The Signifying Monkey: Two Versions of a Toast
"THE TOAST," writes Roger D. Abrahams, who was an early collector & commentator on such forms of African-American oral poetry, "is a narrative poem that is recited, often in a theatrical manner. … Toasts are not sung, and it is perhaps the lack of reliance on the structure of a tune that allows their freedom of form. But toasts do have a structure. Like so many other forms of oral narrative, they are organized by conventions, ones that Albert Lord would have considered 'epic.' … The subject treated is freedom of the body through superhuman feats and of the spirit through acts that are free of restrictive social mores (or in direct violation of them), especially in respect of crime and violence. The heroes of most of these stories are hard men, and very clever men (or animals) who have the amorality of the trickster." (R.D.A., Deep Down in the Jungle, 1963)
"Signifying Monkey" is a very well-known toast and exists in many closely related versions. Abrahams defines "signify": "To imply, goad, beg, boast by indirect verbal or gestural means. A language of implication." Writes Bruce Jackson, who collected these versions: "'Signifying Monkey' is about a jungle trickster who by clever word play – signifying – sends his arch foe, Lion, off to be stomped and mangled by the stately Elephant. The Monkey uses wile and cleverness to accomplish what he cannot accomplish with brawn; his mode is a verbal judo, for he uses his enemy's own excessive ego against him, and he does it all with words. In most of the poems he falls out of his tree while gloating and jumping up and down, giving Lion a chance to trap him. He usually tricks Lion into stepping back so he can 'fight like a natural man,' whereupon he jumps back into his tree and resumes his insults. He usually 'wins,' but his gains are not unmixed, for although he gets someone else to trample his enemy he still must stay off the ground if he wants to stay alive." (Notes to Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me, Rounder Records CD, 1998)
The reciters here, presented anonymously, are referred to as "Tom" and "Eugene," the former from a prison farm in Texas, the latter from the Connolly Migrant Camp in Barker, New York.