Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
is available for $16.00 from FootHills Publishing, P.O. Box 68, Kanona NY 14856 or see www.foothillspublishing.com.

Tourist Snapshots is available for $8.95 from Randy Fingland, CC Marimbo, P.O. Box 933, Berkeley CA 94701 or see www.ccmarimbo.com.

Dada Poetry: An Introduction was published by Nirala Publications. It may be ordered on Amazon.com for $25 plus shipping. American buyers may order a copy from me for $23 including shipping.

The other books are also available from the author William Seaton. Write seaton@frontiernet.net.


A categorized index of all work that has appeared on this site is available by looking under the current month in the Blog Archive section and selecting Index.

This site is listed in BlogCatalog and
Literature Blogs
Literature blog






Saturday, December 1, 2012

“Spoonful” and the Accretion of Meaning



The texts of the songs follow the essay.


While a rolling stone may indeed gather no moss, a poetic image can accumulate meaning with repeated usage in a way that adds semantic territory while it influences the interpretation of past poems. Both oral and written literary forms depend for their density of coded meaning on such accretion of meaning over time as identical or related images are repeatedly reused by one artist after another.

“Spoonful” is a central image in the lyric world of the blues. “All I Want Is A Spoonful” by Papa Charlie Jackson was recorded in 1925, and “Spoonful Blues” in 1929 by Charley Patton, placing it in the deepest Delta tradition; Mississippi John Hurt sang used the phrase in “Coffee Blues”; in 1960 Howlin’ Wolf sang Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful” which then spread toward rock and roll in myriad versions, including those by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, the Cream, and the Grateful Dead, not to mention the group that called itself the Lovin’ Spoonful. Originally signifying simply “a small amount,” the term comes in time to suggest explosive sexuality, high quality, and a junkie’s fix.

In Jackson’s song the singer asks his love object for just a bit of loving, a spoonful. It is not necessary to “call or write,” her cooking is superfluous, love is his goal. He focuses on that moment of love-making, though it be snatched in passing: “Throw it out the window, I'll catch it ‘fore it falls.” The woman’s identity is secondary; in fact, “There ain’t no one woman got it all.” Through the entire lyric, it is the woman who gives the “spoonful,” that minimal dose of most satisfying love; the man can only plead. Here the phrase clearly emphasizes how little the persona is asking of her, and, accordingly, how churlish would be her refusal. The lady’s position, if Lucy Mae is an example, is equally undiscriminating: she will accept the singer or any handy “monkey man.” [1]

For “spoonful” the locus classicus must be Charlie Patton’s 1929 recording. In this eloquent and fragmented performance, the speaker again asks his beloved for a spoonful, saying that it is “all I want in this creation.” Yet here her response mirrors his need. Women themselves are “goin’ crazy, every day in their life,” looking for that spoonful. And the ante has increased so that disorder (like that of the song itself), violence, legal retribution, even death may follow the quest. Spoken interjections like “wanna fight!” “would you slap me? Yes I will!” and “I’d kill him” disrupt the melody. The spoonful has caused men to do life in prison. The meaning, originally “a little bit,” has become charged with a powerful sexual implication that threatens at every moment to explode. The original common ground of vehicle and tenor – small quantity – has vanished in irony. Now it is all the greater marvel that a mere spoonful of sexual desire could be so powerful.

When Mississippi John Hurt picked up the phrase in his “Coffee Blues,” he used the Maxwell House advertising phrase “good to the last drop” which had been introduced in 1917. [2] In Hurt’s song, this simply signifies the high and reliable quality of the coffee or loving, equally relished at the outset and the conclusion of the encounter. With his sweet faux naïf pose, Hurt no sooner introduces the advertising slogan than he identifies it with his beloved who would prepare coffee for him. Hurt’s charming lyrics, delivered with the easy-going lilt of his simple melodic lines, only touch on the disruptive potential of his theme. A preacher may lay his Bible down when tempted by a spoonful. When the persona’s beloved leaves for unknown reasons, he can only follow after and, speaking in a proper and polite manner (“please, ma'am”) ask like a tramp at the door for “just” a lovin’ spoonful. He concludes with praise of love, figured as a taste of Maxwell House coffee.

Working with this rich bed of earlier associations, Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful” emphasizes the destructive potential of that little bit of love that constitutes the spoonful. “One little spoon” of “your precious love” is “good enough,” yet people “lie, “cry,” “die,” and “fight” about it. The repetitions of this simple ironic motif – so much can emerge from so little – at once marvel at human sexuality and fully participate within it. When asked, Dixon himself commented, “The idea of Spoonful was that it doesn't take a large quantity of anything to be good.”

From the time of the Folk Revival in the late 50s and the rock version of hip in the late 60s, the popularity of blues standards spread to white audiences. According to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame “Spoonful” is one of the “500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.”

New uses of the spoonful image arose among musicians and songwriters favoring the counter-cultural and the taboo. The old association with semen gained strength (Perhaps my own place in the structure of society is implied by the fact that I find this meaning valid, though secondary or tertiary, even in the old songs.) For the British critic Paul Oliver, the image refers to “sexual intercourse in a standing position.” [4] The use of spoonful to refer to a junkie’s spoon for cooking up his stuff is a natural extension of meaning for those whose greatest passion was not sexual. Though to Willie Dixon “People who think Spoonful was about heroin are mostly people with heroin ideas,” the image works. Dope and sex both offer the potential for bliss and for ruin. Life is full of disturbance, often over the smallest of things.

As with other powerful images, this explication could proceed, in the most outstanding cases, almost without limit, until an entire vision of reality is suggested. The songs here cited indicate some elements of the semantic field of “spoonful.” The charm of all metaphors is their open-endedness. As any two things have some points in common and others in which they differ, any combination of objects will form a metaphor, creating a fabulous multiplication of potential for meaning. The fact that each of the songs in the “spoonful” lineage moved and excited listeners indicates that each found precision in the underdetermined image that resonated with lived experience and aesthetic sense in a way that ordinary discourse does not attempt to do.


1. A monkey man in Ida Cox’ song is a country boy, interchangeable with many others, who could never make it in Chicago. Peg Leg Powell sings in a different song “When God made me he didn't make no monkey man.” On the other hand the Rolling Stones proclaim “Well I am just a monkey man/ I’m glad you are a monkey, monkey woman too, babe.”

2. I find no prior use of that phrase (though to “milk to the last drop,” a fine down-home image with a quite different meaning, did exist).

3. In I am the Blues: the Willie Dixon Story, 148.

4. Screening the Blues, 198-9.



All I Want Is a Spoonful (Papa Charlie Jackson)

I told you once, this makes twice
That's last dime, don't you call or write
'Cause all I want, honey babe, is just a spoonful
Spoonful

You can brown your gravy, fry your steak
Sweet mama, don't make no mistake
'Cause all I want, honey babe, is just a spoonful
Spoonful

Just as sure as the winter follows the fall
There ain't no one woman got it all
'Cause all I want, honey babe, is just a spoonful
Spoonful

Lucy Mae's a woman that you can't understand
Well she's lookin' for you or a monkey man
'Cause all I want, honey babe, is just a spoonful
Spoonful

Now, cool kind mama, says you needn't to stall
Throw it out the window, I'll catch it 'fore it falls
'Cause all I want, sweet mama, is just a spoonful
Spoonful

I got the blues so bad, I couldn't sleep last night
My cool kind mama want to fuss and fight
'Cause all I want, sweet mama, is just a spoonful
Spoonful

Now I'm so glad that the dog can't talk
If you [can, keep him/it/'er staked, save a morning walk]
'Cause all I want, sweet mama, is just a spoonful
Spoonful

Now if you don't believe that I can run mighty fast
Ask that man that run me last
'Cause all I want, honey babe, is just a spoonful
Spoonful


A Spoonful (Charley Patton )

(Spoken: I'm about to go to jail about this spoonful)

In all a spoon', 'bout that spoon'
The women goin' crazy, every day in their life 'bout
A...

It's all I want, in this creation is a...
I go home (spoken: wanna fight! ) 'bout a...

Doctor's dyin' (way in Hot Springs! ) just 'bout a...
These women goin' crazy every day in their life 'bout
A...

Would you kill a man dead? (spoken: yes, I will! ) just
'Bout a...
Oh babe, I'm a fool about my...

(Spoken: Don't take me long! ) to get my...
Hey baby, you know I need my...

It's mens on Parchman (done lifetime) just 'bout a...
Hey baby, (spoken: you know I ain't long) 'bout my...

It's all I want (spoken: honey, in this creation) is
A...

I go to bed, get up and wanna fight 'bout a...
(Spoken: Look-y here, baby, would you slap me? Yes I
Will! ) just 'bout a...
Hey baby, (spoken: you know I'm a fool a-) 'bout my...

Would you kill a man? (spoken: Yes I would, you know
I'd kill him) just 'bout a...
Most every man (spoken: that you see is) fool 'bout
His...

(Spoken: You know baby, I need) that ol'...
Hey baby, (spoken: I wanna hit the judge 'bout a) 'bout
A...

(Spoken: Baby, you gonna quit me? Yeah honey! ) just
'Bout a...
It's all I want, baby, this creation is a...

(Spoken: look-y here, baby, I'm leavin' town! ) just
'Bout a...
Hey baby, (spoken: you know I need) that ol'...

(Spoken: Don't make me mad, baby! ) 'cause I want my...
Hey baby, I'm a fool 'bout that...

(Spoken: Look-y here, honey! ) I need that...
Most every man leaves without a...

Sundays' mean (spoken: I know they are) 'bout a...
Hey baby, (spoken: I'm sneakin' around here) and ain't
Got me no...
Oh, that spoon', hey baby, you know I need my


Coffee Blues (Mississipi John Hurt)

This is the 'Coffee Blues', I likes a certain brand Maxwell's House, it's good till the last drop Just like it says on the can, I used to have a girl Cookin' a good Maxwell House, she moved away Some said to Memphis and some said to Leland
But I found her, I wanted her to cook me Some good Maxwell's House, you understand? If I can get me just a spoonful of Maxwell's House Do me much good as two or three cups this other coffee
I've got to go to Memphis,
bring her back to Leland
I wanna see my baby
'bout a lovin' spoonful,
my lovin' spoonful
Well, I'm just got to have my lovin', I found her
Good mornin', baby,
how you do this mornin'?
Well, please, ma'am,
just a lovin' spoon,
just a lovin' spoonful
I declare, I got to have my lovin' spoonful
My baby packed her suitcase and she went away
I couldn't let her stay for my lovin',
my lovin' spoonful
Well, I'm just got to have my lovin'
Good mornin', baby, how you do this mornin'?
Well, please, ma'am, just a lovin' spoon,
just a lovin' spoonful I declare,
I got to have my lovin' spoonful
Well, the preacher in the pulpit,
jumpin' up and down
He laid his Bible down for his lovin'
in't Maxwell House all right?




Spoonful (Willie Dixon, sung also by Howlin’ Wolf and others)

It could be a spoonful of coffee
It could be a spoonful a-tea
But one little spoon
Of your precious love
Is good enough for me

Men lie about that spoonful
Some cry about that spoonful
Some die about that spoonful
Ev'rybody fight about a spoonful

That spoon, that spoon
That spoonful

It could be a spoonful a-water
To save you from the desert sand
But one spoon of lead
From my forty-five
Will save you from another man

Men lie-ii about that spoonful
Some cry-ii about that spoonful
Some die-ii about that spoonful
Ev'rybody fight about a spoonful

That spoon, that spoon
That spoonful
That spoon, that spoon
That spoonful

It could be a spoonful a-sugar
It could be a spoonful a-tea
But one little spoon
Of your precious love
Is good enough for me-ee

Men lie-ii about that spoonful
Some cry-ii about that spoonful
Some die-ii about that spoonful
Ev'rybody fight about a spoonful

That spoon, that spoon
That spoonful
A-that spoon, that spoon
That spoonful

That spoon, that spoon
That spoonful
That spoon, that spoon
That spoonful.

1 comment: