THE LANGUAGE OF THE BLUES
This article is a collection of excerpts from one of my favourite books, ‘The Language of the Blues from Alcorub to Zuzu’ by Debra Devi. All quotes in this article are from this book, with the page numbers referenced under each subheading.
I have selected phrases or words that are commonly heard in the blues songs that we dance to; for each one there is a short explanation of what it means and a link to a song where you can hear the term in the lyrics.
I hope this article helps you to understand more deeply the meanings of the songs we dance to, and discover more about the African American culture in which the blues was created. And, of course, I hope it entertains you!
*Disclaimer: There is a fair amount of sexual language quoted in the following article *
1. ‘BACK DOOR MAN’
“A back door man is the secret lover of a married woman. He’s the one scooting out the back door just as the man of the house is turning his key in the front door lock.”
Devi explains that, according to Clarence Major (author of Juba to Jive: A Dictionary of African-American Slang), the ‘back door’ may have a particular presence in African-American psyches due to the fact that during slavery they would have entered and exited the houses of their white masters through the back door.
“The concept of the back door man as lover may also stem from the post-slavery phenomenon of the ‘sweet back papas’. These were men who dodged a lifetime of manual labour – the fate of most African American men in the South at that time – by becoming blues musicians and living off of women”.
Willie Dixon wrote ‘Back Door Man’ for Howlin’ Wolf in 1959. Hubert Sumlin, Howlin’ Wolf’s long-time guitarist, said that “Wolf loved that song … ‘cause he was one! Know what I’m talking about? Someone who’s with a married woman…”.
Like me, you may be wondering if ‘back door’ has any sexual connotations. But according to both Sumlin and Major, it does not. Major explains that “in black culture, it [the back door] rarely refers to the anus, as it does in popular American culture.” And Sumlin responded to this query by saying, “No, it’s not all of that… I imagine some people do think that, but if you listen real good at the whole song, you would get more out of it than that. It’s about being at the bottom, running from a bad situation. Wolf, he did all this stuff. He got caught in that house and had to break out.”
2. ‘BALLING THE JACK’
“When a [train] conductor got a locomotive steaming at top speed, he was said to be balling the jack.”
The ‘jack’ refers to the train – the “jackass carrying the load”. To ‘ball’ means to go push the pedal flat to the ground (with the ball of your foot) and go as fast as possible.
By the 1920s the term was being used in popular language as an expression for “any wild, all-out effort – from dancing to sex to, for gamblers, risking everything on a single toss of the dice. Shortened to ‘balling’, it came to mean having a wild time in and out of bed.”
‘Balling the Jack’ was also a dance craze, reportedly started in juke joints, and involving lots of bumping and grinding! According to Clarence Major in his book, Juba to Jive, it evolved into a group dance “involving vigorous hand clapping and chanting or singing.”
3. ‘BLACK CAT BONE’
“Europeans consider black cats unlucky, but African American hoodoo (see term below) practitioners believe that every black cat has one magic bone that is a powerful mojo (see term below), or charm.”
Included in the list of possible charms are:
– granting invisibility
– drawing a roaming lover home
– dissolving a would-be lover’s resistance
But it is said that the most notorious use for the black cat bone is “to bring fame, followed by an untimely death, to musicians who can’t resist its lure.”
Rumour has it that blues musician, John Lee ‘Sonny Boy’ Williamson, went to see a hoodoo lady to get a black cat bone. Williamson, who was raised in the South, moved to Chicago (presumably with his black cat bone) where he recorded the hits that brought him fame. On June 1, 1948 at the age of only 32 and at the height of his fame, he was murdered by a mugger. Seems the ‘charm’ or, I would argue, ‘curse’, of the black cat bone worked for Williamson.
Listen out for the following lyrics in ‘I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man’, written by Willie Dixon for Muddy Waters:
“I got the black cat bone and I got a mojo, too,
I got John the Conqueror Root, gonna mess with you
I’m gonna make you girls, lead me by my hand,
Then the world will know the Hoochie Coochie Man”
4. ‘EAGLE’ / ‘EAGLE ROCK’
In blues songs, the eagle represents “the dollar that flies into a working man’s hand” on payday. For example, in Stormy Monday, they sing “the eagle flies on Friday, Saturday I go out to play”.
Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out is another example of the ‘eagle’ referring to money: “If I ever get my hand on a dollar again, I’m gonna hold on to it till them eagles grin…”
“The Eagle Rock was a popular African American dance move performed with the arms outstretched and flapping slowly like wings, while the body rocked side to side, like an eagle in flight.”
“The Eagle Rock may have been picked up from Native American dances in which dancers mimic the movements of a flying eagle, as was done at the Eagle Rock Reservation in northern New Jersey. Another theory is that it was named after the Eagle Rock Baptist Church in Kansas City, where worshippers were prone to waving their arms and rocking side to side.”
5. ‘GRIND’ / ‘GRINDER’
“To grind is to have sexual intercourse, specifically for a man or woman to enhance a partner’s pleasure by grinding in a circular motion against him or her during intercourse.”
A ‘grinder’ is a man (at times the term can refer to a woman, but this is not as common) who “is so good at love making that other men fear losing their women to him.”
“This term may be derived from the tale of Joe the Grinder, a man with such magical lovemaking powers that other man feared losing their women to him because he would visit them during the day while their men were away at work. This tale may also be the source for the current use of the name ‘Jody’ in the armed forces for a man who makes love to enlisted men’s wives while their husbands are away on deployment.”
6. ‘HOOCHIE COOCHIE’
“Coochie” is slang for vagina. “Hoochie” is slang for whore. A “hoochie-coochie” dancer is a stripper, and a “hoochie-coochie” man is a pimp.
Devi explains that “The word ‘coochie’ definitely came first. The sound ‘cu’ was associated with femininity and fertility even before the development of written language. The Indo-European root ‘cu’ led to the Nostratic ‘kuni’ for ‘woman’, the Irish ‘cuint’, and the English ‘cunt’. Slang terms for vagina, such as cooch, coot and cooze, all stem from ‘cu’.” (Original source: Tony Thorne, 1990, quoted in ‘Cunt: A Cultural History by Matthew Hunt’)
“Hoochie is probably derived from hooch, slang for moonshine. Hooch is named for the Hoochinoo tribe of Alaska, known for its potent homemade brew. It wasn’t much of a leap from hooch to hoochie, and from there for some wit to rhyme hoochie with coochie.
“Hoodoo is not Voodoo, although the two are often confused. Voodoo – more properly spelled ‘Vodou’ – is a religion derived from Vodun, which originated in West Africa and is considered one of the world’s oldest religions. Hoodoo, in contrast, is an African American system of folklore. It consists of tales, herbal medicines, and magic practices, and is neither a religion nor a denomination of a religion.”
Catherine Yronwode, an American hoodoo expert, defined hoodoo as follows: “Hoodoo consists of a large body of African folkloric magic with a considerable admixture of American Indian botanical knowledge and European folklore.”
“Examples of hoodoo include foot track magic, mojos, the use of indigenous herbs and roots to treat illnesses and cast spells… A person who practices hoodoo is called “a hoodoo”, or may be described as a hoodoo man or a hoodoo woman. A person who has been the victim or beneficiary of some hoodoo was “hoodoo’ed”.
Many blues songs describe hoodoo practices and their alleged results in detail, however, it’s important to remember that although musicians may have used hoodoo imagery in their songs, they didn’t necessarily believe in hoodoo.
8. ‘MOJO’ / ‘MOJO HAND’
“A mojo is a hoodoo charm, a ‘prayer in a bag’. The mojo is an ineffectual bundle of twigs, nail clippings, and other junk, until a conjuror (a hoodoo man or woman) traps a spirit inside. Over time, mojo has come to mean an individual’s magnetism and sexual vitality.”
“The word ‘mojo’ is probably related to mojuba, which means ‘a prayer of praise’ and comes from the Yoruba emi (I) and ajuba (salute).” Devi explains that every act of appeasement to the gods must begin with an offering, such as spit, alcohol or water, and a mojuba.
“Mojo is also likely connected to the Fula word moca, which means to cast or activate a magic spell by spitting. In the Gullah dialect of the Georgian Sea Islands, moco means witchcraft or magic. In Jamaican English, majoe is a plant with medicinal powers.”
“Many blues songs tell of mojos that ‘fix’ (toe or bind) a lover to be faithful. Mississippi Fred McDowell described in ‘Louisiana Blues’:
Lord I’m going down to Louisiana to buy me a mojo hand
I’m going to fix my baby so she won’t have no other man
A mojo may bind not only the emotions, but also the sexual organs of a lover. If a woman who has been ‘tied’ or ‘fixed’ attempts to make love with another man, she may find herself defecating or menstruating during intercourse. A tied man will lose his erection if he attempts to be unfaithful.”
“A ‘mojo hand’ is a bag, typically of red flannel, that contains items designed either to influence another person’s behaviour or to protect and bring good fortune to the wearer of the bag.”
“Three factors determine what a mojo hand will accomplish: (1) the colour of flannel chosen to make the bag, (2) the ingredients placed inside the bag, and (3) how the hand is ‘dressed’ or ‘fed’. Although mojo hands are typically red, some conjurers use different colours of fabric for different mojos, such as green flannel for a money mojo, white flannel to bless a baby, or light blue flannel for a peaceful home.”
“The mojo almost always includes something secretly collected from the body of the person being hoodoo’ed, such as a lock of hair, some pubic hair, fingernail clippings, or a piece of skin. The mojo maker combines the personal item with something that will have the desired effect on the person’s behaviour or will fulfil the desire of the person who plans to wear the bag. The most common ingredients are roots, such as John the Conqueror*, and herbs. Other ingredients range from ash, bone, and insect parts to snakeskin or feathers, or symbolic items such as dice, a length of chain, or coins.”
(*mentioned in the lyrics of Hoochie Coochie Man, amongst other songs)
“Once the conjurer has lured a spirit into the mojo, the mojo is anointed or ‘dressed’ with oil. A bag may also be fed with whiskey, perfume, or bodily fluids such as spit, urine, or semen. This seals the spirit inside the mojo.”
“The mojo bag may be carried by the person casting the spell, or hidden in the home of the person on whom the spell is being cast. If you suspect you are the victim of a mojo, you can get a root doctor to help you break the spell, but your best bet is to find the mojo in its hiding place and destroy it. As long as the person who has hoodooed you can keep the mojo hidden, he or she can still control you. Of course, the real question is, who done hoodooed the hoodoo man?”
“To ramble is to move from place to place, never settling down. Rambling is also used to describe sexual voraciousness; this usage may stem from the late-night live-sex shows at buffet flats*, sometimes called ‘midnight rambles’.
(*Buffet flats were another name for speakeasies and brothels in African American urban communities between 1900-1930)
“Although rambling is associated with frecklessness and avoidance of work and family responsibility, for many African Americans – including blues musicians – travelling to look for work became a way of life after the Civil War. Determined to get back on their feet after the Civil War, southern white farmers began clearing the Delta… ‘Thousands of black freedmen migrated to the Delta to clear and farm its fields… recruited by labour agents who promised higher wages and civil rights which had been lost in other parts of the state,’ William Ferris reported in Blues from the Delta.”
“Meanwhile, thousands of hobos (farmboys or ‘hoe-boys’) rode the newly laid railroad tracks with their hoes slung over their shoulders as they followed the harvest seasons – bailing hay in Colorado, picking apples in Washington and potatoes in Idaho, and heading south for cotton harvests in the fall. The amount of [rail] track in the United States grew from 30,000 miles to 230,000 miles between 1860 and 1890. Riding the rails to search for work became a way of life for many people during the economic depression of the 1870s and 1880s. By the 1900s, one of the best jobs an African-American man could get was to be a porter on a Pullman train.”
“Blues musicians stayed on the road and rails, too, travelling an early circuit of juke joints and barrelhouses. In the 1920s, Bessie Smith, one of the highest paid entertainers in the country, criss-crossed the United States with her troupe in her custom-built rail car… understandably, rambling became the subject of many blues songs…
Thanks for reading! Part 2 of ‘Language of the Blues’ coming soon!