Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Religious Santa songs

"Perhaps the thing about Christmas that bothers Christians more than anything else," says the Christian Research Institute, "is Santa Claus. Is Santa a hopelessly pagan idea, or can Santa Claus be saved?"

Some songwriters have tried to "save" Santa by writing songs that place Santa in a Christian context. These songwriters, whether or not they viewed Santa as a secular rival of Jesus, usually tried to mend the rift between the two by grafting religion onto Santa or grafting Santa onto religion. 

But some attempts to mix Santa and religion seem to confuse rather than clarify. For example, is the vintage greeting card pictured above suggesting that Santa hears your prayers? 

Today on Music Weird, we'll listen to some of the efforts to combine Santa and religion. A few are earnest and a few are jokes, but all are pretty weird. In these songs, you'll hear a number of offbeat revisions to the Santa and God stories: God is Santa, Santa is God, Santa is immortal, Santa is guided by prayers, etc. 

Pat Boone – "I Saw Santa Prayin'"

I never saw Santa prayin', but I saw Pat Boone perform this song in concert years ago, and he introduced it by saying that he wrote it as an attempt to reconcile, for kids, the two main figureheads of the Christmas season. How did he do that? By depicting Santa as a prayerful Christian man and a servant of the Lord. The chorus is "I saw Santa prayin'/I saw Santa kneel before the Lord." In 2007, Boone recorded the song for his album The True Spirit of Christmas. No video exists, but you can hear an audio sample here.

Hank Snow – "God Is My Santa Claus"

In this 1966 song by Canadian country star Hank Snow, a young schoolboy teaches us that God is Santa and Santa is God. The lyrics not only state that "God is my Santa Claus" but also that the "real Santa" is God.

Restless Heart – "Santa's Prayer"

In the 2013 Restless Heart song "Santa's Prayer," Santa himself decries the commercialization of Christmas and hopes that people will remember its true meaning. A reviewer on Amazon calls this "One of the Best Christmas Songs ever written." 

Jimmy Boyd – "I Said a Prayer for Santa Claus"

Boyd, who recorded the original version of the perennial hit "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," recorded this religious Santa song in 1953. In it, Boyd prays to keep Santa safe, healthy, and warm as Santa goes about his business at the North Pole and delivers presents to the kids. I particularly like the part where he expresses concern that Santa might run into a television antenna.

Jerry House – "Will There Be a Santa Claus in Heaven?" 

This tearjerker is about a dying child who asks if Heaven has a Santa Claus. Although the text that accompanies the video says that Jerry House wrote the words and music, the song was actually written by Carson Robison and appeared in his 1936 songbook Tip Top Album of Carson J. Robison Songs



Red Sovine – "Faith in Santa"

Another Christmas song, like "Will There Be a Santa Claus in Heaven," about a dying child. In this dreary recitation from 1978, a homeless boy tells Santa that his father is in prison for shooting his mother's boyfriend, that he prays for Santa, and that he'd like to go to Heaven for Christmas. The boy gets his wish and passes away at the end of the song. It's unclear whether Santa has the power to send souls to Heaven if that's their Christmas wish.


James Brown – "Santa Claus Is Definitely Here to Stay"

This weird, rambling song asserts that Santa Claus is here to stay and also urges people to keep the season strong with faith. You could interpret that as faith in Santa, but I don't think that's the intended meaning. Even though the relationship between Santa and faith is murky, this song is included here because most Santa songs don't mention religious themes such as faith at all.

The Penguins – "A Christmas Prayer"

The Penguins' "A Christmas Prayer" from 1955 features an odd mixture of prayer and gifts as the Penguins pray that their girl comes home for Christmas and puts her presents under their Christmas tree. (Is that a euphemism?) The song doesn't mention Santa by name, but Christmas gifts fall within Santa's dominion, so I think it counts. 


Jimmy Martin – "Daddy Will Santa Claus Ever Have to Die?"

In addition to having one of the cheesiest music videos ever committed to VHS tape, this 1980 song by the King of Bluegrass, Jimmy Martin, informs us that Santa is an immortal being like God. 


Pearl Jam "Santa God"

This song by Pearl Jam, from a limited-edition Christmas single released in 2007, is the mirror image of Hank Snow's "God Is My Santa Claus." Hank said that God is Santa, but Pearl Jam says that Santa is God. For kids who are greedy for presents, that's probably true.

The Santa and Jesus duet from South Park

This duet between a cartoon Santa and a cartoon Jesus pits a number of Christmas carols, including "Joy to the World" and "Away in the Manger," against "Up on the House Top." Santa becomes angry that Jesus has more songs than Santa, but Jesus smooths things over, and the spirit of Christmas prevails. 


Thursday, December 11, 2014

Advance Base: A Christmastime experience at two midwestern shows

The Mike Adams Show stage set (photo by Jared Cheek)

Advance Base played two shows in my area before Christmas this year, and I went to both of them: a show with Mike Adams at His Honest Weight at Mike 'n' Molly's in Champaign, Illinois, in November, and one as part of the Mike Adams Show Christmas episode that was filmed at the Bishop in Bloomington, Indiana, in December. The Advance Base album A Shut-In's Prayer was one of my two favorite albums of 2012, but I had never seen the "band" play live.

I put the word "band" in scare quotes because Advance Base is one guy—Owen Ashworth—who previously recorded under the name Casiotone for the Painfully Alone. 

On Dec. 1, Ashworth tweeted that he'd be playing two special Christmas shows at which he'd perform all of the Casiotone for the Painfully Alone and Advance Base Christmas songs. The Bloomington show was one of these two December shows. (The other one is at Chicago's Beat Kitchen on December 14.)

This news excited me, because I saw the show in Champaign (2.5 hours away) before the show in Bloomington (where I live) had been announced, so the Christmas orientation of the second show meant that Advance Base would be playing almost completely different songs from the ones in Champaign, and I wouldn't have to travel. 

The show in Champaign took place on November 22 in a room about the size of a walk-in closet. I missed the opening band, Easter, because I was falling asleep downstairs. I'd been up since 4:00 am that day, and the one-hour time difference was killing me. I perked up when Mike Adams at His Honest Weight went on.

Mike Adams at His Honest Weight was represented by only Adams, who told stories and played songs with nothing but his reverberating electric guitar for accompaniment. Adams is a Bloomington, Indiana, musician and a funny guy. To promote his album Best of Boiler Room Classics, he made this video that parodies those old television commercials for mail-order albums. After Adams's performance, Advance Base took the stage and played a short set of new and old songs, some of which will appear on the forthcoming Advance Base album. My favorite Advance Base song is "Riot Grrrls," so I was happy to hear that one.

The Mike Adams Show at the Bishop was an entirely different experience. The show is patterned after television's old music-and-talk variety shows and appears sporadically on YouTube. This was the first one I've attended, and it was an evening of silly fun. The show was free, which was nice, and featured—in addition to Adams and Advance Base—Lewis and Addison Rogers from Busman's Holiday, the proprietors of a local coffee shop, the proprietor of the local comedy club, and Evan Smail ("our Man on the Seat"), who introduced a video of himself meeting Santa. This segment was literally about sitting on chairs. And about the spirit of Christmas. 

I was surprised that Adams didn't sing; he confined himself to the host's chair, like a number of singers who hosted talk shows in the 1970s but didn't always sing on their own shows, like Merv Griffin and Dinah Shore. At the end of the program, Adams introduced the musical guest, Advance Base, who played one song, "Christmas in Milwaukee," that had also been in the set at the Champaign show.

That was the end of the Mike Adams Show, but Advance Base hung around to play a full set of songs that included a number of tunes from A Shut-In's Prayer and some older songs from the Casiotone for the Painfully Alone era. Advance Base performed with only a keyboard, an omnichord, and a cheesy drum machine that sounded like the one that Young Marble Giants used. The audience was obnoxiously chattering throughout the first couple of songs, but the excellence of Advance Base's melodic, melancholy music finally infiltrated the audience's consciousness and the room fell silent for the remainder of the set. I loved it.

Ashworth announced that he'd just decided on the title for his next album, and I'd like to report it here as breaking news, but I'm not certain that I'm remembering it correctly. I think it was Nephew in the Wild. If so, then you heard it here first, folks. 

I'll add a link to the Mike Adams Show Christmas episode when it posts on YouTube.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Ronnie Malone's "Lightning Bug" (1958)

I got interested in Ronnie Malone while listening to the 1994 Buffalo Bop compilation Teenage Doll!, which is an anthology of rockabilly recordings by women. Malone isn't a woman, but his high-pitched voice must have made the compiler of Teenage Doll! mistake him for one. Malone was a 10-year-old boy when he recorded his best-known song, "Lightning Bug," which is the one that is included on the compilation.

"Best known" is relative, in this case, because none of Malone's records charted. But "Lightning Bug" has been included on at least two rockabilly compilations: Teenage Doll! and the 2002 compilation We're Gonna Rock on Collector Records. 

Malone's first single was "My Snow Man" b/w "It Had to Rain," the latter of which was recorded again for the same label in 1962 by the Catalina Six as "It Had to Rain Again." (In the linked video, you can also hear a snippet of Malone's recording of the song). "My Snow Man" was released on Ridgewood, New Jersey's Flagship Records in 1957.

Flagship was owned by Vincent and Julia Sardo and Julia's brother, Howard W. Brady, who also recorded for the label. In 1957, Flagship ran a weird ad in Billboard with a "public service" announcement from Vincent Sardo on cold prevention. Underneath, it advertised records by Lorrie Palmer, Howard W. Brady, and Ronnie Malone. "Watch 'My Snow Man'," it says.

When "My Snow Man" didn't become the seasonal hit everyone expected, Malone recorded a second single for Flagship that was listed but not reviewed or rated in the April 7, 1958, issue of Billboard.

The songwriting credits on both sides of the "Lightning Bug" single went to the Sardos. A group called the Teentones provided background vocals, and the Shipmates Orchestra provided the instrumentation. The arrangements were by Robert Wagschal, who also arranged Flagship's next release, "Ice Cream Baby" b/w "Pretty Little Woman" by Frank Triolo. (As an aside, in the comments of the linked video for "Ice Cream Baby," Clint Moore claims that he wrote the song in 1956 at the age of 12, but Frank Triolo and Robert Wagschal stole it.)

The weird thing about "Lightning Bug" is that Malone recorded it twice: Once for Flagship and a couple of months later for Judd, the label run by Jud Phillips, the brother of Sun Records' Sam Phillips. On the Flagship release, "Lightning Bug" was misspelled as "Lighting Bug," but the typo was corrected on the Judd release. 

Someone must have thought that "Lightning Bug" was promising enough to warrant re-recording and re-releasing both sides of the single within months of its first release. Unlike the Flagship single, the Judd single doesn't credit the Teentones and the Shipmates Orchestra. Billboard listed the single in its Nov. 10, 1958, issue but again did not review or rate it. The Flagship recording, not the Judd Recording, was included on Teenage Doll! and We're Gonna Rock.

"Lightning Bug" is reminiscent of the Collins Kids, a kiddie act who recorded a similar song in 1955 called "Beetle Bug Bop." The b-side of "Lightning Bug" is titled "Doodles Doo," so the Sardos were definitely plying Malone with juvenile material. 

Flagship Records continued to release records into the 1960s, but Malone didn't record again for Flagship or Judd. I couldn't find any information about his later activities.

Here are both versions of "Lightning Bug":

(Thanks to Frank Clemens for the scans and videos he uploaded, and for his notes on 45cat.)

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Did Johnny Horton record racist songs? A history of racist country music

Content warning: This post discusses the history of racist country music and contains racist and sexually explicit language.

"I don't want no pardon for what I was and am,
I won't be Reconstructed and I do not give a damn."
                         – from "Oh I'm a Good Old Rebel"

In 1959, Johnny Horton almost single-handedly created a national craze for newly composed historical folk songs when he topped the chart for 10 weeks with the French-English War tale "The Battle of New Orleans," which was closely followed by the Top 10 hit "Johnny Reb." Soon, artists of every stripe jumped on board with similar recordings that often were historical but sometimes were patterned after the patriotic and Southern pride themes of Horton's two hits. On the eve of the most tumultuous era of Civil Rights agitation, these celebrations of the South and their idealized portraits of the irrepressible Johnny Reb, set to the obligatory military snare-drum beat, struck such a chord with anxious whites that the formula was used for a host of racist country songs that appeared in the 1960s. Along the way, a number of explicitly racist recordings were attributed to Johnny Horton himself, and legend has it that he secretly recorded an entire album's worth of racist songs with titles such as "Some Niggers Never Die" and "Nigger-Hating Me."

Racist music before the Civil Rights era 

The number of explicitly racist recordings increased dramatically in the 1960s, but racist music had been around much longer than that. Labels delved into the Ku Klux Klan songbook as early as the 1920s and 1930s, when Klan membership was at an all-time high and a printed Klan songbook reportedly sold a million copies. Indianapolis-based Edison Records (owned by none other than Thomas Edison) and Richmond, Indiana-based Gennett Records both issued Klan 78s alongside their pop and jazz discs. Some record labels, such as 100% and KKK (whose logo pictured a burning cross and the legend "Best in Klan Music") exclusively released racist titles such as "We Belong to the Ku Klux Klan" and "Why I Am a Clansman." And many early hillbilly performers, like J.E. Mainer and Uncle Dave Macon, recorded songs such as "Run, Nigger, Run" and "Nigger in the Woodpile," some of which were later cleaned up and given titles like "Run, Johnny, Run" and "Man in the Woodpile." 

Nationalistic fervor and shellac shortages led to a lull in the production of racist recordings during World War II, or at least a lull in racist recordings that were directed at blacks. The Japanese became the new target of songs like Carson Robison's country hit "We're Gonna Have to Slap the Dirty Little Jap (And Uncle Sam's the Guy Who Can Do It)" and "A Hundred Years from Now," the latter of which imagines a future in which the only surviving Japanese people are kept in menageries. After the war ended, white teenagers became interested in R&B, and black-influenced rock and roll gained popularity, both of which riled the white supremacists, who soon began directing their ire toward blacks again in earnest.

"The Battle of New Orleans" and its aftereffects


Johnny Horton's "The Battle of New Orleans" was one of the biggest international hits of 1959, and one of the 30 biggest hits in the first 50 years that Billboard compiled sales and airplay charts. The song created a fad for so-called historical folk songs, which were not always factual but were highly formulaic. These fife-and-drum songs often incorporated banjo and had narrative lyrics about characters and events from history. The Civil War was a popular theme, but any historical or faux-historical subject would do. (Fess Parker recorded a great but historically inaccurate album of songs about Presidents and other figures from early American history.)

The Civil War-themed songs of the late 1950s and early-to-mid 1960s usually proclaimed that the South would rise again or waxed wistfully about past Southern victories. Given the social stresses of the day, these songs were not only nostalgic but also political statements, because the promised rise of the South implied a return to the antebellum status quo, or, in other words, to institutionalized white supremacy. Country music is not a genre that is known for explicit political protest, but in a not-too-subtle way, a substantial portion of white America expressed its displeasure with the Civil Rights movement, consciously or unconsciously, by buying these records. 

The fact that these recordings were the front line in a political struggle is illustrated by the controversy that surrounded Claude King's 1964 Top 10 hit "The Burning of Atlanta," the chorus of which is "the South's gonna rise again." Claude King was a close friend of Johnny Horton, and after Horton's death in 1960, King was groomed by Columbia Records to be his replacement. "The Burning of Atlanta" was so politically provocative that it was blasted from sound trucks during the racial conflicts at the University of Mississippi in 1964 to intimidate black protesters and sympathizers. Claude King himself, disappointed that the record didn't chart higher, complained candidly, "I'm convinced the NAACP forced that record off the air."


Reb Rebel Records and the rise of underground racist country music

Southern hostility toward the NAACP was given voice on a series of 45s that were released by the Lousiana-based Reb Rebel Records label in the 1960s. J.D. "Jay" Miller, the composer of Kitty Wells' 1952 hit "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels," ran the label and produced the recordings. Miller was also an A&R man for Excello Records at the time, procuring material for black R&B and blues musicians even as he oversaw the recording of racist novelties for his own label. For Miller's Reb Rebel label, pseudonymous artists with names such as Johnny Rebel, Son of Mississippi (sometimes billed as the Multiple Voices of the Son of Mississippi), and James Crow performed topical songs and recitations, including "Flight NAACP 105," "NAACP Jig-A-Boo Gemini," and "NAACP Prayer." The Johnny Rebel song "Nigger-Hating Me" includes the line "the NAACP would sure like to get a hold of nigger-hating me." The label produced 20 singles between 1964-1972 as well as the compilation LP For Segregationists Only. Some of the records are said to have sold more than 100,000 copies.

The liner notes on the back cover of For Segregationists Only attempted to justify the music: 
These selections express the feeling, anxiety, confusion, and problems during the political transformation of our way of life.... Transformations that have changed peace and tranquility into riots and demonstrations which have produced mass destruction, confusion, bloodshed, and even loss of life....  
Miller himself, in a queasy, conflicted attempt to express his motivations, resorted to the "some of my best friends are black" cliche:
Of course, we had a lot of fingers pointed at us, and by a lot of people less friendly to blacks than I am. I've always been friendly with blacks, and we never did hide the fact that we were recording these records. We had blacks sitting in on the sessions, and a lot of blacks agreed with what we said. We're not hypocritical about it. You'll find my address on there. I didn't try and hide it. There were others...but they wouldn't put their address on the labels like we did. I never had any black people object to our records. Though I did have some white people that were amazed at what we did. I met some white hypocrites that tried to stir up some trouble with it, but they wouldn't dare sit down and eat with a black. I just ignored them. I've been eating and drinking with blacks since 1946, as long as I've been making records. It was nothing new, but I didn't have anybody telling me I had to do it. That makes a big difference, and I choose my friends. And I don't choose them based on their skin color. The Reb Rebel Records were at the times of the Civil Rights disputes.... They even had a black radio station down in Port Arthur playing it.... Kind of like an Amos n' Andy skit....

Son of Mississippi's "Flight NAACP 105," the first release on the label, is a recitation in which black pilots who speak in exaggerated Amos 'n' Andy-style dialect receive directions from air-traffic controller Johnny Reb that lead them to wreck the plane in a remote wooded area. "NAACP Jig-A-Boo Gemini" is a similar recitation that depicts some "hillbillies," with continuing assistance from controller Johnny Reb, forcing buffoonish black "agitators" onto a spacecraft for the purpose of "blasting them out of this world."

Not all of the Reb Rebel Records singles were concerned with racial issues. Happy Fats' "Veteran's Plea" is a father's request that he be sent to fight in Vietnam instead of his son. Fats, whose real name was Leroy Leblanc, was a mainstream Cajun country artist who had recorded for RCA in the 1930s and 1940s. Other songs expressed discontent with government programs and policies, or lambasted war protesters and communists. These relatively mainstream right-wing political records had a fighting chance at reaching the country chart, considering that mainstream country star Jim Nesbitt enjoyed a handful of country hits in the 1960s with like-minded political comedy records like "Please Mr. Kennedy" and "Husband-In-Law," the latter of which is a bit of dialect humor that actually reached #74 on Billboard's country music chart in 1962. Johnny Seay's Day for Decision album, which was almost entirely concerned with right-wing political and patriotic themes, hit the Billboard album chart in 1966. And many mainstream country artists recorded songs that criticized the Civil Rights and anti-war movements, Communism, and the counterculture in the 1960s, including Marty Robbins' "Ain't I Right," Autry Inman and Bob Luman's "The Ballad of Two Brothers," and Sheb Wooley's "The Love-In."

Despite the relatively presentable protest records that Reb Rebel occasionally released, many of its other records were explicitly racist. Johnny Rebel's "Kajun Ku Klux Klan" begins with the advice, "You niggers listen now/I'm gonna tell you how/to keep from getting tortured when the Klan is on the prowl," but later says that "the Klan is gonna get you" no matter what. This song, like many of the recordings that have been mentioned, is based on the Johnny Horton model and features the omnipresent military-style snare-drum riffs.

Johnny Rebel was hands-down the performer with the most vitriolic material in Reb Rebel's catalog and was unique in that his white supremacist and right-wing messages were expressed in songs rather than recitations. Many of his recordings are competently crafted, well-played, and well-sung. Rebel, in real life a Louisianan named Clifford Trahan, attempted a career in mainstream country music, releasing straight country and rockabilly recordings under the names Tommy Todd, Jericho Jones, and Pee Wee Trahan before finding an underground niche with offensive material, some of which was sexually explicit rather than racist. (He recorded his sexually explicit songs under the name Filthy McNasty.) Trahan had brushes with mainstream success when Sammy Kershaw and Al Ferrier recorded his songs, and he had a bona fide hit when Jimmy C. Newman's recording of his song "Lache Pas Le Patate" earned a gold record in Canada.

The 1970s and David Allan Coe

The proliferation of racist country records declined in the 1970s, and Reb Rebel Records closed up shop in 1972. Mainstream country artist David Allan Coe took up the banner and released some explicitly racist recordings on a pair of underground albums that he cut in 1978 and 1982. Even before that, he inserted the n-word into one of his commercial recordings for Columbia Records: the 1977 song "If That Ain't Country."

Reb Rebel's racist recordings were largely underground efforts, as were these two "x-rated" Coe albums, Nothing Sacred and Underground Album, which he sold by mail order and at concerts. For me, Coe's song "Nigger Fucker" is even more disturbing than Johnny Rebel's recordings, because of the song's utter lack of humor. Johnny Rebel often came across as a smirky, juvenile bigot, but in "Nigger Fucker," Coe is as bitter and hateful as can be accomplished in a three-minute country song. 

A New York Times article reported that Coe is embarrassed by his racist recordings now that they circulate freely on the web, and he dismisses them as "biker humor." Nonetheless, his embarrassment was not great enough to prevent him from reissuing the albums on CD and selling them through his website and at his shows. I saw David Allan Coe perform a few years ago, and he was still selling his racist albums at his merchandise table.

Anthologies of racist country music on CD

A German bootleg CD, You Can Wear Your 'X' I'll Wear Mine, purportedly contains nearly an album's worth of racist Johnny Horton recordings. The title of the compilation pits the "X" in Malcolm X against the "X" in the Confederate stars and bars. The anthology's subtitle, "A Tribute to Johnny Rebel," refers to the mythic Johnny Rebel and not the Reb Rebel Records artist of the same name. The disc itself lists no artists whatsoever and is cheaply made with no label address or other information, but merchants who sell it online have listed Horton as one of the artists in their descriptive blurbs. 

The first track, "Johnny Rebel," is a rousing Johnny Horton-esque number with "hup-two-three-four" background vocals and the obligatory martial snare drum, but it's not Johnny Horton. A few songs from the 1991 Columbia album Songs of the Civil War follow. Johnny Horton, who died in 1960, is nowhere to be heard on these tracks. Next is Marty Robbins' "Ain't I Right" followed by a vintage rockabilly track ("N-gger"), a cheerleading song for the KKK ("Stand Up and Be Counted"), and an invitation to join the "Segregation Wagon." None of these recordings are Johnny Horton.

Many of the recordings that are attributed to Horton also surfaced on a compilation that was put out by the white supremacist record label and distributor MSR Productions. The disc, The Good Old South—Country Style: Documents of American History, also gives no artist information and is jam-packed with some of the most in-your-face racist music that the 1960s had to offer. As usual, the recordings that are so often attributed to Johnny Horton are actually Johnny Rebel recordings.

Some of these recordings have surprising connections to mainstream pop. For example, in Johnny Rebel's "Lookin' for a Handout," he slips in a musical reference to "Boll Weevil" by Brook Benton—a black artist—at the end, and the song "She Died a Nigger" (widely and erroneously attributed to Johnny Rebel) is the teen-tragedy song "The Pickup" by Mark Dinning—the white teen idol who had a big hit with "Teen Angel"—with new lyrics.  

Another one of these compilations of racist recordings is Rebel Yells: Songs & Humor of the American Racialist Struggle, also released by MSR Productions. The 22-track anthology contains an assortment of political, racist, and religious songs, including tracks by mainstream country artists Marty Robbins ("Ain't I Right") and Jimmy Martin ("I Like to Hear 'Em Preach It" and "Voice of My Savior"). It also has a number of Reb Rebel recordings, several recordings by the Jigs, and a couple of songs that express support for George Wallace's presidential run. This collection actually lists the names of the artists for a change, and Johnny Horton is nowhere in sight.

Finally, the early 1970s Reb Rebel album For Segregationists Only was reissued on CD in 1994. From the 1980s onward, it seems like most of the white-supremacist music came from skinhead punk and hardcore bands, not country artists. 

Why was Johnny Horton wrongly credited with all these racist recordings?

Johnny Horton achieved tremendous success as a mainstream artist, and some of his historical songs celebrated the American South, so white supremacists might have seen him as an ally. Horton sometimes performed historical songs from the Northern perspective too, such as "The Battle of Bull Run," but even in that song, the Rebels kick Yankee butt.

When I first saw MP3s of "Nigger-Hating Me" and "Some Niggers Never Die" circulating on the web as Johnny Horton recordings in the 1990s, I was horrified. "Not Johnny Horton!" I thought. But then I noticed that the same recording of "Nigger-Hating Me" was sometimes identified as an early home recording of Buddy Holly and his brothers. It quickly became clear that Johnny Rebel was the artist behind almost all of the recordings that are credited to Horton. And Rebel himself is frequently credited with racist songs that he didn't record. In fact, any racist country record from the '60s stands a good chance of being credited to Horton or Rebel, no matter who actually recorded it. The source of the confusion is probably that Horton, with "The Battle of New Orleans," popularized the "historical" sound and style that pervade these recordings. 

Bear Family Records in Germany is releasing a 9-CD box set of Horton's complete recordings. It contains every released and unreleased recording that Horton ever made, including demos. If you're willing to shell out over $200 and buy this exhaustively researched set, then you can hear for yourself that Horton never recorded any of these racist songs.

Horton and Buddy Holly aren't the only mainstream artists who have been wrongly identified with racist material. Johnny Cash has been erroneously credited as the singer of Odis Cochran's "Ship Those Niggers Back," even though Cochran sounds nothing like Cash. 

The desire to attribute these fringe recordings to well-loved mainstream artists probably says something about people's desire to believe that their fringe views are more widely held than they really are.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Mel Tillis and ammonia Coke

In his 1984 autobiography Stutterin' Boy, Mel Tillis briefly reminisces about his days as a teenage soda jerk, when he served up old-time refreshments like phosphates, fizzes, and... ammonia Cokes?

Drug store soda fountains used to add common ingredients like chocolate syrup and vanilla extract to Coca-Cola to create flavored Coke. Cherry, vanilla, chocolate, lemon, and peppermint were popular Coke flavorings.

The most unusual flavored Coke, by a mile, was ammonia Coke. It was a popular beverage in the 1930s and 1940s, particularly in the American South, and some outlets reportedly continued to offer ammonia Coke into the 1960s. Mel Tillis was a teenager in the 1940s, so that's when he was serving ammonia Coke to the people of Florida. (Mel was born in Dover, Florida.)

Ammonia Coke was regular Coca-Cola served over ice with a dash of aromatic spirit of ammonia. Aromatic spirit of ammonia is something you buy at a drugstore—it's not the ammonia in plastic gallon jugs that you find in the cleaning-supplies section of the grocery store. 

Ammonia Coke was alleged to have medicinal qualities, from relieving anxiety and headaches to jolting college students awake for all-night study sessions. It supposedly worked as an antacid and also counteracted the effects of a hangover. Some people drank it just because they liked the flavor. Even today, ammonia is a common flavoring in European salt licorice, so some portion of the world's population must like the flavor of ammonia.

Ingesting ammonia doesn't normally result in fatal poisoning, but it can cause irritation and burns. Very little ammonia was added to ammonia Coke, and aromatic spirit of ammonia is diluted to begin with, so drinkers were unlikely to suffer any immediate ill effects.

Mel Tillis' autobiography is the only music-related reference to ammonia Coke that I know of, but Coca-Cola was mentioned in popular songs occasionally in the 1940s and 1950s and more frequently thereafter. The most popular early recording that referenced Coke was the Andrews Sisters' 1945 hit "Rum and Coca-Cola." In the 1960s, dozens of popular artists performed Coca-Cola jingles, and many of these recordings were compiled on the anthology Things Go Better with Coke.

Here's Ray Stanley's 1957 recording of "Over a Coke," which features Eddie Cochran on guitar:

Thursday, November 27, 2014

12 Thanksgiving songs: A holiday playlist

Unlike Christmas and Halloween, Thanksgiving doesn't inspire much holiday music, and no attempts at writing a Thanksgiving standard have achieved much commercial success.

When I hosted Rhythm Ranch, a thematic oldies show on WFHB-FM, I would often program special shows for the holidays, but I always struggled to come up with songs for Thanksgiving. For Thanksgiving—unlike many other holidays—I was never able to do more than a set or two of Thanksgiving-related songs. Programming an entire two-hour show of Thanksgiving music was beyond the limits of my knowledge and my record collection. 

Today on Music Weird, I have compiled a short playlist of songs for Thanksgiving. Some of them are straight-up holiday tunes and others are a stretch. Only a few of them are very widely known or well remembered.

1. Gene Autry – "Guffy the Goofy Gobbler" (1950)

Singing cowboy Gene Autry recorded the Christmas classic "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and struck gold. Afterward, he recorded a lot more holiday music, but none of it matched the success of "Rudolph." Autry's Thanksgiving entry, "Guffy the Goofy Gobbler," is practically "Rudolph" with new lyrics (both were co-written by Johnny Marks). The flip side of the record had another Thanksgiving tune called "Little Johnny Pilgrim." Billboard's review of the record described the latter as a "word-heavy Thanksgiving song [that] tells the historic story vaguely."


2. Lawrence Welk & the Lennon Sisters – "Thank the Lord (For This Thanksgiving Day)" (1959)

John Gary also recorded this song in 1959. 

3. Perry Como – "Prayer of Thanksgiving (We Gather Together)" (1952)

Despite the title, this sounds like a Christmas record, mainly because of the choir. 

4. Little Eva – "Let's Turkey Trot" (1963)


This dance song was written by Gerry Goffin and Jack Keller, even though some copies of the 45 credited Carole King instead of Keller. The song incorporates the call of the wild turkey—"gobble"—into its nonsense background vocal chant and became a Top 20 hit. 


5. Chris Rock – "Nike Turkey" (1991)

Chris Rock performed this Thanksgiving parody of "Parents Just Don't Understand" by DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince on Saturday Night Live.



6. Ohio Players – "Jive Turkey" (1974)

Not a Thanksgiving song, but it mentions turkey, so it'll do if you're scraping the bottom of the roasting pan to find songs for a Thanksgiving playlist. The song is actually about a jilted lover.


7. Johnny Cash – "Thanksgiving Prayer" (1997)

Johnny Cash performed the song "Thanksgiving Prayer" on an episode of the television show Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. I would hate to be the actor in a scene like this one who has to awkwardly sit and approvingly look on as someone else sings. Everyone who ever co-starred with Elvis in his movies had to do that on camera a few times.



8. Adam Sandler – "The Thanksgiving Song" (1992)

Another song from Saturday Night Live. This song was released to radio as a promotional single and actually reached #67 on Billboard's Hot 100. Today, Rolling Stone deems it a "Thanksgiving classic," but the bar is pretty low for that title, since the world of Thanksgiving music doesn't have a song like "White Christmas" to compete with.

9. Arlo Guthrie – "Alice's Restaurant" (1968)

This 18-minute long story-song about some goings-on "two Thanksgivings ago" took up the whole first side of Arlo Guthrie's album of the same name. Many people listen to this song every year as part of their Thanksgiving tradition.


10. Cousin Emmy – "Turkey in the Straw" (1965-66)

This traditional song isn't a Thanksgiving song, but it mentions turkeys, at least in the vocal versions. Here's an instrumental rendition by Cousin Emmy in which she performs it with her face. I'm not sure of the exact year that this clip was filmed, but it is from Pete Seeger's Rainbow Quest television show, which aired from 1965-1966. Homer & Jethro recorded a version of this song as "Chicken in the Pan." 


11. George Gobel – "Thanksgiving Song" (1955)

George Gobel introduced the song "Thanksgiving Song," written by Farlan Myers and Hal Levy, on television's The George Gobel Show in 1955. (Levy taught at UCLA and co-wrote Gene Vincent's "Blue Jean Bop.") Afterward, Dinah Shore would perform "Thanksgiving Song" regularly around Thanksgiving. I couldn't find a recorded version to link to.

George Gobel


12. Ira D. Sankey & Fanny J. Crosby – "A Hymn of Thanksgiving" (1899)

Gospel singer and songwriter Ira D. Sankey was dubbed "the sweet singer of Methodism." Published in 1899, Sankey's "A Hymn of Thanksgiving" was a collaboration with the blind hymnodist Fanny J. Crosby. No audio.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Bobby Rydell's sweaters

The picture above is a previously unpublished photo of my aunt Rosemary with Bobby Rydell in the 1960s.  

One of Bobby Rydell's trademarks was his sweaters. The covers of his albums and singles often pictured him in amazing sweaters, and he also wore some great sweaters in the musical film Bye Bye Birdie

I wish that I had all of his sweaters. I do have a sweater like the one that he's wearing on his album All the Hits, but the colors are different. 

Rydell wasn't the only teen idol who habitually sported cardigans. In the book Getting It On: The Clothing of Rock 'n' Roll, Mablen Jones wrote, "Sweaters, skirts, shirtwaist dresses, sports jackets or suits and ties were part of the [American] Bandstand dress code." American Bandstand, at least in its early years, took pains to present the respectable, acceptable face of rock and roll.

The respectable cardigan sweater set the clean-cut teen idols like Rydell apart from the greasy, black-leather-jacketed rockers who were leading America's youth into rebellion and ruin. The leather jacket aligned the rockers with truckers and bikers, but the cardigan aligned teen idols with their parents' generation of pop singers, such as Bing Crosby and Perry Como. In that sense, Rydell's sweaters were already nostalgic in the early '60s. My nostalgia for them here is nostalgia for nostalgia.

This contrast between the nice, well-groomed "boy next door" and the disgusting uncouth rocker is prominent in Bye Bye Birdie. Similarly, in the film Grease, Danny (played by John Travolta) "dons a letter sweater toward the close of the film, as Bobby Rydell might have done in Bye Bye Birdie" and "is looked on as freakish by the other leather-clad members of his gang," Michael Dunne wrote in American Film Musical Themes and Forms. The symbolism of the cardigan sweater was not lost on Danny's gang—the Thunderbirds and the Pink Ladies.

Some Grease trivia: The high school in Grease was named "Rydell High" in homage to Bobby. The sequel to Grease—Grease 2—cast another teen idol, Tab Hunter, as the biology teacher. In the original Grease, adult film actor Harry Reems was originally cast to play the part of the track coach, but the studio changed its mind before shooting began.

Today on Music Weird, we're just going to sit back and enjoy some of Bobby Rydell's great sweaters.