The Technique of Hokum
In a general sense, ‘hokum’ was a style of comedic farce, spoken, sung and spoofed, while masked in both risqué innuendo and “tomfoolery”. It is one of the many legacies and techniques of 19th century blackface Minstrelsy. Like so many other elements of the Minstrel Show, stereotypes of racial, ethnic and ‘sexual fools’ were the stock in trade of hokum. Hokum was stagecraft, gags and routines for embracing farce. In the days before ragtime, jazz, hillbilly, or the blues were clearly identified as specific genres, hokum was a component of “all around” performing, entertainment that seamlessly mixed monologues, dialogues, dances, music, and humour.
Hokum in Early Blues Music
After the First World War the fledgling record industry split hokum off from its Minstrel Show or vaudeville context to market it as a musical genre, the ‘Hokum Blues’. Early practitioners surfaced among the Memphis Tennessee jug bands. The light-hearted and humorous jug bands played good time, upbeat music on assorted instruments such as spoons, washboards, fiddles, triangles, harmonicas, and banjos, all anchored by bass notes blown across the mouth of an empty jug. Their ‘blues’ was rife with popular influences of the time, and had none of the grit and plaintive “purity” of the nearby Delta blues. Hokum blues lyrics specifically poked fun at all manner of sexual practices and preferences, and eroticized domestic arrangements. The hilariously sexy lyric content usually steered clear of subtlety.