Friday, December 12, 2008

For Novelty's Sake: "With Her Head Tucked Underneath Her Arm"

One of the oldest and most delightful of folk subgenres is the nonsense song - tunes like "Polly Wally Doodle All The Day" and "Jimmy Crack Corn" and "There Was An Old Woman Who Swallowed A Fly" - plus a host of Irish and English songs whose choruses and sometimes verses include no recognizable words in our mother language (see "Polly" above).

Commercial music's closest relative to folk's nonsense is the so-called novelty song, a composition whose primary point is humor, satire, or just plain weirdness. Though the era of recorded music has created an explosion of songs of this type - and we all remember gems like "The One-Eyed, One-Horned Flying Purple People Eater" and "The Monster Mash" and "Itsy-Bitsy Teenie-Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini" - such known-author ditties go way back. We have examples from 17th century England and 18th century colonial America, and every country I know of has some entries in their musical omnibus. Often born in taverns and bordellos, frequently bawdy to outright obscene, many of these novelty tunes seem to outlive apparently worthier compositions that just don't catch the long term public fancy with the same staying power.

Probably the single richest mine of novelty songs before the advent of record companies was the 19th century English music hall, ancestor of subsequent forms from burlesque to revues to musical comedies. There was a usually uptempo, ribald, joshing nature to the songs and a distinctive musical framework which has left its traces in 20th century music from flat-out music hall performers like Sophie Tucker (and about half the import acts on the old Ed Sullivan Show) to the structure and sound of performers like the Beatles (Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band IS a music hall album far more than anything that could be called rock) to Herman's Hermits To Elton John.

The Kingston Trio from almost the first recognized the value for pacing in shows and on albums of including some of these numbers. Their "formula" for the early albums usually included a banjo blaster or three, a foreign language number, ballad/solos, a sea chantey and/or spiritual - and one song at least designed to evoke smiles and laughter - they were, after all, a nightclub act that got seriously out of hand. And the English music hall was one of the best sources for KT funny numbers - consider "Three Jolly Coachmen" (folk, but a music hall staple), "The Unfortunate Miss Bailey," (ditto), "The Ballad of the Shape of Things (a modern satire of madrigals but one that would have been at home in those old British theaters), "The Tattooed Lady" (authentic music hall) - and this weekend's videos of a late entry into the genre but one of its most popular, Weston and Lee's "With Her Head Tucked Underneath Her Arm" from 1960's Sold Out Album.

Most people know the rough outlines of the story of Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII's second wife, mother of the great Queen Elizabeth, and victim of likely trumped-up charges of adultery, for which she was beheaded. I fear, however, that recent dramatic treatments of this lady have served to distort the reality of the complex, driven, headstrong person that she was in an effort to garner more sympathy for her than most in Britain seem to feel - or than she deserves. It'd be hard not to feel some pity for a woman in an era in which all females were chattels of men, who succeeded brilliantly in many of her ambitions, and who met an unjust death (historians are about 99% certain that she was just too clever to commit adultery with anyone, much less with her brother, one of the four named co-respondents) with courage, dignity, and a remarkably well-crafted speech - unless you also remember that she parlayed Henry's desire for her (which she thwarted until he had tried to annul his first marriage) into the dismissal of a woman ten times her superior in everything except sexual politics (Catherine of Aragon, the princess of the age), a crown, and the securing of it through the engineered executions of the saintly Bishop John Fisher and the most remarkable intellect of his and nearly any age, the man for all seasons himself, Sir Thomas More. Anne's date with the headsman was an example of "as ye soweth, so also shall ye reapeth." She played a high stakes game remarkably well until she lost the final big wager.

That may account for the English ambivalence about her reflected in this song. Macabre in its conception (and likely less amusing in the wake of the very real horrors of the last ten years), the song manages to steep itself in a kind of campy horror that clearly echoes "The Unfortunate Miss Bailey" and provides the same kind of amusement that prevents you from taking it seriously. Composers Weston and Lee, successful in pop music in the 20s and 30s, wrote the song in 1934, apparently for the prince of the British music hall, the then-44 year old Stanley Holloway, still two decades away from his signature role as Eliza Doolittle's father in the London, Broadway, and film productions of My Fair Lady ("I'm gettin' married in the mornin'/Ding dong the bells are going to chime.....get me to the church on time"). Here's Holloway in the original recording:

Holloway's American music hall counterpart Rudy Vallee - he of the megaphone and dancing chorines - attacks the number with more American gusto and Cyril Smith on lead:

The Kingston Trio used Vallee's American lyric rewrite ("Army" and "Red Grange") but give it their own distinctive flair - one of those too rare numbers that features Nick's tenor guitar at the front of the accompaniment:

For a creepier, slower and weirder version - Dean Gitter from 1957:

And finally, a novelty within the novelty - a lady singing the piece - Molly Twitch at a 2010 DickensFest. This is what a 19th century English music hall performance may well have looked like::

Weston scored again in the 40s with a song that many of us remember from the 60s - "I'm 'Enerey The Eighth, I Am" as done by the aforementioned Herman's Hermits. It takes a rare talent - and an unusual mind - to come up with two such memorably off-beat songs.


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