Wikipedia’s got an interesting article on the musical parody genre: “borrowing” the lyrics or music of existing songs, and recasting them with different music or lyrics, respectively. Usually (as the ‘pedia points out) this is done with humorous intention — think Weird Al Yankovic — and that’s what this post is about. Apparently though, the intention isn’t always to induce laughter, especially when it comes to lifting music from old folk songs and like sources:
Bob Dylan took the tune of the old slave song “No more auction block for me” as the basis for “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
(Talk about a whiplash response when I read that little tidbit. I mean, I know Dylan has great respect for old music. Still…)
Anyhow, parody may be unique among the various forms of satire in that we can’t always tell what’s being made fun of. Is it the melody? the lyrics? a particular performer, or even a specific performance? The humor seems to rely strictly on the upending of expectations: we have to know the song to get the joke, and we have to know it well enough to recognize what’s been changed. (I guess from a certain perspective, even the work of this group — contemporary songs performed in old-fashioned styles — could be considered parody.)
Stan Freberg — the comedian, writer, all-around wizard of words and pop culture who flourished on radio and television in the 1950s-60s — seemed to specialize in a particular form of not-quite-parody: poking fun at the process by which recordings are made in the first place. It was almost as though he’d at some point heard Song X, Y, or Z, and thought: Wow. I bet THAT made for some interesting sessions in the studio…! The classic Stan Freberg musical piece featured a nearly note-for-note reproduction of some popular song… and a performer openly at explosive loggerheads with his accompanists or studio technicians. These little three(ish)-minute gems of artistic melodrama tended to conclude with hurt feelings, slammed doors, or worse.
Here’s an example. Around the time of Freberg’s heyday, Harry Belafonte contributed his “Day-O” (a/k/a “The Banana Boat Song”) to the library of pop-music earworms:
Freberg accepts the song’s virtues at face value; as I said, the guy really could perform. But he imagines the singer and his backup musicians having to deal with a producer or accompanist who perhaps woke up that day on the wrong side of the bed (if so, maybe with a soaring hangover):
[Below, click Play button to begin Day-O (The Banana Boat Song). While audio is playing, volume control appears at left — a row of little vertical bars. This clip is 3:30 long.]
Freberg loved what instruments could bring to a piece. (One of his parodies took on “Dueling Banjos”: “Dueling Tubas.”) He could also imagine, though, that instrumentalists and vocalists didn’t always see eye-to-eye on how best to interpret a song. A classic example is his take on “The Yellow Rose of Texas”; by the time this fictional recording session ended, vocalist and assertive drummer were practically at each other’s throats:
[Below, click Play button to begin The Yellow Rose of Texas. While audio is playing, volume control appears at left — a row of little vertical bars. This clip is 3:26 long.]
Finally: in late 1955, The Platters recorded one of their biggest hits, “The Great Pretender”:
Freberg apparently listened to this and wondered not about the obvious performers — the lead vocalist and ooo-ooo-oooh background singers — but about one member of the accompanying band. Like, jeez — the poor piano player: he had to play the same note, over and over and over and over… But what might the session have been like for real, given the “cool” of popular pianists at the time?
[Below, click Play button to begin The Great Pretender. While audio is playing, volume control appears at left — a row of little vertical bars. This clip is 3:22 long.]
That little twist at the end — the sudden re-introduction of a troublemaker from another parody — is one of my very favorite Stan Freberg moments.
By the way, although I’ve used the past tense above, Stan Freberg at age 86 still crops up from time to time, lending his voice (and no doubt writing) talents to videos, kids’ shows, and documentaries.