Pioneers of Humor
"I've never been lost, but I was bewildered once for three days."
"If you're ridin' ahead of the herd, take a look back every now and then to make sure it's still there."
-- Will Rogers
"If you get to thinkin' you're a person of some influence, try orderin' somebody else's dog around."
Press Here For An Update From Your Congressman
People in the Panhandle and West Texas not only feel far removed from the Federal Government in Washington D.C., but also from the State Government in Austin. Many Texas citizens show contempt for the government with humor, while others greatly distanced from their governmental center have discussed creating a new state in the Texas Panhandle that would make Amarillo their capitol.
A round sticker can be found placed over the "ON" button of some hot-air hand dryers in West Texas that reads, "Press here for an update from your Congressman."
Texans in sparsely populated counties have many laughs about the state of things in a government they believe to be large and out-of-reach. A common joke is the comical report of the farmer being sad at the death of his personal representative at the Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C.
The Coyote From Maine Yields To The Polecat From Oregon
Regional humor has often been political in nature.
Oklahoma native, Will Rogers learned rope tricks from Black cowboy, Bill Pickett, and used his wit to cover up his awkwardness. Working Texas and Oklahoma festivals and rodeos led him to Broadway and Hollywood where he became America's favorite humorist and commentator in the 1930s.
He reported to the American people: "That's the highest praise that a humorist can have, is to get your stuff into (the) Congressional Record."
He went on to describe the scene in the U.S. Senate: "The coyote from Maine says, 'I yield to the polecat from Oregon.'... They're very polite in there.... When this Senator read my offering, the other Senator said, after all the yielding was all over, 'I object! I object to the remarks of a professional joke-maker being put into the Congressional Record.'... They didn't want any outside fellow contributing. Well, he had me wrong. Compared to them I'm an amateur. And, the thing about my jokes is they don't hurt anybody. You can take 'em or leave 'em.... But, with Congress, every time they make a joke it's a law! And, every time they make a law it's a joke!"
Concerning the impending peril people faced during the Dust Bowl, Woody Guthrie wrote, whimsically, about a preacher giving up on salvation for the victims, while taking up a collection.
"The churches was jammed and the churches was packed
and that dusty old dust storm blowed so black
Preacher could not read a word of his text
and he folded his specs and he took up collection
Said 'So long, it's been good to know you'
'So long, it's been good to know you'
'So long, it's been good to know you'
This dusty old dust is gettin' my home and I've got to be driftin' along"
Southern Humor and Hardship: You're A Pair Of Shoes Ahead
Hardship in Southern life, particularly for Southern Blacks, required sharp wit to ease the tensions of daily life. Southern Whites working alongside Blacks in fields and factories admired and emulated the good-natured comic relief from hard work and stress. Recordings made in the 1920s and 1930s included the humorous interjections that emerged from cotton fields and labor camps, becoming prominent in Southern traveling shows put on by Blacks, Whites and Gypsies.
White singers had more opportunity to record in the early days, but both Black and White singers interjected humor into the recordings of the time.
In their 1928 performance of "Hokum Blues," the Dallas String Band jokes, "Say Coley, can you sing?" To which Coley Jones responds "No, I lost my voice in jail. I'm always behind a few bars and can never get a key."
Prohibition provided entertainers with extensive material. In the Texas Playboys' song, "What's the Matter With the Mill?," Tommy Duncan finds the mill is broken and he won't be able to get his corn ground. In the background, Bob Wills hollers, "Drink it!"
When Emmett Miller expresses his misery in "Lovesick Blues," a voice asks "What's the matter? Did they lock up your bootlegger?" Miller's recordings were classified as "Race Records." He was a White blues singer who performed at minstrel shows in blackface, but named his group the Georgia Crackers, affectionately using Black slang, to make fun of himself.
A down-and-out version of his song, "Lovesick Blues" was later performed by Hank Williams, followed by an up-tempo version by Jerry Lee Lewis.
Folk culture is difficult to measure by academic standards. The implications of the artists' humor may be interpreted with drastically different results today. As early regional artists made comedy from real-life situations, they probably never intended to create a perception of ignorant classes in society.
The economic underclass most of the artists came from may have been more together than we imagine today. Even though he was a popular recording artist, Bob Wills said he would never share a drink with a rich man.
Bob Wills' Texas Playboys sang songs about the playground of the working people. In their version of "Basin Street Blues," Tommy Duncan sings, "That's were the dark and the light folks meet, Heaven on Earth they call it Basin Street."
In their version of "St. Louis Blues," Tommy Duncan sings, "Why don't you tell me mama, who's muddy shoes are these? Lord, they're sittin' right here, where my shoes ought to be." Wills interjects, "What in the world are you hollerin' about, boy, you're a pair of shoes ahead."
Wills recognized that the poverty people experienced, himself included, was the main thing they had in common. Almost anyone could laugh at themselves in those days. Wills, who pawned his fiddle from time-to-time to buy food for his family, remarked during a recording of a band member's guitar solo, "Just two more payments and it'll be his."
Sam "Lightning" Hopkins created vivid illusions in his recordings with excited interjections. On "Tap Dance Boogie," Hopkins makes you think he's looking at the tap dancer by exclaiming, "Get out of the way folks, so I can look at him good." The silly illusion in "Shaggy Dog," "At last, he got lost, Jumped on an alligator, Thought it was a horse," is reminiscent of popular ranch dance lyrics like, "The goose was chewin' tobacco, while the duck was drinkin' wine."
From his living room and studio sessions, Lightnin' Hopkins brought to the listener visual scenes of people having fun, hanging out in streets and bars. His repertoire of good-time songs offset an equally sizable collection of serious Blues numbers.
On their collaboration, "Makin' Music," Louisiana/Texas bluesman, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown tells Oklahoman, Roy Clark, "All you do is stand on the corner and wish for a miracle. You got a car you got out of the junkyard and you can't even buy gas for it. I heard all about you old buddy. You always run around with that long Oklahoma credit card."
Roy asks, "Oklahoma credit card? What's that?," to which Gatemouth responds, "A siphon hose."
A Jealous Rivalry: Pullin' Weeds in Tennessee
Many early Texans migrated from Tennessee and their contention that they came to a better place started a jealous rivalry that exists today. In the 1970s, honky tonk singer, Gene Watson lamented, "While she's raisin' cane in Texas, I'm pullin' weeds in Tennessee."
Jokes about the rivalry were fairly common through the early oil booms. To prove that his land is bigger than a Tennessee farm, the Texas rancher bragged, "My ranch is so big that I can get in my pickup and drive all day and all night, and still not leave it!" The Tennessee farmer responded, "I know what you mean. I have an old broken-down truck, too."
Fact Is, He Run All The Way From Minnesoty To The Gulf Of Mexico
As the old saying goes, everything is big in Texas.
Many Texan's mastered the tall tale as a form of rural entertainment. A tall tale could occupy people for several minutes to an hour, depending on the mastery of the narrator. Western film actor, Gabby Hayes, though he hailed from "Western" New York State, was a recorded master of the tall tale.
A great example of this truth-stretching, imaginative artform is Gabby's Uncle Snowball Hayes on Coral Records (an original tall tale by Joe Clair, recited by George "Gabby" Hayes).[Transcript]
The lengthy tales were not well suited for radio and the quick quips of the Western Swing artists and Blues singers filled the gaps between songs, while the bands played half hour sets on local radio stations.
The comedy adventures of Red Skelton, as well as shows like "Lum and Abner" were popular on radio, as they helped people get through the Great Depression and WW II. Lum, played by Chester Lauke, and Abner, played by Noris Goff, were from Arkansas. Other popular regional comedians included "Amos and Andy," Alvin Childress and Spencer Williams, who were from Meridian, Mississippi and Vidalia, Louisiana.
Many people from the region moved to California to escape the Dust Bowl and later, during WW II, to work in defense manufacturing plants. As television entered households, most regional people enjoyed the resilience and quirkiness of characters like El Paso, Texas-born Irene Ryan (Granny) in "The Beverly Hillbillies" and Redd Foxx (Fred Sanford), who was from St. Louis, Missouri and professed to be on his way to Heaven, in "Sanford and Son."
The Cajun Influence: Call Me Anything
Louisiana Acadian folk humor has had a profound effect on the people of East Texas, where it resides prominently alongside Southern Black humor and the legendary Texas tall tales.
Cajun DJs in Texas and Louisiana can still be heard reciting old proverbs, such as, "Call me anything - just don't call me late for dinner."
This allegiance to real matters in life has been popularized by the Cajun chef and humorist, Justin Wilson, who isn't actually Cajun. Folk songs, like the Cajun standard, "Pappa Thibodeaux," offer humorous lyrics about life at home and at the social dances. Popular artists like Frenchie Bourke and Rod Bernard sing lyrical scenes of Cajun life, "Look at Mama Ruby and her daughter Sue, She got to find a husband and she's lookin' at you."
The answer to a Cajun riddle is only obvious to a Louisiana native. Which is the loneliest bayou in the Pelican State? The answer is clear to any real sociable Cajun -- Bayou Self.
The Czech Influence: Musicians Come Out And Play
Czech music was made to have fun and socialize. Polkas have funny names, like "Happy Go Lucky Polka" and the Moravian folk tunes resemble the audio tracks to cartoons. The bands sing "In Heaven there is no beer, That's why we drink it here."
Czech musicians enjoy playing music so much that the transition to Western Swing at the height of its popularity came natural to them. Many, like Adolph Hofner, became radio celebrities and their knack for quick wit could rival any Western Swing act.
Many irreverent songs the Czech and Western Swing bands performed left an indelible mark on American music at the onset of Rock and Roll. Adolph Hofner's 1936 recording of "Dirty Dog," with its humorous lyrics, "Two old maids laying in bed, One rolled over to the other and said, You ain't nothing but a dirty dog, A dirty dog, A briny hound, You ain't nothing but a dirty dog," may be the influence for Elvis Presley's "Hound Dog."
Lyrics to "Give Me My Dime Back" by Leon "Pappy" Selph, written in the 1930s, surfaced decades later in popular music by ZZ Top.
Discrimination Breads In The Frozen Food Section
Many Texans can identify with the modern spoken word/comedy of Michele Serros, who is from Los Angeles, and relates stories of her UCLA experience and her Dr Pepper-drinking, TV-watching environment. Her critical and humorous observations of her Hispanic family and diverse friends are reminiscent of the humorous self portraits of rural Texans and many Southerners.
Her recording, Chicana Falsa leaves open the possibility for the listener to perceive her dialogue with drastically different reactions, ranging from amused to offended. In making light of her father's quest for "good parking, or free parking," and his unwillingness to pay to have a phone in his house, some Hispanics find the stereotype offensive, while many Blacks and Whites report that they recognize similar traits in their own families and find the characterization funny, without thinking of it as a stereotype of Hispanics.
The Aggie Joke: How Many Aggies Does It Take?
College rivalry in Texas has spawned an entire class of jokes, called "Aggie Jokes," targeting the Aggie mascot of Texas A&M University. For colleges in the old Southwest Conference, telling Aggie Jokes was a fall ritual to prepare for big games against the Texas "Agricultural and Mechanical" University.
Most Aggie jokes feature Aggies attempting to do ordinary things, and they often begin, "How many Aggies does it take..."
Two Aggies are building a house. One of them is on the roof nailing shingles and the other is working on the ground. The Aggie on the ground notices that the Aggie on the roof keeps throwing nails on the ground. He says, "Why do you keep throwing nails on the ground?"
The Aggie on the roof replies, "I take the nails out of the sack. If they are pointed at the roof, I hammer them in. If not, I throw them away."
The Aggie on the ground replies, "Don't throw them away! Those are for the other side of the house."
Many Aggies have been known to tell the ridiculous jokes themselves and the university has turned the tables, using the jokes to market the school.
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