Saturday, October 30, 2010

Barrelhouse Words Illuminates The Language of the Blues

Word has been circulated that blues scholar Stephen Calt recently passed away. Calt, a controversial figure in the blues world, first came to notice from liner notes he drafted for Yazoo Records starting in the sixties, and then articles in blues and other publications. He co-authored a biography of Charlie Patton and authored one of Skip James, which were important contributions, but also marked by jabs at other blues scholars and artists themselves. His works could be frustrating in the appreciation he would provide of the artist while going into character defects at length. Larry Hoffman, (himself a blues scholar as well as a contemporary classical composer who incorporates blues into his compositions), played an extended time with James, and said he found little of the Skip James he knew as a person in Calt’s biography. These reservations noted, these works still are significant contributions to the blues literature. Last year, Barrelhouse Words, was published, and as suggested below,  is a significant reference work for blues scholars.

Barrelhouse Words: A Blues Dialect Dictionary
Stephen Calt
University of Illinois Press
2009, 320 pages

Several years ago, Debra DeSalvo's "The Language of the Blues: From Alcorub to Zuzu," attempted to present a lexicon on blues terminology, that a flawed effort. It was described as an anecdotal dictionary of the blues, but it was far from authoritative or comprehensive. It focused on some 150 words and phrases emphasizing the African roots of the blues, but usually to the exclusion of other possible meanings. She focused on terms related to sex and hoodoo, but her book had very very little on traveling which is also a significant theme of the blues. She included interviews of significant blues artists, but such material rarely contributed to elucidating the meaning of the terms and phrases.

Stephen Calt has contributed a more scholarly effort with "Barrelhouse Words." In contrast to the 150 odd phrases of the earlier volume, Calt has over 1200 entries, although some words or phrases are represented by multiple entries. Calt as a blues writer and scholar often has been acerbic in his writing and occasionally some of his commentary here has tinges of that, but its more to be emphatic about points. He has a selected bibliography of dictionary sources which include various volumes dealing with colloquial terms, regional and ethnic language ranging from John Russell Bartlett’s “A Dictionary of Americanisms” that was published in 1877 and the first American Dictionary devoted to colloquial terms; Dan Burley’s Original Handbook of Harlem Jive, published in 1944 was an elaboration of an earlier pamphlet by Cab Calloway; Clarence Major’s “Dictionary of African-American Slang” and “Juba to Jive,” various volumes of the Harvard University Press’ “Dictionary of American Regional English;” “The Oxford English Dictionary,” and Mitford Mathews’ “A Dictionary of Americanisms on Historical Principles,” published in 1951 and of who Calt describes as the leading American language scholar of his era. DeSalvo’s book is dismissed in his bibliography as “An ill-informed work containing chronically faulty definitions and etymologies.

The entries are taken from Race Recordings (that is recordings produced for sale to Blacks) from between 1923 and 1949. In addition to his scholarly sources, he also employed information culled from interviews of blues artists between 1964 and 1971 including Ted Bogan, Sam Chatmon, Gary Davis, Son House, Skip James, Pete Franklin and Bessie Jones. Unlike DeSalvo’s book, there are no sidebars on these perfromers, but rather the interviews are cited as supporting the meaning of the phrase Calt provides.

Each entry is followed by a couplet from a recording after which the meaning is provided with sources as appropriate and occasional other couplets to further illustrate the meaning. It would be appropriate to present a few examples of Calt’s entries.

hoodoo (a.)
        I’m getting so I can’t rest
        You almost ruined me, with that lowdown hoodoo mess.
        —Freddie Nicholson, You’re Gonna Miss Me Blues 1930
        Conjuring; in this instance, by means of black (destructive) magic.

hoodoo (n.)
        Aw she went to the hoodoo, she went there all alone
        ‘Cause everytime I leave her I have to hurry home
        —Charlie Lincoln, “Mojoe Blues,” 1927
        Conjurer, sometimes referred to as a hoodoo doctor. Both terms date back to 1875. (DAH).

DAH is an abbreviation for Mathews, Dictionary of Americanisms on Historical Principles.

cookie (n.)
        Papa wants a cookie, papa wants a cookie
        Papa wants a cookie right now now now now
        Papa wants a cookie, papa need a cookie
        Papa’s gonna get it somehow.
        —Leroy Carr, “Papa Wants a Cookie” 1930

        A black slang term for female genitals (DAS).

DAS is an abbreviation for Wentworth and Flexner, Dictionary of American Slang.

These are relatively short and simple samples, although some have more discussion such as dust one’s broom which is illustrated from a couplet from Kokomo Arnold’s 1934 recording “Sagefield Woman Blues.”

Calt notes the phrase means to leave hurriedly, and although Burley cites this as a Harlem jive phrase, Calt notes its earlier occurrence in Arnold’s song and Robert Johnson’s “Dust My Broom,” indicates a southern origin and was a blending of two conventional slang synonyms. “To Broom,” meant to run away while “to get up and dust” meant to depart hastily. I have not repeated the lengthier entry here, but rather give a sense of how he does contribute new understanding to terms that crop up in the blues.

Another phrase, “sleep in a hollow log, to drink muddy water and,” was familiar from the 1930s recording by Eddie Miller, “I’d Rather Drink Muddy Water,” but Calt observes its use in Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Wartime Blues,” and Charlie Lincoln’s 1928 “Depot Blues,” whose verse anticipates Miller’s lyrics. The phrase means to live outdoor in the manner of a vagrant rather than be mistreated. There is a sense of authoritativeness to Calt’s work here that lends the reader with a certain confidence and the entries do provide a valuable reference to understanding these dated lyrics.

This is an important contribution to the blues literature and is invaluable addition to any library of blues books and a foundation upon which future blues dictionaries will build upon.

The review copy for this was provided by the publisher or its publicist.

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