Sunday, July 22, 2007

Show 28 - Weird Lyrics

Show 28 - Weird Lyrics

I thought I'd take a look at a few songs that I don't really understand but that I find very intriguing. Some of these are songs that seem to be from the minstrel tradition and they use lyrics with meanings that are lost to time or at least lost on me. Or maybe the songs were just always weird, even at the time they were made. That might be the case with a song from Jim Jackson. It seems to be a religious parody and might have come from the minstrel stage. Recorded in Memphis in 1928 for Victor Records, “I Heard the Voice of a Porkchop.” The same song was recorded later in the same year by Bogus Ben Covington (who is probably the same man that recorded under the name Ben Curry) accompanied by his banjo and harmonica. It's not clear if Covington learned the song from Jackson or if they picked it up from the same minstrel origin. Clearly, the song is about hunger but the lyrics are undeniably strange and seem to be about eating road kill crossed with a vision.

Jackson's lyrics:

I walked and I walked and I walked and I walked
I stopped to rest my feet
I sat down under an old oak tree and there went fast asleep
I dreamt about sitting in a swim cafe hungry as a bear
My stomach sent a telegram to my throat:
There's a wreck on the road somewhere
I heard the voice of a porkchop say: Come on to me and rest
Well you talk about your stewing me: I ain't know what the best
You talk about your chicken, ham, and eggs and turkey stuffed in dress
But I heard the voice of a pork chop say come on to me and rest
Luke Jordan's “Pick Poor Robin Clean” features music and lyrics, particularly the lyrics with what we now consider racist language reveal the probable minstrel show origin of the song:
Get off my money and don't get funny
'Cause I'm a nigger, don't cut no figure
Gambling for Sadie, she is my lady
I'm a hustling coon that's just what I am
But it's the chorus that features the lyrics that confuse me:
You better pick poor robin clean
Pick poor robin clean
I picked his head, I picked his feet
Would have picked his body, but it wasn't fit to eat
You'd better pick poor robin clean
Pick poor robin clean
But I'll be satisfied having your family

It seems picking the robin is a metaphor, but I'm not sure for what. The song was also recorded by the female duo Geeshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas and it almost seems to take on a different meaning being sing by a woman.

Alabama musician Ed Bell recorded a great song featuring a word that seems to have left the vernacular but that shows up in quite a few blues songs of the era. The word is mamlish. The song is “Mamlish Blues,” recorded for Paramount in 1927.
These are my mamlish blues, gonna tell you just what they mean
Used to be my sugar but you ain't sweet no mamlish more
Because you mistreated me and you throwed me from your door
Mama my pack's ready, keep it for my mamlish self
Mama I done got tired of sleeping by myself
Well my Mama didn't like me, my papa give me mamlish ways
That's the very reason I'm a wandering child today
Talking about your sure love but you just ought to see mamlish mine
She ain't so good looking but she do just fine
She the man on the corner, see she going to steal that mamlish man
And a blind man seen her and a dumb man call her name
And the dumb man asked her who your regular man can be
And the blind man told her you sure look good to me
The word also shows up in another 1927 Paramount recording, “Nappy Head Blues” by Bobby Grant, one of only two songs recorded by Grant:
Your head is nappy : your feet so mamlish long
And you move like a turkey: coming through the mamlish corn
Additional songs featuring the word: Kokomo Arnold's “Milkcow Blues” and Sluefoot Joe's “Tooten' Out Blues.” Some theorize that Sluefoot Joe is the same man as Ed Bell. Those songs reveal little more about the meaning of the word. But it seems to function as an intensifier the same way some would use “Goddamm.” Any additional connotations the word probably had is certainly lost on me.

Words and expressions come and go. Songs are one place they are captured and for language from specific regions and ethnic groups, sometimes songs are the only place they're recorded. The language of pre-war blues is rich with words and expressions that have vanished and ones that are still used. And most importantly, the songs are mamlish good.

I Heard the Voice of a Porkchop - Jim Jackson
I Heard the Voice of a Porkchop - Bogus Ben Covington
Pick Poor Robin Clean - Luke Jordan
Pick Poor Robin Clean - Geeshie Wiley and Elvie Thomas
Mamlish Blues - Ed Bell
Nappy Head Blues - Bobby Grant


Anonymous said...

Hi Mike,

Great podcast, as always.

Re: Pick Poor Robin Clean - I don't think there's a metaphor going on here... I think it's just a reference to eating birds. This seems to have been fairly common in the south; Mance Lipscomb mentions doing so in his biography.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Mike Rugel,

I think you have the lyrics to "I Heard the Voice of Pork Chop Say..." a bit mixed up, and that may be why you find them so enigmatic. A corrected version:

I walked and I walked and I walked and I walked I stopped to rest my feet.
I sat down under an old oak tree and there went fast asleep.
I dreamt I was sittin' in a swell cafe, [as] hungry as a bear.
My stomach sent a telegram to my throat: "There's a wreck on the road somewhere."
I heard the voice of a pork chop say: "Come onto me and rest."
Well you talk about your stewing beans, I know what's the best.
You can talk about your chicken, ham and eggs, turkey stuffed and dressed,
But I heard the voice of a pork chop say "Come onto me and rest."


Jesus said (among other things): "Come unto me and rest, all ye that labour and are heavy laden" [Matthew 11:28 KJV] This is the whole point of the lyrics -- a humorous comparison with Scripture: "Come unto me and rest..." This injunction would have been familiar to most Americans (black or white) before about 1960 or so. It's a joke, sort of like (but not quite so bitter as) Berthold Brecht's famous lyric: "Erst kommt dass Essen, und dan kommt die Morale. (approximately = "first comes eating, then morality")

Randy said...

I just stumbled onto this site, I'm really enjoying it, thanks.

One thing I wanted to mention about "I heard the voice of a Pork Chop Say," I believe it is a parody of the spiritual "I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say."

Thanks for the interesting blog,


Randy said...

o.k., last comment.

Rob Hutten's post reminded me of the song by Sweet Papa Stovepipe, "All Birds Look Like Chicken to Me."

THanks again for the great site, I'm really enjoying it.

Anonymous said...

In "I Heard the Voice of a Pork Chop," does the singer also say "Ain't it Nice to Be Nice when you can be nice?"

will said...

Mamlish may be derived from the Yiddish word Mamish, meaning really, very (an expression of emphasis). From the Hebrew "mamash" meaning substantial.

Anonymous said...

I've puzzled over Pick Poor Robin Clean too, and came across this post while Googling it. So, rather late in the day, here's my contribution to the debate!

The way I see it, the speaker is gambling to get even with someone who
stole his woman (Sadie). There's plenty of overt threats being made: "get
off my money"; "don't act funny"; jaybird suggesting the speaker is a
jailbird, etc. "Pick poor Robin clean" is another, metaphorical threat to
ruin his opponent financially.

I suspect "You better pick..." is a garbled version of what should be "You
bet I'll pick...". "I picked his head, I picked his feet" could mean the
speaker won his opponent's shoes and hat. That the body "wasn't fit to
eat" wryly suggests he has no use for his opponent's body - though
he'll happily take his opponent's female relatives!

Anonymous said...

Hi Mike - Love your discussion of "mamlish" and I agree with your interpretation of it as an intensifier. A few suggested corrections in your transcription of "Mamlish Blues" lyrics though:
-- "drove me from your door."
-- "If I can't sell keep it for my mamlish self"
-- "She was standing at the corner between 25th and mamlish Main...and a blind man seed her and a dumb man called her name."

Anonymous said...

OK, I've been listening harder and think I got the full lyrics:

Daniel said...

Thanks for this great post! About poor robin: check out Ralph Ellison's great novel Invisible Man, which spends some time on this song. After being hustled, the narrator puzzles over the song, and ultimately comes to imagine himself as the robin being picked clean. First mention page 193 in chapter 9.

Ed said...

The book "The Dozens" by Elijah Wald claims that the metaphor in "Pick Poor Robin Clean" is the same as in the French "Allouette". Picking the feathers from the bird is like removing the clothes from a lady, piece by piece.

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