dirty blues

1937 Hudson Terraplane

The golden Age of the Blues started in the early 1920s, just after the end of World War I, especially after Mamie Smith (1883-1946) recorded her epoch-making “Crazy Blues” in 1920. The blues craze also coincided with the decade known as the “Roaring Twenties” when alcohol consumption was officially banned, giving rise to “speakeasies” where illegal booze flowed along with raunchy music and even dirtier dancing. 

While whites were enjoying speakeasy freedoms, African-Americans were still subject to segregationist Jim Crow laws. Their nocturnal entertainment was largely limited to black-owned juke joints and other shabby establishments. Since practically everyone in these joints was black, the environment gave black entertainers the opening to say (or sing) whatever they wanted using dirty words and to perform (then) socially unacceptable moves they could not make elsewhere. Female blues singers ruled during those days and they did not hesitate to use dirty expressions on stage to get a laugh or to liven up the crowd. Dirty Blues was thus born in this milieu.

“Dirty blues encompasses forms of blues music that deal with socially taboo subjects and obscenity, including sexual acts and/or references to drug use of some kind. Due to the sometimes graphic subject matter, such music was often banned from radio and only available on a jukebox. The style was most popular in the years before World War II, although it had a revival in the 1960s,” states Wikipedia.

Many blues songs used innuendo, slang terms, or double entendres, such as Lil Johnson’s “Press My Button (Ring My Bell)” (“Come on baby, let’s have some fun / Just put your hot dog in my bun”). However, some of these songs were very explicit. The most extreme examples were rarely recorded at all, Lucille Bogan’s obscene song “Shave ‘Em Dry” (1935) being a rare example. It was noted by one music historian as “by far the most explicit blues song preserved at a commercial pre-war recording session.” Her lyrics are too filthy to list here; it’s a real wonder they were ever published at all.

Known as the “Queen of Dirty Blues,” Lil Johnson extensively employed this style of blues music, using extended analogies or euphemisms to make sexual innuendoes. The following lyrics were in a 1937 recording:

“Got out late last night in the rain and sleet,

Tryin’ to find a butcher to grind my meat,

Yes, I’m lookin’ for a butcher,

He must be long and tall,

If he want to grind my meat,

Cause I’m wild about my meatballs.”

Dirty blues were not totally confined to female singers, however. A good male example would be Bo Carter (1893-1964), who often used fruit in his lyrics as a sexual metaphor, such as in his song “Banana in Your Fruit Basket.” A part of the lyrics goes like this:

“Let me put my banana in your fruit basket, then I’ll be satisfied,
Now, I got the washboard, my baby got the tub,
We gonna put ‘em together, gonna rub, rub, rub.”

Another case was the great Robert Johnson’s 1936 “Terraplane Blues,” in which he used the famous 1930s Hudson automobile as a sexual symbol, saying his car would not even start after another man had driven it for a while.

“I’d said I flash your lights, mama, you horn won’t even blow,
Somebody’s been runnin’ my batteries down on this machine,
I even flash my lights, mama, this horn won’t even blow,
Got a short in this connection, hoo well, babe, it’s way down below.”

As the blues slowly morphed into rock ‘n’ roll in the post WWII period, some rockers continued the dirty blues style in their lyrics. Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline” (Chess Records, 1955) comes to mind as the song’s lyrics concern a girl who keeps cheating on her man. This idea is conveyed via a car chase in which the singer is following (in his V8 Ford) his girlfriend, who is driving her Coup de Ville, and drag racing a man driving a Cadillac. Not quite to the Terraplane Blues level, but close. Interestingly, the Terraplane car went out of production the year after Johnson recorded the song in San Antonio, Texas.

Robert Johnson sings “Terraplane Blues”

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