Estimated reading time: 5 minute(s)
Allow me to share with you a story wherein I learn about a shockingly raunchy blues song recorded by Lucille Bogan in 1935. I will go over how I learned about the song, what I learned and some brief thoughts on the subject. Because The New Leaf Journal is a family website, there will be no link to the songs or lyrics referenced. You can find recordings of Lucille Bogan without difficulty online if you are so inclined. Furthermore, for the same reasons, I will certainly not record the song myself and post it as part of my Quarantine Sessions series.
TikTok and Insomnia
My story began at 3:00 AM on a Monday morning. I was unable to sleep due to a combination of my regular insomnia and general anxiety about the state of the world. On this occasion, I passed the time by scrolling through TikTok videos on my phone. (My co-editor, Nicholas Ferrell, has often taken issue with my so-called “TikTok addiction.” Perhaps he will change his tune now that it led to an article submission.)
While scrolling through TikTok, I stumbled across one upload which caught my eye. The video featured a young African-American man with a finger on his chin. The caption on the thumbnail read: “They say my music is dirty, but they listened to this.”
The ten second audio-clip was of a woman singing a song so vulgar that it actually gave me pause. Folks, it was super dirty. It was worse than whatever you’re thinking while reading this. Because The New Leaf Journal is a wholesome family website, I will not transcribe anything from the clip. I will, however, say that the scratchy recording, retro-style piano-playing, and classic Bessie Smith-style voicing did not match the lyrics at all.
A Surprising TikTok Insomnia Discovery
While the lyrics certainly did not move me, I thought that it was impressive for an artist today to recreate the sound of the 1920s and 1930s so faithfully. Those who are familiar with my music know that my style is in and of itself a nostalgia trip. For that reason, I always look for ways to recreate the sounds of old. While I’ve done experiments in the past to create an authentic classic sound, I have found that layering fake record static and the like does not offer that genuine feel. Certainly, I thought, nothing close to what I heard in that 10-second clip.
Although the TikTok clip did not name the artist, I assumed I would have no difficulty finding it. After all, in order to produce an authentic old-style sound, whoever the artist was she must have been popular and had a well-funded studio behind her. I began scrolling through the comments to find out who the artist was.
About 40 comments in to my search – please see my insomnia excuse – I found a comment which answered my questions. It read: “This is real. Her name is Lucille Bogan. This was recorded in 1935.” Indeed – the clip sounded like it was from the 1930s because it was.
Researching Lucille Bogan
While I no longer had hope of learning new techniques to recreate the sounds of old, I was still curious about the artist behind the lewd 1935 song. My quick search led me to Lucille Bogan’s Wikipedia page. She was born in 1897 in Armory, Mississippi. Music critic Ernest Boreman placed her among the “big three” of Blues music, along with Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. Some of her most well-known songs, which often included sexual subtext and overtones, have been subsequently performed by other famous groups and artists. For example, Memphis Minnie performed “Sloppy Drunk Blues” and B.B. King performed “Black Angel Blues”/”Sweet Little Angels.” Wikipedia noted that Bogan gathered material for the songs she wrote from working at “after-hours adult clubs.”
Because I am working to learn more about the history of old folk, blues, and country music, I decided to be a trooper and listen to several of Lucille Bogan’s “after-hours” recordings all the way through. Some of the lines made my jaw drop. The most coarse material ranged from vivid descriptions of sexual acts to frank discussion about sexually transmitted infections. Even Bogan seemed to laugh at herself from time to time, acknowledging how lewd her material was.
A Clever Commentary on Shocking Lyrics
The TikTok user through whom I discovered Bogan made a very clever statement with his video. Before I explain why, I must confess that I have never been too up-to-speed with newer musical movements, artists, or reviews. I am happily lost in my little folk and folk-revival worlds. Nevertheless, some of the popular modern music culture has filtered through to me. From what I have gathered, reviews of music seem to take the view that the stars of today are doing something unprecedented. Whether we are looking at explicitly sexual lyrics and appearances in rap or in the music of popular artists such as Britney Spears, Beyoncé, or Miley Cyrus, there is a temptation to treat what’s new today as being uniquely daring and novel.
The TikTok video makes very clear that the artists of today are not the first to have pushed the envelope. In fact, many transgressive artists today have nothing on Lucille Bogan in terms of lyrics on lewd and lascivious behavior. Those lyrics would make any modern twerk-er blush. I cannot provide examples, however, because The New Leaf Journal is a family website.
As my insomnia persisted, it dawned on me that there may be a corpus of songs that were never recorded due to their risqué subject-matter. The folk songs I study only give me a carefully curated look at folk music. The “after-hours adult clubs” where Bogan worked had a genre of their own. For a number of reasons, the material that came out of these clubs was not thoroughly documented at the time. That Bogan, an African American woman in the 1930s, had these songs documented is nothing short of astounding.
Still suffering from insomnia, I began to think about earlier examples of dirty jokes and lewd references in art. Shakespeare often had his fools cracking a dirty joke. It’s because of him we have “the beast with two backs.” The Canterbury Tales features the story of “The Wife of Bath.” These stories, songs, and references are part of human culture. Leaving historical examples aside, almost everyone heard a dirty limerick or filthy rhyme during recess. These stories and references are a part of human culture. In hindsight, it was foolish of me to assume they would not exist, as explicitly as they do, in some old folk and blues recordings. (But again, I cannot offer any other examples because The New Leaf Journal is a family website.)