The Blues Dictionary

A dictionary of blues terms, words and phrases

Sometimes the Blues has a touch of language all it's own. After all, it did start in fields and plantations and smokey backroom juke joints long before any of us were ever born. It's because of this that we've compiled an ever-growing list of terms, words, and phrases that have been found in Blues songs, cultures, interviews, notes, and so on over the years. We've tried our hardest to make some sense of them as they pertain to their songs.

We weren't with Robert Johnson when he was talking about barrelhouses and lemon squeezing in the thirties, and we weren't able to personally ask most of the old timers what their slang meant. Fortunately, we have e-mail, which you can use to let us know when we messed up, left out a phrase or word, or didn't get a definition right!

If you want a REAL comprehensive Blues Dictionary that Reuters even called "one of the wittiest, bawdiest, most fascinating dictionaries ever", including commentary from the old timers themselves...

check out the "Language of the Blues: From Alcorub to ZuZu" book in our shop!

The Blues Dictionary

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* 12 Bar

Twelve bar is a type of chord progression that's extremely popular in Blues songs. Without referencing music terms, it is the underlying beat, which often follows this pattern: I, I, I, I, IV, IV, I, I, V, IV, I, IV. This is the I-IV-V (one-four-five) pattern that is commonly used in referring to Blues form. Blues has never strictly followed this pattern, however. Various Blues songs can range from complicated chord structures to one single chord throughout the song!

* 27 Club

The 27 club is a group of well known musicians that have died at the age of 27. It's pertinence to the Blues is that it's founder and, arguably, it's most famous member is none other than Robert Johnson himself, who died under mysterious circumstances at the Three Forks Store in Greenwood, Mississippi at 27 years old, after claiming to have sold his soul to the devil. Eerily, many of the musicians who have "joined the club" at 27 have directly cited Robert Johnson as a major influence. Some of the most famous members are Kurt Kobain of Nirvana, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison of The Doors, Alan Wilson of Canned Heat, and Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones, all of which had very heavy Blues influences, including Johnson, and often covered Blues songs, including Johnson's. Every one of their lives parallelled that of Johnson's in certain ways, adding to the eerie coincidence.

Eric Clapton, who also cites that Robert Johnson is probably his biggest influence, was purportedly the originator of the term "27 Club", stating that he himself was almost a member when he was fighting an addiction.

* 3 times 7

3 times 7, heard relatively frequently in blues tunes, is referring to a girl's age. Three times seven equals twenty one. When lyrics say "three times seven", it's referring to the fact that the girl's age is twenty one.

* 32-20

The 32-20 Gun

Original 32-20 Six-Shooter

The 32-20 was a popular six-shooter pocket pistol. It had a .32 caliber bullet, which was relatively small, and a powerful firing capability. The gun was inexpensive, and often popular because it was easy to conceal.

32-20 Blues
Robert Johnson

* 61 Highway

A sign on the famous 'Highway 61'

Highway 61 South

Highway 61 is lovingly known as "The Blues Highway". It runs 1400 miles from New Orleans, Louisiana to Wyoming, Minnesota. It acquired it's nickname because of what is called the great migration. After the advent of WWI, northern demand for good industrial jobs skyrocketed, and hundreds of thousands of Southern blacks migrated North in search of better lives. They would move up Highway 61 through Memphis, then on to Saint Louis, and finally either go north around Detroit or to Chicago. They brought their music with them, and many of the great musicians we know today; Muddy Waters, Little Walter, etc. brought their music and gave it an electrified sound. Unique styles of Blues came from these regions: Saint Louis Blues, Chicago Blues, Memphis Blues, each with something especially unique to contribute.

61 Highway Blues
Mississippi Fred McDowell



* Apron Overalls

Unfortunately, the true meaning of "Aapron overalls" is unknown, at least to Bluescentric! A reasonable conclusion can be drawn that it's a sexual innuendo, since the lyrics before the mentioning in Robert Johnson's "From Four Till Late" compares a woman to a dresser, with a man always getting into it's drawers. A second conclusion could be reached that a woman causes a man heartache because she acts promiscuous with other men while he's off working, and the aapron overalls are a reference to rambling, which is mentioned prominently in the song. Aapron overalls could also seemingly be some reference to sadness and heartache, based on how it appears in the wong.

A woman is like a dresser, some man always ramblin' through its drawers
It cause so many men, wear an apron overall.

From four 'till late, she get with a no good bunch and clown
Now, she won't do nothin', but tear a good man reputation down

See also: Rambling

Four Till Late
Robert Johnson



* B.D. Woman

B.D. was an abbreviated term for "bull-dykers", which was a slang term for a lesbian woman.

B.D. Woman's Blues
Freddie Jackson

* Barrelhouse

A barrellhouse is a bar, more or less. In many places down south, barrelhouses were illegal bars. A barrelhouse is named such because, quite simply, they'd keep the alcohol in barrels! Remember that next time you think your bartender delivered your drink a little too warm.

See Also: Gut Buckets

Preachin' The Blues
Son House

* Back Door Man

A Back Door Man is a man that the woman in a relationship would have over when her man is gone. When her husband/ boyfriend/man would come home, the Back Door Man would be slipping out, you guessed it, the back door. In short, a back door man is a man that the woman is having an affair with.

Back Door Man
Howlin' Wolf

* Billy Lyons

Billy Lyons is the poor soul that got murdered over a hat by Lee Shelton, who you might know as Stagger Lee! For the Stag-O-Lee conflict, go to the Stag-O-Lee entry. We made a whole special page about it!

* Biscuit Roller

According to Blues Fell This Morning, this is a pretty simple euphamism. A biscuit was a good looking young girl and a Biscuit Roller was a good lover. The term applied to either sex.
Note: More information can be found in Blues Fell This Morning: Meaning in the Blues by Paul Oliver and Richard White, where much of the above information was derived from.

If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day
Robert Johnson

* Black Cat Bone

Black Cats and Black Cat owners/lovers ye be warned!

The black cat bone is used in american folk magic, most commonly Hoodoo. It's effects are thought to generally bring positive effects on it's carrier, and the black cat bone can often be put into a mojo bag.
There's only one bone in the entire cat that's special, and the legend is that a Hoodoo practitioner or mojo bag maker will throw a black cat into boiling water to remove everything but the bones. They they take the bones and throw them into a creek or stream or some other flowing body of water. The bone that floats up the current is the magic bone. There are a few other recorded methods to define which bone is the one magic bone, but that is the one we here at Bluescentric have heard most commonly.

See Also: HooDoo

* Black Snake Moan

Black snake is a reference to sexuality, namely to either a black man or a certain male part of a black man's anatomy, depending on the song. The term black snake has been used in several early Blue songs, by both men and women. It's been sang as referencing their own, or being worried about other "black snakes" coming around.

Black Snake Moan
Blind Lemon Jefferson

Black Snake Blues
Victoria Spivey

New Black Snake Moan
Lead Belly

Black Snake Moan
Samuel L. Jackson (From the movie of the same name)

* Blind Pig / Blind Tiger

A Blind Pig (or Blind Tiger) was, more or less, a juke joint equivalent to a speakeasy. The building the Blind Pig was located in would have a false front; a business, storage, or simply boards over the windows in order to keep the illegal establishment hidden. those that knew the right people or password could gain access to the joint. Often Blind Pigs would have live music, gambling, moonshine and other alcohols.

The blues, southern rock, and roots record label Blind Pig Records derives it's name from these establishments.

See Also: Delta Blues by Ted Gioia

* Blood Bucket Joint

A bloodbucket joint is another name for a juke joint. They aquired those nicknames because fighting would occur quite frequently. The actual term "blood bucket" tends to either refer to the buckets of blood that would be spilled fighting, or that when someone was beat bad enough, (or killed) they would be hauled out in a blood bucket.

* Bootlegger

During the prohibition, bootleggers were the men that made and delivered illegal alcohol to the various barrellhouses and speakeasies (illegal bars). The bootlegger was named such because they often carried a flask of their product in their boot.

Bootlegger's Blues
Mississippi Sheiks


BVDs are a brand name of men's underwear. It was named for the company Bradley, Voorhees & Day. The term "BVDs" has grown to mean underwear in general.

Lock and Key
Bessie Smith (1927)



* C.C. Rider

The term C.C. Rider has several possible definitions.

1) C.C. Rider could be a mistranslation or rough translation of "Easy Rider", or vice versa.

2) C.C. Rider could be short for Country Circuit Rider, a priest that would be in charge of one or several county circuits. A circuit is anywhere with more than one body of churchs. The preachers that would tend to these circuits were called, you guessed it, Circuit Riders. It coudl take weeks to encompass a circuit, so the preachers did quite a lot of riding.

3) C.C. Rider has som evidence to support the term "Circuit Court" rider, where in earlier days, one judge would preside over multiple cities and/or counties, which he would visit every X amount of time. this was his circuit.

See Also: Easy Rider

* Canned Heat

Canned Heat is a cocktail drink made from Sterno. For those not in the know, Sterno is a portable heating fuel, made from what is essentially ethanol and methanol and a couple of other things, none of which is good for you, to put it mildly. The Sterno is poured through a sock or rag to filter out the methanol and mixed with water or alcohol or whatever was on hand. Sterno was especially popular during the prohibition.

The famous blues man Tommy Johnson, was famous for having a penchant for Canned Heat, and one of his most famous songs is called Canned Heat Blues, which, you guessed it, is about a man addicted to Canned Heat.

Canned Heat Blues
Tommy johnson (1928)

Canned Heat Blues (different song than the above)
Sloppy Henry with Peg Leg Howell (1928)

Better Leave That Stuff Alone
will Shade, "Sun Brimmer"

* Casey Jones

Casey Jones was a railroad engineer who died in a fantastic train crash in 1900. He was somehwat of a folk hero because of his ambitiousness and the unique sound of his self-crafted train whistle. On April 29th, 1900 Casey was making quick headway along the tracks when a blind curve and a mechanical failure on the train ahead of him led to his train rear-ending a number of other cars. When he became aware of the inevitable wreck, he ordered his coal man to jump off, and he tried his best to stop the train. while the trains still crashed, his actions saved the lives of all of his passengers, as well as his fellow engine operator, Casey being the only casualty. Jones's status as a folk hero started in newspaper headlines and was made more famous by a friend of his, who wrote a ballad about his death. Later, Mississippi John Hurt sang about Casey, which cenented his place in history as a hero to the people. Finally, the folk band Grateful Dead recreated a song based on John Hurt's version, simply named "Casey Jones", which has been quite popular.

The Ballad of Casey Jones
Mississippi John Hurt

Kassie Jones
Furry Lewis

Casey Jones
North Mississippi Allstars

* Chess / Chess Records

We thought Chess Records was important enough that we would give it it's very own page. We like to think it's what Muddy would have wanted.

Go to the Chess Records page

*Chillen / Chillun / Chillin

John Lee Hooker - Boogie Chillin

Chillen is simply the phonetic spelling of the way "children" sounds with a southern drawl. It's similar to how Blues artist Booker White became "Bukka White", (again, by writing how it sounded with drawl).

Boogie Chillin
John Lee Hooker

* Coon-Can / Coon Can / Cooncan

Coon Can was a predecessor to rummy. The name is derived from the spanish term "Con quiŠn". You don't need a can to play! Often times, in Coon Can, players would use dice as well as cards. Each player is given 10 cards, (sans the 8's, 9's, and 10's) and the objective was to 'meld' 11 cards. (We've heard it was 11 cards, but none of us have ever played it!) The player with no cards left wins! The game only needs two people to play, so because of that it was extremely popular. Most often, it was played in Juke Joints and in work Camps.
Note: More information can be found in Blues Fell This Morning: Meaning in the Blues by Paul Oliver and Richard White, where much of the above information was derived from.

Coon Can Shorty
Peetie Wheatstraw

* Cold in Hand

Being Cold in hand means you're broke; don't have a penny!

* Conjure Man / Conjure Woman

Simply put. a Conjure man is what people think of when they think "witch doctor", though this term is rather unfiting. A conjure man, in this context, is often referring to a HooDoo practitioner that can conjure spells, most usually based on herbs, magic, etc.

See Also: HooDoo

* Coon

Luke Jordan sings "Travelin' Coon", as do several other early Blues musicians. Coon is/was an extremely derogatory word for African Americans. Although there is evidence that Applachian frontiersmen called each other Coon and Old Coon, (another pronunciation that might be familiar is "Old Coot"). Coon could have easily come from this definition, however it's true origin is unclear and in context, it seems to suggest that "Coon" is strictly referring to an African American. In recorded variations of "Travelin' Coon", sometimes later referred to as "Travelin' Man", (apparently, or hopefully, to be more politically correct,) the singer himself was always African-American while making this reference. However, the term was apparently not used in a derogatory sense. The black man who was the focus of the song was portrayed as a hero figure. He had magical powers, could use his wit to get out of tight situations, and could defy the laws of gravity and physics, and more importantly, could defy the unfair laws used to oppress blacks during this time. This was not unlike other African-originated heros such as John the Conquorer, etc.
Note: More information can be found in Songsters and Saints: Vocal Traditions on Race Records by Paul Oliver, where much of the above information was derived from.

See Also: John The Conquorer

Travelin' Coon
Luke Jordan

* Creole

Creole is most commonly referred to as a person born of direct French ancestry in the New World, around the Louisiana area. But who are we to think we know better than Webster. Straight from Webster's Dictionary:

1) A person born in the West Indies or Spanish America but of European, usually Spanish, ancestry.

2) A person born in Louisiana but of usually French ancestry.

3) (sometimes lowercase) a person of mixed black and European, esp. French or Spanish, ancestry who speaks a creolized form of French or Spanish.

4) (usually lowercase) a creolized language; a pidgin that has become the native language of a speech community. Compare pidgin. (Bluescentric: pidgin is a Hawaiian language of English combined with the native dialect)

5) the creolized French language of the descendants of the original settlers of Louisiana. Compare Cajun.

6) Haitian Creole.

7) (usually lowercase) Archaic. a black person born in the New World, as distinguished from one brought there from Africa.

My Creole Belle
Mississippi John Hurt

* Crosscut Saw

Crosscut Saw is a thinly-veiled euphamism for a man who wants to have sex with a woman. "I'm a cross-cut saw, baby drag me across your log".

* Crossroads

The Crossroads
The Crossroads are a common theme in Blues tradition, and the tale of Robert Johnson selling his soul to the Devil at the crossroads is commonplace in American lore. The crossroads refer to a place that's both physical, the interscetion of two roads, and a metaphorical, African-based tradition of meeting a spirit at the crossroads to make some sort of deal. The spirit of the crossroads is referred to as Legba in Voodoo-style religion. He is often used, in the American / Blues lore context, interchangably with a Faustian-like deals in exchange for one's soul. This is exactly the type of deal that was made with Robert Johnson, believed to have taken place outside of Rosedale, Mississippi, in exchange for his everlasting soul, which was taken under mysterious circumstances not long afterwards.

Cross Road Blues
Robert Johnson

* Cut and Dried

A common southern expression (it's a common anywhere expression these days) meaning completely finished, done, or routine, normal. The term's origins are murky, but most likely refer to one of three things: Tobacco being cut from fields and dried before it can be used, Timber, same explaination but in forests, and cutting meat and laying it to dry so as to keep it (think jerky).

* Cutting Heads

Cutting heads was the practice of, essentially, outplaying another guitar player. Often times a guitarist would go to a street corner near another guitarist and try to play better than the other guy, and whatever crowd he had gathered would go to the new, better guitarist.



* Death Letter

Death Letters were a relatively common theme in delta Blues music. A death letter is, simply, a letter that states that someone close to the letter's recipient has passed away. In earlier days, phones were often scarce, and people could be scattered anywhere, generally working, roaming, etc. Therefore, when someone died, someone close to them was tasked with sending a letter to their son, boyfriend, husband, et al. wherever they may have been. Obviously, a death letter would be an impacting source of getting the Blues.

Death Letter Blues

Death Letter
Son House

Death Letter
Johnny Farmer

Walking Blues
Robert Johnson

* Delta

The Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of the Piedmont Hotel, ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg.

Mississippi Delta in Green

The Delta is a Mississippi region that spans part of the top half of the state. This particular title of Delta is not the mouth of a river, as most deltas typically are. Instead, it's a long pear leaf-shaped stretch of Mississippi land that's surprisingly flat and fertile, made that way by thousands of years of the Mississippi River overflowing and depositing minerals and such there. This region has a Blues sound all on it's own called "Delta Blues" and was considered the "original" Blues. According to common concensus, The Delta starts in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg.

* Diddley Bow

A Diddley Bow is a one-string, makeshift guitar that was lovingly remembered by many original Delta Blues men as their first instrument. A string would be stretched between two nails, often on the side of a house or on a two-by-four or something similar. Then, much like strings are raised where they're attached to the body of a guitar, something would be pushed under the lower part of the string, often a bottle or a rock, etc, for tension. This way, the bottom part of the string would be raised, and the top would be closer to the board the string is attached to. From there, people could run a slide or something similar along different parts of the string to produce a surprisingly wide range of tones.

See Also: Slide

* Dobro

A Dobro is a brand name of specialized wooden guitar that is, in many respects, comparable to the National guitar brand. Interestingly, one of the founders of the National brand later went on to create Dobro. A Dobro features a metal cone inside the body of the guitar, which itself is usually metal, though it can be made from wood. They have a telltale metal circle with ain intricate pattern of holes (for resonance) in the lower center of the body.

See Also: National

* Dockery / Dockery Farms

Dockery Farm is outside of Cleveland Mississippi. It was once home to Howlin' Wolf and Charley Patton.

Dockery Farm outside of
Cleveland, Mississippi

Dockery Plantation was home to over a thousand sharecroppers and workers, mostly black, who worked it's nearly ten thousand acres. It is famous in Blues history as one of the most prominent melting pots in the creation of the Blues. Charlie Patton was one of the primary figures who worked and lived at Dockery. Patton in turn, influenced many prominent Blues men, such as John Lee Hooker, Robert Johnson, Howlin' Wolf, who took many of his musical cues from Patton. Other players of mention on Dockery include Son House and Willie Brown.
Notably, William Dockery, the plantation's namesake, had a reputation for treating his workers fairly and honestly, which was unusual for that day.
Note: More information cam be found at Dockery Farms' Historical Website

See Also: Peavine

* Dust my Broom

While the exact meaning isn't 100% clear, it essentially means to move on. Either from the town, from a lover, etc. is open to interpretation.

I Believe I'll Dust My Broom
Robert Johnson



* Easy Rider

The term Easy Rider has found it's way into a vast number of Blues lyrics, and has various likely definitions, no one standing out as a definite catch-all answer, though the general theme is that the term typically carries some sort of sexual connotation.

1) Easy Rider refers to a person who is 'promiscuous', (typicall ya woman) or a woman who a man is having sex with, either casual or otherwise.

2) Easy Rider refers to a man who lives off of the earnings of a prostitute, as either her pimp or her man.

3) Easy Rider is the guitar slung on the back of a travelling Bluesman, which most were in the early part of the 20th century.

4) Easy Rider has carried some connotation to motorcycles over the years, partly because of the Dennis Hopper movie, partly because "CC Rider" is likely a corruption of "Easy Rider" and CC is a measurement of gasoline intake. This definition, though, is likely not the original meaning, as both terms predate the widespread popularity of motorcycles.

Note: More information can be found at, where a portion of the above information was derived from.

Mama Don't Allow No Easy Riders Here
Tampa Red and the Memphis Jug Band



* Flagging

Flagging is Hitchiking. Some things in life are that easy.

Crossroad Blues
Robert Johnson

* Field Recording

A field recording is a recording outside of a studio setting, "out in the field". During the initial blues boom towards the beginning of the 20th century, companies would have recording equipment in cars and trucks that they would take to various towns, looking for talent. When they found it, they would record the musician wherever they might have been. The legendary folklorist Alan Lomax had a car outfitted with field recording equipment. He drove across the country, making thousands of these "field recordings", including some by a then-unknown Muddy Waters, Leadbelly, and various versions of the folk song House of the Rising Sun. These recordings are, in fact, preserved at the Library of Congress.



* Goofer Dust

According to Lucky Mojo, which is a leading authority on VooDoo, Hoodoo, and also information on references to Southern folk magic in the Blues, Goofer Dust is a dust used in HooDoo to "trouble, harm or kill an enemy". It's made from a variety of powders, but always includes Graveyard dirt, which is as the name suggests, though certain graveyard dirts only work based on various factors about the deceased whose dirt is being taken, etc. Also, the term "goofer" can be used as a euphamism for putting a spell on someone. "She goofered her unfaithful lover". Don't get goofered.

See Also: Hot Foot Powder, HooDoo

Black Dust Blues
Ma Rainey

Bedtime Blues
Frank Stokes

I Don't Know
Cripple Clarence Lofton

* Gumbo

Gumbo is a delicious Cajun soup dish served over rice. It's made from a Roux, which is a half & half combination of flour and oil, heated and stirred to thicken for a period of time. Most anything can be added into Gumbo, though the Cajun "holy trinity" is a must: Celery, Bell Peppers and Onions. Additionally, a meat, meats, or types of meat are added. There are different varieties of Gumbo, such as Seafood Gumbo, Shrimp Gumbo, Chicken Gumbo, even Gator Gumbo, which is actually quite good! Most also add Chopped Andouille Sausage.

Well since you asked... Yes, we DO have a Bluescentric special Gumbo recipe!

Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya
Dr. John

Tin Roof Blues
Louis Armstrong

* Gutbucket

Gutbucket interchangeably referred to several things:

1) A gritty style of mostly Blues music that was played in juke joints, barrelhouses, and honky tonks.

2) A bucket used to catch runoff from the barrels that alcohol was kept in in the barrelhouses and juke joints.

3) A diddley-bow style instrument that was used most often in Memphis-style jug bands as a makeshift bass. It was assembled using a washtub a the resonator body. The name 'Gutbucket' is most likely derived from the fact that often washtubs such as the ones that made up the Gutbucket Bass are the same ones used in definition number 2; as catchalls for alcohol runoff.
Note: More information can be found in From Juba to Jive: A Dictionary of African-Amerian Slang by Clarence Major, where a portion of the above information was derived from. The book is currently out of print, and may be difficult to find.

See Also: Barrelhouse, Juke Joint, Diddley Bow



* Haints

Haints are evil spirits, or simply spirits. The word is a variation of "Haunts".

* Harp / Blues Harp / Mouth Harp / Mississippi Sax / Georgia Sax

The Harmonica is also known as the Blues Harp. Quite simply, a harp is the loving term used for a harmonica. It can be called by several names: mouth harp, Blues harp, Blues harmonica, etc. When someone refers to a harp in a conversation about the Blues, rest assured it is the tried and true Harmonica, not to be mistaken with the rectangular stringed instrument that angels strum.

See Also: Harp in our instruments section

* Hobo

A Hobo was a bum, vagrant, homeless person, and/or most often, simply someone who illegally hitched a ride on a train. Ambiguously, the term "hoboing" meant hiding on a train to get a free ride somewhere. During the days of the depression and around the turn of the century hoboing was widespread, and more than several notable Delta Blues men hoboed on trains to get somewhere.

See Also: Riding the Rods, Riding the Blinds

* Hoochie Coochie / Koochie

Like many other Blues terms, hoochie coochie has a sexual connotation. Coochie, or cootch, is a slang term for a woman's vagina, and to be a woman's hoochie coochie man means being her lover. Simply put, hoochie coochie is sex. An additional note of intrest was that the word hooch was and is still a popular term for an illegal substance, most often moonshine, though in nearly any Blues context, hoochie coochie is referring to the first and primary definition.

Hoochie Coochie Man
Muddy Waters

* Hoodoo

Hoodoo is, in short, American folk magic. Interestingly, it is derived from a melting pot different religions, practices, and traditions, including African, Christianity, and even Eurpoean influences. It was traditionally practiced in the American South, though as years went by, it's tradition has spread. Hoodoo tends to incorporate the usage of herbs, roots, and other items of note to conjure spirits and spells. They can be nearly anything: protection, luck, wealth, healing, etc. (though not necessarily reserved for just "good"). While Hoodoo tends to be closely associated with Voodoo, they are two distinct practices. Voodoo can best be classified as a religion, while Hoodoo is more of an art, and doesn't have a spiritual hierarchy or theology, even though many of it's traditions can be deeply rooted in Christianity. Because Hoodoo is largely an Africal-based and Southern tradition, indirect references to Hoodoo practices can be found in a large number of Blues songs.
Note: More information can be found in an interview with Mama Zogbť, regarding Hoodoo practices, and at Lucky Mojo.

See Also: John The Conquor Root, Mojo Hand, Nation Sack, Voodoo

Hoodoo Lady Blues
Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup

Louisiana Hoo Doo Blues
Ma Rainey

* Honey Dripper

A honey dripper is a man that has a certain charasmatic, romantic capability with women. He is especially sweet and has an exquisite ability to swoon the opposite sex. The analogy is, of course, that he is as sweet as honey.

Honey Dripper
Joe Liggins

Plareen Man
Tab Benoit

* Hot Foot Powder

Old Advertisement for Hot Foot Powder

Old ad for Hot Foot Powder

Hot Foot Powder was a remedy used to rid onesself from unwanted persons or persons that mean to do one harm. It's made form a combination of minerals, herbs, and sometimes from dirt under which the unwanted person has walked. Hot Foot Powder is sprinkled in a line across a doorway or in the unwanted person's footpath (though there are several other available uses). The unwanted person will be forced to leave the spell caster alone, and in certain instances, be forced to leave the area. Hot Foot powder was immortalized in Robert Johnson's tune Hellhound on my Trail, in which the intrest of his affection sprinkled hot foot powder at her door to keep him away.

You sprinkled hot foot powder
All around your daddy's door
It keep me with ramblin' mind, rider
Every old place I go, every old place I go.

Hellhound on my Trail
Robert Johnson

* House Rent Boogie

A house rent boogie went by several names, but the concept was always the same. It was a form of community support. Often in sharecropper and plantation communities, money was relatively scarce, and rent was an ongoing problem. When a member of the community was in need, a House Rent party would be thrown. A musician would provide live music and a socializing, drinking, dancing event ensued. Everybody at the party that could spare a little donated it towards the person's house rent cause. The next time someone else needed some extra help, they would do it again!

John L's House Rent Boogie
John Lee Hooker



* Jake

Jake was a type of alcohol, taken from a ginger extract. It was legally available during the prohibition, which was convenient, since it usually contained about 70% alcohol. Unfortunately, a chemical added into the drink was a neurotoxin, and caused semi-paralysis in the legs, resulting in what was commonly called the "Jake Leg", or "Jake Walk". The Jake Leg was a telltale high-stepping walk by victims of tainted Jake. The Jake Walk also affected drinkers of tainted Whiskey as well.

See Also: Moonshine

Jake Leg Blues
Mississippi Shieks (1930)

Jake Leg Blues
Willie Loften

The Jake Walk Blues
The Allem Brothers (1930)

* Jelly Roll

A jelly roll has been used interchangably as a metaphor for both sexes' genetalia. Though regionally, it has been used as derogatory slang for a kind of wimpy or gay man. There are many songs that mention jelly rolls.

Nobody In Town Can Bake A Sweet Jelly Roll Like Mine
Bessie Smith

Jelly Roll Blues
Loius Armstrong

Workin' Man's Jelly Roll Blues
Bukka White

[Mr.] Jelly Roll Baker
Otis Spann

He's a Jelly Roll Baker
Lonnie Johnson

Georgia Woman
R.L. Burnside

* Jim Crow

Jim Crow has two meanings, both are intertwined with the other.

1) A common reference to practices and laws to keep the status quo of racial segregation in place after the freeing of slaves, particularly in the South. This is often referred to as "Jim Crow Laws".

2) A racial slur referring to the percieved inferiority of blacks.

The origins of the word Jim Crow are murky, though most say it was a mid-1800s white minstrel who painted his face in burnt cork to look like a black man and danced a jig to a tune called "Jump Jim Crow". The whole chirade was a jab at the belief that African Americans were somehow simpler and second-class.

Segregation and racism were sadly commonplace at the time.

A common appearance
in the Jim Crow days

In the late-1800s, mostly southern lawmakers began enacting laws to further unjustly segregate and discriminate against blacks, and notably enact rules that severely hindered or altogether denied blacks the right to vote, thereby keeping them in a similar perpetual state of second-class citizen indenturement. These began to be referred to as the Jim Crow Laws. The Jim Crow practice continued until the landmark 1954 case Brown v. Board of Education, which won the right to desegregate schools. Finally, in 1964 and 1965 the Jim Crow laws tha thad plagued race and class relations in the south were laid to rest with several landmark cases in equality.

Note: More information can be found at Jim Crow History, where much of the above information was derived from.

See Also: Northbound

Jim Crow Blues
Lead Belly

Black, Brown and White
Big Bill Broonzy

* Jody

Jody was a slang term for "Job Deferment", originating during World War 2 in the 1940s. Job Deferment was a way to avoid being drafted into military service. If someone was good at a necessary skill that was deemed important for the national intrest, they would get a pass from the Draft. Several Blues artists were able to avoid the war for having proficient skills that were needed. Pinetop Perkins was able to avoid service in this manner.

Additionally, a Jody Man was similar to a Back Door Man, in that while a woman's boyfriend/wife/man was away at war, the Jody Man would be at home wiht is woman.
Note: Thanks to rshurman from the Blindman's Blues Forum for the definition and word

See Also: Back Door Man

Jody Man
Slim Harpo

* Joe Louis

Joe Louis was an extremely popular black heavyweight boxing champion. He was born to Alabama sharecroppers and moved to Detroit, Michigan, where he began his boxing career. He was extremely influential through his conquests in breaking down race barriers and is widely regarded as the first national black hero. Because of this, he became a very influential champion of the millions of oppressed blacks across America. "Joe Louis" has been inserted into countless early Blues, Jazz, and minstrel songs, often portrayed (rightfully) as one of the most powerful, best fighters in the world.

* Johnny Cockeroo / John The Conquerer / High Johnny The Conquer Root / John The Conquer Root

John the Conquer Root is literally a plant root used in Hoodoo. It was named for an African folk hero aptly called John the Conqurer. The story has John being kidnapped from Africa and enslaved on a plantation. Whether John was real or imagined, he stood as a symbol for the unbreakable spirit of slaves, and as a quiet rebellion against their masters. John's folk hero status was somewhat like that of Bria'r Rabbit's; he used various situations to his advantage to outsmart and outwit his master while maintaining a facade of ignorance. After the abolition of slavery, he was again intertwined in stories about outsmarting various situations of racism and white persecution.

In Hoodoo, John the conquor root comes from a relative of the morning glory family, and is used in various spells and potions and oils, including love/attraction spells, in mojo bags, and to achieve various desires. It is a very prominent and widely used part of Hoodoo.

See Also: Hoodoo

My John the Conquorer Root
Muddy Waters

I'm a Man
Bo Diddley

Mannish Boy
Muddy Waters

Black John the Conqueror
Dr. John

* Juke Joint

Few true Juke Joints like Po Monkey's remain these days. Several can be found nestled in the south.

Po Monkey's Juke Joint in Merigold, Mississippi.
Regarded as "the last juke joint in the world"
Though several can be found in the south

A Juke Joint is a bar of sorts. Though a Juke Joint is more than simply a drinking establishment. Largely African American owned and frequented, Juke Joints were, and to an extent continue to be, a place for socializing, drinking, gambling, and of course, playing live music. Many times, they would have a bar or other establishment up front wiht a door to the gambling and moonshine-selling and other various illegal activities in the back. Juke Joints differ from Honky Tonks, or so it's been said, in that Honky Tonks are for the country (read: rednecks), Juke Joints are for the Blues. They originated out of the need for poor farmers and sharecroppers, largely black, to have a place to relax after brutal and backbreaking labor in the hot southern sun. Often times the juke joints would be dilapidated buildings, sharecropper shantys, etc. They used whatever means necessary to provide a place for their piers to be able to come together to release the tensions of the week. Of course, drinking, gambling, and dancing required music. That's why they called the automated player capable of playing muliple discs Juke Boxes. Why did you think it was called that?

The vast majority of the Delta Blues musicians made their living playing in Juke Joints as often as they could, and many times would play dancing songs and tunes all night. Muddy Waters actually ran a Juke Joint while still working as a sharecropper before moving to Chicago.

* Jumper on the lines

A Jumper was most often a hobo that would hitch an illegal ride on a train. In Blues, The term was commonly associated with skipping town or jumping

See Also: Hobo, Riding the Rods, Riding the Blinds

Jumper on the Line
R.L. Burnside



* The Katy / Katy

The MKT, or 'Katy' was immortalized in Taj Mahal's famous 'She Caught The Katy' "The Katy" is a loving term adpoted for the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad, or MKT for short. The Railroad, as described by it's name, ran through Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas and operated for over 100 years, from 1870 through into the 1980s. It's stock symbol was K-T, which was quickly adopted into the "Katy" monkier. It was forever immortalized in the Blues classic "She Caught The Katy And Left Me A Mule To Ride", made famous by Taj Mahal, and co-written by Taj and James "Yank" Rachel. Here at Bluescentric this is one of our favorite songs, since our office is just down the road from Katy's tracks.

She Caught The Katy and Left Me a Mule To Ride
Taj Mahal

* Killing Floor

A killing floor was a particular part of a slaughterhouse where, as the name suggests, the animals are killed. Usually they bagan the processing on the Killing Floor as well. This term in the Blues is a euphamism for hard times being likely to kill a man. As in Skip James' song Hard Times Killing Floor Blues, he refers to being on the killing floor as being in a low place in life.

People, if I ever can get up
Off a-this old hard killing floor
Lord, I'll never get down
This low no more

Hard Time Killing Floor Blues
Skip James

Killing Floor
Howlin' Wolf

* King Biscuit

King Biscuit Time was and still is a popular Blues radio show based out of Helena, Arkansas. It was famously hosted by Blues man and harmonica champion Sonny Boy Williamson (II). Also on the show was legendary Blues pianist Pinetop Perkins and Robert Lockwood Jr. The show was sponsored by, (can you guess it?) the King Biscuit Flour company. It first aired in 1941 and to this day continues to play Blues on their aptly named show.

You can check out more information on the King Biscuit Time website.



* Levee

A levee was/is an earthen mound-shaped wall built to keep a river at bay when it overflows to prevent losing crops and towns to flooding. Levees were and still are commonplace among Mississippi River towns, where most Blues songs that reference levees originated. Several songs were recorded about the Great Flood of 1927, including songs by Barbecue Bob, Memphis Minnie, and others. The Great Mississippi flood of 1927 was one of the two greatest floods in recorded American history. the other was the more recent Flood of 1993. Both were victim's of the powerful Mississippi and Missouri rivers overflowing and breaking levees.

The Mississippi Delta heavily relied (and still relies) on levees to contain the mighty Mississippi River. The region is known for it's extremely flat land and fertile ground, a product of thousands of years of the Mississippi River overflowing it's banks, flattening the land, and depositing rich minerals into the soil. When the area was first civilized and cultivated, levees became necessary to prevent the frequent flooding and preserve towns, lives, and crops.

When The Levee Breaks
Memphis Minnie

* Levee Camp

A Levee camp was a rudementary work-camp establishment of most often black workers set near a levee. These camps were set up to build or reenforce levees, and often when flooding was imminent or could occur. Reportedly, it wasn't unusual for black workers to be forced at gunpoint to work on the levees. The work was brutal and dangerous, since often times when reenforcing the levees, they were already in danger of breaking, etc. The levee camps were tough places and living conditions were abysmal, making leevee camps a genuinely woeful place to work, to put it lightly.

I Wonder When I'll Get to be Called a Man
Big Bill Broonzy

Levee Camp Blues
Mississippi Fred Mcdowell

Levee Camp Moan
Son House



* M.F.

Good christian boys and girls read no further! M.F. stands for Motherfucker.

* Mamlish

Your guess is as good as ours! Mamlish is, unfortunately, a word lost in time. It's been used in a number of Blues recordings of the time, but it's meaning has never been identified. If you stumble upon this and happen to know what Mamlish means, John Tefteller, a Blues historian, just might have a reward for you!

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

Nappy Head Blues
Bobby Grant (1927)

Mamlish Blues
Ed Bell (1927)

* Mississippi Sax

See Harp

* Mojo

Mojo has signifigant different meanings depending on it's context in the Blues. In Hoodoo, mojo can refer to the Mojo Hand or Mojo Bag, which is a magical charm. Mojo can also refer to magic or the ability to have certain powers. Many Blues songs reference Hoodoo, however none have been so popular as Muddy Water's "Got My Mojo Working". Although many lyrics sang by Muddy Waters did reference Hoodoo, (often written by Willie Dixon), when Muddy Waters popularly sang about Mojo, the context was directed more towards sexual prowess than to Magic.

See Also: Hoodoo, Mojo Hand

Got My Mojo Working
Muddy Waters

* Mojo Hand

Old ad for a Mojo Hand

Common Advertisement for
a novelty Mojo Hand Bag

A Mojo Hand goes by several names, including Mojo Bag, Gris-Gris Bag, etc., and is used in the Hoodoo tradition. The simple definition of a Mojo Hand is that it contains a magic spell. Mojo Bags often contain a variety of ingredients, usually including herbs and other items of note for different spells. Notably, Mojo Hands often contain the John Conquor Root. They can be used for anything from Luck to Love, and many things in between.
Note: An extensive overview of Mojo Bags can be found at Lucky Mojo, where a portion of the above information was derived from.

See Also: Hoodoo, Johnny The Conquor Root

Mojo Hand
Lightnin' Hopkins

Scary Day Blues
Blind Willie McTell

Mojo Hand Blues
Ida Cox

Brand New Mojo Hand
Lonnie Brooks

* Moonshine

Moonshine is / was an illegally distilled alcohol usually made from a corn mash. Moonshine was especially popular during the prohibition, however, the unlicensed
Moonshine stills were common during prohibition eras

Moonshine still circa 1930s

nature of home distilling led to many contaminates and toxins in the moonshine, which was prone to causing permanent damage to it's drinkers, most often manifested in the "Jake Walk". Moonshine is still distilled to this day, though largely sans the neurotoxins. Take heed, a person sitting in a bar drinking a clear substance from a canning jar isn't drinking water!
Note: More information can be found at North Carolina Moonshine

See Also: Bootlegger, Jake



* Nation Sack

There are several variations of definitions of Nation Sack:

1) According to Lucky Mojo, a Nation Sack is a regionally specific version of a Mojo Bag used only by women. Though often times, Nation Sack has been used to refer simply to a Mojo Bag. It's used in the Hoodoo tradition.

2) There is some speculation that "nation" refers to donation. Particular priests, sometimes known as Country Circuit Riders, had several denominations across one or more state countys would ride their horses to each in a circuit. They would carry a (do)nation sack to keep the tithes of the various churches in.

See Also: Mojo Hand, C.C. Rider, Voodoo

Come On In My Kitchen
Robert Johnson

* National

A National was a brand name of guitar, beginning in the late 1920s. It was a steel guitar, specifically. Though the body of the guitar is a lusterous, shiny metal, it's called a steel guitar because musicians would play it on their laps and use a piece of steel to play it. The guitar came out of the need for more amplification as music got louder and the guitar sound was drowned out. The result was the steel guitar, whose body was made of metal and fitted with what was called a tri-cone, (essentially, three speaker-looking cones) which allowed the steel guitar to sound much louder than a regular guitar. National stopped making their metal-bodied guitars in 1941.

A number of well-known Blues artists used the National, including Son House, Peetie Wheatstraw, Tampa Red, Memphis Minnie, Robert Johnson, and many others.

* New Deal

The "New Deal" was a response to the great depression. It referred to a number of socio-economic plans that President Roosevelt unveiled, with the goal of providing jobs, stimulating the economy, and reforming government policies. The policies included the Social Security Administration, the FDIC, the FHA (Federal Housing Authority), the SEC, and the Tennessee Valley Authority. While Roosevelt laid specific money and programs aside for struggling Blacks, many of whom were the hardest hit by the depression, his new deal passed over equal rights and segregation with indefference.

New Deal Blues
Tampa Red

* Northbound

Northbound was a reference to the Great Migration, where hundreds of thousands of blacks moved North to escape Jim Crow Laws, segregation, hate, and abysmal employment. Demand for industrial labor in northern cities like St. Louis, Chicago, and Detroit was skyrocketing, paid fairly, and segregation was minimal. These prospects led many African Americans, as well as poor whites who were often included in the discrimination of the time, to leave the South in search of a better life.

See Also: Jim Crow

Southern Blues
Roosevelt Sykes

Detroit Bound Blues
Blind Blake

Chicago Bound Blues
Bessie Smith



* Parchman Farm / Pea Farm / P Farm

Parchman Farm was a 20,000 acre prison farm located near the town of Parchman, Mississippi. It's since been turned into the Mississippi State Penitentiary. In the Jim Crow days of Mississippi, many laws were enacted to unfairly jail poor and/or blacks, many of which were sent to Parchman Farms. There the men were made to work in conditions similar to plantations. the work was hard and the guards were racist and brutal.
Numerous Blues songs were recorded about Parchman, and several famous blues men spent time in Parchman, including Son House and R.L. Burnside. It was immortalized in Bukka White's song "Parchman Farm Blues". "Midnight Special" was also a popular Parchman-inspired Blues song from the era about loading families on a train to go see the inmates. The most popular version of this song was sung by Leadbelly in 1934.

See Also: Jim Crow

Parchman Farm Blues
Bukka White
Conditions were brutal at Parchman, which is still a prison farm in Parchman, Mississippi.

New York Times propaganda article regarding Parchman
To see the full NY Times excerpt, click here (pdf)

* Peavine

The Peavine was, specifically, a branch of rail off of the Y. & M. V. line, which was commonly referred to as the "Yellow Dog". The Peavine branch ended at the Dockery Plantation. The term Peavine, however, was also used more ambiguously, and often referred to any branch of rail line whose path was winding. The Peavine branch ran about ten miles before it connected back to the Yellow Dog.

Pea Vine Blues
Charlie Patton

* Plareen

"Plareen Man" is the eleventh track on Tab Benoit's album "The Sea Saint Sessions", which you can find on Amazon. Plareen is a phonetic mispronunciation of Praline, a sugary candied treat with pecans or almonds usually associated with New Orleans. Pralines, pronounced (pray-lean), are often found in coffee shops like the famous Cafe Du Monde and on street corners, sold by Praline Men and Women. So when Benoit sings, "he's a honey dripping sugar daddy, they call him the Plareen Man", he's alluding that the man's ability to be 'sweet' with all the ladies.

* Policy

The policy is an illegal lottery game. The game was quite similar to powerball, where players pick three numbers and hope they matched the numbers of the day. The name comes from bettors making a parlay-style bet on the next day's numbers, called an insurance policy. The game began being known as the policy game, and was good cover code for transacting game tickets.

Policy Blues
Jim Jackson (1928)

Playing Policy Blues
Blind Blake

* Put Roots On

To "Put Roots On" someone is to cast a HooDoo spell on them. The definition from that point is fairly vague. Much of the time, putting root son someone is casting a spell on a love interest so that they stay with whomever cast the spell, or do what the spellcaster says. The ways to go about puting roots on someone varies, but, it appears, it always consists of slipping a concoction (usually of boiled or ground roots, hence the name) into their drink or food, etc. We've heard that sometimes the ground root can be laid on the ground where the recipient will be walkin gbarefoot so it travels through their feet up into their heart. Don't ask where we heard that.



* Race Record

Race Records were the name given by record companies to any record made by a black musician, regardless of what type of music it was, for a long period in history. As a result of this ambiguity in music types, that's why so many songs have "Blues" tacked to the end of the name of the song, to identify it's genre.

* Rambling / Ramblin'

To ramble is to roam, moving from place to place, town to town, uninhibited. Many original Delta Bluesmen rambled in their days, junking form town to town, playing in various Barrelhouses, Juke Joints, etc. Ramblin' Music is also defined as a type of music that came from the Applachia, more folk-style music than Blues.

See Also: Barrelhouses, Juke Joint

* Rent Party

See House Rent Boogie

* Riding the Blinds

There are several possible definitions for "Riding the Blinds", but the two most commonly cited explainations are as follows:

1) "Riding the blinds" referred to the practice of riding in an enclosed-style car, such as a boxcar or an animal-transport car, which had slits in the side. The slits in the animal transport would let light through in strips, ironically, much like how we would describe the light coming through window blinds today. Hobos would "ride the blinds" to remain protected from soot, gravel and dust, and to escape detection by both the train operators and by people at stations and on the ground as the train passed.

2) The Blind is the foremost car behind the engine of a train. This particular spot on the train, the engine's operators never inspect, nor is it visible from their vantage point, thus it is "blind".

3) There is an accordion-style rubber (thought it used to be leather or a thick fabric, etc.) tunnel between two passenger cars on a train. The Blind is a spot outside the rubber 'tunnel'. Outside of that, there is a ladder and a small spot to stand or sit. Hobos would grab the ladder and hold on. The spot outside the small, rubber 'tunnel was completely "blind" from anyone inside the train.

* Riding the Rods

Hobos would 'riding the rails' to quickly and freely get from town to town In the earlier part of the century, many of the Delta Blues musicians would hobo on the trains to get from place to place. Occasionally, they would 'ride the rods'. Riding the rods was an extremely dangerous way of hitching a ride on the train. There are iron rods that ran lengthwise the bottom of old boxcars and acted as supports. A slim hobo could slip up into the rods, lay flat on his back and hold on for dear life. God forbid they fell asleep, fatigued, etc. there was nothing stopping them from falling right into the railroad tracks with a one-way ticket to meet their maker. There is an excellent excerpt from the now out of print Blues Access magazine of a discussion between Honeyboy Edwards, Robert Lockwood Junior, Homesick James, and Henry Townsend in which they discuss riding the blinds back in their hoboing days. Find it here!

How Long, How Long Blues
Blind Lemon Jeffersion

Riverside Blues
Sam Collins

Goin' To Chattanooga
Ralph Willis



* Salty Dog

A Salty Dog has been usd in two contexts in Blues lyrics:

1) A man who has benefits with a woman.
2) A person of promiscuity.

Salty Dog Blues
Morris Brothers

Salty Dog
Mississippi John Hurt

* Sea Saint

Sea-Saint Studios is a recording studio set up in New Orleans in the 1960s by Marshall Sehorn and Allen Toussaint, and was a driving force behind the unique New Orleans R&B sound. It still exists at 3809 Clematis St. in the Gentilly district. It's now called "Big Easy Recording Studio", but is still referred to by musicians in the region by it's "Sea Saint" nickname. Famous musicians such as Albert King and Paul McCartney recorded music there. Mosty notably, Patty LaBelle recorded the smash hit "Lady Marmalade" at Sea-Saint. Dr. John has regularly recorded at Sea-Saint, as well as a host of other musicians.

* See See Rider

See C.C. Rider

* Sharecropping / Sharecroppers

Sharecropping was a system in which a person worked a plot of land that a landowner owned in return for a share of the profits when it was time to harvest. The landowner provided all of the necessities of life, as well as seed for the crops, etc. Unfortunately for the sharecroppers, their efforts were often futile. If crops didn't grow, were flooded, etc., they were still in debt to the landowner for the supplies provided through the year. Even if they enjoyed a good crop, these supplies, rent and necessities could often be outrageously priced, and sharecroppers would often be left with little or nothing. A great many of the original Delta blues men, including Son House, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, etc. were sharecroppers or were from sharecropping families. This was primarily because sharecropping was one of the few places blacks, from the turn of the century to roughly the start of WWII, could be gainfully employed.

* The Sip

An abbreviated term for Mississippi

* Sissy Man

Put simply, a sissy man slang for a homosexual man.

Sissy Man Blues
Kokomo Arnold

* Skin Ball

A Skin Ball was a time of party and celebration. It was when sharecroppers had been given their year's returns for their share of the crops, and would meet to drink and dance and play games of skin, (for which the skin ball is aptly named) and poker and dice, etc. at the juke joints and barrelhouses with their newfound earnings.

See Also: Juke Joint, Barrelhouse, Skin Game

* Skin Game

A skin game was one that was rigged, or at the very least, slanted against the player. These skin games, according to Blues Fell This Morning: Meaning in the Blues by Paul Oliver, commonly occured towards the end of harvest, when sharecroppers would be given their share of the crop return in a lump sum. Many swindlers from Chicago, Saint Louis, Memphis, etc. would come down and set up skin games where often times the sharecroppers would wager their recently-awarded pay (essentially, all of the money they had for the year) in the hopes of getting a better return, but instead losing it to the Skin Game.
Note: More information can be found in Blues Fell This Morning: Meaning in the Blues by Paul Oliver and Richard White, where much of the above information was derived from.

Skin Game Blues
Peg Leg Howell

* Slide

A slide is a piece of equipment used to play slide guitar. Many things can be a slide. The earliest documentation of Blues, as observed by W.C. Handy, described a man playing guitar with a pocketknife. Presumably, he was playing slide much like Blues players have been recording since recordings existed. It consists of sliding something (a piece of pipe, a filed down bottleneck, a piece of Steel, etc.) across the strings to give them an eerie sound. Interestingly, the slide technique came from Hawaii.

See Also: Slide Guitar in our instruments section

* Smokestack Lightning / Smoke Stack Lightning

In the days of steam trains, the train engine would have a smokestack at it's front. As the steam would power the locomotive, the excess was pushed out of the smokestack, along with residual sparks. In the night, it could look like lightning. As Howlin' Wolf himself put it:
"We used to sit out in the country and see the trains go by, watch the sparks come out of the smokestack. That was smokestack lightning"

Smokestack Lightning
Howlin' Wolf

* Son of a gun

Son of a gun can interchangably be used as a positive or a negative. Men often referred to themselves in song as a "son of a gun", almost always in a bragging manner. On the other hand many songs, when referring to someone else, use the term disparagingly.

Hoochie Coochie Man
Muddy Waters

* Southern Cross the Dog

The Southern railroad crossed the Yellow Dog Moorhead Mississippi

What's left of where the Southern
cross the Dog, Moorhead, Mississippi.
(Click for a larger image)

This is referring to an 'X' crossing between two railroads' tracks located in Moorehead, Mississippi. The "Southern" was the Southern Railroad. The "Dog" is most commonly accepted as the Yazoo & Mississippi Valley Railroad, which ran from Clarksdale to Yazoo City. There is some confusion as to the definitive "Yellow Dog" nickname, since a different train, the Yazoo Delta, (nickname Y.D., which could have been a starting place for the "Yellow Dog" term) ran through Moorehead as well, but the train's existence was quite brief, and the monkier "Yellow Dog" relavently stuck around decades after it's extinction.

Consider this excerpt from W.C. Handy's Autobiography, Father Of The Blues: An Autobiography
"A lean, loose-jointed Negro had commenced plunking a guitar beside me while I slept. His clothes were rags; his feet peeped out of his shoes. His face had on it some of the sadness of the ages. As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar in a manner popularized by Hawaiian gutarists who used steel bars. The effect was unforgettable. His song, too, struck me instantly.

"Goin' where the Southern cross' the Dog"

The singer repeated the line three times. Accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I had ever heard. The tune stayed in my mind. When the singer paused, I leaned over and asked him what the words meant. He rolled his eyes, showing a trace of mild amusement. Perhaps I should have known, but he didn't mind explaining. At Moorehead the eastbound and the westbound met and crossed the north and southbound trains four times a day. This fellow was going where the southern cross' the Dog, and he didn't care who knew it. "

See the full page here.

See Also: Slide Guitar in our instruments section

Yellow Dog Blues
Sam Collins

Southern Blues
Big Bill Broonzy

* Squeeze My Lemon

A lemon was a euphamism for a certain part of the male anatomy. Squeezing the lemon was a metaphor for sex. Legendary Blues enthusiasts/rockers Led Zepplin made a tribute to this song called The Lemon Song, on their second album, including the famous Robert Johnson lyric, "Squeeze my lemon 'til the juice run down my leg";

Traveling Riverside Blues
Robert Johnson

She Squeezed My Lemon
Arthur McKay

Let Me Squeeze Your Lemon
Bo Carter

* Stagger Lee

We thought Stagger Lee was important enough that we would give bad old Stag his own page. After all, if we didn't he might have come back from the grave and shot us.

Go to the Stagger Lee page

For further reading, there is also an excellent article at the American Blues Scene on Stagger Lee

* Stavin' Chain / Stave n' Chain

As in many Blues terms, Stavin' Chain has multiple possible definitions. Additionally Windin' Boy presumably has the same meanings as Stavin' Chain

1) A euphamism for a man's penis. It was often used in the context of a man winding his pelvis for a woman.

2) There is a suggestion based on the lyrics of a song named "Stavin' Chain", by Lil' Johnson that "Stavin' Chain" was a man, (or possibly a mythilogical figure) who was exceptionally good at sex, and was well known for his long "stave", (see definition number 1).

3) Possibly, a stavin' chain was a chain attached to a slave or prisoner, either on a chain gang or otherwise. "Stavin'" is possibly a corruption of the word "Staying".

Note: More information can be found on Steve Mann's Website, where a portion of this information was derived from.

Whin[d]in' Boy
Jelly Roll Mortin

Stavin' Chain
Lil Johnson

* Stones In My Passageway

Well we don't have all the answers... But give us a little time.

* Stovall's Plantation

Stovall's Plantation was (and is) a large Cotton plantation consisting of around 3500 acres outside of Clarksdale, Mississippi. It's still being farmed to this day by the Stovall family. The plantation was most well known because of it's most famous son: Muddy Waters. It was here that Muddy was born and grew up, ran a juke joint, and in 1941, that Alan Lomax recorded Muddy play for the first time, while he was in search of the (unbeknownst to him) deceased Robert Johnson. Muddy named an album after Stovall's Plantation, aptly called Down On Stovall's Plantation, which is available through our Amazon Store.

Interestingly, according to Delta Blues by Ted Gioia, likely the very first (unknowing) documentation of the Blues was most recorded right in John Stovall's house. An archeologist, Charles Peabody was digging native american graves in 1902 when he was mesmerized by the local workers he'd hired, directly citing their use of three chords, (the I-IV-V 12-bar blues standard) and most interestingly was Mr. Gioia's quote from Peabody's attempt to document the music he heard. (pg 22) "I should not omit mention of a very old negro employed on the plantation of Mr. John Stovall of Stovall, Mississippi. He was asked to sing to us one very dark night as we sat on the galley...I have not heard that kind of music again nor of it." We highly recommend the book.

See Also: Delta Blues by Ted Gioia, 12 Bar, Juke Joint, Southern Cross The Dog, 12 Bar

* Sun / Sun Records

We thought Sun Records was important enough that we would give it it's very own page. We like to think it's what Elvis would have wanted.

Go to the Sun Records page



* Terraplane

In reality a Terraplane was a car made by the Hudson Motor Company. Like many great Blues songs, though, the Terraplane had a double meaning for a woman.
Robert Johnson's "Terraplane Blues" describes how Johnson believes his woman let another man "drive" his Terraplane while he was gone. Of course, the Terraplane is a double entendre for his woman.

Terraplane Blues
Robert Johnson

* Tin Lizzie

A nickname for a Ford Model-T.

Richland Woman Blues
Mississippi John Hurt



* Up The Country

See: Northbound. To "go up" is a term for going North. therefore, to go Up the country is literally to go north in America.

See Also: 61 Highway, Up The Line

Goin' Up The Country
Barbecue Bob

* Up The Line

Up the line is a railroad-originated term. The line, in this instance, is a railroad line or track. In the south, "up" is commonly used interchangably with "North". Alternatively, "down" would be South. East and west stay the same. So moving up the line means a person is going North on a train. Down the line most often refers to heading south.



* Van Van

Van-Van is an oil used in Hoodoo for a number of things, particularly as an enhancement to existing spells/charms, etc. and is used to keep away evil spirits. The word Van Van is derived from the French word Verveine, a flower.
Note: An extensive overview of Van-Van can be found at Lucky Mojo, where the above information was derived from.

* Vocalion

We thought Vocalion Records was important enough that we would give it it's very own page.

Go to the Vocalion Records page

* Voodoo

In short, Voodoo is a religion. It is a combination of largely Caribbean and west African influences, as well as Catholicism. When slaves were kidnapped and transported to Haiti and America, they were forced into Catholocism. Since Voodo is a belief in a number of dieties, it was easy to adopt the many Catholic saints into the religion, and thus they were able to largely continue practicing undisturbed. While the two are often very closely associated, Hoodoo is an American folk magic practice, while Voodoo is a religion based on spirituality. Though the practice of Voodoo religion is relatively open, and not as organized into hierarchies as other religions such as Christianity.

Additionally, New Orleans is well known for it's long association with Voodoo. Being a progressive town, New Orleans was comparitively lax about letting slaves and people of color continue practicing their religions, namely Voodoo, openly. Priestesses (women have long held more prestige than men) were allowed to practice in the city, and many prominent figures (of any color) came to them for help.

Because of Voodoo's strong ties to African American heritage, it's long been referenced and addressed in the Blues.

See Also: HooDoo



* Wax

For years, the phrase "wax a record" was commonplace among those recording a sound, songs, etc. To "Wax" a record meant to record it. It comes from the method originally used to make a record. As a person would record, a pin would move and trace lines around a disc coated with a beeswax compound. After they were done recording, it was bathed off in an acidic solution and, viola! They had a disc.

* Wear My Apron Low

Essentially, wearing an apron low is a desirable trait, in that a woman has the right curves to be able to wear an apron around her hips. When she can't wear her apron low, it generally appears to mean that she is pregnant, or has gotten fat, as the apron will no longer fit. The best example is the traditional folk song Careless Love, in the context of a woman.

Love, oh love, my careless love, (3x)
Oh look what careless love has done.
Once I wore my apron low, (3x)
I could not keep you from my door.
Now my apron strings won't pin, (3x)
You pass my door and won't come in.

Careless Love
W.C. Handy

* White Lightning

See Moonshine




Ya-Ya has at least two regionally-specific meanings.

The most popular meaning in delta blues is "yas yas" (sounds like "ass ass"... for a reason). Yas Yas was used often by blues artist as a substitute for the word "ass" when ass was still unacceptable slang. The Rolling Stones named their 1970 live album "Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out!" as a nod to their heavy blues influences, ("Ya-Ya's" being a corruption of the original "Yas-yas"). The album featured B.B. King, Ike and Tina Turner, and Chuck Berry, as well as several Rolling Stones covers of blues staples.

The second meaning, most prevalent in and around New Orleans, Louisiana, "ya-ya" simply means "grandma". The often-heard New Orleans phrase "Gumbo Ya-Ya" is the equivalent to "Gumbo like grandma used to make"!

New Dirty Dozen
Memphis Minnie

Get Yer Yas Yas Out
Blind Boy Fuller

The Duck Yas Yas Yas
Tampa Red

Gris Gris Gumbo Ya-Ya
Dr. John