Sometimes one is caught on the horns of a verbal dilemma: Is it better to tell the truth and face the consequences or tell a lie and live with the pain of that deception? Or some opt for a middle ground of “spinning,” i.e., cloaking a lie in the misdirection of truth, or vice-versa. Government officials in particular seem to excel at this “skill” of talking without actually saying anything and/or wrapping truth in a veil of lies. In World War II, Winston Churchill made his now-famous statement: “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” The last three words of Churchhill’s statement became the title of a 1975 non-fiction book by Anthony Cave Brown.
Classical writers and poets also used lyrical misdirection and double entendre extensively. Life “is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” says the paranoid king in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. With a dead wife and armies marching against him, Macbeth’s pessimism is totally understandable. The key word here, however, is signifying, a loaded word indeed, as it can have various meanings. The textbook definition of “signifying” is the use of double-meaning in verbal communication to convey a different or opposite meaning to the literal interpretation. Centuries later, black slaves on white Southern plantations were using this lyrical technique to communicate messages without getting caught in an act of sending subversive suggestions.
“In the 19th Century, it was commonplace among slave communities for ironic statements, perhaps about some ‘fine work’ that might sound respectful to the ‘master’, to express the opposite to fellow slaves. In the Gospel song ‘Wade in the Water,’ the lyric ostensibly refers to the practice of ‘baptizing’ people into the Church by immersing them in the river, but it also references runaway slaves using waterways to put bloodhounds off the scent,” suggests Allaboutbluesmusic.com. “When songs address the subject of sex, all kinds of metaphors, and word-plays are used to disguise the material being ‘signified’, and the game included accusing anyone who complained about the content of lyrics of having a ‘dirty mind’ for doubting the literal meaning.”
Hokum, a.k.a. “dirty blues,” records were popular in the late ‘20s and early ‘30s in America. Their lyrics on some of those records that sold in their hundreds of thousands were quite explicit in their references to sexual practices, prostitution and homosexuality. This hokum craze occurred during the “Prohibition” era, when drinking alcohol criminalized large parts of the population. Permissiveness in nightlife extended to sexual activity, gambling and other immoral and subversive activities.
A sub-genre of traditional American blues, hokum uses extended analogies or euphemisms to make sexual innuendoes. For instance, let’s look at some of the lyrics to Bo Carter’s “Banana in Your Fruit Basket” (1931):
“I got a brand new skillet
I got a brand new lead,
All I need is a little woman, just to burn my bread
I’m tellin’ you baby, I sure ain’t gonna deny,
Let me put my banana in your fruit basket, then I’ll be satisfied.”
In fact, food was often a symbol used by Hokum blues players in the early days. Sausages were the food of choice for Bessie Smith (“Hot Dog Man” 1927), Butterbeans and Susie’s “I Wanna Hot Dog for my Roll” (1927), Bo Carter’s “Please Warm My Weiner” (1935), and Lil Johnson’s “Sam the Hot Dog Man” (1936). Lil Johnson’s “Press My Button, Ring My Bell” (1936) includes the lines “Come on baby, let’s have some fun, Just put your hot dog in my bun,” points out williamseaton.blogspot.com. “In 1928 Tampa Red and Georgia Tom Dorsey recorded ‘It’s Tight Like That,’ a song that was highly successful and opened the door to a stream of dirty blues artists that recorded during the 1930s. Interestingly, pianist Georgia Tom Dorsey later left his hokum blues origins and went on to create a new genre based on religious beliefs: Gospel.” The lyrics to “It’s Tight Like That” go like this:
“Listen here folks
Wanta sing a little song
Don’t get mad, we don’t mean no harm
Y’know, it’s tight like that
Oh, It’s tight like that
Oh, ya Hear me talkin’ to you
I mean it’s tight like that
There was a little black rooster
Met a little brown hen
Made a date at the barn about-a half-past-ten
Y’know, it’s tight like that.”
In PRI World Paulus van Horne explains that the hokum genre is pure entertainment, composed for the vaudeville shows and rundown theaters home to minstrel shows in the 1920s and 1930s. “Both black and white musicians sang hokum. It wasn’t only white people making fun of black people, nor was it black people playing up stereotypes for a white audience.”
The environment that gave birth to recorded blues was indeed a witch’s brew of volatile entertainment spurred on by post-WWI euphoria, rising black nationalism, the Harlem Renaissance, lewd dancing in public and drinking in “speakeasy” (password required) pubs where outlawed liquor was sold during Prohibition days. The general giddiness of the Roaring Twenties produced a freedom of expression in music rarely seen afterwards.
Even white comedians like Jeff Foxworthy pay homage to those clever black wordsmiths of the hokum blues days: “I talk about sex and marriage but it’s just trying to find a way to say ‘it’ without actually saying ‘it’.” A couple of Jeff’s funniest one-liners about Astroglide: “Let’s you park your Cadillac in a doghouse” and (referring to a woman’s caboose) “That looks like two blue Volkswagens trying to pass each other on a gravel road.” Pure hokum. Tampa Red would look down and smile.
Tampa Red and Georgia Tom Dorsey sing “It’s Tight Like That”