art, history, movies, music, race

Steamboat Willie

Behold.

“Steamboat Willie” was the first Mickey Mouse cartoon. [First distributed in theaters, not first produced —Ed.] It premiered November 18, 1928, at the Colony Theater in New York City. It was also the first cartoon to have synchronized sound.

If you watch the whole thing, which I had never done until last year, you’ll see it’s also a catalog of animal abuse that would not pass muster today.

screenshot of mickey mouse pressing his shoe on the back of a cat's neck

Since I mention abuse: About halfway through, the song “Turkey in the Straw” starts playing. I never gave much though to the single verse of lyrics that my brother and I learned for this song as kids. (I also never learned that version asking if your ears hang low.) A quick look at Wikipedia suggests that they were from a variation sung by George Gobel on television in the ’50s. Ours went a little like this:

Oh, I had a little chicken and she wouldn’t lay an egg,
So I poured hot water up and down her leg,
Oh, the little chicken hollered and the little chicken begged,
And that darn little chicken laid a hard-boiled egg.

Ouch! Poor little chicken.

1918 sheet music cover portraying a fashionable african-american man called the zip coonLike folk music in general, this song has undergone all kinds of tweaking and transformations. In fact, one of the earliest versions had the unfortunate title “Zip Coon,” a minstrelsy reference to an African-American who was sharply dressed, urban, and free. Or, to use another more subtly charged word that is still around: uppity.

Maybe that earlier song variation could makes sense in the Steamboat Willie context, given the criticism of Mickey Mouse as minstrel.

Fortunately, we were spared the blatant racial mockery when we learned our lyrics. Though if you want to insist on some social subtext, I suppose there was some gender silliness: the hard-boiled-egg-laying chicken’s sex was variable in our singing. Sometimes we poured hot water up and down his leg.

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