Want dirty blues? This here’s the dirtiest blues. On the strength of one worn-out, unreleased 78, Lucille Bogan became infamous when Legacy released it on a compilation. (Us older folks already knew her from Maria Muldaur’s scorching version of Bogan’s “Tricks Ain’t Walkin'”, done live, but never recorded, with the Jim Kweskin Jug Band).
The question of just who Bogan was still bedevils blues scholars, to judge from Dick Spottswood’s liner notes on this new reissue of her ARC sides. There’s a sketchy biography, but the question remains: was she the whore she sang about, or, like some of today’s gangsta rappers, was this a persona she put on for recording? Since she died in 1948 at age 51, we’ll never know. The only other person who could enlighten us was her constant piano accompanist, Walter Roland, who actually lived until 1972, long enough that he should have been tracked down and interviewed, because Yazoo had an LP of Bogan and Roland out by then.
There’s no question she wasn’t afraid of many subjects. The songs here include “Drinking Blues”, “Skin Game Blues” (about card gambling), and “B.D. Woman’s Blues”, in which the initials stand for bull dyke, a lifestyle she fairly crows about in the lyrics.
Then there’s the infamous “Shave ‘Em Dry” — the bawdy “clean” version and the notorious filthy one — plus a recitation by Roland called “I’m Gonna Shave You Dry” and the truly disgusting “Til The Cows Come Home”, which is mostly a drunken Bogan saying dirty words.
Focusing on this stuff, though, is only half the point. The other half is what Spottswood mentions in the notes: Bogan is a primitive. Her lines are simple, her lyrics direct, and Roland only about half-plays the piano — he sounds more convincing as a guitarist. But this simplicity sticks with you. Not a diva like Bessie Smith, Bogan is halfway to being a country blues performer, halfway urban. There are few women in the history of the blues this simple and direct.
One complaint: since ARC bought her early Brunswick sides, and since “Tricks” is one of them, and since it’s such a great song, why isn’t it here? Like, who else is going to do a retrospective on someone this obscure?