Barrelhouse Words: A Blues Dialect Dictionary

By Stephen Calt. 2009. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. 320 pages. ISBN: 978-0-252-03347-6 (hard cover), 978-0-252-07660-2 (soft cover).

Reviewed by Michael Taft, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress

[Review length: 1089 words • Review posted on January 19, 2010]

Stephen Calt has done a service both to blues scholarship and to dialectology by publishing this dictionary. Most studies of the blues have examined the structure of its poetry and music, or its importance as a commentary on African American culture and history. The biographies and personalities of blues singers, the technology involved in recording the blues, as well as influences, repertoire, and regional styles, have been the main preoccupation of blues scholars over the last 100 years. But blues lyrics as an artifact of language demand closer study than that supplied by the thematic analyses of past scholarship, and Calt’s dictionary goes some way towards exploring this subject.

Taking as his corpus for analysis the blues commercially recorded by African Americans between 1923 and 1949, Calt examines these lyrics for words and expressions that stem from the singers’ dialects, rather than from Standard English. This exercise is more than an analysis of song lyrics, however, since Calt is among the scholars who have discovered that blues lyrics are not a special poetic register of English, but rather a window into the everyday language of the socio-economic class of African Americans that included most blues singers. To study the blues is to study the conversational English of early twentieth-century African Americans, especially those working-class African Americans from the South or the urban North. The blues is a bantering conversation on, for the most part, the subjects of sex, love, anxiety, and travel, that was little different from the idle back-and-forth talk that might have been overheard in a 1930s barrelhouse. Its speakers were the children and grandchildren of slaves—the generation moving to urban centers and urban occupations, but still culturally rooted in the Jim Crow era of the rural South.

The metaphors, euphemisms, proverbial phrases, informal speech—in short, the dialect of this generation—is the stuff of blues lyrics, and in fact there is no better or more comprehensive source for this dialect available to modern scholars. In this respect, the blues is a window on a specific society’s language otherwise closed to analysis. In a systematic fashion, Calt analyzes over 1,200 words and phrases in the context of their blues couplets. In the manner of the OED (which he extensively consults), Calt employs historical principles in establishing the meaning, history, and etymology of the entries, sometimes finding eighteenth-century (or earlier) British and Scottish sources retained in African American speech, sometimes discovering nonce-forms peculiar to the singers’ dialects.

In addition to the OED, Calt uses as his sources a number of dictionaries of regional dialect, slang, clichés, and proverbs, but also literary works by Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, and William Faulkner, among others, as well as historical, sociological, and biographical works such as those by Booker T. Washington, Charles S. Johnson, and Mezz Mezzrow. What makes Calt’s dictionary especially authoritative, however, is his extensive use of the transcribed narratives of ex-slaves, as found in the Federal Writers' Project (1936–1938) oral histories available online. Of equal importance is the fact that Calt was able to question rediscovered blues singers, such as Skip James, Son House, and Gary Davis, and some of their African American contemporaries, such as Henry Hill, born in 1902, about the meanings of words and phrases. Calt’s lexicographical investigations extend from his interviews in the 1960s to online searches of the present era, giving a historical and authoritative depth to this dictionary that few others could have accomplished.

Perhaps the most difficult part of Calt’s task was sorting out sexual euphemisms that were part of general African American speech as opposed to nonce-forms employed only by a particular singer. In the context of the blues, almost any noun might be used as a euphemism for the sex organs, and any verb might relate to sex acts, and it is almost impossible to spot the true dialect usages. For example, Calt excludes “lemon” as a euphemism for genitals, because he considered it a euphemism invented by Bo Carter in 1935; in fact, the euphemism was employed by “Jackson” Joe Williams in his “I Want It Awful Bad” in 1929 (“You squeeze my lemon, caused my juice to run”). Perhaps an expanded version of this dictionary would simply include every euphemism—a service in itself—regardless of its history or lack thereof.

It is easy, although perhaps unfair, to find gaps in this dictionary, many discovered within the very transcriptions that Calt uses as examples for his entries. The blues couplet that Calt uses to illustrate the phrase “notoriety talk” includes the word “dicty”—meaning either snobbish or high-class—similar to “hincty,” which Calt does include. Calt illustrates “partner” with a couplet from Blind Lemon Jefferson that also includes the word “ruckus”—meaning a quarrel or disturbance—not found in this dictionary. Other gaps include “fakin’” (“the fakin’ town’s too small”), “mitey” (“that mitey girl”), and “ape” (“you love to ape and clown”), all of which might be dialect words. I mean this list, not as a criticism, but to indicate that there is still much mining left to do in blues lyrics to discover all of the embedded dialect.

Calt’s entries are a pleasure to read, and almost Johnsonesque in some cases where Calt speculates or editorializes on terms. Some entries are wonderfully wrought mini-essays, such as his paragraph on “hand,” meaning a charm or conjure object, or his entry on “salty dog,” a lecherous companion. Calt devotes a two-page appendix to the word “blues” itself, although his essay seems lackluster compared to his shorter entries; he points out the 1906 “Joy Man Blues” as an early usage of the term as a song label, but some digging would have turned up Graham and Blessner’s “I Have Got the Blues To Day!” from 1850, and probably several other pre-twentieth-century examples.

I wrote above that much work is left to be done. Calt’s dictionary is a boon, and I only wish that it had been available decades earlier when I struggled with my transcriptions. But the dictionary should be expanded to include other blues terms, and then using the blues as a launching point, expanded again to a dictionary of African American twentieth-century speech based on historical principles. Calt makes great use of sources untouched by the OED, but the sources could be further expanded to include recorded sermons and religious songs of the same blues era, other contemporary transcriptions such as Harry Hyatt’s Hoodoo, Conjuration, Witchcraft, Rootwork, or extended searches of historical black newspapers. This work would take many Calts, but let’s be thankful for the one who produced this dictionary.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.