The Staying Power of Old School Vulgarity
In 1904, the New Orleans pianist Jelly Roll Morton was hanging out in Biloxi, Mississippi, at a joint called The Flat Top. He later recalled some of the piano players he heard there–Brocky Johnny, Skinny Head Pete, Florida Sam, and Tricky Sam–but he wasn’t much impressed by them. As he said, “It was nothing but a old honky tonk...[and] they just played ordinary blues, the real, lowdown blues, honky-tonk blues.” Asked if he remembered any songs in particular, he mentioned one Brocky Johnny sang that began, “All you gals better get out and walk/Because I’m gonna start my dirty talk.”
Nobody else remembered Brocky Johnny, but his verse traveled the length of Mississippi. Almost thirty years later, Memphis Minnie used a variation to begin one of her records: “Come all you folks and start to walk/I’m fixing to start my dozen talk.” It was a small change from “dirty” to “dozen,” but it is as good a place as any to begin this story.
The most familiar Mississippi blues story starts in the Delta, where African-rooted field hollers evolved into haunted guitar masterpieces that traveled to Chicago and became the electric core of rock & roll. But there are lots of other stories, and this one is blue in another way. It is about the songs of the lowdown characters who ruled the lumber and levee camps, the honky-tonks and jukes, from the Gulf Coast to Memphis. And about the dozens, which has carried their tradition into the twenty-first century.
The first printed description of a Mississippi juke joint was in a novel called Sweet Man, published in 1930 by a writer named Gilmore Millen, and it mentioned a few of the rougher musical standards, “forerunners of the blues, at least in honk-a-tonk popularity, those old songs crammed with Anglo-Saxon physiological monosyllables and lascivious purpose.” A few specific titles were named: “Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor,” “‘Bout a Spoonful,” “Staving Chain,” and “one of the foulest anthems of invective ever composed in the English language, a song that few white men have heard even snatches of–the true ‘Dozens.’”
At least three of those titles will be familiar to any hardcore blues fan. “‘Bout a Spoonful” was recorded by Charlie Patton and reworked by Willie Dixon for Howlin’ Wolf; “Pallet on the Floor” has been recorded by everyone from rural guitarists to Dixieland jazz bands; and “The Dirty Dozen” was a frequently covered hit of the Depression years and has been recycled by many singers since. But only a couple of recordings match Millen’s description. Although “Anglo-Saxon physiological monosyllables” were part of the normal language of juke joints, gentlemen’s clubs, and whorehouses from Beale Street to the Barbary Coast, everyone knew you could not use that kind of language on records.
This is one of the little-known byways of blues history: As the music became a nationally popular, commercial style, lyrics composed in the language of barrooms, streets, and farmyards were censored or bowdlerized to fit the strictures of the U.S. postal code and the guardians of public decency. The records were then imitated by both amateurs and professionals, and the sanitized lyrics became so common that within a generation or so virtually everyone had forgotten that blues once used plain speech rather than the inventive euphemisms of burlesque comedians and party records.
In their day, those plainspoken verses were not just local, underground secrets. Zora Neale Hurston described them as “a sort of social song for amusement,” shared by both men and women and “known all over the South.” In Texas, Mance Lipscomb sang,
Stavin’ Chain was a man like thisCouldn’t get a woman, he’d fuck his fist,Fuck his fist, he would sling his slime,Save his money for hard times.
While in Florida, Hurston herself sang, only a bit more circumspectly: “Uncle Bud’s a man, a man like this/Can’t get a woman he’ll use his fist,” then described her mythic protagonist as “a man in full/his nuts hang down like a Jersey Bull.”
Morton sang about Stavin’ Chain as well, in his personal theme song: “I’m the winding boy, don’t deny my name/I pick it up and shake it like Stavin’ Chain.” His verses provided a rare glimpse of the unrefined Gulf Coast honky-tonk style: For instance, one offered, “A dime’s worth of beefsteak, nickel’s worth of lard/I’ll salivate your pussy till my peter get hard.” Although only a tiny fraction of this repertoire has survived, that couplet is not just an example of one guy in New Orleans who liked to talk dirty: An epic version of “Hesitation Blues” collected in the 1920s and archived in the Library of Congress extends to more than sixty graphic stanzas, including, “A nickel’s worth of cold cream, a dime’s worth of lard/Vaseline your coozie till my cock gets hard.”
“Hesitation” was among the first twelve-bar blues to be sung by black and white alike, and its salacious humor made it popular not only in honky-tonks and working-class bars, but also with a generation of naughty collegians. Morton recorded a version near the beginning of his Library of Congress marathon, but was not yet relaxed enough to sing it straight–at one point he started into a nasty couplet he would later record as part of “Winding Boy,” but cut it off, explaining, “This is a dirty verse...couldn’t say that.” In any case, “Hesitation” seems to have typically been less a solo showpiece than a roundrobin drinking song. One person might start it off, but then everyone in the room would add verses based on its repetitive theme:
I’m not a_____or a_____’s sonBut I can____your_____until the_____comes.
Some of these verses were immortalized in the mid-1930s by Mississippi’s Bo Carter on the most explicit of his many party records, “All Around Man,” including, “I ain’t no plumber, no plumber’s son/[But] I can do your screwing till the plumber man comes” and “I ain’t no milkman, no milkman’s son/I can pull your titties till the milkman comes.” In general, though, such lines remained private pleasures. As the folklorist Guy Johnson wrote in 1927, “The writer has frequently met the remark, after repeating the words of some late blues to a Negro laborer, ‘Why I’ve known a song like that for ten years–except mine wouldn’t do to put on a record.’”
Recording not only constricted the language of blues; it also reshaped the form’s sense of time. Some early writers mentioned blues epics, but Morton provides our only recorded examples, and they are sagas of the honkytonk world. His twelve-bar “Murder Ballad” follows its protagonist through almost sixty rhyming couplets, and his version of “Pallet on the Floor” is a nineteen-verse narrative lasting more than fifteen minutes. While most versions of “Pallet” are made up of unconnected, floating verses, his traced an encounter between a pimp and a workingman’s girlfriend in intimate detail: “Come here, you sweet bitch, let me get in your drawers,” the pimp growls, adding the spoken order, “Gimme that pussy!” and appending the rhyming promise, “I’m going to make you think you’re fucking with Santa Claus.” Then, as things get going, he urges: “Tell me, baby, babe, don’t you like the way I grind?/If you do, baby, let me get a little from behind.”
Morton described this song as “one of the early blues that was in New Orleans, I guess, many years before I was born.” It was apparently a favorite of the jazz legend Buddy Bolden, listed in his repertoire along with such unrecorded lyrics as “Stick It Where You Stuck It Last Night,” “Pretty, Pretty Mama, Open Your Legs One More Time,” “All the Whores Like the Way I Ride,” and “Your Mammy Don’t Wear No Drawers, She Wears Six Bit Overalls.”
That last title brings us around to the dozens. In turn-of-the-century New Orleans, the dozens seems not to have been known as a song, but it was familiar as a form of verbal dueling in which men (and occasionally women) vied for the most comically outrageous insults to each other’s female (and occasionally male) relatives. Bolden and his sidemen were notorious players, one fan recalling, “When they arrived on the bandstand they greeted each other with such nasty talk as, ‘Is your mother still in the District catchin’ tricks?’ ‘They say your sister had a baby for a dog.’ ‘Don’t worry about the rent, I saw your mother under the shack with the landlord.’”
No one knows how family insults, and in particular mother insults, got to be called the dozen or dozens, though there are at least a handful of reasonable explanations. One theory, advanced by blues scholar Mack McCormick among others, is that early players traded twelve rounds of numbered jibes: Bo Carter’s brother Sam Chatmon sang a song with the chorus, “I don’t play no dozens/’Cause I didn’t learn to count to twelve.” And Skip James, who worked the Mississippi lumber and levee camps in the early 1920s, first as a mule driver and then as a pianist, recalled, “You never hear anything worthwhile other than this old vulgar stuff, and it’s from a ‘damn’ to ‘mother talk’....On those jobs, those guys’d sing all them nasty songs... they’d start with that stuff in ten verses, and if you take that, then they ease you into the dozens.”
James mentioned a particular dozens couplet that echoed one of Bolden’s titles and has been recycled over the years by everyone from Hurston and Richard Wright to schoolyard jump-ropers and the Wu-Tang Clan’s Method Man: “Your mama don’ t wear no drawers/I seen her when she take ‘em off.” A fuller version of the insult song was recalled in the 1960s by Will Shade, leader of the Memphis Jug Band, and included verses such as:
Clock on the mantelpiece, you know,Goin’ tick, tick, tick,Little sister in the henhouse,Suckin’ her grandpa’s dick.Up she slipped, you know, and down she fell,Her cock1 flew open, you know,Just like a mussel shell.(Chorus) She was a fucking motherfucker,A funky cocksucker,Stinking son of a bitch,Your mother’s turning tricks,You know, it was way out down in the field,She didn’t have no drawers on.Ha-ha-ha-ha, ha-ha-ha-ha.
Edwin “Buster” Pickens, who worked as a pianist in the Texas and Louisiana sawmill camps, recalled this song as part of the stock repertoire: “‘The Dirty Dozens’ was the openin’ number of the house; we opened up with that number. Then we had another number was called ‘The Ma Grinder,’ that was ‘first cousin to the dozens’....The barrelhouse was as far as you could carry it, because it was a pretty rotten song, you know. So it wouldn’t fit just anywhere, but it sure worked when it was in the barrelhouse!”
Like Bolden’s song titles, “The Ma Grinder” has been largely forgotten, but the dozens was luckier. By the mid-1910s, African-American vaudevillians were popularizing it both as a comedy routine and as a theme for pop songs, and in 1929 an itinerant piano player named Speckled Red turned the barrelhouse standard into one of the defining hits of the “Race” record era. At the time, Red was based in Memphis, and he seems to have known roughly the same version of the song remembered by Shade, but unlike any of his peers he undertook the gargantuan task of bowdlerizing it to the point that it could be recorded. Some of the resulting lines were simple obfuscations: “The clock’s on the shelf going tick, tick, tick/Your mama’s out on the street doin’ I don’t know which.” But he retained enough rowdy humor to create an enduring hit. Within ten years, his version had been covered by such notables as Leroy Carr, Lonnie Johnson, Tampa Red, Kokomo Arnold, The Harlem Hamfats, and Count Basie, and it has remained a blues standard, even being recycled for a juke-joint scene in The Color Purple.
As usual the recorded hit became the defining version of the song, driving the uncensored, vernacular version out of circulation, and virtually no one continued to sing “The Dirty Dozen” in its original, filthy glory. But this is where the story gets interesting, because while the tradition of singing raw, plainspoken blues was swamped by the commercially recordable variations, and has mostly been forgotten, the old, nasty dozens survived. Somewhere along the line, the unrhymed jibes of the insult game melded with the rhymed couplets of the barrelhouse songs and became part of the vernacular lore of black America. When the folklorist William Ferris immersed himself in Mississippi Delta juke-joint culture in the 1960s, he recorded only a handful of blues lines that used the familiar physiological monosyllables. But one evening at Big Jack Johnson’s house in Lyons, Mississippi, he turned his tape recorder on some local teenagers and found them still reciting verses Morton and Bolden might have heard at the turn of the twentieth century:
I remember one timeYour mama was sitting on a fence,Selling her pussy for fifteen cents.Bee come along and stung her in the ass.She started selling it for a dollar and a half.
I fucked your mammy behind the stove.She come out from back there,She had the cinnamon rolls.I fucked your mama under the gate,She had ninety-nine moccasinsAnd one rattlesnake.
One of the charms of vernacular culture is that it keeps evolving and adapting, and one of the charms of dirty vernacular culture is that each new crop of teenagers treasures it as a trove of secret, forbidden lore. In the late 1950s, Roger Abrahams recorded a Philadelphia teen reciting, “I fucked your mother between two cans/Up jumped a baby and hollered, ‘Superman!”’ A few years later, kids in New York were reciting, “I fucked your mother on the midnight hour/Baby came out screaming, ‘Black Power!’” And in 1990, Flavor Flav recited, “I fucked this lady in the tree/The baby came out, say, ‘Run-DMC.’”
That last example provides a connection between the earliest blues and the archetypal hip-hop hype man, but it is also a reminder that success breeds imitation. As in the first blues era, rap turned an African-American vernacular style into a commercial product, and although censorship of obscenity ceased to be a factor, once again recordings reshaped and supplanted their sources. Early rap drew on the dozens, on epic toasts like “Stagolee,” and on the hipster rhyming of the great r&b radio deejays, but by now those older traditions have pretty much disappeared from the streets of New York or Los Angeles, replaced by new waves of verbal virtuosity.
Since the 1990s, though, as rap has spread ever more widely, it has increasingly been dominated by Southern voices–and, specifically, by young artists from the old blues centers: New Orleans, Atlanta, Houston, St. Louis, and Memphis. Before Cee Lo Green took Motown nostalgia down-home with “Fuck You,” his Goodie Mob reminded Northern rap fans how little they knew about the “Dirty South.” And when Ali Colleen Neff revisited Ferris’s Delta terrain between 2004 and 2007, she found a new generation still reciting the same rhymes he had recorded forty years earlier. As she wrote in her ethnography of Delta hip-hop, Let the World Listen Right, “Many young rappers in the Delta cite dozens competitions as a training ground for the rap ‘battle.”’ She found changes as well: The modern rhyming was often done to the accompaniment of beats from a car stereo, and although sometimes “a battle unfolds much like the dozens...the rhymes focus on each rapper’s representation of himself and his crew rather than the opponent’s mama.” But although she cautioned against easy analogies of Delta rap to Delta blues, her underlying message was one of continuity.
That was five years ago, when YouTube was just getting started, and by now the traditional local rhymes may have been flooded out by the combined waves of rap, the Internet, and MTV’s Yo Momma. Every revolution brings both gains and losses, and just as the end of rigid residential segregation destroyed some nostalgically remembered African-American communities, the end of rigid media censorship may leave nothing but nostalgic memories of nasty soul verse. Fortunately, that same story can be framed in optimistic ways: One can regret the loss of historic Harlem without regretting the erosion of the system that made it a unique island of black talent. One can regret the loss of the raw honkytonk blues without regretting the records of stars like Bessie Smith and Dinah Washington or the poetry of professional songwriters like Leroy Carr, Robert Johnson, and Percy Mayfield. And now, if a hundred-year-old tradition of trading hoary, dirty insult verses is losing out to the virtuosity of rap freestyling, that is the way of the world and we might as well enjoy whatever is coming next. The slang and rhythms keep changing, and Brocky Johnny is long dead, but whether on the Gulf Coast or in Clarksdale, in Memphis or Manhattan, or in the global honky-tonks of Paris and Dakar, the gals are still walking and the dirty rhymers are still talking.