Sunday, September 13, 2020

Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz's surprising contributions to music, 1977-1999

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.

Loose Shoes was a film like Amazon Women on the Moon, Kentucky Fried Movie, The Groove Tube, and Tunnel Vision that presented a series of sketches, fake commercials, fake television-show trailers, and such. It featured appearances by past and future comedy icons such as Buddy Hackett and Bill Murray and a few musical figures like Van Dyke Parks and Jaye P. Morgan. The title song was even released as a single as "The Love Theme Loose Shoes."

But possibly the craziest part of this whole controversy was that Butz himself released a record in 1978. After returning to Indiana in disgrace following the "loose shoes" debacle, Butz recorded a single called "Farmers Are the Roots of America... Make No Mistake About It!" for a tiny label in Alexandria, Indiana, the home of Bill Gaither and his gospel family. 

The record was the brainchild of John Govro, who ran Pinebrook Studio in Alexandria, and Clarence Phairas, who had a company called Reality of Indiana, Inc. The duo composed both sides of the single, and Govro sang the B-side. Butz's side featured musical backing over which Butz delivered a recitation about "improving farming income, expanding farm export markets and minimizing federal encroachment into farming," according to an August 12, 1978, article in the Anderson Herald Bulletin that was headlined, "Earl Butz sets his caustic comments to music."

The record was released on August 17 at the Indiana State Fair, where it sold for $4. Govro said it would be sold through state fairs in addition to receiving national distribution, and he expected robust sales. "...[I]t could be any figure," he said. "We're open for millions. Why not?" He also said that they might record an entire album if the single became a big seller. Fans of dreary political recitations by crotchety old men will be disappointed to learn that this album never came to pass.

That was it for Butz and his joke for a while, but he lived to see at least one more musical reference to his most notorious contribution to public life: In 1999, Alex Chilton, the former lead singer of The Box Tops and Big Star, titled an album Loose Shoes and Tight Pussy. 

It is unknown whether or not Butz ever saw this album, but he could have, because he lived until 2008. In the years between his recording debut in 1978 and his death, Butz pled guilty to tax evasion and received yet more negative publicity in the 2007 documentary King Corn, which highlighted his role in increasing the amount of high-fructose corn syrup in American diets.

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