B y D a v e M c E l f r e s h
NINETEEN NINETY-SIX is going to be a nasty year for nasty music. The Parents Music Resource Center, the long-dormant group responsible for the parent-advisory stickers on albums, intends to kick, uh, hiney on music-labeling issues--an area which new President Barbara Wyatt believes the organization has been too lenient on in the past. Senator Robert Dole recently delivered his first attack against immoral music--no doubt the first of many calculated moves meant to bring support for his lame crusade toward the Oval Office. Both government-associated tirades suggest a stand-off against the inevitable social decay history shows has resulted from raucous lyrics. Unfortunately, there's not the slightest proof such a relationship exists.
The history of popular music does shed a bit of light on moralizers like Wyatt and Dole, their cyclical resurfacing and their always-fruitless attempts to curtail the libido of music.
Exactly 10 years ago, the unlikely trio of Frank Zappa, Twisted Sister vocalist Dee Snider and John Denver testified at Senate hearings questioning the possible moral damage caused by explicit lyrics. While the average group of concerned mothers complained among their pinochle group about nasty words on records, a group of senators' wives had instead formed the Parents Music Resource Center and strong-armed their hubbies into conducting a hearing. But even with Tipper Gore, a head figure in the PMRC, now in the White House, lyrics are as brazen as ever, and not inclined to lie down and die--not even for a coven of senators' wives who long for the days when lyrics were "clean."
Tipper's lite-rock preferences are certainly not a fair representation of the art. Songwriters as a whole have never sidestepped drug use or the need to get laid, not in a near-century's worth of blues, jazz and rock music. So many such ribald songs were recorded in the 1920s that even excluding the countless recordings that slipped through collectors' fingers, hundreds remain available in CD reissues.
They suggest that aging finger-pointers had better reconsider their appreciation for Louis Armstrong: The trumpeter/singer's "Wonderful World" may have been partly due to a lifetime use of marijuana, or, as it was called then, "Muggles," to which he dedicated a song as far back as 1928. (And on the same year's "Tight Like This," Armstrong wasn't referring to his suit, either.) Other artists, loved by even the parents of the Parents Music Resource Center, praised the devil weed in song: Cab Calloway ("The Man From Harlem") in 1932, Benny Goodman ("Texas Tea Party") in 1933, and Fats Waller ("Reefer Song") in 1943.
When the end of WWII kicked the record business back into full swing, jazz continued to produce songs like "Sweet Marijuana Brown" and the reefer-referencing "Lotus Blossom."
Sex then, like now, was more frequently a song topic. In 1925, musicologists doing field research wrote of vulgar blues songs: "Children of 10 or 12 know scores of them, varying in all degrees of suggestiveness." No doubt about it, the gods and goddesses of blues history let their urges and private affairs be known to anyone standing near a Victrola phonograph.
Decades prior to her association with Billy Graham, blues singer Ethel Waters claimed in a 1929 song that "My Handy Man" among other things, "churns my butter" and "strokes my fiddle." Bessie Smith sang "I Need A Little Sugar In My Bowl" in 1931, and Bo Carter released "Please Warm My Weiner" in 1936, followed by Lil Johnson's "You Stole My Cherry" in 1937. Continuing the food-related double entendres, Blind Boy Fuller gave us "What's That Smells Like Fish?" in 1938 and "I Want Some Of Your Pie" in 1939.
Every parent's real threat, though, was not jazz but the new black music, rhythm and blues, gaining popularity among white adolescents, and which was soon to give birth to rock and roll. As before, lewd lyrics were continually flaunted in front of the censors and protected only by an inability to say for certain that sex was the subject matter. "Big Ten Inch (Record Of The Blues)," once revived by Aerosmith but first recorded in 1952, identifies the near-foot-long object of praise as a 78-rpm blues record long after the listener has formed a quite different image. Innocence was also feigned by singer Julia Lee in "Snatch And Grab It," Wynonie Harris' "Keep On Churnin'," and "Rocket 69" by Todd Rhodes and Orchestra. As the song titles make obvious, censors, like the PMRC three decades later, tried to label explicit material--but even in those days of innocence, the motivation for such labeling was to create a sales ploy for consumers seeking risqué "party" records.
Not all the songs were cautious in presenting a protective double meaning. Vocalist Bill Brown of the Dominoes bragged about being a "Sixty-Minute Man," claiming to "rock 'em, roll 'em all night long," and climaxing (so to speak) with "15 minutes of blowing my top." No way to pawn that one off as a song about a watch repairman.
Lyrics built on double entendres were almost always playful and humorous in their sexual references. Parents, though, found nothing funny about them, let alone the more explicit lyrics then beginning to appear. The equivalent of a PMRC campaign surfaced in 1954, led by those within the mainstream recording industry who felt it was time to stamp out suggestive song lyrics (though some music historians believe it was more of an attack on the increasing interest in small-label black music). Radio stations, churches and community groups foamed at the mouth over the "leerics," as they were called. But the music went on.
Dinah Washington, long considered The Queen of the Blues, that same year recorded a song entitled "Big Long Slidin' Thing," purportedly about a trombone player she once had in her band. The Toppers, also referring to a musical instrument, of course, released "(I Love To Play Your Piano) Baby Let Me Bang Your Box" that same year. Even the song titles suggested music and sex were becoming inseparable.
The overwhelming popularity of Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and Chuck Berry eventually ended the movement. A hell-sent trio of saviors if ever there was one, their music and personal sex-and-drugs escapades pantomimed a message to the opposition: Fuck ya. None of that defend-yourself stuff to community representatives or senate subcommittees for them.
Zappa, Snider and Denver made the mistake of responding with reason and logic in defense of a toke and a hard-on. Did they really expect to change Tipper's mind? If you can't win an argument with your parents, what are the odds in taking on an entire committee of them?
Not to worry. They'll figure out how to suck (pardon the expression) sex out of rock and jazz and blues right around the time they figure out how to get all that dark stuff out of the color black. The words "jazz" and "rock and roll" both were verbs for screwing before they were nouns describing music; and use of the word "blue" to describe something vulgar grew out of the prevalence of vulgar lyrics in the blues.
If you don't appreciate the music, Dole and Wyatt, fuck ya. Revisit the artists you and your kind have previously labeled dangerous and threatening. You'll find a load of them honored in public television documentaries and in the Rock-And-Roll Hall of Fame.
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