This morning, as I pulled records for my show, the host before me asked if I had a special theme in mind. “Nope,” said I; “the next thematic show won’t be until October 20th, which is Jelly Roll Morton’s birthday. Nothin’ better than two hours of Jelly Roll.”
And then the double entendre hit me.
See, “jelly roll” was once upon a time a slang term for, to put it politely, female genitalia. This was the case when he took on the moniker, in fact. It’s sort of the circa-1900 equivalent of “Pussy Galore”.
There’s a tendency to think of earlier eras as being more innocent, more pure in some way. They weren’t. Not even close. If you’re looking for a time when salacious puns and obvious, racy double entendres didn’t exist, you’re going to have to go back to the time before humans invented language, if not further.
Consider for a moment the first two verses and chorus of “They Got It Fixed Right On”, recorded by Georgia Tom Dorsey in 1930:
A girl with a Ford and a guy named Jim
He liked her and she liked him
Ford broke down in a quiet park
Didn’t get home ’till after dark
But they got it fixed, ain’t no doubt
Nobody knows what it’s all about
Too bad that the news got out
But they got it fixed right on
Well, Peg Leg Sam had a girl named Sue
She broke his peg leg half in two
Only way to fix the leg
Was to have his gal take a whole lot of peg
It starts out relatively tame, of course, but the second verse doesn’t leave a whole lot to the imagination, now does it? I’m not even sure it qualifies as a double entendre, which I usually think of as being at least somewhat coy. And remember, this is from 1930. It isn’t quite as direct as “gonna have you naked by the end of this song”, nor as crude as “I wanna f— you like an animal”— but it isn’t exactly “Tea For Two”, either.
I’m not about to claim that this is the only example of saucy songwriting from the era, either. Cliff Edwards, better known as Ukelele Ike and the voice of Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio, made a career of racy songs like “I’m A Bear In A Ladies’ Boudoir” and “I’m Going To Give It To Mary With Love”. That was also the time when Mae West was saying things like “Let’s forget about the six feet and talk about the seven inches” in her movies.
Back to Georgia Tom, though. A later verse keeps up the laciviousness levels:
A girl went into the butcher’s shop
Grabbed the butcher’s big ham hock
Butcher knocked her off her feet
She missed his bone but she got his meat
I’ve played this song on my show a few times. One of those times, a fellow programmer came into the studio and said, “Are you sure the FCC will let us air this?” It seemed unlikely at the time that they’d fine or otherwise penalize us for a song recorded in 1930, but now I’m not so sure. After all, if Janet Jackson’s nipple can cost CBS approximately $1.1 million per second, who knows?
I know a girl in a pastry shop
Selling those doughnuts and lollipops
Preacher came down to save her soul
She asked him to fix her jelly roll
There’s that jelly roll again, and being offered to a preacher, no less. If only the kids today behaved more properly and showed some respect for public decency, just like their forebears did, eh?
It’s long been the case that one of the things I love about my show is that I don’t have to worry about previewing the songs. After all, how much trouble could I get into for playing Billie Holiday or Louis Armstrong? Plenty, as it turns out. The original recording of “My Sweet Hunk o’ Trash”, a duet between those two, is included on a Billie Holiday collection we have at the station. In this version, as Billie sings one of the verses, Louis intersperses comments between her lines (a common practice). One of his responses is “F— ’em, baby”. This was in 1944, and Decca records planned to release the song. Only public complaints from Walter Winchell prompted them to change the line to “How come, baby” in the released song. The compilation has the original.
So there’s one song I can’t actually air, despite it being recorded half a century ago. That’s pretty clear. Although, last I checked, classic rock stations could still get away with airing The Who’s “Who Are You?”, which features the very same ‘naughty word’. But never mind that now; double standards are, like double entendres, very much par for the human course. What worries me is the songs that flirt with the line between indecency and obscenity, like “They Got It Fixed Right On”. Or, for that matter, the 1947 Dinah Washington number “Long John Blues”.
I’ve got a dentist who’s over seven feet tall
Yes I’ve got a dentist who’s over seven feet tall
Long John they call him, and he answers every call
Well I went to Long John’s office and told him the pain was killin’
Yes I went to Long John’s office and told him the pain was killin’
He told me not to worry, that my cavity just needed fillin’
He said “when I start drillin’, I’ll have to give you novocaine”
He said, “Yes, when I start drillin’, I’ll have to give you novocaine
Cause ev’ry woman just can’t stand the pain”
He took out his trusted drill
And he told me to open wide
He said he wouldn’t hurt me
But he’d fill my hole inside
Long John, Long John, you’ve got that golden touch
You thrill me when you drill me, and I need you very much
When he got through, he said “Baby that will cost you ten”
Yes when he got through, he said “Baby that will cost you ten
Six months from now, come back and see me again”
Say you’re supposed to see your dentist
‘Bout twice a year, that’s right
But I think I feel it bobbin’
Yes I’ll go back there tonight
Long John, Long John, don’t ever move away
Say I hope I keep on achin’ so I can see you every day.
These days, it’s hard to know what can get you in trouble; even a spot of dental work, we discover, just isn’t safe. And twice in this entry, I’ve sanitized a certain word beginning with the letter “F” because I know many readers come here from work machines, and I don’t want to be responsible for getting them in trouble with their content filter administrator, let alone their boss. Some people, upon tripping the content filter, have to fill out paperwork explaining the nature of the site they visited, why it had a Bad Word(tm) on it, and why they shouldn’t be reprimanded or fired as a result.
You’d think we’d have grown up a little more by now.