Bob Hope was famous, of course, for his comedy. Progressing from hoofer to comedian to actor he even made it as a crooner with a hit, “Thanks for the Memory.” The tune’s lyrics tell a wistful tale of a failed relationship, but its cultural references, now mostly lost, also make it a melodic lesson in social history.
I heard that song recently, noting while mentions of “swingy Harlem tunes and castles on the Rhine,” could still be current, the meaning of the “Hudson River Line;” a then-common domestic dilemma of “stockings in a basin when a fellow needs a shave” or “Hash with Dinty Moore” are now lost to most listeners.
Listening to that song got me thinking about other music with now-lost cultural references and, disturbingly, my lack of familiarity with 21st century cultural-marker music.
Cole Porter was, without doubt, the master of sophisticated, in-crowd cultural references. As a composer and lyricist Porter was an icon of his age. But he clearly acknowledged the limitations of his subtlety, saying, “Sophisticated allusions are good for about six weeks … fun, but only for myself and about eighteen other people.”
The epitome of his artfulness was one of his biggest hits, “You’re the Top.” Let’s see if we’re any of those “18 other people:”
“You’re the Colosseum, the Lourve Museum, a symphony by Strauss, a Shakespeare Sonnet or Micky Mouse” are no-brainers.
The “National Gallery” is a snap, but “Garbo’s salary” might be a trap for non movie-mavens.
A “night at Coney” should be good to go, but “the eyes of Irene Bordoni” don’t make most memories flow; and an “Arrow collar” or “Coolidge dollar” is reserved for folks really in the know.
The “feet of Fred Astair, an O’Neill drama and Whistler’s Mama” you get; so too the Inferno’s Dante; but “the nose of the great Durante” is a tougher bet, as is a Berlin ballad and Mrs. Aster; got her yet?
Easy-peasy for “the steppes of Russia” but who can describe the “pants of a Roxy Usher?”
Porter’s “Anything Goes,” is both a musical comedy and song in that show. But it takes either a great-grandparent or real history buff to catch some of its nuances, such as his presidential poke at the Roosevelts with the reference to “Mrs. R. with all her trimmin’s, can broadcast abed from Simmons, ‘cause Franklin knows, anything goes.”
Fast forward to 1971 and Don McLean’s “American Pie.” It’s a 20-year retrospective of pop music and culture and quasi-dirge for Buddy Holly, who died in a plane crash along with the Big Bopper and Richie Valens in 1959.
McLean goes on for eight minutes and thirty-three seconds with musical references and cultural commentary, including his reference to the Rolling Stones infamous Altamont Speedway concert when the Hell’s Angles, hired for security (and paid with drugs and booze!), beat a black man to death and pounded on members of the Jefferson Airplane.
McLean makes scores of insider references to hits such as “The Book of Love” (by the Monotones) and benchmarks the Beatles’ switch from pop to political with his line “while Lennon read a book by Marx.” (Karl, not Groucho.)
Unfortunately, today’s cultural-reference music is, to me, something of a mystery.
My musical tastes are eclectic – from 1950s AM radio (“How Much is that Doggie in the Window?”); to rock ‘n roll (Buddy Holly and Gracie Slick, not Elvis); to folk (Odetta, Woody Guthrie), pop folk (Kingston Trio), blues, classical, Fats Waller and stride piano; Celtic music; sea chanties (I was a chantyman, once), and now, lots of trad jazz (early Sachamo, Bix Beiderbeck, The Count, The Duke, Sidney Bechet and Jellyroll Morton; though not ‘50’s Bee Bop); Western Swing (Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys); and even iconoclastic performers such as Iris Dement or The Silk Road Ensemble.
But the early 21st century is my musical void. There was so much good old stuff I stopped listening to good new stuff.
So who cares about any of this? Me — to stay calm and sane. I’m getting so angry/weary/riled-up with All-Trump-All-the-Time’s fake news, “no collusion,” and the greatest tax break ever, once in a while I gotta find a place to hide. Music is good refuge. (It’s also a good riler-upper: consider the Union-movement music of the ‘30s, propaganda music of WW II, protest rock of the 60s, rap of the 80s and 90s, and BLM music of today.)
So I think I’m going to focus on Ella and Louie’s “Moonlight in Vermont” or Iris Dement’s “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”.. .and not listen to Joe Hill, “For What It’s Worth,” Country Joe’s “I Feel Like I’m Fix’n to Die Rag,” or Beyonce’s “Formation.”
No, I think I’ll make CSNY’s “Teach Your Children” my song of the week, month, and year.
Tom Burke’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.