Box-Back Middy?!

Advisory

May 24th, 1972 marked the final documented performance by Ron “Pigpen” McKernan of the song Turn on Your Love Light (aka Lovelight) by Bobby "Blue" Bland with the Grateful Dead.  In celebration of Pigpen's contribution to the band, let's reconsider one of the funkiest mysteries of the Grateful Dead.

Submitted for the reader's approval: Factors to consider when pondering how Pigpen may have come across those famous lines he added in his version of Lovelight:

From Lovelight:

She’s got box-back nitties
Great big noble thighs,
Working undercover with her boar hog eye

))) Listen! (((


The consensus theory published in David Dodd’s wonderful Complete Annotated Grateful Dead Lyrics is that the box-back nitties probably referred to a union suit, that is, one-piece long underwear with a button hatch in the rump.  Less certain was the thought that maybe the boar hog eye was some sort of mojo charm.  There is strong evidence that there are better explanations for both terms, and a source for where Pigpen came up with the lines.

Middy not Nitty (or nitties or netty or netties)

While Pigpen sang "nitties", the original term may have been "middy", having become corrupted on its way to Pigpen, probably from being misheard in performance.

Middy facts:

Middy is a nautical term, slang for sailor. (Berry & Van Den Bark, 1953)

It originated from midshipman, a rank in the navy (Berry & Van Den Bark, 1953)

The term was considered derisive. (Noel & Beach, 1988)

Evidently, very derisive. (Partridge, 1948)

The term also came to designate a sailor's shirt/blouse. (Calasibetta & Tortoras, 2003)

Although originally a male garment, the middy came to be worn by girls. (Colcord, 1945)

Also worn by women and children.  (Ehrlich, etal, 1980)

The garment often extended below the waistline. (Mathews, 1951)

The term came to be used for the blouse around 1911.  (Barnhart, 1988)


The garment may have been the original source for the term "nitties". Here is a middy:

 

Notice the V-neck and the square sailor's collar. (Calasibetta & Tortoras, 2003).

The large collar would fall down the back of the person wearing the garment.

Middy sung in blues verse

I'd like to offer up two particular instances of the term middy used in blues verse. The first example comes from Mance Lipscomb's Shake, Shake Mama (1960):

From Shake, Shake Mama:

Whoa, like my babe, but I don’t like her teddy bear
Whoa, like my woman, but I don’t like her teddy bear
I’m gonna buy her a box-back middy to wear.

)))  Listen!  (((


Teddy Bear facts

Teddy bear refers to one-piece female sleepwear (Berry & Van Den Bark, 1953).

The term can be shortened to teddy(Calasibetta & Tortoras, 2003).

The garment had separate openings for each leg.  (Calasibetta & Tortoras, 2003).


It seems as though Mance's disapproval with the teddy might stem from it being a one-piece, and that a middy, when viewed as a nightshirt, would be considerably more accessible.

Another example of the term middy in blues verse comes from Texas Alexander's Corn Bread Blues (1927):

From Corn Bread Blues:

She wears a box-back middy, Lord and a, gamblin' stripe-ed hose
She wears a box-back middy, a gamblin' stripe-ed hose
 She's got a new way of gettin' down, you have to get low as a toad

)))  Listen!  (((


Box-back

The above lyrics included not only "middy", but also the adjective "box-back".  It seems as though the phrase "box-back" may have been used most widely in blues and jugband lyrics.

Box-back facts

Box-back describes a coat or jacket with a back that appears squared or box-like.  (Simpson & Weiner, 1989).

The term made its way into the blues idiom.  (Calt, 2009).

Perhaps the term is related to the more widely used box coat.  (Calasibetta & Tortora, 2003).


Cab Calloway (and others) sing about a box-back coat being appropriate coffin-wear in versions of St. James Infirmary Blues (1930):

From St. James Infirmary Blues:

When I die, send me my straight-legged britches,
Put on a box-back coat, and a Stetson hat,
Put a twenty dollar gold piece on my watch chain,
So you can let all the boys know I died standing pat

))) Listen! (((


Geeshie Wiley warns that being attractive might not necessarily get you a box-back suit in Over to my House (1930):

From Over to my House:

Come right on over to my house, cause there ain't nobody here but me,
I been listless for the last six months, and I could not see,
I say you need not think because you're little and cute
I'm gonna buy you a box-back suit,
Come right on over to my house, ain't nobody here but --
I'm crying -- ain't nobody here but me.

))) Listen! (((


Clara Smith laments that her beau has to trade his box-back for khakis in Uncle Sam Blues (1923):

From Uncle Sam Blues:

Uncle Sam he thought that, he was so doggone cute,
Uncle Sam he thought that, he was so doggone cute,
He took my daddy out his box-back, put him in a khak-i suit

))) Listen! (((


So, with box-back coats/suits having a role in blues verse, and with the squared collar of the middy, its not to much of a stretch to imagine the phrase box-back preceding middy in verse as well.


Bo-hog (or Boe-hog or Boar Hog)

Let's look at the bo-hog portion of the phrase bo-hog's eye:

Bo-hog facts

Bo-hog is a pronunciation of boar hog. (Cassidy & Hall, 1985).

A boar hog is a male pig. (Cassidy & Hall, 1985).

It came to mean a sort of lothario. (Calt, 2009).


Hog-eye

After discussing the phrase bo-hog, let's check out the phrase hog-eye:

Hog-eye facts

Hog-eye is slang for the most private of female parts.  (Lighter, 1994).

There is additional evidence to support this definition. (Berry & Van Den Bark, 1953).


Finally, pretend you are looking at a sleeping pig, cocking your head just so, and imagine the eyelids as labia when you look at this.

And sheep thought they had it bad!


Bo-Hog Eye

The meaning of bo-hog's eye seems to parallel that of hog's eye.  Jack Kelly and His South Memphis Jug Band use bo-hog's eye in a similar way to Pigpen in Men Fooler Blues:

From Men Fooler Blues:

She's got a little bitty foot, and uh, Lordie got them great big thighs,
She's got that little bitty foot, uh, Lordie got them great big thighs,
Well she's got somethin' under yonder, winks just like a bo-hog's eye

))) Listen! (((

Imagine if your gal could make her hog's-eye wink!


Bo-hog eye and noble thighs sung in blues verse

There are two fine examples of the phrases bo-hog eye and noble thighs sung in blues verse.  Here's a stanza from Texas Alexander's Boe Hog (1928):

From Boe Hog:

She's got little bitty legs, gee, but them noble thighs,
She's got little bitty legs, gee, but them noble thighs,
She's got somethin' under yonder, works like a bo-hog's eye.

))) Listen! (((

Compare that to Geeshie Wiley's Skinny Leg Blues (1930), sung from the female perspective:

From Skinny Leg Blues:

I got little bitty legs, gee, but these noble thighs,
I got little bitty legs, gee, but these noble thighs,
Ahhh, gee, but these noble thighs,
I got somethin' underneath, and it works like a bo-hog's eye.

))) Listen! (((

Take note that the three previous songs have the word bitty in the lyrics, which rhymes with nitty (and middy).


Lightnin' Hopkins and Texas Alexander

So now, check out Lightnin' Hopkins recounting some of the hard times his purported cousin, Texas Alexander, encountered, ostensibly due to his lyrics.  This is audio interview from a track off the Complete Prestige/Bluesville Recordings.  The track is titled I Meet Texas Alexander (1991):

From I Meet Texas Alexander:

"Hey, Texas was doin' alright for hisself, and uh,
he got to singin' them 'bad' songs,
I guess he thought its alright and,
you know, in them times, you couldn't sing a 'bad' song,
about 'box' in jukes and things,
so he sung that 'bad' song and they sent him down, see,
"Somethin' works undercover like a bo-hog's eye."
*laughs*
Yeah, yeah, and put him in the can for a while,
 but he sung on outta there, he got out,
he wasn't in there too long,
I don't think it was that - too long
Cause he come back,
but he knowed better than to sing that kinda song again."

))) Listen! (((

Under Texas' wikipedia entry, there's no mention of him doin' time for singing 'bad' songs, but there is mention of him having done a five year stretch for murdering his wife. Maybe homicide was too mundane a crime for a blues legend!

The "Smoking Gun"

So, there we have Lightnin' Hopkins discussing Texas Alexander's use of the term boar hog's-eye and his purported incarceration due to use of said term. As it turns out, this wasn't the only time Lightnin' gave an account of this story, and in this next instance, there's a bit more to the offending lyrics. Here's a portion of a transcript of an interview conducted by Mack McCormick with Lightnin' Hopkins in 1959, and published in the British magazine Jazz Journal in the January and February issues from 1961. In the back and forth of the transcript, M: indicates the interviewer, Mack McCormick, while S: indicates Lightnin' Hopkins, as his first name is Sam.

Wrap Up

Mashup Verse

So why did Lightnin' recount the phrase as he did in the interview?  Well, let's take the fact that he was speaking of his 'cousin', Texas Alexander, and the 'bad' song(s) he would sing.  Let's look at two of Texas' verses side by side, one from Corn Bread Blues and one from Boe Hog:

From Corn Bread Blues:

She wears a box-back middy, Lord and a, gamblin' stripe-ed hose
She wears a box-back middy, a gamblin' stripe-ed hose
 She's got a new way of gettin' down, you have to get low as a toad

)))  Listen!  (((


From Boe Hog:

She's got little bitty legs, gee, but them noble thighs,
She's got little bitty legs, gee, but them noble thighs,
She's got somethin' under yonder, works like a bo-hog's eye.

))) Listen! (((

So let's notice that both of these tunes are structured as typical 12-bar blues songs, notably that the second of the three lines are basically repeating the first line. Within the context of an interview, its no surprise that Lightnin' didn't bother repeating the lines. So let's eliminate one of the repeated lines in each song:

From Corn Bread Blues:

She wears a box-back middy, a gamblin' stripe-ed hose
 She's got a new way of gettin' down, you have to get low as a toad


From Boe Hog:

She's got little bitty legs, gee, but them noble thighs,
She's got somethin' under yonder, works like a bo-hog's eye.

 

Now, let's consider the underlined phrases. Notice how similarly sounding middy and bitty (or for that matter nitty) are! So let's go ahead and swap out the little bitty legs phrase for box-back middy - yielding the proto-Pigpen lines.

Proto-Pigpen lines:

She’s got box-back middy,
Gee, but them noble thighs,
She's got somethin' under yonder, works like a bo-hog's eye.

 

From here, let's swap in Lightnin's recollection of "Somethin' works undercover like a bo-hog's eye" for Texas' line "She's got somethin' under yonder, works like a bo-hog's eye", his recollection of "all them noble thighs" for "Gee, but them noble thighs", and finally, let's mangle and pluralize middy into nitties.  At this point, the lines look as they did in the interview:

Lightnin's Recollection:

She’s got box-back nitties,
All them noble thighs,
Somethin' that works undercover like a bo-hog's eye.

 

What we have at this point is something of a fractured mashup blues verse. Recall that there was no need for Lightnin' to repeat lines of twelve bar blues in the interview as he was just recollecting the lyrics, not performing the song. So if he combined the lines of Corn Bread Blues and Boe Hog, he ended up with bars 1 and 2 from the former and bars 7-12 of the latter, or basically eight bars worth of lyrics.  Pigpen could've took it from there, massaging the lines to his liking to end up with:

From Lovelight:

She’s got box-back nitties
Great big noble thighs,
Working undercover with her boar hog eye

))) Listen! (((

What's interesting about all this is that assuming Pig either read the lines out of Jazz Journal, or heard the audio of the interview somewhere, and picked up the lines, he certainly didn't know what "nitties" meant, as it seems to be a mishearing on Lightnin's part and not a real phrase. Likewise, Lightnin' doesn't offer up the meaning of bo-hog's eye either, whether or not he was just playing coy about it. So, it seems as though Pigpen may have had no more knowledge of what the phrase meant than we have had across the years. In fact, it may have been that mystery that drew him to the lines. Well, that, and the fact that according to Lightnin', they were so lewd that they were considered criminal!!!!

Other Considerations

From the second part of the interview, we can see that other factors may have contributed to what seems to be a mashed up verse. Firstly, Lightnin' recounts the pressures associated with recording, namely the amount of recording time the performers were allotted. In attempts to get their work recorded, artists may have changed songs from the way they performed them live, in order to get recorded what they valued most. Secondly, the blues, especially in those early days, was a dynamic music, and even in Lightnin's own recollection, songs would be altered 'on the fly'.


So, perhaps Texas Alexander actually sang the verse that Lightnin' recounts in the interview, at least live, on some occasions.  Or maybe, Lightnin's habit of stringing verses together and making up verse on the fly lends credence to him mashing the Texas Alexander verses together in his memory.

Maybe Pigpen picked that issue of Jazz Journal up from a table in a coffee shop in San Francisco, or maybe off of Janis' nightstand.  Maybe he heard the actual audio of the interview on PBS or somewhere else.  Did he ever meet Lightnin' Hopkins?  Could Lightnin' have recounted the story to him directly, or even suggested the lyrics to Pigpen?

Your guess is as good as mine!  Now, go listen to a fully cranked Pigpen Lovelight, already!

UPDATE: Lightnin' Hopkins and the Grateful Dead shared a billing or 10/21 & 10/22/1966 (Thanks, Edwin!).  So Pig and Lightnin' Hopkins were both in the Fillmore on the same evening.  Also, the Grateful Dead performed in Hollywood, California on 9/15/1967, and Lightnin' performed at least one set on that date at the Ash Grove in Los Angeles, that set listed as being a late show, so depending on the timing of the performances, Pig and Lightnin' could've spoken that evening as well.  Also, it has been mentioned to me by more that one individual that Pig's father was a blues DJ, but I haven't found the source for this account yet.

Aric Ahrens
May 24th, 2012

P.S.  Thanks to the folks at weeniecampbell.com, who unwittingly left the most important breadcrumbs during a forum discussion of Geeshie Wiley's lyrics several years back.


References

Barnhart, R. K. (1988) The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology, United States: The H. W. Wilson Company
Berry, L. V., & Van Den Bark, M. (1953) The American Thesaurus of Slang New York, New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company
Calasibetta, C. M. & Tortora, P. (2003) The Fairchild Dictionary of Fashion New York, New York: Fairchild Publications, Inc.
Calt, S. (2009) Barrelhouse Words: A Blues Dialect Dictionary, Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois
Cassidy, F. G. & Hall, J. H. (1985) Dictionary of American Regional English, Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press
Colcord, J. C. (1945) Sea Language Comes Ashore, New York, New York: Cornell Maritime Press
Ehrlich, E. etal. (Eds.) (1980) Oxford American Dictionary New York, New York: Oxford University Press
Lighter, J. E. (Ed.) (1994) Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, New York, New York: Random House
Mathews, M. M (ed.) (1951) A Dictionary of Americanisms: On Historical Principles, Chicago, Illinois: The University of Chicago Press
McCormick, M. (1961, January) A Conversation With Lightnin' Hopkins, Jazz Journal, 14(1), 16-18
McCormick, M. (1961, February) A Conversation With Lightnin' Hopkins (Conclusion) , Jazz Journal, 14(2), 18-19
Noel, J. V. & Beach, E. L. (1988) Naval Terms Dictionary, Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press
Partridge, E. (Ed.) (1970) A Dictionary of Force's Slang Freeport, New York: Books for Libraries Press
Simpson, J. A. & Weiner, E. S. C. (1989) The Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford, England: Clarendon Press