This is the latest installment of our weekly series, The Language of the Blues, in which author/rocker Debra Devi explores the meaning of a word or phrase found in the blues.
Grab a signed copy of Devi’s award-winning book The Language of the Blues: From Alcorub to ZuZu (Foreword by Dr. John) at Bluescentric.com. Also available on Amazon Kindle. “One of the wittiest, bawdiest, most fascinating dictionaries ever.” (Reuters)
A lighthearted subcategory of urban blues called hokum was popular in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Hokum songs were uptempo, funny, and on the raw and raunchy side. Songs like “Please Warm My Wiener” relied heavily on double entendre and were about sex, drugs, or some illicit combination thereof. Ironically, one of hokum’s most popular composers also opened the first black gospel music publishing company and wrote some of gospel’s biggest hits.
“Hokum” may be a blend of “hocus-pocus” and “bunkum,” which means insincere or foolish talk. The word “bunkum” was derived from Buncombe County, North Carolina. The county’s congressman once defended charges that a speech he was giving was so much horse manure by claiming it didn’t matter because he was speaking to Buncombe.
Guitarist Tampa Red kicked off the hokum craze with his and Georgia Tom Dorsey’s 1928 hit “It’s Tight Like That.” Tampa Red, whose real name was Hudson Whittaker, was born in Smithville, Georgia in 1904. He was orphaned at a young age and moved to Tampa to live with his grandparents. Red worked the vaudeville circuit until he moved to Chicago in the mid-1920s, where he teamed up with Dorsey.
Tampa Red’s success gave other Delta blues artists, such as Big Bill Broonzy, the nerve to make the trek to Chicago. Red and his wife, Francis, always had a hot meal and a bed in their Chicago apartment to help ease the transition from country to city life for a blues musician who’d made it up North. Broonzy joined the Hokum Boys in 1930 and cut such urban party blues with them as “Pig Meat Strut” and “Saturday Night Rub” before moving on to his own spectacular solo career.
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Examples of hokum songs:
“Banana Man Blues”- Memphis Minnie
“I Had To Give Up Gym”- Hokum Boys
“You Put It In, I’ll Take It Out”- “Papa” Charlie Jackson
Clara Smith – “It’s Tight Like That”