28 June 2017

Skiffle Music

Skiffle is a type of popular music with jazz, blues, folk, roots and country influences, usually using homemade or improvised instruments. Originating as a term in the United States in the first half of the twentieth century, it became popular again in the UK in the 1950s, where it was mainly associated with musician Lonnie Donegan.

The origins of skiffle are obscure, but are generally thought to lie in African-American musical culture in the early twentieth century with improvised "jug bands." They played a mix of blues and jazz and used instruments such as the washboard, jugs, tea chest bass, cigar-box fiddle, musical saw, and comb-and-paper kazoos, as well as more conventional instruments such as acoustic guitar and banjo.

In the U.S., this was often called "jug band music" but in the U.K., "skiffle" was the label used.

The term "skiffle" was one of many slang phrases for a rent party, a social event with a small charge designed to pay rent on a house or building (sometimes the club where the musicians performed).

The first skiffle recordings were made in Chicago in the 1920s. The first use of the term on record was in 1925 in the name of Jimmy O'Bryant and his Chicago Skifflers.

A number of country blues records had titles like "Hometown Skiffle" (1929), and "Skiffle Blues" (1946) by Dan Burley and His Skiffle Boys.

The term and style of music faded from usage in the 1940s with the advent of Big Band music.

1957 John Lennon (center) and the Quarrymen

A revival occurred after WWII in the UK and  in the late 1950s there were many skiffle groups in Britain. It became a starting place and training ground for a number of musicians who would find fame in rock and roll in the 1960s.

An early incarnation of The Beatles was The Quarrymen which started as a skiffle band.

Other rockers who strated in skiffle groups include Van Morrison, Alexis Korner, Ronnie Wood, Alex Harvey, Mick Jagger; Roger Daltrey, Jimmy Page, Ritchie Blackmore, Robin Trower, Dave Gilmour, Graham Nash and Alan Clarke.

For comparison, here is Lonnie Donegan performing "Rock Island Line"
live on "Putting on the Donegan" June 1961

and then listen to "Rock Island Line" performed solo first by Paul McCartney
and then in a different style by John Lennon.


22 May 2017

Mind Your P's and Q's

Has anyone ever advised you to "mind your p's and q's"?  If you were in England, they meant to be on your best behavior, and if in America they meant to pay close attention. They probably did not mean to watch out how you set your type for a printing press, but that is the origin of that phrase.

We actually get a good number of words and phrases borrowed from the print shop. The book Printer’s Error: Irreverent Stories from Book History  is an entertaining history of printed books, authors and printers that gives us many examples.

One example is "minding your p's and q's" which is a phrase that comes from the printing process in the days past when physical movable type was used in a printing press.

I actually had the opportunity in my youth to set some type for printing. Setting type means placing each individual metal letter or symbol in a tray backward, so that when the inked type is pressed into paper, the mirror image reads the right way forward.

This was the job of compositors who had to be very careful setting up lines and pages of type - especially when it came to letters that look like mirror images of each other.

In older type cases (such as the one seen above and below), each letter was kept in its own section to be picked out by the compositor. The letters "b" and "d" could be confusing, but the lowercase p’s and q’s were right next to each other. "Mind your p’s and q’s” quite literally meant to be careful with those letters.

In that type case. all the capital letters are on the top or in a second upper case. The ones in the lower part of the case are what we began to call lowercase letters.

Upper and lower cases of type

08 May 2017

Cannabis by any other name

It is called pot, weed, Mary Jane, reefer, sticky-icky and is known by other names. This psychotropic plant's scientific name is cannabis, and for a long time that was its only name.

In the early 1900s, the more common term marijuana (or marihuana) became common in the United States. That term is usually listed as having a Mexican origin. I also found that it may have a Chinese origin and that ma ren and ma hua refer to different parts of the plant. I found an
etymology that is Arabic and it arrived in Mexico via Moorish Spain.

By any name, the cannabis plant's origin is Asia, and we know that humans have been cultivating the plant for at least 6,000 years. Stems were used for fibers and the fruits eaten.

The Oxford English Dictionary records the earliest usages of cannabis meaning the plant "common hemp, Cannabis sativa" in 1548 and meaning parts of the plant "smoked, chewed, or drunk for their intoxicating or hallucinogenic properties" in 1848. The OED traces the etymology to the New Latin botanical term cannabis – proposed in 1728 and standardized in Carl Linnaeus's (1753) Species Plantarum – from an earlier Latin cannabis, coming from Greek kánnabis.

Hemp is called ganja from Sanskrit. Some scholars suggest that the ancient drug soma, mentioned in the Vedas, was cannabis, although this theory is disputed.

That Chinese connection comes from the pen-ts’ao ching, the world’s oldest pharmacopoeia. The book was a compilation of Chinese oral traditions that are 5000 years old. The text cites the plant being used for many conditions including constipation and malaria. It also notes that it has hallucinogenic qualities.

In India, cannabis was considered one of five sacred plants. It is mentioned in Judaism’s Talmud. Cannabis pollen and oil has been found in ancient Egyptian tombs of pharaohs, such as Ramses II. Greek historian Herodotus wrote that the Scythians used the plant in funereal rites in 450 B.C. A study published in the South African Journal of Science showed that "pipes dug up from the garden of Shakespeare's home in Stratford-upon-Avon contain traces of cannabis.

Illustration from the Vienna Dioscurides, 512 AD
 Arabic words at left appear to be qinnab bustani or "garden hemp"
As for the many other names given to the plant when consumed, marijuana became associated with the personal name María Juana ('Mary Jane') and is probably a folk etymology.

As a slang term "pot" came into use in America in the late 1930s. It is a shortening of the Spanish potiguaya or potaguaya that came from potación de guaya, a wine or brandy in which marijuana buds have been steeped. It literally means “the drink of grief.”

The term "reefer" for a marijuana cigarette also seems to have come from a 1930s Americanized mispronunciation of the Mexican Spanish grifa.