Monthly Archives: December, 2013

Bo Diddley, Santa Claus

Bo Diddley and His BandBo Diddley just may be the most original artist in all of rock ‘n’ roll. He took the bravado and first person narrative tradition of the great blues artists he worshiped to a whole different level, then married that with an original sound based around his distinctive “Bo Diddley beat.” Like all great artists, Bo took from all the influences around him to create his own unique stew. Bo was born in Mississippi and raised in Chicago’s South Side. Although he grew up in a poor and vicious neighborhood, the local Baptist church sprang for violin lessons for the young lad. When he first started playing guitar he tuned it to an open chord, in the tradition of the delta bluesmen, and attacked the strings as if he were bowing a violin.

The now-famous sound that resulted was a mixture of this tuning and approach, fused with the rhythms of the street corner hustlers he grew up around, and soon joined ranks with, in the South Side. The biggest street performer in Bo’s neighborhood during his youth was a man called “Sandman.” Sandman carried a bag of sand, a plank of wood and a broom. He’d set up on the corner, cover the board with sand and dance, letting the sand – which sounded like a maraca – accentuate the rhythms of his feet. Then he’d sweep it back into the sack and move on to the next corner.

This mixture of rhythm, showmanship, and ingenuity shaped Bo’s style; accentuated by Calypso and Latin rhythms ala maraca player and sidekick Jerome Green, a makeshift tremolo device he custom built (before the first commercial tremolo was on the market) from car parts and a wind-up clock spring, and Bo’s infinite imagination and story telling. Ever the showman street hustler, he placed his carefully cultivated “Bo Diddley” character into a seemingly endless series of comical and absurd situations.

There was “Bo Diddley is a Gunslinger,” which finds Bo shooting it out at the OK Corral, “Bo’s A Lumberjack,” “Bo Meets the Monster,” “Bo Diddley is Loose,” and the autobiographical “The Story of Bo Diddley.” He issued a series of concept albums in the 1950’s and 1960’s including “Bo Diddley’s Beach Party,” “Gunslinger,” “Have Guitar Will Travel,” and “Bo Diddley is a Lover.”

I’d say it was a ‘mixed-up’ rhythm: blues, an’ Latin-American, an’ some hillbilly, a little spiritual, a little African, an’ a little West-Indian calypso…an’ if I wanna start yodelin’ in the middle of it, I can do that too.  I like gumbo, you dig? Hot sauces too. That’s where my music comes from: all the mixture. I got those beats so jumbled up on ‘Bo Diddley’ that they couldn’t sort ‘em out!

The various incarnations of the “Bo Diddley beat” can be heard on countless diverse and immensely popular records, including Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away,” The Who’s “Magic Bus,” Bruce Springsteen’s “She’s the One,” U2’s “Desire,” George Michael’s “Faith,” and The White Stripes’ “Screwdriver,” just to name a few. But Bo Diddley was far more than just a one-chord, one-groove, one-trick pony. His catalog – as varied and versatile as the artists he influenced – is peppered with distinct grooves and polyrhythms just as imaginative and complex as the “shave and  haircut” riff for which he is best known.

Oddly enough, despite all this imagination, creativity and appreciation for theme records and musical character development, Bo Diddley never recorded a Christmas album; or even a Christmas single.

Enter The Tractors. The Tractors are the brainchild of guitarist, vocalist, and producer Steve Ripley, consisting of a revolving cast of seasoned backup musicians. They scored some success on the country music charts in the 1990’s with their mix of traditional country, blues, boogie-woogie and other American roots music styles, earning two Grammy nominations.

The Tractors have recorded two full albums of Christmas music: 1995’s Have Yourself a Tractors Christmas, and 2002’s Big Night. The latter contains a fun oddity: “Bo Diddley Santa Claus.”

Bo Diddley Santa Claus?

Although Ripley conceived of and wrote the song, credit is shared between Steve Ripley and Ellas McDaniel (Bo Diddley’s given name and the one he used for authorship and copyright purposes). The plot of the song should be obvious. Santa has fallen sick and is thusly unable to make his rounds delivering toys on Christmas Eve. With this cataclysmic disaster looming, Santa calls on the only person he knows who is capable of completing his route: “Bo Diddley will you drive my sleigh tonight?” And of course, the mighty Bo Diddley, he don’t hesitate.

It seems implausible that Bo Diddley never thought of this idea and wrote a similarly themed song. Thankfully, Steve Ripley’s imagination saved the day for everyone who ever wanted a Bo Diddley Christmas song. The Tractors lay down a serious Diddley-esque groove, thanks to legendary Tulsa drummer Jimmy Karstein, and the quality of the playful lyrics are up there with the work of The Man himself.

While working with Bo in the studio on an unrelated project, Ripley managed to get a copy of the song to him and, of course, Bo dug it. They set up a date for Bo to record his own vocal on the song, but his first flight out was canceled due to bad weather. Shortly thereafter, on June 2, 2008, Bo Diddley passed away at his home in Florida from heart failure.

Bo Diddley’s version of “Bo Diddley Santa Claus” was not to be, but we still have this fantastic yuletide groove from Steve Ripley and The Tractors.

Merry Christmas, with a gumbo beat.

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Steve Ripley with Bo Diddley

Have you heard the news about old St. Nick?
For the first time ever Santa got sick
Call up the doctor, the doctor said
Santa Claus go straight to bed
Panic quickly turned into fear
Who’s gonna drive the sleigh this year?
Santa says there’s only one man
Who can do this job half as good as I can
Only one man that’s in the zone
Get Bo Diddley on the telephone

Hey, Bo Diddley!

Santa say Bo Diddley have you heard?
Bo say no say what’s the word?
Santa say Bo I’m feelin’ down
Must have caught somethin’ that was goin’ around
My head is spinnin’ and I got the shakes
But we can’t miss Christmas whatever it takes
There’s only one way to do it right
Bo Diddley will you drive my sleigh tonight?
Bo Diddley he don’t hesitate
He said I’m ready, willin’, able, & I’m feelin’ great

Hey, Bo Diddley!

Bo Diddley, Bo Diddley Santa Claus
Givin’ it all for the Christmas cause
Bo Diddley, Bo Diddley where you been?
All around the world and back again
Bo Diddley spreading Christmas joy
To every good little girl and boy
Now there’s a brand new rhythm from the reindeer feet
Rudolph groovin’ to the Bo Diddley beat
On Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen
On Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen

Hey, Rudolph, hey Bo Diddley!

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The Tractors Big Night album is available on iTunes or Amazon.

Remembering Elinor Morton Wylie

Elinor Morton Wylie September 7, 1885 - December 16, 1928

Elinor Morton Wylie
September 7, 1885 – December 16, 1928

Eighty-five years ago today, Elinor Wylie suffered a fatal stroke. She was only forty-three years old.

One of the early participants in the modern movement, Wylie helped to define and establish the new American poetry of the early twentieth century.

While her physical beauty and scandalous personal life may have overshadowed her reputation with the general public, the literary world praised her mastery of craft. Sharp insights, delicate ironies and extraordinary precision set her work apart.

Here are four of her exquisite––and subtly funny––poems:

Cold-Blooded Creatures

Man, the egregious egoist
(In mystery the twig is bent)
Imagines, by some mental twist,
That he alone is sentient

Of the intolerable load
That on all living creatures lies,
Nor stoops to pity in the toad
The speechless sorrow of his eyes.

He asks no questions of the snake,
Nor plumbs the phosphorescent gloom
Where lidless fishes, broad awake,
Swim staring at a nightmare doom.

                      — Elinor Morton Wylie

Little Joke

Stripping an almond tree in flower
The wise apothecary’s skill
A single drop of lethal power
From perfect sweetness can distill.

From bitterness in efflorescence,
With murderous poisons packed therein;
The poet draws pellucid essence
Pure as a drop of metheglin.

 — Elinor Morton Wylie

Pretty Words

Poets make pets of pretty, docile words:
I love smooth words, like gold-enamelled fish
Which circle slowly with a silken swish,
And tender ones, like downy-feathered birds:
Words shy and dappled, deep-eyed deer in herds,
Come to my hand, and playful if I wish,
Or purring softly at a silver dish,
Blue Persian kittens fed on cream and curds.

I love bright words, words up and singing early;
Words that are luminous in the dark, and sing;
Warm lazy words, white cattle under trees;
I love words opalescent, cool, and pearly,
Like midsummer moths, and honied words like bees,
Gilded and sticky, with a little sting.

Quarrel

The Trouble Begins at Nine?: Mark Twain, “A Speech on Women,” and Blackface Minstrelsy

“Trouble,” as I may have said once or twice, was Twain’s trademark.

On 11 January 1868, Mark Twain was asked to give a speech (printed in full below) responding to a toast at the Washington Correspondents’ Club.  The toast: “Woman, the pride of the professions and the jewel of ours.” 

John F. Scott, ed. New York:  Dick & Fitzgerald, 1868.

John F. Scott, ed. New York: Dick & Fitzgerald, 1868. Collection of the author.

The speech was well received and widely re-published in newspapers — and also in an 1868 book called Brudder Bones Book of Stump Speeches, and Burlesque Orations, which contains a variety of humorous speeches and sketches from the blackface stage, variety houses and the lecture circuit, all indiscriminately mixed together.  Twain, though, is given special recognition in the text, being referred to as “the celebrated humorist.” 

While Twain was initially tickled both by his speech and its coverage in the press — and even sent a copy to his own mother, who apparently loved it — he later worried about whether the speech was too vulgar in places.  In the various reprints, it would seem that some editors agreed with him, as they omitted bits here and there.  Their choices are interesting.

The Washington Star version (13 January 1868), for example, mildly says that Twain “responded” to the toast.  It omits an off-color reference to wives cuckolding their husbands and bearing others’ children and an appreciative tribute to Eve in the pre-fig-leaf days.

Brudder Bones, on the other hand, offers that Twain “was called upon to respond to a toast complimentary to women, and he performed his duty in the following manner.”   The book changes that “manner” a bit, by striking the final, conciliatory paragraph that puts all “jesting aside” with a toast honoring each man’s mother.  Brudder Bones also omits Twain’s stated desire to “protect” women, apparently not seeing this as necessary or appropriate, or perhaps funny.  Like the Star, the minstrel show version omits the reference to women’s infidelity and the children that arise from it, but reprints in full the appreciation of Eve, which celebrates female beauty and sexuality.

TroubleAtNineBut for Twain enthusiasts and scholars, Brudder Bones also includes another item of interest.  It is well known that Twain advertised his lectures with various versions of the phrase “The Trouble Begins at Eight.”  And his favorite blackface minstrel troupe, the San Francisco Minstrels, also used variations of the same phrase to advertise their shows for almost two decades, an association Twain seemed to enjoy — and certainly never complained about.  Brudder Bones, though, confirms that both Twain and the San Francisco Minstrels likely had an earlier source for that particular phrasing.  The 1868 book includes a sketch written and performed by blackface minstrel, entrepreneur, and promoter Charley White —  De Trouble Begins at Nine, as played at the American Theatre, 444 Broadway.  This theatre burned to the ground on 15 February 1866, according to theatre historian George Odell (VIII.84).

So . . . the trouble actually began at nine — nine to ten months before Twain’s inspired first use of a variation of the phrase.

And now, let’s take a look at the mild trouble Twain stirred up about women at the Correspondents’ Club, trouble that he felt that “they had no business” reporting “so verbatimly.”  For those who appreciate Twain’s later 1601, this “trouble” will seem tame indeed, but it does have its charms:

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A Speech on Women by Mark Twain

Washington Correspondents’ Club, 11 February 1868

MR. PRESIDENT: I do not know why I should have been singled out to receive the greatest distinction of the evening — for so the office of replying to the toast to woman has been regarded in every age.  [Applause.]  I do not know why I have received this distinction, unless it be that I am a trifle less homely than the other members of the club.  But, be this as it may, Mr. President, I am proud of the position, and you could not have chosen any one who would have accepted it more gladly, or labored with a heartier good-will to do the subject justice, than I.  Because, sir, I love the sex. [Laughter.] I love all the women, sir, irrespective of age or color. [Laughter.]

Human intelligence cannot estimate what we owe to woman, sir. She sews on our buttons [laughter], she mends our clothes [laughter], she ropes us in at the church fairs — she confides in us; she tells us whatever she can find out about the little private affairs of the neighbors ; she gives us good advice — and plenty of it — she gives us a piece of her mind, sometimes — and sometimes all of it ; she soothes our aching brows; she bears our children — ours as a general thing.  In all the relations of life, sir, it is but just, and a graceful tribute to woman to say of her that she is a perfect brick.[Great laughter.]

Wheresoever you place woman, sir — in whatever position or estate — she is an ornament to that place she occupies, and a treasure to the world.  [Here Mr. Twain paused, looked inquiringly at his hearers and remarked that the applause should come in at this point. It came in. Mr. Twain resumed his eulogy. Look at the noble names of history!  Look at Cleopatra! — look at Desdemona! — look at Florence Nightingale! –look at Joan of Arc! –look at Lucretia Borgia! [Disapprobation expressed. “Well,” said Mr. Twain, scratching his head doubtfully, “suppose we let Lucretia slide.”] Continue reading →

More Cowbell and Teaching American Humor

more-cowbell-o

I have a fever for exploring the curious life of one of the most bizarre and compelling comic sketches to work itself into the American grain, the collective unconsciousness, cultural zeitgeist, internet meme-life, and merchandising half-life: Saturday Night Live’s (SNL) “More Cowbell,” first shown on 08 April 2000.  According to Wikipedia (yes, “More Cowbell”–the catch phrase–has its own page), “the sketch is often considered one of the greatest SNL sketches ever made, and in many ‘best of’ lists regarding SNL sketches, it is often placed at number one [citation needed].” I don’t understand why Wikipedia wants a citation for this statement; we don’t need any stinking citations for something that is so clearly and indisputably true.  I have a “More Cowbell” app on my phone to prove it.

Here is a link to the sketch itself: More Cowbell Full Sketch

Gene Frenkle on Cowbell

The sketch, written by Will Ferrell, is inscrutable and inexplicable, which makes it a perfect tool for teaching American humor. In the introductory days of a class I teach called American Popular Humor, I have always included contemporary sketch comedy as a way to get students to explore what makes humans laugh and also to break down that laughter into components. In short, I ask them to dissect the humor. It is what teachers do, with apologies to the damage inherently done to the sheer joy provided by humor itself.

I have found that “More Cowbell,” provides an ideal source for exploring the layers of humor in any given piece of material. The sketch offers the complexity of T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” That is a joke with its own layers (which is what humor scholars say when a joke is not as funny as they think it should be). Actually, most of Eliot’s poetry is a bit more complicated that a Will Ferrell SNL sketch, but almost nobody cares, and nobody wears a t-shirt with “More Prufrock” on it. If I am wrong about that, I am sorry–and saddened, as I gaze at my own rolled-up slacks. If I am the first the come up with that idea, I freely grant full licensure to anyone who wishes to make such a shirt. Surely, there are a few English grad students who would scrounge enough money together to buy it.

Gotta-Have-More-Cowbell1-2cowbell-brown

But “More Cowbell” as both a fine example of American humor and a cultural phenomenon provides a useful and fun way to talk about humor and how laughter depends on some many tenuous moments. Students bring much to such a discussion built around “More Cowbell,” because they are familiar with it and recognize its references. With that in mind, a discussion of the sketch can lead to a stronger awareness of how the humor of any given sketch depends on far more than the quality of the writing and performances. The context is the thing.

First, the sketch is funny in and of itself. It is built around simple incongruities, most obviously regarding the overblown attention that a simple instrument like a cowbell earns in the production of a rock song., in this case, “(Don’t Fear) the Reaper” by Blue Oyster Cult. The supposedly famous producer–the Bruce Dickinson, played by Christopher Walken, creates the first true comic moment of the bit by pronouncing his desire for “more cowbell.” This is incongruous–and funny–because anyone who has ever listened to the song would be hard-pressed to argue that it needs more cowbell. But even so, those hearing the song opening measures for the first time can recognize how prominent the cowbell is along with the dominating physical presence of Will Ferrell (as “Gene Frenkle,” the fictional lead cowbell player).  That is the core written joke of the sketch: a great producer has a curious (and absurd) passion for more cowbell. Additionally, the sketch is an astute parody of the silly hyper-seriousness afforded to rock bands and their recording processes; the sillier-still seriousness of the VH1 rockumentary as a medium. All of this makes the sketch funny but alone is certainly not enough to earn or explain its legendary status. No, that comes from the live performance and the audience’s willingness to embrace the intangibles of the sketch. This is the point I am eager for students to embrace–the essential interaction between comic performances and audience desire.

“More Cowbell” is a funny bit that becomes hysterically funny in the moment based on the live performance. Students generally first assert that they enjoy the laughter of the actors on stage. This has been a key to the success of SNL from the beginning: audiences love when a performer breaks character and laughs–or, more appealingly, tries to suppress laughter. It is infectious. Jimmy Fallon’s SNL career, his greatest moments, are almost exclusively built around his difficulty in playing a straight man. The other players crack up as well. The sketch finds that magical balance between good comedic writing and the stage energy on the verge of chaos. The sketch is on the verge of collapse at every moment.

Which brings us to Christopher Walken, the essential component of the sketch as written and as performed. Students generally assert, without qualification, that Walken is the only actor that fit for that roll. His off-stage quirkiness carries into the performance itself in the minds of viewers. In short, “the Bruce Dickinson” is funny because Christopher Walken is weird, baby.

Walken-CowbellSNL_Fever_Cowbell_Black_Shirt

American humor at its best is alive and always feeding on the moment. That does not mean it must always be “live,” so to speak. Rather, it means that the humor must always derive from the energy between performer and audience and a mutual love and disdain for the world they share.

As “More Cowbell” has become more entrenched as a “classic” SNL sketch, it has become funnier still. For many of us, it also carries the warm glow of nostalgia for those times before we started rolling up our pants and counting our coffee spoons, when we could still stay awake late enough to see SNL and could recognize the hosts and the musical guests, and when those guests played musical instruments, and sometimes cowbells.

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Furries: A Convenient Comedic Fiction

The_Baseball_Furries_by_Quaylak

Apparently, someone else had thought of “The Baseball Furries” first

My bar trivia team changes its name with each new tournament. Every few months, this becomes a ritual where I pitch a series of disgusting and/or esoteric names like Bridget Jones’s Diarrhea or Rod Torfulson’s Armada Featuring Herman Menderchuk and the group rolls their eyes as they reject my ideas. In the last go-around, I became insistent that we name ourselves after one of the gangs from the 1979 cult film The Warriors. For no particular reason, I especially wanted to be called The Baseball Furies. In a flash of brilliance and to my surprise, a teammate suggested that we be called The Baseball Furries – combining the fictional gang with the name for people whose sexual fetish is to dress up like a Care Bear.1

This was a good name for a trivia team, but considering their usual aversion to jokes that might offend, I was surprised that the team was amenable to this name. It was difficult for me to imagine naming our team after any minority group – sexual or otherwise. I had to conclude that everyone pretty much assumed there to be no furries in the bar, nor would there be any in our social groups that could possibly take offense.

Drew-Carey-Show

Drew Carey dabbles.

Furries might exist somewhere, but nowhere, we assume, near us. It makes them a convenient reference for a laugh about other people’s perversion. And yet, our assumption that it is a minority group so small as to be nonexistent belies our and everyone else’s assumed familiarity with the practice. For a group that barely exists, there sure are a lot of people talking about furries. This is why the group is “fictional” – the amount of discourse that surrounds furry-ism immeasurably outweighs the reality of its practice. That it is other people’s perversion is key. Furry fetishism is so far off the radar of seemingly possible sexuality that it has come to stand in as a marker for sexual deviance in comedy. It is a common target for television comedies like The Drew Carey Show, Entourage, and Check It Out with Dr. Steve Brule. And in a comic twist on “rule 34,” furry culture is the topic of a lot of internet mockery.2

In an episode of 30 Rock, unlucky-in-love Liz Lemon finds a seemingly great guy who is single. Too good to be true? Yes – he’s a furry. This is reminiscent of the “all the good men are gay” sitcom trope where a woman falls for a gay man. One variation of this trope, which became the basis for Will and Grace, has a female character only realize at a humiliatingly late moment that her crush is gay. The key difference between Grace and Liz, however, is that while Will’s sexuality allowed the pair to easily reformulate their relationship as friends, Liz was so horrified at the prospect of furry-ism that it was borderline unimaginable for her to spend any more time with this man. And as the primary surrogate for the audience, it was implied that the we too should be comically horrified by the prospect of explorations in furry sexuality. That kind of experimentation was Jenna’s domain.

It is difficult to imagine, in the current media environment, having a character like Liz Lemon be horrified by a homosexual. Homer Simpson could get away with homophobia in 1997, as long as he learned tolerance by the end of the program. Although homophobia still exists in American comedy, the kind that would blatantly encourage a kind of abject dread is not terribly common in contemporary mass media. This is due to a host of factors, notably general changing social mores as well as more pointed calls for responsible representation by gay rights groups. Jokes constantly change their particulars while maintaining a common structure. That some gay jokes have shifted their target to furries is thus less notable than the fact that jokes have shifted from an identifiable group to a practically unidentifiable one.1345922347005

And this is neither only nor simply an issue of redirected homophobia. Jeffrey Sconce provocatively suggests that “the unconscious is slowly dying out” in part because of, “the Internet’s ability to actualize any and all erotic scenarios in seconds.” From a Freudian standpoint, the lack of an unconscious would obviate the need for humor or sexual shame, so why do we seem stubbornly stuck with jokes at the expense of furries? Furry jokes demonstrate at least some aspect of the unconscious is alive and that it is desperately trying to Other furries in an attempt to normalize the things of which we are all silently ashamed. We need furries because they make your internet browser history seem less embarrassing. But beware. Once that stuff becomes normalized, there will be few places left to go for the thrill of perversion. Someday, we will all become furries.

1I am aware that sex is supposedly only a part of this subculture, but let’s be honest – that’s how everyone thinks about this group. Read on in any case, because this relates to my point.

2Rule 34 states that on the internet, if it exists, there is porn of it.