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Barrelhouse Words: A Blues Dialect Dictionary Paperback – Oct 1 2009

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: University of Illinois Press; 1st Edition edition (Oct. 1 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0252076605
  • ISBN-13: 978-0252076602
  • Product Dimensions: 15.2 x 2.3 x 22.9 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 499 g
  • Average Customer Review: Be the first to review this item
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #539,172 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Product Description


"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

Book Description

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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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) HASH(0x9e33ed80) out of 5 stars 8 reviews
28 of 29 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x9e4dd984) out of 5 stars BLUES LISTENERS NEED THIS BOOK Dec 10 2009
By Stuart Jefferson - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Trade-size,271 pages of definitions. There is an author's note and an introduction. Also included is an annotated bibliography of dictionary sources,and a general bibliography. There is a list of people who the author consulted or interviewed-several (Gary Davis,Skip James,Son House,for example) before their death,and a list of abbreviations and symbols used in the text,which is very useful. True to it's title,the words and explanations are laid out like a dictionary,in alphabetical order. The acid-free paper is a very nice cream color,which makes reading (or looking up) the definitions easy on the eyes.

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.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x9e4ddbd0) out of 5 stars A handy resource for blues fans. March 28 2010
By Dennis M. Heath - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Ya know, you can listen to blues, especially if you are a novice and really not know for sure what the heck they are insinuating. This book clears it up and it is amazing how many ways you can have double entres in blues. Fun book to have and will help anyone with their blues knowledge which of course makes for more appreciation.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x9e4ddb94) out of 5 stars Keep Nearby March 13 2012
By jcbl - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is a great book to keep nearby as you listen to your old blues tunes. Ever wonder what a particular word or phrase means? Likely you'll find your answer here. Well done and enjoyable for any blues fan.
HASH(0x9e4dde88) out of 5 stars A blues dictionary July 26 2014
By Brett Bydairk - Published on
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This book is just what it says: a dictionary of words and terms found in early blues records. Invaluable for those interested in these songs.
HASH(0x9e4ddee8) out of 5 stars Five Stars Dec 14 2014
By Rahul Suri - Published on
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Very worthwhile.