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.

Read on.... ON DIRTY BLUES

Kathryn Allyn