Thursday, August 17, 2006

A Coffin Full of Beans

Thanks to Tinarama’s recommendation, I’m listening right now to Good for What Ails You: Music of the Medicine Shows: 1926–1937. Based on her brief description, I knew instantly that this CD would be right up my street. There's nothing I like better than kazoos, harmonicas, banjos, ukeleles, and plinkety plunkety out-of-tune guitars!!! Truly.

Right now I'm listening to a paean to beans by a couple of musicians known as Beans Hambone and El Morrow. I like what the liner notes say about it: "Their rendition of 'Beans' is so eccentric that it’s a wonder any phonograph company would deem it capable of commercial viability.”

Sample lyric:
“I died from eatin’ beans, beans, beans. Undertaker brought beans. Had a coffin full of beans!"

Isn’t that the greatest thing ever? The melody is great too. Minimalist, low-tech and cheery in an existential, surreal sort of way. That probably makes no sense, but that's how I'd describe it. I think it's genius. Seriously.

I am far from having fully absorbed all the gems on this CD and I really do need to read the 72-page liner notes booklet, but I can tell you this. There’s a fairly high percentage of songs about food like, “C-H-I-C-K-E-N Spells Chicken,” “I Heard the Voice of a Porkchop,” and “A Chicken Can Waltz the Gravy Around.” Quite a few of the musicians have food-related names--the aforementioned Beans Hambone as well as Gid Tanner & His Skillet Lickers and Uncle Dave Macon & His Fruit Jar Drinkers. Food--e.g, "boarding house hash"--is always popping up in the lyrics, too.

Hmmm. Again, I need to read that booklet cover to cover—I don’t rightly even know what a medicine show was—but I’m guessing that the musicians were poorer than dirt, and since most of these songs were recorded during the leanest years of the Depression, I’m going to hazard that food was on their mind—a lot.

So now I’m listening to “A Chicken Can Waltz the Gravy Around,” which features an instrument made out of a stovepipe that looks like a cross between a didgeridoo and a saxophone and sounds like, well, someone farting out a melody. Odd that it wasn’t featured in that "Beans" song.

The musician performing “A Chicken Can Waltz the Gravy Around” was known as Stovepipe #1. I love that. He wanted to distinguish himself from Daddy Stovepipe, Stovepipe Johnson, and Sweet Papa Stovepipe. Heck, you’ve got to see one of these stovepipe instruments. The photos in the booklet seem likely to be in the public domain, so I'll risk posting a snap.

Stovepipe Player

I don’t know if he's Stovepipe #1. I doubt it. Maybe he's Stovepipe #143. He looks pretty young.

Reading the liner notes again. Apparently, “A Chicken Can Waltz the Gravy Around” is a version of another chicken song: “Chicken Don’t Roost Too High for Me,” which in turn may have originated from “Dem Chickens Roost Too High” and “There Is No Chicken That Can Roost Too High for Me.” Why, oh why, don’t people write songs like that anymore?

Well, one reason might be that these songs are super-duper un-PC. Fairly misogynistic for one thing: For example:

“The man who wrote ‘Home Sweet Home’ he never was a married man. He never had no lovin’ wife with a fryin’ pan to meet [beat?] him at the door and knock him down with a rolling pin.”


“I got a gal, she’s six feet tall she sleeps in the kitchen with her feet in the hall. She’s got a sister tall and keen, she runs her tongue like an English queen. Bow wow. Bow wow wow. Got the Bow Wow Blues.”

Also, the whole thing is extremely racist by today’s standards, if the photos in the booklet are anything to go by. Lots of white guys in blackface, with the exaggerated painted-on lips. Yikes. A product of the times for sure.

I guess I should quit all the lyric quoting and scattershot speculation and just read the ding-dong booklet, listen to the CDs all the way through, and come back tomorrow and blog a bit more knowledgeably. But, hey, that’s no fun!


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