Barrelhouse Words: A Blues Dialect Dictionary

Back when I was in junior high school in South Carolina, a transfer student from California joined our homeroom class. On his first day there, he announced — for no apparent reason — “Man, I’m jonesin’ for something to eat!” Almost in unison, we turned to face him and shine the appraising light of our seventh-grade hive mind upon him. “Jonesin’? What the heck’s he talking about?” So he explained it to us, we all acted like it was the craziest thing we’d ever heard, and promptly started using it as our own by lunchtime.

That was my first exposure to slang that came from outside of my own cultural group. Back in those days, before giant media forces like MTV had a firm grip on the ways that they could mandate the way we talk, dress, and purchase, new words often travelled around via the good old oral tradition. This could also have its down side, as I found out years later when a very jealous girlfriend interrogated me over my use of what I thought was an innocuous new word: “cool”. Where had I picked up that word? I’d never used it before! It could only mean that I was hanging out with those… those slang-slinging ne’er-do-wells that she’d told me to stay away from! But overall, words came and stayed, or came and went, without too much fuss.

Now that we’re all connected by wires and satellites it’s harder and harder — at least in the United States — to find instances where regional differences account for significant differences in language. More and more, it’s the specialization found in subcultures that are formed by shared interests wherein you find language popping with ‘newness’, or at least, ‘different-ness’ to your own. There was a time when you could have an entire conversation about baseball that would make absolutely no sense to a non-fan (“The pitcher dealt some high heat, but all the batter could do with it was send a can of corn to the right fielder.”); a time when you were an insider to a specific language.

Cory Doctorow’s short story “When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth” envisions an apocalypse where most of the survivors owe their lives to being deep in the bowels of data centers. It’s a fun read, especially if you know the jargon of Usenet, pinging servers, and geek t-shirts. Thinking back on that and reading Stephen Calt’s Barrelhouse Words: A Blues Dialect Dictionary, I realize that the blues has historically drawn from multiple wells: getting some of its private language as a result of musicians passing songs to one another on the club circuit, gaining vocabulary as a result of its mutations in fertile locations like Chicago or the deep South, retaining terms from historical eras like American slavery and Jim Crow, and more. Whatever the case, the blues — especially blues from the early part of the 20th Century when it was segregated as “race music” — boasts a rich vernacular of its own, and the further back you go, the more impenetrable some of the language gets to our modern ears.

Barrelhouse Words: should definitely go a long ways toward easing any confusion inflicted by an obscure blues lyric. Calt, (a blues historian whose publications include I’d Rather Be the Devil: Skip James and the Blues and King of the Delta Blues: the Life and Music of Charlie Patton), has seen his fair share of controversy in the blues world. His biography of James, which portrayed the blues legend in a deeply unflattering light, seemingly won Calt few friends. But Barrelhouse Words should be able to avoid any such flare-ups. With its dictionary-like formatting and well-cited sources, you couldn’t ask for a book with a more neutral tone.

Calt began the manuscript for Barrelhouse Words in the ’60s, collecting slang as he interviewed various blues artists and kept an open ear when he was in African-American communities. After unsuccessfully shopping the book around, Calt let his findings sit forgotten in a closet for decades until a colleague encouraged him to try again. It’s a good thing, too. As anyone who’s listened to old blues recordings can attest, slang such as “jack stropper” (someone who’s trying to steal your woman), “dead cat on the line” (a problem from the past), or “my stomach thinks my throat’s been cut” (powerful hunger) can leave you scratching your head.

For this book, “barrelhouse words” (a term he attributes to Willie Moore) refers to the language of bars, dives, and other places of questionable activity. He purposely excludes words that were coined by songwriters for the purposes of their songs (concluding, for example, that the use of the ever-popular “lemon” as a double-entendre for genitals, originates with performer Bo Carter). This seems like the hardest part of Calt’s job, distinguishing the true slang from language concocted for a marketplace that favored “down and dirty” recordings.

Calt presents his findings in alphabetical order, taking his cue from dictionary formatting that offers the term, an example of usage, and a definition:

crawfish, ways like a

…Your ways is like a crawfish

You’ll get all you can an’ doodle back in your hole

— Bo Carter, “Ways Like a Crawfish”, 1938

A comparison based on the slang use of crawfish as a verb meaning to renege, which dates to c.1850 (DAS).

It’s a work of scholarship, but probably one of the most enjoyable ones you’ll read. In quality and quantity, there are euphemisms for sex and body parts to rival a bawdy Shakespearean Comedy, and even where the slang isn’t necessarily raunchy, it’s always clever. And as you make your way through the book — just thumbing through, or picking it up to look up something you’ve just heard in a song — you find that the slang also covers nearly every aspect of life. Some of it you still hear today (I probably hear someone use the term “raggedy-ass” or “unkempt” once a week), while some of it’s wonderfully obscure (“Seven Sisters” refers to a famous New Orleans conjurer). A good portion of it is dark (“graveyard love” means a relationship that will result in murder), and some of it’s surprisingly poetic (“hush one’s fuss”, to die, is one of the most plainspoken and gorgeous expressions of dying that I’ve ever heard).

Even it you’re not a fan of the blues, Barrelhouse Words is a treat for anyone who loves language, and who sees it as a living, breathing entity — although enjoying the blues certainly doesn’t hurt. The blues slang found here draws from every imaginable source — “till the sea go dry”, for example, apparently hearkens back to 18th Century Scottish poet Robert Burns, of all places — and Barrelhouse Words stands as a fascinating look at the ways in which everyday language finds its flavor.

RATING 8 / 10