Play That Song Again || It’s Only Funny ‘Cause It’s True

Posted in Blogs, Feature, Music

BY ERIK CHRISTENSEN
April 27, 2016

What gets you through the day? Where do you turn when feeling down? I, for one, like a funny, sing-along song to pick me up. And I’m not talking Weird Al parody or Flight of the Conchords-type comedy groups. Not even “Baby Got Back” by local legend Sir Mix-a-lot. Nope, give me a song that’s a little understated, a little wry rather than laugh-out-loud silly. Even better, I love it when a “serious” songwriter decides to change gears and be a little goofy. For your approval, I would now like to submit the All-Time, Top Five Funny (but not really) Songs.

Number five:
“Don’t Sit On My Jimmy Shands”
by Richard Thompson

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6FH7Kj_V6-c

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From someone considered to be the world’s best guitarist, and the purveyor of some of the most depressing folk-death ballads, Richard Thompson can lay out some funny stuff. From songs about how dying increases your viability in the music industry (“now that I am dead/my agent finally said/he wanted to have lunch with me…now that I’m deceased/my record sales increased/my video’s on MTV…”) to Super Bowl wardrobe malfunctions, (“Dear Janet Jackson…”), no target is safe.

But probably his best is a gentle poke at record collectors and music fetishists. Yup, these are my people and the truth hurts sometimes. The protagonist is a record collector who is nervous about bringing precious vinyl 78s to a party where they might be damaged by a wayward drunk enjoying the polka music:

When the party hit full swing, I saw you come reeling in
You had that six-pack in a stranglehold
Now you stagger, now you sway, why don’t you fall the other way?
‘Cause I’ve got something here worth more than gold
I said, don’t sit on my Jimmy Shands, don’t sit on my Jimmy Shands
They don’t mend with sticky tape and glue
Don’t sit on my Jimmy Shands, don’t sit on my Jimmy Shands
And that’s my very best advice to you

In addition to the fun of a polka song in the middle of a rock and roll album, it’s great that he brings up the old forms of music—Strathspeys, reels, and the immortal Mr. Shands himself.

Number four:
“I Like Being Left Alone”
by Robbie Fulks

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aWPHHgbWAzc

robbie fulksAs one gets older, one can relate to the need for peace and quiet. On the excellent “Revenge” live album, Mr. Fulks mentions running out of things to write about as you approach your 40s and 50s…he used to write songs about things he liked: girls, cars, cigarettes and partying. So what does a 50-year-old like now?

I like being left alone
I like chocolate pie, clear blue sky, and a glass of Cotes de Rhone
I like summer and I like fall, I like music but most of all….
I like being left alone

And, as a harried middle-aged person, the intrusions come from all over:

Talkin’ bout sales reps
Talkin’ bout the government
Talkin’ bout the children
And I’m talkin’ bout you.
My time is like a sweet plum
Everybody wants some

And, before it tips over into cranky old man territory, there’s a sweet resignation and comfort in the choice:

What’s the harm of sit and think some?
At worst a little wisdom
You can paint the town crimson; I’ll just stay blue

Number three:
“Osama in Obamaland”
by Dan Bern

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KZ-9a1LL81g

dan-bern-live-in-los-angelesWritten before Osama bin Laden was killed, this song imagines the circus a trial would bring if Osama was captured alive. Naturally, Osama escapes while awaiting trial and meets up with someone who can help him:

He headed for the only friendly place he could think of
In the whole United States, and off he pushed
Caught a Greyhound bus to Houston, in Texas
And he made it to the family ranch of George W. Bush

Hey, it could happen, folks. W. coaches him up on acting “American” and Osama next heads to an LA Dodgers baseball game, and plays music with ZZ Top, since he already looks the part. Eventually, he is recaptured, his Jewish lawyer (!) gets him released and it results in “a thousand years of peace” in the Middle East. Phew!

Number two:
“Dear Abby”
by John Prine

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_qbOfnbeH84

john prineAnother master of both the heartfelt and the funny song, this one is a litany of Dear Abby questions, and her subsequent answer, which is almost always some version of “get over it.”

Dear Abby, Dear Abby…
My fountain pen leaks
My wife hollers at me and my kids are all freaks
Every side I get up on is the wrong side of bed
If it weren’t so expensive I’d wish I were dead.
Signed, Unhappy

As with all her readers, the advice is the pep talk we can all use:

Unhappy, Unhappy:
You have no complaint
You are what your are and you ain’t what you ain’t
So listen up Buster, and listen up good
Stop wishing for bad luck and knocking on wood.

Quit complaining, get up and get on with your life—and this includes the writer who tells Abby he was caught with his girlfriend in the backseat of the car by her parents, and he signs the letter “Just Married.”

I got an early morning Facebook message last month; it was from an old friend from the east coast, talking about his toddler son:

Woke up this morning and heard singing from Nick’s room. He was in bed singing, “Dear Abby, Dear Abby, you have no complaint. You are what you are and you ain’t what you ain’t.”

No words can explain how happy this makes me. There’s a kid who’s going to go far in life.

And now, the number one, all time,
Top Funny song:
“Play Some Skynyrd”
by John Eddie

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FV5AQ72KZuo

john eddieI play this one at my shows frequently—the running joke is some drunk always wants to hear a classic rock song when you’re trying to play original work. Try this: ask any musician who’s played in public frequently—has anyone ever yelled out “Freebird” while you were playing? Then, sit back and wait for the story.

Mr. Eddie juxtaposes the oh-so-sensitive songwriter, with the audience that is perhaps not ready to hear such deep material:

Here’s a song about my daddy
Here’s a song about my past
Here’s the line where I open up my heart
Here’s the part where I tear off my mask

But then a voice in the back
Stops me in my tracks
Sends me crashing back, when they say:
Play some Skynyrd, play some Petty
Play some Seeger, play some Dead….

Like I said, EVERY musician I know can relate to this. The real joke is the singer receives a visit from God, who gives him the meaning of life, and tells him to “go out tonight/and spread my paradise.” As expected, it does not go well:

But then the drunks start to chant
“Play some Ronnie Van Zandt”
Oh Lord, I just can’t, when they say,

Play some Skynryd, play some Petty
Play some Seeger, play some Dead….

We all need some levity—and not over the top, smarmy jokes, but warm, heartfelt emotions that pick us up and get us through the day. And, some mornings, when I wake up to find that Syria is still a mess, jobs are disappearing and Donald Trump still hasn’t been eaten by wolves, I just do what young Nick does and sing to myself: “you have no complaint/you are what you are/and you ain’t what you ain’t….”

Erik Christensen teaches at Oak Harbor High School, writes songs and poetry and does enjoy a nice Cote du Rhone on occasion.

Erik Christensen Band plays at Holland Happening in Oak Harbor on April 30, the Freeland Cafe on June 11 and Bloom’s Winery on June 19.

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