Alcorub, Cocks, & Mojo: An Interview With Debra Devi about “The Language of the Blues”
Rock musician Debra Devi’s book The Language of the Blues: From Alcorub to Zuzu is about as far from a dry, boring dictionary as you can get. In fact, the LA Times calls it “one of the wittiest, bawdiest, most fascinating dictionaries ever.”
I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Debra for a few years now and she’s one of my biggest supporters, so when I found out the book was being released digitally, I had to pick her brain about it and share it here. We’re currently collaborating on using various SEO and Social Media strategies (check out what she’s doing on Twitter to promote the book), which are kind of interesting when you think about all the phrases that she defines throughout the book.
This book is authentic, raw and raunchy. It opens with “alcorub”–the drink of last resort for desperate alcoholics, explores gender switching in the blues with “cock” and “lemon,” and closes with “zuzu,” which means cookie, and is “perhaps the most wholesome word in the entire book,” according to Reuters.
The lead singer/guitarist for DEVI put down her guitar long enough to interview over 20 blues legends and dig through obscure sources to discover the meanings and origins of terms like “mojo,” “hoodoo” and “killing floor.” Now Guitar International has released a $9.99 eBook version that includes new color photos and a free download of DEVI’s powerful debut album, Get Free.
The Language of the Blues: From Alcorub to Zuzu is blurbed by both Bonnie Raitt and Ministry’s Al Jourgensen–which neatly bookends the incredibly wide influence of the blues on American music.
This book has tons of cool stuff in it, including a sharecropper’s contract, entertaining stories from the author’s interviews with bluesmen (Hubert Sumlin, Little Milton, Bob Margolin and others) and a foreword by Dr. John in which he discusses how he learned to use street language to write songs. Discover the meaning of Robert Johnson’s “stones in my passway”, find out why Willie Dixon wrote “Wang Dang Doodle”, and learn the African-American game of insults called “the dozens.”
Ministry singer Al Jourgensen says “Finally one can understand the mechanics behind the overwhelming viscera of the Blues. Debra Devi’s work is a true guide book to the soul.” Bonnie Raitt adds, “What a great resource…as fascinating as it is informative. Debra’s passion for the blues shines through.”
Although though she’s a rock artist, you can hear the blues in Debra’s soaring guitar solos on songs like “When It Comes Down” and “Get Free.” I definitely had some questions for her…
Evolvor: What possessed you to write a book about the blues?
Debra: I grew up in Milwaukee and a lot of great Chicago blues artists would come through town. In fact, one of the very first live music shows I ever saw was Koko Taylor, with Son Seals on guitar. I was blown away by the emotional power of both of them and have been a blues fan ever since.
I had a job for awhile as the associate editor of Blues Revue magazine, and the editor-in-chief was Andrew M. Robble, who’d been a very close friend of Chicago blues guitarist Mike Bloomfield. Andy told me some wild stories, like the one in The Language of the Blues about a young Bloomfield being shocked to hear his mentor, Muddy Waters, talk about how much he liked to “suck cock”…until Bloomfield realized Waters was referring to female genitalia!
I became very curious about the meanings and origins of words like “mojo” and “hoodoo.” Since I’m a musician, not a scholar, I thought maybe I could make a contribution by talking to blues musicians directly.
Evolvor: Who are some of the artists you interviewed?
Debra: I interviewed as many legendary blues artists as I could find, including Robert Jr. Lockwood, Henry Gray, Hubert Sumlin, “Little” Milton Campbell Jr., Alvin “Red” Tyler, Mardi Gras Indian Chief Howard “Smiley” Ricks, and Jody Williams. I also interviewed next-generation artists, like Dr. John, Bonnie Raitt, Jimmie Vaughan, Robben Ford and Bob Margolin.
Lockwood was one of my favorites. At age 91, he was still extremely sharp and shed real light on a seminal blues figure, Robert Johnson. Lockwood was Johnson’s common-law stepson—his mother lived with Johnson for seven years.
Lockwood said Robert Johnson was a voracious reader who was always getting ideas for his songs from things he read. That really counteracts the romantic view of country blues musicians as illiterate modern primitives.
Evolvor: How did Dr. John wind up writing the foreword to your book?
Debra: I’d interviewed Dr. John in the past and was struck by how knowledgeable and deep he was. I called him when I was working on the book and he was able to answer questions I’d been tussling with for months. Like, where does the word “gig” come from? He knew that it came from the lottery business – a gig was a three-number (like a musical trio) bet and you didn’t know if it was going to pay off (like a musical gig!). I still can’t believe he wrote the foreword!
You can read his foreword and other excerpts from the book, plus the rest of the blurbs (from Joe Bonamassa, Hal Willner, Jimmy Vivino, Ed Sanders and Bob Margolin) at www.devi-rock.com/thelanguageoftheblues.
Evolvor: The Language of the Blues includes a free download of your band Devi’s album, Get Free. Is Devi a blues band?
Debra: No, we’re a rock power trio with a heavy ‘70s vibe. We’ve been described as “Sheryl Crow meets Queens of the Stone Age.” I think The Language of the Blues readers will dig Get Free, though, because my love for the blues kinda soaks through the whole thing.
Get your copy of The Language of the Blues here (this is not an affiliate link for me, I highly endorse it!)