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The dirty-mouthed mistress of the classic blues era: Lucille Bogan

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Suddenly my friends and I are sharing inside jokes like "Hey, isn’t yours as big as a baseball bat?" or "Will it make a dead man come?" or "You’ll get fat as a pig from suckin’." It’s all the result of one hot Texas night sitting on the porch listening to Lucille Bogan’s blues songs. The recordings date back to 1920s-1930s and boy did Lucy have a dirty mouth that could compete with even the raunchiest lyricists today.

Ernest Borneman lists Lucille Bogan as one of the best three female blues singers of all time, in the company of two I’m sure you already can guess: Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. But how have I not heard of Lucy until now? Speaking of that, I hadn’t heard of Borneman before either, but I hope my obituary lists half the cool stuff he did. He was an ethnomusicologist, anthropologist, and jazz musician, as well as a crime fiction writer, filmmaker, and sexologist, among other things. His academic work basically revolved around music and sex. How awesome is that? As a Communist, he had to flee Germany when the Nazis rose to power, so he escaped by posing as a member of the Hitler Youth leaving the country as an exchange student. He committed suicide when he was 80, heartbroken over a love affair gone awry.

Back to Lucy, and music about sex. When she recorded “Pawn Shop Blues” in Atlanta, GA in 1923, she became the first black blues singer to be recorded outside of New York or Chicago. Listening to her lyrics, it’s pretty clear that she spent a lot of time in juke joints and red light districts, and she wrote songs that described the risqué activities practiced therein, with most of her lyrics overtly oriented towards drinking or sex, or both. We’re not talking about thinly veiled sexual entendres. These are clear as day.

One of her more well-known recordings was “Shave ‘Em Dry”:
I got nipples on my titties
Big as the end of my thumb
I got somethin’ between my legs
That’ll make a dead man come.

I f***ked all night
And the night before, baby
And I feel like I wanna f*** some more
Oh, grind me honey… and shave me dry

The one that really raised my eyebrows was “Til the Cows Come Home.” Now, the lyrics are so dirty that Examiner would surely censor this article if I reprinted them, but I have to give you a small teaser:

If you suck my p***y baby I’ll suck your d**k
I’ll do it to ya honey til I make you sh!t

We don’t really know if Lucy was a prostitute herself, or simply put on this persona for her recordings, but either way, listening to Lucy’s songs, we get a sense of what it was like to work in the sex industry in the ‘20s and ‘30s – catering to men and women. She observed the changing gender and sex roles that were taking place in the underworld of the South. Strap-ons, particularly brass ones, are referenced in many of her songs and she sung about using them on both men and women. One of her recordings, “B.D. Woman’s Blues” (1935), is an ode to B.D.’s, Bull Dykes who “ain’t gonna need no men.” They “can lay their jive just like a natural man,” they “drink up plenty whisky and they sure will strut their stuff,” and “they work and they make their dough, and when they get ready to spend it, they know the place where to go.”

It seems like she was a force to be reckoned with, a woman no man should mess with. She’s not afraid to tell her lousy guy how it’s goin’ be in “Pot Hound Blues” if he doesn’t start bringing home the bacon: “I’m through cookin’ your stew and beans, and you can eat more neck bones than any man I’ve ever seen.” She’s tired of smelling his doggone feet, she says, when he lays between her two white sheets after she’s worked hard until late Saturday night. If he doesn’t shape up, she don’t care because she can “get his kind of lovin’ in the street just anywhere.”

Other recordings include “Sloppy Drunk Blues,” “They Ain’t Walkin’ No More” (referring to how hard it is to make a living as a prostitute when the tricks aren’t coming out to play and pay), and “Coffee Grindin’ Blues” (“I drink so much coffee, I grind it in my sleep. And when it get like that, you know it can’t be beat.”).

If ever there needed to be an award for the dirtiest blues singer, Lucille takes the prize for sure. I mean, we all know blues songs are already dirty, but she doesn’t bother with metaphors like “jelly rolls.” Her lyrics dispense with euphemism and get right down to the nitty gritty, full of cuss words that I didn’t know were already in usage in the ‘20s. And if these are the songs she felt comfortable recording and selling, I can only imagine what she must have sung in those late drunken juke joint jam sessions.

It’s not only the lyrics that fascinate me. As compared to some of more melodic classic blues singers, Bogan’s vocals are raw and strong. She sings in a storytelling sort of way, making it easy to focus on the entertaining lyrics. She recorded with a number of very well-known pianists, including Tampa Red. Many of her recordings were done under the pseudonym Bessie Jackson while she worked with piano accompanist Walter Roland whose boogie is lusciously simple and understated, using a lot of stop-time to let the lyrics remain the priority. By the way, he recorded a response to “Shave ‘Em Dry,” called “I’m Gonna Shave You Dry.” It didn’t do as well.

After a life of turbulent love affairs with both men and women, Lucille followed her son to California, managed his jazz band, and died in Compton in 1948, aged 51. She was buried in a grave without a headstone, probably due to lack of funds.

I’m so glad I now know about Lucy. I’ve always loved blues for the way it deals with the reality of love and sex - the good and the bad, and double entendres can be fun to figure out. But Bogan takes it to a whole new level, singing without any embarrassment about what men and women do on those mattresses and how they treat each other. I like the window she gives us into the past, taking us right into the bedrooms of homes and brothels in the ‘20s and ‘30s. When I want to slip back into time, drinking a cold beer on a hot summer day, I’ll be listening to Bogan’s raw voice and fascinating stories…

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