Language of the Blues: Thoughts From Dr. John

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2019 Shaun Murphy 2

This is a special installment in our 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 week for the latest! Devi’s The Language of the Blues: From Alcorub to ZuZu is now available at Bluescentric.com!

The New Orleans legend Dr John, perhaps the best equipped person in music and blues to talk about it’s language, explains…

Dr John at the Big Muddy Blues Festival
Dr John at the Big Muddy Blues Festival

Why listen at the blues? ’Cause it’s real. But there’s a million kind of blues ’cause there’s a million kinds of people. There’s sophisticated blues, like Charles Brown and Ray Charles, and there’s jazz cats blues. There’s gutbucket blues, like Lightnin’ Hopkins and John Lee Hooker, and barrelhouse blues. Each set added its own language to the blues. All these guys just talked a lot of trash, and that’s what this book is about.

A lot of bucket-of-blood joints, for instance, catered to the junkies and the pimps and the hos. The street set would hang at them joints when the bands they liked would be there, and they’d expect some tailored-for-them music. The juke joint was a different kind of set. It was more sophisticated than a bucket-of-blood joint. You ain’t gonna see as many shankings in a juke joint as you will in a bucket of blood. You don’t call it a bucket of blood for nothing.

I went into this joint to meet my old friend Little Walter, and he said, “Geez you done missed all the shit!” I said, “What happened?” And he said, “Aw, this guy got shanked under his armpit with an oyster knife! There was a big pile of blood, right where you’re standing.”

He said “a big pile of blood.” Now that’s an interesting bucket-of-blood kinda lyric. I was always listening for stuff like that. When I first would write songs I would bring them to all these guys in the different record companies in New Orleans back then, and they always would turn me down. So one day I talked to Earl King and Huey Smith, and Huey Smith did a real beneficial thing–he gave me a book for kids called How and Why. It had these poems in it and he said, “Just write stuff like that but write it in how people talks today.” He also said, “Go listen to them songs–like what girls sing when they jump rope or play they little games.”

Earl King asked me “What you get inspired from?” and I told him, “Well, I read a lotta comic books” and he said, “Yeah, what kind?” and I said, “You know, Tales From The Crypt or whatever” and he said, “Wow, man I don’t think you gonna get them songs cut with that.” So he’d give me some advice, and that was to listen to what people said on the street.

Street language is always changing and it’s pretty hip stuff. Every time somebody gets wise to the street side of a word, the street shifts it around. Like if you look at “uptight,” once upon a time it meant “nervous.” Then street people got hip to the fact that the general public was on to that, so they reversaled it and Stevie Wonder had a hit record, “Uptight (Everything’s Alright).”

The street language in New Orleans that inspired me was not on just any streets in New Orleans; it was the lower Ninth Ward. New Orleans has got twenty different languages floating through it, but the lower Ninth Ward is the root. I used to hear all kinds of sayings down there. Like, if you want to get a chick, or a chick wants to give a guy head, they would say, “I gotta get some brain salad surgery.” I used that line in my song “Right Place, Wrong Time.”

When I was a kid, Big Joe Turner sang “Boogie my woogie, until my eyes get cherry red.” But it’s not really “’til my eyes get cherry red”; it’s “’til your mayoun get cherry red.” That’s a Creole word; it means your vagina. Girls used to answer back: “Well, then you can hoochie my coochie and toochie my noochie.” That was old when I was a kid.

Stuff like that is coming out of the dozens, which is a very strong tradition. A lot of the language in the blues was just different inversions of the dozens. “Tutti Frutti” started off as straight-up dozens; it was “tutti frutti, good booty.” Stuff like “I had a gal named Sue, she knew just how to screw.” Actually, it’s a show of affection. If you don’t cap on people, they don’t figure ya like they ass!

All this stuff started back in Africa, and there’s a million things about the blues that’s African, but just don’t beat a dead horse back to life. It’s like gumbo–have you ever had an African gumbo? I thought it was gonna be a big kick. I tried it and I guess I’m spoiled from New Orleans gumbo, ’cause it was some weird soup with some weird seasoning and I didn’t enjoy it at all. I was thoroughly disappointed with the goddamned African gumbo. But it’s like that with the blues; you wouldn’t find it in Africa the way it is here.

A lot of the terminology of the blues came from the lottery business, for instance. Musicians picked that shit up–like “going on a gig,” “coming out of a bag,” and calling a guitar an “axe.” A gig was a three-number combo, and an axe was a gun or a piece, which was carried in a bag. 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 on someone.

This old numbers cat would always shoot ribs at the band about the words we used. He’d say, “We used all them words, you stupid suckers, and now you’re twisting it all up.” Today with hip-hop, it’s the same thing. Old cats passed stuff down and a lot of these kids is doing their thing with it–they kinda half ass it with something they heard from somebody in they family. I can tell some of those guys run with old timers, just from certain things they say. They ain’t old enough to know that stuff, and it ain’t stuff that’s popular no more. But it’s inspiration to them. I still hang with old timers. The ones that’s left, I hang with them.

It would be a ho-hum planet if everybody sounded the same. So I told Debra, who wrote this book, “Whatever you get outta this crap, go with it. You got the same kinda jive-ass brain I got, chile. I like that. Do good now.”

Dr. John

Pick up a copy of The Language of the Blues: From Alcorub to Zuzu at Bluescentric