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

Coronavirus Special - Disease Blues

If you cannot see the audio controls, your browser does not support the audio element This time we’ll revisit songs about disease. Th...