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The Language of the Blues: From Alcorub to Zuzu Paperback – January 1, 2006

4.8 out of 5 stars 14 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

There have been several books published recently featuring the rich, colorful lexicon of the blues and its intriguing practitioners, but this volume by music journalist DeSalvo goes them one better with a thoroughly researched dictionary of blues slang. As she writes in the preface, "Blues artists—looking to steal from the best, like all songwriters—nicked words and phrases from the numbers runners, hookers, drag queens, thieves, junkies, pimps, moonshiners, hoodoo doctors, dealers, rounders, and con artists who made up the street set." In explaining the familiar ("cool") and obscure ("honey dripper"), DeSalvo gives not only the phrase's origins but its ongoing history and current applications. Thus readers learn that the term "balling the jack" was originally a conductor's way of saying a train was moving at top speed; by the 1920s, it had come to signify "any wild, all-out-effort"; from there, it turned into a song by Chris Smith and James Henry Burris; then, Judy Garland and Gene Kelly performed "Balling the Jack" in the 1942 film Me and My Gal; etc. The definitions are supported with a lively narrative and interviews with blues stalwarts including Little Milton, Bonnie Raitt, Hubert Sumlin and Jody Williams. (Jan.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Review

"Invaluable" - Nat Hentoff, The Wall Street Journal

"One of the wittiest, bawdiest and most fascinating dictionaries ever." -
Gary Hill, Reuters

 "An important addition to the study of blues...an essential purchase for
scholars and fans." - Blues Revue

"An unparalleled publication. If you have any questions about songs,
lyrics, musicians or events, you will find your answers here." - Shelton
Ivany, New York Times

 "This book deserves a top spot on your shelf where it can be grabbed for
reference or just sheer enjoyment." - Elmore

 "Not a dour dictionary. Rather, it is a vibrant work of social commentary
that you may well find yourself reading through in one sitting. - The
Frustrated Writer

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 176 pages
  • Publisher: Billboard Books; 1St Edition edition (January 1, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0823083896
  • ISBN-13: 978-0823083893
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.6 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #655,866 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
Lovers of the Blues...... You thought you knew what those lyrics meant ....

Heck, I bet you even thought you knew what "cool" meant...

The Language of the Blues , from the hand and heart of Debra DeSalvo ,takes those lyrics you thought you knew , or perhaps may have wondered about; and provides the roots and beginnings of so many commonly used and well loved in blues phrases; from Belly Fiddle and Biscuit, to Toby and Trim , and so very many more . Based on the lives , culture and experiences of the greats who wrote them ; Debra picturesquely reveals humble , sometimes spiritual sometimes sexual, not always socially acceptable, but always entertaining origins of the beloved Language of the Blues

With a foreword by Dr John and comments by contemporary greats Bonnie Raitt and Bob Margolin , this book simply has to be in every blues lovers library.

Lovers of words and their origins .. etymology lovers ... lovers of the human soul .... all will find this book to be deliciously revealing and delightfully satisfying.

Love and HUGS

Swannie
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Format: Paperback
Being from Chicago, the "home away from home' of the Mississippi blues roots, as well as being a heavily blues influenced guitarist here for over 20 years, having even opened a show for Muddy Waters, I thought I knew most all there was about blues vernacular. Then I read Debra DeSalvo's "The Language Of The Blues" and realized how much I didn't know...

This book is the most comprehensive title I've ever read on the blues and the history of the blues. If you read blues history, bluesman's biographies, or are even a scholar of the genre, this book is as invaluable as Roget's Thesaurus to any author.

Excellent piece of work and should be required reading in any school of music teaching the blues as the art form it is.
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Format: Paperback
So much research must have gone into the making of this book. I love finding out the origins of sayings and words and Debra has explored the infinite possibilities with enthusiasm and humor. If you have any interest in music, history, or words, this book is a must read!
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Format: Paperback
Based on the title, you might think that this book is a dictionary of blues terms, but it is much more than that. In discussing the meanings and origins of words and phrases, the author brings out much about the history of the blues and about African American culture. The book has a lot of really cool stuff including a sharecropper's contract, entertaining stories from the author's interviews with bluesmen (Hubert Sumlin, Little Milton, Bob Margolin and others) and a foreword by Dr. John in which he discusses how he learned to use street language to write songs. With this book, you can discover the meaning of Robert Johnson's "stones in my passway", learn the source for Willie Dixon's "Wang Dang Doodle", and learn about the African-American game of insults called the dozens.

Informative and very entertaining. My guess is that it could become a standard reference for blues fans and writers, and a must-have for blues researchers.

OK, the above is my version of a Publisher's Weekly review. But it doesn't do this book justice. This book really means a lot to me. Let me explain why...

In a certain sense, blues lyrics are written in a foreign language and this book allows the listener to translate that language. I got interested in the blues when I was in college, and I had no idea what Muddy Waters was singing about when he sang of John the Conqueror. Robert Johnson singing about "riding the blinds" was also a bit of a mystery. Over the years and after many pages of reading, I was able to solve some of these mysteries. But if I had this book some 25 years ago, I would have been way ahead of the game.

I remember once thumbing through a book at my college library by folklorist/musicologist Dr.
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Format: Paperback
Every reader will pick up something new about lyrics, terms and phrases, noted cities and neighborhoods, instruments, performers, lore, and other aspects of this always popular and colorful style of music. With occasional material from interviews with top names in blues and closely-related types of popular music in entries as long as essays of three or so pages to as short as a couple of lines, DeSalvo relates origins of words and phrases, gives examples when relevant, describes nuances in different styles, locates the origins and outlines the course of different traditions, explains details of instruments and techniques of playing them, and draws profiles of significant singers and instrumentalists. And she includes considerable colorful lore and terminology unknown to only the most knowledgeable aficionados which can only add to enjoyment of the blues with more casual fans. A lively, informative, eminently readable companion to blues music in all its history and manifestations.
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Format: Paperback
This is self-described as an anecdotal dictionary of the blues, but it suffers some serious flaws and while there is some useful information, it is far from authoritative or comprehensive and while it has some usefulness, it can be improved in so many ways. There are some 150 words and phrases which Ms. DeSalvo, former Blues Revue editor, focuses on, in a volume that emphasizes the African roots of the blues, but at times does not focus on other meanings the terms have. One review in Blues & Rhythm notes the focus on sex and hoodoo, but oddly enough very little on traveling which is a significant theme of the blues.

Much is made of the fact she interviewed a number of blues performers and included the material with various entries. However much if not most of the interview material is irrelevant to understanding the language of the blues, or the entry. For example she briefly discusses crossroads focusing on the African conception which leads to a discussion of the Robert Johnson meeting the devil at the crossroad myth and notes that some believe it. Then she included a discussion of Robert Lockwood, Johnson's stepson which bears very little relationship to the discussion of the term. This would have been better included in a sidebar about Johnson and Lockwood. It would have also been instructive to include lyrics of several songs for specific terms to show contrasting meanings. As an example, Elmore James' 'Standing at the Crossroads,' clearly does not have the connotation that some impute to Johnson.

Also some of her sources are not exactly scholarly. In an entry on the Delta, she discussed Charlie Patton working for Will Dockery. She provides as her reference correspondence with Stephen Lavere.
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