In the absence of any other claimant for the position, I hereby appoint myself to the position of Chief Arbiter of “Songs, Sayings and Books Which Will Likely Not Be Remembered by Anyone Under the Age of Fifty.”
It’s a lonely position — and thankless, likely as not. But as they say, “Somebody has to do it.”
This decision was made as I woke up one recent morning with two lines from a parody of a college fight song called “Fight Fiercely Harvard” — which should be sung while holding a small cup of tea, with the little finger extended — rumbling through my brain.
Those first lines went, “Fight fiercely Harvard, demonstrate to them our skill. Albeit they possess the might, nonetheless we have the will.” It was only after a breakfast of my secret top ramen/vegetable omelet that I recalled the name of the composer/singer, a college professor of mathematics and theater named Tom Lehrer.
Apparently he’s still living, even after having been born in the same year I was. Another example of his disrespect for just about anything was a peppy little thing, “The Vatican Rag,” which included the chant, “Genuflect, genuflect, genuflect!
Many will remember another composer and singer of a musical humor: Stan Freberg. His work was most often a parody of an existing popular song, much as “Weird Al” Yankovic still does today. Freberg was once the target of most Chamber of Commerce members when he recorded his parody of Elvis’ “A Blue Christmas” with something called “A Green Chri$tmas$”, decrying the commercialization of the holy season. Many radio stations banned it from the air. As I recall, KELA compromised. We could play it, but only after ten o’clock at night!
Spike Jones and the City Slickers created a new form of musical humor when they recorded “Der Fuhrer’s Face” around the beginning of WWII. Most, if not all, of their succeeding recordings were made with a different style of musical madness, where outlandish sound effects took the place of cerebral humor. My father loved them.
Homer and Jethro (Henry D. Haynes & Kenneth C. Burns) made a pile of cash in the 50s & 60s by recording hillbilly versions of popular songs. What most people didn’t know was that they were accomplished jazz musicians as well. Every once in a hint of that ability would sneak their way into recordings. Eventually they did record two jazz albums: “Playing it straight” & “It Ain’t Necessarily Jazz” — probably next to impossible to find — along with 26 other albums done in their more familiar style.
Music wasn’t the only place where humor brightened the day for many of us. My friend and columnist mentor, the late Gordon Aadland, and I agreed that the writings of Robert Benchly deserved the honor of displaying the best written humor from the mid-30s to the mid-40s. Incidentally, his grandson, the late Peter Benchly, evidently didn’t inherit the humor genes — there wasn’t much to laugh about in “Jaws”.
In addition to a pair of biographies about the senior Benchly, Timberland Library has three collections of his humor, but only one copy of each. Perhaps the gentleness of his humor just isn’t appreciated today. There were no naughty words, and I remember no sexual allusions.
I’ve referred in the past to the writings of Mary Lasswell and the adventures of three old ladies who survived WWII while aiding the war effort with a bottle of beer always in or close to one hand.
Even in wartime, some things were still gentle.
Bill Moeller is a former entertainer, mayor, bookstore owner, city council member, paratrooper and pilot living in Centralia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.