Tidbits: Should Some Songs Be Forgotten?

Or has political correctness gone too far? Should lyrics be changed to reflect contemporary attitudes, or does freedom of speech take precedence? We'll ponder these questions in a new look at some old songs.

The history of American Popular Song is peppered with lyrics that once reflected popular or acceptable culture, but have moved into the realm of taboo with the passage of time and changing values. Some of these songs are altogether inappropriate, while others merely have a few verses or just sections of a verse that offend. As historians, we feel it is important that these lyrics and the original recordings be preserved. But to what extent should these songs be enjoyed purely as art? In some cases, the harm is minimal, so the songs will play on. In others, it appears that the message is completely offensive, and those songs are best relegated to study purposes. Still others fall into a grey area, in which the ultimate answer is yet to be determined.

The classic example of a "completely offensive" song is "That's Why Darkies Were Born," recorded in 1931 by Kate Smith, Paul Whiteman and, oddly enough, Paul Robeson. Examined in today's context the song is nothing short of racist and horrifying. At the time, however, the song was thoroughly satirical -- a fact that wasn't lost on Robeson. But with the passing of time it has become thoroughly unacceptable and is purely for study of popular song and the culture of the time.

The roster of racially offensive material from the early days of American Popular Song is a long one. Because students of the genre are in complete agreement that the racial songs are solely for study and not for musical enjoyment, they require no further discussion here. And so we move on to others, to expand the scope of this essay.

Baby, It's Cold Outside

One of the more mild examples is the classic mouse & wolf interplay in Frank Loesser's "Baby It's Cold Outside." This song was such a massive hit that no less than four versions charted when it was released. The definitive recording, by Dinah Shore and Buddy Clark, contains the mouse answer "Well maybe just a cigarette more" to the wolf's "beautiful please don't hurry". With cigarettes now taboo, the message has been changed to a lesser one, "Well maybe just a half a drink more" in recent recordings. It seems to be a reasonable message; instead of suggesting that one might seek comfort in tobacco, the song recommends a little booze...half a drink, in fact. Let's hear it for moderation!

We say that in jest, of course, but it doesn't really diminish the song. Anyone familiar with the original can be excused for feeling a touch of cynicism that the cigarette was airbrushed out...but all in all, it seems a reasonable way to present the song to a new generation.

Hubba Hubba Hubba

Back up a couple years before "Baby It's Cold Outside" and the music of World War II yields a couple of examples that are much less politically correct than a mere cigarette. "Hubba Hubba Hubba (Dig You Later)" was a #3 hit for Perry Como, recorded in mid-October 1945. The song was comprised of "hep cat" and "bobby soxer" jargon popular at the time, and interlaced these with current imagery. One of these images was that of a B-29 pilot who "dropped another load for luck," over an already burning Tokyo.

That imagery was completely appropriate at the time, but as time passes and heals all wounds, it seems totally inappropriate today. We could state the case that the current generation might benefit from a more realistic understanding of wartime history, but that's not our role here. Fortunately the argument is moot, because the song faded from popularity long before Japan was fully embraced as a modern ally. The phrase "hubba hubba hubba" dropped from the youth lexicon and the song disappeared before a backlash to the bombing lyrics had time to take hold. Today the song appears only in CD collections targeted to the vanishing members of the greatest generation, and fortunately is not played for a young mainstream audience.

It's obvious that no matter how well the context is explained, the song is not appropriate for young Americans as pop music. In a history class, with proper background, yes. And so the song is treated appropriately. As far as Mr. Como was concerned, all was forgiven over time. He had a mutual love affair with his fans in the far east; his appearances in Japan routinely sold out. Obviously the Japanese people understood enough about the context of the song to quietly forgive the singer.

It might be interesting to hear the song re-recorded with new lyrics. Interesting but commercially futile, because the "dig you later" banter is virtually meaningless today.

Der Feuhrer's Face

Back up to a few years earlier in the war, 1942. The war in the European theatre was in full swing, and we find the classic "Der Fuehrer's Face" recorded by Spike Jones. The song lampooned Hitler's strutting, saluting, supposed Aryan supremacy, and propensity for war. It was a huge success -- wildly popular at the time.

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featured performance

Here's a montage video of Dean Martin and Nat "King" Cole singing "Open Up The Doghouse" from 1954. We include it here as part of our study, not because we support abusive relationships. Please note that you have to click on the little "play" arrow twice to get it to work.


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Sadly, the song was made prior to any stateside knowledge of Hitler's atrocities. Once the full extent of the Holocaust were realized, "Der Fuehrer's Face" seemed in dreadfully poor taste. Other than carefully framed references in movies and television, it has remained buried ever since. In light of what we know now, it is best relegated to history or historical context, an important but seldom visited footnote in the Great American Songbook.

Open Up The Doghouse

Fast forward ten years, and we find one of the most painful examples in this category. Painful because it involves two of the most beloved vocalists in the history of traditional pop, and an equally significant writer. The vocalists were no less than Nat "King" Cole and Dean Martin. The offending lyricist was Roy Alfred. Alfred was a prolific writer whose work includes "Rock And Roll Waltz" by Kay Starr, and the irresistable "Hucklebuck" which we know mostly as a Chubby Checker song.

"Open Up the Doghouse" is a tongue-in-cheek exchange between two guys bemoaning their stupidity in terms of their domestic relationships. The alternately blow their money on horse races, fake mink coats, and other gaffes that cause their spouses to anger. They fully admit that they belong in the doghouse, so other than the obviously outdated male/female roles depicted, the song doesn't offend anyone...until the slapping starts.

Thoroughly unable to "control" their wives, the singers agree that they have to show the little missus who is boss, and slap her around a bit. Well it is obvious to any Martin or King Cole fans that this is pure macho bravado, and not to be taken seriously, as the pair ends up in the doghouse anyway. In the new century, of course, the context is completely different. Many Americans are too young to be familiar with Martin or Cole and to recognize that these lines were presented as pure bluster. Even so, it would hardly be appropriate in today's market -- never mind that rap artists sing reprehensible lyrics about abusive relationships. Traditional pop must not offend. So while the song may not be bitter to older listeners who understand the intended message, it is extremely troublesome to many, and understandably so. And so it pains us to say this, "Open Up The Doghouse" should be relegated to the same "historical" context as "Hubba, Hubba, Hubba." Other than those who lived and thoroughly understand the era, the song is best left as an object of study.

Clair

In the early 1970s a young Irishman named Gilbert O'Sullivan struck the US charts with a vengeance. One of these tunes was a beautiful melody called "Clair." Sung from the point of view of an older man about an irrepressible young girl, it is often assumed to be the story of a pedophile. Careful assessment of the lyrics, however, reveals that it is simply a transparent retelling of a babysitter who is thoroughly -- but only appropriately -- smitten by the contagious spirit and energy of an imaginitive little girl. Once understood the song is obviously lovely. Nevermind the fact that today's society doesn't permit older men to babysit little girls. Perhaps today's listeners can assume the singer was an uncle. Whatever the case may be, this is one of those songs that is erroneously shunned because of the content, and it shouldn't be. Let the rehabilitation of "Clair" begin here!

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In all cases, pop music is a case of "beauty in the ear of the beholder." If you understand and enjoy a vintage song with questionable or outmoded lyrics, that is your privilege. If the song might offend, don't play it for others. When entertaining guests, there are enough suitable songs in the canon of American pop that you can leave the objectionable ones in the "dustjacket."

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To revisit "Tidbits" from last month, which delves into the connections between "Girl Crazy" and Roger Edens, Ethel Merman, Jerry Herman, Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand, please click here.