Friday, November 7, 2008

1920 + 40 = Kid’s Tune

Boy, when I dig into the stuff four-year-old caithiseach should have been playing on his record player, all kinds of people relive their childhood as well. That makes me happy. And thanks to Anonymous and Yah Shure, I recall that my Uncle Tom gave me “Pony Boy” rides. When he wasn’t around, my dad did the same. I had forgotten that. I wonder just how many kids got bounced on an adult’s leg to that tune.

Both of today’s songs disappeared in the Great Vinyl Meltdown. They were on kiddie records, one on an LP (a Golden Record, I think) and the other on a 78. I actively sought the one on the LP, and when I recovered it, transferred to CD, it became the most improbable reacquisition to date.

I learned in my search for the song that it had actually been a hit for adults in the 1920s. The same holds true for the second tune, which started as a risqué folk song. I’ll take them one at a time.

“Where Do You Work-A John” started as a hit for Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians. The song poked a bit of fun at Italian immigrants to the United States, a theme that seems to have petered out in the 1960s, except for Joe Dolce’s 1981 hit “Shaddap You Face.” Waring’s song entered the charts on March 5, 1927 and peaked at #6.

The version of “Where Do You Work-A John” I knew as a child was obviously aimed at children. The whimsical melody was not changed, which shows how flexible some melodies are. But there’s a gulf between the 1920s versions and the children’s version; they are all sung by adults, but the arrangement of the version I knew first seems to be more childlike.

For perspective, here’s a YouTube video of a version by Guy Hunter on Edison 51917. I can’t figure out if Hunter’s version precedes Waring’s, but it gives you an idea of the way the song was presented back then.

I don’t know who recorded the children’s version. When I found it again, I did so by glancing at the track listing for a CD called Mother Goose Songs and Stories. (It sits on my CD rack between the Motels and Mötley Crüe.) Claiming to “bring out the genius in your child,” this CD contains the Italian-immigrant-mocking song, a song about cigarette trees, and three train songs. No actual Mother Goose that I could see. I plunked down a couple of bucks and took the CD home in hopes that its version of “Where Do You Work-A John?” was the one I sought. Indeed it was. That was quite a shock. Lesson learned: Look at the track listing of every CD, in case there's something useful on one.

The other song of the day, “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” was a song presumably written by Harry McClintock in his hobo persona around 1897. By the time he recorded it in 1928, the song was attributed to Billy Mack. The song’s initial purpose was to describe how hobos lured children into their lifestyle with tales of life on the road. The lyrics became much more tame over the years (see Wikipedia for examples), ending with the “cigarette trees” becoming “peppermint trees” in the children’s version.

Apart from Harry McClintock, whose version wound up in film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the best-known version would have to be the Burl Ives recording from 1949, shown on YouTube with photographic accompaniment:

I also found the song on a Highwaymen album from the early 1960s. The version I knew from a 78 rpm record included a spoken interlude by an adult who sounds vaguely cowboyish and an enthusiastic boy who is enthralled by the idea of sugarplum trees with marshmallow leaves. It’s all of a minute long and ends abruptly, so I wonder if there should be more to it.

Thinking about these “adult” songs that have wound up in the children’s repertoire, I have to wonder which of the songs we know will be siphoned off by the kiddie market. “Born to Be Wild?” “You’re So Vain?” “She Loves You?” Maybe not. But something will go the way of these songs, and it probably won’t be the “Lollipop” I quoted last time.

For Wednesday, I’ll bring you the A side of the second of the two 45s I never played when I got them from Uncle Tom. The first one, by Davi, turned out to be decent. We’ll see about the other one next week. I promise I won’t hear it more than 30 minutes before it’s available to you. See you Wednesday!

Where Do You Work-A John?

Big Rock Candy Mountain

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