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Rounder

And I have always hated tie-dye.

Dear Word Detective:  Exactly what is a “rounder”?  One example of the term’s use is in a fairly obscure Grateful Dead song titled, “On The Road Again.”  Here is the line as it appears in the song:  “Went to my house the front door was locked, Went ’round to my window, but my window was locked, Jumped right back, shook my head, Big old rounder in my folding bed.  Jumped into the window, broke the glass, Never seen that little rounder run so fast.” — Alex Williams.

So it’s come to this, has it?  Decoding Grateful Dead lyrics?  That way lies madness.  Speaking as a former mid-range Dead fan (I own maybe four albums and have no plans to ever buy another), I sincerely doubt that most of their lyrics actually mean anything. Yes, I know there are people who regard “Ripple” as a deep philosophical statement, but those tend to be the same people who are really, really good at rolling their own cigarettes.  All I know is that if I never hear “Casey Jones” or “Truckin'” again, it’ll be ten years too soon.

I looked up the lyrics to “On the Road Again” and found some minor differences from those you supplied, but the gist is the same.  This is, by the way, not the same song as Canned Heat’s “On the Road Again.”  The Dead billed “On the Road Again” as a “traditional” tune, which they merely arranged.  The narrator of the song is a man who has married a “bad girl” and has discovered, quelle surprise, that her “badness” has persisted past the wedding reception.

As to what the “rounder” might be, there are a number of possibilities.  As a noun, “rounder” carries the general sense of “one who goes around,” or follows a route in some sense, as a salesman might have in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  When the term “rounder” first appeared in English in the 17th century, it meant a military officer who was assigned to “make the rounds” of guard posts at a base or camp to make sure the sentries were awake and alert (“In our modern Wars … sometime the Rounder will clap a musket-shot through a sleepy head,” 1624).  “Rounder” was used in the 19th century to mean a minister who traveled “on rounds” on Sunday, and the word was also used as a short form of “roundsman,” an indigent laborer who was sent around to work for various farmers, his wages being partly paid by the local church.  “Rounder” is also used in Britain, in the plural form “rounders,” as the name of a game similar to baseball in which a batter hits a ball and runs around the bases.

In US slang, however, a “rounder,” since the mid-19th century, has been a person, usually a man, who makes rounds of a different and less pleasant sort.  A “rounder” makes “the rounds” from bars to prisons to flophouses and back to bars again (“The regular rounders who are beginning to receive long sentences under the new drunkenness law,” 1891). The term was also used to mean an itinerant railway worker, but I suspect that the author of “On the Road Again” had the “chronic drunk and convict” sense of the word in mind.

12 comments to Rounder

  • David

    Excellent work! Thanks for the help, though you MUST be self-sabotaging in any chance of optimizing possible future growth having strayed so far,… dummy, there is a road, no simple “high,… way”. Apparently, you were on it. Whaa happened?? I suggest you re-think what you missed out on and hopefully, get back to “It” soon!

  • J. Cameron McClain

    I recently came across the word “rounder” in a manuscript written by someone from Missouri–for what that’s worth. In context it appeared to an “easy lay” or a “man-whore” or the like. The word’s found in the second verse of “He’s a Tramp” in the same context, and that would also fit the Grateful Dead lyrics in question–he found his old lady doin’ the dirty with some rounder in his fold-up bed.

    “He’s A Tramp”

    He’s a tramp, but I love him.
    Breaks a new heart every day.
    He’s a tramp. They adore him.
    And I only hope he’ll stay that way.

    He’s a tramp, he’s a scoundrel,
    He’s a rounder, he’s a cad.
    He’s a tramp, but I love him.
    Yes, and even I have got it pretty bad.

    You can never tell when he’ll show up.
    He gives you plenty of trouble.
    I guess he’s just a no account pup,
    But I wish that he were double.

    He’s a tramp, he’s a rover,
    And there’s nothing more to say.
    If he’s a tramp, he’s a good one,
    And I wish that I could travel his way.

  • alan

    Singer/songwriter David Bromberg also includes rounders in the lyrics of “Dahlia”, referring to scoundrels.

  • mitch

    “DELIA”….thats the name of the song bob dylan wrote, where he writes that she loved all them rounds but you never loved me

  • Merle

    Round-heels is a term that once was applied to what was designated “loose women”, sexually active women, women who had sex with men to whom they were not married.

  • Nelson

    Zora Neale Hurston uses the word in Their Eyes Were Watching God alongside “pimp”, so I guessed it meant some kind of criminal or promiscuous man:

    “You figger Ah’m uh rounder and uh pimp and you done wasted too much time talkin’ wid me.” – Their Eyes Were Watching God, Chapter 11 (Page 104 in my HarperPerennial classics version)

  • Mitch right above that Bob and I and wrote a song called Delia which is incorrect: this composition is also a traditional song which has simply been arranged by Bob Dylan; just as the grateful dead arranged the other traditional song “on the road again” referenced above, and since both compositions are likely from the same period of early American folk songs, it would seem that the descriptions above are in fact correct that around her is a person of no repute who are more likely to be mad and engaging in sexual activity with a woman.

  • John

    Folksinger Doc Watson uses the word a lot, as though he is addressing his songs to “rounders.” His song Casey Jones, for example, begins “Come all you rounders if you want to hear/the story of a brave engineer.”

    Doc also recorded his version of Hank Williams’ Lost Highway. That song never uses the word “rounder,” be offers a great description of them:

    I’m a rollin stone all alone and lost
    For a life of sin I have paid the cost
    When I pass by all the people say
    Just another guy on the lost highway

    Just a deck of cards and a jug of wine
    And a womans lies makes a life like mine
    Oh the day we met, I went astray
    I started rolling down that lost highway

    I was just a lad, nearly 22
    Neither good nor bad, just a kid like you
    And now I’m lost, too late to pray
    Lord I take a cost, oh the lost highway

    Now boys don’t start to ramblin’ round
    On this road of sin are you sorrow bound
    Take my advice or you’ll curse the day
    You started rollin’ down that lost highway

  • Anonymous

    A rounder is a guy that plays the banjo.

  • Brian Mcintyre

    In some circles a rounder is a person who rounds out a living by different means stealing, gambling, selling drugs, hooking, living with women rent free, welfare, unemployment insurance and sometimes working (rounding out a living)

  • Jabalong

    There’s also what appears to be another “man-whore” use of “rounder” in This American Life 352 “The Ghost of Bobby Dunbar”.

    https://www.thisamericanlife.org/352/the-ghost-of-bobby-dunbar

    I believe that it was one of the relatives of William Cantwell Walters, on speculating about the (out of wedlock) paternity of Charles Bruce Anderson, mentions that it could have been a brother of Walters who was a “rounder”.

  • Jim

    I was going to leave a sharp note asking if you knew the meaning of “alienate,” as in, “I bet your comments about the Dead really helped to alienate the person who asked for the definition of ’rounder’,” but instead, I will simply add a comment that “rounder” was also once used as a term for railroad engineers (and possibly other railroad workers), as frequently heard in the songs of Jimmie Rodgers, for example, and I don’t care whether you like blue yodeling or not.

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