Sunday, May 1, 2016
The Paraklausithyron Blues
Paraklausithyron, a “lament by the door,” is a topos in classical Greek and Latin poetry. Though a great deal of variation is apparent even in ancient examples, the typical early paraklausithyron in Asclepiades, Callimachus, Tibullus, and Horace was the complaint of a would-be lover, shut out from his beloved, often garlanded and drunk from a komos earlier in the evening.  Shorn of these specific cultural details, the motif of the exclusus amator is universal. Most love poetry is speaks of love-longing, not of fulfilled desire. The literal dramatic situation of a man lingering outside the door of his love-object occurs in fact, and the frustrated wish to enter vividly expresses is a wish for emotional or intimate access. The convention appears in medieval Occitan poetry and modern American popular song. A particularly rich vein of paraklausithroi emerges from the distinctly American love poetry of the blues.
An analysis of the use of the paraklausithyron in blues lyrics has two significant implications. First, the wide distribution of the trope demonstrates the fact that many literary conventions from genre to specific devices such as rhetorical figures or images have arisen world-wide, even when no avenue of influence is plausible. People have hit upon the same verbal technologies to express the same human feelings.
Secondly, like all literary conventions, the paraklausithyron is far from static. It is in fact highly dynamic, transforming instantly into a panoply of possibilities. Indeed, in the earliest recorded use of the word , it is used to challenge Greek gender assumptions by asking why a female lover might not demonstrate “the height of a passionate affection” with such a song no less than a man. Plutarch’s question might be followed by another asking why the voice might not come from within, and a third suggesting that the voice might be either accepting or rejecting the other’s love. With this simple schema, three bipolar oppositions generate eight possibilities  based on the male/female, inside/outside, acceptance/rejection dualities.
As a matter of fact, virtually all of the theoretical possibilities in this array are found in early blues.  The locus classicus must be Perry Bradford’s 1928 “Keep A Knockin’ an You Can’t Get In” though enough earlier analogues exist to label the song traditional . In this most popular group of versions the speaker is within, refusing access to the knocker. In several early versions including the popular recording by Louis Jordan (1939), the speaker refuses the caller admission due to being occupied with another lover. In Little Richard’s very popular 1957 cover, he therefore suggests “come back tomorrow night and try again.”
This is hardly the only form the paraklausithyron assumes in the blues. The male speaker inside may, as in the instances cited above, reject the woman as he does also in Marshall Owens “Try Me One More Time” (1932), Kokomo Arnold’s “Busy Bootin’” (1935) or “Your Ways and Actions” (1938) or Big Bill Broonzy’s “Skoodle Do Do” (1930). On the other hand, he may receive the knocker with open arms as in Smoky Harrison’s “Iggly Oggly” (1929) or Sammy Hill’s “Needin’ My Woman Blues” (1929).
The persona inside is female and may reject the man outside as in Anna Bell’s “Every Woman Blues” (1928). A woman in the same position may also welcome him as in Ethel Waters’ “Memphis Man” (1923) or Huddie Ledbetter’s “My Friend Blind Lemon” (1935). A woman outside is rejected in Lil Green’s “I’m Wasting My Time on You” (1942).
Many other variations may arise from the same convention. In Lonnie Clark’s “Broke Down Engine” (1929) the speaker complains in spite of being with his lover as his “yellow woman” knocks, causing him to exhort his companion to greater efforts on his behalf. In Blind Willy McTell’s 1931 version of the same song the speaker is knocking and this is merely one of a series of details indicating his depression. In “Hurry and Bring It Back Home” by Robert Hicks (Barbecue Bob) 1928 the knock at the door brings him the news of his lover’s departure. The list of variations is limited only by how tightly one defines the convention.
The blues use the same resources as other poetry and often resorts to similar conventions. The laments of a frustrated lover, excluded by his beloved have resounded around the globe and through the centuries. Just as language depends on a tension between what one has heard said by others and the unique content of every specific statement, poetry likewise is always a product of earlier poetry, though every utterance is new. The paraklausithyron was effectively employed by many artists who would have found nothing but mumbo-jumbo in the term just as Classicists would be unfamiliar with portions of the rural Southern vocabulary. Yet the early blues singers deployed the resources of language with a subtlety and expressive power equaling that of any Roman elegist, Provençal troubadour, or Elizabethan sonneteer.
1. See Asclepiades GP 11 HE = AP 564, Callimachus 64, Ovid Amores 1.6, Catallus 67, Horace Odes 3.10 and 3.26, Tibullus 1.2, Propertius 1.16, Ovid Amores 1.6.
2. Plutarch, Amatorius 8.
3. This is, of course, two to the third power.
4. For the most part I used again the excellent concordance of pre-war blues lyrics posted by Michael Taft at http://www.dylan61.se/michael%20taft,%20blues%20anthology.txt.WebConcordance/framconc.htm.
5. This song, recorded by James “Boodle It” Wiggins enjoyed considerable popularity though other versions, including one by Tampa Red’s Hokum Jug Band were recorded at about the same time. Earlier versions existed such as Miller and Lile’s “You Can’t Come in” (1921), Sylvester Weaver’s “I’m Busy and You Can’t Come In” (1924) and Irene Gibbons “You Can’t Come In” (1924). Stuart Berg Flexner cites a 1912 “Bawdyhouse Blues“ with the words “I hear you knockin', but you can't come in/ I got an all-night trick again.” (Listening To America, New York: Simon and Shuster: 1982, p. 454). Including the later variant titled “I Hear You Knockin’” attributed to Bartholomew and King, the song was recorded by many artists including Mississippi John Hurt, Louis Jordan, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Buddy Holly, and The Everly Brothers.