Friday, January 02, 2009

Jokes: Not Getting

There were a lot of jokes I didn't get as a kid.

Hell, quite a few jokes sail over my head even now; spend a few minutes at Three Bulls, you'll see what I mean.

But the not-getting-jokes-as-a-kid thing, it's reasonably easy to explain. Jokes that refer to cultural events that preceded one's birth, that require familiarity with some artifact or term of art from long ago, these will guarantee lack of comprehension -- and when you're six years old, pretty much everything happened before you were born.

Thus it was that when watching a Looney Tunes cartoon in my jammies on a Saturday morning circa 1968, the musical introduction of a slack-jawed yokel character with "The Arkansas Traveler" (you may know it better as "I'm Bringing Home a Baby Bumblebee") was a mystery. What the hell did a baby bumblebee -- the only lyric I might have been familiar with -- have to do with the clodhopper who just came onscreen? I couldn't possibly have known that "The Arkansas Traveler" was at the time of the cartoon's creation twenty or thirty years earlier, when vaudeville and traveling tent-shows were still very much a living memory, a common tune that was immediately known to its audience. Its lyric, which would have likewise been known to the audience (and which you can read here), details an encounter between a city slicker and a bumpkin fiddler whose roof leaks in the rain. Carl Stalling, the musical genius behind the Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes franchises, was a man of his time; the use of "The Arkansas Traveler," while slightly baffling to me decades later, was a perfect choice.

The memory of this bafflement has been cropping back up lately. The Jingo family spent part of New Year's Eve at the First Night event in Leesburg near us -- a town-wide, family-friendly series of entertainments. Most memorable for me was a performance by ragtime pianist "Perfessor" Bill Edwards, who projected a Buster Keaton short ("One Week," 1920) and accompanied the action as a contemporary silent-film pianist would have. The YouTube link I just provided shows the last minute or two of the film, an absolutely masterful use of comedic irony in which a speeding train just misses a house that has been accidentally left on the track. Just as Keaton and his bride think they've dodged a bullet, another train from the opposite direction smashes their house to flinders. Good stuff.

But after the film, the "Perfessor" had to explain one in-joke. As the train smashes into the house, he had played a snippet of a contemporary song called "The Middle of the House" that sported the lyric, "The trains all come through the middle of the house/Since the company bought the land."

See? Jokes we don't get!

I know it's late to be on about Christmas music (thank FSM!), but here's another one of those musical jokes I've heard all my life without understanding:

"'Zat You, Santa Claus?" (short clip; pops)

It's the second sung phrase from Satchmo that contains the mystery. You've heard that phrase in approximately eighteen godzillion soundtracks, and it is absolutely invariably used when someone is sneaking around. (And it's hilarious -- but entirely uncoincidental -- that ''Zat You?" is built on the "sneaky cat/Sixteen Tons" chord progression we've explored here before.) So how did that particular phrase -- and a few others like it -- come to universally signify sneaking around? And where did it come from?

My first instinct -- immediately obviously wrong -- was to suspect "'Zat You?" as the ur-source. Looked up Satchmo's discography, found that he'd recorded it with The Commanders in 1953:

Louis Armstrong With The Commanders
October 22, 1953, New York, NY

Zat You, Santa Claus? (Fox) [master 85419] -- Decca 28943
Cool Yule (Allen) [master 85420] -- Decca 28943
Someday You'll Be Sorry (Armstrong, Louis) [master 85421] -- Decca 29280
The Gypsy (Reid, Billy) [master 85422] -- Decca 28995

Nineteen fifty-three is clearly much too late. This thing is much, much older than that. Jack Fox, the composer of "'Zat You?" was simply repeating the musical joke, the telling cliché, for effect, to give the song -- which imagines a visit from Santa as a slightly creepy experience -- a horror-house kind of air. No -- this joke was already old in 1953.

Then Wonder Woman, rather than trolling around at dusty discographical and musicological sites, simply Googled "sneaky music from cartoons." Clever, clever girl! That path leads to a MetaFilter site that speculates, " My best guess is that it evolved out of Zamecnik's "Mysterioso - Burglar Music 1" in Sam Fox Moving Picture Music Volume 1 (scroll down for link to MIDI), which was published in 1913 and was apparently the first widely distributed collection of silent film music."


Here it is! All the way from 1913! (Well... Through the magic of MIDI and the ability to read music, at any rate.) (pops)

Some folks in a BroadwayWorld discussion forum were chatting about this little musical mystery last October, and commenter Best12Bars, a person of great wisdom and perspicacity, observed:
Before my grandfather went to work for the Warner brothers as their accountant (and later Exec. VP Treasurer), he played nickelodeon piano for silent films in New York. He played only for a short period of time but really well, and he couldn't read a note of music. Most of the silent movie piano players in the city would share and swap themes, learn from each other, steal from each other, etc.

That's why I'm guessing it was passed around during those early formative days, just like a folk song was passed around. A note was changed here, a melody line there, and eventually it crept into the public conscience as a "known ditty." Yet, nobody knows exactly where it came from or who wrote it.
Brother (or sister), you said a mouthful.


Anonymous said...

The sneaking-around music is so well-established that I guessed the music from your description before checking the audio link.

Anonymous said...

Arkansas Traveler was performed regularly by Pete Seeger. I had thought Doc Watson too, but I was wrong about him - never did that I can find on the net.

And Michelle Shocked has an album named The Arkansas Traveler. You can take a free listen here:

Never heard of her until I searched to try to validate my Doc Watson suspicion. But she's not the person who does the lyrics on the album. Take a listen.

Anonymous said...

I'm impressed - I've been searching for that "burglar" theme for years. Well done.

As for "The Arkansas Traveler", I've known that one a long, long time - but then I'm an Arkansas native. The Double-A baseball team here in Little Rock is, of course, the Travelers.

-- LittlePig

Anonymous said...

Wew, Nice joke..
that's funny joke..

Keep posting other jokes for us