Donald Archibald copyrighted three songs in 1977: "Bubby, Bubbly Root Beer," "Victory Rock, Rock, Rock!" and "The Lullaby of the Clouds." Only the first one, as far as I know, was recorded.
One of the most spectacular pivots from a terrible idea to a great one occurred with this short-lived Wisconsin record label that was not only called Swastika Records but also prominently featured a swastika symbol in the logo.
Existing for only two months in 1959, the label was an imprint of Jim Kirchstein of Sauk City, Wisconsin, and became a longstanding source of dismay to Kirchstein, who later believed that the FBI investigated him because of it. Turning lemons into lemonade, Kirschstein quickly abandoned the Swastika label and renamed it Cuca Records, which—as many oldies fans know—became the center of regional independent music making in Wisconsin and achieved national fame with artists such as The Fendermen, whose "Mule Skinner Blues" was a Top 5 pop hit in 1960.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. First came Swastika Records, which Kirchstein says he innocently, if naively, named in recognition of the large German-American population in Wisconsin and in reference to the traditional meaning of the swastika as a symbol of good luck. He explained his rationale for the name in Gary E. Myers' book Do You Hear that Beat: Wisconsin Pop/Rock in the 50's & 60's:
'That was a very dumb thing I did,' said Kirchstein. 'This was in the 50's and the horrors of World War II were just 15 years before that. I had the idea of creating a series of German related type music and the swastika was basically a symbol of good luck, a symbol of the sun.'
Swastika Records endured long enough to release only two singles: one by the Midwest Ranchers (Swastika 1000) and one by Willy Tremain's Thunderbirds (Swastika 1001).
The Midwest Ranchers were a country combo with a trumpeter, and their Swastika single was the only record they released. (Steel guitarist Leroy Gilbertson later released a solo single on Cuca in 1962.) The Midwest Ranchers' single contained remakes of the Gene Autry and Smiley Burnette song "Riding Down the Canyon" and Carl Smith's 1950 country hit "I Overlooked an Orchard." Kirchstein paid RCA's pressing plant in Chicago to manufacture 300 copies.
In this label image from Discogs, someone tried to black out the swastika symbol with a marker!
Swastika's other single, the rock 'n' roll instrumental "Midnight Express" by Willy Tremain's Thunderbirds, was again pressed at the RCA plant in an initial batch of 300.
The record was a good seller, so Kirchstein went to RCA to press another batch of 300. This time, RCA raised objections to the label's name and logo:
...[A]fter he placed an order for more copies of the release, his RCA contact, Bill Leonards found a problem with the records. The original label name chosen for Kirchstein's releases was Swastika and the records' paper labels included the symbol in their artwork, causing workers and management at the RCA facility to feel uncomfortable with the Nazi association. Kirchstein maintained that he chose the Swastika insignia because the large German population of Sauk City considered it a good luck sign. He had no intention of conjuring up pro-Nazi sentiments through his record business. (In later years, he believed the FBI investigated his activities based solely on this "dumb thing" he did.) Impulsively, Kirchstein decided while on the telephone with Leonards to rename his business Cuca, the nickname of his wife's Mexican-American cousin from Los Cusas, New Mexico.With the founding of Cuca Records, the Swastika name and logo were abandoned, and Willy Tremain's Thunderbirds became the first artist on Cuca, with the spelling of Tremain's first name changed from Willy to Willie.
In its entry on Tremain, Gary E. Myers' second book on Wisconsin music, On that Wisconsin Beat: More Pop/Rock/Soul/Country, contains a follow-up anecdote about the Swastika label:
In 1995 [Tremain] obtained several copies of his 36-year old disc. 'We used to hire these kids to sell the records at our dances,' he explains. 'A few years ago my brother ran into one of those guys who still had a box of autographed copies on Swastika.' Jim Kirchstein laughingly said he wanted to get them and burn them - Jerry Osborn's 1999 price guide listed the disc at $200-$300.
According to Myers' book, even though the catalog numbers suggest that the Midwest Ranchers' record preceded the one by Tremain's Thunderbirds, Tremain's record was released in July 1959 and the Midwest Ranchers' record in August 1959. Cuca's debut, the reissue of the Tremain record, was also released in August 1959.
By the way, any music lovers who are interested in Myers' highly informative books on Wisconsin music of the '50s and '60s should visit his website where he's offering both of them at clearance prices.
For years I've done most of my music listening in the car while commuting or traveling, but in 2020 I didn't go anywhere, so I had to carve out time to listen to music in a way that I haven't in the past. It was worth the effort.
In the interest of posting this in a timely manner, I'm not going to write about all these tracks individually, many of which are singles and all of which got lots of spins by me this year, but I will mention my three most-listened-to albums of 2020 in order of release:
Woods – "Strange to Explain" (May 22, 2020)
I'm a longtime fan of Woods, but they hit it out of the park with Strange to Explain, their best album since 2009's Songs of Shame in my opinion (although they released a lot of great music in between). I had this playing on repeat all through the summer.
Waifu Shrine - POP (October 9, 2020)
POP has a ramshackle DIY vibe that takes me back to the days of Blackbean and Placenta Tape Club but has plenty of traditional pop songcraft too. Underneath it all, "Spring Arrived Right in Time" is a future pop standard worthy of Tin Pan Alley, and "Toy Keyboard" has one of the best uses of a chipmunk voice since We're Only in It for the Money or even "Martian Hop."
Beach Vacation – I Fell Apart (November 13, 2020)
Just lovely from start to finish. It's not as much of a loss that Wild Nothing no longer sounds like Gemini when we have bands like Beach Vacation creating similarly gauzy, dreamy music that is simultaneously nostalgic and new.
Music Weird's Best of 2020 Spotify playlist
Various artists – Strum & Thrum: The American Jangle Underground 1983-1987
Finally, a new Cozy Catastrophes track from the last days of the year:
Indiana is not known as a hotbed of the blues, but I was surprised while browsing the book Blues: A Regional Experience to see that only one blues singer was listed for the entire state: Helen Beasley, who waxed a single record in 1929. However, after looking into her biography a bit, I'm not sure that Indiana can claim her.
Beasley made three recordings in her brief recording career, all of which were cut in a Chicago studio for Brunswick Records. The recordings were unadorned, consisting only of Beasley's vocals and a piano that was probably played by fellow Brunswick recording artist Frances Wallace, according to Blues & Gospel Records, 1890-1943, Fourth Edition.
Her first session was a test recording of a song called "California Bound Blues" on April 18, 1929. A week later, on April 25, she recorded "Tia Juana Blues" and "Rambling Mind Blues," two original compositions that Brunswick released on a 78 as Brunswick 7077.
Because of the similarities between the lyrics of "Tia Juana Blues" and the title of "California Bound Blues," some have surmised that they're actually the same song.
As Wim Verbei points out in his book Boom's Blues: Music, Journalism, and Friendship in Wartime, "Tia Juana Blues" has a odd stylistic quirk that recurs throughout. Beasley, instead of breaking up her couplets where a pause would normally be expected, pauses in the second couplet. So, instead of singing this:
I'm going to California, sweet man / just to wear you off my mind
She sings this:
I'm going to California, sweet man, just to / wear you off my mind
This unconventional phrasing is clearly an artistic choice on Beasley's part, because she repeats the formula throughout the song.
The other side of the single, "Rambling Mind Blues," is a bit quirky, too, because of Beasley's nearly constant use of the vocal technique known as scooping.
After that, she either moved on to other things or didn't garner enough sales to merit an additional release, because that appears to have been her only single.
Beasley's listing in Blues: A Regional Experience provides very little biographical information, but it's nevertheless more information than I found anywhere else. Unfortunately, it also appears to be incorrect. It says she was born Helen Slaughter in Indiana on April 25, 1895, and died in Los Angeles on February 3, 1972, but adds that this information is tentative. On the basis of my research, I don't think any of this information relates to Helen Beasley the blues singer, which calls into question whether Beasley was from Indiana at all.
Slaughter's obituary in the February 5, 1972, issue of the Bakersfield Californian doesn't mention anything about singing, but more significantly, it gives her husband's name as Paul Slaughter, which means that Slaughter was her married name, not her birth name. Also, Paul was white, and although interracial marriages weren't unheard of in mid 20th century America, they were uncommon.
SLAUGHTER, HELEN MARIE — Rosary will be recited at 8 p.m. Sunday at The Hopson Mortuary Chapel and Requiem Mass will be said at 11 a.m. for Helen M. Slaughter, 77, who died Thursday in a Los Angeles convalescent hospital. Msgr. Patrick Hannon will officiate, and interment will follow in Union Cemetery. Mrs. Slaughter, a native of Indiana, had resided in California 50 years. She had been a resident of Bakersfield many years prior to making her home in the Los Angeles area three years ago. Mrs. Slaughter had been self-employed in the antique business for many years. Her husband, Paul, died in 1963. Survivors include one daughter, Ann Jensen of Los Angeles; four grandchildren; a sister-in-law, Mrs. Blyth Slaughter of Modesto, and several cousins. Mrs. Slaughter was a member of the Altar Society of St. Joseph and the Third Order of St. Francis.
I also found some ads for the antique store, Old House Antiques, that Helen Slaughter ran with her husband. Here's one from 1949:
Interesting, but most likely irrelevant to the blues. Although it seems questionable to me now whether Helen Beasley came from Indiana at all, the state can claim Scrapper Blackwell as a native son. Wikipedia lists his birthplace as Syracuse, South Carolina, but other sources say he was born in Indianapolis where he grew up, recorded his first record in 1928, and died in 1962 after being shot during a mugging.
Beasley's two commercial recordings are included on the Document Records CD Blue Girls, Volume 1: 1924-1930 and can be heard in the YouTube videos below. Her test recording of "California Bound Blues" remains unreleased.
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Earl Butz served as the Secretary of Agriculture for President Richard Nixon and President Gerald Ford, but if you hear his name today, it's probably in reference to an unsavory joke he made in 1976 that cost him his job. This joke, oddly enough, reverberated through the music scene for years afterward and culminated in Butz himself becoming a recording artist!
The story of Butz and his joke had weird connections to the music industry from the beginning. If you haven't heard the story before, this is it:
After the 1976 Republican National Convention, Butz was on a return flight with Pat Boone, Sonny Bono, and John Dean, the latter of whom had been Nixon's White House Counsel, and after testifying in the Watergate hearings, became an author and political commentator.
In their conversation, Boone wondered aloud why Republicans, the party of Abraham Lincoln, were unable to attract more black voters, and Butz, who was notorious for his crude and racist humor, let loose with the reply that led to his resignation from political office. Repeating the punchline of an old joke, Butz said, "I'll tell you what the coloreds want. It's three things: first, a tight pussy; second, loose shoes; and third, a warm place to shit."
Dean reported on the interaction afterward, and amid the ensuing outcry, Butz was forced to resign. Don't feel too bad for poor ol' Butz, though, because despite the controversy, he returned to his home state of Indiana and became dean emeritus of agriculture at Purdue University, began hosting a daily syndicated radio show about agriculture that aired on about 70 stations, served on the board of ConAgra as well as that of an insurance company and a real estate company, and became a popular speaker to civic groups and at banquets.
But back to Butz's joke. Exactly how old was this joke, and where did it come from?
I'm not sure, but it was referenced in a 1972 article in Rolling Stone about The Rolling Stones in which novelist Terry Southern, who worked on the screenplay of the 1964 Stanley Kubrick film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, is quoted.
In the article, Southern says that when he first met actor Slim Pickens in 1963 during the shooting of the film, Southern asked Pickens if he was settled in, since this was Pickens' first trip to England, and Pickens replied, "What you know me. Gimme loose fittin’ shoes, a taght pussy, and a warm place to shit and I’m fahn…." In Pickens' telling, the joke was directed at himself and lacked the racial dimension of Butz's version.
When Butz repeated this joke in 1976, it received a lot of coverage in the media. Robin Williams referenced it in his 1977 roast of Richard Pryor. It soon became a reference point in a couple different songs too.
One was a 1977 song by G.T. Walls that was released as a single in the Netherlands. It's from an album called Rhythm & Booze that includes songs and singing by Dutch music journalist and novelist Jip Golsteijn. Although the song was almost certainly inspired by the Butz controversy, given the timing, the song is in the spirit of Pickens' version of the joke, not Butz's. It's a wry commentary on modern existence in which the narrator concludes that a more enlightened life would consist of the titular "tight pussy, loose shoes, and a warm place to shit."
More famously, Butz's punchline became the inspiration for the title song—not to mention the title itself—of the 1978 film Loose Shoes, later retitled Coming Attractions.
The song, sung by David Downing and filmed in sepia tone in the style of a 1930s Cab Calloway film, didn't just recycle the punchline for comedic effect—it explicitly commented on Butz and his racism. In the song, Downing ironically sings about how he'd trade all his accomplishments and his place in society for the creature comforts that Butz listed. "I'm not usually invited to a Republican bash," Downing concludes, "unless they have tight pussy, loose shoes, and a warm place to shit."
It's a brilliant dramatic reenactment of the joke that hilariously inventories obnoxious stereotypes of African-Americans. And as a musical adaptation of a joke, it beat Mr. Show's "The Joke: The Musical" to the punch by almost 20 years.