More stammering songs

Baroque, vaudeville, fieldwork, and blues

possum pie

As part of my series on stammering I’ve already featured several songs about speech impediments, like There once was a man from CalcuttaRossini’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 

i'm always

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.


Charles L. Todd records among Mexican migrants, California 1941.

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”:

* * *

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.


Some great Chinese stammerers


As a card-carrying stammerer, I’m always on the lookout for fellow-sufferers—not least in China.*

I’ve already described my encounter with a stammering shawm player in Shaanbei (here, under “Status and disability”), and suggested a motto for the Chinese Stammerers’ Association, as well as noting an entertainingly crap Chinese therapy. I’ve noted how the public nature of Chinese life may force the stammerer to confront the issue.

Now (thanks to NBL on languagelog) I learn of the illustrious stammerer Deng Ai 鄧艾 (197–264 CE), a military general in the Romance of the three kingdoms (Sanguo yanyi 三國演義).**

On further study, this clue leads to a whole world of Sanguo nerds, largely through the medium of video gaming…

Chapter 107 of the Romance of the three kingdoms reads:

The other man is presently a lower official. His name is Deng Ai […]. He lost his father when he was young, but he always harbored great ambitions. Whenever he saw mountains or valleys, he would instinctively point out the best places to station troops, store grain, or stage an ambush. Everyone else laughed at him, but Sima Yi appreciated his talent and came to include him when discussing military strategy. Deng Ai has a speech defect. He always stutters when he’s trying to speak, so that whenever he had to make a report he couldn’t help saying ‘Ai Ai…’.*** Sima Yi once teased him about it, asking him, “You’re always saying ‘Ai Ai’. How many Ai’s are there?”

But Deng Ai immediately replied, “They say O Phoenix, O Phoenix, when there’s only one phoenix.” From this, you can see that he has a quick and alert mind. You must watch out for these two people.


Putting down a heckler with a quote from the Analects of Confucius—now that’s niche! Beat that, Stewart Lee. Later, as Deng Ai rose to power, he mastered his stammer, addressing his troops—another tough gig.

Here’s a typically cute Chinese video!

Actually, this illustrates how a certain insider knowledge on a seemingly technical topic may illuminate our studies—such as geographical and topographic features in early literature, or the availability of materials for painting or sculpture; or for Daoist ritual, how participant observation, an understanding of vocal, percussive, and instrumental melody in performance, should be a basic aspect of research. “Yeah?”

* * *

Some useful Chinese sites (like this) list many other illustrious Chinese stammerers, ancient and modern. Starting with the early legalist philosopher Hanfeizi 韓非子, and the poet Sima Xiangru 司馬相如, there’s a g-glut [measure word] from the pre-Tang era. For the aficionado of Tang poetry we have Meng Jiao 孟郊, writing (and stammering) in the aftermath of the cataclysmic An Lushan rebellion. (In a post on stammering songs I speculate whether there’s a link between fluency and social trauma.)

Celebrated 20th-century stammerers (putting aside Wang Guowei, who seems to belong in Confucius’s “deliberate” category) include the philosopher Feng Youlan 馮友蘭, influential both within and beyond China.


Gu Jiegang and his family, 1954.

Most notable for my tastes is the folklorist Gu Jiegang 顾颉刚 (1893–1980), to whose 1925 fieldwork on Miaofengshan one often refers [Innit though—Ed.]. He might have made a drôle companion to interpret my own questions in the field. Lu Xun abruptly goes right down in my estimation as I learn that in their literary feud he uncharitably took the piss out of Gu’s impediment (B-b-bastard).

But my favourite reference to early Chinese stammering has to be a passage from Sima Qian’s Records of the grand historian (Shiji), to which Hannibal Taubes alerted me. It appears in the biography of Chancellor Zhang 張丞相列傳, referring to the stammering minister Zhou Chang:


In Nienhauser’s 2008 translation (p.213):

When the Emperor wanted to depose the heir and install Ju-yi, the son of Beauty Ch’i, as the heir, the great ministers firmly challenged this, but none was able to win him over. The Emperor [eventually] because of the Marquis of Liu’s strategy desisted. But Chou Ch’ang having been mighty in the court disputes, the Sovereign asked him for his arguments. Ch’ang was a man with a stutter and furthermore was filled with anger. He said, “My mouth cannot speak, but surely I kn-kn-know this is not permissible! Even if Your Majesty wants to depose the Heir, your subject surely will n-n-not accept the decree!” The sovereign laughed delightedly. After [court] had been dismissed, Empress Lü, who had been eavesdropping from the chambers on the eastern side, saw Chou Ch’ang, knelt down to him, and thanked him.“Without you, Sir, the Heir would certainly have been deposed.”

More um, fluently, Joseph Needham and Christoph Harbsmeier (Science and civilisation in China, volume 7: the social background, part 1, pp. 43–4) translate the relevant passage thus:

“I cannot get the words out of my mouth.” he replied. “But I know it will n-n-n-ever do! Although Your Majesty wishes to remove the heir apparent, I shall n-n-n-ever obey such an order.”

Indeed, even for those who are otherwise fluent, having to speak truth to power before a capricious amoral emperor might bring on a speech impediment. One inevitably thinks of the current wranglings around the White House—for my Hollywood screenplay I have Michael Palin lined up as Zhou Chang, with a bit part for Stormy Daniels as Concubine Ji.

While the great Han scholar Michael Loewe was introducing me to the riches of the Shiji all those decades ago, he somehow omitted to draw my attention to this—out of tact, perhaps?!

This topos is sometimes combined with an allusion to the Deng Ai story in the phrase qiqi aiai 期期艾艾.

So we can add such luminaries to the list of historical stammerers like Moses and Demosthenes, and later Marilyn Monroe and Ed Balls. One of those niche pub-quiz topics, like left-handed calligraphers, or Norman Wisdom and Albania.

But what about the suffering workers, eh?!


* BTW, more colloquial than the standard kouchi 口吃 is jieba 结巴 (jiejiebaba!), but still more common in north China is jieka 结卡.

** See, I Have No Kulture (paltry excuse: I’ve been busy with Tang poetry and Daoist ritual under Maoism).

*** Call me a pedant, but while it’s perfectly possible to stammer on a vowel (and a diphthong), written Chinese doesn’t capture the likely nature of the impediment here. Repeating whole syllables or words is less common than repeating initial c-c-consonants.

Guide to another year’s blogging


Struggling to encompass all this? I know I am. While we inevitably specialize in particular topics, it’s important to build bridges. I guess it’s that time of year when another guide to my diverse posts may come in handy—this is worth reading in conjunction with the homepage and my roundup this time last year.

I’ve added more entries to many of the sidebar categories and tags mentioned in that summary. I’ve now subheaded many of the categories; it’d be useful for the tags too, but it seems I can’t do that on my current WP plan. Of course, many of these headings overlap—fruitfully.

Notably, I keep updating and refecting on my film and book on the Li family Daoists. I wrote a whole series resulting from my March trip to Yanggao (helpfully collected here) and Beijing (starting here, also including the indie/punk scene). Other 2018 posts on the Li family include Yanggao personalities and Recopying ritual manuals (a sequel to Testing the waters).

To accompany the visit of the Zhihua temple group to the British Museum in April, I also did a roundup of sources on the temple in the wider context of ritual in Beijing and further afield, including several posts on this site.

I’ve posted some more introductions to Local ritual, including

Gender (now also with basic subheads) is a constant theme, including female spirit mediums—to follow the series on women of Yanggao, starting here. Or nearer home, Moon river, complementing Ute Lemper.

Sinologists—indeed aficionados of the qin, crime fiction, and erotica—may also like my post on Robert van Gulik (and note the link to Bunnios!).

I’ve added a few more categories and tags, notably

The film tag is developing, with a side order of soundtracks—for some links, see here.

I’ve given basic subheads to the language category (note this post on censorship), which also contains much drôlerie in both English and Chinese. Issues with speech and fluency (see stammering tag) continue to concern me, such as

Following Daoist football, the sport tag is worth consulting, such as The haka, and a series on the genius of Ronnie.

Some posts are instructively linked in chains:

More favourites may be found in the *MUST READ* category. Among other drôlerie, try this updated post, one of several on indexing and taxonomy; and more from the great Philomena Cunk.

Most satisfying is this collection of great songs—still not as eclectic as it might become:

Do keep exploring the sidebar categories and tags!



Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Moon river

This is just an alert to a substantial update on my post Moon river, featuring—in addition to Audrey Hepburn, Amy Winehouse, and Stacey Dooley, the gorgeous major-7th leap, as well as the dodgy language of “femme fatale” and “elfin waif”—thoughts on Truman Capote’s novella, stammering, and fado…



Confucius he say—slowly

While I am most averse to the current wave of vapid patriotic moralising in China, I am partial to the occasional judicious quote from Confucius—like my tribute to the Li family Daoists on their 2017 French tour.

Further to my motto for the Stammerers’ Association (“We have ways of making you talk”), Who Better Than Confucius (answers on a postcard please) to supply a maxim for the Chinese branch? James Legge’s classic translation of Analects §4.24 goes

The Master said, “The superior man wishes to be slow in his speech and earnest in his conduct.”


The distinguished Tian Qing, my favoured calligrapher-by-appointment—see here for the sign that he wrote for Li Manshan’s latrine)—has kindly written the maxim for me in lishu script. For Shan Fuyi’s scroll with the ingenious poem that Gaoluo villagers wrote for me, click here.

The 訥 there (“slow”) has also been rendered as “hesitant”. Of course, unlike Moses, there’s no suggestion that Confucius was himself a stammerer. In his calligraphy Tian Qing has dispensed with the “wishes” character, since as he observes wryly, I’ve already attained the “slow in speech”… But rather than advocating a speech impediment, Confucius’s bon mot may serve for the afflicted as a reminder of slowed speech, or even deliberate stammering, as therapy—perhaps with Robert Peston as model, rather than Gepopo.

There’s some data on stammering worldwide, but historically, I wonder how common it was in ancient China. Perhaps further broken down by age and sex, as Keith Richards might have called his autobiography.

There’s a related, more expansive passage in Analects §1.14:

The Master said, “He who aims to be a man of complete virtue [:] in his food does not seek to gratify his appetite, nor in his dwelling place does he seek the appliances of ease; he is earnest in what he is doing, and careful in his speech; he frequents the company of men of principle that he may be rectified—such a person may be said indeed to love to learn.”

Here “careful in his speech” appeals less to me than “hesitant” in the first quote. To borrow from ethnomusicology, it’s not just tempo, it’s timbre too—or else, if we’re not careful, we’ll end up sounding like Jacob Wee-Smug (aka Minister for the 18th century, or The Haunted Pencil, “a man who has all the authenticity of a character at a murder-mystery weekend“), and Nobody Wants That…

BTW, this classic quote from the Tree Frog illustrates just how far he is prepared to go to Get Down with the Kids, sonorously describing Teresa May’s Brexit plan as

 the greatest vassalage since King John paid homage to Phillip II at Le Goulet in 1200.

High fives all round. Also BTW, I now wonder if Confucius’s 敏于事 (Legge’s “earnest in what he is doing”) might even be rendered as “diligent in ritual” (cf. Doing things). As to “appliances of ease” (again, I might suggest “comfort” or “security”), I’ve never been one for a microwave myself.

“Such a person may be said indeed to be a pompous misogynist“. Drawing a veil over Confucius’s views on gender (indeed, feminist critiques, and even defences, of his ouevre are in vogue, if not in Vogue: see e.g. Su Zheng, cited here), if he were with us today (cf. WWJD), if he couldn’t get a job as advisor to some dictator in a banana republic minus the bananas, he could make a fortune selling Christmas-cracker maxims. Gary Larson has a fine cartoon on Confucius at the office with some of his rejects (“Looks like we’re in for some rain”).

For a handy claim to classical erudition, see here. As ever, Laozi has the best line:

He who knows does not speak; he who speaks does not know

And for Liezi, see here. For illustrious Chinese stammerers, ancient and modern, see here.




Modifying disfluency

Not such a gratuitous illustration: one of the Great Stammerers,
as well as a worthy pretext for a link to female jazzers.

I’ve already featured stammering quite often on this blog (see tag). Rather than expecting you to listen to this in the form of a six-hour podcast, these notes may serve partly as a reminder for myself, for others wrestling with vocal fluency, and indeed for anyone who knows anyone who is. But they may be of wider interest too: effective communication isn’t merely about disorders commonly identified as “stammering”.

We all labour under various habitual ailments through life, but on reflection the constant struggle with fluency is still an extraordinary experience. “Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking…”, I spent the first forty years of my life trying at all costs to avoid stammering—indeed, to speak in public at all. And the more one struggles to avoid it, the harder it is to modify:

stammering is what we do when we try to avoid stammering.

It’s largely thanks to China that I have been gradually and belatedly chipping away at the iceberg of fear. I’ve even grown used to presenting the Li family Daoists and the Zhihua temple group on their foreign tours.

It’s a good start to confront the event itself, but monitoring one’s speech as one goes along is another challenge: I rarely catch myself in time as I use all the habitual fruitless little avoidance techniques—backtracking, trying to get a run-up (like crashing through a hurdle), and so on. In the end, it just about works, but there’s always room for improvement: a gamut of physical and conceptual techniques is available.

Among the substantial literature, from the days when I was doing occasional group therapy courses (and it’s not a one-off fix), I remain most impressed by

  • Malcolm Fraser, Self-therapy for the stutterer (1987, 11th edition 2010!), available here,

which I heartedly recommend, even if I make only sporadic progress in implementing its suggestions. I note that it has been translated into German, French, Spanish, Japanese, Lithuanian, Finnish, Slovakian, Danish, Russian, Czech, Zulu, Bosnian, Bulgarian, Norwegian, Arabic, Polish, Thai, Portuguese—and Chinese (5th edition here; for less helpful techniques reported in the China Daily, see here; and for my encounter with a stammering shawm player, here). That still leaves plenty of worldwide stammerers in need of the book’s guidance.

Like Life, speech therapy goes through fads. We can dismiss short-term solutions like sing-song inflection (indeed, singing), metronomic speech, finger-tapping, foot-stamping. Even prolonged (slurred, or perhaps legato) speech, while an important part of one’s toolbox, is only a temporary relief. We need a wide range of approaches at our disposal, without depending on particular crutches.

Of the major therapists (mostly sufferers themselves), great pioneers were Charles van Riper and Joseph Sheehan. So here’s yet another iceberg: we need to reveal all the accumulated covert behaviour that makes up our stammering. Therapy pays as much attention to psychological as to physical techniques.The basic aim is eliminate all such behaviour and avoidances, at various levels:

  • To stop avoiding situations themselves. Of course, some situations are more stressful than others. At one end of the continuum would be spending time with a small group of old friends; at the other, delivering a worldwide live TV broadcast on an unprepared topic that one knows absolutely nothing about. Naked.
  • To stop avoiding particular words (staggeringly common!): to catch ourselves substituting words, and stop it!
  • And then, when stuck on a word, or anticipating a block, we mustn’t fear/avoid/postpone the sound of stammering.

Our goal shouldn’t be “fluency”, and certainly not to “avoid stammering”. Strangely, in solitary preparation at home, where blocks don’t naturally occur, it’s about reminding myself what they feel like when they do—manufacturing, monitoring, and then modifying them.

Conversely, during and after a presentation (or indeed just routine conversation), often I don’t experience fluency, I’m merely relieved at not stammering too badly. But to build on fluency we need that sensation.

stammering stan

Please excuse me for featuring this cartoon yet again, but it says it all.

  • pausing: well-meaning encouragement to relax, take a deep breath, and so on, are of little avail when one’s efforts aren’t based on thorough preparation, So—instead of



internalize the experience of taking pauses (breathing!!!) while you

  • keep moving forward—a major step to replace backtracking, postponing, or trying to get a run-up;
  • monitoring: finding out what you do when you stammer, including extraneous bodily movements and eye contact; superfluous and counter-productive filler words;
  • desensitizing and “easy/voluntary stammering” (stammering on purpose on non-feared words, in a variety of ways!): this can be an amazing sensation. See also here.
  • modifying blocks: easy onsets, light contacts, extended sounds.

Amidst the whole blinkered panic that besets us, humour can play a useful role, as in my stammering games, or Gepopo.

Putting it into practice
Thing is, modifying habitual addictive behaviour needs a lot of work: an investment of time and energy. One tends to have other things to do, and accept one’s wretched fate.

“It’s easy for you to say that…”

We should aim to enter speaking situations with forethought: to bear goals in mind. We’re advised to prepare before making a phone call, or asking for things in shops, or even talking with friends; again, the goal can be modest, like remembering to pause, or using a deliberate (easy) stammer at least once in such situations…

In private practice, extreme slowed speech is a great feeling; after all, public speakers vary in their speed of delivery, and some of the most effective are those who speak remarkably slowly (see below). But both this and voluntary stammering may be tough to practice in the heat of the social moment, as we flounder around helplessly, lurching from one crisis to another.

Conversely, in the company of the Li family Daoists I generally rise to the occasion. Whereas in London, not only do I rarely talk in public but I hardly ever talk to anyone at all, at my happy meetings with people in Yanggao, and on tour with the band, I’m propelled into constant sociability, often in the company of a large group; and then I manage public speaking with quite minor preparation. It’s so much easier when I’m on a roll. I love Li Manshan’s comment:

“Wotcha doing when you get back to Beijing?”, he goes.
“I’m going to be giving lectures (jiangke)…”
His local dialect, or his lively mind, instantly converts this to jieka “stammering”:
“Old Jonesy, you don’t have to go back to Beijing to stammer—you can just keep on stammering away here!”

Still, simply talking regularly isn’t a panacea if one merely reinforces negative behaviour. And even after relatively successful presentations in Beijing and the British Museum this year, I was taken aback by my disfluency at a more recent London appearance—a film screening that I had already successfully negotiated many times. With this reminder that I still constantly need to put in the work, I prepared more thoroughly for my latest presentation, and it went better again. I still wasn’t exactly monitoring and modifying, but at least I wasn’t avoiding blocks; I got through it, somehow—and that’s progress.

It can be tough for the audience too: I sometimes put in a little aside to help defuse mutual embarrassment, like “You may also like to entertain yourselves by trying to work out what goes wrong when I encounter a helpless b-b-block!”. Intriguingly, this sentence tends to emerge rather fluently—just to show how it’s all about being open.

Anyway, by now, with positive experiences to build on at last, I think I can just about do it; but it requires constant vigilance. I need to keep hearing myself stammering, which may involve manufacturing blocks in preparation, and then getting into the habit of modifying them.

* * *

To be fair, the bar for academic presentation is rather low. More often than not, the goal here seems to be merely to fulfill the embarrassing task of speaking at all, rather than the noble pure aloof form of silent text—an audience being no more desirable than in the toilet. One often witnesses mumbled delivery, avoidance of eye contact or any physical attributes that might suggest human communication, as if engaging the audience, even making one’s topic sound interesting, is some demeaning concession to populism. Stammerers probably shouldn’t find this a consolation.

Whether or not we’re afffflicted with a recognized bona fide imp-p-pediment, effective public speaking is much to be appreciated. While I’m deeply envious of fluent communicators, they too achieve their results with practice—like Robert Peston, whose random hesitant delivery, with its arbitrary accents and intonation, is brilliantly compelling, even while suggesting someone taking the p-p-p-mickey out of
de-li-ber-ate       sssslo-o-owed    speeeeech.

Note the nice fortuitous mention of the iceberg… For Peston’s (real) cameo with the great Philomena Cunk, see here (episode 5, from 13.04).

Effective therapy is based on getting the problem out in the open, and even posts like this are a tiny part of that.

For brilliant help in the UK, there are the British Stammering Association and the City Lit. But it’s up to us!