Tag Archives: blues

On Vulgarity

During Wednesday’s class, we had a brief discussion about vulgar lyrics and the blues queens. As luck would have it, music critic Ann Powers recently posted an essay about the B-word and its place in popular music. A few paragraphs in she writes.

“Bitch,” it turns out, is as central to the popular music lexicon as are “rock” and “roll.” In the blues and the various forms of street and barroom music that immediately inspired them, the word consistently pops up as both an insult and an element in seduction. Jelly Roll Morton employed it; so did the blues queens Ma Rainey and Lucille Bogan. They did so to gain a foothold in the dangerous spaces where the music that might later become mainstream was made: the concert saloons and bawdy houses where women’s bodies were often commodities. Though musicians of both genders tapped its power, from the beginning, “bitch” was slung around as a way of asserting control in a world where a male perspective rules.

It also factored heavily into trash-talk tradition that music scholar Elijah Wald examines in his book The Dozens: The History of Rap’s Mama. The street game that gave birth to rap is rooted in the art of the insult, and none proved more potent than those aimed at absent mothers defended by chest-puffing sons. In the 1920s, Wald writes, a friendly coworker in a restaurant explained the dozens for the writer Frank Marshall Davis: “When you call a man a son of a bitch, you call his mother a dog. In the dozens, you jus’ elaborate an’ expand it more.”

A decade or so later, Morton told the folklorist Alan Lomax that he sang “smutty” songs to minimize the “femininity stamp” that stuck on pianists in New Orleans, where many women played that instrument. The song he then shared referred to a female conquest as a “bitch” five times in two verses. Whether the aggression the term signaled embodied desire or scorn, saying “bitch” was a way of getting hard.

In these early cases, using music to refer to someone with such vulgarity was a way of fitting in to the segments of society where the music was most often performed. Further, it was a way of asserting control. As we continue with our exploration of the early contexts and performances of jazz and blues, we are likely to keep encountering smut. I look forward to hearing everyone’s responses to the rich world of music-making in the teens and ’20s.


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New Orleans Jazz

There was a lot of music mentioned in the text that we will not have time to discuss in class (in all likelihood). Here are some highlights:

The Original Dixieland Jass Band, “Livery Stable Blues” (1917)

Pay attention to the timbral effects attempting to mimic animals…


Jelly Roll Morton, “Buddy Boldern’s Blues” (1926)

The other name for this song is “Funky Butt.” Can you hear how Morton refers to that earthy subject matter in this song?


King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, “Dipper Mouth Blues” (1923)


The text also mentions that Oliver’s muted solo inspired Fletcher Henderson’s “Sugar Foot Stomp.” Listen to the similarity:

Fletcher Henderson, “Sugar Foot Stomp” (1925)

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Music for Week 1

Here are the tracks I plan to cover tomorrow (as listed on the syllabus) that are not available on the Norton Jazz Recordings. You will need to be a NCF student to access the files.

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Elijah Wald and the Blues

Elijah Wald is a music writer and guitarist who has approached topics as diverse as the history of rock ‘n’ roll,* the dozens, narcocorridos, and delta blues legend Robert Johnson. He has also taught at my alma mater, UCLA.**

In this chapter from The Blues: A Very Short Introduction, Wald introduces the relationship between jazz and blues, starting with the statement, “Blues and jazz have been intertwined since before either style had a name.” He then proceeds to tell a history of how the two styles developed in relationship to each other. It’s a fun, quick read.


*This is available as an eBook through the USF library website.

**His feedback influenced an early direction I took with my bossa nova research.

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