John Hellmann

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Rejecting the banalities of their own culture and adopting instead the more realistic, if less "noble" and comfortable, attitudes of the black American ghetto resident, the Stones laid the foundation for the counter-culture by translating these black attitudes into an attractive image for alienated white youth. The importance of this black "blues" influence is nowhere more apparent than in the argot of the Stones' lyrics, and an examination of the existence of a black blues lexicon in the Stones' lyrics provides a unique method of studying the Stones' acceptance and extension of black urban cultural attitudes. (p. 367)

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Jagger's fascination with what his father … called "jungle music" extended to a deep interest in the blues argot. He has been quoted as saying that lyrics are not very important in rock music, but his own admission that he used to put his head to the speaker until he had deciphered all the blues lyrics as well as the obvious effort and skill that go into his own lyric writing belie this.

In the blues records Jagger was indeed discovering a "jungle argot," a language of an urban jungle of alienation and repression. If, as a British middle-class youth, he could not fully comprehend this jungle, he could relate to it in a real and powerful way. (p. 368)

To fully comprehend the implications of the Stones' lyrics, one must perceive the significance of this blues argot from which they draw, as well as the way in which they have developed their own version of it. This influence is first and most obviously apparent in the black vocal intonations of Jagger's definitely un-British singing voice. Indeed, his expressive intonations sometimes render the lyrics almost superfluous. But one can achieve a more developed and fruitful understanding of the Stones' lyrics through a study of the actual lexicon and phraseology of the black blues argot.

The most basic characteristic of that lexicon and phraseology is its vivid and almost uniformly sexual imagery. It is an argot built on symbol and metaphor, and an argot obsessed with the sexual act and its sundry implications. (pp. 368-69)

The black composers of the blues wrote lyrics in concrete language, not because of any "symbolist" theories but because they needed and wanted to avoid the meaningless "big words" of a dominant culture that held them in ignorance and contempt….

[When] the blues musicians began to record their "race" music in the early twenties, they were faced with the artist's age-old problem—censorship. Early blues lyrics were usually exceedingly direct, rarely avoiding the common street words for sex and excretion. Even though the early blues musicians were recorded primarily for the black audience, the puritanical laws of white America could not allow such language to be committed to plastic. The blues musicians found themselves resorting to and increasingly thinking in terms of thinly disguised metaphor and certain "code words" commonly recognized among blacks. For example, "jelly roll" was used countless times for either the vagina or the sexual act itself because of its sweetness and its rhythmic design. "Yas-yas," a common black childhood term for ass, was used extensively as a euphemism, instantly recognized in the ghetto but innocuous to the white censors' ears (this term was to turn up many years later, prominently displayed on the cover of a Rolling Stones album). (p. 369)

The Stones began their recording career by "covering" songs originally written and performed by the black American rhythm and blues groups. Focusing particularly on the angry "city blues" typified by Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, they introduced white British and American youth to the menacing animal-sexual imagery common in black music. Their first album included Slim Harpo's "King Bee," a song built on the phallic implications of the "bee" and the female implications of the "hive." They...

(The entire section contains 1927 words.)

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