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A Traditionalist When It Comes to Filthy Songs
Poem: My Great Long Strumming Thing


here are few traditions left nowadays. After all, what can you say about a world in which people end their cell phone conversations with a cheery shout of "One"? For crying out ... it's "one love," you knucklehead.

I know that I am not somebody to complain. While most people live their lives by the clock and by long-established rituals, I pretty much make it up as I go along. I don't recall the last time I owned an alarm clock, and I don't recall the last time it mattered. I fall asleep at random hours, especially nowadays, as I have recently developed a childlike refusal to go to sleep. I wake whenever I feel like it, which means my days include frequent dozing off, sometimes on my floor, followed by me leaping awake to noodle on one project or another.

Even here, I am hardly a paragon of consistency. I might twirl pistols for half an hour, or I am equally likely to peck away at a story that is long past its deadline. I wander out of my apartment to buy a few dollars worth of food, and then panic about my ongoing joblessness and dwindling funds. I then race home to scour the Internet for possible employment. Hours later, I will remember that I bought myself food, and only then get around to eating it.

I shower when I remember, I tidy up infrequently, I go six months between haircuts, and I never remember what day of the week it is. In other words, I am far from the model of a man steeped in tradition. But don't let this fool you -- the traditions that I do have, a cling to with a desperation engendered by the very unlikeness of me having any habits at all. I might not brush every night before I go to bed (although I try to, God knows I try), but, man alive, don't try and stop me when I am in the mood for a bawdy song. And I am always in the mood for a bawdy song.

Just like strumming a ukulele, which is a thing I do often enough that it has become one of my defining characteristics, the bawdy song (or hash song, as it is sometimes known) is a subject I return to so frequently that it is something of a Ukulele King cliché. As in: You know, the Ukulele King? Writes plays? Yodels? Sings dirty songs? It is a subject that has possessed me for a half-decade now -- and was the prime subject of my short-lived poetry journal, Doggerel -- and I am glad of it. There are scant few of us with a passion for the bawdy song nowadays. There is author Ed Cray, who collected them for his book The Erotic Muse. There is the British poet Llewtrah, a frequent contributor to Doggerel, who wrote poems so hair-raisingly filthy that even I hesitated at publishing them. There are a handful of spirited folk musicians who make the bawdy song a large part of their repertoire. There is me. And, before he died in 2000 at age 68, there was Bill "The Fox" Foster. And that's about it. I might cling to few traditions, but this one is dying, and so it needs clinging to.

Some of you might remember Foster. In its first few seasons, Bill "The Fox" Foster presided over Comedy Central’s notorious The Man Show as its mascot and inspiration. A grinning, wrinkled man in a blue military jacket and bright red bandleader’s cap (that's him in the center of the photo in the upper left-hand corner of this page), Foster stood behind an upright piano throughout the show holding two mugs of beer in his hands. With a cry of "Ziggy socky ziggy socky, hoy! Hoy! Hoy!" Foster ended each episode by dumping both mugs down his throat -- for 25 years he held the title of "the world’s fastest beer drinker." It was a self-declared title, to be sure, but I, the Ukulele King, the Worst Poet in the World, have a fondness for self-declared titles.

On The Man Show, Foster sat at his piano and played, calling out sing-along-style parodies of popular standard with crass lyrics and crasser choruses, as he had for decades at his own bar in Las Vegas, the Fox Inn. If "The Man Show" could be criticized for its returning to winking, leering misogyny (the closing credits featured scantily clad women jumping on trampolines), it deserved also to be recognized for reclaiming the lost, grand drinking tradition of the bawdy song, and, in particular, for briefly popularizing Foster. The Fox cheerily offered a return to a lost form of pub entertainment that amounted to getting really smashed with your friends, gathering around the piano and hoarsely singing the sorts of songs that would make a whore blush. Records of bawdy songs date back to Shakespeare, and many of the most famous come from the British Isles. The poet Robert Burns was famous for his love of off-color ballads; one of his most famous compositions is called "Nine Inch Will Please a Lady," and included lines such as "Come rede me, dame, come tell me, dame. My dame come tell me truly, What length o’ graith, when weel ca’d hame, Will sair a woman duly?"

In the ensuing years, bawdy songs have become more understandable (graith? Sair?). They seemed to reach their heyday during World War II, when American G.I.s spent their furloughs drinking in European brothels while singing songs with titles like "Cemetery Sue." ("They say a hard man is always good to find. If he’s three days dead then Sue don’t mind. Ask her what she wants and she’ll say she’ll have a dose of rigor mortis from a fresh cadaver.") Unfortunately, as jukeboxes became common in the 1950s, they edged out the piano that had always stood in the corner of a saloon, bringing an end to the long tradition of hammering out filthy melodies with your mates on a Saturday night.

I have spent years inviting loyal drinkers to return to this lost tradition. It takes some diligent research at the local V.F.W., but eventually you should be able to corner some decrepit veteran who can teach you a dozen or so galling verses. Foraging through thrift stores should also help, as the record bins occasionally produce lost treasures like Oscar Brand and David Sear’s Bawdy Hootenanny or Sid "Hardrock" Gunther’s Songs They Censored in the Hills. Additionally, most fraternities keep a steady supply of blue lyrics on hand in the back of their new pledge books, although rarely will you find a fraternity brother who can sing any of the songs. Admittedly, when I briefly belonged to a fraternity (Sigma Alpha Mu at the University of Minnesota; our parting was not amicable), nobody actually knew the melodies to the filthy songs at the back of their pledge book. The songs were holdovers from the end of World War Two, when dozens of veterans went to college on the GI bill, joined up with fraternal organizations. They then remade them in the image of their military years, including the foul songs they had sung in the Pacific theater and while flying missions over France.

As a last resort, the intrepid fan of bawdy songs might consider joining a secret society. Groups such as the Freemasons were notorious for the breadth of their collections of wicked lyrics, which they would sing in close, four-part harmony -- I have spent years trying to get Omaha's Beehive Lodge to return my calls, but most Masonic organizations are currently empty but for a few septuagenarians. I imagine they want to call me back, but simply cannot remember to do so, and these makes me fear that they might no longer remember any of the foul ditties they sang in their youth.

I have had to rely on the Internet. A simple search on Google (and -- hey! -- there is a Google search button on this very page!) using keywords like "hash song" and "bawdy ballad" turns up a veritable cornucopia of melodic licentiousness, such as the Bawdy Ballad Index. If you are looking for songs with titles like "Blinded by Turds" and "My God How the Money Rolls In," the Internet might be your only resource.

So practice your piano scales until you can make chords simply by banging your fists down on the keyboard, start memorizing the lyrics to "Beastiality's Best," and begin lugging your Casio portable synthesizer to the bar with you on weekends. If you do not take responsibility for the revival of this glorious drinking tradition, it will die with this generation, and then who will teach or grandchildren the verses to "The Rajah of Astrakhan," which begins:

There was a Rajah of Astrakhan,
A most licentious lout of a man,
Of wives he a hundred and nine,
Including his favourite concubine.
One day when there was no-one at hand,
He called his warrior, one of his band,
"Go down to my harem, you lazy swine,
And fetch my favourite concubine."

I close now with a bawdy song of my own, one I sing when I play Ukulele, and might refer to the ukulele, or, in the best tradition of the hash song, might refer to something else entirely. With a nod to Burns, here is a composition of my own:

My Great Long Strumming Thing

I met her at a fairground;
Her great beauty did I see.
But what could I offer her?
O ugly, wretched me!
I am not a handsome man,
I do not work or sing.
The only thing that I could offer her
Was my great long strumming thing.

She introduced me to her girlfriends
And we agreed to meet for tea,
But I forgot the biscuits I'd bought
O stupid, thoughtless me!
I felt quite like a fool then,
As no cookies did I bring.
The only thing that would give them joy
Was my great long strumming thing.

We met then with her mother
And with her sisters three.
They peered then down their noses
And did not think much of me.
I did not have a dime to my name
And had not worked since spring,
And the only thing that impressed them
Was my great long strumming thing.

I took her to the garden
And dropped down on my knee
And begged her then to be my bride
And asked her to marry me.
I don't want to wed, she said,
And I don't want no ring.
All I want is another look
At your great long strumming thing!

© Max Sparber. Click for republication information.

Posted by UkuleleKing at 4:49 p.m.

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