Don't Say I Didn't Warn You
The Late John Garfield Blues

The Singing Swinging Banjo

Rivierabanjo_1

I found "The Singing Swinging Banjo" in a used vinyl-record store in Minneapolis. Released in 1959 on the cheap, short-lived Riviera label, the album consists of studio musicians slogging through bland, quasi-Dixieland renditions of standards such as "Buffalo Gal," "Grand Old Flag," "Saints Come Marching In," and "Clementine."

But of course, I bought the album for the cover. The clerk at the counter shook his head, saying "A lot of records have a hot chick on the cover to get people to buy. What were these people thinking?" That's pretty much what I wondered — what were they thinking, how did this cover photo look to people in 1959? Today, it seems like the queerest thing I've ever seen in my life, but in 1959, could the record company or its customers have missed the sexuality-related content in the photo?

Of course, the cover photo must be from Mardi Gras in New Orleans. (For one thing, the banjo is a Weymann Style 6, suitable for early styles of New Orleans jazz.) I believe that some people — especially back then — thought of Mardi Gras as a mere costume party, and its drag queens as something like the war-time skits in which soldiers wore drag, and this may have "protected" them from an awareness of the sexual context of the photo. But don't kid yourself — even during skits in WWII, people knew what drag was about. In any case, this is the basic problem in trying to see this album cover through 1959 eyes — what would have been consciously known, what was unknown, and what was known but repressed?

(Incidentally, let me point out a couple of details that may be difficult to pick out. Yes, that's a lighthouse motif in the middle of the structure like a peacock-tail attached to his back. It's hard to see here, but there are two seagulls made of gold glitter flying next to the lighthouse. Note the roiling seas at the foot of the lighthouse. Also, notice that the strap around his neck holding the banjo is made of the same silver-blue satin material that makes up the rest of his costume. Somebody really thought this through.)

 

Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of about three or four posts on banjos and the psychoanalytic idea of repression ... yes, really.)

 

Comments

Dixon

So where are the other banjo/repression posts?

Steve Crowers

More likely, this recording is of the Philadelphia Mummers Parade. Fancy costumes and plectrum banjos being the norm for the this annual New Years reveling-and-drinking-fest' since the late 1800's.

Ron

That photo could be of someone in the Philadelphia Mummers Parade. The backpiece is very indicative of what we've been wearing for over 100 years

daves

I just got this album at a used vinyl shop in Minneapolis. Is it the same one?

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