Thursday, May 24, 2007

Fun with domestic violence

Popular music is social history. Drop the needle (figuratively) on an old “race record,” there’s no telling what you’ll discover about black American life in the 1920s and ’30s.

Take the once-famous comedy duo of Butterbeans and Susie. Evidently black folks thought it was funny to sing about spousal abuse and domestic homicide.

Now, I assume that Jackie Gleason’s “One of these days, Alice. Pow! Right in the kisser” shtick had some kind of roots in vaudeville. But is there a white comic tradition to compare with this?:

Papa, papa, you better stop bustin’ up my jaw.

Mama, mama, I’m gonna hit you every time you call the law.

I got myself a razor and a forty-one. Cut you if you stand still, and shoot you if you run.

Click here to listen to Butterbeans and Susie’s “Better Stop Knockin’ Me Around.”

The thing that strikes me is… this could only be funny if this kind of violence was commonplace. Which puts the modern-day listener in the weird position of appreciating the song’s entertainment value – the artful phrasing, the expert timing – while realizing that the people who laughed the hardest were laughing from experience.


Rottin' in Denmark said...

This is tracing the history in the wrong direction, but have you listened to Richard Pryor's 'Craps' lately? There are minutes worth of material about fistfights with his wife on that album. I remember the line 'If she hurts my ego, I'll punch her out'.

It's funny listening to that album with friends and seeing everybody laughing at something that, were it not so well-told, we'd all be leaving the room.

dez said...

An old friend of mine (white) took me to a Baptist service once (don't recall if it was American or Southern Baptist). The congregation was predominantly white. The minister was white. He made a joke about beating his wife if she didn't bring him the proper breakfast and the congregation laughed (the men seemingly with more gusto than the women). I'm not sure if this is a black/white thing, a cultural thing, or a Baptist thing, but it certainly put me off going back to that church (my friend was unhappy with his minister, too).

sherifffruitfly said...

"The thing that strikes me is… this could only be funny if this kind of violence was commonplace."

Not quite. Hyperbole is another way of makin a funny. Itchy & Scratchy, for a more current-day example.

susie said...

This song reminds me of "Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do" which was written in 1922. I was singing along one day and realized that I was singing about how I'd rather my man would hit me
than follow him to jump up and quit me, ain't nobody's business if I do and I was swearing I won't call no copper if I'm beat up by my papa.... and I was like what?

There seem to be a lot of songs about men beating up on and killing their women mostly because they're "running around", granted they're not quite as jaunty as Butterbean and Susie.

One of my all time favorites is "Hey Joe" which was written (supposedly) by a white boy William Moses Roberts Jr.

I'm fairly certain that the country genre probably has it's share of men shootin' and beatin' on their wimmen too - but I don't have the stomach to listen to country for too long.

Undercover Black Man said...

Hey Susie. "Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do" did cross my mind when listening to this track. Butterbeans and Susie were definitely doing the comic flip-side to the tragic blues laments about violent love.

And yeah, country music... Johnny Cash sang about taking a shot of cocaine and shooting his woman dead. It's all blues, when you get right down to it.