The Ladylike-Defying, Guitar Playing Debra Devi and ‘The Language of the Blues’
For aficionados of American history, music and etymology, the blues is the ideal confluence of all three fields. Devi's book is a roadmap for observing how their paths overlap.
When you listen to the blues, you’re stepping into another world. It’s a realm populated by troubadours serving as emissaries of another time, region and people. As with any culture, the one which spawned the blues likewise bore a unique language, and among all of the genres and subgenres of American music, the blues arguably stands supreme in terms of having the most idiosyncratic dialect and slang. Sure, jazz, rock and rap all have their own vernacular, but as each of those sprung from the blues, that parent genre still gets the credit.
The blues stands apart for the paramount reason that the culture from which it sprung was quite literally the result of other disparate cultures merging together. In the American South and Mississippi Delta region, African slaves and their generations of descendants increasingly saw their traditional languages and customs homogenized with that of their European-descended American owners. Thus, traditional African languages of the Fon, Wolof, Yoruba and Bantu, among others, merged with English, Spanish and French. New regional dialects, words and phrases emerged from the stew, which in turn found themselves expressed in the music of those bluesmen who spoke such a language in their daily lives.
Debra Devi’s book, The Language of the Blues: From Alcorub to Zuzu, serves as a guide to the world of the blues. It explores the patios of this plane, charting recurring terminology and examining its origins and meanings. The author, a musician herself and contributor to Blues Revue, RollingStone.com, Guitar World and The Village Voice, interviewed blues icons such as Robert Jr. Lockwood, Hubert Sumlin, Henry Gray, Robben Ford, Dr. John — who also penned the book’s foreword — and others, sifted through academic sources and ended up with a glossary of roughly 150 entries and nearly 400 footnotes.
What did Robert Johnson mean when he referred to his woman as a “no-good doney” in “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom”? What were the religious origins of John Lee Hooker’s boast of being a “crawlin’ king snake” who ruled his den? What differing connotations of “spoonful” were Howlin’ Wolf and Charlie Patton offering? How did slaves and their descendants use subtlety and innuendo in signifying to insult their oppressors? What words used in mainstream America hail directly from the blues, and by that token, from Africa? The answers to these questions are found in Devi’s comprehensive work. For aficionados of American history, music and etymology, the blues is the ideal confluence of all three fields, and The Language of the Blues is a roadmap for observing how their paths overlap.
Though the book was published by published by Billboard Books in 2006, it went out of print after a short run, despite winning the 2008 ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for Outstanding Book on Popular Music. Guitar International republished the work in eBook form in March 2012, with True Nature Books following up with reprinting it as a tangible book in September. Devi, between playing shows with her namesake three-piece and promoting both her album, Get Free and the book, spoke with PopMatters about her experience in researching the blues and the surprising facts she learned in the process.
What about the blues appealed to you?
Well, I grew up in Milwaukee and some of the very first live music shows I saw were blues. As I talk about in the book, one of the first shows I ever saw was Koko Taylor and Son Seals, and at the time, I had a real passion for the electric guitar. Since I was a kid, I used to sing guitar solos instead of lyrics when I heard songs on the radio. But when I asked if I could play electric guitar, I was told it was “unladylike,” so I was sort of a frustrated guitar player when I was 17 and I saw that show.
What really knocked me out was how Son Seals would just play one note and wring so much emotion out of it that whole place would just be flattened, and that really encouraged me because I thought, well, a lot of the rock players that I saw played really fast and I felt I’d never be able to catch up to them, but when I saw the blues, it was like a whole different, more mature approach to music. It had nothing to do with showing off technique or being flashy. It had to do with hitting a core of emotion and expressing it in a really powerful way, and that’s what really got me. I remember just flying out of my seat and dancing for the first time in my life.
Explain the genesis of the book, how you got started and how you envisioned it.
How it started was I had been working freelance as an associate editor for Blues Revue magazine and I was talking to Editor-in-Chief Andrew Robble, who had been a really great friend of Mike Bloomfield and he had some really funny stories to share about differences in words in the blues. Like I talk about in the book, the word “cock” being applied to female genitalia instead of male genitalia and how that confused Michael Bloomfield when he first heard Muddy Waters talking about that. So it got me thinking about these words I took for granted, what they meant, like “mojo” and “voodoo”. I thought, “Do I really know what these words mean and where are they really from?” I just got fascinated and I started keeping a list and when I got to 100 words I thought, “Maybe I should write a book.”
So you didn’t start out with the idea of making a literal glossary; it just sort of evolved into that?
Yeah, I just got curious and then I got fascinated and then I became obsessed. I just really started tracking down these words to African languages, and then I became really interested in how much of not only African language, but African culture, influences American language and American culture. We talk about slavery, but we don’t really talk about the huge influence African ideas and language and music have had on our culture.
What sort of challenges did you come up against in your research?
The first challenge I came up against was that managers and publicists of the elder blues artists I wanted to talk to didn’t want to grant me interviews, for the simple reason that if you have someone like Hubert Sumlin or Robert Jr. Lockwood, they’re 70, 80, 90 years old these guys and their managers parcel them out very carefully, as to say they only give interviews if they have a record to promote. Doing an interview in a book doesn’t really help them sell records, so it wasn’t really relevant to the managers or publicists.
I was kind of up against it, and then I got sort of lucky because there was this big event at Lincoln Center honoring the blues and there was a press conference that afternoon at Barnes & Noble. I went down there and, it was kind of amazing, seated along the wall in the autograph line were about a dozen of the artists I had been trying to interview. The managers and publicists were there, but I just snuck into the autograph line and as I went down the line, I talked to each artist and I explained my project — that this was a book that was going to explain blues language and trace its origins — and would they be interested in being interviewed, and I walked out with 11 home phone numbers. When I explained it to each of them, they instantly got the significance of the project and wanted very much to be involved. I just sort of did a runaround the management.
Did being a white woman researching a music form traditionally dominated by black men afford any hurdles?
Y’know, I was worried about that. It turned out really the only hurdle was in my mind. I was nervous about it, but every single African American artist that I interviewed was forthcoming and gave tremendously of time and energy and never brought it up to me. I had a few white people bring it up to me in challenging ways, but never the black artists at all. I quickly realized that it just didn’t matter. I was going to do the best I could from my framework, being a white woman, and if someone else didn’t like it, then they could write a book from their framework of being whoever they were.
How long was the overall process from the time you started researching until the time you felt you had a final draft?
About a year and a half, but it was intense. The last six months, I was strapped to my desk 16 hours a day, but I remember sitting at my desk and just feeling very happy. It was work that I really, really enjoyed. I’m not a scholar, but I did as much research as I could — the book has something like 395 footnotes — but for me, I just had this love of the blues that I was fascinated to dig in more, I was fascinated to speak about it, I was fascinated to uncover the powerful influence of Africa on this country, and I just was having a good time.
In the course of your research, what the most fascinating thing you learned? Were there any stories that really stood out as surprising?
There were a few. One was definitely the gender-switching in different words for genitalia, like “cock”, “nut” and “lemon” used for women and men interchangeably. Another was when I talked to Hubert Sumlin about the term “killing floor” in the Howlin’ Wolf song “Killing Floor” because when I did all of my Internet and book research, all the experts said Howlin’ Wolf wrote that song about coming from the Delta to Chicago, working in the slaughterhouses, which was really horrible, dirty work and one of the few jobs African Americans coming up from the Delta could get in Chicago when they first immigrated. So I went to Hubert just to confirm that fact and instead he said, “No, it wasn’t about that at all.”
He told me this whole amazing story about a woman that Wolf was involved with and when he came home from a tour, she sent him down to the grocery store to get some potatoes and tomatoes to make a welcome-home meal for him, which was really just her excuse to ransack his bus. She found some lady’s underwear and by the time he comes back, she’s leaning out the window with a shotgun and started shooting at him. Hubert said, “Yeah, he wrote that song about her because she had him down on the killing floor.” And that was a metaphor he also used for depression. Hubert said Wolf was prone to bouts of depression, that if he hated his vocal on a record, they couldn’t get him back into the studio. He’d be so bummed out and he would say, “I feel so low; I’m down on the killing floor.” Certainly other artists have used it to refer to the slaughterhouse floors, but it was really cool to get that story.
I was looking for what contributions I could make that would be inventive. I thought, “Well, I’m an artist myself; I’m a songwriter. Maybe I can do that. Maybe I can talk to these other artists and songwriters about what these words really meant, what they meant to them.” That became my focus and that’s why I interviewed so many people. That’s why I call the book an anecdotal dictionary, because it’s like a dictionary but it’s also stories.