Monday, September 30, 2013

What "Turn Your Damper Down" & "Turn Your Lamp Down Low" Mean

Edited by Azizi Powell

This post is part of a continuing series of posts on the Blues lyric "turn your damper down" & the Blues lyric "turn your lamp down low". This post provides comments about the colloquial & Blues meanings of both of those expressions.

Links to some pancocojams posts about Blues examples of those lines are given in the Related Links section below.

The content of this post is presented for folkloric purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

The colloquial & Blues meanings of "turn your damper down" and the related colloquial/Blues expression "turn your lamp down low" are extrapolated from their literal meanings.

The "damper" in the expression "turn your damper down" is a part of a wood burning stove. Here's information about wood burning stove dampers from two websites:
"A damper restricts airflow and slows combustion in a fuel burning stove."

"Keeping the air flowing correctly through a wood-burning stove is essential for safe and efficient operation of the stove. Fresh air needs to enter the wood compartment to provide oxygen fuel for the fire; as the fire burns, the smoke must be allowed to rise through the stove pipes, and exit through the chimney. To regulate air flow, there are damper devices built into the stove, flue, and stove pipes...

By opening or closing the dampers, air flow can be increased or decreased, which can fan the fire in the wood compartment, or "dampen" it by restricting airflow and reducing the flames.”
The "lamp" in the expression "turn your lamp down low" is a kerosene lamp. Here's information about turning the flame of a kerosene lamp down low from
"The kerosene lamp (widely known in Britain as a paraffin lamp) is a type of lighting device that uses kerosene (British "paraffin", as distinct from paraffin wax) as a fuel...

Lighting a flat-wick lamp requires filling the fuel tank (fount) with fuel and allowing time for the wick to absorb the fuel. The wick is trimmed straight across with a pair of sharp scissors before lighting. With the glass chimney lifted off the lamp, the wick is turned up and lighted with a match or other lighter. The wick is turned down if smoke develops, and the lamp chimney lowered. After a few minutes warm-up the lamp can be turned to full brightness. Extinguishing the lamp is done by turning down the wick and blowing out the flame, or by turning the wick down below the top of the wick tube."

(These quotes are numbered for possible reference purposes. No preference is indicated by their assigned numbers. My editorial comment about the colloquial/Blues meanings of "turn your damper down" & "turn your lamp down low" is given below.]

1. From
CONTEXT: Man, I left Lula, goin' to Jonestown. Those Jonestown brown's boy, make you turn your damper down.
DEFINITION: Cool down or back off. [The definition cited above is given here]
SONG/SOURCE: Jonestown Blues-- Gus Cannon (as Banjo Joe)

2. From
Subject: RE: Lyr Req: Sweet Mama Tree-Top Tall (Lasses White)
From:GUEST,Arkansas Red-Ozark Troubadour
Date: 03 Jun 13 - 01:29 PM

"From what I understand "turning a damper down" in cooking with a wood stove means to reduce the heat. So the double entendre in this song probably refers to "sweet mama" having "the hots" for other men, and spreading it around, so she is advised to keep her damper turned down and "make it hot" for her man only. This I was told by an [sic] black blues singer who probably knew more double entendres in songs than anybody. Blues are filled with double entendres. That's what makes the blues so great."

(These quotes are numbered for possible reference purposes. No preference is indicated by their assigned numbers.)
"Origins: Turn your lamp down low" [hereafter given as "Mudcat: Turn Your Lamp Down Low"]; posted by toadfrog Date: 12 Dec 02 - 11:48 PM

1. "...What the phrase means, is that you shorten the wick, or do what ever is necessary to make the lamp cast less light, and presumably burn longer. What you do, when you don't need so much light and want to preserve oil. Thus a "lower" light is one that is less bright. All clear now?"

2. From "Mudcat: Turn Your Lamp Down Low"; posted by GUEST,Q
Date: 12 Dec 02 - 11:57 PM
"If you read the original by Poor Big Joe Williams, the meaning is obvious. He has been jugged in the county farm and wants his woman to keep her lamp turned down low, i. e., not get actively involved with another man."
"jugged in thee country farm" = has been sent to prison

The Poor [or Big] Joe Williams song that is referred to in the above quote is "Baby Please Don't Go".

3. From "Mudcat: Turn Your Lamp Down Low"; posted by GUEST,me
Date: 22 Jan 10 - 03:27 PM
"I'm pretty late on this but the phrase in question has nothing to do with making all. I don't care what Terry from NPR says; shes obviously never lived in the south or studied old timey dialect..and judging by the few times I've listened to her and NPR she tags the usual assumptions about the South with not a lot of understanding or research. As a New Orleans native and old timey blues singer, lyric, and study of early French Creole settlement dialect I can completely confirm to "turn your lamp down low" or "turn your damper down" simply means to make someone (especially a female companion for most uses) to stop acting larger than they are. Of course men in those days (and sometimes today) view females as objects of ownership and if they get out of line it's time to turn their damper down..or make their light a bit less bright. It's that simple people."
This comment was written in response to a comment by Stilly River Sage who wrote:
“I heard this song also, contained in a review that ran on Terry Gross' NPR program "Fresh Air." They were reviewing a new 4-CD set being released by RCA, with a title "When the Sun Goes Down: The Secret History of Rock & Roll."”

Both "turn your damper down" and "turn your lamp down low" refer to lessening the amount of flame/heat that is being emitted. While being "hot" and being in "heat" definitely has a sexual/passionate colloquial meaning, colloquially those words also refer to being angry or irritated i.e. "being hot [under the collar]", "being hot and bothered", "being heated", "having a heated exchange", being enflamed (about something).

In a number of the Blues songs that include the line "turn your damper down" or "turn your lamp down low" the singer states or implies that the woman is angry with him, and/or the woman is leaving him, and/or the woman has put him out. Given those song and the colloquial meanings cited above, it seems to me that both "turn your damper down" and "turn your lamp down low" may not always have a sexual meaning. Instead, those lines could solely mean be a command or plea for the woman to stop being angry (stop being "heated"; "cool down"). That said, I don't discount the comment cited above by Guest Me that those statements mean that a woman [or man] needs to stop being boisterous or so outgoing in person [is emitting too much energy/heat.]

Click for a post about a Blues song that includes the saying "turn your damper down".

Posts about other Blues songs that include one of these sayings will be posted ASAP.

Thanks to all those whose comments are quoted in this post.

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Visitor comments are welcome.


  1. Google search just reminded me of a comment that I wrote in 2005 on the Mudcat folk music forum that quotes this 1925 example of "Sweet Mama Tree Top Tall":

    Sweet Mama, treetop tall,
    Won't you turn your damper down?*
    I smell hoecake burning
    Dey done burnt some brown.
    I'm laid mah head
    On de rilroad track.
    I thought about Mama
    An' I drugged it back.
    Sweet Mama, treetop tall,
    Won't you turn your damper down?

    *BTW, Scarborough writes " Sweet Mama is a term addressed to a lover, not a maternal parent, and the oblique reference to a damper doubtless comments on the dark lady's warm temper.On The Trail Of Negro Folk Songs" edited by Dorothy Scarborough gives this description (Folklore Associates edition, 1963, originally published in 1925 ,p.242) Note that I incorrectly typed 262 in that comment that is posted to this Mudcat thread:

  2. Hm "Stateboro Blues "Wake up Mama, turn your lamp down low." Slightly different meaning, some sort of tryst.

    However most of the above is much too polite.
    "Jelly Roll Baker"
    "He's the jelly roll baker, and he bake the best jelly roll in town
    He's the only man can bake jelly with his damper down"

    "Damper down" as in this song, patently a sexual reference. For women I have always taken it to mean opening the labia and/or squeezing like a wick damper, for men something to do with the foreskin

  3. Should have mentioned - it's because of the similarity between a kerosene lamp wick opening and a vulva

  4. Too prissy for words. Next you'll be telling us that Robert Johnson's immortal line "You can squeeze my lemons till the juice run down my leg" (an unlikely sexual act) refers to the Southern practice of making lemonade in hotter weather.

    1. joeflood, I agree that I'm "too prissy for [certain] words". That's partly because I am who I am. In my role as editor of this blog, my prissiness is also partly because I would like material in this blog to be used as supplemental resources in public schools and other public centers for undergraduate age students...And those institutions are also "prissy".

      However, you're probably right about the meanings of these terms and I therefore thank you for your comments.

  5. In Statesboro Blues she is sleeping and he asks her to wake up and turn her lamp down low. That sounds like a woman home, secure, and not out brightly playing around. He wants in. Not just sex, he wants her security, her home. He wants her to chill out and let him back.

    1. Greetings, Anonymous.

      Thanks for sharing your interpretation of "Statesboro Blues".

      I suppose "turn your lamp down low" had and still can have more than one meaning.