Baroque, vaudeville, fieldwork, and blues
As part of my series on stammering I’ve already featured several songs about speech impediments, like There once was a man from Calcutta, Rossini’s “stupefaction ensemble”, and Gepopo. Now, thanks to this page from Judy Kuster (part of a site containing rich material), I find a plethora of further links, worth reading together with two splendid discussions, here and here.
As the latter page observes,
By the rise of vaudeville, the stuttering song was established enough that it was considered its own small genre, a specialty for comic singers—Sammy Stammers, from 1894, is a typical example. These stuttering songs fit naturally into a coarse period whose popular music mocked the Irish, Jews, Asians, and blacks.
And in all these cases, modern audiences can only await their cue from the victims to benefit from, even enjoy, such creations.
In the heady days before PC (“gone mad”), there was a b-b–bumper crop in the early days of the recording industry, showing at least that stammering was a significant element in public consciousness. It’s good to contextualize it in the context of other disabilities:
- Joseph Strauss and Neil Lerner (eds.), Sounding off: theorizing disability in music (2006),
among many interesting chapters (not least on Glenn Gould!), includes
- Daniel Goldmark, “Stuttering in American popular song, 1890-1930”,
showing how stutterers there were portrayed in music between 1890 and 1930. Here’s a medley of short clips:
Intriguingly, several of the most popular songs focus on female sufferers, always in a minority—like K-K-K-Katy (Billie Murray, 1917), which, on a roll, he followed up with the “incredibly insulting” You tell her I S-T-U-T-T-E-R.
Oh Helen (1918) contains the ingenious lyric
Oh H-H-Hel, Oh H-H-Hel, Oh Helen please be mine
You s-s-simp, You s-s-simp, You simply are divine
You m-m-mud, You m-m-mud, You muddle me it’s true
Oh D-D-Dam, Oh D-D-Dam, Oh Damsel I love you
Still, there’s a disturbing undercurrent of romance. As the Locust St. post oberves,
The poor stuttering protagonist falls in love but his impediment makes it hard for him to express his feelings. There are typically two outcomes. There is the (relatively) optimistic: in “Stuttering Dick,” as in “The Stuttering lovers,” an Irish folk song, the stuttering guy finds a stuttering girl, and the two live in bliss. Then there is the more popular and more tragic scenario, when the stuttering character falls in love, can’t communicate his feelings, and winds up scorned and ridiculed.
Turning to ethnographic fieldwork, here’s the full version of the unusually endearing song that opens the YouTube medley above. Sung by Lloyd Stalcup, a 14-year old Texan migrant worker, it was recorded in 1940 at Shafter FSA (Farm Security Administration) Camp in California as part of the fine Voices from the Dust Bowl project by Charles L. Todd and Robert Sonkin of the Library of Congress (with evocative fieldnotes here):
But as non-PC goes, the pick of the b-b-bunch—as politicians are discovering, if you’re gonna be offensive, why not go all the way?—has to be Possum pie (or The stuttering coon, 1904), with lyrics by Joseph C. Farrell, music by Hughie Cannon:
Of course, few of these songs attempt to break out of the rhythmic mould to reflect more accurately the irregularity of stammering. Ironically, the impediment disappears when singing, and in rhythmic speech, but neither offers more than temporary relief. I wonder if there are any east-European songs in the parlando-rubato form beloved of Hungarian scholars, or even Bulgarian aksak “limping” treatments…
Delving further back, for us early music fans Andrew Oster has a chapter in Sounding off about Demo, a stammering dwarf (YAY!) in Cavalli’s 1649 opera Giasone. Here the fast repetitious ornament trillo or gruppo, a kind of throat tremolo (defined by Caccini, used expressively by Monteverdi—and recently by Abrahamsen in the mesmerizing let me tell you (see Soundscapes of Nordic noir), is put to comic use:
It reminds one of the drunken stammering poet in Purcell’s The fairy queen (1692—also featuring a Chinese man and woman, BTW):
Now all we need for a full house is a drunken stammering black Jewish Chinese gay dwarf, FFS.
The links above take the story on to pop since the 1950s; but for blues fans, I’ll play out with John Lee Hooker—one of the more realistic impersonations of the sound. You can decide if it’s “a revelation—the singer isn’t a poor victim but a player, wooing a girl through his stammer” or if it’s just “good old-fashioned sexual harrassment”:
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This may just be a coincidence of the birth of the recording industry, but it looks rather as if stammering songs reached peak popularity in the wake of World War One. So recalling that many Chinese stammerers are also documented in historic periods of warfare, we may wonder if there’s some correlation between social trauma and disfluency in speech. Speech therapy is clearly among the needs of current refugees, for instance. Still, if conflict were a simple stimulus, our forebears would all have been at it. And I’ve no idea how one might make a more comprehensive global diachronic survey—taking account of class, economic conditions, gender, and so on.