Saturday, 17 September 2011

Strange, creepy, and politically incorrect rock 'n' roll lyrics

When listening to old records - as I often do - the past occasionally does feel like a foreign country. An outstanding example of changing attitudes  is Joannie Sommers’s 1962 hit, “Johnny Get Angry” (see above), in which the singer tries to goad her wimpy boyfriend into behaving like a complete “Right Man” bastard: 
Oh, Johnny get angry, Johnny get mad
Give me the biggest lecture I ever had
I want a brave man, I want a cave man
Johnny, show me that you care, really care for me
Blimey! I mean, does she really want to end up in A&E? I’ve been asked for some strange things by women over the years - but never a lecture!

The lyrics that open Wanda Jackson’s blistering 1957 rocker, “Fujiyama Mama”, probably win the award for the least sensitive choice of a metaphor in popular music:
I’ve been to Nagasaki
Been to Hiroshima too
What I did to them babe
I could do to you

I know the war with Japan had only been over for a dozen years when this was recorded – but surely someone must have realised that you didn’t need to be Japanese, or even a damn Yankee liberal, to find the lyrics offensive.

Mind you, the following verse from Carl Perkins’s Sun-era celebration of his home state, “Tennessee”, comes a close second:
They make bombs they say, that can blow up our world, dear
Well a country boy like me, I will agree
But if all you folks out there can remember
They made the first atomic bomb in Tennessee
Er…okay, Carl. I suppose.

I stopped sniggering at deliberate sexual double entendre lyrics when I was about 14, and I’ve never understood why filthy blues songs – with lyrics along the lines of “Bang my box till your engine runs out of oil” – have given people such a thrill over the years. But I’ve always found country singer Roy Hall’s 1950 release, “Dirty Boogie” - which is borderline single entendre - disquietingly near the knuckle:

There was an old man out trying to truck
When he was young he boogie-woogied too much
He can’t do the dirty boogie – too old to boogie woogie...
Momma’s in the poor house, Daddy’s in the jail
Sister’s on the street shouting “Boogie for sale!”
Cos she does the dirty boogie...
Yes, okay, Roy – we get it! For goodness sake - did this actually get airplay on Country & Western radio stations? In 1950?

Sun boss Sam Phillips turned down the chance to record rockabilly original Charlie Feathers’s “Tongue-Tied Jill” on the grounds that it would offend listeners with speech defects. Charlie evidently didn’t cotton to that sort of politically correct interference, because he compounded the felony by later recording a song called “Stuttering Cindy”, a sort of companion piece to Buck Griffin’s “Stutterin’ Papa”.  It’s all very affectionate, but still...

I don’t have any records making fun of physical deformity, but there are plenty along the same lines as Larry Williams’s “Short Fat Fanny”, Eddie Cochran’s “Skinny Jim” and Warren Smith’s “Miss Froggie” :“I got a gal, shaped just like a frog… I found her drinkin’ muddy water, sleepin’ in a hollow log”. Shaped like a frog? Back-country inbreeding, I suppose.

Twenty-five years before rap music appeared on the scene to brighten our lives and enrich our culture, rock ‘n’ roll wasn’t above testosterone-fuelled threats of violence - but they were almost invariably directed at fellows muscling in on the singer’s gal, rather than at women, homosexuals or policemen.

1956’s “Cruisin’” finds Gene Vincent out hunting for his girl-friend and the chap she’s two-timing him with – “I’m cruisin’ for the bruising that man with her is gonna get”. When Carl Perkins finds himself in a similar predicament in “That’s Right” he tells his errant girlfriend: “When I’ve found the cat that’s getting my sugar/It’s gonna be rough when I catches that booger”. But the strangest example of 1950s violence has to be Chet Atkins’s “Blackjack” in which we hear a criminal having a confession beaten out of him, while repeatedly growling “I won’t talk!”

There’s very little of an obviously racist nature when it comes to blacks in my collection. The only vaguely offensive line I can find is “We were rippin’ along like white folks might” in Arkie Shibley’s 1949 “Hot Rod Race”.

But Native Americans are another matter: I have a whole CD devoted to obscure country, rockabilly and rock ‘n’ roll songs about Redskins. Possibly the oddest is Ray Scott’s “Boppin’ Wigwam Willie”, which is a thinly-veiled account of a brave who suffers from erectile dysfunction:
Hey, Wigwam Willie had one desire
He really wanted to set the world on fire
But the more he tried, the worse he got
'Cause Wig Wam Willie just could not bop
Fortunately, our hero manages to get his tomahawk working:
Hey-eeh, Wigwam Willie now got his squaw
To show him how to do that rock 'n' roll
Now Willie is as happy as he can be
Because he rocks all night in his old tepee
I’ll end with a few intriguing oddities, none of which are in the least bit offensive - but they are distinctly odd. In “Long John’s Flagpole Rock”, Long John Roller describes his attempts to set a new world record for sitting on top of a flagpole, in order to win a new Ford – I presume it must have been based on a real competition. It offers  a glimpse into a mysterious, long-lost world.

Equally bizarre is Jimmy Wolford’s “Teeney Weeney Man”, in which the audience is urged to feel sympathy for a spaceman attempting to make contact with our leaders.

Finally, I’ve long been intrigued by The Lone Drifter’s “Eager Boy” in which a young, would-be populist Southern politician (he wants to “help the weary ones to see the light”) objects to his backers treating him “like a toy/Just cos I’m an eager boy”. All very charming, but what a strange choice of subject for a song!


  1. This particular saddo has a treasured collection of 78 rpm discs and one of his favourites is I found a hard-boiled egg in my love-nest after I said "I do", recorded by that well-known combo The Connecticut Collegians sometime just before the First World War.

    Nothing strange about the lyrics, of course, the theme is probably eternal.

    What is strange, in the past-is-another-country sense, is that The Connecticut Collegians were a barber shop quartet. It seems unimaginable now. Were patrons really entertained at the barbers in the old days by live singers? And can we look forward to a return to this wholesome expression of civilisation?
    Sunday, September 18, 2011 - 11:35 AM

  2. "He hit me (it felt like a kiss)". What were Goffin-King thinking of? A song about a woman singer whose man dun whupped her....and as if it wasn't bad enough, the overrated Phil (wall of death) Spector syrupped it up to sound as if he was doing her a favour. Bonkers.
    Monday, September 19, 2011 - 11:53 PM

  3. I wonder whether DM can help. When my brother and I were going through the sad business of clearing the family house before its sale, we came across a collection of 78s which we listened to in order to lighten the mood. One of them, a calypso dating from the 1930s and sung my a male West Indian, started with the line "The other day I met a very handsome man" and had a chorus " Oh brother you have to pay if you want me to come your way". The lyrics seemed rather advanced for their time. I can only assume no one had worked out what they meant. I no longer have the record and have never been able to track down the song.
    Tuesday, September 20, 2011 - 02:37 PM

  4. Sorry ex-KCS, can't help to identify song/performer.

    While your parents were listening to this charming ditty you describe, mine were guffawing at Round the Horne little realising the way Julian and Sandy came.

    It put me in mind of my Ma Rainey 78, You can fish in my ocean but don't swim in my sea which, as a sometime angler, ...

    Anyway I googled it and up came the lyrics, :

    My daddy come home this mornin', drunk as he could be
    My daddy come home this mornin', drunk as he could be
    I know that he's done got bad on me
    He used to stay out late, now he don't come home at all
    He used to stay out late, now he don't come home at all
    I know there's another mule
    been kicking in my stable
    If you don't like my ocean, don't fish in my sea
    If you don't like my ocean, don't fish in my sea
    Stay out of my valley, let my mountain be
    I ain't had no loving since God knows when
    I ain't had no loving since God knows when
    That's the reason I'm through with these no-good, trifling men
    You'll never miss the sunshine till the rain begin to fall
    You'll never miss the sunshine till the rain begin to fall
    You'll never miss your ham till another mule be in your stall

    I think that's very true about the ham.

    Then I got all nostalgic and rocked over to the City of London Phonograph and Gramophone Society website,

    Delightful. Collectors, utterly serious, unaware, I love it.

    And there, on their concert of Edison Diamond Discs, #9 on the playlist, How to Make Love, performed by Frank Luther and his Pards, whatever they are, April 1929. Disgusting I call it. That sort of thing should be banned.

    Notice that they list the record number with each title. I used to know some of these collectors. Ask them if they recognise "Oh brother you have to pay if you want me to come your way" and ten-to-one they could give you the number but not the artiste. They're like that.
    Tuesday, September 20, 2011 - 09:59 PM

  5. It turns out that you can listen to How to make love. It's a make or break recipe for how to net yourself a wife. An early feminist anthem, perhaps. You can see why Mr Luther sounds so pleased with himself. His advice is to part your hair in the middle, plaster it down with lard, invite a girl to a dance and then not talk to her but instead make a fuss of all the other girls. That way, as he says, either she'll marry you and become your wife or she'll marry someone else and hate you all ... (wait for it) ... her life. Neat.

    As is the jew's harp-playing by the Pards. Particularly ear-catching.

    After the horrible experience of Luther's three-note leeringly knowing voice, my mind escaped for relief to Layton & Johnstone,

    Turner Layton was a black man born in DC in 1894, Such was the depravity of racism at the time that he was forced to enrol in a dental school. He apparently couldn't take the ignominy for long -- who could? you will remember that Gomez's greatest fear in Addams Family Values was that his son might become a lawyer, ... or a dentist! -- because he'd moved to NYC in time to work as a songwriter, knocking out ditties to get patriotic Americans to enlist and numbers for Ziegfeld.

    Then he noticed that he could sing and play the piano and set off with Mr Johnstone to the UK as a two-man cabaret act. What with the centre parting and the lard, not to mention his DJ and attractive voice, there are rumours that Mr Layton's ham may have found its way rather successfully fishing in a number of white seas. He died in the UK in 1978, as Wikipedia tell us, and his daughter left his estate to Great Ormond St. Very touching.

    Somewhere, I have a 78 of Layton & Johnstone singing about the rigours of life in NYC for hard-working families in the 1920s. Wherever they went, apparently, they suffered from the hegemony of the Argentines, the Portuguese and the Greeks. Not a Jewish conspiracy at all, you see, all the beastly landlords making the proletariat pay its rent were actually Argentines, Portuguese or Greeks.

    The audience today would obviously walk out on that shocking song but I'm afraid that from the 1920s onwards the running-dog hyenas and lackeys of the racist, capitalist and imperialist UK bought 10 million of these two black men's records, may they hang their popular music-loving heads in eternal shame. Not to mention the indignity Argentina suffered at the hands of Andrew Ll-W.

    10 million. If Turner Layton hadn't retired in 1946, the cadres of the loobop-wopping fraternity would have been lucky to have a career, methinks.

    Anyway, it certainly accounts for the fact that the junk shops I used to go round in the 60s and 70s in Putney and Fulham always had a dozen or so Layton & Johnstones. Sometimes there were treasures. The silk top hat I bought from Mr Bishop for 2/6d. The gramophone I bought from him for £14, painted it black and gold and sold it to Bibas for £56. And a broken gramophone he sold me for £4 which I repaired and sold for £9 10s the next day at Dowell Lloyd, the auctioneers at the bottom of Putney High St with a priest-hole connected to St Mary's where Cromwell O. conducted the Putney Debates, but I digress.

    The wealth showered on this country by the hated Thatcherite junta deprived my poor children of junk shops but, with the coming Depression, I am pleased to look forward to my grandchildren enjoying the same glorious experience I had.
    Wednesday, September 21, 2011 - 12:03 PM