Music, Humor, and Politics
by Mark English
P.D.Q. Bach was the youngest and oddest of J.S. Bach’s many children. His best known work is probably the dramatic oratorio, Oedipus Tex, featuring the “O.K. Chorale.” Another of his works is the Pervertimento for Bagpipes, Bicycle and Balloons. Peter Schickele, Professor of Musicology and Musical Pathology at the University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople, who rediscovered P.D.Q. Bach, also invented a range of unusual instruments to perform his works, like the “dill piccolo” for playing sour notes and the “tromboon” (“a cross between a trombone and a bassoon, having all the disadvantages of both”). He also invented the proctophone, a latex glove attached to a mouthpiece (and “the less said about it, the better”). “The überklavier, or super piano – with a 15 octave keyboard ranging from sounds that only dogs can hear to sounds that only whales can make – was invented in 1797 by Klarck Känt, a Munich piano maker…”  P.D.Q. Bach wrote a work for this instrument (The Trance and Dental Etudes).
Peter Schickele was one of a string of 20th-century musicians/composers/performers who made a living out of making (or trying to make) music funny. Maybe you really have to know the language to appreciate it, but I’ve never been attracted to musical parodies. For me they fall as flat as Haydn’s “Surprise” Symphony. It got to the end and I was still waiting for the surprise.
Musical jokes and novelties remind me of slapstick or physical comedy. It has its place; it can be done well. But it’s not really something I am drawn to.
The only piece I can think of that is even remotely related to this sort of thing and which I like is Elgar’s Enigma Variations. But this is a serious work which just happens to incorporate cryptic musical references to the composer’s friends. As Elgar put it himself in a program note: “This work, commenced in a spirit of humour & continued in deep seriousness…” I sympathize with Elgar here, being prone to a similar pattern of thinking – though in my case the seriousness is usually just a way station on the road to something darker.
Songs can be funny, yes. But it’s the words that are funny. Like many of Dave Frishberg’s lyrics: “I’m hip” for example: “I’m hip, I’m no square, I’m alert, I’m awake, I’m aware… I dig, I’m in step. When it was hip to be hep, I was hep… I’m too much, I’m a gas, I am anything but middle class…”
Perhaps an even a better song by Frishberg is “Peel me a grape”: “Pop me a cork, French me a fry, crack me a nut… keep standing by… Show me you love me, kid glove me… Never out-think me, just mink me; polar bear rug me, don’t bug me”, with the chorus, “I’m getting hungry, peel me a grape.” Dated and contentious in certain ways – and yet, I think this woman still exists. I know she does.
I want to change gear here and move into slightly different territory, which may be contentious in an entirely different kind of way. I’m not tall but console myself that I would be well above average height … if I were a woman. Perhaps one of the reasons I was once attracted to Formula One racing (which I talked about recently) was that the drivers generally – and unlike most professional sportsmen – are not on the tall side. (Taller drivers have a lot of trouble keeping their weight to acceptable levels.) All this is by way of introduction to a song by Randy Newman which is not about motor racing but it is about height. There are not many songs about height, when you come to think about it.
The song, “Short people,” is interesting for a number of reasons.  First of all, it would never have been released in the current super-sensitive climate. Though some say it’s a satire, I think it’s just meant to be silly, funny and provocative. The most clearly satirical bit is a soppy, mock-sympathetic interlude which goes against most of what the song is saying and is a parody of sentimental, consciousness-raising songs (“Short people are just the same as you and I…”). The bulk of the song I would characterize as deliberately provocative and mischievous. Short people have “no reason to live.” You’ve got to pick them up to say “hello.” “They’ve got little hands, little eyes, they walk around telling great big lies. They’ve got little noses, tiny little teeth, they wear platform shoes on their nasty little feet… They’ve got grubby little fingers and dirty little minds. They’re gonna get you every time.” Call it satire if you like. I wouldn’t.
Funny and nasty often go together, but Bob Dylan sometimes did the nasty without the funny. From “Positively 4th Street”: “I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes and just for that one moment I could be you. Yes, I wish that for just one time you could stand inside my shoes – you’d know what a drag it is to see you.” Dylan’s universe is a very different one from that of the older tradition of songwriting. His wittiness, his particular poetry, has a very different character.
I have been trying to steer clear of politics, but it keeps creeping in. As I have noted in a previous piece, rock and roll as a form of music can be seen as political even when the songs have no actual political content. 
Many older songs were not political (or at least considered political) when they were written, but have become so. Like “Peel me a grape,” which may be descriptive of a certain continuing reality but will probably offend many feminists. It will also anger animal rights advocates due to the references to mink coats and polar bear rugs. Frishberg certainly didn’t do things by halves.
Randy Newman’s “Short people” is clearly a very different kind of song. It was meant to provoke, as I said, but not in a political way. In today’s political climate it becomes political however. In fact, just about every damned thing becomes political in today’s social and political climate.
At any rate, “Short people” will certainly be confronting to many millennials and to the promoters of a culture of safe spaces and trigger warnings. In this respect, like the Frishberg pieces, it reflects a world that no longer exists.
With Bob Dylan, of course, the politics is often not only well and truly baked into his work but central to what he is saying. Sometimes this works well, sometimes not.
Take the case of the civil rights anthem “Hurricane,” a song that purports to be about the black middleweight boxer Rubin (“Hurricane”) Carter who was convicted and sentenced to life behind bars for a triple murder, which the songwriter was convinced he didn’t commit. Dylan has been widely accused of exercising “excessive poetic license” in writing this song, and even his biographer, Howard Sounes (a lifelong Dylan fan), expressed serious reservations in this regard. In fact, the song is virtually complete fiction. The character portrayed is nothing like Carter, and the story told has very few points of contact with the actual events it implicitly claims to represent. 
At a retrial – prompted in part by the song’s popularity – Carter was reconvicted. Some years later the conviction was controversially overturned by the Federal Judge H. Lee Sarokin of the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey. So much time having elapsed since the murders, authorities decided not to prosecute for a third time. 
Politics as a subject of discussion is naturally divisive. It’s supposed to be that way. If it weren’t, then we wouldn’t need actual politics and would be living in a Rousseauian or post-revolutionary Marxian paradise.
What’s more surprising is just how divisive musical discussion can be. Tastes differ not just along generational lines, but according to upbringing, personality and temperament. And this is quite apart from the politics which, as I say, has a tendency to creep into musical discussion even when you try – either out of courtesy or cowardice – to keep it out.