This month’s “Twisted Misters” column is devoted to not one particular person, but rather scores of songs from the early 1900s to the 1960s (at which point the sexual revolution rendered them virtually obsolete). I am one among many roots music enthusiasts who find they have become avid lovers of the “dirty blues.” These are the X-rated, ribald, licentious, salacious, sordid, and perverted “tell-it-like-it-is” odes to life from the first half of the 20th century. They’re not “Twisted Misters” from a psychological standpoint, but instead the often shocking and sometimes humorous day-to-day chronicles of men (and women--our dear “Twisted Sisters”) who grew up deprived of personal expression in damned near every aspect of their lives.
Allusions to sex in songs began well before the twentieth century. Once Edison’s inventions took hold, a genuine “popular culture” began. The latter half of the nineteenth century showed America experiencing intense struggles with social classes, slavery and race issues, and growing pains with industrial revolution. The growth of modern transportation rode alongside these issues and made it possible to broaden popular entertainment’s horizons in both content and geographic area. Vaudeville, circuses, and minstrel acts (particularly “blackface” by blacks and whites alike) rose to national prominence. It was here that the difficulties of the average black man or woman were truly made aware to the rest of the world.
What was life for most black men in the early 20th century? We all know that it was generally poor, oppressed, backbreaking, and filled with strife. But that strife is where freedom begins to flower amidst the rubble of man’s psyche. Music was the most common form of relief. 1920s vaudeville pianist Tom Delaney, for instance, gave us “Georgia Stockade Blues,” which tells us of one life more common than not:
Days are weary
Night seems long
Down in Georgia Stockade town
Doing time for a crime
They found me guilty without one dime
Guards all around with their guns
Shootin’ me down like a rabbit
If I start to run.
Alan Lomax (a well-known folk-life historian) sums it up in his book “Land Where the Blues Began:”
“Blues is the only song form in English that allows us (anyone) to pose problems, raise issues, make complaints, and then provide a cynical or satirical response.” When these songs started to come out of the Delta and other rural and downtrodden urban locations (often via minstrel shows), the white man stopped and listened.
Prison life. Street life. Homeless life. None was a life any white man could envy. But a sex life? Now there’s something no white man could control. Because of the “lower-class” association, he might shake his head with an (often false) air of righteousness, but it was also with awe and envy. White folks have been obsessed ever since.
These songs were adopted and adapted into white culture as the years passed, with some interesting results. As children, many of us learned kids’ songs with seemingly nonsensical words. We often sung the phrase “ta-ra-ra-ra-boom-de-ay”, for instance. What we (and I assume our delightfully clueless parents) didn’t know was that while this phrase seems simply one line in a children’s folk song, it actually originated in song around the late nineteenth century as a euphemism for, well—fucking. It’s good to know that my mother the nun taught me a sweet little “fucking ditty” as a wee one. Ammo’s always good to have.
As the blues movement progressed, these phrases got more direct—“doin’ the jelly roll,” “ringin’ my bell,” “blowin’ my horn,” “trucking” “ rocking” (who doesn’t like to rock?), and “salty dog”…but even so, the euphemisms were still pretty coy. You’d get that little “hand to mouth” gesture, the raised eyebrow and the “tut-tut”; the nervous giggle. But if I wanted the Playboy channel I think I’d just subscribe to it and give up my sojourns to the AAA Newsstand (I am only there for the articles, by the way). And I know that these days, merely the word “fucking” does the trick, does it not?
But when I slip that disc on the player and it’s Lucille Bogan’s 1936 special, “Shave ‘Em Dry,” I find it more loads more titillating than, say…Paris Hilton’s night-vision sex video with her choad-y boyfriend. Well, on second thought…who doesn’t? Did you see that video? Paris Hilton + sack= B-O-R-I-N-G. Maybe I should play her John Oscar’s “New Rubbin’ on the Darned Old Thing” from 1936.
“Aural porn” is what I call the dirtiest of the dirty blues; these are the songs that never really made it into the public spotlight. Perhaps the only exceptions to this would be Bull Moose Jackson’s “Big 10-Inch (Record)”, covered by Aerosmith, or the Dominoes’ “60-Minute Man.” However, most of the brown-wrapper verse of which I speak rolls like the following (an old blues song accredited to, tada! No one? What a surprise):
Ole’ Aunt Milly from Salt Lake City
The way she’d do it was really a pity
She starts with tectish and ends with gas
She’s got a Cadillac pussy and a Packard ass.
Just stop for a second and let that mental picture sink in. Or perhaps, a verse from a song called “Tight Like That”:
Old Uncle Jack with his wooden leg
I’ll hold his head while you set the peg
Cause it feel so good, tight like that
Baby don’t you hear me, tight like that
And sometimes, just sometimes, we are given the folk story of the song’s inspiration. This is one for a song called “Drive Them Cows,” that Alan Lomax collected in the Delta many years ago.
You might not believe this, but there was a woman once who never had had no man. This woman lived away out in the woods, you know, by herself. And she never did ‘low no mens in her house. Couldn’t nobody; see, nobody be there. So there was a man in town one evening about three o’clock you know, he was a cow buyer and he was talking to the people at the market and they told him about this here woman, name Annie. Man say:
“Didn’t nobody go around and see Annie?”
“No, I never did hear nobody goin over and seeing her.”
“I wonder who go with her?”
“I don’t know. Nobody there at all.”
“Well, I’m goin over there tonight and I’m gonna get on her.”
He went and bought up a lot of cows and he drove ‘em past this woman’s house. He says, “Hello.”
She says, “Hello.”
He says, “Now lady, can I stay here all night?”
She says, “Why mister, I don’t ‘low no man to stay here.”
Says, “Well, I ain’t no man, I’m a woman-hater.”
“All right. Bein you is a woman hater, you can stay here all night.”
So when he got down, he went on into the house. She says, “I ain’t got but one bed.”
He says, “Why, I can sleep with you then. I’m a woman hater.”
It’s hot, in summer, so him and her laying in the bed, you know, laying there with his shirt up and prick near hard as a brick. Directly she looked over there and seen that thing, she said, “What is that?”
“Them my cows.”
She felt down a little lower and she said, “What is that?”
“Them my oxen.”
So he lays on across her and he feels her and he says, ”What is that?”
She said, “That’s my hole of water.”
He lay there awhile. He say, “Well lady, can I water my cows in your pond?”
She say, “Yeah.”
So he gets on her, commence getting it from her. And it got kinda good to her, she thought he could go in deeper. She said, “Listen, drive your cows on in.” So he left it right there. It get so good to her, she said, “Listen, drive the cows and oxen all into the clear water. Damn hole ain’t boggy!”
I’m not going to hide behind a crooked brow or “tsk, tsk” myself into a corner. So I’m a big fan of aural porn. I like to hear what’s going on. It could be called a sort of mutual “masturbation”—the record player turns me on, and all I have to do is I turn it on. I slip that “Big 10-Inch” record in, get that needle into the tiny groove and listen until a big smile spreads right across my face.