Salty Dog

A hit in 1924 for Papa Charlie Jackson, the New Orleans banjo player who was the first male recording star of the first blues boom, “Salty Dog” was popular throughout the South, with black and white musicians alike, in numerous versions — and I’m sure the ones that got recorded were considerably expurgated and bowdlerized, compared to what was being sung in barrelhouses. I first heard it fromBest of Mississippi John Hurt Mississippi John Hurt, and still play pretty much his version, though I seem to have picked up some vocal inflections from Lead Belly, and wouldn’t be surprised if Jack Elliott gets in there as well.

According to Steve Calt’s glossary of blues language, the use of “salty” to describe a female dog in heat can be traced back to 1603, and by the late 18th century it had acquired the more generalized meaning of “lecherous” — though it clearly retained the canine association.

As to that bowdlerization, this is one of many recorded blues songs that were obviously based on unrecorded, and at the time unrecordable, lyrics. Jackson’s version, instead of referring to “my buddy” as the person who caught the singer kissing his wife, refers to “Uncle Bud,” a legendary figure of black folksong, and “kissing” would not have been the word used in barrelhouse performances. Zora Neale Hurston sings a common variant of “Uncle Bud” on a Library of Congress recording, and a typical verse goes:

Uncle Bud’s got corn that’s never been shucked,
Uncle Bud’s got daughters that never been fucked.

Or, in some versions:
Uncle Bud’s got corn that’s never been shucked,
Uncle Bud’s got daughters that never been to Sunday school.

I’m sure Lead Belly had some similarly filthy verses to this one, and I’m guessing John Hurt did as well… but they are, alas, lost in the mists of history, and we have to make do with what we’ve got.