Must I Holler? Must I Shake 'Em On Down?
February 21, 2012 10:27 PM   Subscribe

Calling Bluesologists and/or Language Historians: Want interpretations of the meaning of a song, or more specifically, a specific phrase used in that song.

The song is Shake 'Em On Down by Bukka White as re-imagined by Led Zeppelin as Hats Off To (Roy) Harper by Led Zeppelin. The lyrics are here.

I'm trying to understand the phrase "Shake 'em on Down" in the context of a 1937 Delta blues singer, owing to the original song.

I understand "shakedown" as the slang term for extortion, but I don't know whether or not that term was used in that way in that place in time? The song doesn't particularly seem to be about extortion anyway.

So if not, what did it mean? It doesn't seem like it's sexual, although I guess it could refer to masturbation. Much of the song is about his grievances with his woman, but on the other hand, at one point he invites her to join him in the shaking too:

Listen, Mama/Put on your mornin' gown
Put on your nightshirt, Mama/We gonna shake 'em on down

All of this is a verbose way to ask what "Shake 'em on down" meant back then, and there. But if you have any other non-obvious interpretations of the song as a whole I'd be interested in hearing that, too.
posted by mreleganza to Media & Arts (5 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
This paper has an interesting but not fully-fleshed theory.

Generally, if you aren't certain what a term in a blues song means, it means sex. This guy agrees.

Bukka White sings "Take off your nightshirt mama, and your gown. Maybe 'fore day we're gonna shake 'em on down" as well as other lyrics that make it quite plain he is willing to discuss the quality of his companion's jelly roll and his readiness for a helping of the same.

If you want to hear another good cover, here's Mississippi Fred McDowell singing Shake 'Em On Down as well.

He sings "Put your knees together, baby. Let your backbone move. Ain't no one in town can shake 'em down like you."

Blind Boy Fuller developed some form of sadness or depression regarding the non-monogamous actions of his lover in "I Crave My Pigmeat", where he is unhappy that she is "shakin' it" with others while he is not home. He also sang a different tune about a woman he knew who had "meat shakin' on the bone", which, legend has it, caused men to leave their homes. As this is the same guy who sang "I Want Some Of Your Pie", "Sweet Honey Hole", and "What's That Smells Like Fish", I think it's plenty of evidence that "shakin'", be it on the bone or just on down, means something rhythmic and/or feelthy.
posted by Sallyfur at 11:51 PM on February 21, 2012 [15 favorites]

(just a guess here)
In the context of Do You Love Me? by The Contours, it means dancing.
posted by esmerelda_jenkins at 11:57 PM on February 21, 2012

Yeah, what Sallyfur said. If there is any way possible that blues lyrics can be interpreted as sexual innuendo, then that's what they were talking about. This goes hand-in-hand with the fact that the single-most common topic of blues lyrics is sex.
posted by anansi at 3:37 AM on February 22, 2012

Anytime somebody is shaking something in a song, it means they're dancing. Anytime somebody is dancing in a song, it's a metaphor for sex. Truly.
posted by milk white peacock at 7:31 AM on February 22, 2012

Old blues lyric not explicitly and clearly about something specific = sex.

Old blues lyric explicitly and clearly about something specific = sex.
posted by cmoj at 12:11 PM on February 22, 2012

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