Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Michigan J. Frog

Kids absorb songs. When I saw that Billy Crystal - Meg Ryan movie ages ago, and Billy Crystal sang the Petula Clark hit “Call Me” (not the Blondie hit) to her, I knew the song, but I didn’t know how. I later got into Petula Clark, but I’d heard her version, probably on the radio when I was in early elementary school, or before that.

Another one: “Hello Ma Baby.” 10 or 12 years ago I picked up a cheap used LP collection of telephone songs (put out by Ma Bell in 1976, in honor of the 100th anniversary of the invention); a new recording of “Hello Ma Baby” by ragtime champion Max Morath opened it. If you don’t know the song by title, you’ll probably recognize the opening words of the chorus:

Hello ma baby
Hello ma honey
Hello ma ragtime gal
The tune makes a dramatic, even violent, appearance in Charles Ives’s great orchestral tone poem “Central Park in the Dark”; when I first heard Ives’s piece in high school or college I recognized the tune, but I didn’t know why.

It’s become a totemic song in my family. My beloved spouse started keeping chickens some months before we started dating; after I moved in, feeding them became my chore. I often sing to them: Hello ma babies, hello ma honies, hello ma ragtime gals. Sometimes now, when I forget to sing, the three-year-old chimes in. The first time I heard him sing, without prompting, in the chicken coop, “hewwo my wagtime gaa-ohhs,” my chest instinctively puffed with pride. A goof just like his old man!

Tonight I was plunking through a collection of “songs from the 1890s,” and I played through “Hello Ma Baby.” I hadn’t realized: it’s a “coon” song -- originally a blackface song, in which black men are referred to as “coons.” The song has long since been updated, and the personage in the line, “some other coon will win her,” is now called a “man.” The song came out in 1899, same year as Scott Joplin’s first and biggest hit, “Maple Leaf Rag.” As the Anachronist and others have pointed out, there’s little Joplinesque syncopation in pop ragtime songs such as “Hello Ma Baby.” What I hadn’t known until this moment, when I just looked up “Hello Ma Baby” in “Yesterdays: Popular Song in America,” a book by Charles Hamm that I own but haven’t read, is that pop songs that mention ragtime are almost as old and maybe older than published classic ragtime, the first example of which was published in 1897, only two years before my family’s chicken-feeding song.

Looking all this up I got to wondering how I could have heard this song growing up so that when I heard it quoted in Ives and sung on my collection of phone songs, I already knew it. Google gives me the answer: Michigan J. Frog sang it in a Warner Brothers cartoon, which I must have seen as a kid. Being from Michigan myself, and having a fondness for frogs, I’m pleased to learn the frog’s name. Notice the lyrics on the Michigan J. Frog page: no mention of coons. Which is as it should be; we shouldnt bury the ugliness of history, but when old racist artifacts survive as contemporary popular culture (on re-run networks), the presenters should do what they can to eliminate the horrendous tell-tale racist signifiers.

My other favorite song on that telephone song compilation LP? “Call Me,” sung by Petula Clark.

Charles Hamm was a friend and colleague of my dad's when we lived in Illinois. I once bought like 5-6 years worth of Sports Illustrated magazines at a garage sale his wife had (they had I think 3 boys older than me. I'm not positive but I think one of them is the flash fusion bassist Stuart Hamm, who has played with dudes like Joe Satriani).

I'm sure Helen Hamm must have been fighting back a cackling laughter (and trying not to look my mother in the eye) as I paid 50 cents for a massive box of magazines.

But I have to say that those magazines kind of changed my life. They covered maybe 1967-1973. I sorted them by year. Then I organized them by sport and by year. I can't say I read every article or even every issue. But I read in a lot of them. My brother and I also cut out pictures from them and put them on our walls and in various closets.

In 1992, my brother helped me move to Seattle, and we drove across the country. One stop was in Champaign. We drove by our old house to take a look. There was a guy out in the yard next door, so we struck up a conversation with him, explaining we used to live next door. "You should go up and knock on the door," he said. The son of the owner is in there. I'm sure he'd be happy to show you the inside of the house."

Sure enough, this 18 or 19 year old kid was inside, and he did show us around the house, which had been extensively remodeled (for the better). As we were walking around, he started asking us some questions.

"You don't know anything about that Seattle Seahawks decal on the window upstairs do you? I've always wondered about that."

"Yup," I replied. Back in junior high school I sent a letter to the team hoping to receive some swag, after I kid in my class had success with the scheme. I really used to think the Seahawks had a cool helmet. So I was excited when they sent me that decal." Funny to have that conversation on the way to Seattle.

Next the son asked about the pictures that were stapled in the upper closet of a side room (i.e., there was coat length closet in this room, then above it, there was another storage space accessible by two sliding doors, that went up to the ceiling.

The photos, from the Hamm's Sports Illustrated Magazines, had evidently remained there since I stapled them up there god knows when, 1975.

The son of the new owner seemed pleased to finally have an explanation, as he said he had always wondered about that.

I went on to tell him that the people we bought the house from, the Garretts, had a daughter. Her husband was Ken Holtzman, who had pitched for the Cubs and perhaps more importantly been a member of the Oakland A's staff along with Catfish Hunter and Vida Blue during the years the A's won the World Series in the early 1970s.

Funny small world.
Well that settles it. I MUST read the book. Any friend of E-Lon's (J-Lon's dad) is presumptively a friend of mine.

Thanks for the story, J-Lon. I've been thinking about sports lately, and how I transferred my pre-adolescent mania for memorizing sports trivia to memorizing music trivia sometime in high school. And how impressed your dad was when I could name Duke Ellington's 1940 line-up (which I probably couldn't do any more).
Charles Hamm is a great scholar. He was a kind of long-distance mentor back when I was in grad school a decade ago (I never got the degree). His book on Irving Berlin's early songs is the best thing ever published on Berlin. "Yesterdays" was groundbreaking at the time, but a bit dated by now, methinks; and Hamm really doesn't do too well with the rock era. In any case, I really recommend the Berlin book. I speak to Hamm every now and again. When we last talked he told me he was doing some work on Kurt Weill...
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