Generally Eclectic Review

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Location: Fredonia, New York, United States

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Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Debra DeSalvo "The Language of the Blues"

One of the many fascinating aspects of the music we call "the blues" is that the lyrics of the songs are often as attention-grabbing as the music itself. Whether one considers the blues to be an artistic self-expression, a means of catharsis, or merely a form of entertainment (and all three viewpoints can be convincingly argued), the songs tell us quite a bit about the worldview and the lives of the performers and/or their audiences.
Unfortunately, many of these lyrics have been subject to misinterpretations by listeners mystified by the language used in these songs. Goodness knows, for example, how many people have said to me that "mojo" is a euphemism for the male organ, an explanation which seems to satisfy them more than the actual meaning does.
It is for such listeners that Debra DeSalvo's new book, The Language of the Blues, should prove especially valuable. Many long-time blues fans will know much of this material already. Many of us will carp about inaccuracies or speculations which clash with our own concepts of particular terms. (Indeed, I intend to do just that below.) But this book-length glossary (a slim 173 pages, but with very small print) will open a whole new world for newer fans while teaching us wizened old blues veterans a few things as well.
DeSalvo has arranged the entries alphabetically in dictionary fashion, rather than in a cohesive narrative. Thus, if you want to know what "stones in my passway" means, you can simply look up this particular phrase. But the book is written in such a lively, anecdotal style that a person can profitably read it cover-to-cover. The only problem with the latter approach is that there is, of necessity, some duplication, so that you will read much of the same information under "foot track magic," "goofer dust", and "stones in my passway."
These particular terms are associated (as is the aforementioned "mojo") with a sizeable body of African-American folk superstitition known as "hoodoo." This subject has been extensively covered in Cat Yronwode's must-see website, (which DeSalvo is quick to acknowledge). It is good, however, to have it in easily accessible form alongside the non-hoodoo terms. Thankfully, DeSalvo is careful to document her sources throughout. Many of the entries are dependent on scholarly works on African and African-American language and folklore, books which the average blues fan is not likely to be aware of. DeSalvo has also done considerable original research, interviewing a number of primary sources, i.e., blues performers who themselves use these terms in their songs.
Some of the most fascinating material gleaned from scholarly sources concerns the West African (Wolof, Bantu, Manding, etc.) linguistic origins of terms common to blues and popular parlance ('dig", "hepcat", "juke", even "fuzz" for "police", among many others). Many Southern black customs are likewise revealed to be survivals of centuries-old African folkways, brought to these shores by slaves and adapted to their new environment. She also includes an entry (not quite a definition, but grounds for a potential definition) for the concept of "blues" itself. She suggests rather convincingly that the use of the word may be related to an old term for "drunk".
There are, I hasten to point out, a number of entries which disagree with my personal conceptions of particular terms. In most all these cases, I've held on to my definitions/conceptions for so long, I can no longer document my source of information. For example, I was told many, many years ago that the "C.C." of "C. C. Rider" stood for a Country Circuit preacher who went from one isolated area to another on horseback, ministering to small groups of people who didn't have access to a preacher on a regular basis. Some of these preachers were known to be, shall we say, less than holy. DeSalvo suggests that the "C.C." might stand for "Cavalry Corporal (actually, a typo makes this "Calvary"). I understood "monkey man" to refer to someone who will do whatever his lover asks him to do, no matter how degrading he personally finds it. (Similarly for "monkey woman"). I am familiar with Robert Lockwood's explanation of "dust my broom" meaning "leaving," but years ago I heard it explained as "making a clean sweep of things". Certainly, the two meanings are hardly incompatible. Way back in the 1960's, I heard John Hurt's "lovin' spoonful" explained as oral sex. It's entirely possible my long-forgotten source was incorrect.
Sex is a common root for many of the terms discussed here. I find it somewhat difficult to reconcile "hambone" as "penis" with the thigh-slapping style of body percussion also known as "hambone" - two uses of the same word, no doubt. I find DeSalvo's discussion of "motherf***er" (my self-censorship; DeSalvo spells out words such as this, something one must do in a book of this sort) interesting in that it makes no reference whatsoever to sex with a female parent. She doesn't bother to include some of the more blatant double entendres of the Bo Carter variety (such as "Banana In Your Fruit Basket" or "My Pencil Won't Write No More"), no doubt assuming them to be so obvious they don't require explanation.
There are a few errors of fact. Joel Sweeney was not the leader of the Virginia Minstrels, though he was a direct influence on that ensemble's banjo player, Billy Whitlock. I also question the assertion that Duke Ellington's was the first swing band to trade in a banjo for a rhythm guitar. I suppose it may depend on how one defines "swing," but certainly Eddie Lang appeared on the scene while Ellington was still using banjo. She has W. C. Handy in Tutwiler, MS in 1895. True, the date has long been is in dispute, but 1903 has been more commonly given. Memory tells me JoAnn Kelly preceded Bonnie Raitt and Ellen McIlwaine as a notable woman bottleneck guitarist, but I won't state that Kelly was the first. (Define "notable", right?) In one of the few internal contradictions, DeSalvo quotes H. C. Speirs as saying a sharecropper might earn a quarter a day, then repeats that assertion once or twice more. However, in her discussion of sharecropping, she correctly points out that sharecroppers did not indeed earn any wage per se, and more often than not wound up in debt at the end of a season. (To illustrate why, she includes a Sharecrop Contract from 1882.) Another glaring mistake, probably the result of a typo, concerns Henry Stuckey - was he in World War I or II?
There are a number of terms which cry out for explanation, but are not included here. With any luck, this book will sell enough to merit a second edition. Then, perhaps, we will get explanations for "mamlish" (a once-common word which seems to have eluded researchers for years), "fore day creep" (perhaps self-explanatory?), "shave 'em dry" (I've seen it defined as having one's throat slit, but that doesn't seem right to me somehow), "pigmeat" (or does it simply refer to the meat of a pig?), "stovepipe" (that one has indeed been settled, but it belongs here anyway), "candy man" (referenced in relation to "salty dog", but not defined; too obvious?), and "windin' boy" (or "winin' boy", referenced in relation to "stavin' chain"). But for every omission, there are any number of interesting inclusions, such as a look at how the policy game (numbers racket) operated. DeSalvo also selects sample songs for most of her entries, so that you may hear them used in context. Now, if only someone would issue a companion CD!
Despite its imperfections, this is a very worthwhile and useful addition to the blues bookshelf, not just as an "anecdotal dictionary" (DeSalvo's term), but as an intriguing look at the world from which the blues was created.