Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
February 12, 2015
First appeared in print in The Rhino Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Music was in my family's life from the time I was little. I remember I was four
years old the first time I stood beside the upright piano and sang "Ol' Man
River" while my mother played.
I must have been amazingly cute. But I didn't think of myself that way. I was
really paying attention to the words of the song. My parents explained to me
about slavery and about the way blacks -- "Negroes" in those days -- had been
mistreated and exploited.
So when I sang, in the ersatz Negro dialect of the lyrics, I put my whole heart
into it. Yes, I had yellow-blond hair and yes, I had a pronounced dimple, but I
was not a fan of Shirley Temple and I wasn't trying to impress people with my
singing -- I was trying to express the yearning of the laborer who was singing
"Let me go 'way from de Mississippi, / Let me go 'way from de white man boss;
/ Show me dat stream called de river Jordan, / Dat's de ol' stream dat I long to
I heard the song on the movie album, with William Warfield singing "Ol' Man
River"; I didn't hear the Paul Robeson performance until years later. Nor did I
even know that Frank Sinatra had recorded the song and made it a hit -- since
Sinatra's specialty was to try to sing like Bing Crosby, but without Bing
Crosby's bass range, that's just as well. If you aren't a bass, you have no
business singing "Ol' Man River."
Unless you're a really cute four-year-old.
Anyway, that song was in my head, and still is -- it's one of the songs I sing in
the shower, when I'm warming up my voice.
It didn't dawn on me until recently, though, how thoroughly the song had
penetrated American culture by the late 1950s until I began to sing Stan
Freberg's parody version, "Elderly Man River."
Stan Freberg was a brilliant parodist, writing and performing in the waning
days of radio programs. Freberg took over for Jack Benny when he left his CBS
radio program in 1957 -- only Freberg refused to allow the tobacco companies
that had sponsored Benny to sponsor his show.
This led to a serious lack of sponsors, but Freberg used this as an opportunity
to create fake ads that made fun of TV and radio commercials. This reached its
wonderful climax in his "Green Christmas" parody.
He also did political parody, including the potentially dangerous "Little Blue
Riding Hood (Only the color has been changed to avoid an investigation)."
During the McCarthy era, making fun of anti-Red paranoia was a perilous
thing to do.
When today's movement toward utterly inoffensive language was just
beginning, with "senior citizen" replacing "old man" and "handicapped"
replacing "crippled," Freberg used "Ol' Man River" as a means of making fun of
In the sketch, Freberg is trying to sing "Ol' Man River," as Mr. Tweedly from the
Citizens Radio Committee stands by with a buzzer to interrupt whenever
Freberg does something wrong.
The idea is that because "your program goes into the home, we must be a good
influence on ... children."
Oddly, Freberg introduces "Ol' Man River" as "an old river song," instead of
crediting Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, the composer and lyricist of
the musical Show Boat.
The moment he starts to sing, Tweedly buzzes him into silence. It seems that
he can't say "old" because the word "has a connotation that some of the more
elderly people find distasteful."
So Freberg continues to sing, only now saying "Elderly Man River."
The lyrics call for "He mus' know sumpin' / But don't say nuthin' ..." but now it
becomes important to set an example of good grammar. Not only must the
words be "something" and "nothing", but also the double negative "don't say
nuthin'" has to go.
In the next verse, Freberg starts to sing, "He don't plant taters, / He don't plant
cotton, / An' dem dat plants 'em / Is soon forgotten," but without even needing
Tweedly's buzzer, he stops and corrects himself each time to "He don't --
doesn't -- plant taters -- potatoes, he doesn't plant cotton -- cotting," and so
I remember almost crying with laughter at the sheer absurdity of turning
"cotton" into "cotting" and "forgotten" into "forgotting."
"You and me, we sweat and strain" got buzzered into "You and I, we perspire
But then it comes to "Tote that barge! Lift that bale! You get a little ..."
And with that, Freberg stops singing, and the studio audience roared with
laughter, because every single person knew that the rest of the verse was, "You
get a little drunk and you land in jail."
The humor came from the fact that a song that was supposed to be about the
suffering and exploitation of black workers on the Mississippi was being
"cleaned up" until it meant nothing at all.
But what dawned on me just recently was the obvious fact that the joke was
only funny if the entire audience knew what the lyric was about to be.
In other words, Stan Freberg's joke depended on the fact that "Ol' Man River"
had penetrated American culture so thoroughly that he could count on the
entire country knowing that when he stopped singing, it was because he knew
the censor would not allow him to sing "get a little drunk" and "land in jail."
Because, you know, the kiddies.
So when Freberg stops singing, he sadly says, "Okay, take your finger off the
button, Mr. Tweedly. We know when we're licked." But then the buzzer
sounds again, to remind Freberg to set an example of politeness. Thus he
says, "Yes, and thank you for being with us, Mr. Tweedly." Because one of the
first things censors insist on is that we be grateful for their "help."
"Ol' Man River" had its day in American culture -- probably owing as much to
the Frank Sinatra recording as to the movie and stage musical it came from.
But keep this in mind, when you hear people talking about "American culture."
Nobody decided to insert "Ol' Man River" into the American culture to such a
degree that its lyrics were universally known. Yes, the song was offered, but
the people chose to embrace the musical, the movie, and the various recordings
until everybody likely to be listening to the radio would know the words of the
This happened at just about the last possible moment, of course, because Elvis
Presley had already arrived, and the Beatles were just around the corner,
creating the huge divide between "adult" music and "kids'" music. My
generation all knew every word of every Beatles song (not to mention Carole
King's Tapestry album and the mumbled inanity of Iron Butterfly's "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida."
By the time I was in my teens, very few kids knew the lyrics to any "adult"
song, and the only lyrics that most adults knew to kids' songs were the words
"yeah yeah yeah" and "baby baby." We knew that because that's what our
parents sang to make fun of the stupidity of our songs.
Now our culture is even more fragmented, particularly because kids no longer
get all that much of their music from the radio, where you passively receive
whatever gets put on the air.
Now they seem to get their tunes as much from online links, which requires
that they actively pursue songs that their friends recommend.
What doesn't change is that the "culture" is whatever the people say it is.
When it comes to music, they vote with their ears -- and with their downloads.
But that doesn't stop well-meaning (usually) elitists from trying to impose
"culture" on the masses. When they say "culture" they mean "elite culture" --
what the cool people tell each other is Worth Paying Attention To.
Thus, high "culture" consists of lots of books that almost nobody likes and
hardly anybody reads, and music that you have to hate your ears in order to
listen to (cf. Schoenberg and other modern post-musical composers). These are
things you are required to profess to admire in order to be certified as an
Some of them are wonderful. But whenever somebody talks about trying to
"improve" the culture, I put my hand on my wallet and lock my door, because
prescribing culture is always expensive and requires annoying intrusions into
our daily lives.
Sometimes they get their way, but the "high culture" that our betters prescribe
for us common Americans is not high. It's not even logical or self-consistent.
For instance, our betters told us that for the sake of freedom of speech, we had
to tolerate putting the F-word on T-shirts, and eventually into practically any
movie with any pretension to be "high art." Hence the pointless single F-bomb
in Julie and Julia and other such obvious efforts to be "brave" and "edgy."
Yet at the same time, the very same people have imposed a censorship more
rigid than anything that went on in the 1950s. Now you can lose your job for
uttering the perfectly correct word "niggardly" (meaning stingy), merely because
it resembles the N-word. ("Niggardly" dates from the late 1300s, long before the
N-word existed in English.)
The list of Unspeakable Words grows and grows, and we have to deal with all
kinds of absurdities lest we give offense to this or that privileged group. It's as
if the only group that it's all right to offend with "free" speech is the
conservative Christian culture of the 1950s. That's how "Negro" became The
Other N-word, and "of color" became preferred while "colored" became
So Mr. Tweedly definitely won that war.
Yet he also lost it, because the N-word has 100 percent penetration into our
culture because of black comedians and rappers. That's because certain
groups get a free pass. Rappers can say things about and to women that
would get a Republican Congressman impeached. It's all about who can say
what to whom, and the rules form such a maze that the only certainty is: If
you're a white heterosexual male, or if you're a Republican or Christian of
either sex, then whatever it is you said, it was wrong.
This is what inevitably happens when elitists get control of the culture. The
culture of the previous in-group that is now the out-group must be suppressed
and scorned, if not banned outright.
But when it comes to the songs and stories that we love, so far at least the
elitists haven't been able to keep things they disapprove of from being
published. Therefore, we still create our shared popular culture together.
Yes, that culture is fragmented. When there's a music category on Jeopardy, I
watch contestants in their twenties nailing song after song and singer after
singer that I have never heard of. Yet as they are able to complete lyrics that
I've never heard, I have to realize that they are definitely inside American
culture, and I'm outside it.
And I'll go further: When we refrain from the use of forbidden language, it's not
because those words have been removed from our culture. Quite the contrary,
they are vividly alive in our culture -- they have simply been moved from our
regular vocabulary list to the special Tourettes list.
I used to think that "bad" words were just words with bad uses, but then I
realized that if this were true, Tourettes Syndrome would be impossible. We all
maintain our lists of speakable and unspeakable words -- including a keen
awareness of the shock (or shlock) value of the unspeakable.
We need those forbidden words precisely because they have the power to
shock; that's why bad comedians can (and usually do) rely on the F or MF
words to get laughs for jokes that would otherwise not even be interesting. The
Tourettes list is a part of our culture.
When I was a kid, I would see words scrawled on concrete walls and
foundations, and I would ask my parents what they meant, since I had never in
my life heard them spoken aloud. They sputtered just enough to let me know:
Ah, that's on the forbidden list. Then, in my twenties, I finally found out what
they meant and when and how they were and are used.
Forbidding things doesn't remove them from the culture. We all still know
what the word "crippled" means, even if we are required to replace it with
"handicapped" or "differently enabled." We know "deaf" though we must say
"hearing impaired," as likewise "blind," "mute," and even "dumb."
We know that "retarded" has now become just as offensive as "imbecile,"
"idiot," and "moron," the words it was invented to replace; and that those
words, in turn, were meant to provide a "scientific" replacement for "simple"
and "stupid." But moving words to the forbidden list only increases their
This is also true of works of popular art. The surest way to spur the sales of a
book is to ban it. ("Banned in Boston" was a catchphrase in our culture when I
was young, because under Irish Catholic influence, Boston really did ban
various works of literature.)
Heck, I actually read Ulysses as a 16-year-old because it was so famous for
being banned. Boy, was I disappointed. Because this was in 1967, and most
of the books I got from Book-of-the-Month Club were racier than anything in
The whole impetus behind the Common Core is to specify which works of
literature and which facts of history, etc., are so important (yet also innocuous
and inoffensive) that our elitist masters have decided every child should be
taught them in school.
This harks back to the day when "education" consisted of teaching children
(i.e., boys) to read Latin and Greek, because all the great literature was in those
languages. This was pure torment, of course, especially in the 1800s and later,
when the languages that mattered had long since become French, German, and
then English itself.
Still, every schoolboy had learned enough Latin catchphrases to pepper their
speech with them. They didn't have to translate "caveat emptor" or "sub rosa"
or "in esse" or even the French "raison d'etre," because everyone with an
education already knew what they meant.
Thomas Hardy could describe the heroine of his novel by saying she resembled
the painting by so-and-so in the British Museum -- because everybody literate
enough to read his fiction had visited all the major museums and would
remember the painting in question.
We have the same kind of cultural referents now, but they don't arise out of
schoolboy Latin or the social life of the leisured elite. We all know (and most of
us loathe) The Scarlet Letter because we were forced to read that wretched piece
of pretentious over-writing in school. So we recognize references to Hester
Prynne and, after a moment's thought, most of us know what the speaker is
But we all get references to Yoda, or to "talking like Yoda." If you say, "Do. Or
do not. There is no try," your listener has to have been living under a rock not
to get the reference to The Empire Strikes Back.
"Ready are you? What know you of ready?" We may not recognize this as
harking back to an older English word order, but we definitely recognize it as
coming from a little green puppet that sounds suspiciously like Kermit The
Most of the time, though, such cultural memes last only a while, fading along
with our memory of the source material. Old coots like me can remember a lot
of older cultural icons that have no meaning to kids today. It's hard to predict
and impossible to decide which cultural elements will outlast their generation.
These words entered English when I was in kindergarten. They were all
regarded as "new" or "beatnik": adjectives like "hep, hip, cool, kooky, neato,
keen"; nouns like "pad, old man, old woman, daddy-o." Soon afterward came
"boss, bitchin', ho-dad, wahine," then "rap, rip-off, rad, suck."
Somehow "bitchin'" migrated back to being a bad word a few years later. We
use "neato" only sarcastically now, but for some reason "cool" is still current.
Nobody decided this -- it just happened. "Rap" shifted from a candid
conversation to pretentious rhymes, "rad" is dated, and "suck" and "rip-off" are
Same thing with music. There were songs that everybody knew as recently as
the 1970s and 1980s -- but my kids have never heard of them. TV shows from
my childhood persist -- but only if they were aired on Nick at Nite.
During the Super Bowl this year, an ad that parodied The Brady Bunch took it
for granted that everybody still knew the show. I never watched it when it was
new, but it has been referenced so often over the years that I didn't have to
have the ad explained to me.
But nobody would get a reference to I'm Dickens, He's Fenster or even Soap.
And hardly anybody knows Stan Freberg, even though when I was a kid, we all
I mean, it was Stan Freberg who came up with the brilliant ad campaign for
Sunsweet Pitted Prunes. Somebody complains that he can't eat prunes
because they're all wrinkly and they have pits. But now, says the ad, we have
gotten rid of the pits! "They're still rather badly wrinkled, you know,"
whereupon the announcer intones, "Today the pits! Tomorrow the wrinkles!
Sunsweet marches on!"
Freberg created the Contadina tomato paste campaign: "Who put eight great
tomatoes in that little bitty can?" And there was a Jeno's pizza roll commercial
that was so brilliantly over the top that when it was shown on The Tonight
Show, Johnny Carson said it was the first commercial he had ever seen that
made the studio audience applaud.
How many ad creators can you name? Not the company, but the advertiser
who came up with the campaign? In the early 1970s, a lot of us knew Freberg.
(By the way, George Lucas invited Stan Freberg to be the voice of Cee Threepio;
it was Freberg who suggested he use the voice of the actor who was going to do
the action on screen, Anthony Daniels.)
Times change, and culture changes with it. But those who think they can
prescribe what culture ought to be might as well try to stop a tornado by
blowing back at it. It passes through, causing whatever wreckage it causes,
and then moves on.
In twenty years, our grandkids will come across a reference to the Kardashians
or Justin Bieber and ask who they were. We will be embarrassed if we
remember, and embarrassed if we forget. But Marilyn Monroe is as far in the
past now as the Kardashians will be then -- and we still know who she was.
Even if the song Elton John wrote to her got repurposed for Princess Di. (It
was the Princess Di rewrite that became the second-best-selling single of all
Speaking of "all time," Rolling Stone's list of the 500 greatest songs of all time
has only one entry from the 1940s, which means that they essentially ignored
the Great American Songbook -- the brilliant, permanent songs of the era of
the Gershwins, Kern, Hart, and so many others whose music is still
unforgettably good ...
And, to so many young people, completely forgotten. They know Lady Gaga,
but they don't know "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" or "The Way You Look Tonight"
or "In the Mood" or "It Don't Mean a Thing." "Night and Day," "Tea for Two,"
"Stormy Weather," "I Got Rhythm," "All the Things You Are," "Pennies from
Heaven" -- all gone from the culture, as far as most people today are
I wasn't alive during the 1930s, but those songs had staying power so that I
grew up knowing "But Not for Me," "Body and Soul," "Beyond the Blue
Horizon," "Dancing on the Ceiling," "Georgia on My Mind," "Up a Lazy River,"
"On the Sunny Side of the Street," and that's just 1930. The next year brought
"Brother, Can You Spare a Dime," "As Time Goes By," and "All of Me," along
with "Dream a Little Dream of Me," "I Found a Million Dollar Baby in a Five and
Ten Cent Store," and "I Don't Know Why, I Just Do."
But "God Bless America" and "Over the Rainbow" live on. (Movies can preserve
songs, of course -- "As Time Goes By" was already a standard by the time it
popped up in Casablanca, and "All of Me" will live as long as the Steve Martin
movie All of Me preserves it.
Yet songs can come back out of oblivion. "Love Letters in the Sand" sounded
brand new to me when Pat Boone made it a huge hit in 1957; but it was also a
hit when it first appeared in 1931. To my parents, an old standard; to me, at
age six, a new pop song. I can still sing all the words.
Each subgroup has their own culture. I belong to a group in which "Baron
Harkonnen" and "Arrakis" instantly connect us with the novel Dune; until the
HBO series began, to say "Jon Snow" or "Tyrion Lannister" or "Arya Stark," or
to mumble "Hodor," would conjure up beloved characters only to people who
had read Game of Thrones.
But within my culture, there are all kinds of Star Trek references I don't get at
all -- because I hated the TV series, finding it badly acted and badly written,
with a sci-fi universe that did not make any sense at any level. So I didn't
watch it. And now I'm regarded with pity by a lot of people because of my
And in fifty years, will Star Trek references still be current with anybody not in
their 90s? Or will Star Trek be as completely gone as Hopalong Cassidy?
It is hard for kids these days to understand how completely and utterly the
Western -- book, movie, and television -- permeated American culture from the
1930s to the 1960s. The Rifleman, Have Gun - Will Travel, Gunsmoke, Bonanza,
Maverick, Cheyenne, Rawhide, Sugarfoot ... there were so many shows you
couldn't watch them all. Yet we did anyway.
And then they all went away.
Common Core? What with television, the internet, movies, and good old books,
the real "common core" is something that teachers will find out about only
when their students bother telling them.
Whatever people know -- and care about knowing -- is the culture.
But let's face it: To the degree that we do know the "high culture," it can be a
great pleasure watching other people get it completely wrong.
For instance, in the Jennifer Lopez movie The Boy Next Door, one of the points
in their courtship is J. Lo's love of The Odyssey. So you'd think the filmmakers
might believe that facts about the two epics of Homer might be worth knowing.
No. Like most filmmakers today, the only culture they know is movies. They
know nothing else.
That's why we have this delicious little moment in that movie.
In the scene, the Boy Next Door brings her a gracious gift: At a garage sale, for
a buck, he found a priceless first edition of The Iliad.
If you already know why that is as hilariously stupid as putting water in a car's
gas tank to "dilute" the fuel and improve the mileage, then you are part of the
Because you know that The Iliad dates from a couple of thousand years before
books were printed in "editions" and bound between cardboard covers. The
"first edition" was probably a scroll in Greek from the fourth or fifth century
BC. Unless somebody jotted down an early version of the poem on clay tablets
in Linear B.
And a first edition of George Chapman's translation of Homer (the one Keats
referred to in "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer," with a historical
howler of its own, since Keats has "stout Cortez" instead of Balboa looking on
the Pacific Ocean for the first time) would date from 1614 or so, and it would be
highly unlikely to find it in a garage sale in America.
Still, there would have been many wonderful versions of The Iliad that the kid
could have found -- if anybody involved with the movie knew or cared about
"the culture." For instance, he could have brought her the recent Stephen
Mitchell translation -- in first edition -- and she could have said, "I wanted to
read this translation but I never did."
Or maybe the Lattimore translation from 1951, or Fagles's 1990 translation, or
even a fine edition of Pope's venerable (and beautiful) translation from the
I'm sure there's an innocent explanation for the sheer stupidity of the scene in
Boy Next Door. I'll bet the script writer had a completely different book in
mind. Or wrote much more intelligent dialogue.
Then, when the director saw the authentic book, he might have said, "That
looks like nothing. Go find a book that looks really old and fancy." So they
came back with a generic -- but old-looking -- Iliad.
And, faced with dialogue that actually referred to this or that translation of
Homer, the actors might have been so awful and stilted in their delivery that
the director (or somebody) cut it down to the bare essentials, so that "first
edition" now referred, not to the first edition of this translation, but to the first
edition of The Iliad itself.
Stupid mistakes in Hollywood are always nobody's fault -- or else they're the
fault of some production assistant whom no one will ever see again.
But the fact is that if The Iliad were still a genuine part of our culture, such a
mistake would have been impossible. Instead, the vast majority of the
audience for this movie -- not necessarily an over-educated group in the first
place -- would have no idea of the blithering mindlessness of the scene as
released to the public.
As Kurt Vonnegut would say, "So it goes." (A reference to Slaughterhouse-Five,
which was a genuine part of the culture in the 1970s, when most people knew
who Billy Pilgrim was, and there were actually people who could recite from
memory the whole title:
Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death, by
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., a Fourth Generation German-American Now Living in Easy
Circumstances on Cape Cod (and Smoking Too Much), Who as an American
Infantry Scout Hors De Combat, as a Prisoner of War, Witnessed the Firebombing
of Dresden, Germany, the Florence of the Elbe, a Long Time Ago, and Survived to
Tell the Tale. This Is a Novel Somewhat in the Telegraphic Schizophrenic Manner
of Tales of the Planet Tralfamadore, Where The Flying Saucers Come From.
How times change. But the book is still worth reading, and the movie is even
kind of worth seeing, though Kurt Vonnegut is now dead and therefore
somewhat less likely to write new books that will boost the sales of his backlist.
Books can become irrelevant to the culture and then come back into fashion
years later, as witness Moby-Dick and the complete works of William
But the surest way for a book to remain in the culture is for parents to hand it
to children, saying, "I'm not sure if you're really old enough for this yet," or for
friends to hand it to each other, saying, "It's a first edition, but I got it at a yard
sale for only a buck. But I think you'll love it -- I did."
Loco for Coco is moving soon.
Don't worry, you can still get your Valentine's Day chocolates at Loco for
Coco through the 18th of February. But then the store will close for about
five weeks as they move from their current location near Southern Lights to
their new spot, on Battleground next to Bardy's (between 31 Flavors and
If you want to stock up on favorite chocolates to tide you over till they reopen,
you'll need to stop in before the 18th. In fact, the more we buy right now, the
less they'll have to move, so ... how many times are we able to indulge our
cravings and yet feel as if we're doing somebody a favor at the same time?