tiddy fi yi, or the art of folksong

by Charles Bowen
March 6, 1959, Scholastic #16

Due to the rise of interest in folk music among the more intellectually advanced among us (a rise sharply illustrated, I might add, by the recent occasion on which several pensive devotees were so stirred by contemplation of the simple beauties of this homespun medium that they nearly wrecked a local rathskeller) I have decided to pass on the benefits of my extensive knowledge in the field to a horde of panting readers (you).

"Poppycock," you say, brushing an imaginary speck from your ivy league lapel, "Bowen couldn't sing his way out of a laundromat." Well, for answer, I shall merely quote the album notes I wrote for my latest record, Songs of a Wayfaring Strangler (released by Curiosa Records):

"I was born in a guitar factory in El Paso and I've been a-singin' and a-wanderin' ever since. I learned my first folk songs at my mother's knee and other low joints. In 1917 I first became interested in the rich musical heritage indigenous to the Pawtucket, Rhode Island area, and since that time this body of music has been my first love. (You can hear some of my interpretations in the album Are There No Workhouses? And Others.)

"In 1920 I took the new music on a nationwide tour and was met every-where with overwhelming apathy. The only newspaper to publish a friendly review (or any kind of a review at all, for that matter) was the farseeing, progressive Buffington, Conn. Daily Whig, which said (in part) "... not altogether ..."

"The trouble was that jazz was coming up the Mississippi at the same time and nobody seemed to care what was coming down Narragansett Bay. But I persisted. I struggled. By 1928 it was being said (to whomever might have been listening) that "Bowen has made the jew's-harp a concert instrument." The story of this lonely fight was dramatized on We, the People in 1947.

"I've come a long way since then and have given command performances (for which I charged handsomely) before all the crowned heads of Europe, none of whom, however, could be reached for comment."

Now that you have been reduced by the sight of these credentials to a blubbering heap of apologies, I will proceed to enlighten you one and all.

There are many ways of approaching folk music, but they all boil down to three: 1) The Commercial; 2) The Troubadour, and 3) The Proletarian.

1) Members of this group are usually found entertaining at colleges or night clubs. Their songs are often rather coyly aimed at people who know where babies come from. This style is not recommended for the purist, unless you don't mind adding an occasional rock-and-roll beat or changing the lyrics until Greensleeves, for example, sounds like A Rose and a Baby Ruth.

2) This is the artiest group. They refuse to sing any song that might have been written too late to be sung by Geoffrey Chaucer. Old English ballads are their specialty, particularly the ones in which three quarters of the lines go "With a hey derry down and a tirra lirra loo," or "Sing higgledy piggledy hay de hi ho." To find out if you are fitted to be a troubadour, look in the mirror and repeat the above lines five times to some suitable tune (say The Chipmunk Song) and watch carefully. If you blush, this is not your style.

3) This is the most interesting group of all. Not content with the musical content of folksongs, they insist that they are all socially significant. They love to make records like "Songs of Social Protest and Class Unrest," and "Tunes That Made the Teamsters Great." They never forget to include the verses about the mean ol' bankers. Where a commercial folk singer might be content with:

My wife and I live all alone,
In a little ol' hut that we call home;
She loves gin and I love rum,
And between us we have lots of fun.

The proletarian folk singer will unearth the version that goes:

My wife and I live all alone,
In a little ol' hut that we called home;
But since our plant got unionized,
We're livin' much more civilized.

If this is the kind of folk singer you want to be, you can begin right now, even if you can't afford a guitar. Get rid of all your clothes except a pair of blue jeans and a black sweater. Learn to like diablo, a variety of coffee brewed especially for people like you. If you are male, throw away your razor.

Soon, unless there burns no spark of poesy in your crass bosom, unless no noble sentiment can find its way into your deadened soul, unless, in other words, you are enrolled in the College of Commerce, you too will be a confirmed lover of folk music and may begin shopping for a Japanese nose flute.

* * *

I, for one, would like to know the identity of G. P. Scarpia. The idiot editors of this bland little rag refuse to tell me, apparently in the belief that I will squeal to the Music Department and he will receive the trouncing he undoubtedly deserves. I hasten to assure Mr. Scarpia that I have no interest in the refutation of his musical opinions, such as they are, but that I wish to locate him for another reason altogether. As soon as I find out who he is and where he lives, I intend to gather a party of vigilantes who share my concern for the English language, and track him down in his lair, where we will confiscate all his pencils, pens, and ink cartridges, and smash his typewriter. To expedite the fulfillment of this noble purpose, I am personally setting a price of seven cents ($.07) on his head. (Figuratively, of course - please don't bring any heads to my door without advance notice.) I would be happy to pay more but my conscience will not allow it, as by my calculations, this is already over twice what he is worth. Anyone bringing this information to 39 Sorin will receive a cashier's check, drawn on my bank, in the above amount.

Should this quest be unsuccessful, I will ask the editors to forward to Mr. Scarpia my personal copy of Writers' Guide and Index to English, which I shall have, at my own expense, baked into a lasagna. I am sure that if he eats it, the results will show in his unique prose.


Commentary

The first paragraph contains a reference to the incident that marked the end of Bowen's folk trio's run at the bar where we they were singing.

"During the fall of 1958, as I was busy learning the first four or five chords from Mr. Seeger's famed banjo instruction book, the Kingston Trio and Tom Dooley burst upon an astonished world, and the Great Folk Boom now associated with the early 60s began. I formed a trio with two other guys and we got some gigs that winter -- everybody suddenly wanted to hear folk music and we were the only game in town. [...] The other two members of the trio played guitar and tenor ukelele, so we did approach the Kingston Trio as far as the instruments (though not the skills) were concerned. Our repertoire had three main divisions: Kingston Trio songs, Harry Belafonte songs (I played a recorder obligato on Kingston Town), and drinking songs popular at midwestern colleges. Some of the latter had dirty verses, and we continually walked the line when it came to deciding where to stop.

"About a mile from the campus (I believe this was the exact limit required by the state of Indiana for establishments that sold alcohol) there was an Italian restaurant with a "Rathskeller" in the basement. (Not an unusual ethnic combination for the Midwest, at least in those days.) I don't remember who approached whom, but they agreed to hire us to play and sing in the Rathskeller every Friday night for free beer. I'm pretty sure that price was set on our side of the bargaining table -- at the time, it was hard to imagine any greater sort of reward. We were an immediate hit, and attendance at the Rathskeller shot up. The owner even began to feel guilty about getting us so cheap, and invited us to come in some night when we weren't playing for a free dinner.

"To understand how the likes of us could have become a hit, you have to understand how desperate the 5000 young men isolated on the Notre Dame campus, about three miles north of the South Bend city center, were for any sort of entertainment whatsoever. Folk music was the latest thing, and we were the only ones offering it, though God knows we put out a pretty thin version. All of us could sing to some extent, and although I couldn't harmonize (still can't), the others could, and my voice was in the second-tenor range anyhow, suitable for the lead. Besides our dozen or so Kingston Trio and Harry Belafonte ripoffs (on one of which -- Jamaica Farewell -- I showed my musical versatility by playing obligato on a recorder while Og and Dog sang), we performed popular drinking songs, as I believe I have mentioned. Some of these were on the risque side, though you must understand that I mean risque by fifties standards.

"There was one tune you could sing any limerick to, interspersing a chorus (to the tune of Cielito Lindo) that began "Ay, yi, yi, yi; in China they do it for chili." We were pretty careful about which limericks we would sing in public -- not everything you could find on Oscar Brand's records would do.

"This self-censorship on our part didn't prevent us from attracting unfavorable attention in a three-times-a-week handout published by the Prefect of Religion. The "Religious Bulletin," as it was called, ran a little sermonette about the sin of giving scandal, suggesting that if you told raunchy stories or sang raunchy lyrics that led the hearers to have Bad Thoughts (translation: 'bad thoughts' in the Catholic dialect of that time -- call it Snapperspeak -- means the same thing Dr. Ruth means when she says "good thoughts" or rather "goot soughts") then the singer "*or trio*," the Bulletin added ominously, shares the guilt of any sin the hearer commits. We had been a hit before this diatribe; we now became a sensation.

"But it all ended one chilly evening in April. The reason was that, on that particular Friday, the football team came off spring training.

"For several weeks (I don't know exactly how long it lasted), this collection of strong, virile young men with necks like sumo wrestlers' thighs, and brains to match, had been trained, exercised, and worked until their muscles and metabolisms were fine-tuned to perfection -- and for all of this time, they had not been allowed to drink. They were looking fun, and the Rathskeller was the only game in town. (Not really. There were other games in town, including some fine rhythm and blues places -- but Notre Dame students were forbidden to enter that part of town.)

"Anyway, at the beginning of the evening we thought we had reached the pinnacle of our careers. And so we had, but the steep downslope was only moments in our future -- about as many moments as it took for the athletes to down two beers. With their systems made completely unfamiliar with alcohol by several weeks' abstinence, and those finely tuned metabolisms ready to go to work on any intake without a nanosecond's delay, they were all as drunk as lords by the time we finished our second or third song. The response was enthusiastic, but deafening, and seemed not to want to die down. But finally it did. Unwisely, we then chose to sing Roll Me Over in the Clover, another song that required considerable judgement about the appropriate place to stop.

"We sang the song, the audience, as usual, singing along, their volume this evening amplified by the bull-like roaring of the drunken football players. When we got to the appropriate place, we stopped. Nobody noticed. The football players (like most college students) knew LOTS more verses, and they kept right on. We looked at each other helplessly. There was no amplification, and no way we could make ourselves heard above the billion-footed manswarm. After a moment, we decided to leave the stand and go sing to the diners upstairs. We did that, causing a few people to look up from their spaghetti, but two or three songs made it clear that no one on that floor was there for music. During this time, the roar from downstairs got louder, and we began to hear breaking glass. Another song or two, and we were ready to give up altogether, but now things sounded quieter in the Rathskeller, so perhaps we could give that another try.

"But before we could get down there, we had to wait for lots of people to come up. Reaching the foot of the stairs at last, we saw the last of the football players being herded toward the exit, while a waiter was sweeping up the broken bottles that they had, in the exhilaration of youth, hurled at the opposite wall (which was, like all the walls in that quaint retreat, made of brick). The management told us, politely but firmly, to take our instruments and go, and to return no more.

"By the way, you may find it odd that a bunch of drunken behemoths, fully conscious of their strength and youth, would have submitted meekly to ejection. All I can say is that you did not attend a Catholic institution of higher learning in the 1950s.A few days later, I was talking to a friend who was a native South Bender and lived across the street from the restaurant. He had been out somewhere else that evening, but stopped in for a final drink with the waitresses (middle aged ladies whom he knew). They were buzzing about the outrage that had occurred earlier in the evening. I don't know how they felt about the flying bottles, but they certainly didn't like the dirty songs. One of them told my friend, 'I've been married for twenty years, and I've never heard language like that!' Gives one an odd picture of what marriage is supposed to be like, no?

Elsewhere....

Songs of a Wayfaring Stranger was an actual folk record out at the time, I forget by whom. There is a well-known folk song or hymn that begins "I am a poor, wayfaring stranger, Traveling through this world alone..." Adding the L was my own idea, of course.

Historical note: "learned at my mother's knee and other low joints" was a joke I had heard on the radio during my teen years. It was attributed to none other than Princess Margaret (who is now deceased).

"Are there no workhouses?" is Scrooge's line when asked to contribute to the welfare of the poor at Christmas. I thought it might be appropriate to typify the folk heritage of one of the towns where American industry began.

People quite appropriately say "jaw harp" rather than "jew's harp" nowadays, but we didn't know any better in the fifties.

"We the People" was a radio show that made it over into the early days of television. The host was named Dan O'Herlihy, and they would tell human-interest stories and interview the person the story was about. One such story was of a ballplayer who came back after a supposedly career-ending injury, though not all the stories were as tearjerking as that. There were two or three stories per half-hour show, as far as I can remember.

"A Rose and a Baby Ruth" was one of those teenage love songs you would hear on the radio at that time. No need to explain "The Chipmunk Song," which was brand new that year, but has become an enduring classic.

By the way, I think the Little Brown Jug variant was something I actually heard or read somewhere. I would guess that I had found it in "The Socialist Songbook," but I don't think I got a copy of that until later.

"Diablo" was very strong black coffee that I had seen on sale in some coffee house or other.

Japanese nose flutes really did exist. Somebody I knew at Notre Dame had one and used to gross people out by playing it.

You already know enough about G. P. Scarpia and my reaction to him to understand the last part. Just two little items: (1) The apparent redundancy of "a cashier's check, drawn on my bank." To the best of my memory, I had originally written "a cashier's cheque, drawn on my banque." I was amused by the British/Canadian spelling of check, and I had also noticed that Canadian banknotes (at least at that time) said not only "Bank of Canada," but "Banque du Canada," and I figured that if you insisted on spelling check with a "que" you ought to be consistent and do the same thing with bank. This point, however, seems to have been lost on the typesetter, who replaced all that foreign gibberish with a good, plain American spelling. (2) In the last sentence, I managed to sneak in a faintly scatological remark, in reference to Mr. Scarpia's probable means of prose production. Take that, censors!