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:
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.
In conventional slang, a cook; associated with ranch use. It cannot be demonstrated that this term was a double-entendre.
A conventional slang term meaning to leave, usually hastily.
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).
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.
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.
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.
Sexual affairs; more commonly rendered in blues song as “to get one’s business fixed.”
Money or wealth. “California” was a 19th century term for gold coins that had been obsolete for 20 years when Johnson used it.
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.
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.
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):
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.
To show off; behave boisterously; generally used pejoratively in obsolete Southern black speech. As applied to women, the term connoted flirting.
A conventional slang equivalent of “jerk.”
A dated Southern colloquialism in which the modifier “cold” is redundant.
It appears in Opie Read’s dialect novel An Arkansas Traveler (1896):
An archaic standard English word that was usurped by the synonymous “console” in the 18th century, now surviving only as the root of “consolation”.
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.”
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
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.”
To hound; colloquial in black speech.
to be dogged
To be hounded.
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:
Although Son House defined “donie” as “a no-good woman,” it had no pejorative implication.
dry’ long so
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):
Johnson’s couplet apparently implies that a homeless girlfriend will find it necessary to trade sexual favors for shelter.
dust (one’s broom)
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):
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.
Spitefulness; a dated black colloquialism drawn from the standard English sense of the word.
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.”
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).
A machine gun, named after the man who invented it in 1870.
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):
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
An apparent reference to the Gulf and Ship Island Railroad, which constructed Gulfport between 1887-1902.
hail (to fall down like)
A variant of a conventional 19th century simile, to fall like hailstones.
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.
Depressed; from the expression “to carry a heavy load”.
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):
Johnson’s lyric may have been derived from Funny Paper Smith’s Howling Wolf Blues No. 4. (1931)
A cant sexual expression, the phrase ordinarily signifying a sexy girl.
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):
in a [—] condition
An obsolete construction that appears in Moll Flanders (1722):
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”:
The famous Frankie and Johnnie is a depiction of a “kind-hearted woman” who kills her philandering lover.
An obsolete slang term for vagina indicating that the above couplet is sung from a feminine point of view.
A cant sexual term of no discernable idiomatic basis.
A Depression-era Mississippi slang term for beer.
Mississippi blues idiom for a woman, probably suggested by the conventional colloquial synonym “cow” which dated to the 17th century.
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.
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:
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:
As a term for a pocketbook, sack dates to at least 1888 (Thornton).
A dated black slang term for cocaine. Conceivably the chorus of the song refers to possession of the same drug:
ride the blinds
A conventional hoboing term for cadging a train ride on an empty boxcar, or between cars.
A conventional blues term for a sexual consort arising from the verb ride, an archaic term for intercourse.
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)
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).
An obscure or cant slang term that Johnson applies to his own sexuality: “Now you taken my shrimp, baby, know you turned me down...”
A variant of the infinitive "spread", a conventional slang term for fornicating.
To think about; an archaic standard English word that survived in early 20th century black speech.
talk out of (one’s) head
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”:
My; a sense first recorded in the 19th century as “this child”.
To draw a pistol. An elaboration of throw, a criminal slang for to rob at pistol point.
too black bad
A barrelhouse catchphrase “that means really too bad” (Tom Shaw). Shaw related it to an old saying:
Too much; a black slang term that survived at least into the 1970s.
To dance the Shimmy; used, like the former word, as a euphemism for intercourse.
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.