SHANE’S EXCELLENT NEW WORDS: Clara Smith, Mr. Mitchell and the hazy etymology of poontang.


Before proceeding with this week’s controversial R-rated content, allow me to dispense with a wee bit of housekeeping.

From the advent of this column a little over a year ago, I’ve richly enjoyed roasting its namesake with relentless weekly rhetoric.

“Shane’s Excellent New Words” also will be a regular feature at NA Confidential. That’s because a healthy vocabulary isn’t about trying to show you’re smarter than the rest. To the contrary, it’s about selecting the right word and using it correctly, whatever one’s pay grade or station in life.

To clarify for those who haven’t heard the story, the idea for this column arose when the city of New Albany’s corporate council tweeted (or maybe it was a Facebook comment) to the effect that when Roger uses “big” words, it’s just to show he’s smarter then the rest.

Nah, but consider the source.

Anyway, I’ve grown bored (not board, mind you) with the device, so while the column name stays, the weekly prelude goes.

Let’s get to the task of figuring out what exactly Clara Smith was talking about back in 1929 in a song called “Oh, Mr. Mitchell.”

Yes, you heard it right.

Oh, oh, Mr. Mitchell, I’m crazy about your sweet poontang.
Oh, oh, Mr. Mitchell, I’ll tell the world that it’s a wang.

If you’ve heard “Brown Sugar” by the Rolling Stones, you’re already aware of the long (and often tasteless) history of sexual euphemisms in popular music. Many such usages date to a time when it was necessary to be creative to evade puritanical restrictions on speech.

Like this one, from 1927:

And this, from the early 1920s:

Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe liked the purported pastry terminology so much that it became his stage name: Jelly Roll Morton.

At the age of fourteen, Morton began working as a piano player in a brothel (or, as it was referred to then, a sporting house). In that atmosphere, he often sang smutty lyrics; he took the nickname “Jelly Roll”, which was African American slang for female genitalia. While working there, he was living with his religious, church-going great-grandmother; he had her convinced that he worked as a night watchman in a barrel factory.

My exposure to these ribald concepts dates to the very early 1970s, courtesy of the New Albany-Floyd County Public Library. The song “Oh, Mr. Mitchell” was included on the tremendous 1960s-vintage three-LP compilation called “Jazz Odyssey, Vol. 3: The Sound of Harlem.”

Along with companion sets featuring music from Chicago and New Orleans, these Harlem recordings were a staple of my listening at the tender age of roughly twelve, as copied onto cassette after borrowing the album from the library. Repeated listenings those many years ago have left indelible imprints on what little remains intact in my noggin.

Never in all this time — well, since 1977 — has it made sense to me that a woman should be singing about a man’s sweet poontang.

Why 1977? Because, Ted Nugent.

Was the Motor City Madman listening to Clara, too? At this juncture, I was 17 and capable of grasping the meaning, which was baffling at least in part owing to the usage in the song from 1927 … which none of my friends had ever heard.

These deep questions suddenly occurred to me two weeks ago, and it was quickly revealed that someone’s gotten there first, for the very same reason, and conducted research.

What I Know About Poontang

It began as my dad drove me home. He played a tape given to him by a friend, a scratchy recording of a woman crooning, “Oh, Mister Mitchell, I’m crazy ’bout your sweet poontang.”

Though supposedly referring to a dessert Mister Mitchell has baked, Dad and I knew there was a double entendre at play. But one that confused us. We’d known “poontang” to be a slang vulgarism for “vagina.” But here was a woman singing about a man’s poontang. What could that mean? Which lead me to wonder, What’s the etymology of “poontang”? For some reason I had suspected African origin, as with the word “goober” …

Unfortunately, the author’s research was inconclusive. There are several likely candidates for the origin of the word poontang, but still nothing to explain why it’s something “a man has” in the 1927 song, when otherwise associated with a woman.

Have I mentioned that derive a great deal of pleasure from words and music?