White Men Can't Rap
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.
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.
Apparently, rock stars weren't dying at a fast enough rate for Dee, who went on to recite Army recruiting propaganda like "There's a Star Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere," in the hope that some of you kids might enlist and fight those Godless Russkies. But it doesn't help that Dee keeps talking about a captured American pilot rotting away in a Kremlin prison. And that they keep playing "Taps" in the background.
"Ol' Rivers" (1962) -- Walter Brennan
In 1962, people still respected the elderly enough to send a 68-year-old character actor into the Top 5, rambling on about another hardworking coot. Ol' Rivers was an uncomplaining rancher who finally finds a bit of shade -- too bad it's six feet underground. And it wouldn't be a weepie if some grumpy old scenery chewer like Brennan didn't get all choked up at the end."
Ten Commandments of Love" (1963) -- James McArthur
The Moonglows' oldie is remade and reconfigured to fit then-Disney actor and future Hawaii Five-0 gofer Dan-O, who clearly relishes the opportunity to give the orders for a change. "When you love, love with all your heart 'til your life's through," he harangues with the same tone of voice people use to say, "What did you go do a fool thing like that for?" And although it violates the all-white policy of this article, do note that "The Ten Commandments" will be transformed for Top 100 consumption yet again in 1967 by male chauvinist reggae artist Prince Buster, who advises his "woe-man" not to annoy him with hearsay, go through his pockets at night, to obey his whims and fancies seven days a week and twice on Sunday and most of all not to commit adultery "for dee world will not hold me guilty if I commit murdah."
"Ringo" (1964) -- Lorne Greene
RCA's revenge for the British Invasion crowding Elvis Presley out of the Top 5? Get Pa from Bonanza to record a Western spoken-word record, which went to No. 1 by virtue of its being named after a Beatle. Ponderosa Pop still hasn't made a comeback.
"History Repeats Itself" b/w "Sniper's Hill" (1966) -- Buddy Stracher
The B-side, a weeping recitation of some GI's last letter to his wife and unborn son, would convince no one the war in Vietnam was being won ("They got us pinned down here so we can't move, and already they've killed or wounded several of my buddies. And honey, it's hell to be so helpless, unable to go to a buddy crying for help."). Luckily, people found solace in the cheerfully morbid A-side. To a banjo picking "America the Beautiful," Stracher draws all the coincidental parallels between presidents Lincoln and Kennedy.
"Lincoln was elected in 1860, Kennedy was elected in 1960, 100 years apart. Both were shot from behind in the head. Their successors, both named Johnson, were Southern Democrats with seats in the Senate. Andrew Johnson was born in 1808, Lyndon Johnson was born in 1908, 100 years apart." And even the number of letters in both presidents' names and their assassins match up. But Stracher's argument that history really does repeat itself falls apart when you consider that 100 years before Kennedy bagged Marilyn Monroe, Judith Exner and Angie Dickinson, Lincoln had to make do with Raymond Burr look-alike Mrs. Lincoln!
"Day for Decision" (1966) -- Johnny Sea
Barry McGuire's chart-topping protest song "Eve of Destruction" provoked widespread reaction. A group called the Spokesmen recorded a moralistic answer disc, "Dawn of Correction," while Sergeant Barry Sadler offered up the patriotic "Ballad of the Green Berets" for everyone who disagreed with McGuire's anti-war, anti-space-program vitriol. But most important, it got Fantastic Johnny Sea thinking. Against the most ominous music ever signed off a spoken-word record, with the exception of the Shangri-Las, Sea runs down the bill of damaged goods passing itself off as America:
"This is the age of the American cynic, the year of the unbeliever, the day of doubt. We've killed all the sacred cows and destroyed all the images and there's nothing left to respect. Old fashioned love of God, country and family is passé."
Sea puts forth a challenge to sing "America the Beautiful" at a party (the liner notes even suggest a barbecue) and see what happens. Of course, after depressing us for nearly four minutes, he fires up the aforementioned "America the Beautiful" and by golly if he doesn't recite along! Once all the flag-waving and shooting's over, Johnny checks back with us:
"Now if you feel a little pride welling up inside you, if you feel a little mist in your eye, then thank God for you, Mister, you're still an American!"
A belated answer record came by way of another Warner Bros. recording artist, Steve Martin, who lampooned the severity of spoken-word records like this one with "What I Believe": "I believe in putting a woman on a pedestal -- so I can look up her dress."
"Gallant Men" (1967) -- Senator Everett McKinley Dirksen
Long before the Singing Senators, there was the spoken-word variety. CBS correspondent Charles Osgood penned this pro-militant ditty, which the Illinois senator recites in monotonous spurts. Paul Harvey dreams of such interminable pauses.
"There have been men . . . brave, gallant men . . . that died . . . so others can be free." Lord help the senators who had to endure one of his filibusters without a military drum beat and a men's glee club behind it. After this became a Top 20 hit, the word "gallant" fell out of modern usage except when preceded by the word "Goofus."
"An Open Letter to My Teenage Son" (1967) -- Victor Lundberg
A Grand Rapids, Michigan, news reader opens up a dialogue with his rebel son that allows him to get every last word in. Dad's pretty flexible on long hair and beards, as long as you believe you're emulating Thomas Jefferson or Abe Lincoln and are willing to fight for your country to express this statement of personal freedom. And if said son agrees to judge all adults as individuals, he will not judge all teenagers as "drunken dope addicts and glue sniffers."
Dad is even pretty open about the God-is-dead issue: "This is a question each man must answer for himself," but reminds us "God is a guide and not a storm-trooper." Good, that really needed clearing up.
But he is absolutely immovable on the subject of draft-card burners: "I would remind you that your mother will love you no matter what you do because she is a woman and I love you too, son. But I also love this country and the principles on which it was founded. If you decide to burn your draft card, you burn your birth certificate at the same time. From that moment on, I HAVE NO SON!" Someone cues the Amen chorus and we wait for the answer disc.
"A Letter to Dad" (1967) -- Every Father's Teenage Son
This record proves that in retrospect Meathead was every inch as dumb as Archie Bunker. Our soft-spoken over-folk-music son is insufferably condescending toward Dad ("You use the phrase 'fight for the right' two times in your letter") and, after agreeing to disagree, tells Dad if he decides to burn his draft card, then "Dad, it will be you who burn my birth certificate. And even though you stop calling me son, I'll never stop calling you Dad." Or stop hitting up Dad to wire money to Canada!
"Don't Blame the Children" (1968) -- Sammy Davis Jr.
So expansive was the generation gap at this point that the Rat Pack adults at Reprise enlisted a black man to go see what 's reeeally bugging the kids. But what did Sammy get when he befriended the kids? Did they invite Sammy to play Woodstock? Or Wattsstax? Or Watkins Glen? No to the third power. Did the Chambers Brothers invite him to jam? Not on your life. All he got out of this youth cultural exchange were a lot of peace medallions, an embarrassing wardrobe and a No. 1 hit with an excruciating piece of dung called "The Candy Man." No one knows what it's like to be the Sam man, behind one eye.
"What the World Needs Now"/"Abraham, Martin and John" (1971) -- Tom Clay
What the world needs not, but got anyway, is this six-minute and 10-second sound collage that superimposes sound bites of boot camp drills, the Kennedy assassinations, Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech and Tom Clay's quizzing of a preschooler on the subject of bigotry and prejudice over the schlockiest Vegas-styled medley of the Dionne and Dion hits. This odd recording was issued on MoWest, Motown's West Coast label, and it was thankfully blocked from going any higher than No. 8 by more reasonable pleas for social reform from the Detroit parent label, like Marvin Gaye's "Mercy Mercy Me" and Undisputed Truth's "Smiling Faces Sometimes."
"Once You Understand" (1971) -- Think
Leave it to a studio aggregation that calls itself Think to concoct the most thoughtless spoken-word disc ever. "Things get a little easier," sings a Kermit the Frog-ish male a cappella voice, "once you understand." Then the entire Ladies Garment Workers Union is procured to clap hands and sing this doggerel behind him and the various parents-versus-kids vignettes Think has staged.
Dad badgers son to get a haircut. Son tells him it won't change anything. Mom grounds daughter instead of letting her go in a bad neighborhood. Mom goes back to nag son about wasting his time with friends. Son sasses, "What about your bridge club?" "That's different," she backpedals. Gotcha, mom! One down, one parent to go.
Cut back to Dad calling son stupid for not working 12 hours a day like Dad did when he was a kid. "There's more to life than joining a group and playing a guitar," he gruffs. "Yeah, Dad, what is there to life?" That shuts Dad up, and that horrendous song gets cut off when a police officer informs Dad his son just overdosed. Here the actor playing Dad starts crying. Not like Michael Jackson "She's Out of My Life" crying. We're talking girly-man bawling while Kermit picks the worst possible moment to taunt him a cappella again, this time with heavenly reverb. What's the lesson here? If Dad hadn't belittled his son for playing a guitar, would he have lived a drug-free life? Or would he grow up and form Think?
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