Friday, October 31, 2008

A Funnier Laugh

Now that October is (essentially) over, so is my look at the music that gave me childhood nightmares. It amuses me to think that the three most unnerving songs I owned, which caused strong reactions among some of you even as adults, were gifts I received from my Uncle Tom when I was three or four years old. Can you imagine how things would be now if you gave your little kid new music without screening it first?

[Four-year-old pops in new CD]:
Okay, lil mama had a swag like mine
even wear her hair down her back like mine
I make her feel right when its wrong like lyin'
Man, she ain never had a love like mine n'
man I ain’t never seen a ass like hers
and that pussy in my mouth had me at a loss fo words

[Mother enters room]: Where did you get that CD?

[Four-year-old turns to mom]: Uncle Tom got it at Big Top.

[Mom nods]: That’s nice, dear.

I don’t think so. But I think I failed to confide in my mom when these songs scared me because I thought she might remove them from my collection. Then, 44 years later, I would have had nothing to write about as Halloween approached.

I did not hesitate to tell my mom of my fondness for today’s song. [I had two songs in mind for this post-Halloween essay; I settled on one because the other, “Puff (The Magic Dragon)” by Peter, Paul & Mary, would have required me to delve into the rumors surrounding the lyrics.] There were several things to like about this 45. It had a nice, colorful Decca label, for one. For another, the singer sounded friendly and down-to-earth. Of course, homey and folksy was what Burl Ives did best.

“Funny Way of Laughin’” (Decca 31371) entered the Hot 100 on April 7, 1962, and it peaked at #10 on the day caithiseach turned two. We heard the song on the radio, and Mom bought it either for herself or for me. I don’t remember asking her to buy it; I don’t know if I knew you could buy records then. I might have thought they just showed up on the doorstep like orphaned infants.

I do remember singing the song when I was two. I probably didn’t carry much of a tune then, and my enunciation would have lacked something. But I wandered around, singing “funny waya laffen” along with ol’ Burl.

The logic of the song wasn’t crystal-clear to me at first. I had seen people laugh till they cried, so Burl’s behavior didn’t strike me as odd. Eventually, I figured out that he was really crying from sadness, despite the brave face he was putting on. That’s silly. When I’m sad, if I cry, I don’t claim I have discovered a new way to laugh. But I still like the song.

“Funny Way of Laughin’” strikes me as an anomaly in the ways of pop music. It’s not uncommon for a singer or group to follow up a hit with a similar-sounding release. That’s often the decision of a label or a producer, either because of a lack of imagination or a lack of respect for the listening public. A classic example of a soundalike followup is “My Sharona” and “Baby Talks Dirty” by the Knack. Even with “Good Girls Don’t” sandwiched between these two releases, it’s obvious that “Baby Talks Dirty” would have been left as album filler in a world where quality mattered more than predictability.

The key there is that “My Sharona” came first (and is a far better song). In the case of “Funny Way,” it is the followup to a similar-sounding song, “A Little Bitty Tear.” Released a mere four months apart, the songs sound as if they were recorded on the same day. The odd thing is that, to me, “A Little Bitty Tear” sounds like the weaker afterthought, the song that had its arrangement modeled on the template of “Funny Way.” But “Tear” hit the airwaves first, peaking at #9, and there was hardly a break for listeners before “Funny Way” slid into its slot in the rotation. Perhaps it peaked only at #10 because the magic was wearing off.

But when I was two, “A Little Bitty Tear” was never on my radar, and it was the April-May hit that caught my ear. With all these years of perspective, I know I was right: “Funny Way of Laughin’” is the superior song.

Burl Ives was born in 1909 in central Illinois. He stuck around there long enough to attend what is now Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, which was still proud of him when I applied for a teaching job there in 1998. He gave up on college in 1929 and decided to try his hand at music. His first recording was rejected. By the early 1930s he was working at a Terre Haute, Indiana radio station and attending what is now Indiana State University, which is more proud of Larry Bird than of Burl Ives.

Burl spent time in the Army during World War II, then he moved to New York and wound up in the movies. Eventually he appeared in East of Eden (1955), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) and The Big Country (1958), which won him an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Not too shabby.

The Ives film you are most likely to see on TV, though, is the 1964 Christmas classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. As Sam the Snowman, Burl created a new Christmas classic tune, “A Holly Jolly Christmas.” If you haven’t watched this perennial special in the past twenty years or so, you should do so this year, though the cool Norelco shaver commercials are no longer part of the show.

I guess I ought to mention that, in the early 1950s, Burl was noted as a possible Communist and thus blacklisted. Unfortunately, he got out of that jam by giving up Pete Seeger and some others. A righteously annoyed folk-music community gave Burl plenty of grief for that, but he and Pete made up shortly before Burl’s death, which occurred in 1995.

The pair of songs Burl charted in early 1962 were both written by Hank Cochran (born 1935). Hank scored just three minor Top 40 Country hits as a solo artist, but he wrote “Make the World Go Away” for Eddy Arnold, as well as “She’s Got You” and “I Fall to Pieces” for Patsy Cline. Given his total output of 554 songs, you’d expect a hit or two, but these make for a pretty sweet résumé.

Even with the twists and turns my life took during my childhood, it came as a surprise to me when Rudolph came on TV one year in the 1970s, and my stepmother’s mother remembered a time when Burl lived down the street from her in Illinois. He was, she said, “a smelly old man” who was not one for bathing. That’s all right, I suppose, considering that a friend of mine is married to a woman who is related, by a different marriage, to B.B. King. She described him in a similar way.

I guess, then, that when you say that people who are close to greatness take it for granted, their perspective might change a bit if they stood a few feet farther away from the greatness.

Next week, I am going to bring you the kind of music one would have expected me to be playing when I was three. Since Sterling Holloway went over well, I’m not too worried, but we will just have to see, won’t we? See you Wednesday!

Burl Ives, Funny Way of Laughin'


Anonymous said...

Great, there are still 21 minutes left in October, there is (amazingly) no snow on the ground, and yet, thanks to you, I am already thinking about Rudolph and Christmas. Thaaaaaanks.

And while I do not think this song's laughter is funny, it is an improvement over the laughter in the last song, which is still giving me the chills. :/

Anonymous said...

I once worked with a woman who was dandled on the knee of Burl Ives as a young girl in central Illinois.

I recall another creepy Burl Ives tune from my youth called "That's All That I Can Remember," in which the protagonist can't remember the things he's done, only to end up committing a murder he can't remember. The last verse has him strapped into the electric chair, and after he reports that they've turned on the juice, he sings one last time, "that's all that I can remember."