Dr Hepcat And The Hepster's Dictionary


20141028In 1938, the singer and band leader Cab Calloway became the first known African American to publish a book and call it a dictionary. His book of jive talk, Cab Calloway's Hepster's Dictionary, translated some of the lively and inventive slang being used among musicians and entertainers in New York's Harlem, for a new audience of jazz fans who weren't yet 'hep to the jive'.

The poet Lemn Sissay finds out how Calloway, famous for his hit song Minnie the Moocher, came to write the dictionary, and how it became the official reference book of jive in the New York Public Library at a time when black people in America were still highly segregated from the white mainstream.

Lemn speaks to Cab Calloway's eldest daughter Camay Murphy who remembers Harlem in the 1930s and 40s, and Cab's grandson Christopher Calloway Brooks who is a bandleader himself.

Jive grew out of older African American vernaculars which had their roots in slave plantations in the nineteenth century. As people came up from the southern states to the northern cities to look for work, jive developed around the world of jazz music, entertainment and night life in Harlem. It was a private 'in the know' language, a form of protection and a way to get past the authorities, but it was also fun and incredibly creative.

Some words survive, like hip, chick, groovy, dig, cool and beat. Other jive terms may no longer be in use - like collar to comprehend, pounders for policemen, or a rug cutter for a good dancer - but the words of jive remain a revealing portrait of Harlem in its heyday.

Produced by Jo Wheeler

A Brook Lapping production for BBC Radio 4.