Shave 'Em Dry SHAVE 'EM DRY

by Paul Oliver
from Screening The Blues: Aspects Of The Blues Tradition (Da Capo Press, 1968)

Sometimes sung by women, "Sweet Patunia" with its reference to female genitalia, was primarily a man's song. "Shave 'Em Dry", on the other hand, seems to have been favored by women though a number of men also sang it on record. As a term "shave 'em dry" appears to have layers of meaning; at one level it refers to mean and aggressive action but as a sexual theme it refers to intercourse without preliminary love-making. Big Bill Broonzy put it succinctly: "Shave 'em dry is what you call makin' it with a woman; you ain't doin' nothin', just makin' it." [1] The implications of "shavin' 'em dry" were of pubic contact and therefore applicable to either sex. Gertrude Ma Rainey, the singer often termed the "Mother of the Blues", recorded the first version of the song. Though he made no reference to its meaning or content, Rudi Blesh commented upon its importance as an archaic eight-bar blues which was "complete, harmonically and poetically". Considering it as a blues rather than as a traditional blues song he added that "no matter how late in blues history it was recorded, this record is of great importance, since it indicates a very early stage of development." [2] It is likely that it not only preceded blues but had an independent life, one of the many songs much liked by blues singers and containing blues sentiments though not strictly blues in itself. Ma Rainey, as a minstrel and tent-show singer, drew from varied sources for her material and "Shave' Em Dry" was probably in her repertoire since her earliest professional years. With her relaxed, strong voice she sang the words and half-hollered the refrain line:

There's one thing I don't understand,
Why a good-Iookin' woman loves a workin' man,
Eeh, hey, daddy won't you shave 'em dry?

Goin' 'way to wear you off my mind,
You keeps me broke and hungry, daddy all the time,
Eeeh, hey, daddy let me shave 'em dry.

Don't see how you hungry women can sleep,
Shimmies all day without a bite to eat,
Eeh, hey, daddy let me shave 'em dry.

Goin' downtown to spread the news,
State Street women wearing brogan shoes,
Hey, hey, daddy let me shave 'em dry.

If it wasn't for their powder and sto' bought hair,
State Street gals couldn't go nowhere,
Eeh, hey, daddy let me shave 'em dry.

There's one thing I don't understand,
Some women walkin' State Street like a man,
Eeh, hey, hey, daddy let me shave 'em dry.

Went to the show the other night,
Everybody on State Street tryin' to fight,
Eeh, hey, daddy let me shave 'em dry.

Ain't crazy 'bout my yeller, I ain't wild about my brown,
Makes no difference when the sun goes down,
Eeh, hey, daddy won't you shave 'em dry.

When you see two women runnin' hand in han',
You can bet your life they got the other one's man,
Eeh, hey, hey, daddy let me shave 'em dry.

Don't let that man come in my home,
If his wife is here I don't mean no harm,
Eeh, hey, daddy let me shave 'em dry. [3]

Though the accompaniment is given by Blesh as two guitars and elsewhere as by one, the instrument appears to be a banjo which could very well be played by Papa Charlie Jackson. Jackson's own recording career under his own name commenced just at this time -- his first record, "Airy Man Blues", was issued when Ma Rainey's "Shave 'Em Dry" appeared -- and it is possible that he learned the song from her, or even taught it to her. His own version was not recorded for another year but, when it appeared in 1925, it was very similar. Charlie Jackson sang to a fast banjo accompaniment and his verses were in most instances identical with just one or two changes:

Now here's one thing I can't understand,
Why a bow-legged woman likes a knock-kneed man,
Mama can I holler, daddy let me shave 'em dry.

Why don't you run here mama, lay back in my arms,
If your man catches you I don't mean no harm,
Mama let me holler, daddy let me shave 'em dry. [4]

In neither recording is there more than a hint of the bawdy song which was in the folk tradition but the suggestions of lesbianism -- "State Street women wearing brogan shoes" and "some women walkin' State Street like a man" coupled with her final verse -- gave a tougher undertone to Ma Rainey's song. Papa Charlie's first verse would have been more pithy if he had kept to the customary form of "I can't understand why a knock-kneed woman likes a bow-legged man", but it is clear that both songs derive from the same source. A barrelhouse singer from Louisiana, James "Boodle-It" Wiggins, recorded a different "Gotta Shave 'Em Dry" with longer verses bellowed with little melodic line until the cadence preceding the refrain line. His heavy, megaphonic voice is difficult to understand above the inadequacies of the Paramount recording but the strength of the song projects forcefully, with its.boogie accompaniment by the pianist, Charlie Spand:

If you be my sweet woman tell you what I'm gonna do,
Gonna beg, borrow an' steal, bring all my money home to you,
Babe, now do let me when I call yer, I done swear when your duty comes,
You know hot spring water gonna help yer, you know when I'm gonna run,
Oh now, sweet mama, your daddy gotta shave 'em dry.

Now don't never let nobody tell you what my baby done to me,
She done made me crazy 'bout her, now she done quit poor me,
Sweet woman I ain't gonna stand no quittin', ain't gonna stand no jumpin' down,

Before I let you quit me baby I'm gonna burn Chicago down,
Oh now I holler sweet mama, your daddy gotta shave 'em dry.

No use to callin' me baby when I'm way down in France,
When you begin one of these you know I ain't a possible chance,
You get your crowin' from a rooster, get your eggs from a wren,
You get your feathers from a runner, you get your music from a wren,
You know I holler sweet mama, your daddy gotta shave' em dry.

Now mama, li'l mama what's on your runnin' mind?
Every time you sell people tickets you know somebody's ridin' your blind,
And it's mmm ... have mercy, Lord watch you when you run,
You know if I keep on worryin' 'bout you baby, you know I can't last long,
You know I'm gonna holler sweet mama, your daddy's gonna shave 'em dry. [5]

Some years after, in November 1936, Lil Johnson cut a "New Shave' Em Dry" with a small group that included Alfred Bell, known as "Mister Sheiks", on trumpet and Black Bob on piano. Her lighter voice and greater feeling for melody made more of a song of the theme but it is clear that her "New Shave 'Em Dry" was related to the tune used by Boodle-It Wiggins:

I want all you pimps and ramblers to gather round,
While I give you the first lowdown,
About a certain woman, I don't call her name,
But she's round here "whoopy-doopin'" with her mama's man,
Now must I holler? No, I'm gonna shave 'em dry.

She goes to bed every night and sleeps to twelve,
Gets up and goes, takes off to Nell's.
Now what she's doin' I cain't understand,
All the neighbours say she's with her mama's man,
Now must I holler? No, I'm gonna shave 'em dry.

Now she's the kind that don't pick 'em, she'll take 'em any style,
If they don't drum enough to fall for her jive,
A dollar is a dollar and in God we trust,
You all right with her but your dollars come first,
Now must I holler? No, I'm gonna shave 'em dry.

Now if you want somethin' good and want it cheap,
You can go down on Eighteenth Street,
Step right in with your money in your hand,
You can get it any way you want it then,
Now must I holler? No, I'm gonna shave 'em dry.

I'm gonna tell you-all women and to please understand,
Don't start no 3-6-9 with my man,
'Cause if you do it'll surely go wrong,
I got a 44 that'll put your waters on,
Now must I holler? No, I'll shave you dry. [6]

Part of Lil Johnson's song is "signifying" or making slanderous accusations, generally of a sexual nature. But it changes to a more positive statement about the tenderloin and concludes with an assertive verse in which she proclaims her own "mean" character. It is of considerable interest that the aggressive strength of Negro women features prominently in the blues and in blues songs. To a certain extent this reflects the dependence of the Negro family on the mother for its cohesion. Negro women are often depicted in the blues with Amazonian toughness and Junoesque build; their virtuosity in sexual practices, their capacity and prowess is extolled repeatedly. But many blues and blues songs which had a brothel circulation project the prostitute's image of herself with arrogant pride. Franklin Frazier quoted a monologue from a woman in Harlem whose narration of her own history and character corresponds with that projected in the blues songs: "I don't go in for everything like most of these frowsies. I'm a straight broad. If they can't be natural I don't play no tricks. None of that freak stuff for me. I don't play the streets -- I mean I don't lay every pair of pants that comes along. I look 'em over first. I'm strictly a Packard broad. I only grab a drunk if he looks like his pockets are loaded with dough. If they get rough my man [pimp] kicks 'em out. When they're drunk they shoot the works. I've gotten over two hundred dollars, so help me, the bastard didn't even touch me. He got happy just looking at me. Boy! This shape of mine gets 'em every time. ..." [7]

Something of the same spirit was evident in Lucille Bogan's "Shave 'Em Dry", issued under her alternative recording name of Bessie Jackson. Her pianist, Walter Roland, provided a walking bass to her song which commenced with a warning:

All you keg women, you better put on the wall,
'Cause I'm gonna get drunk and do my dirty talk,
The monkey and the baboon playin' in the grass,
Well the monkey got mad and whipped his yas, yas, yas,
Talkin' 'bout shave 'em, mama's gonna shave 'em dry,
And if you don't know, mama's gonna learn you how.

You know a elephant he's big and stout,
He would be all right if it weren't for his snout,
Talkin' 'bout shave 'em, mama's gonna shave 'em dry,
And if you don't know, mama's gonna learn you how.

I ain't rough, I ain't tough,.
I'm just a stomp-down roller and I like to strut my stuff,
Talkin' 'bout shave 'em etc.

I met a man lived down the way,
He had so much money until I had to stay,
Talkin' 'bout shave 'em etc.

If you meet your man an' he tell you a lie,
Just pull out your razor and shave him dry,
Talkin' 'bout shave 'em, mama's gonna shave him dry,
'Cause I don't want no man to tell me no dirty lie. [8]

On commercially issued recordings these are probably the closest one is likely to come to the song of a "stomp-down roller" and they give only a faint impression of the unbowdlerized "Shave' Ein Dry". A test pressing of another recording of the song by Lucille Bogan, again with Walter Roland accompanying and calling out words of encouragement, alters the picture considerably. Here is a woman who really does let fly with her "dirty talk'"; who whoops and hollers, brags and swaggers her way through a whorehouse song, even expresses her contempt of the recording studio in the process:

I got nipples on my titties big as the end of my thumb,
I got somethin' 'tween my legs 'll make a dead man come,
Oooh daddy-baby, won't you shave 'em dry, oooh!
Won't you grind me baby, grind me till I cry.

Say I fucked all night and all the night before, baby,
And I feel just like I want to fuck some more,
Ooh, babe, goddamn daddy, grind me honey, shave 'em dry,
And when you hear me yowl baby, want you to shave 'em dry.

I got nipples on my titties big as the end of my thumb,
And daddy you can have 'em any time you want and you can make 'em come.
Oooh daddy, shave 'em dry,
And I can give you some baby, swear it'll make you cry.

I will turn back my mattress and let you oil my springs,
I want you to grind me daddy till the bells do ring,
Ooh daddy, want you to shave 'em dry.,
Oh pray God daddy, shave 'em baby, won't you try?

Now fuckin's one thing that'll take me to Hell,
I'll be fuckin' in the studio just to fuck that to leather,
Oooh, daddy, daddy shave 'em dry,
I would fuck you baby, honey I would make you cry.

Now your nuts hangs down like a damn bell-clapper,
And your stick stands up like a steeple,
Your goddamn asshole's open like a church door,
And the crabs walks in like the people,
Oooh baby, won't you shave 'em dry. ...

A big sow gets fat from eatin' corn,
And the pig gets fat from suckin',
Reason this whore got like, I am,
Great God I got fat from fuckin',
Whee ... tell 'em about me! Fuck it!

My back is made of whalebone and my cock is made of brass,
And my fuckin's made for workin' men, two dollars round to fit my ass,
Oooh daddy, shave 'em dry. [9]

1. Big Bill Broonzy, interview with Paul Oliver, spring 1955.
2. Rudi Blesh, Shining Trumpets, Cassell 1949, p. 126.
3. Ma Rainey, "Shave 'Em Dry", c. August 1924, Paramount 12222.
4. Papa Charlie Jackson, "Shave 'Em Dry", February 1925, Paramount 12264.
5. James Boodle-It Wiggins, "Gotta Shave 'Em Dry", January 1930, Paramount 12916.
6. Lil Johnson, "New Shave 'Em Dry", 19 November 1936, Vocalion 13428, CBS (M) 63288.
7. E. Franklin Frazier, The Negro Family In The United States, Dryden Press New York, 1951, pp. 221-2.
8. Lucille Bogan, "Shave 'Em Dry", 5 March 1935, Perfect 0332.
9. Lucille Bogan, "Shave 'Em Dry", probably same or near date as above, unissued test pressing, CBS (M) 63288.