Blues Related

Idioms Of Robert Johnson

Courtesy
Stephen Calt examines the meanings of blues lyrics and slang in:

The Idioms of Robert Johnson
Barrelhouse Words: A Blues Dialect Dictionary

Robert Johnson’s songs were unusual for 1930s blues in their frequent use of slang terms and idioms, which gave them a 1920s cast and projected an image of Johnson as a barrel-house habitue. With the exception of Love In Vain, all of Johnson’s recordings are partly dependent on slang terms for their meaning, and many of the terms Johnson uses are unique in recorded song. Although Johnson created cant sexual metaphors in such songs as Terraplane Blues, They’re Red Hot, and Phonograph Blues, most of his unusual song expressions were drawn from existing figures of speech.

BARRELHOUSE
(Traveling Riverside Man 1937)
An’ I’m goin’ to Rosedale gonna take my rider by my side
We can still barrelhouse baby cause it’s on the riverside.

To carouse in any socially disreputable fashion associated with the barrelhouse, a commercial establishment given over to drinking, gambling, dancing, and prostitution. By the 1930s barrelhouses were largely obsolete in Mississippi.

BISCUIT ROLLER
(If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day 1936)
An I rolled an I tumbled an I cried the whole night long
I woke up this mornin’ my biscuit roller gone.

In conventional slang, a cook; associated with ranch use. It cannot be demonstrated that this term was a double-entendre.

BLOW
(Walking Blues 1936)
I feel like blowin my lonesome home
Got up this mornin now, it was gone.

A conventional slang term meaning to leave, usually hastily.

BOOKED
(Stones In My Passway 1937)
I got three lanes to truck on, boy please don’t block my road
I be feelin shamed by my rider, baby I’m booked an I got to go.

Although this expression is currently used to mean “obligated to leave,” with an implied comparison to a theatrical booking, its conventional slang meaning at the time of the above recording was to be in trouble. Johnson may have derived it from Lonnie Johnson’s Another Woman Booked Out And Bound To Go (1930).

THE BREAKAWAY
(They’re Red Hot 1936)
I’m gonna upset your back, gonna put your kidneys to sleep
I’ll do the Breakaway on your liver and dare your heart to beat.

A solo dance section (usually done by males) performed as part of the Jitterbug, which became a national craze in 1936. The above couplet was probably a contemporary barrelhouse boast.

BULL COW
(Milkcow Calf Blues 1937)
My milk cow been rambling for miles around
She been sellin some other bullcow, Lord in this man’s town.

A Mississippi blues term for a boyfriend that also occurs in Charlie Patton’s Jim Lee Blues, Part One (“I got a kid on the wheeler, got a bullcow on the plough”). It was likely formed by analogy to milk cow.

BUMBLE BEE
(They’re Red Hot 1936)
The bee is gone back in the bumble bee’s nest
Ever since daddy can’t take his test.

An artificial slang term for a sex partner fostered by the popularity of Memphis Minnie’s Bumble Bee (1929). The original comparison was technically faulty, as only the female of the species has a stinger.

BUSINESS
(Sweet Home Chicago 1936)
Now two and two is four,
Four and two is six
You gonna keep on monkeyin’ around here friend-boy
You’re gonna get your business all in a trick.

Sexual affairs; more commonly rendered in blues song as “to get one’s business fixed.”

CALIFORNIA
(Sweet Home Chicago 1936)
Oh, baby don’t you want to go?
Back to the land of California, to my sweet home Chicago.

Money or wealth. California was a 19th century term for gold coins that had been obsolete for 20 years when Johnson used it.

CAPTAIN
(Last Fair Deal Gone Down 1937)
My Captain’s so mean on me
On that Gulfport Island Road.

A standard English term applied to a foreman or superintendent dating to the early 17th century and obsolete by the time it was used by Johnson. As a servile form of address to white persons, captain was used interchangeably with sir by Southern blacks in the Jim Crow era.

CHILD
(Ramblin On My Mind 1936)
Runnin down to the station, get the first mail train I see
I got the blues bout Miss so-and-so, and the child’s got the blues about me.

A black idiom used synonymously with any of the three singular personal pronouns. The term derives from the English dialect word cbiel, which was used in the second person as “a familiar term of address to adults as well as children. By 1850 it had passed into American colloquial speech; Bartlett (1877) treats it (in the form this child, meaning “myself) as Western slang.

CHRISTMAS EVE
(Hellhound On My Trail 1937)
If today was Christmas eve, and tomorrow Christmas day
I wouldn’t need my little street rider just to pass the time away.

An old-fashioned black idiom for Saturday night that probably reflects the antebellum and Jim Crow era plantation custom of holding Christmas frolics, with food and liquor furnished by the white master or boss. The expression also occurs in Kokomo Arnold’s Old Black Cat Blues (1935):

Yes these blues, mama, ain’t nothin but a doggone heart disease
I was broke and disgusted, I didn’t have no money for Christmas eve.

Johnson’s couplet implies that on a Saturday night he could either afford or obtain a higher-class or more desirable sex partner than his present company.

CLOWN
(Stop Breaking Down 1937)
Now you Saturday night women, you love to ape an clown
You won’t do nothin but tear a good man’s reputation down.

To show off; behave boisterously; generally used pejoratively in obsolete Southern black speech. As applied to women, the term connoted flirting.

From four until eight she give us a no-good bartend’ clown
Now she won ‘t do nothin’ but tear a good man’s reputation down.
(From Four Until Late 1937)

A conventional slang equivalent of jerk.

COLD CHILLS
(Little Queen Of Shades 1937)
She is a little queen of spades, and the men will not let her be
Every time she makes a spread, who cold chills just runs all over me.
)

A dated Southern colloquialism in which the modifier “cold” is redundant. It appears in Opie Read’s dialect novel An Arkansas Traveler (1896): “Her husband held out his waxen hand, and when I took it I shuddered with the cold chill it sent through me”

CONSOLATE
(Stop Breakin Down Blues 1937)
I can’t walk the streets cons — consolate my mind
Some no-good woman she starts breakin down.

An archaic standard English word that was usurped by the synonymous console in the 18th century, now surviving only as the root of consolation.

CREAMPUFF
(I’m A Steady-Rollin Man 1937)
I’m a hard-workin’ trtan, have been for many long years I know
And some creampuff s usin 1 my money, but that’ll never be no more.

Apparently, a pejorative for a male consort. Gary Davis defined the expression as “a king of picked-up person … usually there ain’t nothin’ else no closer.

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