The Word of The Lord
by Tom Dalzell
Copyright 1996 Thomas Dalzell. Used by Permission.
Because slang moves so quickly, surreptitiously, and at times in clear defiance of linear expectations, it is usually virtually impossible to trace the path taken. Slang etymology is a difficult field, and tracing the spread of slang from generation to generation is even more difficult. Although the transmission of a particularly catchy fad phrase or fad word is sometimes possible to chart with some degree of precision, such case are rare exceptions to the rule that the conduit for slang from one generation to another is usually not readily apparent.
One quite conspicuous carrier, though, was Lord Buckley, who provided a direct link from black English vernacular first to the youth slang of 1950s hipster and beats and then to the AM disc jockeys of the 1960s who in turn brought cool slang to mainstream youth.
Lord Buckley defies labels. Although he was known as a comedian in the 1950s, the term "comedian" is too confining a term. Born Richard Buckley in 1906, he cut his entertaining teeth in the free and loose clubs of gangster-controlled Chicago in the 1920s and 1930s and later as a master of ceremonies at dance marathons. He moved to New York in the 1940s, where he worked in jazz-oriented night clubs. The 1950s saw Buckley based in California and Nevada, while 1960 saw him die an early death.
From an association with black jazz musicians, Buckley developed a true love for and grasp of the black English vernacular. He took his love of black English to the stage, developing what he called "hipsemantics," a blend of traditional black colloquial speech, jive from the 1930s (playwright/poet Vaughn Marlowe, who was anointed "Prince Vaughn" by Buckley, believes that a great deal of Buckley's syntax and rhythm was directly derived from Louis Armstrong), and bop slang from the 1940s. Taking the title "Lord" onto the stage, Buckley's routines and records in the 1950s were based in large part on black vernacular, with renditions of stories from the Bible, Shakespeare, classic literature, and history told in a jazz voice toggle-switching between Shakespearean British and American black accents. (For a same of Buckley's hipsemantics, see page 101.)
Although Buckley's fame was clandestine in the 1950s, his impact was not. Of particular interest is the impression which he made on the young men who in the 1960s taught mainstream American youth to speak cool-the future AM disc jockeys of America.
Robert Weston "Wolfman Jack" Smith, the quintessential hep disc jockey of the 1960s, was profoundly influenced by Buckley. Interviewed by Buckley's biographer Oliver Trager in February 1995, Wolfman Jack was reverent in his praise for Buckley, whom he first heard on record as a youth in Brooklyn. The Wolfman knew something about black music from listening to R&B on WLAC from Nashville, but he was simply stunned when he first heard Buckley: "Oh my God! He knows everything."
Wolfman told Trager that he "always thought Buckley was the man who created the slang, the very hip language we still use today. I thought he was the man who came up with the original statement." As he developed his own unique radio style, Wolfman Jack drew heavily on Buckley. "I actually created my style from Buckley, in a sense" he told Trager. "I'm a little bit of Buckley. I copied his style, I tried to get his voice down and everything. It was his hipness, it was his style, his timing."
The influence of Buckley on Hy Lit of WIBG in Philadelphia is also unmistakable. Lit's slang dictionary of the late 1960s contains several dozen words used by Buckley in his routines, while the entries of "Hipsters, flipsters, and finger popping daddies, knock me your lobes" and "jump salty" in the Lit dictionary can only have come from one place: Lord Buckley.
As disc jockeys pumped Buckley-transmitted slang to the mainstream youth of the 1960s, songwriters of the 1960s and 1970s also were paying homage to Buckley. Jimmy Buffett ("God's Own Drunk"), Bob Dylan ("Black Cross"), George Harrison ("Crackerbox Palace"), Joni Mitchell (a reference to "Willie the Shake"), and James Taylor (a reference to "jump salty") all used Buckley.
From Louis Armstrong and Dizzie Gillespie through Lord Buckley, ten, to the voices who shaped the slang of 1960s youth, Lord Buckley was truly a missing linguistic link, a linguistic land bridge between generations and cultures. Over the last ten years, Oliver Trager of New York has immersed himself in the life and work of Lord Buckley. Never losing sight of the Zen of Buckley, Trager has written the definitive, yet to be published, biography of Buckley. His generosity and enthusiasm were invaluable, particularly his interview with Wolfman Jack shortly before the Wolfman passed away.