Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Imagery of Hokum Blues Songs

I do not aim here at a comprehensive or accurate history. The songs mentioned below are an arbitrary selection generated by my own acquaintance and supplemented by some information readily available online. Apart from the patchiness of my field of data, there are doubtless errors. Very likely not every artist credited was the composer or even the first to record a given song, and a few dates are missing but such details have little relevance to my interest in the texts as poetry and my focus on the investigation of image systems and the nature of popular culture.

Literature is particularly effective in elucidating the irrational, ambivalences, paradoxes, and mysteries. Most prominent in this last category are those of love, death, and the divine. And art properly expresses the broad range of human response. Thus love songs may idealize the beloved or may describe the pains of separation; they may also express pure lust. The hokum genre of blues songs popular in the twenties and thirties which developed out of minstrel and tent shows specializes, like similar calypso and British music hall songs, in witty double entendres and high-spirited enthusiasm for sex with no place for romance or any emotion other than physical desire.

A great deal of popular music, indeed of all poetry, is concerned with love, including its physical side. Both “jazz” and “rock and roll” originally referred to the sexual act. The image systems deployed in hokum songs are specialized, emphasizing the mechanical, bestial, comic aspect of desire, what Frye would have called the low mimetic mode. Though a few songs such as Lucille Bogan’s “Shave ‘em Dry” (1935) are outrightly obscene, most hokum songs depend for their effect on the playful elaboration of transparent metaphors in which the images reinforce the jocular, self-mocking, good-time tone of these party songs.

The assertive physicality of hokum songs is evident in the early classic “It’s Tight Like That” recorded in 1928 by Georgia Tom who formed a group called the Hokum Boys with Tampa Red,. [1] The song, very likely using scraps of earlier songs and covered by many later artists including Louis Armstrong and Leadbelly, opens with a wry apologia for its off-color content.

Listen here folks, gonna sing a little song
Don’t get mad, we don’t mean no harm [2]

A veritable compendium of hokum motifs, the lyrics pass through a range of references, including to roosters, mules, and dogs, while food references include separate uses of bread and jelly. The singers make clever use of the mechanics of the sexual act: “Uncle Bill came home about a half past ten/ Put the key in the hole but he couldn't get in.”

The euphemistic use of “it” appears in many other songs such as Papa Charlie Jackson’s “You Put It In, I‘ll Take It Out” (1934), "If It Don't Fit (Don't Force It)" by Lil Johnson (1937), “Take Your Hand Off It” (1937), “Wet It” by Freddie “Half-Pint” Jaxon (1937), and “She Done Sold It Out” by the Memphis Jug Band (1934). Nonsense words can serve the same purpose as in Blind Blake’s “Diddie Wa Diddie” (1929) or King Solomon Hill’s “Whoopee Blues” (1932).

The bestial aspect of hokum sexuality is emphasized by songs using animal imagery. Perhaps best expressed in the impudent tone of James "Stump" Johnson’s 1928 "The Duck Yas-Yas-Yas" with its insistently physical “put him on the table with his legs stickin' up” (as well as automotive references). Tampa Red in a 1941 recording pleads “Let Me Play With Your Poodle.” A great many songs feature phallic snakes, among them Blind Boy Fuller’s 1935 “I’m A Rattlesnakin’ Daddy” in which Fuller makes extravagant boasts about his ability to “rattle” “all the time.” Memphis Minnie’s 1934 “Stinging Snake Blues” declares “I got a stinging snake, I love sometimes better than I do myself.”

Hokum clearly contrasts with other uses of similar imagery. Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Black Snake Moan,” for example, is entirely different in its mysterious insect imagery and its deep and plaintive tone, a real cri de coeur. The meaning of the black snake is here problematized in a way that does occur in hokum songs in which the coded meaning of the animal is perfectly clear, and the tune light-hearted, recreational music.

Likewise Slim Harpo’s classic “I’m a King Bee” (1957) (covered by the Rolling Stones and many other bands) is too intensely driving and dramatically boastful to sound like hokum, while Robert Hills’s “I Had a Gal for the Last Fifteen Years” (1936) fits the genre with its series of interchangeable images (hen and rooster, groundhog and hole, pork chops “to grease your fat lips”).

The purely appetitive aspect of sexuality is also highlighted by the use of food imagery in which the object of desire is not merely objectified, but actually consumed. Probably the most widespread food image in blues is jelly and jelly roll, associated with female genitals since the early 17th century. [3] When, at the very dawn of jazz, Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton adopted his sobriquet and released the "Original Jelly Roll Blues" as his first recording, he meant to associate his music unmistakably with more fleshly pleasures. [4] This term, however, perhaps because if its very ubiquity, rarely appears in true hokum in which part of the appeal is solving the implied riddle. A song like “Fogyism” by Ida Cox (1928) lacks the ebullience of hokum. In it the point is the plaintive lack of love that leads some to seek supernatural signs instead of learning from the obvious.

When your man comes home evil, tells you you are getting old,
When your man come home evil, tells you you are getting old;
That's a true sign he's got someone else baking his jelly roll.

On the other hand George Carter’s “Hot Jelly Roll Blues” (1929) has the levity of a hokum tune. Here jellyroll represents a woman but also female desire: “it make a deaf woman hear” and even “made grandma marry her youngest grandson.” It expands to indicate vitality itself with the power to make “a little baby talk.” Clifford Gibson’s “She Rolls it Slow” (1931) also participates in the hokum spirit. Though indicating possessiveness by saying “I got a little woman” who “can bake good jellyroll,” he has no difficulty with a rival “She roll it for Uncle Bill, he like to lost his mind/ He want her to keep rolling it : all the time.” Lil Johnson in her “You Never Miss Your Jelly Roll Till Your Jelly Roller’s Gone” (1929) says she has been “whooping” all night long before proclaiming her love-longing.

“Struttin’ with Some Barbecue” by Louis Armstrong had been an instrumental and the music remained the focus even after Don Raye added lyrics in 1941. Nonetheless the definition for “barbecue” in Cab Calloway’s “Hepster’s Dictionary” as “a girl friend, a beauty” was doubtless always part of the song’s meaning. Here the declaration “I’m most wile about ma jelly roll” is imbedded in a lengthy and moving lyrical lament quite distant from the playful hokum songs. (Many of the same lines including the jelly roll reference occur in versions of “St. Louis Blues” by Armstrong, Bessie Smith, and others.) Similarly, in “Jelly Jelly” Earl Hines (1941) the music is paramount. Even in the Louis Armstrong "I Ain't Gonna Give Nobody None o' this Jelly Roll" relies more on music and scatting than on its use of “jelly roll,” here repeated like a mantra.

Sausages are the food of choice for Bessie Smith (“Hot Dog Man” 1927), Butterbeans and Susie (“I Wanna Hot Dog for my Roll” 1927), Bo Carter (“Please Warm My Weiner” 1935), and Lil Johnson (“Sam the Hot Dog Man” 1936). Lil Johnson’s "Press My Button (Ring My Bell)" (1936) includes the lines "Come on baby, let's have some fun / Just put your hot dog in my bun." The implications of bananas are equally obvious in songs by Memphis Minnie (“Banana Man Blues” 1934) and Bo Carter ("Banana In Your Fruit Basket" 1931). (The song also uses images of a tub and washboard, a churn and dasher, cloth and needle, and meat and knife). Further variations are legion from Maggie Jones’ “Anybody Here Want To Try My Cabbage?” (1924) (with Louis Armstong and Fletcher Henderson accompanying) to Lil Johnson’s “Hot Nuts (Get ‘em from the Peanut Man)” (1936) and Bessie Smith’s “I Need a Little Sugar in my Bowl” (1931). Smith sings, “I need a little sugar in my bowl/ I need a little hot dog on my roll . . . I need a little steam-heat on my floor . . . It's dark down there looks like a snake!” Finally, there are no less than thirty-five songs using the term “pigmeat” in Michael Taft’s compendious anthology. [5]

In the sly insinuations of hokum, virtually every profession has a sexual implication. The locus classicus for vocational double entendre is Bo Carter’s “All Round Man” (1931). He begins with the relatively oblique line “I ain’t no butcher . . . but I can do your cutting ‘till the butcher-man come,” then proceeds to more outlandish and direct figures. Though no plumber, he can do “your screwing”; no miller, he can do “grinding,” no milkman, yet can “pull your titties,” no spring-man, but can “bounce your springs, and finally no auger-man, but he can “bore your hole.” Whistling Bob Howe & Frankie Griggs sing, “I’m the ice man, call me when you get hot” [6] in "The Coldest Stuff in Town" (1935). Among Memphis Minnie’s contributions to the topos are “My Butcher Man” (1933) and “Me and my Chauffeur” 1941.

These characteristics of hokum imagery are to a large extent true as well for related genres such as ribald songs from the English music hall such as “My Girl’s Pussy” by Harry Roy and His Bat Club Boys (1931). Doubtless the best-known song of this sort to Americans is Billy Cotton’s “The Marrow Song” (1952) which Tim Curry performed in an immensely entertaining version on Saturday Night Live as “The Zucchini Song” in 1981. The calypso tradition is rich and wide, including such tunes as Calypso Mama’s “Don’t Touch Me Tomato,” The Mighty Panther’s “The Big Bamboo”(1963), and Lord Kitchener’s delightful “Muriel and de Bug” (1953).

It was in calypso in fact that the great double entendre songs of the fifties are to be found. In American popular music the genre faded, though Dave Bartholomew recorded "My Ding-a-Ling" in 1952 (covered by Chuck Berry in 1972). The song featured as well in the repertoire of Doug Clark and the Hot Nuts who maintained a lively career without the aid of radio doing songs such as “Hot Nuts,” “Big Jugs,” and “Baby Let Me Bang Your Box.” Indeed the band plays on fourteen years after its founder’s demise.

In these songs one finds nothing of the psychological depth of other blues, no clue of the actual tangles of relations between the sexes, of profound loss or longing or of guilt or recrimination. Indeed the songs convey little except enthusiastic lust. The image systems reinforce this view of sex which, partial though it be, reflects universal experience. Like flirtation, the playful deployment of a sizable battery of analogies is all in fun. Yet the fact is that euphemism, joking, and displacement occur around topics about which people are uneasy or anxious. Just as Stick McGhee’s “Drinking Wine Spo-De-O-Dee” (1947) [7] celebrates alcohol for an audience surely familiar with the ugly side of drink, Bessie Smith’s “Take Me for a Buggy Ride” (1922) expresses only enthusiasm and delight, mounting even to jouissance. Though not everything, that is surely enough.

Daddy you really knows your stuff : when you take me for a buggy ride
I like you when you got your habits on : you can shift a gear with so much pride
I gets a funny feeling : when you gaze into my eyes
You give me such a thrill : you make my thermometer rise
Daddy you as sweet as you can be : when you take me for a buggy ride.

1. Remarkably, Georgia Tom (also known as Barrelhouse Tom) who wrote dozens of risqué songs, following his conversion in 1933, became Thomas A. Dorsey, the seminal gospel composer who wrote "Take My Hand, Precious Lord" and many other religious standards. Dorsey much later claimed that the title phrase “It’s Tight Like That” had no sexual meaning (see Stephen Calt, Barrelhouse Words. University of Illinois Press, 2009. 247). This is altogether implausible given the nature of the song and other lyric uses of the phrase. (It is quite possible of course that a sexual term might undergo semantic generalization and come to signify approval in general.) “Beedle Um Bum” is also consistently suggestive.

Oh, my beedle um bum
Come and see me if you ain't had none
It makes a dumb man speak, makes a lame man run
You'll miss something if you don't get none
The Hokum Boys, "Beedle Um Bum," 1928.

2. Compare with the opening of Tampa Red’s “Let Me Play With Your Poodle” (1942): “Lookee here baby, listen to my song/ Don't get mad, because it ain't no harm.”

3. Cf. "Give her cold jelly to take up her belly, And once a day swinge her again" John Fletcher, The Begger's Bush (1622). The OED lists use of “jelly” meaning simply “good, worthy, excellent” from the 16th through the 19th centuries.

4. The nickname was adopted by others such as Jelly Thomson and Jelly Williams. For these names and the unlikely proposal of an African origin for the term see David Dalby, “The African Element in American English” in Rappin’ and Stylin’ Out: Communication in Urban Black America (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1972).

5. See Michael Taft Blues Lyric Poetry: An Anthology and Blues Lyric Poetry: A Concordance (New York: Garland Publishing, 1983). Though these books are absurdly expensive, anyone may use the site http://www.dylan61.se/michael%20taft,%20blues%20anthology.txt.WebConcordance/framconc.htm.

6. At a time when many deliveries were made to the home, the daytime visits of tradesmen became a subject for gossip and for liaisons.

7. The nonsense syllables of the title replaced the original version’s “goddamn” and motherfucker.”

Afternote I A Case of Early White Hokum

While hokum surfaces in early African-American blues music most frequently, there was some significant cultural crossover . When the white Chattanooga-based "brother duet" The Allen Brothers recorded a hit version of "Salty Dog Blues" refashioned as "Bow Wow Blues" in 1927 in which lovers are compared to cars in the manner of Bessie Smith he's like an old worn out Ford Put It Right Here (or Keep It Out There” (1928)
In fact, the Allen Brothers were so adept at performing white blues that in 1927, Columbia mistakenly released their "Laughin' and Cryin' Blues" in the "race" series instead of the "old-time" series. (Not seeing the humor in it, the Allens sued and promptly moved to the Victor label.) [2]

Afternote II Additional Titles

Below are listed other songs using similar imagery yet not mentioned above. More exhaustive and authoritative lists are available in books and online. This is meant merely for the convenience of those who might like to browse a few more titles.

Archia, Tom & His All Stars. “Fishin‘ Pole” (1947)
Carter, Bo. “Don't Mash My Digger So Deep” (1936)
Carter, Bo. "Let Me Roll Your Lemon" (1935)
Carter, Bo. "My Pencil Won't Write No More" (1931)
Carter, Bo. “Pin In Your Cushion" (1931)
Carter, Bo. “Your Biscuits are Big Enough for Me” (1936)
Chatman, Bo. “My Baby” (1940)
Churchill, Savanah, written by Irene Higginbotham. “Fat Meat is Good Meat” (1942)
Cox, Ida. “Southern Woman's Blues” (1925)
The Dominoes. "Sixty Minute Man" (1951)
The "5" Royales. "Laundromat Blues" (1953)
The Four Clefs. “I Like Pie, I Like Cake” (1941).
Harris, Wynonie. "I Like My Baby's Pudding” (1950)
Harris, Wynonie. "Keep On Churnin’” (1952)
The Hokum Boys. "I Had to Give Up Gym" (1929)
Jackson, Bull Moose. “Big 10-Inch Record” (1952)
Jackson, Jim. "Hesitation Blues" (1930)
Johnson, Edith North. “Honeydripper Blues” (1929)
Johnson, Lil. "Meat Balls" (1937)
McTell, Blind Willie. “Georgia Rag” (1931)
McTell, Blind Willie. "Let Me Play with Your Yo-Yo" (1933)
Memphis Minnie. “Bumble Bee” (1930)
Moore, Kid Prince. “Honey Dripping Papa” (1936)
Rhodes, Todd & Connie Allen. "Rocket 69" (1951)
The Sultans. "Lemon Squeezing Daddy" (1951)
Waller, Fats and Ed Kirkeby. “All That Meat and No Potatoes”(1941)
Washington, Dinah. “Big Long Slidin' Thing” (1954)
Williams, Joe. “Little Leg Woman” (1935)
Williamson, Sonny Boy. “Honey Bee Blues” (1938)
Wilson, Leola B. “Back Biting Bee Blues” (1926)

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