I struck funk in the rock business. Little Feat’s third album, Dixie Chicken, was white funk, which was a new thing back then when freshly-released in 1973. What had been a sort of white Texas/Hollywood country/psycho/acid rock ensemble had suddenly got infected by New Orleans in the form of the great Allen Toussaint, who is black. Sam Clayton, the Feats' new god-shaped black conga-playing bass singer in the white bib overalls and the afro and nothing else didn’t help much either.
I remember thinking then that I would eventually get used to having this new word in my mouth. It was indeed a newly-emerging word in Australia. Musically, it indicated an appellation somewhere out there between the delta bayou and the Chicago blues, between Professor Longhair and the Parliament-Funkadelic collective.
The Feat were foremost amongst the white boys to up and go the get downs, and sacrifice a little craftily-artificed melody for that repetitive soulful locomotive shuffle that in the mouths of more commercial opportunists quickly led to way high camp deep groove disco. Soon there grew a vast, unjumpable politico-philosophical gap between the slow, determined chug-a-lug of Little Feat, Tower of Power and The Meters et al and the frenetic disco delirium of Love To Love You Baby, or the chill junked-out thump of Esther Phillips with Joe Beck. But whatever happened, down in the guts of that gully the funk oozed like treacle.
Earl Palmer gets the blame for introducing the word funky to contemporary music. He played drums for everyone from Little Richard to Tom Waits via Professor Longhair and Fats Domino. He’s reputed to be the man who in the early sixties would urge his fellow musicians to get funky, as in play a more syncopated and danceable rhythmic groove.
Probably the earliest musical use of the term was also the most telling: Buddy Bolden’s 1907 jazz song, Funky Butt referred to the word’s earlier meaning. Lu-fuki had been a Kikongo term for “bad body odor” in the Congo. This sense of the word was an honorable descriptor for black jazzmen who sweated their arse off to get their joint rockin’, but it also had an aged parallel in England, where by the early 1600s it had come to indicate a particularly bad stink. Tellingly, by 1743, funky was common slang in Oxford for the smell of tobacco smoke, which was usually regarded as offensive. This useage is thought to have come from the Old French funkier and fungier, from the late Latin: fumicare, fumigare, fumus.
|Funky Brother Mick Eckert by Philip White|
This makes sense through the Old English funka and fanca; the Middle English funke, fonke; from the Proto Germanic funkô, fankô, and the Middle Dutch vonke, which all meant spark, the Bic Flic of the day - thankyou Leonardo da Vinci - and related too to tinder and touchwood, which brings in spunk (or tinder) and the time when funk meant rotten wood, and punk, the abbreviated spunk, related to a worthless person, a hoodlum, a big male prisoner’s pussy boy or the archbishop’s catamite.
The delicious 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue; A Dictionary of Buckish slang, University Wit and Pickpocket Eloquence mentions a schoolboy’s trick called funking the cobbler, in which cotton and asafoetida gum (from the giant fennel plant) were lit in a tobacco pipe, and the stinking smoke then blown backwards through the stem of the pipe so it better projected through the cracks in the cobbler’s stall, thus bringing him deeper annoyance. This naughtiness became the shotgun method of shooting spent smoke from one's lungs back through the pipe into those of another, and probably evolved from the late 1700s quack scam in which a mouth-blown pipe or bellows was used to force tobacco smoke, often infused with other herbs, like the anti-flatulent asafoetida, up the rectum of folks with all sorts of ailments, from epilepsy to drowning.
By the early 1800s, this medication was discredited, giving rise to the type of punk who would “blow smoke up [somebody’s] arse” to bullshit them.
That 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue also opens the gate to another string of meanings for funk, or funky, when it says “to smoke, or stink through fear”. The Oxford Dictionary On Historical Principles mentions this “cowering fear; a state of panic” with a hint of a link to spark, when it refers us to blue, “a flame or flash without red glare,” or “low-spirited; affected with fear, discomfort, anxiety”, bringing us straight back to the blues.
The Chambers Concise Dictionary drives this further, listing as its primary meaning of funk “a state of fear: panic: shrinking or shirking from loss of courage: to draw back or hold back in fear”, and proceeds to translate funk hole as “a place of refuge, dug-out: a place to which one can retreat for shelter: a job that enables one to avoid military service,” before following the Oxford Historical Principles into blue funk.
The essential G. A. Wilkes’s Collins English Dictionary Australian Edition 1979 opens with “1. Funk. Also called blue funk, a state of nervousness, fear or depression. 2. a coward. 3. to flinch from (responsibility etc.) through fear. 4. To make afraid” - all before mentioning anything about smoke. This was the first respected dictionary to list Frank Zappa, which meant a lot to me. It also gets my argument back into the redzone when it reminds me that blue is an Australian informal noun for "person with red hair."
As a music descriptor, funky is "1. passionate and soulful,reminiscent of early blues. 2. pleasing or attractive esp. in an exaggerated or camp manner; perhaps alluding to music that was smelly, that is, earthy (like the early blues.)"
In his 1988 Dictionary of Crime, Jay Robert Nash takes us back to New York in 1900 when funk meant “1. A swindler or cheater. 2. A police informer. 3. A sneak thief.” Nash suggests that from 1809 in Britain, funk meant “to trick or cheat”, that a funk box was by 1930 a locked box holding cash within some safes; that funked out meant “under the influence of drugs or alcohol” and that in 1893 London a funker was “a streetwalking prostitute who retreats indoors when the weather turns bad.”
Which leads us to funkify, “to retreat fearfully”, which is a move them dudes in the first paragraph could learn from our weather-wise hooker. Before they use the word again as a blithe stand-alone wine descriptor, they should invite her to a big pow-wow where everybody works out what funky currently means. While they’re doin’ it, they should listen to James Brown.