They Got It Fixed Right On

Published 19 years, 7 months past

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.

Comments (21)

  1. Pingback ::

    Adrian's Curatorship » double entendre

    […] I was doing some catching up reading on web design related stuff and came across an interesting entry over on meyerweb. Eric used an interesting word p […]

  2. Dirty songs are of all times, just a fact. Ever seen the Sneeze’s list of dirty songs sung by school children? That’s sick. And I actually sang some of those :P

    But still, you used the word Jelly Roll! *hihihi*

  3. Nice, nice… :) Who would have guessed. Though I find the extreme care taken to avoid certain words a bit nonsense. I mean, what gives. Guess it’s a typical America thing or something.


  4. Take “La Cucaracha” for example… seemingly innocent song, and really popular in cartoons, uh, to whistle, and to use as a car horn (at least in my neighborhood). It took me until I was almost 20 to find out that the seemingly innocent song was about a roach that couldn’t walk because it had smoked too much pot…

  5. I agree with Laurens. While our native radio stations in the Netherlands sometimes use language I don’t want my little daughter to pick up right now (she’s five), the American attitude seems silly.

    I remember this song from the 2 Live Crew from 1989, innocent housewives with little knowledge of English where singing along with it aloud, as it was played a lot on the radio:

    This one from Consolidated from 1993 was even more explicit, and was also played on normal hours (though less then the previous example):

    Lately, when the 8 o’clock news has an item about a great day at the beaches, they don’t hesitate to show some real footage of sunbathing people. Which, in the Netherlands, inevitably means a few topless woman. No one makes a fuss about it. Ms. Jackson’s act would be seen as a bit cheap and childish here, not as shocking.

  6. Hehehehe … this just reminded me of the stir an TV advert over here in New Zealand caused.

    The humorus advert was for Toyota Ute’s and featured the word “Bugger”
    Which has since been deemed suitable for public broadcast, but not without some controversy.

    I do remember however that one argument for this piece of slang had been used in sermons for centuries to discribe the unmentionable act of missing the jelly roll and taking the “back door”.

    With all these broadcasting standards … It would be nice if parents and caregivers actually paid more attention to what there children watch, listen to, etc

    On a lighter note the advert can be viewed here…
    It’s quite ammusing the first few times…

  7. This year the UK had a Number One single entitled “F— It (I Don’t Want You Back)”, and several weeks later another, a cover of the first, entitled “F— You Right Back”; I only found these songs offensive because of their sheer awfulness. The worrying part is that the UK music industry is paid for mostly by 13-year-olds.

    As for Janet Jackson, that incident was rebroadcast here unedited on the 7pm evening news. I think David Letterman summarised it best – “Janet Jackson is now being very contrite. She is pretending to apologise to everyone who is pretending to be offended.”

  8. I have a favourite CD in my collection by the Baltimore Consort entitled ‘The Art of the Bawdy Song‘ on the Dorian Recordings label. They team up with ‘The Merry Companions’ and have recorded a gaggle of whimsical bar songs from as far back as the 1500’s, proving that composers back then were rather creative chaps that could negotiate more than one method of payment of one’s bar tab. With such hits as ‘My man John had a Thing that was long’ from the ‘Her Thing and His Thing’ collection, ‘Cold and Raw’ from the ‘Men and Maids’ collection and ‘Pox on you’ from the ‘Scat(ological)’ collection.

  9. My personal favourite is Memphis Slim’s classic blues double entendre titled “If You See Kay”. Much copied by the likes of Aerosmith and April Wine but never bettered.

  10. And then there is the venerable Led Zeppelin with “I’m gonna give you every inch of my love” and just about the entire song “Street Corner Girl,” which they still play on local radio stations.

    One thing you don’t hear very often in Cleveland (although I heard a ton of it on a recent trip to New York City) is Frank Zappa: just about half of Zappa’s songs are not playable on American radio frequencies…

    Love this post, Eric!

  11. There’s one line in The Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up” that makes me cringe every time. It’s probably one of the most unpleasent phrases I’ve ever heard in a song, but it’s perfectly FCC-compliant. I think you all know what I’m talking about.

  12. We used to go down to the loval A & W restaurant in Nevada and throw some change in the juke box to listen to Chuck Berry’s "My Ding-a-ling." Like you said… it starts out innocent enough.

  13. In all reality, no form of media has ever been as pure as some like to believe. Books are no exception. Although it’s one of the oldest surviving books, the Kama Sutra is not much more than Sex for Dummies. The Caterbury Tales are filled with innuendo. And many works by Jonathan Swift, one of the best satirists/writers of all time, would summon the FCC in a second.

    It’s frustrating to see the Christian right get into a frenzy over declining morality (and increased promiscuity) when you consider that one in four women in England was a prostitute during the 18th Century.

  14. Canterbury Tales is filled with more than just innuendo. It’s darn right filthy some of it – and that’s coming from an Englishman.

  15. Swearing is effectively a social convention whereby we all agree that certain words are offensive. That sounds obvious doesn’t it? but the illuminating thing here is the fact that very frequently it’s not the meaning that we take offense to. For example:
    f**k off (offensive? yes.)
    copulate away (obscure? yes. offensive? no.)

    s**t head (offensive? yes.)
    feaces head (impolite? yes. requiring censorship? no.)

    In cases like this where the meaning of the ‘expletives’ themselves are not offensive, you surely have to take the assumption that we have deliberately created an emotive verbal format outside the bounds of conventional language to allow ourselves to express things that cannot be expressed in purely literal speech.

    Geoffrey Hughes, in ‘Swearing’ (penguin books) offers this example:

    Child Molester

    Hughes makes the point that these two insults stigmatize in powerfully anti-social terms, yet still do not have the vitriolic power of the two listed below, because the terms in the second list, though technically less insulting when you consider the actual meanings of the words, have gained a weight of tradition as offensive terms:

    B*st**d (Person born of unmarried parents.)
    Son of a Bitch (er, that would be a puppy, then?)

  16. For the ultimate in bawdry, you can never go wrong with Wynonnie Harris. That’s just good wholesome fun with songs like ‘Sittin’ On It All the Time’, ‘Keep On Churnin’, ‘I Like my Baby’s Pudding’, ‘Bloodshot Eyes’, and the ever popular ‘Lolly Pop Mama’. :)

    So Eric, is your show syndicated at all? Broadcast online anywhere? I’d love to give it a listen…


  17. The station site not only has a live audio stream, but also archives of the previous week’s shows. So if you want to hear the show I did Wednesday morning, you can get it in MP3 format– a 56Kb MP3, but still. Here’s one way to get there:


  18. Most people don’t realize that the term, “Rock ‘n Roll” is a euphemism for sex. It was accepted by the mainstream because they didn’t realize it and that was the name they were told by those who were playing it.

    People’s morality isn’t getting worse, just more exposed.

  19. Indeed so, Ferrick; the same is true for jazz itself. From the Wikipedia entry for “jazz”:

    Chicago was one of the first cities to embrace the new style, and from some accounts it was here that the New Orleans style was first popularly christened “jass.” Back in New Orleans, it was called by such names as “ratty music”, “hot music,” or simply “ragtime” (Sidney Bechet often continued to call his music “ragtime” as late as the 1950s). The style was so different from the ragtime and dance music of the rest of the nation, that a new name was needed to distinguish it. Apparently, the first band billed as playing “jass” was that of trombonist Tom Brown; the term “jass” was rude sexual slang (related to the term “jism”).

  20. All forms of human artictic expression has a history or erotic content, variously explicit and implied depending on time and place, and what they could get away with. I’ve studied vintage erotic art and fiction more than bawdy songs or limmericks (the latter particularly having a long distinguished history of bawdiness). A great example is the Arabian Nights. When first it came to the West in Frenchm it was heavily sanitised, and most retellings even now equally so.

    Elvis Presley was of course heavily influenced by blues, and made cover versions of old classics not previously heard outside the black community. I’m sure Elvis fans will tell me which song it was, but I remember a doco mentioning the lyrics of one had to be censored by the record company, a line about the sun shining through a woman’s dress showing everything, but they missed the next line which used innuendo to be more explicit:
    “The one-eyed cat is peepin’ into the fish shop”
    Since the previous line was taken out, Elvis repeated this line twice instead. I’m sure he knew what it meant.

    Somehow sly innuendo is more fun than explicit language. An element of mystique, perhaps, a sense of it being “naughty”, maybe, or knowing you’re part of an in-joke that “square” don’t get. Like a woman in ligerie not quite showing all can be sexier than if completely naked. But then, buth can be valid expressions depending what the artist is going for. Shock value, humor or something else. Shock only works until people get desensitised to it. (the previously-mentioned “I Don’t Want You Back” relies on expletives to express anger).

  21. Trackback ::

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    double entendre

    A brief examination of the phrase “double entendre”.

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