June 18, 2024

Lucille Bogan did not find musical inspiration by staring at bowls of fruit

A couple of years back, after listening to the seemingly innocent Four Clefs¬†‘I Like Pie I Like Cake’ (circa 1941) I was thinking that, perhaps, before the advent of rock n roll, before things got all down and dirty, suppressed musical rebels focussed on food as a substitute for sex.

After all wasn’t the thrill sung about in Blueberry Hill, first recorded in 1941, a song about the joy of biting into a freshly baked deep dish fruit pie?

Perhaps actually the original focus on food was the first step towards songs a more lascivious nature. After all isn’t there a saying about food and love? ‘Jazz songs about food’, I can imagine twenty-first century conservatives reflecting, ‘we’re just the thin end of the wedge.’ The potato wedge!

But anyway, this freshly cooked musical hypothesis was quickly disproven when I heard Bessie Smith’s ‘Kitchen Man’, 1928. OK maybe sexual content was being masked by talk of food, but it certainly wasn’t being substituted. If sex was being suppressed then only in the way that the top crust of a pie covers the bubbling steamy filling. I better stop here, I thought, and I did not allow my mind to dwell on the matter for another two years.

Servants by the score
Footmen at each door
Butlers and maids galore
But one day Sam, her kitchen man
Gave in his notice, he’s through
She cried, “Oh Sam, don’t go
It’ll grieve me if you do”
I love his cabbage gravy, his hash
Crazy ’bout his succotash
I can’t do without my kitchen man
Wild about his turnip top
Like the way he warms my chop
I can’t do without my kitchen man
Anybody else can leave
And I would only laugh
But he means too much to me
And you ain’t heard the half
Oh, his jelly roll is so nice and hot
Never fails to touch the spot
I can’t do without my kitchen man
His frankfurters are oh so sweet
How I like his sausage meat
I can’t do without my kitchen man
Oh, how that boy can open clam
No one else is can touch my ham
I can’t do without my kitchen man
When I eat his doughnuts
All I leave is the hole
Any time he wants to
Why, he can use my sugar bowl
Oh, his baloney’s really worth a try
Never fails to satisfy
I can’t do without my kitchen man

Now fast-forward to 2020. I’ve been doing a YouTube trawl of jazz and blues music, triggered by a recent compilation of music I have been making of music made by musicians who have died from coronavirus. Several of the artists who died in the period between late March 2020 and the middle of April were American jazz artists. On YouTube one thing leads to another and I found myself listening to the work of a range of blues and jazz artists between the 1930s and 1950s. I’m particularly interested in the fact that Black women recorded music during this period. To my understanding women have always had to work ten times as hard as the average man to make it in the music industry. And my mind boggles at both the level of determination a Black woman would have had to have shown and what subject matter a Black woman would have been required to cover to break into the industry in the States. Especially given that this was a period just sixty five years after the abolition of slavery and at a time when Black people were still denied the vote and treated like a lower caste.

I noted the work of Ada Brown, who recorded a track with Fats Waller, called That Aint Right, which was recorded for a film called Stormy Weather in 1943. I should also note that I was also taken by the male singer Scrapper Blackwell’s Nobody Knows When You’re Down and Out. However as I moved from track to track I came across what appeared to be an anomaly in the related suggestions that YouTube kept throwing my way: Til the Cows Come Home by Lucille Bogan, recorded in 1933. A cursory glance at the cover image for the track, a picture of Lucille Bogan, gave me the impression that it would be a sweet soft soulful ode to a lover.

Forget it. The track starts out innocuously enough “I’ve got a man I love, I got a man I like” but it quickly turns into something that would make your jaw drop, even for 2020. Bogan’s lyrical content is coarse, explicit, sexual, intimidating and degrading. I had to laugh when the advert that appeared on top of the video was entitled ‘Clean my Mac’. Surprisingly, the track contained informal sexual terms I thought might have been inventions of the post-war English speaking world. The hypothesis that all musicians in the 1930s had to resort to food based metaphors in songs about sexual desire was thrown out of the car window. You can bet Lucille Bogan wasn’t spending her time staring into bowls of fruit for inspiration when penning her lyrics. Bogan did make reference to nuts, which are, technically speaking, a fruit, but they were not being referenced literally.

Bogan got my head in a spin about music in the 1930s and the historical origin and development of coarse sexually explicit lyrics. I had always assumed that coarse sexually explicit lyrics, ones that were not even metaphorical, were the preserve of a kind of male pornographied music culture which seemed to be born and expand from the 1990s onwards, as witnessed in the growth of bands like the Mac Lads and sexualised and commercial Hip Hop. Well, Lucille beat them to it nearly over a 100 years ago. It makes me wonder how far back we can trace such lyrics and the acceptability of, consumption of and reaction to such lyrics and music in different places and times.

Further Reading on Lucille Bogan




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