From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
- This article refers to a particular song type of American blues music, and a comedic style prevalent in blues and country music. For other use, see hokum (disambiguation)
The term hokum is most readily recognizable in the modern United States as a euphemism for "bullshit" (ex. "That's a lot of hokum"). "Hokum" is also used as another term for kitsch. Compare also the common misuse of the word "hokum" interchangeably with the slang expression "hokey", meaning mawkish, maudlin or fake, as in a hoax. A commonly accepted derivation is that "hokum" is a compound of "hooey" meaning senseless talk and "bunkum" meaning nonsense.
Hokum is a particular song type of American blues music - a humorous song which uses extended analogies or euphemistic terms to make sexual innuendos. This trope goes back to early blues recordings, and is seen from time to time in modern American blues and blues-rock.
An example of hokum lyrics is this sample from Meat Balls, by Lil Johnson, recorded about 1937,
- "Got out late last night, in the rain and sleet
- Tryin' to find a butcher that grind my meat
- Yes I'm lookin' for a butcher
- He must be long and tall
- If he want to grind my meat
- 'Cause I'm wild about my meat balls."
The Legacy of Hokum
Although the sexual content of hokum is generally playful by modern standards, early recordings were marginalized for both sexual "suggestiveness" and "trashy" appeal, but still flourished in niche markets outside the mainstream. "Jim Crow" segregation was still the norm in much of the United States, and racial, ethnic and class bias was embedded in the popular entertainment of the time. Prurience was seen as more antisocial than prejudice. Record companies were more concerned about selling records than stigmatizing artists and minority audiences. Modern audiences might be offended by the packaged exploitation these stock caricatures offered, but in early 20th century America, it paid for performers to play the fool. Audiences were left on their own to interpret whether they themselves were sharing the joke or were the butts of it. While "race" musicians traded in "coon songs" crafted for commercial consumption by catering to White prejudice, "hillbilly" musicians were similarly marketed as "rubes" and "hayseeds". Class distinctions bolstered these portrayals of gullible rural folk and witless southerners. Assimilation of African Americans and appropriation of their artistic and cultural creations were not yet equated by the emerging entertainment industry with racism and bigotry.
The eventual success of African American musical productions on Broadway like Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle's "Shuffle Along" in 1921, helped to usher in the Swing Jazz era. This was accompanied by a new sense of sophistication that eventually disdained hokum as backward, insipid, and perhaps most damningly, corny. Audiences began to change their perceptions of authentic "Negro" artistry. White comedians like Frank Tinney and singers like Eddie Cantor (nicknamed "Banjo Eyes") continued to work successfully in blackface on Broadway. They even branched out into vaudeville-based sensations like the Ziegfeld Follies and the emerging film industry, but cross racial comedy became increasingly out of fashion, especially onstage. On the other hand, it is impossible to imagine that the success of comics such as Pigmeat Markham or Damon Wayans, or bandleaders like Cab Calloway or Louis Jordan does not owe some debt to hokum. White performers have thoroughly absorbed the lessons of hokum as well, with the "top banana" Harry Steppe, singers like Louis Prima and Leon Redbone or comedian Jeff Foxworthy being prime examples. Offstage it is by no means extinct either, or only practiced by members of one race parodying another race. The Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, a New Orleans Mardi Gras krewe has marched on Fat Tuesday since 1900 dressed in raggedy clothes and grass skirts with their faces blackened. Zulu is now the largest predominantly African American organization marching in the annual Carnival celebration. While the Minstrel Show, burlesque, vaudeville, variety, and the medicine show have left the scene, hokum is still here.
Rural stereotypes continued to be fair game. Consider the phenomenal success of the syndicated television program "Hee Haw", which was produced from 1969 until 1992. Writer Dale Cockrell has called this a minstrel show in "rube-face". It featured country music stars, curvaceous comediennes, and banjo playing bumpkins whose pickin' and grinnin' picked on city slickers and grinned at the buxom All Jugs Band. The rapid fire one liners, Laugh-In rapid cross cutting, animations of barnyard animals, hayseed humor and continuous parade of country, bluegrass, and gospel performers appealed to an untapped demographic that was older and more rural than the young, urban "hip" audience broadcasters were routinely cultivating. It is still in syndication today, and is one of the most successful syndicated programs ever. Admirers of hokum warmed to its slyness and the seeming innocence that provided a context for simplistic shenanigans. In the rural south in particular, hokum held on. Cast members like Stringbean and Grandpa Jones were quite familiar with hokum (and blackface as well), and if bands named the "Clodhoppers" or the "Cut Ups" and other country cousins of this comedic form are fewer in number today, their presence is still a clue to the country and western, bluegrass, and string band tradition of mixing stage antics, broad parodies and sexual allusions with music.