This fascinating compendium explains the most unusual, obscure, and curious words and expressions from vintage blues music. Utilizing both documentary evidence and invaluable interviews with a number of now-deceased musicians from the 1920s and '30s, blues scholar Stephen Calt unravels the nuances of more than twelve hundred idioms and proper or place names found on oft-overlooked "race records" recorded between 1923 and 1949. From "aggravatin' papa" to "yas-yas-yas" and everything in between, this truly unique, racy, and compelling resource decodes a neglected speech for general readers and researchers alike, offering invaluable information about black language and American slang.
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About the Author
Stephen Calt is the author or coauthor of the blues biographies I'd Rather Be The Devil: Skip James and the Blues and King Of The Delta Blues: The Life and Music of Charlie Patton.
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BARRELHOUSE WORDSA BLUES DIALECT DICTIONARY
By STEPHEN CALT
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOISCopyright © 2009 Stephen Calt
All right reserved.
act the fool
Now you take these young folks, that goes to high school They sometimes really, do act the fool. —Scrapper Blackwell, "Be-Da-Da-Bum," 1929
To behave foolishly or idiotically in a conspicuous manner; a still-current black colloquialism, synonymous with to clown.
His ways an' actions is hard to beat For he's the sheik, of Desplaines Street. —Papa Charlie Jackson, "Sheik Of Desplaines Street," 1927
Conduct; a colloquialism embodied in the now-proverbial 19th-century American saying "Actions speak louder than words," and found in Stephen Crane's Maggie: A Girl Of The Streets (1893): "'Anybody what had eyes could see dat dere was somethin' wrong wid dat girl. I didn't like her actions.'"
When I'm gone, don't grieve after me Don't you forget I went away. —Sam Collins, "It Won't Be Long," 1927
? About; a Southern colloquialism found in Roark Bradford's 1931 black dialect novel John Henry ("'... all dat gal do is grieve after me when I'm gone.'") and Opie Read's 1897 Ozark dialect novel Old Ebenezer ("'There's a case in our neighborhood of a young feller goin' crazy after a woman he wanted.'" ) It also figures as an inexact preposition in:
Now go on girl don't flirt after me Got good stuff an' it's all I need. —Joe McCoy, "I'm Wild About My Stuff," 1930
My mama told me, when I were quite a child: "Havin' a good time now but trouble afterwhile." —Pink Anderson and Simmie Dooley, "Every Day In The Week Blues," 1928
Eventually; elliptical for after a while, and associated with Southern speech (cf. DARE).
And when she promenade in them Sunday clothes She tantalize those Afro gigolos. —Lovin' Sam Theard, "That Rhythm Gal," 1934
Slang for African American.
When I find that aggravatin' papa, that tried to two-time me I know I'll spend a great long sentence in the penitentiary. —Barbecue Bob, "Ease It To Me Blues," 1928
A noted seducer of other men's girlfriends or wives, to the point of being a general aggravation to men. The Indianapolis blues singer Leroy Carr (1905–35) was locally known as "Aggravatin' Papa" because "he fucked everybody's wife" (Pete Franklin). This term arose by means of a popular 1923 Alberta Hunter recording, "Aggravating Papa," where it referred to an unfaithful lover. A pop version by Sophie Tucker resulted in its circulation as general American slang for "a refractory lover" (Martens, who listed it in The Book of Good Manners  among "Slang and Colloquialisms Which Will Not Pass Muster").
You can get yourself together You can go out with the weather We don't need no airy man. —Papa Charlie Jackson, "Airy Man Blues," 1924
Conceited (Clapin, c. 1902); an apparent carryover of obsolete standard English signifying one who puts on airs (cf. OED) that is misconstrued by Major (1994) as a black term dating to the 1960s.
Every day of the week, I goes to Midtown Drug An' get me a bottle o' snuff, an' a bottle o' Alcorub. —Son House, "Clarksdale Moan," 1930
A brand of rubbing alcohol manufactured by the United States Industrial Alcohol Company, which also produced Sterno (Time Magazine, 4/13/1931). Although toxic to drink, it was imbibed by some derelict alcoholics of the blues era.
I was born in Algiers, twelve o'clock at night An' the moon wasn't shinin', and it wasn't a bit of light. —Charlie Spand, "Evil Woman Spell," 1929
A New Orleans community on the west bank of the Mississippi, once fabled among blacks for its conjurers. The above lyric reflects an antebellum superstition: "They used to be a sayin' that chillun born at de dark of de moon ain't gwinter have no luck" (Aunt Pinkie Kelly, as quoted in Born in Slavery).
Now I ain't no milkman, no milkman's son I can pull your titties 'till the milkman comes 'Cause I'm an all-around man ... I mean I'm all-around man I can do 'most anything that come to hand. —Bo Carter, "All Around Man," 1936
A black term for a handyman. "Then I quit and went to working as an all-round man in the shop" (James Williams, as quoted in Born in Slavery).
all in all
I was lookin' out my window, Lord at how that rain did fall The onliest woman I loved has left me, and she was my all in all. —Walter Davis, "Fallin' Rain," 1936
A romantic partner to whom one is completely devoted; one's soul mate; from the standard English use of the term as meaning "[a]ll things in all respects, all things altogether in one" (OED). In black sermonizing, Jesus is sometimes construed as the devout believer's all in all.
all, to have it
Starch my jumper, iron my overalls My brown done quit me God knows she had it all. —Barbecue Bob, "Barbecue Blues," 1927
To have no shortcomings; a synonymous expression, to have everything, is used by the same performer:
It seems cloudy brown, I believe it's going to rain Goin' back to my regular, 'cause she got everything. —"Cloudy Sky Blues," 1927
Another blues song scoffs at this notion:
Just as sure as the winter follows the fall There ain't no one woman got it all. —Papa Charlie Jackson, "All I Want Is A Spoonful," 1925
all right with one, to be
"Boy, you know where I'm from? I'm from the Black Belt! If you be all right with me I'll carry you there too." —Lucille Bogan, "Baking Powder Blues," 1933
To make a favorable impression; from the general slang superlative all right (cf. Lighter, 1994).
Papa got a watch, brother got a ring Sister got her arms full, of alley-boogin' that thing She's wild about her boogie, only thing she choose Now she's got to do the boogie, to buy her alley baby some shoes. —Lucille Bogan, "Alley Boogie," 1930
As used above, a child born as a result of alley debauchery or prostitution. See boogie.
I got a brownskin woman, she walks like a maltee cat Well she's a fine-lookin' mama, she ain't no alley rat. —Lee Green, "Maltese Cat Blues," 1930
A slang term for someone "who dwells in or frequents slum alleys; a guttersnipe" (Lighter, 1994).
She said: "How I hate you, you alligator bait you You the ugliest thing I ever seen." —Sam Theard, "Ugly Child," 1930
A contemptuous term for a black person, dating in print to 1901 (Lighter, 1994) but of antebellum origin: "One of dem blue debils [Yankee soldiers] seed me an' come running. He say: 'What you doin', you black brat! You stinkin' little alligator bait!'" (Ida Adkins, as quoted in Born in Slavery).
I was at home last night, I was all alone 'long about twelve o'clock, my baby come pullin' in home. —Bo Carter, "What Kind Of Scent Is This?," 1931
Sometime; a colloquialism of 19th-century vintage (cf. DARE).
I've got a head like a freight train, an' I walk just like a grizzly bear An' I use my skeetin' Garrett, and I skeet my ambeer everywhere. —Lucille Bogan, "Pig Iron Sally," 1934
Tobacco juice (cf. OED). In Southern usage, ambeer also signifies spittle mixed with tobacco juice (cf. WD). Garrett refers to a popular brand of chewing tobacco. See skeet, skeetin' garrett.
I started to kill my woman till she lay down 'cross the bed An' she looked so ambitious 'till I took back every word I said. —Willie Brown, "M&O Blues," 1930
Angry, ready to fight; a dated colloquialism associated with rural whites. Thornton (1912) traces its printed appearance to 1837, while Bartlett (1877) found its use restricted to Georgia and Western states. The above singer, however, hailed from the Mississippi Delta.
There's a preacher in the pulpit, Bible in his hand And the sister's way back in the amen corner hollerin': "That's my man!" —Papa Charlie Jackson, "I'm Alabama Bound," 1925
In black Fundamentalist usage, (1) a section of the church set aside for repentant sinners, equivalent to the mourner's bench of white churches; (2) a claque engaged by a minister to act as a cheering section in order to impress the congregation with his authority (Evans). As a black idiom, the term is found in Joel Chandler Harris's Uncle Remus (1880) in the form of a dialectal variant, amen cornder. In white Southern speech, amen corner connotes a vocally responsive group of churchgoers (WD) and dates in print to 1860 (DARE).
My home ain't here, it's in 'most any old town (2) —Robert Wilkins, "Alabama Blues," 1929
No particular; "a general term of vagueness" (DCS).
A woman is like a dresser, some man's always ramblin' through its drawers It caused so many men, wearin' apron overalls. —Robert Johnson, "From Four Until Late," 1936
A misnomer for overall aprons, once worn by rural females (cf. OED at "Mother Hubbard"). The performer is suggesting that women "wear the pants" of monkey men.
She sure shakes a mean ashcan I sure don't understand She can take any woman's man Lord she sure shakes a mean ashcan. —Pigmeat Pete and Catjuice Charlie, "She Shakes A Mean Ash Can," 1931
A euphemism for "ass," perhaps originating in the above song.
ashes hauled, (to get) one's
When you catch my jumper, hangin' upside your wall Well you know by that baby I need my ashes hauled. —Sleepy John Estes, "The Girl I Love, She Got Long Curly Hair," 1929
To fulfill one's sexual urges through intercourse; said primarily and probably originally of men. This inelegant expression arose from the presence of ash barrels in pre-gas and electric kitchen stoves; cf. to burn one's coal and wood. It anticipates the synonymous empty one's trash, associated with black speech of the 1980s (DCS). As a seeming term for sex drive, ashes appeared in the following:
Spied a spider, spied a spider, crawlin' on the wall Ruined his ashes but he's crazy 'bout his alcohol. —Sam Butler, "Devil And My Brown," 1926
Well I went out last night, it was day when I came home Yes I was lookin' for my ash hauler, Lord Lord an' she was gone. —Big Bill, "Ash Hauler," 1935
A female sex partner.
Elder Green told the deacon: "Let's go down in prayer," There's a big 'ssociation in New Orleans, come an' let's go there." —Charlie Patton, "Elder Greene Blues," 1929
An obsolete colloquialism for a convention of clergyman. The term was first noted in 1829, when it was attributed to New England speech (cf. Mathews, 1931).
If you get one ol' woman, you better get you five or six So if that one happen to quit you, it won't leave you in no awful fix. —Buddy Boy Hawkins, "Awful Fix Blues," 1927
Dire straits; a common colloquialism in the 19th century (F&H, 1890).
Your mother treated me like I was her baby child That's why I tried so hard to come back home to die. —Bukka White, "Fixin' To Die Blues," 1940
A black colloquialism for offspring; particularly, the youngest child in a family. The latter sense is conveyed in a slave reminiscence: "My pappy was a old man when I were born—I were de baby chil'" (Sam McAllum, as quoted in Born in Slavery). The term appears in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952): "'It sounds like a woman who was watchin' a team of wild horses run down her baby chile and she can't move.'" Although DARE defines it as simply "baby," it was also used as a term of endearment for adults:
Mama say I'm reckless, daddy say I'm young and wild "Reason he's so reckless 'cause he's my baby child." —Isaiah Nettles, "So Cold In China," 1935
I will sure backbite you, gnaw you to the bone I don't mean maybe, I can't let women alone. —Sylvester Weaver, "Can't Be Trusted Blues," 1927
To have sex with a friend's bedmate.
My mama told me when I was about twelve years old: "Son you're nothin' but a backbiter, may God bless your soul." "... I am a backbiter; I'll bite any man in the back." —Ramblin' Thomas, "Back Gnawin' Blues," 1928
One who backbites; a corruption of biblical terminology that may have been fostered by biter, a slang term for deceiver (Partridge). See bite. The adjectival form appears in the following:
I'm goin' to Louisiana, get myself a mojo hand 'Cause these backbitin' women, are tryin' to take my man. —Ida Cox, "Mojo Hand Blues," 1927
I don't want no hoghead, don't eat no chitlins Don't want no spareribs, don't eat no backbone Mama got a hambone, I wonder can I get it boiled? Because these Chicago women now, 'bout to let my hambone spoil. —Rube Lacy, "Ham Hound Crave," 1928
Pork taken from the backbone area (DARE).
Sun gonna shine in my back door someday An' the wind gonna change gonna blow my blues away. —Tommy Johnson, "Maggie Campbell Blues," 1928
Ass. The above couplet may have arisen from the phrase where the sun don't shine (i.e., anus). The statement "Sun gonna shine in my back door someday" was a proverbial blues or black indication (perhaps wistful) of coming good fortune, surviving in a Sea Island phrase: "The sun shine on a dog's ass any day." See front door.
back door (v.)
Honey can't no woman back door me I'm your one in all, or else your used to be. —Emery Glen, "Back Door Blues," 1927 To cuckold; see back door man.
back door man
Ashes to ashes, sand to sand Every married woman has got a back door man. —Seth Richards, "Skoodledum Doo," 1928
The secret lover of a married female, so named on the premise that he calls at the back door of her home. This figure was practically proverbial in black speech of the blues era. The association of a back door and illicit assignations is itself proverbial, reflected in the sayings "A nice wife and a back door, do often make a rich man poor" (John Ray, A Collection of English Proverbs, 1678) and "The postern door makes a thief and a whore" (Thomas Fuller, Gnomolgia, 1732). It appears in Ellison's Invisible Man (1952):
"BOY, WHO WAS BRER RABBIT?
He was your mother's back-door man, I thought."
bad, (badder, baddest)
Ain't nothin' in the jungle, that's any badder than me I'm the baddest man, ever came from Tennessee. —Papa Charlie Jackson, "Jungle Man Blues," 1928
Tough; lawless; indomitable; black nuances attached to an old standard English sense of bad, as meaning morally depraved, wicked, or vicious (OED). In a general sense, bad = impressive: "... Those music cats ... when you make some pretty good music note; kinda bad, out-of-sight chords, they look at one another, hunch one another" (Skip James, quoted in Calt, 2008). Although such was seemingly the primary connotation of bad as a dated black superlative, lexicographers see the word only as a jazz-originated inversion of good (cf., for example, OED). See bad man, too bad.
Bad company you must shun Or from the policeman you must run. —Lottie Beaman, "Don't Speak To Me," 1930
The company of felons or social undesirables. This expression appeared in Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography of 1771 ("having no friend to advise him, he fell into bad company ... grew necessitous, pawned his clothes, and wanted bread.") and in the 1904 O. Henry story, The Reformation of Calliope ("'... Keep away from bad company and work honest and sleep sweet.'"). The consequences of ignoring such advice are advertised in a 1963 Blind Gary Davis recording, "Bad Company Brought Me Here":
It is sad hurt to my heart Bein' around about eleven o'clock All of my veins are going to stop An' they come into the cell They gonna screw the death cap on my head Well bad company brought me here.
I wouldn't listen to my mother, wouldn't listen to my dad And by my reckless way of livin' I done got myself in bad. —Peg Leg Howell, "Low Down Rounders Blues," 1928
In bad repute, out of favor; an American slang term first recorded in 1911 (OED).
Your sister was a teddy, your daddy was a bear Put a muzzle on you mama 'cause you had bad hair. —Charley Jordan, "Keep It Clean," 1930
Nappy or kinky hair, as opposed to good hair; a still-used black expression (Smitherman, 2000) that is also current among Hispanic Americans.
Police officer, how can it be? You can 'rest everybody but cruel Stack O'Lee That bad man, oh, cruel Stack O'Lee. —Mississippi John Hurt, "Stack O'Lee Blues," 1928
A notorious gunfighter or outlaw. Farmer and Henley (F&H, 1890) offer a disquisition on the then-current term: "A BAD MAN, in the West, is a perfectly mixed character. The term is generally understood to mean a professional fighter or man-killer, but who, despite this drawback, is said ... to be sometimes ... perfectly honest. These are the men who do most of the killing in frontier communities...." In at least two instances, blues-era works invoke such figures by means of the modifier bad:
'Kinney says to Marget: "Come to me I said If you don't come in a hurry, I'll put a .38 through your head." Wasn't he bad? Just wasn't he bad? —Henry Thomas, "Bob McKinney," 1927 Do you want your friend to be bad like Jesse James? Get two six-shooters, highway some passenger train. —Blind Lemon Jefferson, "One Dime Blues," 1927
baking powder man
Dice jumped to hustlin', I swear my money won't lose I got to win tonight and buy this baking powder man some shoes. —Lucille Bogan, "Baking Powder Blues," 1933
Black slang for a "big bluffer," "blowhard," or "know-it-all" (Hill). It was once fashionable to squelch such persons with the question, "What blowed you up?," the inference being baking powder.
Excerpted from BARRELHOUSE WORDS by STEPHEN CALT Copyright © 2009 by Stephen Calt. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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