barrel house blues

Of all the different blues forms, barrelhouse may be the bawdiest. Taking its name from early American bars, usually on the outskirts of towns, these small dives served beer and whiskey to their African American (mostly hard laborer) patrons directly from barrels that littered the floor. Almost always featuring a piano, these local bars rocked with an emotional music known as barrelhouse, a blend of jazz and blues that got these patrons up on their feet to dance. Eventually morphing into boogie-woogie—a strident, uninhibited, and forcefully rhythmic new American music—barrelhouse could be played on the guitar as well. Memphis Minnie proved as much in her classical 1934 recording “Drunken Barrel House Blues.” She sang:

“Get me drunk in the mornin’
don’t say one mumblin’ word (2X)
I can’t tell you all about it and I ain’t gon’ tell you nothin’ I heard

Well I believe I’ll get drunk 
tear this old barrelhouse down (2X)
‘cause I ain’t got no money but I can hope all outta town

Get me one more drink
drink and let’s ball and fun (2X)
And I’m gon’ tell everything just as soon as I get back home”

Unlike the more serious blues forms, barrelhouse was aimed more at getting drunk and having fun dancing. “While blues lyrics often deal with personal adversity, the music itself goes far beyond self-pity. The blues is also about overcoming hard luck, saying what you feel, ridding yourself of frustration, letting your hair down, and simply having fun. The best blues is visceral, cathartic, and starkly emotional. From unbridled joy to deep sadness, no form of music communicates more genuine emotion,” writes Ed Kopp on the All About Jazz website. Kopp could have been describing barrelhouse blues with that statement although he was talking about the blues in general.

The liner notes to an album called Barrelhouse Blues explain that the piano-based blues style developed around the same time as ragtime in the late 19th century, and both shared the same syncopated emphasis on the offbeat. Cow Cow Davenport was a real pioneer of the style. His seminal 1928 recording of “Cow Cow Blues” owed much to the ragtime style. “Unlike the guitar, you couldn’t ride the rails or hobo around with a piano on your back, so musicians would have to adapt to whatever beat-up piano was on offer, with the general state of disrepair adding to the rough and unpolished sound in true barrelhouse spirit.” Other popular blues pianists to emerge from the barrelhouse circuit included Jimmy Yancey, Roosevelt Sykes, Cripple Clarence Lofton and Skip James.

Referring to the well-known barrelhouse album mentioned above, the World Music Network website says, “The raucous playing style of the opening track by Speckled Red perfectly sets the scene for this rough and ready world, with his classic ‘The Dirty Dozen’ [1929] being based on a game of exchanges of insults and vulgar remarks that have long been a part of African-American folklore. In some respects a precursor of rap music, he was told to ‘clean it up for the record’.” Here are some of his (cleaner) lyrics:

“Now, I want all you womenfolks to fall in line
Shake your shimmy like I’m shaking mine
You shake your shimmy and you shake it fast
You can’t shake your shimmy, shake your yes, yes, yes

Now you’s a dirty mistreater, robber and a cheater
Slip you in the dozen, your pappy is your cousin
Your mama do the lordy-lord

Yonder go your mama going out across the field
Running and shaking like an automobile
I hollered at your mama and I told her to wait
She slipped away from me like a Cadillac Eight”

Blues historians will recognize that Speckled Red’s style closely resembles another sub-genre of traditional American blues called “hokum,” or “dirty blues,” which uses extended analogies or euphemisms to create sexual innuendoes. Such songs were popular in the late 1920s and 30s. Their suggestive titles like Bo Carter’s “Warm My Wiener” and “Banana in Your Fruit Basket” promised salacious lyrics, and they did not disappoint. Even female blues singers like Bessie Smithtackled cheeky double-entendres with an unmistakably mischievous tone, as can be heard on “I Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl.” I won’t list any of the often X-rated lyrics here, but you get the idea. Saying the blues has meaning within meanings might be an understatement.

Memphis Minnie sings “Drunken Barrel House Blues”