Barrelhouse Words Defines the Blues

“Barrelhouse Words: A Blues Dialect Dictionary” (Stephen Calt)

Ooh, I’m getting a copy of this dictionary. Sounds fun…

Enter Stephen Calt, a blues historian and amateur linguist whose new book, “Barrelhouse Words: A Blues Dialect Dictionary,” published by the University of Illinois Press, is an impeccably scholarly, irresistibly readable guide to the language heard on the recordings of the great blues singers who were active in the first half of the 20th century. If there was ever a time when you found yourself wondering what it means to get a “stone pony” or “make a panther squall,” Mr. Calt is your man. As far back as the late ’60s, he was interviewing aging blues singers and sifting through arcane printed sources in the hopes of untangling the verbal mysteries of the music he loved.

All this and much, much more is made manifest in the pages of “Barrelhouse Words,” perhaps the only dictionary on my bulging bookshelf that can be read for pure pleasure from cover to cover.

Part of the pleasure arises from Mr. Calt’s donnish sense of humor. He must have been smiling quietly to himself when he defined “crying shame” as “an exceedingly lamentable occurrence.” No less enjoyable, though, are the examples of contemporary usage that accompany his definitions, all of them drawn from classic blues records. A few are genuinely poetic, while others are drop-dead funny. Look up “business, pork-grindin’,” for instance, and you’ll be confronted with this stanza from Kokomo Arnold’s 1935 recording of “Sissy Man Blues”: Lord, I woke up this mornin’ with my pork-grindin’ business in my hand / Now if you can’t send me no woman, please send me a sissy man. This is a family newspaper, so if you can’t figure the rest out for yourself, turn to page 42 of “Barrelhouse Words.” I haven’t laughed so hard while reading a reference book since the last time I consulted H.L. Mencken’s “New Dictionary of Quotations.”

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postscript: I hope there is an entry on Little Red Bike, as discussed here

I had not heard Kokomo Arnold’s version of this song, only these two, with similar lyric. Connie McLean sings: with my business in my hand, and Josh White sings what sounds like “pork grinding business“, but the words are a bit hard to make out:

  1. Connie McLean’s Rhythm BoysSissy Man Bues

    The Copulatin’ Blues Compact Disc

  2. Joshua WhiteSissy Man

    Roots N’ Blues: The Retrospective

I’ll have to look for the song. Looks like an album of 24 Kokomo Arnold songs is available at Amazon for $8.99.

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