Now, a dictionary that defines the blues

By Gary Hill

india Updated: Mar 06, 2006 22:46 IST

The music called the blues can express emotions with unmistakable clarity, but some of the words, whether sung by 1930s Mississippi Delta sharecroppers or big-city electric-guitar heroes, can be pretty obscure.

Hunting down the origins and meanings of those words was the mission of New Jersey rock musician and journalist Debra DeSalvo, and the result, The Language of the Blues, - one of the wittiest, bawdiest and most fascinating dictionary ever.

In an interview, DeSalvo said the idea for the book came when she was an associate editor at Blues Revue magazine. "Talking to a lot of artists, I realised there were a lot of words that I thought I knew what they meant. You sort of assume you know what mojo means, or voodoo and you really don't."

She added, "I thought it would be really cool to investigate this, and, more importantly, ask the artists directly what these words mean."

The Language of the Blues draws on many scholarly and not so scholarly sources including interviews with the musicians themselves, among them Dr. John (Mac Rebennack, who also contributed the foreword), B.B. King, Hubert Sumlin and Robert Jr Lockwood.

The Language of the Blues is a book made for random browsing just for fun, as well as for looking up facts. Like any good dictionary, it starts with A and ends with Z.

Alcorub, "the drink of last resort for desperate alcoholics," gets the book rolling with a little history lesson that manages to mention Kitty Dukakis (wife of former presidential candidate Michael Dukakis), Prohibition and rocker/blueswoman Bonnie Raitt.

Raitt reminisces about a time when it was her job to make sure the great Son House got enough liquor to want to play but not so much he couldn't remember how.

Zuzu, "southern slang for a cookie," is perhaps the most wholesome word in the entire book, and the last.

In between alcorub and zuzu, definitions for black cat bone, black dog, dust my broom, jelly roll, rock, rock 'n' roll and roll may surprise, delight or offend even the most die-hard blues fan.

Many of the words and definitions in the book are too sexual to repeat here. They contain many surprises.

All the entries cite musicians and songs that used the words. The book also includes many photographs of blues musicians past and present.

Arabic, American Indian, Caribbean and Irish influences crop up in the book but it was Africa whose culture the ancestors of blues singers brought over as uprooted slaves.

African words enriched American language through the blues and the varieties of music the blues fed, from jazz to pop.

Slang usages of such words as cat, chick, dig, fuzz, hip and rock all appear to have African etymological roots, DeSalvo writes.

Hoodoo -- as opposed to voodoo, the ancient religion born in Africa -- is defined in the book as "an African American system of folklore" with African, American Indian and European sources. It is in hoodoo practice that a mojo -- a charm, or "a prayer in a bag" -- is used.

But blues singers do not necessarily believe in hoodoo, DeSalvo said, even if they use the word.

"They still use it because any musician, you're looking for colorful language. I asked people if they thought Muddy Waters (who sang I Got My Mojo Working) really believed in hoodoo, and they went, 'No,'" she said, shaking her head emphatically.

DeSalvo, who has co-authored books about yoga and investing, fell in love with the blues growing up in Milwaukee. "I would see these incredible Chicago blues players come through," she said. Above all, it was guitarist Son Seals who changed her life.

"I was riveted. He would play one note and it wrung more emotion out of me and the whole room than the really fast players I would hear. I was just completely stunned," she said.

The "aesthetics that are embodied in the blues" have deeply affected America, she said. "This idea that the primary goal is to access an emotion has had a huge effect on the vitality of American culture."

But she made no claims to being an expert. "No. I'm an enthusiast," she said firmly.

"I worked with a lot of different sources and I tried my best to be accurate," DeSalvo said, but she still expects lexicographers, musicologists and other varieties of passionate nit-pickers to come at her in droves.

"I'm sure I'm going to hear from all of them," she said wryly. Actually, she would welcome their suggestions.

"My fantasy is to do a second edition," she said.

First Published: Mar 07, 2006 09:00 IST