ON DIRTY BLUES
“Spinach has vitamins A, B and D.
pinach never appealed to me.
But one day, having dinner with a guy,
decided to give it a try.
didn’t like it the first time….
Oh, how it grew on me!”
The Spinach Song has been my mother's earworm all my life, leaving mom helpless, singing, “I didn't like it the first time, but ooooooooh, how it grew on meeeeee!” under her breath, regardless of time and place. Periodically, she’d nudge, “You should do the Spinach Song!” The tune was a favorite of her parents; my grandparents were known to roll up the rug in the living room and dance the night away. I gave in, took a look at it and called home. “So, Mom, the song about the spinach. I don’t think it's about spinach..." Her, exasperated, "Well, of course not, honey; it's about sex. [sigh]"
The Spinach Song, or “I Didn’t Like it the First Time” turns out to be an example of a whole sub-genre of Blues: There were dozens of these “Dirty Blues”, which typically performed live or heard on jukeboxes; they were mostly banned from radio (admittedly, for cause). Dirty Blues' earliest incarnation would have first been heard as Hokum, in the context of Minstrel Shows.
Hokum is a comedic performance art and an encompassing form, making use of music, spoken word comedy, sexual innuendo, broad racial stereotyping and physical humor. It was the backbone of the minstrel show and of it W. C. Handy said, “Our hokum hooked’em”. Hokum filled the seats so that the entirety of the show might meet all tastes, slipping a variety of other music and dance forms into the coffee (or whiskey, probably). The writers and performers kept Hokum relevant by changing the target of the social mockery to suit whichever minority was currently in the foreground. In the mid-19th century drunken Irishmen were added, and a bit later still, Chinese characters joined the “tomfoolery”.
Hokum was a progenitor form, before the genres had developed into their own subsets, of blues, jazz, ragtime and ‘hillbilly music’, which itself heavily influenced what would become country music. Hokum even had an impact on Old Time music (that label was coined in the early 1920’s, to describe fiddle-based Appalachian and Southern music, which is a domestic incarnation of British folk and dance music), and by way of that, Bluegrass.
Liberated from minstrel shows after WWI by an emerging record industry, the new popular song genre Hokum Blues found a ready market for the innuendo and vulgarity the songs had to offer. In a fork in the road, Hokum also continued to be seen in country music variety shows – a modern example is Hee Haw, which aired from 1969 through 1992. As Hokum always had before, Hee Haw chose its target to suit the taste of the moment, using white rural archetypes lampooning both themselves and their alter-ego City Slickers, to provide the comedy and buttress the gospel music, skits and guest appearances of the variety show. This incarnation was illuminated by writer Dale Cockrell when he called Hee Haw “Hokum in rube-face”
Hokum Blues offerings from artists like Bo Carter, Bull Moose Jackson, Harlem Hamfats, and The Midnighters, The Allen Brothers,Tampa Red and Georgia Tom, Lucille Bogan, Blind Boy Fuller and others, provided a counterpoint to the plaintive and serious-minded Delta Blues being written and performed just around the corner. Dirty Blues was lighthearted, full of sexual content, and had zero agenda other than titillation and toe-tapping. It’s hard to argue with the method; as an artist, I have found that if one wants to perform high art to a full house, it’s helpful to find unsubtle moments and revel in them unashamedly.
With titles like Come On Over To My House (But Please Don't Come To Soon), My Pencil Won't Write No More, Sixty Minute Man, I like My Baby’s Puddin’ and Big Long Slidin' Thing, the songs are overwhelmingly the musical equivalent of the bathroom wall, and a very good time.
It’s mystifying that more of them aren’t a) in print and b) sung often. For my part, I had to consider which of these songs I had the intestinal fortitude to sing, and the sad answer is: Not so many. But in the interest of intellectual curiosity, I invite singers (and other lovers of musical oddities) to take a look here and here. Playing Hard to Get includes three charming, if unsubtle, Julia Lee tunes: that favorite of my mother’s, The Spinach Song, Decent Woman’s Blues and Don’t Save It Too Long.
"It's Tight Like That" Tampa Red and Georgia Tom, 1928
"The Duck's Yas-Yas-Yas" ames "Stump" Johnson, 1928
"I Had to Give Up Gym" he Hokum Boys, 1929
"Rock That Thing" il Johnson, 1929
"You'll Never Miss Your Jelly ntil Your Jelly Roller Is Gone" il Johnson, 1929
"Bumblebee" emphis Minnie, 1929
"Please Warm My Weiner" o Carter, 1930
"Good Grinding" Irene Scruggs, 1930
"Must Get Mine in Front" rene Scruggs, 1930
"Pin in Your Cushion" o Carter, 1931
"Banana in Your Fruit Basket" o Carter, 1931
"My Pencil Won't Write No More" o Carter, 1931
"My Girl's Pussy" arry Roy, 1931
"The Coldest Stuff in Town" histling Bob Howe & Frankie Griggs, 1935
"Shave 'Em Dry" Lucille Bogan, 1935
"Get 'Em from the Peanut Man (Hot Nuts)" il Johnson, 1935
"Anybody Want to Buy My Cabbage?" il Johnson, 1935
"Press My Button (Ring My Bell)" il Johnson, 1935
"Sam the Hot Dog Man" il Johnson, 1936
"My Stove Is In Good Condition" il Johnson, 1936
"Meat Balls" il Johnson, 1937
"If It Don't Fit (Don't Force It)" il Johnson, 1937
"Don't You Feel My Leg?" lue Lu Barker, 1938
"I Want a Piece of Your Pie" lind Boy Fuller, 1939
"Salty Papa Blues" inah Washington, 1944
"Gotta Gimme Whatcha Got" ulia Lee, 1946
"Snatch and Grab It" ulia Lee, 1947
"King Size Papa" ulia Lee, 1948
"I Like My Baby's Pudding ynonie Harris, 1950
"I'm a Hi-Ballin' Daddy" iny Bradshaw, 1950
"Rocket 69" odd Rhodes, 1951
"Sixty Minute Man" illy Ward and His Dominoes, 1951
"It Ain't the Meat" he Swallows, 1951