Barrelhouse Words: A Blues Dialect Dictionary Paperback – Oct 1 2009
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"An impeccably scholarly, irresistibly readable guide to the language heard on the recordings of the great blues singers who were active in the first half of the 20th century."--Wall Street Journal
"A very useful and mamlishly good book."--Juke Blues
"A fascinating and entertaining read."--All About Jazz
"A treat for anyone who loves language, and who sees it as a living, breathing entity."--PopMatters
This fascinating compendium explains the most unusual, obscure, and curious words and expressions from vintage blues music. Utilizing both documentary evidence and invaluable interviews with a number of now-deceased musicians from the 1920s and '30s, blues scholar Stephen Calt unravels the nuances of more than twelve hundred idioms and proper or place names found on oft-overlooked "race records" recorded between 1923 and 1949. From "aggravatin' papa" to "yas-yas-yas" and everything in between, this truly unique, racy, and compelling resource decodes a neglected speech for general readers and researchers alike, offering invaluable information about black language and American slang.
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This book was originally begun in the 1960's,then put aside because of lack of publisher interest in the 1970's. In 2005,thanks to another scholar,Calt forged ahead,up-dated his manuscript,and finally had it published. And for everyone who listens to blues music,especially earlier styles from various regions (country blues from Texas for example),this book is a valuable key in unlocking words and phrases (both local and more widely known) which have alluded listeners for years. Included are more than 1200 definitions from the era of "race records" (as blues was then called) that have long ago lost their meaning for listeners in the present. Included are slang terms and place names that have been neglected until now. The meanings,explained in modern terms,are also shown in context in snippets of song lyrics from the era,which adds valuable insight to the word usage.
A number of these terms ("afterwhile","creeper",or "pallet" for example) can be figured out in the context of the surrounding words in the song. But to have a definitive meaning leaves no room for speculation. Other terms ("backbite","gauge","shim-sham-shimmy","dead cat on the line",as examples) need clarification. This is where this book comes into it's own. There are so many definitions of words and phrases that,in the modern world,are no longer relevant,or have simply been forgotten,that this wonderful book could be read almost as a history lesson in itself.
For anyone who listens to blues music and has wondered what a particular word/phrase means,this is something you need. As someone who has listened to blues music for over 40 years,I find this book opens up many doors,and gives much insight and understanding into songs I've listened to,and not been able to catch the full meaning of the lyrics. When Blind Willie McTell sings about putting his pistol "in so' ",now I know what he's really saying. What does "Blind" Lemon Jefferson mean by "jump a rattler"? Or when Robert Johnson sings about taking something out of someone's " 'nation sack",I now know what he's doing. Or when the MEMPHIS JUG BAND sings about a woman looking as good as a "Georgia ham",I now know what they're referring to. What does Lucille Bogan mean when she sings about someone being a "pot hound"? And just what does "graveyard love" really mean? This great book opens up the world of blues music/lyrics like no other. Either spot-reading or reading from cover to cover,this book is both entertaining and invaluable to blues lovers. If blues listeners want to know what they are really listening to-get this book.
But his appreciation of the Blues as an art form and as a reflection of the lives that produced the blues idiom, is at least lacking and pejorative at best. Lets just say you can palpably feel his parochial roots. But that does not reflect on the seeming clinical job he has taken and worked with, achieving reasonable quality, at least to the degree that I recommend this volume as a reference.
I really would (were it possible), based upon Cault's Introduction; love to watch the debate between this author and Albert Murray. Not that Murray doesn't reveal his own biases in Stomping the Blues, but it is clear that we have between these two authors perfect example of the American society's inability to get along, stop judging each others predilection, let history go as perhaps unfortunate words in books and come together as a society for mutual benefit.
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