Monday, January 03, 2005

Sugar in Your Bowl, and Other Vices

Our current guardians of virtue would have you believe that before those damn hippie kids screwed everything up in the 1960s, American pop culture was largely benign. But there's never been a time when nothing unfit for either your grandma or your eight-year-old niece ever crept into public consciousness. As far back as the 1920s, Cliff Edwards, a bona fide star known as Ukulele Ike, recorded such tunes as "I'm a Bear in a Lady's Boudoir" and "I'm Going to Give it to Mary With Love." Edwards and other white artists recorded such material with a wink and a nudge, as euphemistic as Seinfeld's "master of your domain." In the blues and R&B fields, performers were often far more blunt. Songs dealing with a lot more than mere sexual innuendo were common, as was a more rough-and-tough style.

Certain songs from the genre sometimes known as "dirty blues" are better known by title than by any specific performance, such as "It Ain't the Meat, It's the Motion," and "If It Don't Fit, Don't Force It." A performer such as Bo Carter could make a career out of records like "My Pencil Won't Write No More," "Banana in Your Fruit Basket," and "Please Warm My Weiner." Women too, such as Lil Johnson with "Press My Button, Ring My Bell," Julia Lee, with "King Size Papa" and "My Man Stands Out," and Lucille Bogan with "Shave 'Em Dry," (In a genre all about envelope-pushing, "Shave 'Em Dry" was considered too far out for a long time--it remained unreleased for over 30 years, until the 1970s.)

Better-known blues and R&B artists also recorded material we'd rate as PG or R, like Bessie Smith's "I Want Some Sugar in My Bowl" or Alberta Hunter's "You Can't Tell the Difference After Dark." Wynonie Harris recorded "Keep On Churnin' (Til the Butter Comes)", Dinah Washington waxed "Big Long Slidin' Thing," and Memphis Slim once recorded a song called "If You See Kay." Most such records were underground hits--the musical equivalent of Playboy magazines under the mattress--but a few reached a mass audience: "Sixty Minute Man" by the Dominoes, for example, and "Work With Me Annie" by Hank Ballard and the Midnighters."

Outside the blues and R&B fields, if you dig into your father's or grandfather's vinyl albums, you might find some nightclub recordings by Rusty Warren or Ruth Wallis. They were more suggestive than obscene, and what made them seem so risque was Warren and Wallis' frequent use of the word "boobs." (Warren's most famous tune is probably "Bounce Your Boobies," which occasionally surfaces on the Dr. Demento radio show). They sound fairly tame now, but they were hot stuff for adults only in the 1950s and early 60s.

If a listener's taste ran to songs about homosexuality, they were out there, too--like "Sissy Man Blues" ("I woke up this morning with my business in my hand/If you can't bring me a woman/Bring me a sissy man") or "It's Tight Like That" (co-written by a pianist known as Georgia Tom, real name Thomas A. Dorsey, who in later years practically invented modern gospel). Drugs? How about Cab Calloway's "Minnie the Moocher"--what could she be mooching, I wonder?--or the fairly well-known novelty "Who Put the Benzedrine in Mrs. Murphy's Ovaltine"?

Yep, wherever there have been human beings and live microphones, sooner or later there have been songs sold in plain brown wrappers. You can explore a whole bunch of compilations featuring this kind of thing here. A fabulous essay on "dirty blues" is here.


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