Like many of the songs I’ll be singing over the next couple of months, I got this from Dave Van Ronk. He did it on one of my favorite LPs of all time, No Dirty Names, and I’m guessing it was supposed to be the title song, since when I mentioned that album to him, Dave’s response was a pained grimace and the comment, “They even got the title wrong.” I never figured out why he disliked that album so much, and am convinced the problems were in the process rather than the result — since the result was one of his best records, with a terrific range of material, from old country blues to Bertolt Brecht, William Butler Yeats, and Mose Allison.
“Keep It Clean” was one of the first songs I learned off that album, and it is kind of typical of Dave’s approach to the blues tradition. His source was a record by Charley Jordan, recorded in 1930, but Dave sang different verses, changed the chorus, and set it to a guitar arrangement that bore no relation to Jordan’s. Unfortunately for those of us who enjoyed that arrangement, this was during a passing period of infatuation with open C tuning, and by the time I knew him he’d dropped it from his repertoire — when I asked him to teach me the chart, he said he couldn’t remember it. However, the obvious inspiration was Lemon Jefferson’s “Bad Luck Blues,” which is in standard tuning, so I copped that — not very well, for the first few decades, but four or five years ago I went through an intensive Blind Lemon period and figured out the nice move from C up to D in the opening riff.
As for the song itself, I discuss it briefly in my book on the Dozens, and will get into it more in my impending magnum opus on the uncensored African American lyrical tradition. It was recorded in a few different forms during the ’20s and ’30s, my favorite probably being Luke Jordan’s “Won’t You Be Kind,” with its cheerfully euphemistic “keep your back yard clean.” The more common phrase, which still turns up in rap lyrics, was “keep your booty clean,” and one of the curious facts I turned up while researching the Dozens book is that “booty” seems to derive from a West African term, bo-da, meaning, literally, ass-hole. I’ve never seen this derivation in any other source, but came across bo-da, with that meaning, in a glossary of Afro-Caribbean terms, and Mance Lipscomb explains on tape that “booty” means precisely that, noting that it is the dirtiest part of the body and even if you wash it thoroughly, in a couple of hours it will get nasty again — hence the frequency of the admonishment.
Through the wonders of metonymy, the term often shifted a couple of inches forward, and what is being kept clean in this song need not be that specific anatomical region. As Charley Jordan (no relation to Luke) sang:
If you want to hear that elephant grunt,
You take him down to the river and then wash his trunk.
Obviously, the sexual politics of this song are egregious, in the long tradition of “Roll Her Over In the Clover” with an overlay of “Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker.” No defense is possible for performing something like this in the 21st century, and I generally don’t — but I learned it around age 13 and it is an excellent example of what attracts teenage boys to blues.