Barrelhouse Words: A Blues Dialect Dictionary

Chris May By

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Barrelhouse Words: A Blues Dialect Dictionary
Stephen Calt
Paperback; 320 pages
ISBN: 978-0-252-007660-2
Hardback: 320 pages
ISBN: 978-0-252-03347-6
University of Illinois Press

Unlike most dictionaries of jazz and blues language, of which bandleader Cab Calloway's Hepsters Dictionary and the glossary included in clarinetist Mezz Mezzrow's Really The Blues, both published in the mid 1940s, are probably the best known, there's no danger of this one going out of date between completion of the author's manuscript and the book appearing in print. Barrelhouse Words: A Blues Dialect Dictionary was already out of date 50 years ago, when Stephen Calt began compiling it. Which in an Alice in Wonderlandish kind of way makes it all the more useful.

The book, which unravels the nuances of more than 1,200 idioms and proper or place names found on "race records" recorded between 1923 and 1949, is meticulously researched. Calt, author of the authoritative I'd Rather Be The Devil: Skip James and the Blues (Da Capo, 1994) and King Of The Delta Blues: The Life and Music of Charlie Patton (Rock Chapel Press, 1988), plumbed not only his own extensive vinyl library but also the memories of elderly blues people to whom the language was once a mother tongue.

The definitions rarely stop at simple translations, delving as well into the backgrounds and likely origins of the words. Here's a typical example, taken at random:

"Outta Sight: A 19th-century lower-class superlative that figures in Stephen Crane's 1893 novel Maggie: A Girl of the Streets ('Say Mag, I'm stuck on yer shape. It's outta sight') and Frank Norris' McTeague (1899). Although the term was never associated with black speech, the hippies who adopted it in the 1960s likely acquired it from blacks."

Like all the definitions in the book, the "Outta Sight" entry is accompanied by an extract from a blues lyric recorded in the 1920s, 1930s or 1940s. In this case it's Joe Calicott's "Traveling Mama Blues" (1930).

Most of the entries are of about this length and detail. A few are pithier: "Mud Kicker: an uncommon slang name for a prostitute." The lyric extract is from Pinetop Smith's 1929 record "Big Boy, They Can't Do That." Elsewhere we learn that "Big Boy" is "a black pejorative that in the South....means fool and is a prime insult," as defined in Zora Neale Hurston's American Mercury note on Harlem speech published in 1942. Quite where this leaves Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup, Calt doesn't explain.

But it's a scholarly piece of work, and Barrelhouse Words: A Blues Dialect Dictionary is a fascinating and entertaining read. In addition to the dictionary itself, Calt has included an annotated bibliography of sources, a general bibliography, a list of informants cited in the text, and a one page appendix, "What Is This Thing Called Blues," another fine example of essential detail explained with clarity and economy.

For the history of jazz lingo, read our review of Swing It: An Annotated History of Jive.


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