Did you ever listen to a blues singer on a recording — from the Twenties onwards — and have only a dim idea of exactly what the singer was talking about? The general themes of the blues: disaster, poverty, oppression, heartbreak, dance, and sexuality, are discernable, but the language often gets in the way of clarity.
Stephen Calt’s new book: BARRELHOUSE WORDS – A BLUES DIALECT DICTIONARY (University of Illinois Press) — will be invaluable, and it’s often eye-opening fun.
Like all dictionaries, it’s not the sort of book one sits down with at “act the fool” and reads steadily until reaching “your time now, be mine after awhile.” Anyway, we know the plot — and it usually takes only twelve bars to develop. No, the fun is in searching out those expressions we’ve heard on record or in performance and having our suspicions (or intuitions) confirmed or denied.
Because the blues singers often took the oldest subjects — money, love, and sex — as the structure of their songs, part of the amusement is in finding just how many of the words we thought were vaguely erotic synonyms are just that: “horn,” “pork-grinding business,” for the penis, “toodleum,” “cookie,” and “cake” for vagina.
But there are other surprises: “tight like that,” according to Calt’s research, is a term of enthusiastic praise that has nothing to do with erotic dimensions and pleaure. “Honky,” we learn, a term of Black scorn for Whites, may have originated with White men in automobiles honking their horns in Black neighborhoods in search of prostitutes, with the lyrics to Kokomo Arnold’s 1935 “Busy Bootin'” as possible evidence: “I met your mama in the alley way / She’s catching honkies night and day.” I didn’t know that “nation sack” was short for “donation sack,” which the proprietor of a roadhouse or juke joint would wear around the neck or waist to collect money for food and drinks. Or that a “partnership man” was a man shared by two women.
Another pleaure is in noting how many blues couplets and conceits are a shared common language: so the lines I first heard on an Ida Cox record were also recorded by other singers. Calt is far more scholarly than his chosen material might lead one to believe: he began the book nearly forty years ago — the result of his curiosity about the music he loves and his love of language. Although the project was put aside because he could not interest a publisher, Calt interviewed a number of seminal blues musicians about phrases they used in their songs and has done a good deal of research into vernacular English and regionalisms. The book also contains his fine introductory essay about the language of the blues, and the double standard based on race: Black performers could be as licentious as they liked in performance and in the recording studio, but Whites could not.
The book is valuable in itself — and enjoyable, as few dictionaries are — but it will also send readers back to the recordings, and I imagine a new internet conversation springing up, of serious-minded blues lovers who try to season their emails with as many word found in Calt as they can.
It’s certainly tight like that!