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Book Review: Barrelhouse Words: A Blues Dialect Dictionary by Stephen Calt

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Barrelhouse (noun): “… an all-purpose tavern, gambling den, dance hall, and often brothel, located … near the railroad depot of a small town or in a sawmill or levee camp.”

“Hey, man, don’t you be skeetin’ that there ambeer on me!”

“I’m a big bad man with good hair. And you a bakin’ powder man with bad hair from a ‘leven light city. Now jis’ git yo’ kitchen mechanic self outtahere while I get me some beedle um bum.”

Say what?

Black dialect in the early part of the 20th century was often unfathomable to whites, and that’s the way the blacks planned it. Black dialect began in the distant past, when blacks were first brought to this country as slaves, as a safe way of talking among themselves without their overseers understanding the true meaning being conveyed. The above exchange represents a natural progression of this patois. Translated, it would read:

“Hey, man, don’t spit your tobacco juice on me!”

“I’m a notorious gunfighter with straight hair. You’re a big bluffer with kinky hair from a one-horse town. Now get your kitchen cook butt out of here while I get some pussy.”

Once you’ve glanced through this book, you’ll never be able to listen to those old country blues sides in the same light, because the lyrics will take on a whole new meaning. And once you’ve become more familiar with the terms in Barrelhouse Words, you’ll discover the true meaning of many of these songs. When the singer mentions barbecue, or banana, or jelly roll, s/he could be talking about food, but more probably about sex.

Stephen Calt is no stranger to controversy, as anybody who’s read even just a little about him, or Skip James, or about the original Paramount Records knows. This well-researched book, however, will most likely be received with less antagonism than he’s used to. It’s a scholarly work, as his other writings have been, although my guess is that few will find much to quibble about. The list of those who helped or contributed to this book is equally a list of those actively involved in the preservation of country blues, including Richard Nevins of Yazoo Records, author Ted Gioia, and Chris Smith of Blues & Rhythm magazine.

Listening to and reading the reactions and comments of early recording company technicians and managers, it’s a wonder that traces of much of this early dialectical terminology was preserved at all. Like many of the early 78-rpm records of country blues musicians, they’re thin on the ground, as the saying goes.

Many of the songs from which the entries in this fascinating exercise are taken “… constitute the earliest direct, authentic record of black English dialect on an appreciable scale,” as the introduction states. Although begun more than 30 years ago, and languishing in the back of a closet, thanks go to Calt, with the encouragement and able assistance of Ted Gioia, for bringing it into print.

[Note: All the otherwise unfamiliar terms used in this review are in Calt's Barrelhouse Words.

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