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August 21, 2017 | by  | in Music | [ssba]

Cuts From the Deep: Lucille Bogan

Lucille Bogan is the ’30s blues/jazz singer with the filthiest damn mouth you have ever heard.

Born in Mississippi in 1897, there is very little known about her life before she started recording music in New York in 1923 after being scouted from the thriving jazz scene in Birmingham, Alabama. She was deemed too “vaudeville” for her New York label, so she moved to Chicago and signed with Paramount Records, and had a nationwide hit with “Sweet Petunia”, petunia being blues doublespeak for labia. She later moved back to New York and teamed up with pianist Walter Roland, with whom she wrote over 100 songs, and who was known for frequently dancing barefoot in the studio. Unfortunately, Bogan wasn’t hugely popular during her time or immediately afterward, so most of these songs are no longer accessible. She eventually was dropped by her label due to her explicit lyrical material, split from her husband due to infidelity on her part, entered a long-term relationship with a much younger man, and spent much of the rest of her life managing her son’s band, Bogan’s Birmingham Busters. She eventually died of coronary sclerosis in LA in 1948.

Bogan was argued to have had one of the finest voices of all women blues musicians, though she is not as storied as names like Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, and this presumably has a lot to do with her controversial lyrical material. The subject matter she drew from included sex work (she discusses the hardships of being a sex worker in “Tricks Ain’t Walkin’ No More”), drinking (Ah, I’m getting sloppy drunk today! from “Whisky Selling Woman” may be the most relatable lyric to come out of the ’30s), and abusive men (she even had a song called “Women Don’t Need Men”).

What Bogan may be most known for, though, are her songs that weren’t afraid to get down, dirty, and highly sexually explicit. Her most well known song “Shave ‘Em Dry” starts with I got nipples on my titties/ Big as the end of my thumb/ I got something between my legs/ That’ll make a dead man come, and only gets even more full-frontal from there. On “Til’ the Cows Come Home”, Bogan sings I got a big fat belly/ I got a big broad ass/ And I could fuck any man/ With real good class, as well as referring to her partner’s junk as a baseball bat and claiming she’ll give him head until he defecates.

The ’20s and ’30s were an era where women were still considered as property in many jurisdictions, marital rape was legal, and women were generally considered submissive creatures that reared children, cooked dinner, took sex submissively and quietly as a pleasure purely for men’s enjoyment, and were supposed to be seen and not heard. Lucille Bogan not only claims her sexuality, she seizes it with gay and mind-bogglingly filthy abandon, wears it shamelessly everywhere she goes, and owns that shit better than anyone I’ve ever known. She’s self-proclaimed as fat and hairy and couldn’t give less of a shit about it, knowing that this has nothing to do with her ability to be sexy. Hot damn, Lucille Bogan had so much right in the ’30s that most of us can’t even bend our minds around over 80 years later. Little is known about the backlash that she received from her lascivious lyrics other than that she was dropped by her label, but this absolutely marvellous lady had enough people who enjoyed her music in the ’20s and ’30s to have a career spanning at least 12 years.

Sex wasn’t the only taboo topic Bogan broached. In “B.D. Woman’s Blues” she discusses lesbianism, “B.D.” standing for bull dyke. LGBT+ rights were in a pretty sorry state during this time and most people believed lesbians didn’t or shouldn’t exist, yet here was Lucille Bogan singing a song about admiring gay women, commiserating with their difficult societal position, and stating that they could do the nasty just as good as a cis man: B.D. women, you sure can’t understand/ They can lay their jive just like a natural man — something that a lot of cis het dudes that I’ve met are still yet to wrap their heads around.

Bogan may be the most lyrically ahead of her time musician that has ever existed, with possibly the most explicit lyrics ever released on a major label (seriously, please go and look up “Shave ‘Em Dry” and sate your curiosity). Tragically, what’s left of her recordings are of very low quality, but they’re certainly enough for the delightfully lewd lyrics to shine through. Her work also echoes throughout the jazz and blues genres through the ’30s and ’40s, with her songs being watered down and reworked by musicians such as B.B. King, Earl Hooker, and Sonny Boy Williamson. In sum, this woman was shimmeringly brilliant and I love her.


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