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?