Balling the Jack: From the Railroad to the Blues

Audiences Outside Lafayette Theater for 'Hallelujah!'

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No one knows for certain where or when the phrase originated, but "Balling the Jack" entered the North American lexicon as railroad slang that referred to a train going at full speed. "Balling" alluded to the balled fist a railroad engineer used to signal to his crew to pour on the coal so the train would travel faster. The "jack" was the train itself, a mechanical jackass that could carry heavy freight over great distances without tiring. 

Off the Tracks

Early 20th-century hipsters picked up the phrase and gave it a more exotic connotation. Anyone "balling the jack" was going all out physically on the dance floor or in the bedroom. Over time it came to be used to describe a particularly wild sexual encounter. 

Eventually, the name was applied to a slithering, grinding, sensual dance performed in honky-tonks and juke joints. In 1913, a formal version of the dance was introduced to New York theater audiences when it was performed in the musical review "The Darktown Follies" at the Lafayette Theatre in Harlem. When producer Flo Ziegfeld brought the dance to his Follies on Broadway that same year, songwriters Jim Burris and Chris Smith wrote an accompanying song titled "Ballin' the Jack." 

That song became a crossover hit, with popular versions recorded in blues, jazz, ragtime, and pop versions. It has been recorded by hundreds of artists, including Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye. Judy Garland and Gene Kelly danced to the tune in the hit 1942 movie "For Me and My Gal."

The song does not appear in the singles discography of noted blues singer Big Bill Broonzy, but he further popularized the term when he sang it as the refrain in the song "I Feel So Good," which he recorded on the Okeh label in 1941:

"I feel so good,
Yes, I feel so good,
I feel so good,
I feel like ballin' the jack."