American Life Within Living Memory

It's worth reminding ourselves, in a country where so many are trying to figure out the best way to keep excess fat off our bodies, how recently abject poverty was widespread here

We’ve been talking a lot about income inequality, both in America and between the developed and developing world, of late.  But it’s worth reminding ourselves, in a country where so many are trying to figure out the best way to keep excess fat off our bodies, how recently abject poverty was widespread here.    Norman Geras brought this to mind by his posting of the lyrics of “Take an Old Cold ‘Tater (And Wait)”, the debut single from Little Jimmy Dickens.

When I was a little boy around the table at home
I remember very well when company would come
I would have to be right still until the whole crowd ate
My Mama always said to me ‘Jim take a tater and wait.’

Now ‘taters never did taste good with chicken on the plate
But I had to eat ’em just the same
That is why I look so bad and have these puny ways
Because I always had to take an old cold ‘tater and wait.

And then the preachers they would come to stay a while with us
I would have to slip around and raise a little fuss
In fear that I would spill the beans or break the china plate
My Mama always said to me, ‘Jim, take a ‘tater and wait.’

Repeat chorus

Well, I thought that I’d starve to death before my time would come
All that chicken they would eat and just leave me the bun
The feet and neck were all that’s left upon the china plate
It makes you pretty darn weak to take an old cold ‘tater and wait.

Repeat chorus

The song hit #7 on the country charts in 1949.  Dickens, still a regular at the Grand Old Opry, was born December 20, 1920 in Bold, West Virginia and was fortunate enough to attend West Virginia University (although he dropped out to pursue his Hall of Fame musical career).  So, it’s likely that many of Dickens’ playmates just took the old, cold ‘tater and ate it, without the prospect of some chicken.

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, Popular Culture, , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Rebecca Burlingame says:

    While it is not this extreme, there is a measure of poverty coming back which has not even been discussed yet. Ten years ago, a person who was down on their luck could rent a room in most cities for $250 a month and scrounge together enough hours at a low wage job to pay that. Now, the average (because of foreclosures and government propping up the middle class) is about $500 a month in most cities for a room. While the minimum wage has gone up, it is even more difficult for the employees in such a situation to convince an employer to give them enough hours of work to pay for $500 rent.

  2. Neil Hudelson says:

    I think its fair to point out that looking for ways to keep the excess fat off our bodies doesn’t indicate that those in poverty are objectively better off than those in the 1920s when Jimmy Dickens was born. Comparing the nutrition I’ve seen while working in the high-poverty areas in South Carolina to the anecdotes my grandfather would tell me about meals during the depression–well its about the same (serving sizes, types of food, preparation, etcetera). The difference is my grandfather grew up during a time when low-income jobs were much more labor-intensive and obesity wasn’t as big of a problem. (The poor nutrition still gave us a lot of the same problems, but you just couldn’t see it in the girth of our bodies.)