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!
Blues songs are loaded with boasts, taunts, and jokes. The dozens (also called “the dirty dozens”) is a verbal game in which two-line rhyming insults are shot back and forth in front of an audience.
Iron is iron and steel won’t rust
Your mama got pussy like a Greyhound bus
In “New Dirty Dozen,” recorded by Memphis Minnie in 1930, she warns, “Come on all you folks and start to walk. I’m fixing to start my dozens talk.” After some great guitar playing, she adds:
Some of you womens ought to be in the can
Out on the corner stopping every man
But she’s just getting warmed up. Her next target is “old man Bill”:
He can’t see but he sure can smell
Fishman pass here the other day
I done hear him say, “Pretty mama I’m going your way”
In his brilliant 1963 book Blues People: Negro Music in White America, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), explains that “African songs of recrimination survive as a highly competitive game called ‘the dozens.’ (As any young Harlemite can tell you, if someone says to you, ‘your father’s a woman,’ you must say, as a minimal comeback, ‘your mother likes it,’ or a similar putdown.” Other cultures also engage in verbal battling. Medieval Scots called it “flyting.”
Blues lyrics reflect an African American tradition of verbal jousting that includes everything from toasting, boasting, and capping to cracking, bagging, dissing, and snapping. The Willie Dixon song “Wang Dang Doodle,” which was a minor hit for Howlin’ Wolf and a career-making smash for Koko Taylor, was based on bawdy toasts like “Dance of the Motherfucking Freaks.” Snaps are putdowns with a setup. “Your mama’s so fat…” is followed by the snap, “she broke her arm and gravy poured out.” “Your parents are so poor, they got married for the rice.” “Your breath smells so bad, people on the phone hang up.”
Playing the dozens is about more than fun; it’s a battle for respect and a verbal duel–an exhibition of emotional strength and verbal agility. Obscenities are used and opponents slander each other’s families because the game is above all a test of one’s cool. The first person to get angry automatically forfeits. The audience chooses the winner and spreads the word about who won. The winner can expect to be challenged to another battle before long, either by loser or an up-and-comer.
In the 1970s and 1980s, rappers honed their verbal skills for dozens-style battles in which all lyrics were composed on the spot or “off the dome.” At the height of the scene, New York City freestylers Supernatural, Craig-G, and Juice tested each other in battles that rappers still reminisce about today.
Old Jim Canaan’s”- Robert Wilkins
“New Dirty Dozen”- Memphis Minnie (Lizzie Douglas)
Memphis Minnie – “New Dirty Dozen”