lyrical confusion
March 15, 2005 5:38 PM   Subscribe

I don't understand the lyrics of a Billie Holiday song and a Robert Johnson song.

In "I Love my Man" Billie Holiday sings

My man wouldn't give me no breakfast
Wouldn't give me no dinner
squawked about my supper
Then he put me outdoors
Heaven erred to late
A matchbox on my clothes
I didn't have so many
But I had a long long ways to go

It's the matchbox line that confuses me. I've always assumed that the line meant he put her possessions on the street and lit them on fire but that doesn't seem to be what she's saying. What does this mean?

Also in "Kind Hearted Woman" Mr. Johnson sings "...She's a kind hearted woman/She studies evil all the time..." Huh? The song seems to praise a good woman but what the hell does the she studies evil all the time line supposed to mean?
posted by rdr to Writing & Language (12 answers total)
Best answer: This looks like a good explanation for the matchbox.

As for studying evil:
Perhaps it's some Augustinian reference? You cannot truly be good without knowing evil well.
posted by zerokey at 5:48 PM on March 15, 2005

Studying evil is not necessarily a bad thing when you're Robert Johnson.

Basically, it is a sidelong reference to the study of witchcraft or voodoo, though not necessarily that formal. You'll find references to the Devil, hellhounds and all manner of wickedness throughout Johnson's work, so it is only natural that he'd seek out the company of a like-minded woman, no?

Alternately, she might be studying evil so she might avoid it.

But I doubt it.
posted by grabbingsand at 5:51 PM on March 15, 2005

I'm guessing the "studies evil" refers to sex in some fashion.
posted by edgeways at 5:51 PM on March 15, 2005

I recall vaguely that "studying evil" is an old-fashioned/regional expression for attempting to avoid evil, as grabbingsand mentioned. I know this isn't particularly helpful, but perhaps I am sparking the memories of another AskMeFite? Any southerners out there?
posted by Rock Steady at 6:04 PM on March 15, 2005

I always heard the lyrics as

She's a kind-hearted woman
But she study evil all the time

It's the "but" in there that made it make sense to me.
posted by Savannah at 6:49 PM on March 15, 2005

Well, I'm a southerner and I can't recall ever having heard a phrase along the lines of "studying evil." Indeed, the only colloquial use of the word "study" that comes to mind is, god help me, Jed Clampett's: of a particular problem or decision, he'd say "I been studyin' on it."

I should note, of course, that, while I'm pretty familiar with white southern culture, I don't know a heck of a lot about black southern culture. In this respect, I'd say I'm still reaping the "benefits" of segregation.
posted by Clay201 at 7:51 PM on March 15, 2005

I second edgeways. She's kind because she studies evil/sex (aka, she knows how to be sexy and will sleep with said bluesman in a most enthusiastic fashion). She liquors him up and won't let him sleep she's so evil/sex'd!
posted by robocop is bleeding at 7:58 PM on March 15, 2005

I know a woman in her late 70s, from Louisiana, who uses "study" in the way Clay201 mentions: meaning "to think or wonder about." "I'm studyin' why she done that" is a common one. She'll even use it without a direct object: "I'm just sittin' here studyin'" if someone asks her a question bringing her out of her reverie. I don't know how common this expression is; I've only ever heard it from her & wonder if it's most common among southerners born in the 1920s or earlier.
posted by Tuwa at 8:39 PM on March 15, 2005

I'm trying to reconcile this usage of "study" with the well known African-American song "Down by The Riverside" -- in this case 'study" seems to imply "practice"

i'm gonna lay down my sword and shield
down by the riverside
down by the riverside
down by the riverside
i'm gonna lay down my sword and shield
down by the riverside
study war no more

i aint gonna study war no more
I aint gonna study war no more
posted by Rumple at 8:58 PM on March 15, 2005

Best answer: Dan parses the Blues.

Billie: First, you realize that Heaven erred to late is a mondegreen for Had the nerve to lay, right? That might help.

That said, I don't like the "size" explanation given in that page on the matchbox. In prewar days, a matchbox would have been essential equipment for anyone thrown out with no money, no place nearby to go and nothing but the clothes they could carry, because with matches you could build a fire. To me the verse conjures up an image of the man throwing her clothes on the porch and, to add insult to injury, a token matchbox on the pile, to indicate that he damned well knew she'd be out in the rain. The final kiss-off, you could say.

(Another lyric transcription says she sings
Had the dark clay make black spots on my clothes
which seems to indicate they were thrown on the ground. I think this, too, is a mondegreen; but there's a tradition of varying blues lyrics.)

Robert Johnson: This is the lyric I'll use to comment:
Kind Hearted Woman Blues

According to the records, this is the very first recording made by Robert Johnson, on 23 November 1936 in a hotel room in San Antonio, Texas.

I got a kindhearted woman, do anything in this world for me
I got a kindhearted woman, do anything in this world for me
But these evilhearted women, man, they will not let me be

I love my baby, my baby don't love me
I love my baby oooh, my baby don't love me
I really love that woman, can't stand to leave her be

There ain't but one thing, makes Mr. Johnson drink,
I's worried 'bout how you treat me, baby, I begin to think
Oh, babe, my life don't feel the same
You breaks my heart, when you call Mr. So and So's name

She's a kindhearted woman, she studies evil all the time
She's a kindhearted woman, she studies evil all the time
You well's to kill me, as to have it on your mind

To me, this reads of a man contemplating the duality of the madonna-whore complex, without resolution. He knows this is simplistic, yet it troubles him that the "kind-hearted woman" of his ideals "studies evil", i.e. has thoughts of playing relationship games or cheating. "You well's to kill me, as to have it on your mind" shows he doesn't want to believe that even his kind-hearted girl could have thoughts of anything but love for him. Because, of course, the kind-hearted and evil-hearted women are one and the same.

Study War No More spiritual: Rumple, it's from Isaiah 2:4. In KJV the phrase is "neither shall they learn war any more" but in at least some English versions it was "study".
posted by dhartung at 10:42 PM on March 15, 2005

I'm with zerokey... There was also a Carl Perkins song called Matchbox, with these lyrics:

Well I'm sitting here wondering, will a matchbox hold my clothes
Yeah I'm sitting here wondering, will a matchbox hold my clothes
I ain't got no matches, but I got a long way to go
I'm an ol' poor boy and a long way from home
I'm an ol' poor boy and a long way from home
Guess I'll never be happy, eveything I do is wrong, yeah

There are other songs with these lyrics as well that I found at this link

Interestingly there was a thread last week about the Dylan-Cash sessions last week. They covered Carl Perkins Matchbox in it.
posted by poppo at 5:38 AM on March 16, 2005

Excellent analysis dhartung. It makes sense and fits in with the rest of the themes in other songs by Billie and Robert Johnson. You also appear to have the correct lyric by Billie; at least that is how I have always heard it. I never trust internet lyric pages. One guy puts up the lyrics and everybody else copies his mistakes. Just go look up the lyrics for Pearl Jam's Yellow Ledbetter. They do not appear to match any version I have, yet every site seems to have the exact same lyrics. Who knows what the real ones are, they seem to change a bit with every performance and Eddie Vedder practically mumbles them. This little video of Yellow Ledbetter with the "real lyrics" points up the futility of such an exercise sometimes. Oh well, I digress. Good analysis.
posted by caddis at 6:53 AM on March 16, 2005

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