If you want to send a musical message to your hoped-for loved one or soon-to-be-ex, hokum might not be the best delivery method. A rough, bawdy genre that tosses double entendre around like confetti on New Year’s Eve, the tunes let you know in no uncertain terms what one person wants from or is willing to engage in with another.
Hokum’s roots go back as far as the early 1800s with minstrel shows using the format. Hokum got exposed to a wider audience in the 1920s and 1930s, often comingled with blues. Hokum women got just as down and dirty as the men, with such singers as Memphis Minnie and Sweet Emma holding their own with Tampa Red, Georgia Tom Dorsey, Big Bill Broonzy and Blind Boy Fuller.
But with a little filtering at the appropriate venues, a local band has found a way to present the music without stepping on too many toes. Hokum Pokum presents PG or M-for-mature versions of most of the tunes in its 80-song repertoire.
“It started off with me and banjo player Stephen Smith. We were both students of Scott Manring, although at different times,” co-founder Phil Sparks says. Smith and Sparks were rural neighbors, living 15 minutes apart near Reidsville, where Smith had just retired from teaching guitar at a local music store. “Smith introduced himself, wanted to get together and play, and we did.”
Spark credits local music legend Billy Ranson Hobbs as his hokum muse, guiding Sparks from playing slide on Robert Johnson tunes smack into the middle of the hokum movement. Sparks and Smith knocked around as a duo before picking up bassist Bob Imus and becoming Hokum Pokum around late 2007. The three were playing at a friend’s chili cook-off later that year when Angie Stallings, a local fiddle player who lived across the street, was so impressed with a version of a Santana song the trio was doing that she dashed home, got a washboard, came back and joined in.
“I said, ‘That’s the piece we’re missing for our hokum band.’ So I called her up and she joined, and it was me and Bob and Angie and Stephen Smith,” Sparks says.
The band’s inaugural gig was at the Back Street Buzz Coffee House in Reidsville around early 2009. Imus left to take a job as an over-the-road truck driver. Ron Farris switched to bass, then washtub, and bassist Jesse Epperson joined.
“I call him the Albert Einstein of washtub bass,” Sparks says. “Instead of having a stick on the bass like most washtub players do, he took a piece of chair railing and made it so he could fret it. He’s so cool.”
Farris moved around once again, switching over to mandolin and occasional guitar duties. Stallings left the band, and Greensboro’s Lisa Woods came on about five years ago on washboard and vocals.
Woods taught visual art at Weaver Academy, the arts high school in Greensboro, for a decade, and has had a lifelong career as a visual artist, recently retired from that career.
“I stopped making art,” Woods says. “I’ve been doing it since I was 3 years old. I was the artist in the room, kind of got tired of it and wasn’t really motivated to do it, so I’ve stopped and just been playing a lot of music.”
Woods, who has a big, powerful onstage presence, says that even though hokum purveyors often talk about women’s charms and what they can do with them, she finds them empowering.
“What I love about it is the women like Memphis Minnie. What’s great about the way the women’s thing is, ‘I’ll give it to you if I want to,’ which is a very different take on it,” Woods says. “A lot of the songs I sing, they’re kind of empowering, they’re like, ‘Maybe if you’re good to me and this is what I like in a man, maybe I’ll think about it, and maybe I won’t.’ So it’s kind of nice.”
But she still has to censor some of the material.
“So many of these songs use food metaphors, pie and jellyroll, and gravy,” Woods says, laughing.
But many of the items on the menu are dished up so explicitly that servers must use restraint.
It depends on the venue as well. Before the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown, the band used to play frequently at a Greensboro wine bar.
”If we play it over at Riojas, one of our favorite haunts, we turn it all loose,” Sparks says. “Not something I would do at Porchfest or over at Arboretum. I don’t really want to be pornographic. I’ll improvise a lyric to keep it (from) being so bad, especially if we’re at the arboretum or got kids around. Other than that, that’s sort of what we do.”
But like it’s done to every other musician in the business, the coronavirus has stopped most gigging. But Woods still hokums on, for now performing the music at home with Tom, her husband.
“Tom and I are sitting around playing with each other,” she says chuckling as she realizes how appropriate to the subject matter that comment is. “And that sounds wrong — in typical hokum style.”