The lexicon of the blues
This will be quick, but they all are (one way or another).
Because I used to edit and assign book reviews for the print magazine, I still get books mailed to my home every now and again. In general I haven’t had the heart to read about music for a while, but the book atop the stack is a history of King Records, written by Jon Hartely Fox (with a foreword by Dave Alvin). It’s called King of the Queen City: The Story of King Records, and simply by mentioning it I’ve assuaged a tiny bit of guilt. And I hope it’s a good book, that it reveals something about the magic and the mess that must’ve been the backstory of that label.
But that’s not why I opened this file.
I opened this file because when Billy Joe Shaver sings about a Dominecker rooster I don’t think most listeners have any idea what he means.
Much less what Sleepy John Estes was on about.
And so I’m tickled to note that on November 2 Stephen Calt published (through the University of Illinois Press, which means this was surely a labor of love, since we all know academic presses aren’t rolling in money these days) a nearly 300-page book titled Barrelhouse Words: A Blues Dialect Dictionary. Calt, the one-sheet tells me, has also written or co-written I’d Rather Be The Devil: Skip James and the Blues and King of the Delta Blues: The Life and music of Charlie Patton. Neither of which I know.
Maybe this new volume, a dictionary after all, sounds dry.
I actually think it’d make a great nightstand book, or, for those of you who keep stupid joke books by the toilet, this one might upgrade your ambiance some.
I’m going to open at random and quote one here, to give you a flavor of the thing. And this really is a totally random choice…
Cana’t a woman act funny, quit you for another man?
She ain’t gonna look at you straight but she’s always raisin’ sand
— Blind Lemon Jefferson, “Got The Blues,” 1926
To create a disturbance, slang derived from the British raise or kick up a dust, given by Grose (1796) as meaning “to make a disturbance or riot.” Clapin (c. 1902) records it as a white expression meaning “to get furiously angry”; Tom Shaw (a protege of the above performer) saw raisin’ sand as “fussin’ and raisin’ hell.” The survival of this idioom in black speech is indicated by DCS and Smitherman (2000), which (like DAS 3) treat it as exclusively black.
How any of that ties into the Alison Krauss/Robert Plant album, I care not to comment.
Good fun, though, at least for word nerds.