Snapshot in Prose: censorship

For those who think outrage over lyrics and rhythms in popular music began with those decrying gangsta rap, with Tipper Gore‘s penchant for warning stickers, or even those fuddy-duddies who were outraged by the onstage antics of Elvis Presley and other rockers in the 1950s, what follows may come be an eye-opener For, while Snapshot in Prose usually profiles a popular Cladrite Radio performer at a particular point in his or her career, this week, we’re sharing a 1934 essay from Popular Songs magazine bemoaning the intrusion into the popular music and radio broadcasts of the day by would-be moral arbiters armed with newly sharpened censor’s scissors.

It’s interesting to note that the article mentions the “purification” of movies, too, given that 1934 was the year that Breen Production Code began to be strictly enforced by Will Hayes and his associates.

Censor Nonsense by Shirley Wilson

CENSORSHIP—that eugenic offspring (with full benefit of clergy) of ambitious political campaigners, zealous church organizations and dozens of clamoring societies for the prevention of this and that—is becoming quite a bouncing boy.
In fact, if some real restraint isn’t soon put upon his boisterous activities, he bids fair, like the well-known boomerang, to bounce back with such force one of these days as to bop his fond parents a swell sock on the noggin.
Authors of books and plays have long suffered the mailed fist of censorship, whenever their stories became a bit too spicy or made the fatal error of adhering too closely to the facts of life. But the real Roman Holiday of censorship didn’t really begin until the advent of, first, the movies and later, the radio.
The screen is rapidly becoming as pure as the driven snow (before it drifted!) and, for the most part, babies are permitted to arrive only after a full nine-months of legal marriage. Even then, either the stork or the family doctor’s little black bag must be given the full credit for this blessed event.
Censorship has always exercised strong control over the radio. Ten years ago, for instance, you could sing heigh-de-ho on six days of the week, but a singer had to own a hymn book to get any ether time on Sunday.
But the censors weren’t satisfied. Nay, nay, neighbor. They decided to clean up the songs on the other six days of the week as well. You couldn’t tell the world at large that “Nobody Knows What a Red-Headed Mamma Can Do,” even on a Saturday night.
Oh no! That would never do. Someone might begin to wonder just what she could do, and where would that lead us mentally? It simply wasn’t good for us to hear about a little lady who left her conscience and her mind behind when she stepped out.
And so it has gone, from year to year, with various songs justly or unjustly getting the axe from self-appointed censors.
Recently, just when radio censorship was quieting down—and movies were getting the brunt of it from the Decency Leagues—five of the most famous orchestra leaders banded together for the announced purpose of protecting the public’s delicate ears from offensive lyrics.
Some leaders called this treachery within the ranks. Others said it was just a publicity gag and would soon be forgotten. But the committee, headed by Richard Himber and including Paul Whiteman, Rudy Vallee, Abe Lyman and Guy Lombardo, is still with us.
After all of the censoring boards finish, one after the other, with their cutting and rehashing of our songs, here is little wonder that present-day vocalists have to resort to such lyrics as poo-poo-pah-doo, heigh-di-hi, boo-ba-ba-boo and la-de-da-da-da.
While censorship itself is no joke, some of the results attained by it are amusing, if not amazing. A current popular song is entitled, “I Can’t Dance, I’ve Got Ants in My Pants.” Can’t you just imagine the censor’s look of horror when that one was played and sung for the first time? After wracking their brains for some way in which this wordage could be purified for public consumption, they decided it would be okay, believe it or not, for the song to be sung: “I Can’t Dance, I’m Afraid to Take a Chance.” Maybe that’s an improvement, we don’t know.

Sometimes, we wonder who is the best judge of what is good for our ears and what is not. So far as the radio is concerned, we must agree with Will Rogers, who said of his critics: “I have no sympathy for anyone who is too lazy to turn a dial.”
Isn’t it just possible that the most eagle-eyed censors of today, themselves indulged in the warbling of songs which might have been considered off-color by persons looking for dirt?
“White Wings” was sung in every parlor many years ago, yet it states quite blandly that “Night comes, I long for you, dearie.” Just why the author’ (and singer’s) ardor should have deepened at the approach of night was not explained, though it does seem that in the interests of censorship he might have longed for her more circumspectly at the breakfast table.
Another venerable ditty, “Casey Jones,” has the fair lady state that her gentleman friend is “Goin’ to get tired of sleeping by himself.” Is the same tune we find Mrs. Jones (we hope she is Mrs. Jones!) telling the children to go on to bed and hush their crying, when they learn of Casey’s demise, ’cause they’ve “Got another pappa on the Frisco line.” Tsk! Tsk!
There are also some honeys in the more classical field. In “My Wild Irish Rose,” for instance, the lover remarks, with no doubt as to his intentions, that he would like to take the bloom from his wild Irish Rose. And he doesn’t mention a wedding ring, either. For shame!
Rudyard Kipling’s “On The Road To Mandalay” eulogizes a place “Where there ain’t no Ten Commandments,” while in the ballad, “The Low-Backed Car,” the lovers come near and far and naively “envy the chickens that Peggy’s a-pickin’.”
One of the prizes of them all, however, is the song, “Oriental Bagdad,” from one of the better-known old musical comedies. At one point it advises taht “If your wife turns out a flivver, you just toss her in the river.” This same number also reveals that “It’s the pastime of the nation, to increase the population,” and if that isn’t frankness, we surrender, dear!
For those who worry about such things, marriage is mentioned with all due respect in “My Sweetheart’s The Man In The Moon,” but to obviate any doubt as to what takes place afterwards, the lyric tells us that “I’m going to marry him soon, and sweet little Venus will fondle between us.”
Harry Lauder’s song, “There Is Something Waiting For Me,” tells of a fellow’s very best girl and, by way of comparison, the rover goes on to say that he’s seen all sorts in various ports, including a “rare feast, on his last trip East,” of which the “taste” lingers on.
P. G. Wodehouse, well-known humorist, once wrote the words to a song, “Bunny Dear,” which was sung in a musical comedy produced by Morrie Gest. In this ditty, someone has told a little Oriental girl that the foot of a dead American rabbit is very lucky and will grant favors to those who ask them of it; so she plaintively sings: “Bunny Dear, do what you can, please—Bring me a MAN!
At least, there was one girl who knew what she wanted, while another girl also had a pretty good notion about the matter, too, if we can believe the words of “I’m Just A Wild Rose” from the Florenz Zeigfeld musical comedy “Sally.”
This little lady states that she is just a passion flower and that is her hour. “Who’ll get me, no one knows; tame me if you can,” says she. One would hardly call that an invitation to the dance!
Other choice bits might be found in the Julia Sander-Frank Crummit favorite, “Old Man In The Moon.” Herein, the girl tells the boy that he’s quite a devil and adds: “You’re not out for joy; not on the level.” However, he explains himself out of that one by blaming everything on the Man in the Moon, which, he says, makes shy little boys and innocent girls grow bold!
In flowery words, the hero of “Chin-Chin-Chow” demands from his Coraline, in the song by that same name, that she “list to his sighs” and informs her that he is “seething with passionate fire” and prays that she “quench his desire.” He also suggests that she do it pronto and not wait until morning, for he know no joy until he can “open the eyes of his flower.”
Frankness in the extreme has always been the policy of our lyric writers; it isn’t just a bad habit, recently acquired. Suggestive words to songs may or may not be an evil influence, but the record shows only too well that they are not a recent development.
The final blow, however, has not to do with the censoring of song lyrics—but with the censoring of SENSUOUS RHYTHMS!
This, of course, opens up a practically limitless field for the scissors wielders.
Ravel’s “Bolero” would probably be among the first dozen rhythms ruled off the air and put out of our theatres because of “sensuousness,” if the critics were to have their way.
The battle is on, and the public have to decide very soon whether or not efforts to “purify” our words and music are sense, or nonsense!

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