Muscadine Lore: I Heard It Through the Grapevine


Muscadine (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The muscadine grape, which has a Southern variety known as “scuppernong,” is widely cultivated in the American South to produce a sweet red wine. The grape itself has a thick skin and large seed, but a very flavorful fruit. Folklore surrounds the grape and its wine for a few reasons: it is native to the Americas, has been grown as a cash crop since the arrival of the first Europeans to the continent, and of course because wine is an intoxicant.

I found this story about scuppernong in “The Conjure Woman,” a collection of Uncle Remus style African-American folk stories from the 1800’s written by Charles Chesnutt.

The Goofered Grapevine

As the story goes, a plantation owner named Dugal McAdoo was cultivating scuppernong grapes but noticed his slaves were eating too much of the fruit themselves, having a great taste for it. In order to stop the pilfering, he pays a visit to Aunt Peggy, a renowned local conjure woman, and asks for her help.

The next day, the slaves observe Aunt Peggy in the vineyard. She takes a leaf from one plant, a grape from another, a twig from yet another, and some dirt as she strolls along. Then she puts all these ingredients in a bottle along with a snake’s tooth, a crop stone from a speckled hen, and hairs from a black cat’s tail, and fills the bottle up with scuppernong wine. She buries the bottle in the woods under a red oak tree, and then announces to the community that anyone who eats Dugal’s grapes will die in a year.

After some time a new slave named Henry is brought to the plantation, and he eats some grapes in the vineyard before everyone else has a chance to inform him about the curse. In a panic, they take him to Aunt Peggy’s, and she says she can probably save him since he was ignorant of the goofer (a hoodoo spell).  She tells Henry that in the spring when the “sap rises in the vines,” and the vines are pruned, he must take the sap that oozes from the cut branches and rub it on his bald head. If he does this once a year, the conjure will not afflict him, and what’s more, he can eat all the grapes he wants.

Henry follows instructions, and as soon as the new leaves begin to sprout on the vines, hair begins to grow on Henry’s bald head. As soon the vines begin to bear grapes, Henry’s new hair curls into little grape-sized balls. Once the grapevines are ripe, Henry’s hair resembles mature clusters of grapes also. Henry’s vitality also increases over the summer. As someone who is described as middle-aged, he becomes as spry and energetic as a youth. Come fall, though, when “the sap falls back down” the grapevine, all of Henry’s hair falls out and he becomes old and stiff in the joints again.

Uncle Remus (Wikipedia)

Uncle Remus (Wikipedia)

After a few years of this strange seasonal transformation in Henry, the plantation owner Dugal hatches a plan. He decides to sell Henry to another plantation gentleman, in the summer when Henry is in his peak in energy and vigorousness. The man he sells Henry to doesn’t know about the goofer, of course, and Dugal makes a huge profit in the sale.  By winter, Henry grows old again, and the man who bought him becomes afraid he is sick and will die, so he sells him back to Dugal for a third of what he bought him for. Dugal plays along, making it look like he’s doing the other guy a favor. Come summer, Dugal sells Henry to another unsuspecting buyer, and pulls the same ruse again. After several years of this stunt, he has so much money he buys another plantation.

Eventually, a Yankee con man visits the plantation, and shows Dugal new methods of cultivation that damage the vines and cause the whole vineyard to wither and die, and then Henry, of course, sickens and dies too.

The God of the Vine

Henry is an American version of Dionysus, the god of wine. In the tales of ancient Greece, Dionysus was also considered a human embodiment of the grapevine, who grew young and strong in summer, and was weakened and killed in winter; his blood became the wine.

Chesnutt’s story makes a subtle commentary on slavery in the ante-bellum South: while Dugal the plantation owner is stingy (denying his slaves the enjoyment of the grapes they work all day to cultivate), and exploits Henry’s enchantment for his own greed and gain, Henry turns the tables on the situation by becoming a god. He alone can eat the grapes with immunity, and is pampered and given special treatment by Dugal every winter as compensation for his annual sale every summer to another gullible plantation owner. Henry has become master of his own destiny. As Wikipedia explains: “He (Dionysus) is also the Liberator (Eleutherios), whose wine, music and ecstatic dance frees his followers from self-conscious fear and care, and subverts the oppressive restraints of the powerful.” As a god of liberation, Dionysus was considered a threat by ruling kings who feared the chaos and lack of social “order” that the god of drunkenness would bring to the people. But Dionysus is also the god of prosperity, and Henry certainly brings prosperity to Dugal.

Parallels to John Barleycorn

“John Barleycorn” is the personification of barley and its intoxicants: beer and whiskey, in British folklore. In a well known folk song of the same title, John Barleycorn is subjected to terrible mistreatment by men of various trades, until he is finally murdered and his body mutilated. From his body beer and whiskey are made. But when the men who have killed him drink the alcohol, the “blood” of John Barleycorn, they become subdued, “conquered” by their victim who becomes their master.

They have hired men with the scythes so sharp
To cut him off at the knee
They rolled and they tied him around the waist
Serving him most barbarously

They hired men with the sharp pitchforks
to prick him to the heart.
And the loader he has served him worse than that,
for he’s bound him to the cart.

Well, they’ve wheeled him round and round the field
Till they came onto a barn
And there they made their solemn oath
Concerning  Barleycorn

They hired men with the crab tree sticks
to split him skin from bone, yeah,
but the miller he has served him worse than that
for he ground him between two stones.

Well, there’s beer all in the barrel and brandy in the glass
But little old Sir John with his nut-brown bowl
Proved the strongest man at last
John Barleycorn, throw him up, throw him up

Now the huntsman, he can’t hunt the fox
Nor loudly blow his horn
And the tinker, he can’t mend his pots
Without John Barleycorn

John Barleycorn, as performed by Jethro Tull


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