Big Sound Saturdays: Blues Innuendo (Where’s His Hot Dog?)

The innuendo song has a particular infectious, indefatigable kind of cool when performed, and mastered, by a woman. Where contemporary popular music tends towards the explicit—there are precedents in the blues for that, too (see Lucille Bogan’s “Shave ‘Em Dry”)—the blues (country, vaudeville, minstrelsy, and hokum) scenes were once overrun by cloying gestures and near-overt sexual propositions. And for every Blind Boy Fuller crooning for “pig meat,” there was a Lil Johnson, Bessie Smith, and Georgia White craving “hot nuts.”

From “jelly roll” and “sugar” to train rides and elevator shafts, innuendo singers are fanciful and strange, hilarious and, occasionally, heart-rending. Keeping it light and jive-y, Leola B. and Kid Wesley Wilson’s 1929 “Uncle Joe” tropes the call-and-response chit-chat common to early American slapstick theater that becomes an even weirder, sexier repartee between the classic vaudeville duet Butterbeans and Susie, whose song-fight is especially biting in “Elevator Papa, Switchboard Mama.” A peripatetic love song about a man who just can’t please his woman, Butter bemoans Susie’s “bad connection:” “You’s one operator that’s hard to get. I worked at your receiver til I’m all upset!,” to which, “What! Before you use your lever, you should close the door! With me, you always get stuck between the floors.”

Just as common as praise for the “candy man,” “hot nuts,” and the “handy man” (let it be known, Ethel Waters’ “My Handy Man” is a literal catalogue of innuendos)—is their refutation. Instead of repudiating their sexuality, blueswomen reaffirm it by trashing their male counterparts. When, in 1931, Bo Carter asks to “put my banana in your fruit basket,” Memphis Minnie responds to him three years later that she “don’t want that thing / I wouldn’t have it hangin’ around my floor” in “Banana Man Blues.” In the classic “Mama Don’t Allow,” we’re never really sure what Mama “wants,” but it’s clear that it’s her call being responded to, not vice versa. I admit that it’s cheating to throw female impersonator, vaudevillian costume designer, and classic blues accompanist Frankie “Half-Pint” Jaxon into the female innuendo mix, but playing a woman playing a man into “her” clutches is irresistible. This genre bends and bends but never really breaks.

Off-kilter misconnections and oft-strained puns characterize most of these tunes, but there’s an underbelly whose mere proximity to all these light-hearted vaudevillian skits implicates the “genre” in a bigger, and darker, female sexuality. Take, for example, Lillian Glinn’s morphologic and devilish “Packing House Blues:”

A bucket of blood, a butcher knife is what I crave

A bucket of blood, a butcher knife is what I crave

Let me work in your packing house,

Daddy while I am your slave.

Sexuality and murder come, explicitly, together, where the pleasure of penetration and of “petite mort” both assume the cloak of death without being subsumed by it and toying, for better or for worse, with a history of domination where the “slave” isn’t usually the one yielding the knife.

Susan Bordo does well to remind us that one signal of racism is the cultural construction of black women as “more bodily than the white ‘races’,” and Deborah McDowell answers that the body is “a malleable plastic surface” and “a battleground.” In the innuendo song, I see these blueswomen refusing re-inscription from the outside and refiguring themselves powerfully from within. These songs don’t have to be protest songs, but they do undeniably celebrate and subvert sexuality, be it with the cloying horn of the Candy Man or the strange, buoyant sadness of the Tuba Lady Blues.

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