This is the latest installment in our weekly series, The Language of the Blues, in which author and rocker Debra Devi explores the meaning of a word or phrase from a blues song. Come back every week for the latest! Devi’s award-winning book, The Language of the Blues: From Alcorub to ZuZu, includes a foreword by Dr. John and is blurbed by Bonnie Raitt and Joe Bonamassa. Get your signed copy at Bluescentric.com!
Black crepe bunting draped over a house’s front door has long been a symbol of mourning. In “State of Tennessee Blues,” Jennie Clayton sang:
When I leave this town, don’t pin black crepe on my door
I won’t be dead baby but I ain’t coming back here no more
Clayton was married to Will Shade, founder of the Memphis Jug Band, one of the most popular musical groups of the late 1920s and early 1930s and the most important jug band in blues history. The group worked with several female singers including Jennie Clayton, Minnie Wallace, Memphis Minnie and Hattie Hart. Clayton wrote the group’s “Cocaine Habit Blues.”
In the blues, black crepe is sometimes used as a metaphor to declare the death of the singer’s feelings for a lover. It may also make a thinly veiled threat. In “Booster Blues,” “Blind” Lemon Jefferson sang:
Excuse me woman, I won’t say that no more
I’m fixing to leave town and hang crepe on your door
To “hang crepe” can also mean to exaggerate the seriousness of a person’s medical condition—a tactic used by doctors sometimes to prepare a patient’s family for the worst possible outcome, and make the doctor look like a hero should the patient miraculously recover.
“Booster Blues”- “Blind” Lemon Jefferson (Lemon Jefferson)
“State of Tennessee Blues”- Jennie Clayton
“Blind” Lemon Jefferson – “Booster Blues”
Memphis Jug Band – “Cocaine Habit Blues”