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The Dirty Dozens

English has two great rhyming slanguages, cockney rhyming slang and the dozens, the African American insult game. We’ll leave the parsing of cockney phrases for now and examine the dirty, bawdy, and wonderful world of verbal street duels. While its origins lie in “yo’ mama” jokes, this is language meant for music, as rap and hip-hop today can attest. Here’s a taste with an excerpt from Elijah Wald’s The Dozens: A History of Rap’s Mama.

Gilda Gray, a Polish dancer and singer known as the “Queen of the Shimmy,” had set Broadway on fire that year with her blues singing, and when she was interviewed by the New York Herald she quoted the chorus of “The Dirty Dozen” as an example of the numbers she was featuring in her show. She explained that it had “a wayward sound” and added a comment that, if accurate, suggests a secondary meaning of the title: “I don’t suppose there’d be room enough to give all twelve verses.”

The Herald reporter described the song’s lyrics as “incomprehensible,” and wrote that “the singer fairly froze an atmosphere of red lights.” Indeed, Gray’s whole performance was limned in terms that accentuated its primitive sensuality. Her songs were “a form of art new to Broadway… for as the carvings of Dahomey and the totem poles of Alaska are art, crude, even repulsive tho it is at times, so the ‘blues’ are a form of art, an expression of the moods of a certain class of individuals.” The New York Sun’s Walter Kingsley similarly typed Gray’s blues as “the little songs of the wayward, the impenitent sinners, of the men and women who have lost their way in the world… the outlaws of society.”

Despite such knowing commentary, neither Gray nor the reporters seem to have been aware that “The Dirty Dozen” was connected with an insult game or referred to anything but a large, poor family. The first evidence of our kind of dozens crossing over to Euro-American pop culture is from 1921, when the pianist and composer Chris Smith published “Don’t Slip Me in the Dozen, Please” under the imprimatur of his own Smith & Morgan company. Born in 1879, Smith was touring in African American musical shows by the turn of the century and had a major national hit in 1913 with “Ballin’ the Jack,” a song based on the dance whose “vulgar contortions” the Indianapolis Freeman critic attacked. His dozens song began with a scene-setting verse that included the first printed explanation of the title phrase:

Brownie slipped Jonesie in the dozen last night
Jonesie didn’t think it was exactly right
Slipping you in the dozen means to talk about your fam’ly folks
And talkin’ ’bout your parents aren’t jokes.
Jonesie said to Brownie “Really I am surprised
If you were a man you would apologize,
If you refuse to do what I’m telling you to do
I’ll swear out a warrant for you:

It makes no diff’rence who you are
Please don’t talk about my Ma and Pa
Talk about my sister, my brother and my cousin
But please don’t slip me in the dozen.
Talk about my past or my future life
Talk about my first or my second wife,
I’m beggin’ ev’ry human on my bended knees
Don’t slip me in the dozen, please.”

By the time this song appeared, Smith had formed a partnership with the singer Henry Troy, another show business veteran who had toured England in 1905, formed an act with the composer and pianist Will Marion Cook in 1907, and in 1909 became a sideman to the most famous African American performer of that era, the musical comedian Bert Williams. It is not clear when Smith and Troy teamed up, but by the late teens they had crossed over to white vaudeville, and an ad from 1923 described them as “perhaps the best known and most popular Colored artists on the Keith circuit today.” Given the earlier mention of dirty dozens routines in black theaters, the explanatory lines in their song were presumably intended for Euro-American fans, and the sheet music was specifically targeted at that audience, showing a white singer and pianist on its cover. Smith and Troy recorded “Don’t Slip Me in the Dozen” for the Ajax record label in 1923, with Troy reciting the lyric in a mournful style reminiscent of Williams’s comic masterpiece “Nobody.” After the final chorus, he murmured: “I just can’t stand it. It’s my cup. It’s my bucket. It’s my little red wagon,” and the duo went into a skit that briefly illustrated their theme:

TROY : Look-a-here: Didn’t you say last night that my father was stung by horseflies?
SMITH : Yes, I said that, yes. What about it?
TROY : Well, I suppose you know what a horsefly is, don’t you?
SMITH : Oh, I know what a horsefly is.
TROY : What’s a horsefly?
SMITH : Why, a horsefly ain’t nothing but one of them old dirty flies what hangs ’round the stables and skips over the horses and bites the jackasses.
TROY : Hey, wait a minute! Do you mean to insinuate that my father was a jackass?
SMITH : No, no, no, no! Course I know your old man. Know him good. He’s a blacksmith. But you know, it’s kind of hard to fool them horseflies.

We are a long way from Jelly Roll Morton’s Chicago dives, and Smith and Troy’s whitewashed “Dirty Dozen” is typical of the way African American traditions have regularly been reshaped to suit mainstream commercial needs. Within a half dozen years, another “Dirty Dozen” song would make the phrase more popular than ever, but the bowdlerizing had already begun.

Elijah Wald is a musician and writer who has toured on five continents and written thousands of articles for newspapers, magazines, and album notes. His ten published books include The Dozens: A History of Rap’s Mama, Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music, and The Blues: A Very Short Introduction. He has taught blues history at UCLA and won multiple awards, including a 2002 Grammy.

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