Judging by surviving evidence, “Bout a Spoonful” was a very popular song throughout the black South in the early twentieth century. In Sweet Man, a racial protest novel from 1930, Gilmore Millen named it along with “Pallet on the Floor,” “Stavin’ Chain,” and “The Dozens” as “forerunners of the blues, at least in honk-a-tonk popularity, those old songs crammed with Anglo-Saxon physiological monosyllables and lascivious purpose.”
The original honky tonk, juke joint, and barrelhouse versions of these songs were not going to be recorded by commercial record producers in the early 20th century and tended not to be collected even by the most assiduous folklorists. Among the few lyrics that survive, we have one uncensored version of “Pallet on the Floor” from Jelly Roll Morton, an uncensored “Dirty Dozens” from Speckled Red, and an uncensored “Stavin’ Chain” from Mance Lipscomb, but as far as I know, no one has ever found a version of “Bout a Spoonful” that includes any of those “Anglo-Saxon physiological monosyllables” – a much more colorful and descriptive phrase than “four-letter words.”
Fortunately, the underlying “lascivious purpose” survived expurgation in versions by Lipscomb and Rev. Gary Davis, which also provide eloquent testimony to how widespread the song must have been, since Davis was from the Carolinas and Lipscomb was in Texas, but they not only shared some lyrics but played variations of the same guitar accompaniment.
I first heard this song from Dave Van Ronk, and play his guitar part, which he adapted from Davis’s. It was the first guitar arrangement of his that I worked out from the record, during the year I was studying with him, which meant that when I got it smooth I was able to play it for him… and he pointed out that I was making it harder by playing the thumb-around-the-neck bass notes for the opening D chord, while he just played open strings. He added, “It sounds nice that way. Keep it.” So I have.
Dave only sang four verses, and omitted the key word from the tag line, writing: “Not everybody knows what a spoonful means. But they know what a pause means.” John Hurt took a similar approach in his “Coffee Blues,” and I’ve stuck with it here. The rest of the lyric is a mix of Dave’s verses, a couple from Lipscomb, a couple from elsewhere, and a couple I made up or adapted over the years.