The Andrews Sisters didn’t sing about hookers, and the songs from Hair really aren’t about hair, shattering some of my longest-held perceptions.
Backstory: I’m not your typical music lover; I pay no attention to the identity of the groups doing the music I love, and I don’t usually listen much to the lyrics. I typically hear just enough of what’s being sung that my brain can make up the rest.
Like a lot of people, I tend to lose the lyrics in a swirl of bad diction and nonsensical meanings. It causes a few problems when I start singing.
When I was a kid, We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves, that classic old hymn was, to my ears, We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the Sheets. It made perfect sense if you and your grandma hung her laundry outside to dry; if you managed to get the dry clothes off the line and into the house ahead of the rain, you’d rejoice, too.
Walking in a Winter Wonderland REALLY was Walking in our Winter Underwear.
Elvis sang You ain’t never called me rabid so you ain’t no friend of mine.
I noticed that song lyrics tended to change the more I heard the song and puzzled through its logic. Brewer & Shipley’s One Toke Over the Line started as One Toad Over the Line, which didn’t make sense; why would someone traffic in amphibians? After awhile, I reconsidered, listened carefully and decided they were singing One Toe Over the Line.
Clearly, this was about a guy was running away from the state cops for some reason. Or maybe he was playing football and just barely made a touchdown.
Years later, I read an article that said One Toke was the number one misunderstood song in existence, and the article included the actual lyrics.
Whoa! I was right the first time: It WAS about trafficking green stuff, just green stuff that didn’t hop.
Buy Me, Mr. Shane is probably my longest-lived misperception. It was one of Dad’s favorites, an old standard by the Andrews Sisters, and I probably first heard it in the cradle. I loved its shape,* even if the child me didn’t understand why a woman was asking this guy to buy her.
I set to work to reason it out: Slavery was abolished in the US well before the Andrews Sisters, so clearly, she wasn’t offering to be a slave. About that time I read a story about a dance hall girl, wearily entreating men to pay her to dance….maybe that’s what she meant? No, the song didn’t mention dancing.
Then I got hooked on the history of Jack the Ripper, which introduced the concept of prostitution. Aha!!!! The song was about paying for sex! I started calling it “Dad’s Hooker Song,” much to Dad’s chagrin.
Credit my childhood knowledge of prostitution to the Dewey Decimal System; I spent most summers in any library within biking distance, methodically working my way through the stacks. I reached 364.9, History of Criminology, right around the age of 11 and became fascinated with crime in Victorian London. That introduced me to Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Jack the Ripper… and prostitution.
Exactly what those Victorian ladies were selling wasn’t clear, but it seemed to involve getting paid to take off your clothes. That amazed and delighted me, since Mom insisted I remove all clothing prior to bathing. Given the number of baths I’d had to take so far, I figured Mom owed me a LOT of money.
Last night I heard Dad’s Hooker Song for the first time in years, and Googled it. Google, intelligently, figured out that “Buy Me, Mr. Shane” was actually a German song, Bei Mir Bistu Shein.
Turns out, this is a remake of a Yiddish song that Sammy Cahn rewrote and gave to the Andrews Sisters, except that the only Yiddish in it is the title.
It was their first big hit, made #1 on the 1937 charts. Four years later, when the US officially entered World War II, the Andrews Sisters would include it in their Allied entertainment tours, along with equally incomprehensible songs like Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.
Ironic, that the queens of WWII troop shows made their mark with a Yiddish song, considering who they were fighting.
About that Hair album…
The Hair album was a revelation, mostly because the songs were like opera, except with a beat, and the words were in English instead of Italian. I loved discovering new words, and one song, Sodomy, was full of them. Not one of those words existed in my dictionary, though, which was a puzzlement.
So one Sunday afternoon, as my parents downstairs welcomed the bishop and his wife for snacks, I put Hair on the player and turned it on to max volume so I would get every single word of Sodomy, this time with pencil in hand. Plan was to write down the mystery words, and look them up in the dictionary.
“Sodomy, fellatio…” rang out through the house with regrettable clarity. I heard a gasp from the living room.
Dad pounded up the stairs and grabbed the record off the player. “Little girls,” he growled, “Don’t listen to songs like that.” He scored a deep, wavy line through the track with his pocketknife–the analog version of today’s parental controls–and handed it back.
Next time I played Hair, the needle hit Dad’s carved line and stayed there like, well, a broken record. “Sodomy, fellatio–snick–sodomy, fellatio–snick,” over and over and over.
Probably not what Dad had intended.
*For as long as I can remember, my favorite music has had shape AND sound. Michael Jackson’s ABC is a tight two-dimensional spiral. The first movement of Vivaldi’s Winter Concerto is a compound corkscrew that travels, like a double helix but with more flourishes. Gaga’s Poker Face resembles a sea urchin, spherical with bursting spikes. Ravel’s Bolero is a mobius strip, endless and tight at the same time.
Buy Me, Mr. Shane (or rather, Bei Mir Bistu Shein) is a near-spherical song, as many of the Big Band-era songs seem to be.