Robert Cremer – Secret Language Of The Blues: What The Lyrics Really Mean
Pulp Hero Press
710 pages Paperback edition
There has never been any doubt that blues music was born as a way for black men and women to express themselves in the face of rampant racism, segregation, and a blatant campaign to deny their worth as human beings. Some blues artists were quite open about their feelings, on life, love, and sex. Other artists utilized a coded language that allowed them to “tell it like it is” while avoiding the wrath of the “protectors” of white society.
As time has gone on, many of the references and coded language contained in songs recorded 80-100 years ago can leave modern blues fans puzzled at these seemingly obscure bits of information. While there have been several books that delved into the intricacies of the language of blues music, it is fair to say that author Robert Cremer has set a new standard for in-depth research into the use of linguistics over a wide range of topics.
Born and raised in Chicago, Cremer started frequenting clubs like Theresa’s Lounge as soon as he was old enough to drive. Many of the blues artists took the time to explain the music to the youthful fan, who was often surprised when an artist would add different lyrics to a song than the ones used on the recorded version. The veteran blues artist Linsey Alexander offered this bit of knowledge, “The blues is our music, but the lyrics are our soul.” The author takes it further, adding “The blues is embedded in a cultural, historical, and linguistic maelstrom that makes elliptical references to products, pastimes, and cultural icons of the time challenging at best…” The author was a long-time columnist for the Hollywood Reporter and has written two other books, including one on actor Bela Lugosi.
The first section of the book reflects on the history of the music and it’s many layers of truth, a chronology that starts with slave trade, finds hope through the Underground Railroad, then in one of those twisted moments in time, in order to get work in traveling minstrel shows, black artists had to perform in black face to gain acceptance with white audiences.
Next, Cremer unveils his “Seven Seals of Blues Lyrics,” which includes narrative markers, African-American Vernacular English, and abbreviations. Cremer explains why “floating lyrics,” as in lines like “Sun’s gonna shine in my back door some day,” are one of the primary foundations of the music, lyrics that are used time and again without any loss of effectiveness.
By way of illustration, Cremer consistently utilizes segments of lyrics from songs spanning the blues continuum, featuring the classic blues of Bessie Smith, Lonnie Johnson, Robert Johnson, and Memphis Minnie, to more contemporary blues artists like Magic Slim, Toronzo Cannon, and Elvin Bishop. But when the musical references are from recordings by artists like Frankie “Half Pint” Jaxon, Hound Head Henry, or Hattie Hart, most readers will be scrambling to locate songs on their favorite musical streaming service to hear theses performers for the first time.
Over ten chapters, the author delves into how the ‘Seven Seals’ play out in relation to a number of familiar themes in the blues lexicon. One section covers the use of trains and automobiles as imagery for sexual activities and body parts. Another tackles the Prohibition era, and the wealth of material generated by it’s effects, including moonshine, house-rent parties, and bootlegged whiskey. A chapter entitled, “Kickin’ Buddha’s Gong Around” takes a closer look at the many references to drugs, overt or subtle, that are also prevalent in the blues playbook. The chapter on the various shades of blackness, and their use in the music, is an area most blues fans may be unfamiliar with. The inclusion of voodoo, hoodoo, and black magic are also examined in a separate chapter.
The last 400-plus pages of this work is an alphabetical listing of hundreds of words and phrases that Cremer has identified based on his extensive research into blues recordings. Each listing gives the word or phrase, then a definition. If there are multiple possible meanings for a listing, Cremer mentions all of them, often each with it’s own separate listing. Then he includes one or more examples of the word or phrase in the lyrics to an actual song, always referencing the artist who recorded it. He takes things a step further by adding footnotes that explain other lyrical references in the selected snippet that Cremer feels warrant additional explanation as well. One takeaway that comes as you devour this section is the overwhelming number of references and euphemisms in blues songs for sex, the male and female anatomy, and the associated activities that revolve around human sexuality
Given the lengths that Cremer has gone to to dissect the use of the various parts of the blues language, there is much that most readers can learn form this section. At the same time, one may find it hard to plow through this section. There is plenty to learn, knowledge that merits more than a casual scan. One issue with the format is that some of the information is mentioned, then repeated multiple times, particularly in the footnotes. It can be frustrating to read again a definition that was covered several pages earlier, but to his credit, Cremer is thorough, not leaving out any detail in the book he has wanted to write since those early days in the Chicago blues clubs.
The review copy contained a few errors, the most obvious one on Page 96, where “Little Walker” is credited for the song “My Babe,” a reference that assuredly should go to Little Walter. On page 487, the song “Lead Pencil Blues” is attributed to Johnnie Temple, then on page 541 the same song is now from “Johnnie Tempel”. Some readers may be puzzled by Cremer’s choice when selecting a version of a much-covered song. He lists the Etta James versions of “Hound Dog” and “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,” when Big Mama Thornton ( or Elvis Presley) and Aretha Franklin would be more logical choices.
Those quibbles aside, and leaving out that group with an extensive, deep knowledge of the blues tradition, most readers are sure to gain greater insights from the education that Cremer is providing, knowledge that will undoubtedly increase their enjoyment of many classic blues records. This is a work you can savor over time, and continually go back to as a solid reference guide. Once you get started, it will quickly become apparent how much effort Cremer put in to investigating the blues language from a variety of standpoints. Now you need to get a copy for a master class from the College of Musical Knowledge!