Monday, December 18, 2017

Pal Yat Chee; and Post War Music

The  urge for a national music is intrinsic to any nation. Going forward, the same is true for a people. This quest, and the production of such a music often tells us much about the nation and its people. In this context, America in the late ‘40s and the 50’s was an interesting place; where low culture and high culture conspired and colluded to produce a music that, while drawing contempt of the champagne classes, still provokes much adoration from the beer drinking masses.

I talk not of Jazz, which emerged out of the whorehouses in the Tenderloin District of New Orleans, and the Mississippi Riverboats, and the Ghettos of Kansas City, but to modern Country, as produced by the people of Nashville, Hollywood, and the Grand Ol’ Opry among the others. A music that was a mixture of the Scots-Irish traditions of the Appalachia, the Cowboy tunes of the West, Country Blues out of the Delta, Yodels by the way of the Swiss, Arcadian Tunes out of the former French colonies, and other influences far too numerous to mention. But this is not a treatise on Country music, for I do not know enough, and I am the wrong kind of Indian to be writing about things American. ­

This is to chew the fat over a song that I think is tragically unknown. A song that reveals and revels in the American Dream, when it existed. A song that caters to both the Sophisticate, and the Boor; a democratic music in the best traditions of the old west that never really was except in ol’ western movies, and the stories that were used to entice the folks in the east coast to Go West!

A bit of context first. Spike Jones and The City Slickers were a band that specializ[ed] in satirical arrangements of popular songs and classical music. Ballads receiving the Jones treatment were punctuated with gunshots, whistles, cowbells and outlandish and comedic vocals.” In the song in question, the City Slickers backed Homer and Jethro, who were “popular from the 1940s through the 1960s on radio and television for their satirical versions of popular songs. Known as the Thinking Man's Hillbillies, they received a Grammy in 1959 and are members of the Country Music Hall of Fame

Let’s give the song a listen first. From the Spike Jones album Murdering the Classics, here is Pal Yat Chee.

While you are recovering from the auditory onslaught, and trust me, listening to Novelty Music for the first time is one, allow me a digression. The Pop artists like Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenburg often sought to bring low culture into high culture by using techniques of abstraction. For Warhol, his technique was repetition, as in the case of the Campbell cans. The multiple repetitions took what would normally be just a Campbell can, and converted it into an aesthetic object. Oldenburg, on the other hand, magnified. With his large scale sculptures, he used the scale as a tool of abstraction to remove the context of a form being a day to day object, and instead being a sculptural form.

Claes Ondenburg; Clothespin

Why this concern with this “Low” Culture. I have the theory that in the mythos of America, while there is always the urge to ‘pull yerself up from the bootstraps’, there is also an urge to identify with the underdog. The sophisticates are distrusted, and the simple wisdom of the frontiersman, and the accompanying simplicity (to use the charitable term) of his taste is something to be admired. It could be argued that this originates from the origin myth of America, where folks sick of European excesses came to America to establish a new simple life, and where the same simple folks, by the sweat of their brows and the powder of their muskets, drove the British away. It was not the Yale men with their book learning, who pacified the west, but rugged outdoorsmen, like Boone with his Knife, and Crockett with his coonskin cap.   

Now fast forward this to post war America, where this nation of mutts and bootstrappers had not only pacified the world, but were the beacon of economic and cultural success. Abstract Expressionist art had proved that the cultural capital of the world was not Paris, but New York. The best of the music, films, and art could be consumed in America, and with the GI Bill, everyone had the ability to be sophisticated enough to appreciate them. But the sophistication was tempered still, by the myth of the cowboy, and the open west.

Of course, the music was very aware of this. Listen to I’m an Old Cowhand, sung here by Bing Crosby, and Backed by Sons of the Pioneers.

“I spend all my time in the hotel bar,
With a planters punch, and a big cigar;
Because my ol’ range horse is a movie star
Yippe ka yo ka yay”

As a side note, I have a very strong feeling that this is the song that gave Bruce Willis his immortal “Yippie Ka Yay, Motherfucker” tagline in Die Hard, which was spouted as a glib retort to Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber’s jibing about Willis being a fan of the cowboy movies, and hoping to save the day on his own.

What do Yippie Ka Yay Motherfucker, and I’m an Old Cowhand, and Pal Yat Chee share in common? I like to think it is a sense of optimism. Allow me to explain. I earlier talked of a National Music. America, being a state of mutts, never really had a national music. Louisiana had Zydeco, and its accordion based precursors; The Missisippi Delta had the blues, (but how could the blues be a national music, because it was black music? And notwithstanding historical evidence, the public imagination of America was white, and blackness just an inconvenience;), and what have you. Stories abound of Fats Waller, the great stride and barrelhouse pianist who got kidnapped by Al Capone just to play gigs at his parties, and whose music is in the Smithsonian collections; and how all he wanted was to be known as the great interpreter of Bach on the Organ.

Jazz had an unfortunate colour associated with it, but country music, now there was something to that. It was white folks singing about the very thing that gave the idea of America strength; the idea of the west and the open range. The frontier. This could be the national music! Because the music is about the idea itself, just like the nation is.

No matter that the first cowboys were most likely the Mexican vaqueros. And imagine a pair of yokels, cribbing about going to a show which seemed to be about horses, but ended up being an opera; and singing a song about it. That is pal yat chee. But that really is half the story. If it was just that, the song would be amusing, but the song itself depends on a familiarity of the original source 
material, that is the opera Il Pagliacci.

Invest in a tuba an' somethin' or other 'bout Cuba”; except the Invest in A Tuba really is a mangled version of Vesti la giubba, which is the most famous aria of Il Pagliacci.
Or for that matter
All at once there's a fat guy in a clown suit.
'Tain't Haller-ween, that's fer shore.
Then this here feller, this Punchy Neller,
Begins to beller like we all was deef:
You might be forgiven if you think the punchy neller is a reference to the fat guy. No. Punchy Neller is Punchinello, one of the stock characters in traditional Italian comedy. And of course, the song also gets around to namedropping Aram Khachaturian’s Gayane, which came out in 1942, and actually riffing a section from it. Not bad for a pair of yokels, and a backing band that claimed to ‘murder the classics’.

Pavarotti - Vesti La Giubba

This is what I say when I mean that there is a sense of optimism in the music. It claims to be lowbrow, but is subversively highbrow too. And this subversion is gentle, not sneering. It is comfortable with being sung both to sophisticates, and the great unwashed. It makes no pretensions, it just is. It is the music of a nation that, for a while, is comfortable with the idea of itself.

Next up: The 60’s and Rock and Roll; The Chosin Reservoir Strikes back.