Over the past few months, I've bought nine inexpensive 78 rpm records — the first 78's in my music collection.
Most of my 78's relate to my research into Frank Cloutier and the Victoria Cafe Orchestra, although I don't yet have "The Moonshiner's Dance" (Gennett 6305) — if you own it, please contact me. One of the "extracurricular" records is by Chubby Parker, which I bought just because he's a denizen of Harry Smith's Anthology.
It's an odd buy, since the label is the same on both sides. It claims to be two helpings of the B-side, "I'm a Stern Old Bachelor," although playing the record reveals it actually has the correct A-side, "Oh Suzanna." And in fact, the "Oh Suzanna" side is considerably more worn than the "Bachelor" side, so I guess Gennett chose their A's and B's correctly. Presumably, somewhere in the world, there's a Chubby Parker 78 claiming to have two sides of "Oh Suzanna."
"I'm a Stern Old Bachelor" is a comic novelty song, which celebrates the delights of being unbound by holy wedlock. (I wish I could make an MP3 for you, but I don't have the technology.) Parker recorded it for Gennett on February 26, 1927 ... in a couple weeks from now, it will be the 80th anniversary of that recording, but I need something to write about TODAY.
It seems to have been one of Chubby's signatures on the WLS Barn Dance radio show, although "Nickety Nackety Now Now Now" was really his theme. (You may remember "Nickety Nackety" better from Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds). Both were later reissued on Slivertone, the record label of Sears Roebuck (the worlds largest store, hence the WLS call letters).
Next, "Bachelor" showed up in John Lomax's 1934 book, "American Ballads and Folk Songs." In June 1938, the original Carter Family recorded the song on their last recording session before taking off for Texas and Mexico to be on border radio with XERA. Because the Lomax and Carter texts share a couple extra verses not found on Parker's recording, I assume the Carters got the song primarily from Lomax. In any case, it's an uncharacteristically silly performance by Sara and Maybelle.
Here are the lyrics to "Stern Old Bachelor". The lines in italics are sung by the Carters, but not by Chubby Parker.
I am a stern old bachelorWhen I first heard Parker's recording — despite his high nasal voice and crisp banjo picking — I immediately thought of the Tom Waits song, "Better Off Without a Wife." You know the one:
My age is forty-four
I do declare, I'll never live
With women anymore
I have a stove that's worth ten cents
A table worth fifteen
I cook my gruel in oyster cans
And keep my things so clean
Oh little sod shanty
Little sod shanty give to me
For I'm a stern old bachelor
From matrimony free
When I come home at night I have no fear
I smile and walk right in
I never hear a voice yell out
Or say where have you been
On a cold and stormy night
In a cozy little shack
I sing my songs and think my thoughts
With no one to talk back
I go to bed when ever I please
And get up just the same
I change my socks three times a year
With no one to complain
At night when I'm on peaceful sleep
My snores can do no harm
I never have to walk the floor
With an infant [a baby] in my arms
And when I die and go to heaven
As all good bachelors do
I will not have to grieve for fear
My wife will get there too
I like to sleep until the crack of noonThey're more or less the same song ... well, I should say that "Better Off Without a Wife" could easily be a thorough re-imagining of "I'm a Stern Old Bachelor." I believe Waits used to do this often — take a good old folksong, boil it down to the essence of whatever makes it good, and then build an entirely new song around that same essence. See my post on "Cold Cold Ground."
Midnight howling at the moon
Going out when I want to
Coming home when I please
Don't have to ask permission
If I want to go out fishing
Never have to ask for the keys
Now, you may ask whether, in 1973, Tom Waits was listening to Chubby Parker or Sara and Maybelle Carter, or reading song books by John Lomax. It's a little-known fact that Waits started out at California folk clubs like the Troubadour and the Heritage. Apparently, Waits and Ramblin' Jack Elliott would occasionally hang out together in the 1970's (one suspects a nightcap or two may have been involved).
In any case, although my evidence for a direct link between the two songs is slim — and there must be dozens of other comic bachelor songs for Waits to take some cues from — there's no reason to doubt that Waits and the music of the Carters or Chubby Parker could easily have crossed paths in the early 1970's.
Editor's Note: This is the 8th day of my 28-day experiment. I'm trying to post something every day for the whole month of February. If it's something worth reading, well ... all the better.