4 posts from April 2016

April 25, 2016

Cutting It Up with Dickie Goodman: Communism, Castro and the Wall

Tim Smolko (Athens, Georgia)

American record producer Dickie Goodman made a career out of writing novelty songs. From the mid-1950s to the 1980s, his songs poked fun at current events, politicians, dance crazes, films, and especially the Russians. He is best known for creating and popularizing the “break-in,” a technique of inserting brief portions of popular songs into a ludicrous narrative to comically respond to, and comment on, current events. This practice began with his first recording, “The Flying Saucer” in 1956. Using razor blades, adhesive tape, a steady hand, and a hefty dose of patience, Goodman spliced together various portions of reel-to-reel tapes to make these songs. Taking advantage of the spate of alleged UFO sightings in the 1950s, “The Flying Saucer” used hits by Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, and others to comment on an alien spacecraft landing on Earth.

Goodman created several songs with Cold War themes, his first being the 1959 instrumental “Stroganoff Cha Cha.” It is an unlikely mishmash of Russian and Cuban music. This song shows that even a cheesy instrumental novelty song without lyrics can be meaningful and even prophetic. This Russian/Cuban alliance in sound was released in February 1959, not only before the Bay of Pigs Invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis, but before Nikita Khrushchev had even met Fidel Castro.

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April 18, 2016

Celebrating the Nuclear Apocalypse with Tom Lehrer

Tim Smolko (Athens, Georgia)

Like Pez, Peeps, and Pop Rocks, a novelty song is a sugar rush for the ear. The great number of novelty songs about the Cold War attests to the fact that people needed to diffuse their fear of the Soviet Union, and the possibility of nuclear war, with humor and satire. But can anything substantial be expressed about an immense subject like the Cold War through comedy? Perhaps Tom Lehrer’s songs can. They are a sugar rush, but they contain erudite social commentary.

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April 11, 2016

“You’ll Tic Tic All Day Long”: The Cold War, Geiger Counters, and Doris Day

Tim Smolko (Athens, Georgia)

Some wars are good. Most are bad. Some are just plain weird. The Cold War was definitely weird, and one of the best ways to grasp its weirdness is to listen to Cold War novelty songs from the 1940s to the 1960s. The oddest of them all may be “Tic Tic Tic” by Doris Day, from 1949. Though Day’s 1956 hit “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)” is a bit maudlin, it continues to pull on the heartstrings. Unfortunately “Tic, Tic, Tic,” about a Geiger counter, has not aged well at all. It may just get on your last nerve. Yet this song is interesting and valuable in that it captures the naiveté of Americans in the late 1940s and 1950s regarding the dangers of radioactivity.

 

“Tic Tic Tic” by Doris Day

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April 4, 2016

Opera in America after the Civil War: Many Languages and a Splintered Audience

Kristen M. Turner (North Carolina State University)

In one of the most memorable scenes in the movie Pretty Woman (1990), Richard Gere’s character takes Julia Roberts to the San Francisco Opera. She wears a stunning dress but is clearly uncomfortable in their box seats at the lavish opera house. Gere, who plays a sophisticated businessman eager to introduce Roberts to the finer things in life, warns her that people have strong reactions to opera. The scene tells us much about how Americans today view this musical form. In Pretty Woman, it’s exotic, best enjoyed in luxury by older, wealthy people in expensive, formal clothes, and presented in an atmosphere completely different from the fun, relaxed concerts most people attend. The humor of the scene is the fish-out-of-water prostitute (played by Roberts) who does not know how to behave. She interacts with the other operagoers with wide-eyed ignorance and naiveté, out of place among the cultured (and uptight) sophisticates around her. Yet, without preconceived notions about opera, she is drawn to the beautiful music and the story of La traviata, which bears some resemblance to her own life.

This view of opera as the forbidding preserve of the wealthy, so embedded in our culture now, was just beginning to take shape one hundred years before Pretty Woman was released. For much of the nineteenth century, opera in the United States was a popular form of entertainment attended by men and women from all walks of life. Excerpts from operas also turned up in minstrel shows, vaudeville acts, sheet music destined for the parlor, and on the bandstand. However, the audience for operas performed in full began to fragment in the 1870s, and this fragmentation is one of the reasons that opera is on the periphery of America’s cultural life today.

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