Chapter I -
English Words And The Blues"
"Modern students believe that the most important cause for the
peculiarities of Southern speech was the survival in the South of the
English language as spoken in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries,
which was brought over by the colonists.11(1). Eaton adds:
"Furthermore, the Southern colonists brought over with them
pronunciations peculiar to the numerous dialects of the mother country,
especially those of southern and southwestern England. Expressions such
as "gwine" forgoing' and "ain't" for 'isn't' antedate the coming of the
Negroes to the South."(2). Some twenty years earlier, White had already
confirmed this: "...the folk Negro, America's most conservative citizen,
has preserved tags from nineteenth-century religious songsters and
minstrel books, even as he has preserved older tags of English
speech"(3). This of course also include under the umbrella of the "folk
Negro", the Blues singer who has similarly preserved these "tags" or
have said in my introduction, these links will include the source (or
sources) of particular Blues. I include two examples which will cover
two chapters. But first I wish to delve into the links as defined by
single words which have survived from seventeenth century parlance, or
earlier, in the British Isles and live on in the colloquial speech/song
of the Blues singer of the twentieth century in the U.S.A.
first example, fittingly, is a word which is often conjured up in the
mind when the 'average' person is asked what their concept of the Blues,
is, They will often use the word "moan" or one of its variations. The
word not only features in the lyrics of countless Blues but is also
included in some of the recorded titles. "That Black Snake Moan"(1926),
"Mosquito Moan" (1929), "Long Distance Moan"(1929), all by Blind Lemon
Jefferson from Texas; "Why Do You Moan?"(1926), by Bo Weavil Jackson;
"Bad Luck Moan"(1929), by Willie Baker from Georgia; and "Mean Black
Moan"(1929), by Charlie Patton from the Mississippi Delta, being a few
examples. When questioned about the last title, Son House, another Delta
singer and a contemporary of Patton, defined "... a 'mean black moan' as
a lover's dirge; the adjectival 'mean' should be rendered as 'awful
bad"'(4). The dictionary tells us that "moan" means a lament in poetical
terms.(5). Interestingly, after 1930, the word "moan" does
not appear in Blues titles, generally speaking. One of the few
exceptions which springs to mind and that is Son House himself who, when
'rediscovered', performed a "Levee Camp Moan" and recorded this title in
1965. But House was first recording Blues back in 1930 when this title
was already old, and still played and sang, as if in a time-warp.
Although the word "moan" survived into the post-war era in Blues lyrics,
as Chicago Blues pianist, Willie Mabon demonstrated in 1952:
"Baby, hear me holler, Baby, hear me moan."(6).
L. Lloyd relates how George Gardiner, an eminent folk song collector,
Picked up a song called "The Pelican" from an old man in a Southampton
work house around 1917. It commences with the following verse:
I was a-walking down by a wilderness,
There I was assaulted by many wild beasts,
And there I did hear a bird making her moan,
That her young ones had fled and gone far from their home."(7).
"moan" referred to in the above is in exactly the same context as used
by Blues singers, and obviously there is not a lot of difference in a
"lover's dirge" and a "mother's dirge" as related in "The Pelican". Also
from the nineteenth century comes "Through Moorfields", the first two
lines of which run thus:
"'Twas through Moorfields I rambled by myself all alone,
I heard a maid in Bedlam a-making her sad moan."(8).
the 9th December, 1663, Samuel Pepys' cousin from Cambridge visited him
full of the problem of a wayward son: "This evening in the office, after
I wrote my day's passages, there came to me my Cozen Angier of
Cambridge, poor man, making his moan; and obtained of me that I would
send his son to sea as a Reformado, which I will take care to do."(9).
In the Select Glossary, the word "Reformado" is defined as "naval
(military) officer; serving without commission"(10). But an even earlier
influence comes from the fifteenth century and a poem called "Unkindness
has killed me":
is my sorrow:
Both evene and morrow
Unto myselfe alone
Thus do I make my mone."(11).
This constitutes the first four lines of the first verse, and again the
"mone" is in exactly the same context as the Blues singers' usage.
Indeed, the unknown fifteenth century poet must have felt as "awful bad"
in his/her situation, as Charlie Patton did in 1929. Or rather, would
have felt, if that situation were true for both these artists.
Another example is the word "betwixt" which crops up in Blues from
singers who are mainly from the state of Georgia, in the corrupted form
of "twixt". Charlie Hicks, who became 'Charlie Lincoln' for recording
purposes, sang the following verse in 1927:
you ever wake up 'twixt night and day.(x2)
Had your arms around your pillow where your good gal used to
slight variation occurred in the opening lines to Barbecue Bob's
(Charlie's younger brother), first record, made some eight months
"Woke up this mornin' gal, 'twixt midnight an' day,
I woke up this morning, 'twixt midnight an' day.
With my hand 'round the pillow where my brownie used to
could be argued that as these men were brothers, the use of the word
"'twixt" was peculiar to the Hicks family. However, another
singer/guitarist from Eatonton County, Ga. one "Peg Leg " Howell, also
used this word in his Blues repertoire, dating from 1926. However,
leaving Georgia, we find the full word "betwixt" cropping up in the
speech of yet another Delta singer, David 'Honeyboy' Edwards
in 1968 when relating the beginning of his recording career in 1942, for
the Library of Congress man, Alan Lomax. "He picked me up in Coahoma and
brought me back to Clarksdale and after we left Clarksdale we went
betwixt Clarksdale and Friar's Point."(14). He was still using the
corrupted Georgia form in 1989: "I know where Dockery's was, twixt
Cleveland and a little place called Ruleville on Number 8 Highway."(15).
All the places that Edwards mentioned are small townships in the
From the era following the introduction of industrialization in Britain
(presumably the 19th. century) comes the following lines in the first
verse of an undated "The Dummer Sheener's Gang":
o'clock comes we now begin,
We usually stops 'twixt nine and ten,"(16).
Travelling back in time, to a period between 1560 and 1700, we find the
following from "The Mayde's Vnswere":
beare the false and faithlesse minde
to have the same forgot That once, betwixt vs two,
were sealed in each brest:"(17).
even earlier is what I believe the source of this word in a poem from
the mid-fourteenth century, called "The Hours of the Passion" referring
to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, which includes the lines:
Midday, Lord, thu were nailed to the Rode,
Betwixen tweiye theves, ihanged all on blode."(18).
Some words occur in the Blues but once or very seldom on the evidence so
far. An Alabama Blues guitarist, Barefoot Bill, recorded a "Snigglin'
Blues" in 1929. A verse of which runs:
"When you in my presence babe, mama, you sniggles an' laughs,
I said when youse in my presence, mama, you sniggled an'
An' (you) tell me kthere are) so many suckers, daddy, I don't
need no calf."(19).
Although, Humphrey Higgins says that this title is "Bill's corruption of
'sniggering "'(20), the word "sniggle" was extant in nineteenth century
Britain. One meaning is given as "To wriggle,; creep
stealthily:11(21'), which Partridge tells us was dialect
before 1837. Since Barefoot Bill's blues is about a woman's betrayal of
a man, the "calf" imagery being an extension of "suckers" (men), the
latter description of Partridge would be applicable in the way that the
woman conducted that betrayal! With this meaning, "sniggle" became a
colloquialism "ca. 1900"(22). The other meaning given for this word is
"Whence to get (something) in surreptitiously."(23), and graduated from
being dialect before 1881, to becoming also a colloquialism at the turn
of the century. This latter definition would seem to be even more
British nineteenth century word "nigh" puts in a rare appearance in the
Blues, when South Mississippian, John Byrd included the following lines
in his "Billy Goat Blues":
"Lord, the Fast Mail train, honey, was 'proaching nigh,
Oh, the Fast Mail train, Lord, was 'proaching nigh.
An' that Harlem goat, he was doomed to die."(24).
Thereby sealing the fate of a troublesome animal by rather drastic
methods! Partridge says "nigh" is low slang and "a colloquialism"(25).
find the word "biddy" cropping up in a Sonny Scott recording from 1933
entitled "No Good Biddie". Although it doesn't appear in the lyric of
this Blues, it is included in the spoken aside at the end of the verse:
"I come home this mornin' and, you was out an' gone,
I come home this mornin', you was out an' gone.
You left a note on my table, saying 'Papa, I ain't got your
Spoken: "Play it man, you know (she) ain't nothin' but a no-good biddie
lady's message will be dealt with more fully, a little later on.
Meanwhile in Partridge, "biddy" in earlier times (18th. century to
earlier 19th. century) meant "A young woman" and in the later nineteenth
century, it became extended to include "Any woman"(27).
older singer, Emery Glen, recorded a "Blue Blazes Blues" accompanying
himself on a twelve-string guitar in Atlanta, some six years earlier
than Sonny Scott's song:
"I got the blue, blue blazes blues, big boys, all night long,"
Again from Partridge, we find the definition of 'blue blazes' as "Hell:
from ca. 1870. Ex blue flames from brimstone."(29). It follows on
naturally from an earlier expression, and now obsolete, "Old Blazes",
which was a name for "the devil: from ca.1845..."(30).
"bub" was a "Strong drink, esp. malt liquor: from ca.1670;"(31), (and
now obsolete), it follows that a "bubber" was "A hard drinker; a toper.
C.17-late 18:(32). In 1956, Blind Willie McTell recorded his final
version of "Dying Crapshooter's Blues, and included in his list of
want nine men goin' to the graveyard, bubba, An' eight men comin'
In 1927, a
guitarist accompanied Julius Daniels on part of one of his record
sessions, who went by the name of Bubba Lee Torrence. As printed it
looks as if it is his given name rather than a nickname, by the lack of
inverted commas! Nothing is known of Torrence, even if he drank! But
McTell is now far less shadowy a figure, and some of his recorded lyrics
give an indication of his fondness for alcohol. Certainly his dying
friend Jessie would have approved of "Strong drink, esp. malt liquor."
It is intriguing that a seventeenth century English word like "bubber"
survived into the twentieth in black parlance in the
southern U.S.A. and the related "bub" did not. Although, the latter term
was adopted by certain sections of the white community in that country,
as an address form, amongst males, indicating at least token friendship
to a stranger when asking for street directions for example; and is
still in use today.
As I have
already said, one of the earliest Blues is "Crow Jane Blues". The
earliest such titled blues being the Julius Daniels recording from 1927,
but the theme was to make up the content of Bo Weavil Jackson's "Pistol
Blues" a year earlier. Both men were guitarists, from Charlotte, N.C.
and either the Mississippi Delta or the Piedmont area,
respectively. Partridge tells us that one of the meanings of a "crow" in
English slang dates from the early 1820's and was used in cant, i.e.
language of the underworld, to refer to "a confederate on watch; if a
female, often CANARY" (34). So a woman with illegal tendencies was
sometimes known as a "crow". From the same source, we learn that "Jane
Shore" is rhyming slang for a whore, dating from the mid-nineteenth
century and derived from "the famous mistress of Edward IV"(35). As in
the following lines:
"While Louis Quatorze kept about him in scores,
What the Noblesse, in courtesy, term'd his "Jane Shores",
They were called a much coarser name out of doors,"(36).
rhyming slang "the second word is often (but by no means always)
suppressed, as in ELEPHANT'S (TRUNK), drunk".(37), a "Jane" or "jane"
would be quite a logical abbreviation for a prostitute in the middle of
the last century. Stewart tells us the name Jane, in a league table of
in the U.S.A., often "...stood stood in third place, following Mary and
name is apparently non-biblical, and although declining in the 19th.
century "At this time, however, it was much in use as a kind of
auxiliary in such double names as Mary Jane and Sally Jane"(39). Stewart
holds the view that "Jane" became a slang term for "girl" because "About
1900 Jane again became popular"(40). Although Calt and co. support this
view, when they state that "In the nineteenth century, a "Jane" was a
common term for a woman"(41), they are being too sweeping in their
definition. They also incorrectly state that "a regular crow" was used,
often sarcastically, to indicate anything outstanding"(42), and date
this as "turn-of-the-century parlance"(43). Partridge defines a "regular
crow" as "A fluke; unexpected luck: from ca. 1850."(44). He says it
derives from an expression in billiards; probably the French "raccroc".(45).
Possibly in some American social spheres, a "Jane" was indeed "a common
term for a woman", but for the Blues singer, in the lowest
socio-economic stratum, the meaning was much more specific. Popular
Blues man and pianist, Peetie Wheatstraw, sung of his renunciation of
his low-down way of living, in typically, lazy and gravelly tones:
"I'm gon' cut out my way of livin', an' I'm gon' change my ways,
I am gon' cut out my way of livin', an' I'm gon change my ways,
Because I got a funny feelin', oooh well! an' I believe it will
shorten my days."
"I'm gon' cut out moanin' an' groanin', about these no-good
I'm gon' cut out moanin' an' groanin', about these no-good Janes.
Ahh! now (they) don't care nothin' about you, 000h well, well!
they just want your pay-day change."(46).
Casting more than a little doubt on his sincerity of this renunciation,
with the closing line:
"I'm gon' cut in with some good gin."
time he felt thirsty! Bo Weavil Jackson qualifies the only two women who
can spend his change; Stella and "that brown my jane"(47). The latter
would seem to put Jackson in the role of a small-time pimp; Stella,
presumably being his wife. So a "crow Jane" in the parlance of the
Blues, often denotes women who are regarded as the lowest form of the
species, and are generally prostitutes. As McTell says:
"Well, down in Bell Street alley, just as drunk as I can be,
I'm down in Bell Street alley, just as drunk as I can be.
Seem like them crow Jane wimmin, man, done got rough with
an indeterminate date, probably the late 1920's, two unidentified
singers engaged in a sometimes humorous dialogue, accompanied by
possibly Georgia Tom on piano. They include some definitions of their
own, regarding "crow janes". Said one:
"They will cut your throat, while you sleep, boy; look down in
face an' smile, They will wake up in the mornin", an' say "don't
feel right", cut up your clothes---just for spite.
Always after some married woman's man---A crow Jane
is ugly, she needs some false hair."(49).
companion muttering words of agreement. Georgia Tom? playing some fine,
rolling blues piano in the background. Despite all these short-comings,
the main speaker states categorically;
"But a crow Jane is alright with me, partner, but they done gone
out of style. I mean they done gone clean out of style."(50).
Indicating that he thought that he thought, possibly, that this
phenomenon was dying out, due to social progress? In 1926, Bo Weavil
Jackson asks this low-living person:
"Crow Jane, crow Jane, what makes you hold your head so
Interestingly, in seventeenth century England (and indeed much earlier)
the term "jade" with a small or a capital 'J', was in general use in
London for a street-walker or prostitute. It often crops up in Samuel
Pepys' famous Diary, at least from 1664 onwards. He first mentions the
term on 23rd July of that year when contemplating (as was his wont!) the
tempting of a prostitute: "The woman, indeed, is a most lovely woman;
but I had no courage to meddle with her, for fear of her not being
wholesome, and so counterfeiting (pretending) that I had not money enough.
It was pretty to see how cunning that Jade was; would not suffer me to
have to do in any manner with her after she saw I had no money."(52). On
a further visit to Fleete-ally on 29th.July, Pepys uses the word twice
including the reference to a prostitute who was trying to up the price,
as "a cunning jade"(53), with a small 'j' this time. Again, on 15th.
August, Pepys meets with one of his mistresses (Mrs. Lane) and relates:
"I had my pleasure here of her; and she, like an impudent jade, depends
upon my kindness to her husband"(54). As I have already mentioned, this
term was not familiar to Pepys before 1664, at least not in his Diary.
Either he had just picked up the word from his female "street
connections", or it had just become the latest 'in' term amongst the
upper class circles that the diarist also moved around in.
There is no mention of the word 'jade' in the select glossary at the end
of this volume of Pepys. However, the dictionary has this to say about
it: "Inferior, wearied, or worn-out horse; (in reprobation, usu.
playful) woman;" (55). The part definition ends with the legend "(ME;
orig. ukn.)".(56)..If we turn to the Etymology of the above dictionary,
we find the following description of ME: "ME includes the fifteenth
century, no distinction being made between early and late ME. The use of
this term will serve to distinguish words that were in use before 1500
from those whose documentation belongs to the sixteenth or later
centuries."(57). In any event, on 25th March, 1664, Pepys makes
reference to "fair Rosamond and Jane Shore". The footnote runs "Fair
Rosamund (Rosamund Clifford, mistress of Henry II) and Jane Shore
(mistress of Edward IV) were familiar figures of English history and
ballad."(58). Another definition of "jade" is: "inconstant woman,
hussy"(59). A further one is: "Derog. a woman considered to be
disreputable." and "harridan, hussy, nag, shrew, slattern, slut,
trollop, vixen, wench"(60).
possible corruption of "jade" is the term "jay" from the late sixteenth
century, which Partridge tells us means "A wanton:"(61), and was a
colloquialism until the early seventeenth century when it slipped into
Standard English via Shakespeare. Another possible corruption is "Jude".
This term is referred to in the glossary of a book from 1932, and has
the legend "n. A woman, a whore."(62). In Partridge we find that "Jude"
is a "harlot: low(-1886)"(63); "Also JUDY". "Also later, Jude:
Vaux.1812; "JUDY" A girl, esp. one of loose morals: from ca.1810: prob.
orig. c;"(64). The origin of this variation could have emanated from a
far earlier biblical source, as Stewart says of the name Judah which was
"...recognised recognised as the Old Testament equivalent of Judas, the
chief villain of the Christian story, and so was shunned. The short form
Jude is equally rare."(65).
"Jade" continued to be in use during the first half of the nineteenth
century, as an excerpt from a broadside in this period illustrates:
"And when he sent a horse for her, and wanted her to ride, Sir,
But what do you think of the ignorant jade, she would get
astride, Sir." (66).
These were the last two lines of "The Collier Swell". Also the second
line of another broadside called "The Broken Hearted Gardner", from the
same period, runs:
"My love she is inconstant, and a fickle jade, too,"(67).
Both of these broadsides come from an era spanning from 1798-1851.
Another broadside from a slightly later date, refers to two women who
have now, seen the "holy light", "Happy Eliza' and 'Converted Jane' as
'hot 'uns in our time:"(68). Partridge lists the late nineteenth century
term 'Happy Eliza' as being "A female Salvationist: 1887-ca.1910"(69).
So a "Jane" who was a "hot 'un in our time', would hardly be applied as
a general term to all women in nineteenth century England. In fact so
synonymous was "Jane" with sexual adventurers, that from around 1850,
the phrase "lady or Lady Jane" was low slang for "The female pudend;"
"Jade" of course, also refers to a semi-precious stone which is
predominantly green. According to Partridge, the word 'green' has many
sexual connotations, including the terms "green goose" ("A harlot"),
"give a green gown" ("To tumble a woman on the grass"), "green-grocery"
and "green meadow" ("The female pudend"), and "green grove" ("The pubic
hair (gen. female)"). The word "greens" means "Sexual sport, esp.
coition."(71). Then there are phrases such as "fresh greens" ("A new
harlot") and "the price of greens" ("The cost of a harlot's sexual
meet other phrases in connection with the blues phenomenon of 'cabbage
greens' later on. Nearly all the terms above, involving "green", date
from "ca. 1850"(73), except the first two, which are from the late
sixteenth century onwards. Continuing the Percy Thrower syndrome! we
find that "Garden noddess" (A harlot, not necessarily superior") and
"Garden" or "garden-house', ("A brothel")(74). emanate from the
seventeenth century via the 'reputation Of Covent Garden district,
which, "in C.18, teemed with brothels" (75), and in the seventeenth
century was "harlot-ridden"(76).
the roots of "jade", we find the legend "Orig. unknown; cf. O.N. "jalda",
a mare", (77); "O.N." being Old Norse. The obvious sexual connections of
riding a "jalda", being too well known to go in to detail here. In
summarising, "jude", at some indeterminate point after the Crucifixion,
became the original term for a harlot, etc. Then at some point, probably
in the beginning of the 1480's, "Jane/jane" became an obvious
replacement. At this juncture, I have deemed it relevant to go
into some detail regarding Jane Shore.
The lady in
question is referred to as ";..the former mistress of Dorset, Jane
Shore,"(78). This was the marquis of Dorset. Whether Ms. Shore fitted
him in before her well-reported affair with Edward IV is not related. In
any event, we are told that in April, 1483, presumably after the king's
death, that she was "... now unluckily taken over by the
chamberlain."(79). This was one Lord Hastings and "... the intimate
friend of Edward IV,"(80). Hastings was also amongst other things. "the
pillar of the household system"', (81). The plot thickens as it is
revealed that the protector of Prince Edward (later King Edward V, and
at that time in the Tower), was Richard of Gloucester, who was later to
become Richard III on usurping King Edward V (still in the Tower and
later murdered along with his brother). Richard had strong suspicions of
a possible coup but was not sure of any details "or what messages were
reaching the queen through Jane Shore,"(82). She was in a good position
to do this, for after Hasting's "immediate execution" upon being
labelled the main instigator of this coup, charges of immorality were
made against the unfortunate dead man, who, it was said, "...had set his
royal master an example of evil living and had the previous night slept
with his mistress, Jane Shore, herself one of the conspirators."(83).
But Edward IV was no stranger to "evil living" as Hassall & co. relate
"The names of his many mistresses, except for Jane Shore, are
forgotten."(84). They go on "They had no political importance, except
that Jane Shore persuaded him not to confiscate the endowments which
Henry VI had given to Eton College"(85). The same source informs us that
"Jane Shore was said to be the daughter of a Cheapside mercer married to
a Lombard Street merchant."(86). So our heroine, apart from being
had at least three famous and politically powerful lovers, including a
king of England!
I have already stated, "Jude" was an original term for a prostitute,
which lent itself to the imagination of balladeers in the fifteenth
century, when they wished to extol the 'goings-on' of Jane Shore. It is
quite likely that any reference to Ms. Shore at the time of her royal
affair, via the slang for a prostitute as a "Jane", an obvious choice,
was too close to the event. It would also have been just as obvious who
the singer, in a London street, was referring to; as the name Jane
"is not found much before the 16th. C, Joan being the more usual
medieval form of the name in England."(87). Withycombe tells us that
"Jane" "... comes from Old French 'Jehane"(88). So if the ballad singers
of the fifteenth century valued their necks and wanted to sing about "Janes",
they needed to find a near substitute and "jade" seemed to fit the bill
perfectly. In fact "jade" only changes one letter in relation to both
"Jude" and "Jane"; and of course has the added advantage of sounding
very much like the latter. If "Jane" was so uncommon in the fifteenth
century, and Ms. Shore was so much in the public eye, it would have been
suicidal to use the king's most famous mistress's name as a derogatory
term for a prostitute in a song. An approximate chronology of these
terms would appear thus:
Date of Origin
c. post 1480
c. late 1500's
However, a table of known dates of usage looks a little different, as
this is obviously decreed by the whims of the society, or parts of that
society, at the time.
Known Date of Usage
See Samuel Pepys' Diary
Refer broadside ballads
before 1810 - c. 1887
Henley: "You judes that clobber for the
from 1850 - c. 1900
later 19th C.
Chicago, Ill. USA
see "Pistol Blues" already quoted
elucidate a little on the Henley quote: "clobber" is "to dress", and
"stratum" is "a parade"(90); while Partridge describes the latter term
as "Harlots' street‑walking: 11 (91).
"jane" could have reversed the situation, in the middle of the
nineteenth century, displaced "jade" over a period of time, and then
been picked up (and immortalized?) by the ballad singers; then handed on
down by cross-cultural fertilization to the Blues singer in the Southern
U.S.A. One possible route could have been Henry Mayhew's chaunters of
the nineteenth century and the broadside ballads which eventually found
their way over to the U.S. via the sea shanties. This will be covered in
some depth elsewhere in these writings. Or an alternative route might
have been more direct, as Owen says of British ballads: "These songs
were first brought to America in the seventeenth century by the English
settlers of Virginia and the other southern colonies"(92). Owen says of
the settlers: "Most of the ballad singers were yeomen, tillers of the
© Copyright 1990 Max Haymes
the Folk-Song Society.p.290.
15.David 'Honeyboy' Edwards.p.31.
17."The Roxburghe Ballads Vol. I".p.27.
33.Blind Willie McTell.
41.Calt & co.
Concise Oxford Dictionary".p.649.
59.Penguin English Dictionary.p.401.
84.Hassall & co.p.253.
to essay overview
Website © Copyright 2000-2011 Alan White. All Rights Reserved.
Essay (this page) ©
Copyright 1990 Max Haymes. All rights reserved.
For further information please email:
Check out other essays here: