The Idioms of Robert Johnson

I found a great article that explains many of the idioms Robert Johnson uses in his songs. I transcribed them from an 1989 article of a magazine called “78 Quarterly” by Stephen Calt. They help make sense of Johnson's sometimes impenetrable lyrics.

Published: 01/24/2022

Please Note: There are some very offensive terms listed below. These are the terms from the article and in no way represent my usage, opinions, or ideas.

The following text has been adapted from [scanned images of Stephen Calt's article that I found on Reddit.

Robert Johnson’s songs were unusual for 1930s blues in their frequent use of slang terms and idioms, which gave them a 1920’s cast and projected an image of Johnson as a barrel-house habitué. With the exception of Love In Vain, all of Johnson’s recordings are partly dependent on slang terms for their meaning, and many of the terms Johnson uses are unique in recorded song.

Although Johnson created cant sexual metaphors in such songs as Terraplane Blues, They’re Red Hot, and Phonograph Blues, most of his unusual song expressions were drawn from existing figures of speech. The idiomatic character of his songs is all the more remarkable in light of Elizabeth Moore’s recollection that Johnson customarily wrote the words to his songs on paper.

Below is a lexicon of Johnson’s song expressions:


An’ I’m goin’ to Rosedale, gonna take my rider by my side We can still barrelhouse baby ’cause it’s on the riverside.

- Travelin’ Riverside Man, 1937

To carouse in any socially disreputable fashion associated with the barrelhouse, a commercial establishment given over to drinking, gambling, dancing, and prostitution. By the 1930’s, barrelhouses were largely obsolete in Mississippi.

biscuit roller:

An’ I rolled an’ I tumbled an’ I cried the whole night long I woke up this mornin’, my biscuit roller gone.

- If I Had Possession Over Judgement Day, 1936

In conventional slang, a cook; associated with ranch use. It cannot be demonstrated that this term was a double-entendre.


I feel like blowin’ my ol’ lonesome home Got up this mornin’ now, it was gone.

- Walking Blues, 1936

A conventional slang term meaning to leave, usually hastily.


I got three lanes to truck on, boy please don’t block my road I be feelin’ shamed by my rider, baby I’m booked an’ I got to go.

- Stones In My Passway, 1937

Although this expression is currently used to mean “obligated to leave,” with an implied comparison to a theatrical booking, its conventional slang meaning at the time of the above recording was to be in trouble.

Johnson may have derived it from Lonnie Johnson’s Another Woman Booked Out And Bound To Go (1930).

The Breakaway

I’m gonna upset your back Gonna put your kidneys to sleep I’ll do the Breakaway on your liver And dare your heart to beat.

- They’re Red Hot, 1936

A solo dance section (usually done by males) performed as part of the Jitterbug, which became a national craze in 1936. The above couplet was probably a contemporary barrelhouse boast.

bull cow

My milk cow been ramblin’, for miles around She been (sellin’?) some other bullcow, Lord in this man’s town.

- Milkcow Calf’s Blues, take 2, 1937

A Mississippi blues term for a boyfriend that also occurs in Charlie Patton’s Jim Lee Blues, Part One (“I got a kid on the wheeler, got a bull cow on the plough”). It was likely formed by analogy to milk cow.

bumble bee

The (bee) is gone back in the bumble bee’s nest Ever since daddy can’t take his test.

- They’re Red Hot, 1936

An artificial slang term for a sex partner fostered by the popularity of Memphis Minnie’s Bumble Bee (1929). The original comparison was technically faulty, as only the female of the species has a stinger.


Now two and two is four, Four and two is six You gonna keep on monkeyin’ around here friend-boy You’re gonna get your business all in a trick.

- Sweet Home Chicago, 1936

Sexual affairs; more commonly rendered in blues song as “to get one’s business fixed.”


Oh, baby don’t you want to go? Back to the land of California, to my sweet home Chicago.

- Sweet Home Chicago, 1936

Money or wealth. “California” was a 19th century term for gold coins that had been obsolete for 20 years when Johnson used it.


My Captain’s so mean on me On that Gulfport Island Road.

- Last Fair Deal Gone Down, 1937

A standard English term applied to a foreman or superintendent dating to the early 17th century and obsolete by the time it was used by Johnson. As a servile form of address to white persons, “captain” was used interchangeably with “sir” by Southern blacks in the Jim Crow era.


Runnin’ down to the station, get the first mail train I see I got the blues ’bout Miss so-and- so, and the child’s got the blues about me.

- Ramblin’ On My Mind, 1936

A black idiom used synonymously with any of the three singular personal pronouns. The term derives from the English dialect word chiel, which was used in the second person as “a familiar term of address to adults as well as children”. By 1850, it had passed into American colloquial speech.

Christmas eve

If today was Christmas eve, and tomorrow Christmas day I wouldn’t need my little street rider just to pass the time away.

- Hellhound on My Trail, 1937

An old-fashioned black idiom for Saturday night that probably reflects the antebellum and Jim Crow era plantation custom of holding Christmas frolics, with food and liquor furnished by the white master or boss.

The expression also occurs in Kokomo Arnold’s Old Black Cat Blues (1935):

Yes these blues, mama, ain’t nothin’ but a doggone heart disease I was broke an’ disgusted, I didn’t have no money for Christmas eve.

Johnson’s couplet implies that on a Saturday night he could either afford or obtain a higher-class or more desirable sex partner than his present company.


How you Saturday night women, you love to ape an’ clown You won’t do nothin’ but tear a good man’s reputation down.

- Stop Breakin’ Down, 1937

To show off; behave boisterously; generally used pejoratively in obsolete Southern black speech. As applied to women, the term connoted flirting.


From four until eight she give us a no-good bartend’ clown How she won’t do nothin’ but tear a good man’s reputation down.

- From Four Until Late, 1937

A conventional slang equivalent of “jerk.”

cold chill(s)

he is a little queen of spades, and the men will not let her be Every time she makes a spread, whoo cold chills just runs all over me.

- Little Queen of Spades, 1937

A dated Southern colloquialism in which the modifier “cold” is redundant.

It appears in Opie Read’s dialect novel An Arkansas Traveler (1896):

Her husband held out his waxen hand, and when I took it I shuddered with the cold chill it sent through me.


I can’t walk the streets cons—consolate my mind Some no-good woman she starts breakin’ down.

- Stop Breakin’ Down Blues, 1937

An archaic standard English word that was usurped by the synonymous “console” in the 18th century, now surviving only as the root of “consolation”.


I’m a hard-workin’ man, have been for many long years I know And some creampuffs usin’ my money, but that’ll never be no more.

- I’m A Steady-Rollin’ Man, 1937

Apparently, a pejorative for a male consort. Gary Davis defined the expression as “a king of picked-up person ... usually there ain’t nothin’ else no closer.”


An’ the sun goin’ down, boy, dark gonna catch me here I haven’t got no lovin’ sweet woman, love an’ feel my care.

- Cross Road Blues, 1936

Nightfall. “To be caught by dark” was apparently a Mississippi idiom, as it is found in Faulkner’s The Mansion (1955): “... if dark catches me alone in this room with them and no guard handy, I’ll never see light again” (reflection of Mink Snopes, a “poor white” convict).

to be one’s destiny

Pearlie Mae you is my heart-string, you is my destiny And you rolls across my mind baby, each an’ every day.

- Honeymoon Blues, 1937

A dated romantic figure of speech, related to the expression occurring in Thackeray’s Henry Esmond (1852): “... I see all of Beatrix’s faults as well as you do. But she is my fate.”


She says I don’t see why, that I will dog her around It musta be that ol’ evil spirit, so deep down in the ground.

- Me and The Devil Blues, 1937

To hound; colloquial in black speech.

to be dogged

I’ve been dogged and I’ve been driven, ever since I left my mother’s home And I can’t see the reason why, that I can’t leave these no-good womens alone.

- Malted Milk Blues, 1937

To be hounded.


I don’t want no woman, wants any downtown man she meet She’s a no-good donay, they shouldn’t allow heron the street.

- I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom, 1936

A black and Southern white variant of dona, a 19th century slang term for woman associated with Cockney and British circus slang and regarded as vulgar by Farmer & Henley, though it derives from respectful Italian, Spanish, or Portuguese terms for “lady.” (The standard English words dame and prima donna both derive from the same source.) Although idiomatic, it is likely that the term was more common in song rhetoric than 20th century American colloquial speech. In Southern white song, it occurs as early as 1910, when Doney Gal was collected by John Lomax.

It also occurred in a slave song, Off From Richmond, cited by Talley in 1922:

I slips off from Mosser withoutpass an’ warnin’ Fer I mus’ see my Donie wharever she may stay.

Although Son House defined “donie” as “a no-good woman,” it had no pejorative implication.

dry’ long so

An ’winter time comin’, it’s gonna be so You can’t make the winter babe, just dry long so.

- Come On In My Kitchen, 1936

For no reason; for nothing; “without a cause” (Skip James). An obsolete black colloquialism of unknown derivation. Willie Moore explained it thus: “The way I always seen it, just like I come up and do somethin’ to you an’ you hasn’t done nothin’ to me — Now he done it ’dry long so.’ I’d often hear folks say that, too.”

A slightly different sense is given to it in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937):

Y’all know we can’t invite people to our town just dry long so ... We got to feed ’em somethin’.

Johnson’s couplet apparently implies that a homeless girlfriend will find it necessary to trade sexual favors for shelter.

dust (one’s broom)

I’m gonna get up in the mornin’, I believe I’ll dust my broom Girlfriend the black man you been lovin’, girlfriend can get my room.

- I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom, 1936

To leave hurriedly. Although Dan Burley’s Handbook of Jive (c. 1940) lists dust your broom as a contemporary “jive” phrase, its Southern derivation is pointed up by Johnson’s use of it, and its earlier occurrence on Kokomo Arnold’s I’ll Be Up Someday (1936):

And I believe, I believe I’ll dust my broom so some of you lowdown rounders, lord you can have my room.

The phrase is a blending of two conventional slang synonyms. To broom meant to run away in 19th century slang. In the 17th and 18th centuries, to dust was standard English for to depart, having been derived from the Biblical injunction of Matthew 10:14:

And whosoever shall not receive you... when ye depart out of that house or city, shake off the dust of your feet.

Bartlett (1877) records its use in American speech, which gradually dwindled to the point where it seemingly survived only in convict slang.


She’s a kind-hearted woman, she studies evil all the time You wish to kill me, else to have it on your mind.

- Kind-Hearted Woman Blues, 1936

Spitefulness; a dated black colloquialism drawn from the standard English sense of the word.

fair brown

Well well little girl says I’m king, baby and you is the queen Let’s we put our heads together, fair brown then we can make our money green.

- Little Queen of Spades, 1937

An attractive, brown-complexioned woman, the adjective deriving from the obsolete standard English use of “fair” to mean “beautiful.” The late Texas blues singer Tom Shaw defined the phrase: “fair brown 5 a good-lookin’ colored gal; a good- lookin’ brownskin gal.” Its frequent use in blues songs reflected a contemporary color bias, with only brown-skinned women meriting adjectival designation “fair.”


You can run, you can run, tell my friend-boy Willie Brown Lord that I’m standin’ at the crossroad babe, I believe I’m sinkin ’down.

- Cross Road Blues, 1936

Male friend; a black colloquial inversion of “boyfriend.” The expression friend-girl occurs in Loose veil Sykes’ Papa Sweetback Hues (1930) and Bukka White’s Special Stream Line (1940). Similar inversions are found in the terms carbox (Reese DuPree: Long Ago Blues. 1923) and house rent (used for “rent house,” i.e., a rented house), and in such Southern idioms as hoppergrass (recorded in 1829; see Mathews).

Gatling gun

I’m gonna shoot my pistol, gonna shoot my Gatling gun You made me love you, now your friend has come.

- 02-20 Blues, 1936

A machine gun, named after the man who invented it in 1870.

gamblin’ woman

An’ I’m gonna get me a gamblin’ woman, it’s the last thing that I do A man don’t need a woman, fair brown he got to give all of his money to.

- Little Queen of Spades. 1937

A woman whose occupation or chief pastime is gambling. Probably less common than gambling man, which occurs in Roark Bradford’s dialect novel John Henry of 1931 (“Maybe you’s a gamblin’ man dressed up like a country boy,”) and Lucille Bogan’s Kind Stella Blues 1927):

Kind Stella was a good gal, known to be a good man’s friend She take money from her husband, give it to her gamblin’ men.

good girl

I’m gonna call up China, see is my good girl over there I can’t find her on Philippines Island, she must be in Ethiopia somewhere.

- I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom, 1936

A blues term for an obliging sex partner. Tom Shaw defined the phrase: “Good gal means some gal that’s really good to you and will go for whatever you want, and go for things that make you happy.” As described by Gary Davis: “That’s a woman, you understand, she’s very interested in your affairs and she likes you ... she always looks out for you... You can call on her when you need it, you understand ... she’s not so regular with you, but she’s just good when you catch it.”

Gulfport Island Road

It’s the last fair deal gone down, good Lord, On that Gulfport Island Road.

- Last Fair Deal Gone Down, 1936

An apparent reference to the Gulf and Ship Island Railroad, which constructed Gulfport between 1887-1902.

hail (to fall down like)

... I got to keep movin’, blues fallin’ down like hail ... There’s a hellhound on my trail.

- Hellhound On My Trail, 1937

A variant of a conventional 19th century simile, to fall like hailstones.


Pearlie Mae you is my heart-string, you is my destiny And you rolls across my mind, baby each an’ every day.

- Honeymoon Blues, 1937

A once-conventional figurative term (properly pluralized) for the deepest feeling and affection of which humans are capable. The word originally stood for the nerves and tendons (“strings”) that were thought, in the 15th century, to sustain the heart.


Now one and one is two, two and two is four I’m heavy-loaded, baby; I’m booked, I gotta go.

- Sweet Home Chicago, 1936

Depressed; from the expression “to carry a heavy load”.


... Blues failin’ down like hail An’ the day keeps on ’mind me, there’s a hellhound on my trail.

- Hellhound On My Trail, 1937

In rural black superstition, a pack of wild dogs (typically represented as black in appearance, with fiery eyes) unleashed by Satan to pursue sinners. Their appearance in dreams and fantasy was taken as a summons to the backslider to enter the church or face perdition. Transmitted from English folklore, they date ultimately to Cerebus, the three-headed guardian of Hades in Greek mythology. The earliest allusion to “hellhounds” in a recorded blues song occurs in Sylvester Weaver’s Devil Blues (1927):

Hellhounds start to chasin’ me, man I was a runnin ’fool My ankles caught on fire, couldn ’t keep my puppies cool.

Johnson’s lyric may have been derived from Funny Paper Smith’s Howling Wolf Blues No. 4. (1931)

hot tamale

Hot tamales and they’re hot, yes she got ’em for sale.

- They’re Red Hot, 1936

A cant sexual expression, the phrase ordinarily signifying a sexy girl.


I’m the man that roll, when icicles hangin’ on the tree And now you hear me howlin’ baby, down on my bended knee.

- I’m A Steady Rollin’ Man, 1937

To yell or complain; a standard English figure of speech that had become a Southern colloquialism by the time it appeared in God’s Little Acre (1933):

Nobody ought to howl about just one tiny little bit when nobody is getting hurt.

in a [—] condition

Now you know the coils ain’t even buzzin’ Little generator won ’tget the spark Oil’s in a bad condition got to have These batteries charged

- Terrablane Blues, 1936

An obsolete construction that appears in Moll Flanders (1722):

I was then in a sad condition indeed.

kind-hearted woman

I got a kind-hearted woman, do most anything in this world for me But they’se evil-hearted women, and they will not let me be.

- Kind-Hearted Woman Blues, 1936

An obsolete black slang phrase for a woman who keeps a gigolo. According to blues lore most such women were unattractive, and homicidally jealous: “Mrs. Saddy was a kind-hearted woman and there was a lot of them in Mississippi. I know it because I had one, too. Her name was Narcice and she cut me down the back” (Broonzy: Big Bill Blues. Oak Publications: 1964: New York: p. 103).

Johnson’s song likewise delineates a violent “kind-hearted woman”:

She’s a kind-hearted woman, she studies evil all the time You wish to kill me, else to have it on your mind.

The famous Frankie and Johnnie is a depiction of a “kind-hearted woman” who kills her philandering lover.


You better come on, in my kitchen It’s going to be rainin’ outdoors.

- Come On In My Kitchen, 1936

An obsolete slang term for vagina indicating that the above couplet is sung from a feminine point of view.


Now you can squeeze my lemon till the juice run down my leg But I’m goin’ back to Friar’s Point rockin’ to my head.

- Travelin’ Riverside Blues, 1937

A cant sexual term of no discernable idiomatic basis.

malted milk

I keep drinkin’ malted milk, trying to drive my blues away Baby you just as welcome to my lovin’, as the flowers is in May.

- Malted Milk Blues, 1937

A Depression-era Mississippi slang term for beer.


Hey hey, me milk cow, what on earth is wrong with you? Now you have a little milk calf, and your milk is turnin’ blue.

- Milkcow Calf’s Blues, 1937

Mississippi blues idiom for a woman, probably suggested by the conventional colloquial synonym “cow” which dated to the 17th century.


everybody say she got a mojo, ’cause she been usin’ that stuff She got a way a-tremblin’ down, I mean it’s most too tough.

- Little Queen of Spades, 1937

An obsolete black colloquialism for a small bag sold by conjurers, the possession of which was held to make one irresistible to a desired member of the opposite six, and to enhance one’s luck in gambling.

'nation sack

Aw she’s gone, I know she won’t come back I taken the last nickel, out her ’nation sack.

- Come On In My Kitchen, 1936

Donation sack. In dated Southern black speech, a donation sack was a wallet or purse, as well as a pouch worn by barrelhouse proprietors to collect their proceeds from food or drink. It was also applied to any carry-all:

You put money in a ’nation sack; you can put anything in it ... whiskey or a gun, anything ... fasten it around your waist.

Will Shade recalled their popularity among Memphis women (probably prostitutes) in the early 20th century: “... they used to wear ’Nation’ sacks in them days—and they used to wear their money twixt their legs, hung on a sack tied round their waists.” (quoted in Oliver, p. 86). Andrew and Jim Baxter’s Bamalong Blues (1927) contains a pun on the expression:

Been to the Nation an’ I just got back Didn’t get no money, but I brought the sack.

As a term for a pocketbook, sack dates to at least 1888 (Thornton).

ninety-nine degree

I gave my baby now, the ninety-nine degree She jumped up and throwed a pistol down on me.

- Stop Breaking Down Blues, 1937

A dated black slang term for cocaine. Conceivably the chorus of the song refers to possession of the same drug:

The stuff I got’ll bust your brains out Baby, it’ll make you lose your mind.

ride the blinds

Well, leavin’ this mornin’ if I have to, go ride the blinds I been mistreated an’ I don’t mind dyin’.

- Walkin’ Blues, 1936

A conventional hoboing term for cadging a train ride on an empty boxcar, or between cars.


lean tell the wind is risin’, leaves tremblin’ on the trees Oh I need my little sweet rider, for to keep my company.

- Hellhound My Trail, 1937

A conventional blues term for a sexual consort arising from the verb ride, an archaic term for intercourse.


I’m a steady-rollin’ man, I roll both night and day But I haven’t got no sweet woman, boy to be rollin’ this a-way.

- Steady Rollin’ Man, 1937

To work; an old-fashioned black colloquialism frequently used in blues songs as a double-entendre, making an implied comparison between sex and labor.

Saturday night (as an adjective)

Now you Saturday night women, you love to ape an’ clown You won’t do nothin’ but tear a good man’s reputation down.

- Stop Breakin’ Down, 1937

A Mississippi term meaning hedonistic: “The hill people weren’t your Saturday night, skin-balling, crap-shooting (n-word)” (white planter quoted in Calt and Wardlow: King Of The Delta Blues. Rock Chapel Press: 1988).


I woke up this mornin’ and all my shrimp was dead and gone I was thinkin’ about you baby, why you hear me weep an’ moan.

- Dead Shrimp Blues, 1937

An obscure or cant slang term that Johnson applies to his own sexuality: “Now you taken my shrimp, baby, know you turned me down...”


She’s a little queen of spades, and the men will not let her be Every time she makes a spread, whoo cold chills just runs all over me.

- Little Queen of Spades, 1937

A variant of the infinitive "spread", a conventional slang term for fornicating.


...tI’m gonna drive my blues away Goin’to the ’stillery, stay out there all day.

- Preachin’ Blues, 1936

Whiskey distillery.


She’s a kind-hearted woman, she studies evil all the time You wish to kill me, else to have it on your mind.

- Kind-Hearted Woman Blues, 1936

To think about; an archaic standard English word that survived in early 20th century black speech.

talk out of (one’s) head

Malted milk, malted milk, keeps rushin’ to my head And I have a funny funny feelin’, that I’m talkin’ all out my head.

- Malted Milk Blues, 1937

In barrelhouse slang, to babble drunkenly, without regard for the truth of one’s assertions. Tom Shaw gave the following illustration of “talking out of one’s head”:

A lotta times a woman can be drinkin’ and she’ll tell you some of the sweetest lies you ever saw: ’I ain’t got no man’ ... Til do anything for you’; until she gets sober. (Then) she say: ’Did I tell you that’ Shit, no, I can’t do that; I got a old man.’

this man

My milk cow been ramblin’, for miles around She been (sellin?) some other bullcow, Lord in this man’s town.

- Milkcow Calf’s Blues, take 2, 1937

My; a sense first recorded in the 19th century as “this child”.

throw down

Now I gave my baby now, the ninety-nine degree She jumped up and throwed a pistol down on me.

- Stop Breaking Down Blues, 1937

To draw a pistol. An elaboration of throw, a criminal slang for to rob at pistol point.

too black bad

Babe don’t mess around them hot tamales now ’cause they ’re too black bad; mess around those hot tamales.

- They’re Red Hot, 1936

A barrelhouse catchphrase “that means really too bad” (Tom Shaw). Shaw related it to an old saying:

If you don’t do so-and-so, it’s gonna be too black bad for you, buddy.

too tough

An’ everybody say she got a mojo, ’cause she been usin’ that stuff She got a way a-tremblin’ down, an’ I mean it’s most too tough.

- Little Queen of Spades, 1937

Too much; a black slang term that survived at least into the 1970s.

tremble down

An’ everybody say she got a mojo, ’cause she been usin’ that stuff She got a way a-tremblin’ down, an’ I mean it’s most too tough.

- Little Queen of Spades, 1937

To dance the Shimmy; used, like the former word, as a euphemism for intercourse.

windin’ chain

Beatrice I love my phonograph, but you have broke my windin ’chain And you taken my lovin’, and give it to your other man.

- Phonograph Blues, 1937

As a term for penis, this word has a possible idiomatic basis in the 19th century phrase to wind the clock, i.e., to possess a woman sexually.