art, history, movies, music, race

Steamboat Willie


“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.

photo of horse and hill
animals, music, photography, really?

Lonely Horse

Remember that song from the ’80s by Yes? “Owner of a Lonely Heart.” When I heard that as a kid, I misheard the lyrics. I was convinced they were singing about the “owner of the lonely horse.” (I also thought Starship “milked this city.” I was wrong.) It was not until I was nearly out of high school, while standing in a grocery store in Fairbanks, Alaska, that I realized this was not, in fact, the case.

For years I felt bad about that horse.

[Photo above taken outside of Olema. Point Reyes, CA. October 2005.]


The Russians Are Coming. Take Five.

Val Bennett. I haven’t found much information on Val Bennett. I know he played the saxophone. First name was “Lovall.” And he died in 1991. And there are records, b-sides. We don’t really have b-sides anymore.

The first time I heard “Take Five,” it wasn’t “Take Five.” Wasn’t the slick Dave Brubeck original that sends fingers thrumming on tables. What I heard first was Val Bennett’s version.

It’s messy, and the timing is a bit more ragged. It doesn’t make me think of coasting in a car through a dusky blue city, like Brubeck’s. Instead, it’s like sitting in a hot, empty restaurant on a neglected Caribbean island, where drops of water run down the sides of Coke bottles. A place that might look like this:


Image of bar in Grenada by Alex Webb.

Bar in Grenada by Alex Webb, 1979.

(Apologies to Alex Webb)


Funny to remember that I first heard this because it was the theme to a show about how dishwashers and toasters work. A terrific show. The song is called, “The Russians Are Coming.”

Postscript, 31 Dec 09: The show that this was the intro theme for was The Secret Life of Machines, which will get its own post here in future. It was created by Tim Hunkin, seen below in a picture from Hunkin’s website.

[Post updated 14 March 2013: embedded new working Youtube video]

cool, music

Rotation: The Oracular Spectacular

Have been listening to MGMT for a little while, so figured I ought to share.


I like the album, Oracular Spectacular. Funny how lots of groups I like seem to have shades of lots of other groups I like. You listen and hear various elements rise to the fore and slip away as quickly. It’s like those people who sample a wine, gargle, roll it around, then pronounce, “Hints of chocolate and raspberries and fricaseed rabbit and oak and tobacco and an old baseball glove.” Depending on the MGMT song, there are hints of Bowie and the Stones and Ratatat and old video games, to start.

Used to be that I would hear something new from a show called “Take Me Live.” Where’d that go?