Wednesday, August 29, 2012

John Stewart 's American Vision Once More - "Armstrong"

In the last few days, I have noticed an unusual amount of traffic on Comparative Video 101 from a group website called "Our Mechanical Brain", an eclectic and interesting blog with articles covering a wide range of topics. One post was called "Infrequent Bloggers - Part 2" in which blogger Peter Lewis listed some of his favorite non-daily blogs, one of which just happens to be CompVid101. Peter wrote "At Comparative Video 101, each entry focuses on a single popular folk song and explores its history through embedded Youtube videos of the various versions recorded by different artists. Even if folk isn’t your favorite genre, it’s fascinating reading for anyone who likes to see how songs evolve across different cover versions — something that used to be a lot more common in pop music than it is today."

I am of course more than pleased by the notice and the compliment, although I cannot help but feel a little melancholy at one phrase that Peter nailed with absolute accuracy - that intelligent and interesting cover versions of songs are by far the exception rather than the rule in U.S. pop music today. Pure commercialism and the quest for the sure-fire profit shapes American music today as surely as they shape the output of Hollywood, and those media today stand in stark contrast to the wild experimentalism of the 1960s and 1970s in film and music when both artists and corporations often seemed hell-bent to outdo each other in originality and innovation - which is one very good reason why that era is often regarded beyond simple nostalgia as a kind of golden age in American popular culture. You could make a ton of money back then with a radical and shocking movie like Midnight Cowboy or a concept musical album like Pink Floyd's The Wall, satisfying both the artists' need for expression and the companies' need for a substantial return on investment. Everybody won.

What has also all but disappeared from high-profile pop music today is the topical song, those compositions that reacted to significant events at a particular point in time and that hearkened back to the old folk tradition of the "broadside" ballad, so named because the songs' lyrics were often disseminated on large sheets of newsprint that were posted on public walls - hence broadsides. A goodly number of songs profiled on this site ("The Escape Of Old John Webb" or "Jesse James", for example) could fairly be described as broadsides, and while you really couldn't call American topical songs of the 60s by the same term because of format and intent, the offerings of Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs and Buffy Ste. Marie and others stand squarely in the same tradition.

The death a few days ago of Neil Armstrong, who had always known and acknowledged that he was simply the public face of a massive endeavor that involved thousands of people, reminded me that long after today's elections and social issues and bitter, divisive politics are but footnotes in dusty (likely digital) history books, the transcendent significance of Armstrong's stroll across the lunar surface on July 20, 1969 will be remembered as one of humanity's greatest moments, the one in which we all in the personage of Armstrong "slipped the surly bonds of earth" and took our first baby steps out into the cosmos whence we came.

I would guess that had Armstrong taken his walk in 1769 or 1869, a flood of broadsides would have followed hard upon, and people a century later might well be humming "The Ballad of Neil Armstrong" or some such, as historical memory would have been nurtured by songs and storytelling instead of by dry recitation in print or fanciful recreation in film. In the eras before mass media, popular culture was more often a phenomenon that bubbled up from the people rather than as now a phenomenon often created by trend-meisters and faddists who foist the products from their focus-group and market research departments down to the masses for consumption. It is an economic landscape that would more likely create a Neil Armstrong bobble-head than an enduring song about him.

So I think it fortunate that Armstrong and the rest of the rocket boys had a few poetically-minded bards to try to celebrate their achievements, and if Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff and Norman Mailer's Of A Fire On The Moon are lengthy books in prose and not broadsides, they at least tried to fill the void, the need for a public expression of wonder at what our eyes had seen during those years of lightning when the nation watched each space launch, each moment of life-and-death drama, transfixed by the audacity and the sheer gutsiness of it all.

Fortunate too that John Stewart was young enough to feel the same wonder that those of us a bit younger than he was felt- but mature enough in his craft and chosen profession to have become by then an accomplished songwriter. Seven years earlier, Stewart had written in the liner notes for his Kingston Trio's New Frontier album that "A phrase like that needs to be sung," alluding to the JFK administration's self-characterization cited in the LP's name. And in the title song on the album, as well as several others in the early part of his career, Stewart invoked the space program and its astronauts as the primary symbols of the restless questing of the human spirit that so appealed to him about both Kennedy's rhetoric and the general idealism of the time that the rhetoric helped to create.

So it was no surprise that the 29-year-old Stewart would be so moved by the epic nature of the achievement represented by Armstrong's walk that he would try to express the complexity of his emotional response to it in a topical song, and a fine one at that, a song that stands up through the decades precisely because it expresses that complexity. Stewart's "Armstrong" is not the ringing anthem that his earlier "New Frontier" and "Road To Freedom" were. He is, after all, writing in 1969, at the close of a decade that had begun in such promise but by its end had seemed to descend into a dark and uncertain chaos. That darkness made Armstrong's jaunt stand out the more brightly, providing a counterpoint of hope to the near despair of the black boy in Chicago and the young girl in Calcutta of his lyric. It is a theme that Stewart would revisit again and again in the subsequent decades in songs like "Survivors" and "Botswana" and "Heart of a Kid" - that despite suffering and loss, there is always hope if we only know where to look for it - in the case of "Armstrong," upward toward the stars and toward our highest aspirations as a nation and as people.

Stewart first waxed "Armstrong" while he was still with Capitol, for an album that the label never released. However, it was released as a single and did well in selected markets:

(Well, the CopyVio people got to this version; I'll restore it if it ever reappears. Instead - a very much later JS rendition from the 1990s, one in which Stewart's aging voice conveys a very different perspective than the one from 1973 immediately below.)

February, 2016: Stewart's original single recording is back up on YouTube, at least for now, so here it is, an interesting contrast to the album version that follows:

Stewart is said to have preferred this recording to the one that was eventually included on his first album on RCA, 1973's Cannons In The Rain, in the minds of many his best overall LP. And certainly it was this single version that was taken up by the other artists below. But Stewart's Cannons is a genuinely great album, not least because of the superior recording techniques that RCA was using for Stewart's kind of music - and lest we forget, RCA did practically invent the phonograph record and was the industry standard in sound reproduction for decades. The aural quality here more than makes up for the unnecessary orchestral flourishes - take at least a brief listen and compare to the Capitol single:

The much-beloved Australian country singer Reg Lindsay, one of that nation's most successful "Western" artists, picked up the song in 1971, exactly halfway between Stewart's Capitol and RCA recordings:

Lindsay had a major hit with this countrified "Armstrong," and at his death at 79 in 2008 it was the tune mentioned most prominently in the obituaries.

American Kent LaVoie went by the stage name of Lobo and is likely best remembered by the general audience for his single hit "Me And You And A Dog Named Boo." But LaVoie was a capable if somewhat gentle songwriter in his own right, rather Donovan-esque in his approach, and those qualities are in evidence in his 1974 rendition of Stewart's song:

Finally, Geoff Robertson is a younger folk/roots/songwriter performer who uses all that modern technology affords to put together a tribute video to the moon landing using his rendition of Stewart's composition as the soundtrack:

It's a fine and creative performance released in July of 2009 on the 40th anniversary of the event. The moving and from my point of view entirely appropriate change that Robertson makes to the very ending of the song was done with the permission of the publisher, Stewart himself having died a year and a half earlier.

Neil Armstrong's passing brought back a flood of memories of a time and a place and an optimism now all long gone. But the magnitude of the event itself was captured best, I think, by Lisa Cornwell and Seth Borenstein in their outstanding and moving Associated Press obituary from last Saturday:

An estimated 600 million people — a fifth of the world's population — watched and listened to the landing, the largest audience for any single event in history...Parents huddled with their children in front of the family television, mesmerized by what they were witnessing. Farmers abandoned their nightly milking duties, and motorists pulled off the highway and checked into motels just to see the moonwalk...Television-less campers in California ran to their cars to catch the word on the radio. Boy Scouts at a camp in Michigan watched on a generator-powered television supplied by a parent...Afterward, people walked out of their homes and gazed at the moon, in awe of what they had just seen.

John Stewart's "Armstrong" expresses that significance as well, albeit in a different medium and to a different effect. In Stewart's imagination, the moon landing is symbol of all that we can achieve, despite our repeated failures to satisfy the boy's hunger or rid the marketplace of the flies that will cut the girl's life short. For him, it is the capacity to feel awe that gives us the hope that someday - someday - we may be able to do exactly those other things as well.

And In Addition...

Courtesy of Jan Hauenstein of the German chapter of Bloodlines, the John Stewart message group - a guitar arrangement of his for those who would like to learn the song. Jan's key reflects the comfort level of his bass/baritone voice; a capo will do nicely for those who sing in higher registers.

"Armstrong" by John Stewart

(G) Black boy in Chi(Am)cago, (Am7)
Playing in the (G)street,
Not enough to (Am)wear, (Am7)
Not near enough to (G)eat.
(Am7) But don't you know he (D7)saw it
(Am7) On a July after(G)noon,
He saw a man named (Am)Armstrong (Am7)
Walk upon the (G)moon.

And a young girl in Cal(Am)cutta, (Am7)
Barely eight years (G)old,
The flies that swarm the (Am)market place (Am7)
Will see she don't get (G)old.
(Am7) But don't you know she (D)heard it
(Am7) On that July after(G)noon,
She heard a man named (Am)Armstrong (Am7)
Had walked upon the (G)moon.
She heard a man named (Am)Armstrong (Am7)
Had walked upon the (G)moon.(Gj7)(G6)(G5)(G4)(G)
(Am) (D)(D7)(G)

The rivers are getting (Am)dirty, (Am7)
The wind is getting (G)bad.
War and hate is (Am)killing off (Am7)
The only earth we (G)have.
(Am7) But the world all (D)stopped to watch it
(Am7) On that July after(G)noon,
To watch a man named (Am)Armstrong (Am7)
Walk upon the (G)moon,
To watch a man named (Am)Armstrong (Am7)
Walk upon the (G)moon.

Oh I (Am7)wonder if a long (D7)time ago,
(Am7) Somewhere in the uni(G)verse,
They watched a man named (Am)Adam (Am7)
Walk upon the (G)earth.(Gj7)(G6)(G5)(G4)(G) (Am) (D) (G)

© John Stewart, All Rights Reserved

Thursday, August 23, 2012

"Coplas/Canastas Y Mas Canastas"

For rather more than fifty years now, American folk fans have generally believed incorrectly that "Coplas" was the name of a song, recorded with the widest notoriety (and that is, as we shall see, the correct term) by first Cynthia Gooding in a duet with Theodore Bikel and a bit later in a still-controversial arrangement by the Kingston Trio. But coplas is a generic term in Spanish. Usually translated as "verses," it can in certain circumstances also mean "song" or refer to a cuplé, an often suggestive Spanish music hall number popular more than 80 years ago in Mexico and other parts of Latin America and Spain itself. All three definitions are necessary elements in understanding today's song, whose origin is in a Mexican tune called "Canastas y más canastas," or "Baskets And More Baskets." The literary Freudians among you may already have guessed from that title the direction in which this post is headed.

The word "coplas" itself in the first and most common definition above actually has an almost innocent charm to it. Romance-minded poets could write "Coplas de amor" or "Las coplas de la Luna" - verses of love or stanzas about the moon. The word is usually used in the plural, but it descends from the earlier singular term copla, referring to a Spanish poem or folk song with four lines per verse - which also characterizes the always-naughty cuplé. Our "Canastas" song today could fairly be described by that last term since in every version still current there are a number of very suggestive double entendres, the most common one being the image of a cat in a sombrero and pantaloons interrupting the singer's wedding night. More on that below.

"Canastas y más canastas" is probably based on a traditional song, but the most commonly-sung version today was copyrighted by Humberto Betancourt Espinoza (1909-83), a popular singer, actor and songwriter originally from Veracruz. The tune was initially a hit for Irma Vila (1916-1993), often called the queen of falsetto, that high-pitched intoning of a melody through the nose and not the mouth, giving the singer greatly enhanced upper ranges. Think of most of what Frankie Valli did or the leads on most Bee Gees songs - that's falsetto. Vila was indeed very skillful with this, as she shows on her recording of "Canastas":

The lyrics are mostly double-entendres about flower baskets and roosters and an oddly dressed "cat" trying to enter a bridal chamber from a balcony. This track is from 1947, and if you know no Spanish but what you've heard in the Gooding/Bikel or KT versions of "Coplas," you can clearly hear Vila referencing the cat with a hat and long pants (un gato prieto con sombrero y pantalon) at the 1:10-1:13 mark in the song, followed by the male singers alluding to the interrupted wedding night. What puts this squarely in the cuplé tradition is that those improper tunes were originally sung on the stage by slinky Mae West-type chanteuses - or by men in drag. The last verse in this version sung by Vila means roughly "Fortune made me lucky/I'm poor but happy/I'm like a cactus spine/Bare but tasty" to which the male chorus replies "I would like to have the good fortune/the joy that the Rooster has/that has many hens...but I can no longer" - presumably because the male singer is trying to enjoy his first night of monogamous wedded bliss, only to be interrupted by one of his bride's former lovers trying to sneak in over the balcony.

The best-known latter day rendition of the song is probably by El Trío Los Panchos, a popular mariachi-oriented group that started in 1944, though this version is from 1962:

The first verses of "Canastas" are in colloquial or nearly slang Spanish and thus hard to translate correctly, but they go something like this:

Baskets and more baskets
María Andrea has a nice basket
It doesn't lump the bed
So nothing flowers

María Antonia also has a good basket
It doesn't lump the bed
So no flowers sprout.
That's very rough, but you get the idea. If you happen to be a cat with a snazzy hat and some fine pants who likes to jump from basket to basket, you surely don't want any flowers to sprout as a result.

All of which makes Gooding's liner notes for the equally racy version of
"Canastas" that she and Bikel named "Coplas" either disingenuously pretending to an innocence about the song's meaning or really just missing the point entirely. Gooding suggests that the tune is "a courting song from southern Mexico which.....has an almost blues form...." Not hardly, I would say, on both counts. First, a song this suggestive would not be appropriate for any kind of courting ritual, as anyone who has ever had a daughter would probably attest. You want that young man who comes calling to be un caballero, a gentleman, serenading your little girl with songs of love and the moon - not tunes about a randy cat. No, this is far more likely a wedding song, one used rather later in the reception when everyone has had plenty to drink and wants to dance and appreciates a bit of blue humor - or at least won't make a fuss about it when the men begin with it. Second, the chord structure of most of the verse and all of the chorus sounds nothing like blues at all - unless Gooding mistook that structure here (a very standard Em-D-C-B7 progression heard in hundreds if not thousands of Spanish language songs) for something like Mexican blues, which it is not - it is in flamenco style, and that is the musical language of erotic passion and seduction, of desire and fulfillment and loss and need. Fine for the wedding, friends, but not when you're trying to take my baby out for a ride in your carriage.

I tend to think that Gooding and Bikel knew exactly what the song meant, based on the verve with which they sang it, and a pity it is that we don't have a YouTube video of their version to demonstrate that fact.* There is little question, however, that the Kingston Trio lifted the Bikel/Gooding Spanish lyric completely, hammed up the presentation a bit, and provided the droll and usually fairly accurate translation into English that Cynthia and Theo avoided. This is the studio cut from the group's first album in 1958, in which the translation of the last verse - a cat wearing the familiar sombrero and long pants - was bowdlerized away from the Spanish original lyric, as discussed below:

This song by the original KT was always a popular concert number for them, and the group performed it in its 12 song set at the first Newport Folk Festival in July of 1959. Three and a half decades later, however, when Vanguard Records finally released a CD of that show, "Coplas" was missing from it despite the fact that there was a clean recording of it available (as attested to by its inclusion in the Bear Family's huge and comprehensive boxed set of Trio recordings). As far as I know, there was no public announcement of why it was omitted, but it's pretty clear that standards of humor had changed by the 1994 release date of the Newport recording. My friend Mary Katherine Aldin of radio and folk collection fame produced that album for Vanguard, and she fought tooth and nail to keep "Coplas" on the CD for purposes of historical accuracy. She even offered to write an explanatory note about the difference in eras and values and the evolution of our national culture - but the powers that be at Vanguard were either themselves too offended by the cut or too afraid of public outcry to permit it, so off it stayed.

I would guess that it was the mocking of Spanish and Japanese accents in English that disturbed them the most, but that in itself is a bit ironic. Dave Guard's "U C R A" quip during the second-to-last verse is actually covering up a lyric that is arguably rather more offensive. The Spanish for that verse is

La mula que yo mente la monto hoy mi compadre.
Eso a mi no me importa pues yo la mon te primero

which means

The mule that I used to ride
Is now ridden by my friend
Makes no matter to me
Because I mounted her first.

I'm not completely sure that they could get away with singing that today, much less in 1958. On second thought, though, network and air wave censors might well let that bit of humor onto a broadcast. The verse doesn't use any of George Carlin's famous forbidden words, and the only interest group being demeaned here is women - a long-standing tradition in world cultures anyway, and demonstrated one way or another on American television nightly. And lest one wishes to take me to task for saying that, I would simply ask if anyone would like his mother, wife, daughter, friend, girlfriend, or any other female significant to him referred to as a mule fit mainly for mounting.

And that really is the same problem with the Trio's overall rendition of the song. I may not have been offended at first decades ago by the mocking accents, but then I am neither Mexican nor Japanese. The Trio got in some fairly hot water less than a year after "Coplas" with the release of their second single, "The Tijuana Jail," which was banned from radio stations not only in TJ but throughout Mexico - again, for the satire of Mexican pronunciation of English and the consequent perceived disrespect for the country and its people. It's not as if that song and "Coplas" and Bill Dana as José Jiménez weren't offensive to a lot of people fifty plus years ago; we who aren't of Mexican heritage just didn't hear about it.

It's been said over the years by well-intentioned people that we should get over "political correctness" and all enjoy a good laugh over songs like this and have the KT reintroduce "Coplas" to its stage show. I'm all for the first part of that - p.c. run amok is a poison, an enemy to free speech and all things democratic. But insensitivity is equally pernicious. The measure of it all is in the Good Book and has been for rather more than two millenia - "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you." Take what is most precious to you - your religion, for example, or the flag of the country, or your children, anything with which your own identity is bound up - give it to some college smart alecks and have them mock the living daylights out of it with a meanness of spirit that comes from their failure to understand how and why that thing is so important to you - and walk away laughing with them. Some people can do that to a certain degree, but it's not common. Maybe if we had a Mexican theater troupe making fun of the American flag the point would be clearer. If we could all laugh at that, then perhaps it would be ok to rescue "Coplas" from the shelf of humor that has passed its expiration date where it now rests. 


*Addendum, September 2015
A few months ago, YouTube itself posted a copyright-permitted video of the Bikel/Gooding rendition. I'm happy to be able to include it here in memory of the recently-departed Theodore Bikel, whose contributions to American folk music, film, and theater are unparalleled for their breadth and depth.

Monday, August 20, 2012

"Seasons In The Sun"

This is a re-posting to rectify an error I made in May of 2009 when I conflated two very different posts into one - this look at Rod McKuen's "Seasons In The Sun" and a video presentation of all the songs from the 1962 album The Best of the Kingston Trio. I did so because first, until that time all of the posts here had been on individual songs, and second, because I was a bit embarrassed to be publishing posts of all Kingston Trio songs or even one McKuen creation - not because I don't like both of them to different degrees but rather because such posts seemed out of step with the whole approach of this blog. Since then, however, I've posted maybe 14 articles that were not about single songs, and ol' Rod has appeared in the song posts several times, especially this year. So it seemed natural to split the two posts as I should have done originally. The Best of the Kingston Trio post can still be found on May 9, 2009.

I have to say at the outset that it took me more years than I'd care to admit to appreciate the Kingston Trio's version of "Seasons In The Sun." I wasn't at first a huge fan of the Time To Think, the album on which it appeared, because I felt that the Kingston Trio for once was trying to catch somebody else's coattails - in this case, Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary - rather than be the step ahead of everyone else that they always had been. Additionally, if the Trio actually had a "dark" album, it was this one and not Make Way, especially when it is contrasted with the thematic and aural brightness of New Frontier (which remains probably my personal favorite album of the Shane-Reynolds-Stewart years of the KT from '61 to '67- it still just sounds so good).

Further, by the career point of Time To Think, the Trio was in full retreat from what folk music had been both traditionally and in terms of what they themselves had shaped it into. What TTT gives us is a mix of the trenchant ("If You Don't Look Around," "Coal Tattoo"), the wistful (Hobo's Lullaby," "No One To Talk My Troubles To"), and the sentimental ("Turn Around," "These Seven Men"). But nowhere on the album is a song that even remotely would have been termed "folk" a half dozen years earlier, and this is absolutely the first Trio album of which that was true.

What emerges from the record - and what "Seasons In The Sun" most effectively represents - is the group turning toward a broadening of its repertoire and an attempt not to be pigeonholed as a kind of feel-good, banjo-ringing frat party act that was fiddling while Rome burned. As an album whose entire playlist was original songs penned by professional singer-songwriters, it put an emphatic punctuation mark at the end of the group's continual rejection of the label "folksingers."

"Seasons In The Sun" is an Americanized attempt to tap into the rich vein of music that came out of French cabarets and [the real and original] Paris coffee houses of most of the last century and that gave rise to legendary singers like Edith Piaf, Charles Aznavour (the French Sinatra and a tremendous vocalist) - and Jacques Brel himself.

Introduce into this milieu (and I feel a lot of French working its way into this post) San Francisco dilettante and Beat poet wannabe Rod McKuen, a hanger-on to the fringes of genuine iconoclasts (sorry - Greek)like Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Kenneth Rexroth, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and more - who, like them or not, are the major American poetic voices of their era. McKuen didn't fit in with them - his verse was too light, too transparent, too simple in thought and composition, and he seemed to lack some of the Beats' self-destructiveness. So like any good lost artist, McKuen went to France around 1959 and ran into the cafe society, Brel's songs, and eventually Brel himself. The two became collaborators and fast friends; Brel seems to have approved even of McKuen's extremely free-hand and Americanized translations of Brel's very Gallic compositions, like "Seasons."

I believe it was the Kingstons' roots in San Francisco that acquainted them with McKuen, and the Trio's recording of "Seasons" is the first English language version of the song after McKuen's himself. The excellent production values of this cut are self-evident - the wonderful and subtle nylon guitar lead (John Steuber?), the likely John Stewart 12 string main accompaniment - and a superb lead vocal by Bob Shane, whose husky baritone is fully mature and in peak form:

The song is actually titled "Le Moribond" - "The Dying Man" - and though McKuen sticks to that general theme, Brel's actual sentiments are radically different. But whatever McKuen's shortcomings as a poet may be, he is an innovative and sensitive lyricist, and his live performance of this song is as close as you'll get in English to an authentic French cabaret effect:

This is real French cabaret stuff - the savoir faire, the je ne sais quoi, the inimitable French shrug of the shoulders in the face of catastrophe. I think McKuen's words capture some of that effectively, but - well, the French are the French.

I'm sure that we were all chagrined when an amiable musical lightweight named Terry Jacks took the Trio's recording in 1974 and turned it into a monster hit -

Overlooking for a moment the really thin and affect-less nature of the vocal - much of the musical accompaniment seems to be a riff off of the Steuber-Stewart-Shane-Reynolds work of the first recording.

After Jacks, a host of other artists tried their hand at imitating him instead of the Trio (as they should have):

The Beach Boys (Jacks should just have let them do it)

Nirvana (possibly a joke, and Cobain sounds stoned)

Westlife (really pleasant)

I like Westlife's version myself, the rest....

The studio recording by Brel gives us the song in its original production concept. In the best cafe tradition, Brel pulls a fast one here - the drumming background rhythm is similar to a bolero (think Ravel and Dudley Moore's movie 10), a truly erotic style used here to underscore a song about death. Sex and death - you don't get much more French than that:

We are at the very least a very long way from "Tom Dooley" here, on unfamiliar ground, breaking away from the roots that sustained the group's original and unprecedented popularity.

Appendix, 6/11

I just ran across a fine version of the song from Arizona's Joe Bethancourt, one of the leading performers and musicians in that folk-rich state (Dolan Ellis, Bill Zorn, the late Travis Edmonson at whose memorial this clip was recorded). Joe is both a traditionalist musician and a songwriter with an iconoclastic bent to his politics - and one of the most brilliant banjoists I've ever heard. I spent a pleasant hour with him and Greg Deering (of Deering Banjos) in August of 2010 in Scottsdale, AZ and had previously included his rendition of "South Coast" in my 2010 article on that song. Joe does a very authentic cabaret approach to the song here:

Thursday, August 16, 2012

"The Tattooed Lady"

This odd little song is delightfully mysterious in its origin, at least as far as where it started its life. The when is easier to pin down, as we will see, because it is derived from a very familiar tune about which we know considerably more than we do about "The Tattooed Lady." I always thought that it was an English or French music hall tune, the former because the first version I heard was by the Kingston Trio in the late 1950s, and they sang it with the broadly satirical attempt at a British accent that they used on a number of their early recordings, and the latter because of the melody's affiliation with the most common musical setting for the can-can, that naughty Parisian theatrical dance with the lifted skirts and high kicks and all. And certainly there are variants of the tune throughout the English-speaking world, many of them positively obscene, ranging from Scotland to England to Australia and back. Complicating any search for information about the number is the fact that there are so many different songs with the same title, more or less, most especially "Lydia, The Tattoed Lady" by Yip Harburg ("Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?" and "Somewhere Over The Rainbow") popularized in a delightful performance by Groucho Marx in the 1930s.

But the likeliest point of origin for "The Tattooed Lady" may well be the Ozarks of Missouri - and that is strange because it doesn't sound much like a fiddle or banjo tune. Yet a multitude of different lyrics were collected in Arkansas and Mizzou in the 1940s, all using the basic frame of the verses but substituting local names and places for the more familiar ones we hear today. The tune also bears a strong resemblance to a very old country number called "My Home In Tennessee," the western portion of which state practically trips over the Ozark plateau.

And the root song is definitely of St. Louis origin. I'm pretty sure that I recognized right away that "The Tattooed Lady" uses a melody virtually identical to the chorus of "Ta Ra Ra Boom De Ay," but the connection didn't take hold in my mind because I usually heard the latter tune in brass band arrangements as a backing for circus acts or as a kind of ragtime piano number in B westerns that always seemed to feature a saloon scene with can-can dancers. But the origin of "Ta Ra Ra" is rather less savory and far more colorful than circuses or dance halls. The earliest copyright was filed by Henry Sayers in 1891, but Sayers was unusually frank in acknowledging that he had heard the ditty in all its suggestive glory in Babe Bonner's notorious St. Louis brothel, sung by local celebrity Mama Lou, a black songstress who did a slower, bluesier version than we hear today, which she punctuated with bumps, grinds, and pelvic thrusts (imagine "ta ra ra BOOM de ay" with a snare and bass drum accompaniment and the picture becomes clearer). Sayers cleaned up the lyrics and sped up the song, which didn't catch on in America until popular singer Lotte Collins took to England a further re-written version called "The Tuxedo Girl" that became a big hit and migrated to Paris, where the high-stepping young ladies of the musical revues adopted it for the can-can - and returned it to the U.S. complete with that scandalous dance, thank you.

Here is jazz age version of "The Tuxedo Girl" from 1943 by Mary Martin:

The lyrics about Dorsey and NBC are added of course, but the two principal verses about the naughty and nice girl are directly from Collins, and Martin is incorporating just a hint of Mama Lou's suggestiveness with a clear nod of the head (or shake of the butt, if you will) to the can-can girls of fifty years earlier. I'm not sure I'll ever be able to watch Martin's Peter Pan quite the same way ever again.

(Sadly and as you can see, Martin's performance has been yanked from YouTube, something that's becoming increasingly rare as I write this in September of 2015 as content creators have come to terms more and more frequently with video sites. I'm hoping for a return of Martin's "Tuxedo Girl" and will leave this section in for a while. Until then - we can enjoy a performance of "Ta Ra Ra" that closely mirrors the combination of innocence and suggestiveness of Martin's, this one from a couple of years ago by the marvelously stage-named Winnie-Woopsie Tapatit:

The raging notoriety of "Ta Ra Ra" throughout Europe, America, and Australia makes the transition of that song into "The Tattooed Lady" very murky indeed, with everyone from Australian rugby teams to Royal Navy sailors claiming credit for the standard lyrics we sing today. Even the academics are uncertain. I hooted with laughter when I saw, for example, that the Hill Collection at the University of Arizona listed the composer as "Jack Splittard," which was a pseudonym adopted by the members of the Kingston Trio when they wanted to copyright an arrangement of a public domain song and, well, split the jack. And though the song appears in Boy Scout hiking song collections from the '30s and in a 1943 B movie called (appropriately, perhaps) Hi Ya, Sailor! and elsewhere, it was the Trio's version from their 1960 Billboard #1 String Along album that restored the tune to national commercial prominence.

I'd bet on lead singer Nick Reynolds as the source for this as far as the KT was concerned. His father was a U.S. Navy captain who loved to play guitar, and sailors military and commercial from all points of the compass seem to have a very unsurprising affinity for the song.

The lone surviving member of the original Kingston Trio, Bob Shane, performs the number here in 2009 at the group's fantasy camp with the current group of (l-r) George Grove, Bill Zorn, and Rick Dougherty with Paul Gabrielson on bass:

The only other truly professional video of the tune that I could find comes from a somewhat unlikely source, at least in my opinion: angel-voiced Judith Durham of Australia's Seekers, here from a 1970 television show entitled Meet Judith Durham after she had left the group:

It's fun and fresh, but Durham looks just a little awkward and rushes the conclusion a bit, perhaps because of the "chest" reference that was at variance both with her wholesome Seekers persona and the primly pigtailed schoolgirl look that she is sporting. It is worth noting, though, that both before and after her tours with the Seekers, Durham was known as a powerful and sultry cabaret singer of jazz and blues.

From there it's on to the enthusiastic amateurs - first David Menefee, with broad and self-kidding humor:

David's sole video note reads "It is what it is" - I love that.

And for the truly strange, DJ Preo with a spoken version:

Well - it is what it is.

Of at least equal interest are some of the lyric variations that pop up here and there. Walt Robertson, a West Coast folkie from around Berkeley active in the 40s (and about whom I've read but have never heard) used as his opening verse

I paid a bob to see
A Scotch tattooed lad-ee
She was a sight to see
Tattooed from head to knee

and concludes with

But what I like best
Was right across her chest:
My home in Tennessee!

-one of many lyric versions that include a reference to Tennessee, including most of the aforementioned Ozark arrangements.

A Royal Navy version collected around 1960 is a bit more raw:

I went to gay par-ee'
And paid five francs to see
A bloody great French cherie
Tattooed from head to knee
And on her lower jaw
Was a British man-o-war
And across her back was a union jack
so I paid five francs more
to see her lilly white tits
And a map of the rising sun (up her bum)
And all along her spine
Were the andrew crew in line
And tattooed on her fanny
Was Al Jolson - singing mammy
But I love her
Yes I love her
That bloody great French cherie

There are dozens of other lyrical variations, including several which I won't post here. However, if you're not easily offended, you might glance at one of the British rugby team versions HERE - it's a .pdf, and the version is song 140 on p. 78. Along the way you'll find plenty of other bawdy numbers, often set to familiar tunes.

"The Tattooed Lady" as we know it is pleasant enough to be sung by scouts but suggestive enough, I would think, to raise a few eyebrows here and there even today. No matter. The era in which tattoos on ladies were scandalous seems almost as far in the past as the era in which the can-can was. I'm not sure whether that fact is a good or bad one, but - it is what it is.


You didn't think I was going to post this without "The Howdy Doody Show Theme," did you?

Or Groucho's "Lydia, The Tattooed Lady" from At The Circus?