Dan Burley's Jive


“Jive,” wrote Dan Burley in 1944, “is language in motion.” His Dan Burley’s Handbook of Original Harlem Jive didn’t create jive slang, but throughout the 1940s it fostered it, popularized it, and broadened its use beyond the cloister of the jazz community. It acted as an invisible conduit of the new urban linguistics to the inevitably “square” world.


In 1944, Burley published Dan Burley’s Original Handbook of Harlem Jive, a dual representation and linguistic analysis of inner-city slang, including short stories, poems, and translations of classical and Shakespearean literature into jive language. He located the origins of jive in early 1920s Chicago, and used the created language to emphasize the social and economic plight of those in the inner city.


Though it was unique in the field, however, the Handbook did owe much to a series of precursors that also attempted to compile the language emanating from the nation’s jazz clubs and inner cities. Linguists such as Carl Cons, Russel B. Nye, and H. Brook Webb came up with brief dictionaries of this new speech. In 1938, scat musician Cab Calloway similarly published Cab Calloway’s Hepster’s Dictionary. Where Burley’s project veers from these cataloging efforts is its attempt to use that collected language in creative fiction and poetry and its broader attempt to explain the vernacular’s origin and importance. It is intended to entertain as much as it is intended to edify.

Economic need more than anything else prompted Burley to write a sequel to his Handbook, Diggeth Thou?, in 1959.He self-published the book and even sold the manuscript on the streets of Chicago. The text of Diggeth Thou? demonstrates that though the circulation did not match that of the Handbook, Burley was still able to enunciate the jive language that made his name. Fewer were listening, but the message remained strong and competent. Unlike his earlier work, Diggeth Thou? did not bother with semantic analysis of the jive phenomenon. Instead, it offered poetry, prose, and parodies presented in Burley’s signature jive style. He notes in the preface his struggles in producing a second book, and the volume’s soliloquies on poverty and drug abuse clearly indicate the author’s struggles to succeed in the urban world his writing celebrated.


Modern African-American slang, be it “street” or otherwise, is functionally dependent on rural/slave language, jazz/be-bop language, and all other variants that came before it. The element each of the groups have in common is a status as “outsider.” That being the case, analysts such as Stewart Berg Flexner, among others, have described the development of slang as a rejection of mainstream culture, a culture that users of slang were excluded from, anyway. It was, in effect, a defense mechanism.


Jive grew from the jazz clubs of Chicago and Harlem, but Burley’s work ventures far afield of jazz terminology. He wasn’t enunciating a vernacular of jazz culture. He was enunciating a vernacular for Flexner’s dispossessed—the rejects from mainstream “white” culture, replete as it was with economic imperialism and Jim Crow hypocrisy.


African-American slang is now part of American language, and thus its growth is integral to the growth of the entire semantic system. But interestingly, Burley’s introduction to the Handbook credits the formation of jive to the intermingling of the races. The “hepcats” and young adults began viewing themselves within categories such as “jazz” or “social outcast,” and thus began using speech that cordoned them off from the well-off “square” world. This was the age of the Beat generation, who incorporated jazz slang into their speech and writing and helped define the literature of the age.


But Burley’s work dealt specifically with an urban African-American version of the broader “jazz slang.” And his experimentation with jive was neither silent nor inarticulate on the question of race and civil rights. In the late chapters of the Handbook and throughout Diggeth Thou?, Burley veers away from his original multiracial formulation of jive and emphasizes the blackness of the vernacular. His frustration with the progress of African American civil rights and the crushing poverty of inner-city Chicago and New York are clearly evident.


As the introduction to this edited version of Burley’s work notes, language moves like trains through a city, getting to every end only with the aid of stops along the way that are integral to both the trains’ motion and people’s ability to harness that motion for their own purposes. Burley’s work served as one of those central points of access. And though the debt remains largely unacknowledged, vast communities of Americans still arrive in the public sphere on trains emanating from Burley’s stop.