cover image The Language of the Blues: From Alcorub to Zuzu

The Language of the Blues: From Alcorub to Zuzu

Debra DeSalvo, , foreword by Dr. John. . Billboard, $16.95 (173pp) ISBN 978-0-8230-8389-3

There have been several books published recently featuring the rich, colorful lexicon of the blues and its intriguing practitioners, but this volume by music journalist DeSalvo goes them one better with a thoroughly researched dictionary of blues slang. As she writes in the preface, "Blues artists—looking to steal from the best, like all songwriters—nicked words and phrases from the numbers runners, hookers, drag queens, thieves, junkies, pimps, moonshiners, hoodoo doctors, dealers, rounders, and con artists who made up the street set." In explaining the familiar ("cool") and obscure ("honey dripper"), DeSalvo gives not only the phrase's origins but its ongoing history and current applications. Thus readers learn that the term "balling the jack" was originally a conductor's way of saying a train was moving at top speed; by the 1920s, it had come to signify "any wild, all-out-effort"; from there, it turned into a song by Chris Smith and James Henry Burris; then, Judy Garland and Gene Kelly performed "Balling the Jack" in the 1942 film Me and My Gal ; etc. The definitions are supported with a lively narrative and interviews with blues stalwarts including Little Milton, Bonnie Raitt, Hubert Sumlin and Jody Williams. (Jan.)