White Men Can't Rap

But they talked your ear off about war, morality and patriotism in the '60s. Is Young America again ready for More Talk, Less Music?

 The other day I heard someone say, "You know, America is in real trouble."

-- Johnny Sea, "Day for Decision," 1966

All you have to do is turn on talk radio to hear just how much trouble we're in these days. It's February and the swell of patriotism that united us as a nation after September 11 is dissipating faster than the minty freshness of that mouthwash you bought at the 99-cent store. You can drive all over town now searching for one ridiculous oversize flag mounted on a 4Runner or a pro-America message scrawled on somebody's windshield you saw everywhere months ago. It's over.

Senator Everett Dirksen: A wrinkly teen idol who got the word "gallant" on Top 40 radio.
Senator Everett Dirksen: A wrinkly teen idol who got the word "gallant" on Top 40 radio.
Johnny Sea: Will you accept his challenge to sing "America the Beautiful" at a party?
Johnny Sea: Will you accept his challenge to sing "America the Beautiful" at a party?

As we reacquaint ourselves with our differing opinions, we're finding it hard to reconcile Old Glory with the old Right and Left, just as the media, in their strange bid to be objective, are finding it easy to call traitor/terrorist-wanna-be John Walker Lindh an "American Taliban sympathizer." Two months ago, no one would've stood for such an egregious compound noun.

Two months ago, we imagined the worst possible punishments for the zealot scum that turned our own planes against us in the name of Allah, but now we've got people in the United States worried that we're not giving Taliban prisoners the creature comforts Hogan's Heroes enjoyed. What's happened, America? When did the apple pie get all sour and pasty? Where have we lost that lovin' feeling? Why am I being such a preachy bore in the music section?

This is why: because for a time, I felt pride for our country. Then I felt ashamed of it. Now I feel pride all over again. And all because I found a Johnny Sea album at a Goodwill store. I'm 50 cents poorer, but Mister, I'm feelin' like an American!

If you can imagine me reciting the last three paragraphs while "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" welled in the background, then you have some idea who Johnny Sea was. Just some nobody with something to say, someone for whom the normal channels of communication weren't enough to convey something this important. Once rock 'n' roll took hold of our nation's youth, numerous spoken-word records competed for their attention. The message was usually patriotic, sometimes religious, and if it was corny enough, it disturbed the American Top 40 charts. Once rock developed its own conscience, the youth began talking back to these pro-Vietnam voices with answer records of their own, creating a generational dialogue never to be repeated again. It's probably too late for Sessions to rush out a late-night CD offer called Speak to Me, America, but you betcha they compiled it. And it's sitting in someone's desk drawer with this annotated track listing:

"The Teen Commandments" (1958) -- Paul Anka, Johnny Nash and George Hamilton IV

God's Law is a common thread through many spoken-word record discs. Detroit doo-woppers Harvey and the Moonglows' recording of "The Ten Commandments of Love" seems harmless enough now ("ONE! Thou shall never love another. TWO! Stand by me all the while."), but it was cause for sounding the blasphemy alarm in 1958. ABC Paramount Records was quick to react. It coerced three of its biggest stars to badger kids not to be juvenile delinquents like Elvis on RCA.

Nash and Hamilton flub through their assigned teen commandments like smart alecks made to stand in front of the class ("Two: Don't let your parents down [insert chuckle], they brought you up!"), but it's Anka who invests his recitations with the same severity that made "Puppy Love" and "You're Having My Baby" such major annoyances ("FOUR: At the first moment, turn away from unclean thinking -- AT THE FIRST MOMENT!!"). Of course, they work in a plug at the end for God's original 10, and the flip side is the subliminally preachy gospel chorale "If You Learn to Pray." Either side would've cleared Pop's Soda Shop in seconds.

"Deck of Cards" (1959) -- Wink Martindale

A soldier stationed in North Africa is about to be court-martialed unless he can come up with a credible cockamamie excuse for playing cards in church. Tennessee disc jockey Wink Martindale deals them a doozie. "You see, sir," he begins as the organ swells, "when I look at the Ace, it reminds me that there is but one God, and the Deuce reminds me that the Bible is divided in two parts, the Old and the New Testament.

"When I see the Tres, I think of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost . . ." and ever on he goes, through his better-morality-through-numerology spree. Of course (nudge, nudge), Wink didn't really write this hokum -- he'd eventually become the TV quizmaster behind such other religious programming as Gambit and Tic Tac Dough.

"Three Stars" (1959) -- Tommy Dee

"There's a Star Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere" (1960) -- Tommy Dee

Playing other people's records wasn't enough for some shameless self-promoting DJs. Seconds after Buddy Holly's fiery plane plowed its way through a snowy Iowa field, Dee was penning this maudlin parable about what Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper had been up to since the crash. "Buddy's singing for God now and his chorus in the sky," Dee informs us, although Big Bopper doesn't seem to be taking any requests from the Almighty.

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