“I got nipples on my titties big as the end of my thumb,” Lucille Bogan sang on “Shave ‘Em Dry” in 1935. “I got something between my legs to make a dead man come.” The Rolling Stones stole the “make a dead man come” line for “Start Me Up” – and it was either skipped over or bleeped out when they played the song at the Super Bowl.
Bogan’s barrelhouse-piano blues was one of the most explicit tunes of an era of music filled with blatant sexual metaphors. “I want some sugar in my bowl/I want a hot dog on my roll,” beseeched the legendary Bessie Smith. Not all this was heterosexual either: Ma Rainey recorded the sapphic “Prove It on Me Blues” in 1928.
Country singer Jimmie Davis, who wrote “You Are My Sunshine,” started out by waxing the likes of “High Behind Blues” and “Red Nightgown Blues.”
Despite his professed lust for dark-skinned women, Davis later became a segregationist governor of Louisiana. Thomas Dorsey, Ma Rainey’s pianist, penned the double-entendre hit “It’s Tight Like That” with Tampa Red in 1928 – before he got religion and wrote the gospel classics “Peace in the Valley” and “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.”
This music existed mainly in the rural South, urban ghettoes, and red-light districts, but like a cultural hard-on pushing against the cloth of puritanism and segregation, double-entendre R&B oozed into the mainstream with the rise of rock‘n’roll in the early ‘50s, with songs like Billy Ward and the Dominoes’ “Sixty Minute Man.”
In 1954, Hank Ballard and the Midnighters’ “Work With Me Annie” (“Annie please don’t cheat/Give me all of my meat”) had to be reworked twice before white radio stations would play it – rewritten as “Dance With Me Henry” and rerecorded by a white woman. (Ballard’s follow-up was called “Annie Had a Baby.”)
Little Richard’s first hit, “Tutti Frutti,” was originally a ditty about “good booty” with lyrics like “if it don’t fit, don’t force it/you can grease it, make it easy.”
Punk Mockery and Dancehall Slackness By the ’70s, anything but blatant explicitness (like Lou Reed’s reference to “giving head”) was permissible on the radio, and white rockers’ adaptations of blues machismo, with 1.1-entendre lyrics like “I’m gonna give you every inch of my love,” constituted a style yclept “cock-rock.”
As punk rejected the pomposities of corporate rock, it made it cool to be sexually dysfunctional, in tunes like Elvis Costello’s “Mystery Dance” and Alternative TV’s “Love Lies Limp.” Transgender punk-rocker Wayne County (now Jayne County) challenged straight men with the Max’s Kansas City jukebox hit “If You Don’t Want to Fuck Me, Baby, Fuck Off” – one of my favorite song titles of all time.
And a British band called the Anti-Nowhere League got the best of both worlds in “So What,” with the lead singer blustering a succession of over-the-top macho boasts (“Well, I fucked a sheep/And I fucked a goat/I stuffed my cock right down its throat”) while the band chorused back “So what? So what?”
Meanwhile in Jamaica, dancehall audiences bored with Rastafarian preaching were reviving the venerable Caribbean tradition of “slackness,” turning to MCs like Yellowman and General Echo. Echo’s songs included “It’s My Desire to Set Your Crotches on Fire,” “Bathroom Sex,” and “Lorna She Love Young Boy Banana” – the last about an old woman who “told me
that she love a young boy banana, especially if he smoke marijuana.”
Admiral Bailey begged for “Punanny.” MCs like Lady Saw (“Life Without Dick”) carry on the tradition. By the mid-’80s, American musicians could put pretty much anything on a record – as long as it had a “parental advisory” label, the result of a censorship campaign by the Christian right and several politicians’ wives (most notoriously erstwhile Deadhead
Top pop artists like Prince (“Darling Nikki”) and Cyndi Lauper (“She Bop”) recorded obvious odes to female masturbation, and obscenity prosecutions of leftist punk-rocker Jello Biafra and porn-rappers 2 Live Crew failed.
The gangsta rappers of the ‘90s pushed things into territory as humorless as hardcore porn, with a cold-blooded “bitches on my dick, 24-7” machismo, and sold millions of CDs with no radio play.
Female MCs like L’il Kim and Khia countered with demands for their cunnilingual rights. “My neck, my back, lick my pussy and my crack…”
All this is as American as apple pie. A popular tune in the early days of the republic was a British upperclass drinking song called “To Anacreon in Heaven.”
Named for an ancient Greek erotic poet, its chorus climaxed with instructions to “entwine the myrtle of Venus with Bacchus’s vine.” Maybe I have a dirty mind, but that sounds like a mythological allusion to pubic hair and wine.
Very few Americans know that song now, but you all know the melody. In 1814, Francis Scott Key rewrote it – and changed “myrtle of Venus” to “land of the free.”