Going Over the Hill and Way Down Underneath
“The only sea I saw was the seesaw sea with you riding on it. Let me shipwreck in your thighs.”
(Dylan Thomas, Under Milk Wood)
There is a brilliant book ‘Shanties From The Seven Seas’, compiled by Stan Hugill in 1961. Stan Hugill was a sailor for many years and he collected as many sea songs as he could find. You can open its 600 pages at random and odds are that you will come across something familiar, several of the shanties finding an audience during the skiffle years and later with the Spinners. There is even a shanty dating from 1910 which begins,
“Come rock and roll me over,
Let’s get this damn job over.”
Like other collections from the period, ‘Shanties From The Seven Seas’ has a major problem. Many of the shanties have been censored (or in Hugill’s word, “camouflaged”) and you’re left with the impression that sailors never swore or told dirty jokes. It’s a sign of the times, but if this book were revised today, all the racist overtones would be removed and the sexual ones restored.
And that is my problem now. I am looking at dirty songs which are relevant to the rock’n’ roll era, and there appear to be racist terms which are unacceptable to print today. I say ‘appear to be’ because much of the imagery comes from the black singers themselves. It is likely that the terms were not being used interpreted that way by those who heard and bought the records at the time.
However, I have left their sexual language as it is and so some of this text might trouble your Aunt Fanny. There’s my first of many double entendres: nudge, nudge, wink, wink, know what I mean? There are no asterisks as I feel that they only draw attention to the issue. I hope this approach doesn’t cause offence but then again a good part of the humour is that the songwriters knew damn well that their songs would cause offence with certain parts of society.
In the 1920s and 1930s, American blues and country and British music hall were three different entities, operating along their own lines and with seemingly little in common. Indeed, commentators nowadays praise rock’n’roll for bringing blues and country together. This is not true when it comes to dirty records, for want of a better word. The smut in a blues song can be exactly the same as something sung by a music hall artist or said in a ‘Carry On’ film.
In the 1960s I thought it was bizarre that the Irish folk group, the Dubliners and the R&B singer, Sonny Boy Williamson should have recorded ‘Seven Drunken Nights’ with practically the same words but the innuendoes worked across the board.
A good example of this cross-pollination and also of an all-embracing song which piles one sexual metaphor on another is ‘My Handy Man’. The first performer was Ethel Waters, a black American who had lived on the streets of Philadelphia and then become a Broadway actress, the first to sing ‘Stormy Weather’. She also sang ‘You Brought A New Kind Of Love To Me’, which is open to several interpretations. Her success didn’t last and when she appeared on a TV quiz show in 1957, she said that any winnings would reduce her tax liabilities.
Ethel Waters recorded ‘My Handy Man’ in 1928 and the song itself is attributed to her, which is possible but unlikely. It found its way to the UK where it was recorded by Amy Brunton in 1931, the lyric being substantially the same.
Amy Brunton was really the British music hall star, Elsie Carlisle, later famous for introducing ‘A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square’. She used a pseudonym to avoid prosecution and the lyric is brilliant. Many songs have been written about playing with your poodle, riding a stallion, stoking your furnace, floating your boat and squeezing your lemon but Ethel and Elsie crammed as many images as they could into a three minute song:
“He shakes my ashes, greases my griddle,
Churns my butter, strokes my fiddle,
My man is such a handy man.
He threads my needle, creams my wheat,
Heats my heater, chops my meat.
My man is such a handy man.
Don’t care if you believe or not,
He sure is good to have around,
Why, when my furnace gets too hot,
He’s there to turn my damper down.
He flaps my flapjacks, cleans off the table,
He feeds the horses in my stable
My man is such a handy man.
Sometimes he’s up long before dawn,
Trimming edges off my lawn
My man, he’s such a handy man.”
Over the past few weeks I have heard hundreds of variations of these jokes and I had never realised that you could get so much humour from a bag of vegetables. By now these jokes have worn a little thin for me, especially when it comes to bananas, but I accept that there have been some active imaginations at work. I am surprised that nobody has drawn sexual comparisons with eating figs, which is one of the most obvious metaphors.
‘My Handy Man’ was one of the first songs to have an answer version, in this case, ‘My Handy Man Ain’t Handy No More’ in which the handy man “sits around and lets my stove get cold.”
I haven’t always picked up on the jokes as sometimes to escape censorship, the singers would use slang that might not be known to the governing bodies and is unknown now. A neat example from more recent times is Lou Reed’s ‘Walk On The Wild Side’, which was passed for airplay on the BBC, despite a reference to ‘giving head’.
According to the Oxford Dictionary of 20th Century Words, the term ‘the blues’ was given to black southern secular songs in 1912 when W C Handy wrote ‘Memphis Blues’. The distinctive features of the music were in its slow tempos and flattened thirds and sevenths. There are various theories as to why suggestive jokes are branded as ‘blue humour’ – the Lord Chamberlain’s blue pencil being one of them – but it could be because the blues records were full of sexual references.
There are so many blues records with sexual associations that I have not attempted to list them all. I have picked out the most colourful examples. Not all of them became controversial. In many instances, I’m sure that the powers-that-be took little notice as if only the poor black and white communities were listening, it hardly mattered. As I have been putting this list together, I felt convinced that Chuck Berry had been here before me as so often I came across lines that with a little tweaking ended up in his songs. Michael Gray has brilliantly analysed how Bob Dylan plundered the blues but Chuck was there before him.
THE THRUSTING TWENTIES
“Birth and copulation and death, that’s all the facts, when you get down to brass tacks.” (T.S. Eliot)
Back in 1961 I remember a Golden Guinea LP ‘Empty Bed Blues’ by Josh White which had a cover photograph of the back of a naked white girl kneeling on an unmade bed, It was daring for its time and I remember thinking how horrified my parents would be if I showed it to them. I never bought it but the record shop had it around for weeks, at one time defiantly placing it in their window. Assuming that this was the same copy, the cover didn’t have the effect on sales that the record label hoped. Josh White was a 1950s folk-blues singer but the title song, ‘Empty Bed Blues’, was associated with Bessie Smith who has been called the Empress of the Blues.
Bessie Smith was born in 1894 and as she only recorded from 1923 to 1933, she never benefited from the advances in recording technology. The jazz singer George Melly was the one who told me to pay more attention to her work. “Don’t listen to the surface or the scratches, listen to her genius, but the songs have been cleaned up very well. All her tracks are so beautiful and I suppose my favourite is ‘Young Woman’s Blues’. On nearly every album of mine there is a Bessie Smith song.”
Bessie Smith was larger than life, a bisexual who loved sexual activity and heavy drinking and her modus operandi is summed up in ‘Tain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I Do’. ‘Gimme A Pigfoot And A Bottle Of Beer’ is an unladylike song about a wild night with beer, gin and reefers in the midst of razors and guns and was banned by the BBC. It is extraordinary that records like this and ‘You’ve Got To Give Me Some’, were even released in Britain at the time.
Her records are supercharged with sexual content. In ‘Kitchen Man’, she sings,
“I’m mad about his turnip tops”
“His jelly roll is nice and hot”
“Anytime he wants to, he can use my sugar bowl”
That line occurs more emphatically in ‘I Need A Little Sugar In My Bowl’, which was subsequently recorded by Nina Simone. The song was written by Clarence Williams who wrote ‘Organ Grinder Blues, in which he wrote for female singers, “When you grind it slow, that’s when I like it best.”
Sugar has been a slang term for semen for at least a hundred years, but its implication was often overlooked. The McGuire Sisters had a US No 1 with ‘Sugartime’ in 1955 and there were UK versions from Alma Cogan and Eve Boswell. No one complained but what does “Be my little sugar and love me all the time” really mean? In fact, ‘Sugartime’ was written by Charlie Phillips and Odis Echols and the original lyric was written to amuse themselves while farming:
“Pussy in the morning,
Pussy in the evening,
Pussy at suppertime,
Be my little pussy
Give me pussy all the time.”
Oddly enough, this seemingly bland confection has a similar genesis to another famous novelty song. When the pop songwriter Bob Merrill was in Amsterdam, he was intrigued by seeing prostitutes in shop windows. He started to write a dirty song and this in turn became the children’s favourite, ‘How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?’
Bessie Smith’s songs can be moving as well as dirty. ‘Empty Bed Blues’ is a emotional ballad about a girl who wakes up after a night’s drinking: she’s in the bed and her man has gone:
“He poured my fresh cabbage and he made it awful hot,
When he put in the bacon, it overflowed my pot.”
I agree with George Melly. Bessie Smith’s music is wonderful. She died in 1937 after a car crash, possibly because she could not be admitted to a ‘whites only’ hospital. Whatever the truth of the matter, she was buried in a pauper’s grave and she didn’t have a headstone until Janis Joplin bought one in 1970. The inscription reads, “The greatest blues singer in the world will never stop singing.”
Bessie Smith’s ‘Nobody In Town Can Bake A Sweet Jelly Roll Like Mine’, Lil Johnson’s ‘You’ll Never Miss Your Jelly Until Your Jelly Roller Is Gone’, Lonnie Johnson’s ‘Jelly Killed Old Sam’ or Frankie ‘Half-Pint’ Jaxon’s ‘It Must Be Jelly (’Cos Jam Don’t Shake Like That)’ have nothing to do with baking, and jelly roll is commonly found in blues lyrics. It was slang for a lady’s private parts. As Eddie Miller sings in his 1929 ‘Good Jelly Blues’, “Nobody in Chicago can turn your good jelly down” and he wouldn’t be making a song and dance about a gelatin sweet.
Long after the term had become obsolete there was still the occasional reference such as ‘Jelly Roll Baker’ by Lonnie Johnson in 1955. The singer offers the best jelly roll in town and when a nurse goes to sample it, she neglects a dying patient, certainly a bizarre scenario for a popular song from any era.
The pianist Ferdinand Morton was born in New Orleans in 1890 and his first job was playing piano in the brothels in Storyville, at the time the only area in America to have legalised prostitution. As with the eunuchs hanging around the beautiful women in Greece, it was thought that pianists would be homosexual, but Morton didn’t care for that. In order that no one thought he was gay, he became Jelly Roll Morton. He was the first black musician to have sheet music sold of his work, in this case, ‘Jelly Roll Blues’ in 1915. He had considerable success but by 1938 he was down on his luck and running a small bar in Washington DC.
The Manchester-born journalist Alistair Cooke, famed for his ‘Letters From America’, came across Morton and told the folklorist, Alan Lomax, about him. Lomax had recorded Huddie Ledbetter, known as Leadbelly, for the Library of Congress but he thought that the jazz musician Jelly Roll Morton had been too commercial for his purposes. Cooke assured him that he was a wonderful raconteur and that he must record him. So, in 1938, Lomax sat him at a piano for days on end. At the time, a shellac disc could only record up to four and a half minutes and so Lomax had two machines and would start one as the other was winding down.
As a result, hours of great recordings by Jelly Roll Morton have become available. Admittedly he claims credit for everything going (he didn’t write ‘I’m Alabammy Bound’; for example) but his recall of the characters around Storyville and for dirty blues songs is remarkable. The contemporary references are also captivating: for example, a winin’ boy is someone who is well endowed and Stavin Chain is tough rubber tubing.
“I’m the winin’ boy, don’t deny my name,
I’m the winin’ boy, don’t deny my name,
I can pick it up and shake it like Stavin Chain
I’m the winin’ boy, don’t deny my name.
“I had that gal, had her in the grass,
I had that bitch, had her in the grass,
One day she got scared and a snake ran up her ass,
I’m the winin’ boy, don’t deny my name.”
At first Alan Lomax did not know what to do with his recordings. He even a problem asking someone to transcribe them. In his version of ‘C C Rider’, Jelly Roll sings,
“I got a sweet mama lives right back of the jail,
She got a sign in the window, ‘Good pussy for sale’.”
I love the idea of the American government paying for these recordings. Of course now they are now invaluable history and Jelly Roll Morton has appeared on a US postage stamp. ‘Winin’ Boy Blues’, somewhat modified, was a key track on Hugh Laurie’s multi-million selling CD, ‘Let Them Talk’, in 2011.
Long before it was a musical term, the phrase “rock and roll” was used for intercourse. In 1922, the blues singer Trixie Smith sang ‘My Daddy Rocks Me (with one steady roll)’, the first time this phrase had appeared on record. This was rocking around the clock:
“I looked at the clock and the clock struck three,
I said, ‘Now daddy you’re killing me.”
The format was used by Chuck Berry in ‘Reelin’ And Rockin’’ (1957) and even more so when he recorded his dirty version in 1972.
It is blindingly obvious what Trixie Smith is singing about and this song was turned into a novelty in 1929 by Tampa Red’s Hokum Jug Band with Frankie ‘Half-Pint’ Jaxon on vocals. Jaxon imitates a female having an orgasm, hence creating ‘Je T’Aime, Moi Non Plus’ 40 years before its time. In truth, it is more akin to the comedy version, ‘Up Je T’Aime’ from Frankie Howerd and June Whitfield.
In 1929, Lil Johnson recorded ‘Rock That Thing’ and there are variations through to the present day – both John Lee Hooker and B B King recorded many ‘rocking’ songs.
Before I started researching this subject, I had assumed that most dirty blues songs would be by male performers, but not a bit of it. As we have already seen with Ethel Waters, Bessie Smith, Trixie Smith and Lil Johnson, there were plenty of gutsy women around.
The familar comparison of a snake to a penis was put to good use by the St Louis blues singer, Victoria Spivey, with ‘Garter Snake Blues’ and ‘Black Snake Blues’. In the latter, she sings,
“Some people say that it’s filthy and old,
But you can tell the world it’s worth its weight in gold.”
In 1928 Lonnie Johnson and Victoria Spivey worked together on the two-part ‘Furniture Man Blues’. Lonnie, the rent collector, is insisting on payment and Victoria is stalling. In Part 1, she tells him to be careful with his red-hot poker, but she has mellowed by Part 2 and says, “When I get through, you’ll cancel every debt I owe.”
Another of Spivey’s saucy songs was ‘One Hour Mama’, but that was recorded in 1936, the year she left the business. Instead she played the organ and led a church choir but she did return to the blues in the early 60s and Bob Dylan accompanied her on harmonica for a comeback album. The back cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘New Morning’ (1970) has a photograph of Dylan with Spivey.
Equally outspoken was Sippie Wallace who described the attributes of her seven lovers in ‘A Man For Every Day Of The Week’, which featured Louis Armstrong on cornet. The following year she was back with ‘I’m A Mighty Tight Woman’ which is way too much information. Sippie gave up the blues for the church, but she was back with them in the 70s when Bonnie Raitt took her on tour.
That brassy and bold red hot mama, Sophie Tucker, was at her most explicit in the 1920s and in ‘He Hadn’t Up Till Yesterday’, she sings, “If he’s never forgotten his Bible, you can bet he will tonight.”
Turning to Broadway, consider Helen Kane from the Bronx. She was asked to sing ‘I Wanna Be Loved By You’ in the 1928 musical, ‘Good Boy’. She disliked its sentimentality and threw in the ‘boop-boop-a-doop’ as a joke. It brought the house down and she recorded several more ‘boop’ songs. A cartoon character, Betty Boop, was created around her. Several of her songs like ‘Do Something’ were daring and ‘He’s So Unusual’ was about a gay boyfriend. You can also wonder if ‘boop-boop-a-doop’ was standing in for something naughty.
In that same year, Cole Porter wrote his masterly ‘Let’s Do It’, a masterpiece in innuendo as it says both nothing and says everything:
“The chimpanzees in the zoos do it,
Some courageous kangaroos do it,
Let’s do it, let’s fall in love.”
Cole Porter loved his own song, being especially pleased that he had beaten the censors. He had expected it to be banned when he added it to the score of Wake Up and Dream (1929) in London, but instead the Lord Chamberlain praised his knowledge of zoology.
THE DIRTY THIRTIES
“Direct allusion to lovemaking or the use of such words as necking, petting and passion must be avoided.” (NBC Broadcasting Manual, 1939)
“There is no such thing as a dirty word.”
In 1931 the American trade paper, ‘Variety’, said that it was no longer going to print a complete list of the new releases as some of the titles were too risqué. Then, in 1939, when ‘Billboard’ published its first listing of best-selling hillbilly records (effectively, country music), it stated “Double-meaning records are purposely omitted from this column.” So hard luck, Jimmie Davis, we will never know how successful your records were.
Mischievous songs were appearing everywhere but blues records tended to go that step further. Well, perhaps not as far as D H Lawrence whose novel ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ was alluded to in Cole Porter’s ‘Anything Goes’ from the 1934 Broadway show, ‘Blow, Gabriel, Blow’:
“Good authors too who once knew better words
Now only use four-letter words,
Writing prose, anything goes.”
I put ‘perhaps’ in that paragraph for a good reason, and that good reason is Lucille Bogan.
Lucille Bogan was born in Amory, Mississippi in 1897 and her first recordings gave no inkling of what was to come. Then, teaming up with the pianist Walter Roland, she sang big-voiced songs about prostitutes (‘Groceries On The Shelf’, ‘Barbecue Bess’) and lesbian relationships (‘Women Won’t Need No Men’, ‘B D Woman’s Blues’, with B D short for bull dyke).
In 1935 and signed to ARC Records, Lucille recorded ‘Shave ’Em Dry’, which had previously been recorded by Ma Rainey and by Papa Charlie Jackson. According to an interview by blues historian Paul Oliver with Big Bill Broonzy in 1955, shave ’em dry was a term for sex without foreplay and if a listener didn’t know this, the song is cryptic but not necessarily dirty. Lucille left the business around 1936 and died in 1948.
That you might think was that, but it wasn’t. When Lucille had recorded ‘Shave ’Em Dry’ she had also put down a bawdy version of the song:
“I got nipples on my titties as big as the end of my thumb,
I got something ’tween my legs that’ll make a dead man cum.”
Although a few friends might have had copies, this version was obscene and not heard and it would be another 35 years until it was officially released. Indeed, I remember writing in some magazine that Mary Hopkin should consider the song for her next single.
But even that is not the end of the story. There is another take, ‘I’m Gonna Shave You Dry’ in which Walter takes the lead with Lucille adding comments. In addition, Lucille recorded ‘Till The Cows Come Home’, an explicit song about giving your partner the clap.
Sometimes an artist might cut something that was risqué and find that it came back to haunt them. Poor Lizzie Miles felt that her sickness might be a punishment for recording ‘My Man O’War’ (1930): she told God that she would never again appear on stage if she got well. She did recover and circumvented her pledge by singing from the auditorium. In the end, she sang gospel music and returned to the stage.
In 1932 the country musician Jimmie Davis commendably worked with some black musicians but the track was ‘Tom Cat And Pussy Blues’ with references to cocks and pussies. It wasn’t the most appropriate song for a man who became Governor of Louisiana.
Take Cliff Edwards who became Ukulele Ike and was the voice of Jiminy Cricket in Walt Disney’s ‘Pinocchio’. In 1933 he recorded ‘I’m Going To Give It To Mary With Love’ in which he sang,
“I’ll let her take it right in her hand