The Greek philosopher Plato wrote, “Forms and rhythms in music are never altered without producing changes in the entire fabric of society.” He also said, “No evil can happen to a good man, either in life or after death,” so it’s better that we stick with his take on music. In twentieth-century America, ragtime, jazz, rock, and later punk and rap, all bristled against the accepted music of their times. Although the earliest indictments of these genres were aimed primarily at the music itself, it was not really until the 1950s that songs were being banned for their lyrical content. This content, though, was generally regarded for its subject matter and not necessarily for the language used in expressing the ideas. This is to say that although the songs were deemed vulgar or subversive, actual profanity—or “sweary” language, if you will—was still a rare bird. However anyone swore in real life, cussing, cursing, or just “potty-mouth talk” did not really begin to make its way into the recording booth until the late 1960s.
For example, the 1950s saw the birth of rock ’n’ roll. From its outset, rock was deemed rebellious, savage, and even ungodly. Just the mention of the term rock ’n’ roll provoked controversy because it was thought to imply the sexual act. As rock began to heat up, it was met with verbal assaults of it being “cannibalistic and tribalistic,” as well as a dangerous communicable disease with music appealing to adolescent insecurity that drove teenagers to do outlandish things. Try as you might, the closest you will probably get to finding actual swear words in popular songs written in the 50s would be in suggestive references in the song like Dave Bartholomew’s “My Ding-a-Ling,” which was later made into a hit by Chuck Berry.
While there were many more less discreet songs out there, they were rarely heard on air. Nobody would dispute the “copulatin’” nature of songs like “New Rubbin’ on That Darned Old Thing” by Oscar’s Chicago Swingers, “Shave ’Em Dry” by Lucille Bogan, or “Hot Nuts” and “Buck Naked Blues” by Lil Johnson, but they were usually on sale as “party records” not meant for radio play. One song that may have started out as a raunchy tune in clubs, but underwent bowdlerizing when it was published and recorded was “Hesitation Blues.” One version was published by Billy Smythe, Scott Middleton, and Art Gillham. Another was published by W.C. Handy as “Hesitating Blues.” Because the tune is traditional, many artists have taken credit as writer, frequently adapting the lyrics of one of the two published versions. Adaptations of the lyrics vary widely, though typically the refrain is recognizably consistent. The song is a jug band standard and is also played as blues and sometimes as Western swing. It’s been covered by such artists a Janis Joplin, Dave van Ronk, Willie Nelson, and Hot Tuna, among many, many others. The lyrics span from the mildly suggestive to the direct. This is a verse from the Art Gilliam:
I’ve got “ham” in my name, I might be awful dum.
But I’ve got more ideas of loving, than Wrigley has gum.
How long, how long I have to wait?
Can I get you now, must I hesitate?
And here’s one from Jelly Roll Morton:
She said, “Touch my bonnet, touch my shawl,
Do not touch my waterfall,”
Oh, how long do I have to wait?
Yes, if I get you now – won’t have to hesitate.
In a recording by Morton, however, when he comes to a particular verse, he indeed hesitates to sing it:
There’s a girl sittin’ on the stump,
I know, I know she’s on the stump,
Just for how long – This is a dirty little verse – ah, do I wait,
Couldn’t say that – Say it – [laughter] – Oh, it can be dirty – Don’t mind me
Can you get you now – do I have to hesitate?
Meanwhile, verses from this unattributed version don’t beat around the bush—or maybe they do:
Woman got a pussy that can cut you to the bone,
You can fuck it, you can suck it, you can leave it alone,
Tell me how long must I wait,
Can I get it now, or must I hesitate?
I’m comin’ in your pussy, I comin’ in your can,
If you don’t hurry up, ‘I’m comin’ in your hand,
Tell me how long must I wait,
Can I get it now, or must I hesitate?
Although censorship has hounded the music business throughout the last century, out-and-out swearing has been mostly relegated to later rock and rap, and, therefore, to a very select, and generally younger, audience. True, the Dominoes shocked mainstream audiences with their 1951 song “Sixty Minute Man,” but the lyrics, while anything but modest, still steered clear of direct profanity: “There’ll be fifteen minutes of kissin’, then you’ll holler, ‘please don’t stop.’ There’ll be fifteen minutes of teasin’, and fifteen minutes of pleasin’, and fifteen minutes of blowin’ my top.” Nevertheless, it’s hardly as blatant as Prince declaring “We can fuck until the dawn” in “Erotic City,” or “Let’s Get Buck Naked and Fuck” by Ice-T.
Other songs and songwriters had been banned not for what they said, but for what they might have said. In 1968, radio stations in El Paso, Texas, banned all Bob Dylan records because they couldn’t make out the words and thought “he might just be saying something that they don’t like.” Perhaps the most famous example of this was the 1963 song “Louie Louie” by the Kingsmen. The lyrics were so difficult to understand that the FBI was asked to investigate for obscenities. No lyrics were ever officially published, and after two years of investigation, the FBI concluded that they were unintelligible. Still, the censors were more likely looking for subversive or sexual content rather than specific profanity. Nobody was crossing that line—yet.
Swearing is universal, and the reasons—or excuses—for it are as diverse as are the very words and phrases that we have all come to know, love, or damn. Nevertheless, until comparatively recently, broadcasting so-called dirty words over the air and dropping the “F-bomb” in polite, public conversation were apt to shock people, but that has all been dramatically changing right before our eyes—and ears. And so it is with musical lyrics. Just as vice presidents telling senators to “fuck” themselves a few decades ago would have been unheard of—or just unheard in public—Cee Lo Green’s “Fuck You” would have been as unimaginable as a demagogic billionaire convincing millions of Americans he should be president.
Finally, while we will never know where the word cocktail actually comes from, who was Jack the Ripper, or where all of your lost socks have gone, so, too, may we never learn who dropped the first F-bomb in a song. Thus far, credit goes to the super clean-cut American pianist Eddy Duchin. His 1938 cover of Louis Armstrong’s “Old Man Moses,” with Patricia Norman on vocals, caused a scandal for its wink-wink use of innuendo. The lyric “bucket” was heard as “fuck it,” and it is commonly thought to be the first use of the F-word in popular music. Of course, we hear what we want to hear sometimes. Did John Lennon mumble, “I buried Paul” at the end of “Strawberry Fields Forever,” or, as Lennon maintained in interviews, the phrase was actually “cranberry sauce”? And would anyone reading this even blink an eye if you heard the words “fuck it” in a song today? Cranberry sauce!