive, 1890-1920, it was a fairly prosperous trading and cotton-growing center, of from two thousand to four thousand population. Her dwelling was a large but cheaply built structure on Remmel Street, not far from the business district. People living in Newport today tell of the large numbers of visitors who came to see her, who poured out of the Rock Island trains on their way to her house, especially on week ends. "When the crowds hit the board walk at Second Street, it sounded like an army," says a Newport woman. Another tells of earning dimes and quarters, when she was a little girl, "by carrying people down to where Aunt Caroline lived. I would meet the trains, and when people would ask me where her house was, I would offer to lead them there. I made a lot of money." Sometimes buggies and cars crowded the street, lined up end to end for several blocks about her house.

Negroes respected her, feared her, and consulted her when they thought they needed her help. Most often their problems were the recovery of lost jewelry, lost animals, or lost relatives. A good many white people visited her for the same reasons, but most of the prominent citizens of Newport felt that belief in fortune-telling was a mark of ignorance and maintained at least a posture of disbelief in her powers. On the other hand, more than a few men of prominence in the business community and in the surrounding area never entered into an important deal without her approval, and, to keep their visits a secret, usually called on her at night. Men and women who came from a distance and a few well-to-do merchants and planters in and around Newport made no secret of their visits.

Aunt Caroline used a small room for private consultation with those who sought her help. Frequently she would spread playing cards on a table and study them before giving advice or information ("her cards don't lie," says the song). But when she read the present or future she would dispense with cards and more often than not cover her face with her hands while she pondered the questions asked her. "Mm-m-MH! Ain't that just too bad! Mm-m-m-MH!" (The words in the song "Doggone you, girlie, doggone yo' bad-luck soul" are the kind of sympathetic remark she usually made as she stalled and waited for further information). Though she often told fortunes she seldom read palms and never gazed into crystal balls or called up the dead. In 1917 two young Newport schoolteachers called on her to have her read their fortunes. For the first teacher she predicted a happy future, but declined to foretell anything for the second. When she was asked a few days later to explain her refusal, she said, "I couldn't see nothin' in her future." Within a month the teacher died of pneumonia. Not every one who came to see her was admitted to a conference. She turned away most of those who sought advice about sweethearts, wives, and husbands, telling them to work out their own problems. And contrary to the hopes of the unhappy lover in "Sundown Blues," she would never put a curse on anyone.

Most of the stories still current about Aunt Caroline's powers deal with the recovery of lost articles and animals, and scores of these stories are told. She gave the following advice to a man whose hogs had disappeared: "Your hogs were stolen. Go down the road to the fifth house from you, go back to the barn and you'll find yo' hogs in a stable. Unlatch the door and leave it open and yo' hogs will come home. Don't go today because the people who live there are home. But tomorrow they'll be gone for the day. So you go tomorrow." The man followed directions, and his hogs returned to his pen.

Skeptics figure in a good many stories. Jenkins White lost his hogs but said he didn't believe in "that red-headed devil" and would not go to see her. Not finding his hogs, however, he went, and Aunt Caroline surprised him by saying, "So you finally want something from that old red-headed devil!" I have no explanation of the phrase "red-headed devil" unless Jenkins associated fortune tellers with the fiends in hell. Aunt Caroline's hair was white during the years of her notoriety.

One of her former servants reports that a man who came to inquire about a lost pair of mules said to one of her assistants, "I know she can't tell me nothin', but I'll see." Aunt Caroline greeted him with "You don' think I can tell you where your mules is but I can. Go down the Tuckerman road four miles till you come to a big holler and they's a lot of timber in the holler. Go up the holler till you hear yo' mules brayin.' They'll be locked up in a barn, but on the near side of the barn, they's a foundation block and on the block you'll find the key." She got a good fee for this piece of advice after the accuracy of her reading was verified.

A Newport lawyer, Mr. Wesley Bengel, told me the following story about an experience of his father in 1901. One morning Mr. Bengel, Senior, found his barnyard gate unlatched and his mare and mule gone. Suspecting theft, he spread the news about town but got no clues. At his place of business a friend suggested that he see Aunt Caroline.

"I don't take any stock in that kind of thing," said Mr. Bengel.

"Well," said the friend, "you have to pass right by her house on your way home, and it won't take ten minutes. It won't cost you anything either, but of course you can hand her a dollar if you want to."

Two days after the stock was stolen, Mr. Bengel went to see Aunt Caroline. When he entered her house, she opened the door of her consultation room and said to him, "I know you don't believe in me, but set down anyhow and I'll see you in a minute." When she called him into her private room, she said, "You don't think I can tell you nothin', but you come here to ask me about some live stock."

"Yes," said Mr. Bengel, "I've lost a mare and a mule."

"Well, if you'd come here as soon as it happened, I could a helped you. Your stock was stolen, and if you'd a come earlier, maybe you could a found 'em. But now they're clean out of the country. There was two men on horses and I can't tell you their names, but you know 'em both. They came at night and took your stock and headed east. They went by Cow Lake. The water in the lake is low right now and the ground around it is mostly dry and cracked. But on the south side it's wet and soft. And if you'll go out to the south side you'll see the hoof prints of four horses, and if you know what kind of marks your mare and mule make you'll see them there. The men went on to the first house east of Cow Lake and spent the night there. The owner of the house wouldn't take pay from them the next morning, and they headed east, and are over in Poinsett County now. I can't tell you any more about them, but if you go ask the man on the other side of the lake where they spent the night, he'll tell you what I just told you.

"Now I'll tell you something else. You lost a saw and a hammer last week. You went down in the pasture to mend the fence, and a neighbor come along while you were working and you got to talking to him and laid your hammer and saw down in the tall grass. And after a while both of you went off to look at something and you forgot your hammer and saw. But if you go down to the fence you'll find them in the tall grass." 4

Since the hammer-and-saw story turned out exactly as Aunt Caroline had related, Mr. Bengel thought it would be worth the time to follow up her account of the live stock theft. So he rode a horse out to Cow Lake, where he recognized the prints of his mare and mule and went on to the house where the thieves had spent the night. He did not attempt to follow them further because the information he got was too indefinite, but he found the rest of Aunt Caroline's story accurate so far as he could check it.

Several stories are told about how Aunt Caroline first became aware of her powers. A man who worked on her farm and in her home for several years gives this account, but he says that it is hearsay and so far as he knows it did not come from Aunt Caroline. When she was about twenty, before she came to Newport, she took sick and died. A wooden coffin was made and her body was placed in it. But she awoke and climbed out of the box. Thereafter she found that she could read the past, present, and future.

According to another story, Aunt Caroline showed powers of prophecy when she was a child. Born into a family of slaves, she had the knack of making predictions that somehow came true and of making lucky guesses that attracted attention on the plantation. But no one thought much about her until Thanksgiving Day, 1865. The master of the plantation had a brother, Charley, who had been reported killed in the War in '61. On Thanksgiving morning, 1865, when the table was set for the big dinner at which the family would celebrate its reunion, Caroline, then about ten years old, told the women of the house hold that they hadn't set enough plates. They counted and the mistress assured Caroline that the number was correct. But the child remonstrated: "You ain' got a place for Mistah Charley." She was reminded that Uncle Charley had been killed four years ago. Yet she still maintained that "he's coming to dinner today."

The family had just started eating when they heard footsteps in the hall, and a very tired Uncle Charley walked into the room. He said that he had been severely wounded in '61, taken prisoner, and kept in a prison hospital until after Appomattox. He had written letters but they had evidently been destroyed at the prison or lost in transit. The family thought he might have been in the neighborhood for several days before Thanksgiving and that Caroline had learned of his arrival. But he assured them that he came straight from the prison and had spent the preceding night twenty-five miles away.

The established facts about Aunt Caroline's life and works are less important than the hearsay and the stories. The date of her birth cannot be set with assurance. Her tombstone in the cemetery at Newport reads:

Caroline Dye
The Sunbeam of the World
Died September 26, 1918
108 years old

The remarkable age given her is, of course, not to be taken seriously. Most of her surviving friends and acquaintances believe that she was seventy-five or eighty when she died, which would place her birth year around 1840. If the Civil War story related above has any truth in it, she must have been at that time, not a child, but a young woman of about twenty. She was born a slave, the property of Henry C. Dye, a merchant living in Sulphur Rock, Arkansas; married Martin Dye; moved with him to Elgin, Arkansas, where he farmed; and about 1900 took up residence in Newport. The crowds of people that were soon coming to her for consultation made it necessary for her to have some kind of organization. There were always helpers and hangers-on about her, more than she needed, including two secretaries to take care of the mail, answer letters, and manage her business affairs. The postman always had a bundle of letters when he got to her house, and the secretaries who went through the mail sent the checks and money orders to the bank and kept the cash at the house. She also had a male cook and two waitresses. The cook, a good one, wore a white apron, jacket, and cap. "It was just like a hotel," says an old friend. "There was a long table with white cloths, and the floors were scrubbed white, and the place was kept as clean as could be. The food was good-all you could eat for just thirty-five cents."

Aunt Caroline never charged for her services, but she expected and usually got a fee. The local Negroes paid her very little, but businessmen and other people who could afford to come from a distance paid her well. The largest single gratuity that I have heard of is one hundred dollars. With a steady flow of money coming in, she became well-to-do and invested in real estate; one informant says that she owned eight farms. A Negro who worked on a hundred-acre farm of hers a few miles from Newport says that he was at her house when she died: "We carried a tub full of money out of her house and put it in the bank." Another source says the amount was about nine thousand dollars. In her will she named fourteen people, but as she had no children of her own the bulk of her estate went to her nephew and to a thirteen-year-old girl whom she had adopted several years earlier. The modest stone that her thrifty heirs placed at her grave is far less impressive than the large one she erected in honor of her husband.

Aunt Caroline Dye seems to have been a very unpretentious and gentle woman, yet almost unaccountable. Growing up in slavery, receiving no education, and using no advertising, showy trappings, or bizarre mannerisms, she nevertheless became, through her genius of whatever kind, one of the most celebrated women ever to live in the Mid-South. The chief monuments to her memory are of course Handy's references to her in his famous songs, the first of which is certainly the most widely known and doubtless the greatest of all the blues.

Southwestern at Memphis

1 On the Trail of Negro Folk-Songs (Harvard, 1925), p. 267. Back to Text

2 Ralph de Toledano, Frontiers of Jazz (New York, 1947), p. 38. Back to Text

3 Copyright 1923 by Handy Bros. Music Co., New York, and quoted by permission. Back to Text

4 Inconsistencies in the idiom attributed to Aunt Caroline are due to those interviewed for this article, who often made no attempt to reproduce her exact words. Back to Text

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