Briefly Noted: ‘The Language of the Blues: From Alcorub to Zuzu’
If you love the blues, Debra Devi’s, 2006 award-winning encyclopedic book is a hoot.
This blurb on the book’s Amazon listing sums it up well: Packed with wild and insightful stories from blues artists, Reuters calls The Language of the Blues ‘one of the wittiest, bawdiest, most fascinating dictionaries ever.’ Wall Street Journal critic Nat Hentoff says it’s ‘invaluable,’ and producer Hal Willner agrees: ‘It’s an invaluable reference book. And it’s also great fun to read.'”
The easy style suggests that the book will go much deeper into the blues than simply defining words and phrases. When each song referenced here was first sung, those who heard it knew what it meant. Now, we still love the songs, but the references are fading away like a lot of the slang from earlier times. The value of the book for a writer–and anyone who loves the blues–is that it preserves what otherwise might be so easily lost–the context of the music within the lines and between the lines.
To fully listen to the blues, one must immerse himself or herself into the blues. That’s how it is. While hearing the blues, it helps me to know the meanings of such words as Alcorub, Baling Wire, Black Dog, and Cold in Hand. For writers, this book is a treasure because song meaning and song context provide depth to fictional passages that refer to the music.
Alcorub is rubbing alcohol: you’re very desperate if you drink this. Canned heat (AKA Sterno) wasn’t quite as deadly. (Listen to “Canned Heat Blues.”)
With hay being rolled up in the fields these days, the Baling Wire used to tie the old, squared off bales together is becoming a thing of the past. Some blues artists say they made their first instruments out of bailing wire and many of us said we held our old cars together with bailing wire. (B.B. King is among those who started playing bailing wire.)
Black Dogs are the huge, ghostly dogs that haunt crossroads and other dangerous places. They can be messengers or omens of the coming death of a loved one. (Listen to “Black Dog Blues.”)
Cold in Hand might sound like it has to do with the dead or, on a more positive note, the notion of “cold hands, warm heart.” Actually, it means you’re broke and possibly desperate enough to drink Alcorub or search for a miracle at the crossroads and hope you don’t see a black dog. (Listen to “The Banker’s Blues.”)
It’s almost as easy to get lost in The Language of the Blues as it is to get lost in the blues. Ed Sanders said, “This is a book that lovers of music and just plain old lovers will love to have in their collections. Its candor and witty honesty bring us into the world Debra describes so well with beautiful strength.”
He knows good mojo when he sees it–or reads it. So will you, if you love the blues.
Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Conjure Woman’s Cat,” a 1950s-era novella with a lot of blues.
The Kindle edition of the novella is on sale today (May 6, 2015) for 99 cents. That won’t make you cold in hand.