It’s entirely possible that Thomas Edison, after inventing the phonograph, recorded a wax cylinder of himself making armpit noises in time to a Sousa march. Well — maybe not, but my point is that silly songs go back a long way, and modern performers such as Weird Al Yankovic are really just the latest in a long parade of singers who make us laugh. Sometimes the songs are satirical and sometimes they’re just goofy, but they have one thing in common — they’re all funny.
I loved novelty songs when I was a kid, and I think my dad did too because we had an awful lot of them among our collection of 78’s. Or maybe it just seemed that way to me because I played the comedy songs over and over, while pretty much ignoring the regular records. I was still too young to appreciate Sinatra or Tommy Dorsey, but I was a big fan of Phil Harris and Spike Jones, and I just about wore out those old platters listening to those guys and other funny musicians.
Phil Harris made a pretty good living with novelty songs, and that’s all I knew about him at that time, but he was actually a versatile performer. At various times he’d been an actor, a drummer (the musical kind, not a salesman — although he probably did that too), a bandleader, a singer, and a comedy star on the radio. In fact, he and his wife, actress/singer Alice Faye, had a very popular radio show together at one time, and apparently working together suited them — they were married for over 50 years. But to me he was just a faceless guy who was making me laugh with comedy songs like “The Thing”, “The Preacher And The Bear”, and my favorite, “Smoke, Smoke, Smoke That Cigarette”. I’d like to think that its message is still applicable all these years later.
Spike Jones was a radio star and a bandleader too, but unlike Harris, his entire band – a talented group known as the City Slickers – became part of the act. The musicians, who doubled as singers and sound effects wizards, helped Spike to stay a big hit for a lot of years. They later transitioned into success on early TV too where they really let their imaginations soar. Their sets and costumes revolutionized the medium, which up until then had been a little staid.
Spike’s signature songs always followed the same pattern — a serious, familiar melody would be reworked, tweaked, and bent until it would inevitably make the listener howl with laughter. A typical treatment included gunshots, sirens, and horns, and you never knew what to expect next. Some of his classics were “Hawaiian War Chant”, “Cocktails For Two” and the one that might have helped a little in the war effort, “Der Führer’s Face” It’s kind of interesting to listen to it now while visualizing it in the context of the time, and how it was meant to both cheer up a war-weary public and throw a little dirt in Hitler’s face.
However, there was one song from those days that was always a mystery to me, and it wasn’t until I grew older that I finally figured it out. I bet you’ve heard it before, but do you know what the performer is really saying when he sings, “Mairzy Doats, And Dozey Doats, And Liddlamzydivie — Akiddleydivietoo, Wouldn’t You?”