Another installment in our new weekly series entitled, The Language of the Blues, where author and rocker Debra Devi focuses on the meaning and significance of a unique word used in blues song. Come back every Wednesday for the latest!
If someone asks you, “What’s your bag?” that person wants to know what you do, what motivates and excites you. Musicians use “coming out of a ____ bag” to describe their influences. An artist might say he or she is coming out of a “soul bag” or a “blues bag,” for example. An equivocator might say, “I’m not coming out of a bag where I’m only about one thing.”
Numerous jazz albums have “bag” in the title, e.g. Soul Bag by trumpet player Willie Mitchell and Blues Bag by hard bop drummer Art Blakey. Blues musicians use “in a trick bag” to mean being trapped in a bad situation. A trick bag is a mojo used to curse or “trick” someone, but “trick bag” came to mean any unpleasant situation, such as a bad love affair that is hard to leave.
According to Dr. John, musicians adapted “coming out of a bag” from the illegal lottery business in the same fashion that they borrowed axe, which meant “gun,” and used it to mean guitar. Originally, the street slang “coming out of a bag,” meant to verbally or physically assault someone. As Dr. John explains in this book’s Foreword, “You might hear something like, ‘that bitch was coming out of a bag on her.’ Well, in the lottery business if they was coming out of a bag, that meant they was pulling a piece [gun] on someone.”
To keep their policy games and numbers rackets from being shut down by the authorities, the lottery men bribed policemen and politicians. The “bagman” was originally a mob member entrusted with taking a bribe to a cop or councilman, but the term spread to corrupt police stations, which would designate a patrolman to be the precinct bagman. His job was to collect the bribes from local mobsters and deliver them to the precinct captain.
The bagman was also called “the satchel man” down South, and it was not unheard of for the satchel man to go as high up as the governor. According to a Florida mobster who ran gambling houses in the 1940s, “The satchel man is the man that gets the money from people who have gambling houses and then he pays the Governor. Therefore, the Governor stays clean. We [gambling house owners] all went out for the new Governor and he was elected.”