Those Happy-Go-Lucky Poor Folks: “A Couple of Swells”

Schell's Hobo Band

[Image: “Schell’s Hobo Band,” formed in 1948 as a side project of Schell’s Brewery in New Ulm, Minnesota. The band itself has been successful enough that it now has its own Facebook page.]

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Pop culture has always offered plenty of examples of our “Happy-Go-Lucky Poor Folks” theme. Some of these examples cross over into racial stereotyping, for obvious reasons: race and social class (at least in the U.S.) are all bound up together. What better way to assuage our cultural guilt about slavery than to claim that its victims are somehow not doing that badly after all?

But then there’s the old image of the hobo — the tramp — as a figure of fun. And it had nothing to do with race, only with the character’s hilariously déclassé lot in life. He (it was almost always a he) just seemed so unsophisticated, so silly, y’know? This stereotype was reinforced by much older cultural symbols, particularly that of the circus or stage clown.

Think Emmett Kelly, both father and son: even though they appealed to the audience’s sympathy, their first objective was laughter (however soft and gentle). “Look at the hobo,” the subtext went, “trying to sweep the spotlight off the stage! Doesn’t he know you can’t do that?”

'Saturday Evening Post' cover by Norman Rockwell (August 18, 1928)A little weirdly to our eyes and ears, maybe, one thing which seems to have struck people as especially amusing “back in the day” was the very fact of the hobo’s poverty. That they didn’t have two coins to rub together — gosh, how could we possibly take them seriously?

Consider Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post cover at right (click to enlarge to full cover). This tramp probably (despite his belly size) hasn’t eaten pie for years. But look — he can steal a freshly baked one! And look — the baker’s dog will bite him on the bottom! What fun! (You could almost imagine this fellow sitting at fireside in a clearing in a forest, sharing the pie with his friends and regaling them with the comical story.)

(Yeah, I know: the geometry/physics here seem more than a little off: the dog shouldn’t be perfectly horizontal, even if he’s holding on tightly enough to be flying along behind the running tramp.)

Critically, though, this cover appeared in the Post in August, 1928 — just a little over a year before the onset of the Great Depression. Thereafter, with “real people” suddenly reduced to the social stature of hobos, coincidentally the jokes fell flat. These weren’t random outliers in the populace: they were friends and family…

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Those Happy-Go-Lucky Poor Folks: “I’ve Got Sixpence”

[Video: the credit line from the YouTube uploader says, “From the LP More Do-Re-Mi: The Songs Children Love to Sing, Kapp Records, 1963.”]

[Don’t know what this is? See the series introduction here.]

The first statement I ever heard of the “Poverty can be fun!” theme came from a 33-1/3 RPM record album my parents bought when I was a kid. The album (first described here) was one of a set — probably twelve — designed to introduce children to music of various kinds; the disc in question, I think, was called “Songs of Work” or some such.

The version in the video above is not from the album I remember. I don’t remember kids’ voices singing this song, although it has supposedly been a traditional summer-camp favorite for decades. No, my version featured a men’s chorus, strong and hearty, and you could almost imagine them marching home from the mines as they sang. It sounded more like this truncated, one-verse version, from Mitch Miller and “The Gang” (as he styled them):

Either way, whether you listen to the full-length cover or the foreshortened, you get hit with the message right there in the first two lines:

I’ve got sixpence,
Jolly, jolly sixpence…

Even if we can’t think of a single item which now can be obtained for a mere six cents, we get the point: the guy carries a mere handful of change in his sweaty workingman’s palm… and is happy about it. How can this be? We look to the rest of the first verse:

…I’ve got tuppence to spend,
and tuppence to lend,
and tuppence to send up to my wife (poor wife).

So not only does he start out with mere pennies; he looks forward to divvying his fortune up even further. A third for pleasure! a third to share! and a third, presumably, for expenses (managed by a loving — albeit poor — wife)! And if we’re still skeptical, he continues:

No cares have I to grieve me,
No pretty little girls to deceive me.
I’m happy as a king — believe me —
As [I/we] go rolling home!

The one-verse version of the song misses the finely sharpened knifepoint of the entire song, though. For with each succeeding verse, the amount of cash on hand dwindles, and he must adjust his choices accordingly:

…I’ve got fourpence
To last me all my life.

I’ve a penny to spend
And a penny to lend
And tuppence to take home to my wife, poor wife…

…I’ve got tuppence
To last me all my life.

I’ve got no pence to spend
And no pence to lend
And tuppence to take home to my wife, poor wife…

…I’ve got no pence
To last me all my life.

I’ve got no pence to spend
And no pence to lend
And no pence to take home to my wife, poor wife…

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Introducing a New Series: “Those Happy-Go-Lucky (and Singin’ and Dancin’) Poor Folks!”

'Dance at Molenbeek,' by Pieter Brueghel the Younger

[Image: Dance at Molenbeek (1564), by Pieter Brueghel the Younger. Shown are pilgrims suffering from the so-called dancing mania of 14th- to 17th-century Europe.]

Any artist in any medium — particularly those in pop culture — confronts a dilemma in depicting the poor, the downtrodden and hungry and homeless: how to do it, period. It’s possible to manage the trick accurately, compassionately, and without condescension, but it can’t be easy. Such a goddam downer of a topic, y’know? “Why would I do that to my audience?!?”

In general, you’ve got three easy choices, at least if you’re a writer — all of them satisfying no real need but to make the audience feel better about themselves:

  • Maudlin “weepies”: stories of tragedy and despair
  • Tales in the noble-savage genre: “Look! These people have nothing… but see how heroically they have it!
  • Inside-out and upside-down celebrations of the experience of poverty: well, they do have a joyously carefree life — no bills! no bank accounts! no jobs…!

I’ve been thinking for a while about posting occasionally on popular music which goes in that third direction. Granted, when they were written, and as they continue to be performed, these songs do not intend cruelty or snobbism. But they just as often exist in fact in a moral vacuum — penned and performed by artists far removed from ghettos and slums, soup kitchens, food stamps and other social safety nets, the simple desperations attributable to life at the very bottom of the food chain.

I recently came across a great passage in Peter Bogdanovich’s Who the Hell’s in It: Conversations with Hollywood’s Legendary Actors (2010) which sort of speaks to the whole thing:

Preston Sturges wrote in Sullivan’s Travels a passionate testament to the crucial and uniquely human need for laughter. He told of a film director (played by Joel McCrea), noted for making ultra-light entertainment, who decides that he wants to create a meaningful social document about “life,” about poverty and suffering. Out into the world he goes with a dime in his pocket to discover what being poor, homeless, and on the run is all about. Eventually he finds himself in serious trouble on a horrific Southern chain gang where the only small respite for the miserable prisoners is the Sunday movies they’re allowed to see at a run-down country church nearby. There he watches a silly Disney cartoon that gives him and his fellow convicts the only pleasure they’ve had all week. After he is rescued, flying back to Hollywood, his producers tell him that they’re now ready to back his serious film. But sullivan explains that all he wants to do now is make comedies. “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh,” he tells them. “Did you know that’s all some people have. It isn’t much but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan. Boy!”

By the way, I’m aware of another danger here, for me: elevating myself to some moral high ground — as though I’m superior to anyone who’d stoop to producing Busby Berkeley-style ensembles of dancing hobos and such. When it it really comes down to it, after all, what the hell do I know about poverty? I’m not wealthy by a long shot, but I’ve got a car in the garage. I’ve got a refrigerator full of food — two of them, in fact — as well as a mini-fridge at the bar which contains such subsistence-level items as craft beers and name-brand sodas. I’ve got a JOB, for crissake, and I often look knowingly in the other direction when approached by panhandlers…

Consequently, I really, really do not want this project to come off in an “I myself am so noble and praiseworthy” way. If you catch a whiff of this, please call me on it!

I should add one more caveat: I genuinely like the songs in this series. I like most (all?) of the performers. I’m not humorless, and I don’t think we need to take life — or these songs — too seriously. True, it’s worth sometimes catching ourselves in the act of having, y’know, a bit too much of a good time. But please: do enjoy whatever music ends up in the series — enjoy it as music, as comic relief, as (un)intended social commentary, whatever: on any level at all.

The first entry in the series appeared (coincidentally enough) on Labor Day, 2015.

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