Following on from zephyr last week, we work backwards to a colour term that can pertain to cheap books, a fish, a mussel, insect, a certificate for gold, and in urban slang, council workers wearing hi-vis jackets. Yellowback most commonly refers to cheaply produced fiction in the second half of the 19th century, often of a sensationalised or adventurous nature, but also including what we might now call higher quality, such as by George Eliot or Robert Louis Stevenson. They were developed as rivals to the trashier penny dreadfuls, and also sometimes called muster-plaster novels, due to their faded yellow colour, with covers printed by chromoxylography. One of the biggest series was the Railway Library begun in 1848 by the publisher Routledge.
Yellowback could also mean the yellowback fusilier fish, the Caesio xanthonota is a pelagic marine species belonging to the family Caesionidae native to the tropical Indo-Pacific. Or a freshwater mussel, Lampsilis anodontoides, of the Mississippi valley and southeastern US. It has a heavy shell covered with yellow periostracum and is valued for its mother-of-pearl.
A yellow-back is also a highly valued paper certificate - issued by a public treasury against deposited gold first issued in 1934 by the U. Treasury to be held only by Federal Reserve banks. And finally the Urban Slang dictionary highlights it as a slightly derogatory term for council workers digging up roads blocking traffic, and other tasks that cost too much and require too many people. That’s new on me. Any other contexts, meanings or associations out there?
But where does it appear in song? Here are a few examples to start off:
It appears in the much copied tongue-twisting, accelerating rappers’ delight list number by Blackalicious – Alphabet Aerobics, but it’s unclear to which yellow-back it refers:
Xerox, my X-ray-diation holes extra large
X-height letters, and xylophone tones
Yellow-back, yak mouth, young ones yaws
The Californian wordsmith hip-hop artist Aesop Rock, aka Ian Mattias Bavitz, also uses it in 6B Panorama, in another ambiguous, but more vivid context of a sprawling urban vision:
Sitting inside bent meridian
There's a fun house ooh, a sun spout
Spraying yellow beams above yellow-back dreams.
And in another style altogether, the comedian, actor and musician Steve Martin and band, The Steep Canyon Rangers, pick up the context of flies and fishing in this bluegrass folk-country number, which more particularly refers to a yellow-back(ed) fly used to catch fish.
Want to suggest other examples of this word in song lyrics, or other unusual words or contexts? Does this song make you think of something else? Then feel free to comment below, on the contact page, or on social media: Song Bar Twitter, Song Bar Facebook. Song Bar YouTube. Please subscribe, follow and share.
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