The Ladylike-Defying, Guitar Playing Debra Devi and ‘The Language of the Blues’

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,, 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.

Voudu Hoodoo

What does it mean to you to have your book back in tangible, print form?

I’m thrilled. The new print copies look so great; I think they look better than the originals. They have a lot more photos than the original.

How long was the original pressing in print?

What happened was it was published by Billboard Books, and then their parent company went into a merger with Random House right around the time the book first published. My editor and publicist were laid off and even though the book won the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for Outstanding Book on Music, you couldn’t find it in stores, it wasn’t in stock; it was just nuts. So I was very grateful Random House gave me the rights to the book back and I was able to pursue republication, because it never got off the ground.

How did Dr. John come to write the forward for the book?

I had interviewed him for Blues Revue and when I was about halfway through writing the book, I thought, “Man, I’m an idiot if I don’t call Dr. John.” He’s such a language nut, and if you read his autobiography, Under a Hoodoo Moon, I mean, it has a glossary of New Orleans slang. So I called his management and they were really nice about the project and the next thing I knew, he called me and we just started to talk.

There were some words that I just could not trace, and one of them was “gig”, like where does “gig” come from? It was driving me crazy and I talked to him and he said, “Oh, that’s from the lottery business, from illegal gambling.” A three-number bet was called a “gig” and musicians adopted a lot of this underworld slang. A “gig” was a bet that you didn’t know if it would pay off or not. He helped me trace a lot of stuff; he’s just so insightful. Then I asked him if he would do the forward, he said “yes” and I’m still kicking myself.

Why do you think the influence of the Vodou religion on the blues has been somewhat overlooked in the public’s perception of the genre?

I think because Vodou has been so mischaracterized. There was a book written about it I think in the late 1800s or early 1900s and Hollywood screenwriters got their hands on it and it depicted Vodou as involving cannibalism and all kinds of depravity. That became the basis for all the zombie movies Hollywood churned out in the ‘30s and ‘40s, so we never really got a clear perception of Vodou. Michael Ventura, the music writer, wrote a great essay on Vodou in rock ‘n’ roll, and most of the points he makes connect to the blues as well. (“Hear That Long Snake Moan”, Shadow Dancing in the USA, Tarcher’s/St. Martin’s Press, 1985.)

For me, it was really interesting to realize Vodou came from Vodun, a West African religion that was forcibly stamped out in the [American] colonies, but in the Catholic colonies in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the Vodou practitioners and priests who were imported into those colonies as slaves quickly grasped some similarities between Catholicism and Vodou. They both have a Supreme God and they both pray to ancestors or saints for intercession, so they grafted their religion… they sort of hid it under Catholicism and that became Vodou and Santeria.

What I think is so amazing is that this is how strong these people were. They came here as slaves, stripped of everything, and they still managed to hold onto certain ethics and aesthetics. Our phrase “Hey, that’s cool” or “That person is cool” directly comes from their idea that to be cool, to have a cool heart, means you’re connected with your divinity — you’re generous, you’re calm, you’re stable, you’re cool. I didn’t know that came from African religion. In Vodou ceremonies, when they’re drumming and they’re dancing, they’re trying to raise their consciousness to hook into God and that’s what we do as musicians and as dancers. It’s powerful stuff that made this country different from Europe.

One of the things that surprised me in your book was learning that the folk music of Irish immigrants influenced the blues in the Delta. How integral was Irish music to what we now consider the blues?

I’m not as well-versed in that as I should be, but I know that the Irish were treated as… They were directly called “white niggers” when they first arrived here or were first imported here as, close to slaves, indentured servants. They mixed a lot more with black people than other whites did, and they shared their music.

What artists today do you think are carrying on the tradition or the spirit of the blues?

Oh, there’s so many. Y’know, I really think there’s been a resurgence of blues feeling in popular music. We have artists like Jack White, the Black Keys, Amy Winehouse, Adele, Jack Johnson… there are so many who seem to be reaching to that or for that sound and that feeling.

Getting into some more specifics on artists and your particular tastes, if you could see a now-deceased blues artist perform live, who would it be?

Freddie King, Freddie King. I’m a guitar player and I never got to see Freddie King, and I freaking love his guitar playing. I have a live Freddie King album and I was listening to it and I was like, “Jimmy Page ripped him off so much!” I was so surprised at how much of Freddie King’s live stuff sounds like Jimmy Page.

If you had to choose between Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf, who would it be?

Oh, gosh. I think I’d lean toward Muddy Waters. I was lucky enough to see Muddy Waters when I was really young. They both have that swagger and they both have amazing voices, but I just have a little more of a thing for Muddy Waters.

There always seems to be a dispute regarding whether Leadbelly was a folk or a blues artist. Do you have an opinion on that, which of the two categories he should fall into?

I would characterize him more as a blues artist, because he has that blues feeling. The nice thing about these artists is that they crossed genres all of the time and they didn’t really care.

Based on your research, what blues song do you think has the longest history? The one that always comes to my mind is “Stagger Lee”, which seems to have been around well over 100 years through its different variations.

I think you just hit on the one that’s probably been around the longest. “Stagger Lee” really comes around from the tradition of toasting and rapping. So much of African history was passed on through song. Griots would memorize the lineage of kings back hundreds of years and be able to sing these songs. On a more prosaic level, there were songs like “Stagger Lee” that were boasts and toasts. I think you hit on the one that I would go back to too as the oldest tune.

There is also this whole idea of the monkey, the lion and the elephant, the signifying monkey, and those go back a long way, too. Those are all stories that African slaves used to couch violent impulses toward their masters. When you have these purported love songs that are about killing a woman and dragging her in chains and all this kind of stuff, it’s pretty obvious to see these were metaphors for the slavery experience. That’s why I think there’s a lot of violence in blues songs, because you’re trying to come up with ways to express how you feel about the situation without getting in trouble and that’s what signifying is all about. There’s a couple of songs that are about signifying, like “The Signifying Monkey” by Smokey Joe and “Don’t Start Me to Talkin’” by Sonny Boy Williamson.

Regarding your album, Get Free (December 2010) why did you choose to cover Dion’s “Runaway”?

I love that song, and the first version I ever heard of it was Bonnie Raitt’s version. I would never have dreamed of covering that song — or “The Needle and the Damage Done”, which we also cover — but I was playing “Runaway” one time at rehearsal and my bass player and drummer were coming in, and I was just warming up, and they just started playing it, and they played it so great. I was like, “Oh my God, we may have to do this song!” I think it turned out pretty great on the record. I tried to hearken back a little back to Del Shannon’s 1961 version also in some of the guitar parts that I did. I was petrified to sing vocals because Bonnie’s vocals were so clear in my mind, but I tried to do my own thing.

Also regarding my band, we’re starting work on a new EP we hope to have out in a couple months.

If you were to introduce a newcomer to the blues, what album or artist would you recommend as a starting point?

There’s a few that I have in mind. There’s the American Folk Blues Festival set; that’s an incredible introduction to the blues. Another one that I really like was put out by Chess Records is a two-disc set of New Orleans blues. It’s just called New Orleans. I could go on for a while. For somebody who is more of a rocker, I think I would give them a Stevie Ray Vaughn record. I think people who are even into rock can relate to his playing and he can sort of get them into the blues backwards.

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