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Book Excerpt: Rainbow Round My Shoulder: The Blue Trail of Black Ulysses
© by Howard W. Odum

Rainbow Round My Shoulder: The Blue Trail of Black Ulysses

© 1928 (Hardcover), © 2006 (Paperback) by Howard W. Odum

A Twelve-String Laura in the Rough

Sunset and the day’s work done. Early November in North Carolina. Green pinetops, red dogwood berries, crimson black-gums and brown-red oaks mingled with shapely cedars. Swift moving clouds. Diminishing rain-drops and a purple west. A black man emerging pathward into a wooded expanse from a red muddied roadway that had seen better days. A slow-moving figure heading in the direction of a rough-made laborer’s camp not far distant. Silent, a little stooped, a little shabby in dress, somewhat shambling in gait, for all appearances he might have been thinking gloomily of himself as some noble Ulysses, who “if it had pleased heaven that this poor man had been born a king, he would gracefully have filled a throne.” Thus Black Ulysses, turning campward at eventide of the second week of his employment on a new construction gang, just returned from his fourteenth pilgrimage to the thirty-eighth state of his Odyssey. Some time he might sing black laughter and yodel an evening or a morning song but not now. Reminiscent of his many thousands of travel miles and his picaresque wanderings, tired from the day’s work in rain and cold, he will feel in different mood when he had been to supper. For his eating and drinking, with appetite as of four men, are wont to lead to swift mirth and changing temper. But now, whether or not others pity him, certainly he pities himself, as into the quiet of approaching twilight he yields forth sudden harmonized sigh and song:


Then silence again and on to his shack. Hot supper at camp, clearing skies, cool winds, joreeing conversation, smoke of cigarettes, resurging energies and emotions of eventide. Black Ulysses speaking and singing.

I’m leavin’ here walkin’ an’ talkin’ to myself an’ I won’t be satisfied here and nowhere I go. This is more’n twenty times I been back to this state and more’n fohty states I been in, ‘bout a thousand jobs I worked at, and maybe more’n a hundred different camps I worked in. But I ain’t been in none beat this. Good Lawd, bad luck in family all stay with me, an’ my heart done struck sorry, an’ tears come down like drops o’ rain.


But I got this ole box with me to step on it. This ole twelve-string Laura sho’ has been in the rough, but she stand by me when my mind’s all troubled like water in the deep blue sea. If I jes’ a little set up ‘bout enough to be fohty wid de cleaver, good Lawd, how I can sstep on this box. Seem like when I gits to goin’ good, pickin’ out tunes an’ singin’, make me forgit ever’thing, ain’t no time, ain’t no troubles, ain’t nothin’ but myself an’ my feelin’s. Sometimes when I git to playin’ an singin’ right, seem like always something else better – some other place better’n this. Sometimes makes me think about all places an’ folks I knows, make me feel bad to be long ways from home, got railroad Blues, ain’t go no fare. Sometimes make me feel my hell arisin’ an’ I don’t want nobody meddlin’ round me an’ my business. Reason I talk ‘bout this ole Laura in the rough ‘cause she been in many a finish fight.

While I been playin’ little while ago, jes can’t keep from thinkin’ ‘bout that big boy called Graveyard Kid an’ whut he done la’ Sat’day over at the camp. Thought I was bad enough, but he sho’ got me beat. Way it was, this nigger’s business was to feed the mules. An’ so Sat’day was pay-day an’ it was rainin’ an’ pourin’. So this boyi he come in from the career o’ mules with his feet all full o’ mud an’ manure, an’ his clothes all wet an’ nasty. He don’t do nothin’ but go to his shack an’ git in one hand a thirty-eight special an’ in other o ortermatic an’ jump up on that table while about fohty of us boys was eatin’ supper an’ go trompin’ down the middle of it, steppin’ in beans an’ bread, an’ every other kind o’ food his big feet hit. He says to us, “Now, boys, any of you don’t like this don’t have to take it, ‘cause it ain’t no doctor’s ‘scription. Nobody got to take it. If anybody meaner than I is don’t like it, jes’ let me know.”

An’ nobody never open his mouth.

Next thing that nigger do, he walked straight over to the office where nobody ‘lowed to go in, goes in there an’ says to clerk he’s short two hours for that week, an’ say they goin’ to give him that money or give up their lives. Well, cos’n they don’t know nothin’ ‘bout that, but they hands him out his money. He comes trompin’ back in where us boys was eatin’ an’ says, “Well, boys, hope you git on will till I sees you again.”

That Graveyard Kid come into camp a few weeks ago across fiel’ from swamp. He goes out same way. Nobody knows where he come from an’ nobody knows where he went.

Sometimes seem like boys in camp jes’ ain’t civilized. Folks say they do anything, an’ I guess some time they do. Fellow can’t hardly git nothin’ to eat less’n he fights for it. Got to fight if he eats, got to die if he don’t eat. Cook won’t help nobody. Boys come runnin’ in, scramblin’, all tryin’ to set down at one time. Ain’t washed hands, all dirty in room, hollerin’ an’ talkin’.

“All right, dam you, bring on them flamdonies an’ beans an’ bread an’ slop.”
“Hell, give me that place.”
“This is my place, dam yo’ soul, give it to me.”
“Well, no use jawing on me like that.”
“Well, you don’t have to take it.”
“Hey, you black-skinned cook, bring on that stuff, git on the fly.”
“Say, cook, these niggers don’t leave me nothin’ at all.”
“Well, you ain’t my child. If you was my child, I’d have you in school. If you think you are a man, take a man’s job, don’t be whining around here.”
“Say, ole buddy, don’t be slidin’ ‘gainst me.”
“Well, you don’t have to take it if you don’t want to.”
“Git off my feet, dam you.”
“Put yo’ feet in yo’ pocket.”
“Well, you don’t have to speak to me like that.”
“Well, I spoke to yo” ole mammy that way las’ night I stayed with he, an’ she didn’t mind it.”
“What in hell you talkin’ bout my ole mammy fer; I’ll git yo’ if las’ thing I do, you watch out fer me you dam’ son of a gun.”

An’ so they goes on till timid fellow don’t have no show. Cos’n I ain’t so timid’ but some new boys jes’ come into camp I feels might sorry fer. One big black boy try to skeer ‘em all off. Cook say he et sixty-fo’ biscuits, whole big pan full, an’ swear he shoot up camp if they don’t give him mo’. Bad hustlers sho’ do joree other boys; call ‘em all sorts funny names. Ole Bull Pen Shorty, sort o’ outlaw wanderer, holler at little black boy. “Hey, you, Dusty, yo’ so dam’ low down, yo’ feet joints so low to groun’ if you go up-town, git dust all over yo’ face.”

Howsomever, we have some mighty fine boys, always keepin’ us laughin’ an’ some o’ the biggest liars in the worl’. Snowball one o’ them black boys ev’ybody like, cap’n an’ all. Call him Snowball ‘cause he so dam black. But he sholy white inside. Lightfoot Bennie sho’ is feather-footed when he ain’t called on to stir hisself to work. He sho’ is dancin’ boy, pickin’ up his feet like it ain’t no work. Then other boys like Pick Handle Slim, Aspasian Midnight, Fat Headed Geech, Big Headed White Britches, an’ Big Eatin’ Jo, all singin’ weary Blues an’ cuttin’ capers, when they ain’t workin’ or shootin’ craps or somepin’ else. An’ Ole Shackrouster Red say sometimes when he go ‘bout callin’ the boys to wake ‘em up he seen chief have near ‘bout roomful o’ pistols, all sorts an’ kinds, had taken away from boys in camp.

I seen a lot o’ black blys an’ girls in my day since I lef’ home goin’ on thirteen years old. I started travelin’ when I was thirteen years old, an’ now I’ll be thirty-two this coming August, the twenty-sixth. I would work for folks an’ sometimes I wouldn’t like it an’ sometimes they wouldn’t treat me right, an’ so I would move on. Take me till tomorrow night an’ ‘bout a dozen books to tell about all jobs I worked at an’ all places I been. I never stays in one place mo’ ‘n four weeks, leastwise never mo’ ‘m five. Long lonesome road I been down. After workin’ at all sorts o’ little jobs with my father an’ then my mother an’ grandmother, I started out, an’ since then I done most everything anybody ever do.

I been helper in maloominum plant, stirrin’ pots at Bessemer, janitor for mayor of two towns, factory hand, porter an’ butler on railroad, an’ wiping up engines of Great Northwestern railroad. I been waiter in hotels an’ restaurants. I sold papers in mo’ ‘n one town. I worked as helper for carpenters an layin’ brick for masons. I worked in store brushin’ furniture, worked in packin’-house, an’ in engine-house. I been in government camp an’ in Ford factory. I plowed hard-tail mule, cut wood to fire log engine, an’ worked on green ends o’ rollin’ lumber. I worked as harves’ han’ out Wes’. I been driver of teams, pick an’ shovel man, worker in concrete, an’ laborer in log camp an’ hard roads. I worked on railroad gangs, an’ sho’ could drive steel for section boss. I worked keepin’ yards an’ mowin’ lawns, white-washin’ fences, an’ paintin’ houses. I been yard an’ house butler for white folks, traveled with white man, an’ traveled over into Canada. I was hand on Mississippi Delta job, boatin’ on Mississippi River an’ on lake, diggin’ in coal mine, an’ workin’ in steel foundry. I pressed clothes, helped in print-shop, an’ seem like ‘bout hundred mo’ jobs which I try to tell ‘bout later. An’ been times I run up ‘gainst the law. But mos’ times all dirt I ever done I been lucky enough to git off.

Sometimes I works an’ sometimes I don’t. ‘Long with work or travelin’, I plays my box an’ sings my Blues an’ gits folks to help me out when I need ‘em, mo’ specially good-lookin’ womens.


Funny how I can’t stay no place long. Always some other place better, some other work easier. Somebody thinkin’ ‘bout me, road callin’ me on. When I come to new place I works while or maybe I hustles, an’ then, lawd, I’ll row here few days longer than I’ll be gone. Don’t stay long in states like Georgia and Mississippi. Folks in them states mighty ruffish an’ don’t give man no chance. Seems like they ain’t civilized, leastwise like they ought to be.

I had some hard times in Louisiana an’ Florida on sawmill an’ roads. In Alabama, Iowa, Tennessee, West Virginia an’ Pennsylvania I worked in mines. I worked on boats in Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Baltimore an New Haven. I had a little money an’ so jes’ had good time in Texas, Wyoming, Arizona an’ Richmond. Had sister in Springfield an’ ‘nuther one in St. Louis an’ stayed there while, sometimes workin’, sometimes loafin’.

Had all sorts o’ other jobs in Arkansas, Illinois, Nebraska, Michigan, Kansas, North Carolina, Arizona, South Carolina, Virginia, New York, Washington, Ohio, New Jersey, Wisconsin, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, North Dakota an’ South Dakota. An’ I worked in war camp in both South an’ North, an’ went little while overseas on boat with the boys in the war. Went up in Canada sometimes workin’ across on boat an’ jobs with show, an’ since war been down across Mexico line some. I can get plenty of trouble down there. You ought to see me turnin’ round when Mexican girl throw dagger at me. I been in ‘bout fohty states, but I ‘spects to go in all of ‘em yet. I got one friend, fellow I tell you ‘bout later, maybe been in mo’ states than I has, but he turn to Pullman porter an’ don’t see much life like I do.

I been in heap o’ towns. Take me till to-morrow night to count ‘em. Can’t name ‘em. Been in Norfolk ‘bout hundred times. Been in St. Louis an’ Chicago an’ got stuck up, an’ eve’y time I go to them towns, I’m leavin’ an’ ain’t comin’ back. New O’leans bes’ place, feller find most kindest folks. Mos’ freest-hearted womens. Hoboed through Birmingham two times, an’ one time stayed while in steel works. Stayed while in Atlanta but soon comin’ ‘way from there. Always goin’ back to Philadelphia. Had hard time in New York. Memphis, Tennessee, good place if feller knows how to git ‘long. Been out to Los Angeles but never did go back. Work my way back to Detroit an’ Kentucky an’ Virginia and come back home. Take me till to-morrow night to tell ‘bout all towns I been in. Good lawd, can’t count ‘em.

I seen lots o’ gamblers in my day. But sho’ is fact, worst gambler I ever seen in all my time was big black nigger called Shine, carryin’ black cat bones in his pocket. Seen him clean up whole camp her las’ week. Mighty bad gamblers in these camps, but I ain’t seen none so finish as this black boy.

Some o’ these boys carry extra dice an’ crooked dice so they can’t lose no way they throw ‘em, an’ they have all sorts of hands to give ‘em luck. Rabbit feet they carry a plenty. Some of ‘em go to witchcrafters an’ git baby hands an’ carry ‘em in their pockets, an’ some of ‘em carry scorpion heads, an’ snake skins, and buckeyes, an’ other sich things, but man carryin’ black cat bones inl his pocket can’t lose.

Sho’ is a fact if you stand test of black cat you can’t lose. You take black cat an’ put in a wash pot full o’ cold water, build fire ‘round pot an’ set on top of lid while hot water boil all meat off cat. Then, you take bones to stream runnin’ eas’ an’ wes’ an’ throw bones in runnin’ stream. Actual fact, one of these bones goin’ to swim against stream. You take that bone an’ put it in yo’ pocket, then you take yo’ right hand an’ set right foot in palm of right hand an’ put left hand on top of yo’ hed an’ swear by all the gods that made you that what is between yo’ two hands belong to the devil. An’ that will raise a storm an’ devil will appear to you in some form, such as cow or horse, or tree, or hisself. But you stay till all storm has ceasted an’ then anything you want to do you can do. ‘Nuther thing, reason nigger carrin’ black cat bones is so mean, he knows he done sold his soul to the devil an’ he have to stick it out, an’ all the pleasure he gits he must git out of this life.

Well, las’ Sat’day evening one of these fellows with black cat bones come to camp an’ had big red dice, ponies with white spots on ‘em. He didn’t have no little pee-wee dice foolin’ round with him. This fellow Shine was black as ace of spades. Well, he didn’t have nothin’ with him ‘cept his ponies, an’ so he borrowed two cents from a little boy driver an’ in a little while won fifty cents. So he come on over to the big game, an’ so somebody faded him for fifty cents, an’ he won with a lick an’ picked up his dice and say, “Les’ shoot the whole dollar.” An’ so he played that an’ won, an’ made another pass an’ hit ‘em a lick an’ throwed seven. An’ so he said, “Les shoot the four, “ an’ made another lick. An’ then he say, “Les shoot the whole dam’ eight,” when a fellow faded him with twelve. An’ so he kept shootin’ the whole works until he was ready to leave with one hundred and forty-two dollars. An’ so he come over walking big an’ give little boy fifty cents. An’ so he rattled the black cat bones in his pocket an’ left that camp singing like make cold chills run over you.


Please Note: This excerpt appears by special permission of the author and publisher and may not be presented elsewhere without permission of the copyright holders.

About the Author
Read more about Howard W. Odum at Wikipedia

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About the Author:

Howard Washington Odum was born May 24, 1884, on a small farm near Bethlehem, Georgia, the son of William Pleasants and Mary Ann Odum. In 1900, Odum began his studies at Emory College, and graduated four years later. Odum then moved to Mississippi, where he taught school and attended the University of Mississippi at Oxford. He also earned a master's degree in the classics at Mississippi.

After Odum received a Ph.D. degree in psychology from Clark University, he entered Columbia University. Under the direction of Franklin Henry Giddings, Odum completed the requirements for his second doctoral degree, this one in sociology. In 1910, his dissertation, "Social and Mental Traits of the Negro," was published in part by Columbia. Odum then worked at the Philadelphia Bureau of Municipal Research as a research expert, and later as a professor at the University of Georgia. He returned to Emory in 1919 as the dean of liberal arts.

In 1920, Odum arrived in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to direct the School of Public Welfare and Department of Sociology. A few years after his arrival, Odum established the Institute for Research in Social Science, and founded the journal, Social Forces. While at the University of North Carolina, he began to demonstrate the variety of talents and great energy that his peers found remarkable. Odum toiled constantly to improve race relations, the quality of education, and living conditions in the South.

During the 1920s and through the Great Depression, Odum authored three novels, served as Assistant Director of Research for President Herbert Hoover's Research Committee on Social Trends, and chaired the North Carolina Emergency Relief Administration. In addition, Odum was president of the American Sociological Society, chief of the Social Science Division of A Century of Progress at the Chicago World's Fair, and head of the North Carolina Commission for Interracial Cooperation.

In 1944, Odum was one of the five founding members of the Southern Regional Council. He also became president of the North Carolina Jersey Cattlemen's Association during World War II. Along with Odum's skill as organizer and social reformer, he was a prolific writer. From 1909 until his death in 1954, he wrote more than twenty books and 200 articles reflecting his concern for race relations, education, the social sciences, and regionalism.

Odum received at least three honorary degrees; the College of the Ozarks, Harvard University, and his alma mater in Georgia bestowed honors on him. He also received the O. Max Gardner Award from the University of North Carolina.

In 1909, Odum met Anna Louise Kranz. They were married the following year and had three children: Mary Frances, Howard Thomas, and Eugene Pleasants. Odum died 8 November 1954, shortly after his retirement.
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