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June 2016

Song of the Shrimp Fiend

Calling out his creative seafood sales pitches, huckster and political provocateur Joe Cole became a cultural institution in 19th-century Charleston

In the decades between 1872 and 1906, Joe Cole sang the sun up on Charleston’s streets six days a week, from mid-May into October, bellowing in a baritone that people likened to a foghorn. He set out around 5 or 6 a.m., an apron cinched about his waist and a tray perched on his head, and in a voice that jolted dreamers awake, he sang his famous cry:

Swimmy, swimmy, swim,
Raw, Raw, swim.
I want you all to member.
We’se got tell September.
So come and get yo raw,
    raw swim.
Raw, raw, sprawn, wid
    shooger een he
    [Raw raw prawns with  
    sugar in his horn].

Cole (1841-1919) was known as the loudest, most musical, most disruptive of the morning hucksters. “His early and horrible cries have been the cause of more profanity than any one single thing in Charleston,” someone complained to The News and Courier. The aroused bestowed upon him a nickname: “the Shrimp Fiend.”

A yellow-complected African American with long hair, Cole and his spouse, Isabelle, ran fish mongering operation J. Cole and Wife from 95 King Street.  Isabelle processed the materials—shrimp, porgy, whiting, shad—and Joe took them to the streets; shrimp at dawn, pan fish at noon.

The citizenry demanded morning shrimp, as the crustacean was breakfast food; shrimp and hominy vied with shrimp pie as the favorite daybreak dish. Shrimpers cast nets overnight, and every moment after landfall, product was spoiling. Sellers who could move their product before 7 a.m. dominated the market. According to The News and Courier, “That eminent fisherman and impresario of the drum and fife band, Joe Cole, says that on Friday mornings he has sold as much as $25 worth of shrimp on his tour through the town! Joe’s method of sale and thriftiness are well known.”

Rivals tried to overcome Cole’s stentorian advantage by the elaborateness or weirdness of their songs. As the Shrimp Fiend begat imitators, the clamor of the morning streets grew. Newspapers filled with calls for legislative restriction of street cries. Laws were passed, but the constabulary didn’t act. If people wanted breakfast shrimp, they had to suffer morning mayhem.

The Shrimp Fiend enjoyed tolerance for another reason: he had installed himself as an important public personality, a figure who entertained the city. Cole led a band “consisting of a fiddle, a base drum, a fife, and a small drum;” he, of course, supplied the vocals. Whether a picnic for the African-American Republic Protective Union, a Fourth of July parade, or the city gala, Cole and his musicians belted tunes for the people. A reporter observed in October 31, 1891, “Everybody in Charleston knows Joe Cole, the politico-piscatorial musician, whose voice is as familiar to the ears of Charlestonians as are the tintinnabulations of St. Michael’s bells.”

Local children sang his famous song about the porgy, the poor man’s fish:

Pawgee walk en pawgee talk
Pawgee eat wid de knife and fork.
   

Cole’s Gullah voice, thunderous and musical, became part of the soundscape of the city. So much so that when it fell silent, residents felt that something familiar was missing. After the earthquake of 1886 smashed the city,  the hucksters fled. Then on September 9, The News and Courier reported, “The voice of the raw shrimp fiend was heard on the streets of Charleston yesterday morning for the first time since the awful quake which brought so much misery and ruin to old Charleston. The shrimp fiend has been the source of extreme annoyance to late sleepers in Charleston for many years...But there was music in the sound yesterday—cheerful, hopeful, comfort-inspiring music.”

This goodwill stood him in good stead, for he was a provocateur. In a city dominated by white Democrats, Cole was an active champion of the party of Abraham Lincoln. His March 9, 1919, obituary recalled that he “was at one time prominent in politics, delivering many a speech for the Republican party.”

He particularly promoted the civil rights agenda of radical Republican William Sumner. This prompted periodic harassment. When the municipal government in 1887 prohibited African-American soldiers from parading on the Fourth of July, Emancipation Day, and the days when the 14th and 16th amendments were passed by Congress, Cole complained and organized the “Republican Protective Union.” The police began arresting him periodically for public drunkenness and disorderly conduct. Yet Cole did not back down.

In the end, his audacity and personality prevailed. On January 1, 1900, the Gridiron Club, a bastion of Charleston white masculinity, held a dawn-of-the-century banquet. “On the menu card was ‘Shrimps in the Charleston way,’ and just after the waiters had placed the dishes and retired, there was an alarm from the outer door...Joe Cole, the real shrimp fiend, ambled in,” noted The News and Courier. “Cole had on his regulation shrimp uniform, and his cries were the same that have been heard thousands of times in the early morn. Cole...kept the guests in a thrill of amusement and delight until he had gone and his voice was heard no more.”  

Joe Cole, the Shrimp Fiend, had become a cultural institution. His thousands of morning calls had transmuted from fiendish clamor to being the sonic signature of the city, and he eventually composed a theme song. The lyrics indicate how he wished to be remembered:

Old Joe Cole—Good old Soul
Porgy in the Summer-time
An e Whiting in the Spring
Eight upon a string,
Don’t be late I’m watin at de gate
Don’t be mad—Heres your shad
Old Joe Cole—Good Old Soul.