22 June 2007

"When the Red, Red Robin"

Back a long time ago*, Sam Clemens, aka Mark Twain, wrote a short story called "Punch, Brothers, Punch" (included in Punch, Brothers, Punch! And Other Sketches, 1878) which featured the following little verse:
Conductor, when you receive a fare,
Punch in the presence of the passenjare!
A blue trip slip for an eight-cent fare,
A buff trip slip for a six-cent fare,
A pink trip slip for a three-cent fare,
Punch in the presence of the passenjare!


Punch, brothers! punch with care!
Punch in the presence of the passenjare!
The idea of the story was that anyone who read or heard those lines was totally unable to get them out of his/her/its head.
They took instant and entire possession of me. All through breakfast they went waltzing through my brain; and when, at last, I rolled up my napkin, I could not tell whether I had eaten anything or not. I had carefully laid out my day's work the day before--thrilling tragedy in the novel which I am writing. I went to my den to begin my deed of blood. I took up my pen, but all I could get it to say was, "Punch in the presence of the passenjare." I fought hard for an hour, but it was useless. My head kept humming, "A blue trip slip for an eight-cent fare, a buff trip slip for a six-cent fare," and so on and so on, without peace or respite. The day's work was ruined--I could see that plainly enough. I gave up and drifted down-town, and presently discovered that my feet were keeping time to that relentless jingle.
The only way to exorcise oneself was to recite the verse to another person, who promptly became hag-ridden in turn.

Robert McCloskey, in one of his Homer Price stories ("Pie and Punch and You-Know-Whats," in Centerburg Tales, 1951), took the idea a little farther. In this story, it's a song about a "hip-high hippopotamus" that is driving the residents of Centerburg crazy. In this case, however, singing the song to another person simply means that two people are singing it instead of just one. Finally Homer comes up with an idea, and leads the affected (afflicted) citizens to the library. Unfortunately, he can't remember what the book looks like, but finally he finds it - and loudly recites "Punch, brothers...." This does the trick, of course, and now everyone is babbling about trip slips instead of the hippopotamus. Conveniently, the librarian, who is on her way out of town on vacation, walks in on them. "Tell her, everybody!" Homer cries, and tell her they do, in unison. This lifts the curse for them, and someone escorts the librarian to the train station (so she can carry the poem out of town) while everyone else collapses in exhaustion from all the singing.

Nowadays they have a word for a song (or tune) which gets stuck in your head like this, forcing you to listen to countless repetitions of it until something finally forces it to leave you alone: It's called an "earworm." Different songs, of course, affect different people. For me, the worst earworms are "Lodi," "Simple Gifts," and "Good Morning, Starshine" - for any of those three, it usually doesn't take more than one line of the song to lodge it firmly in my head.

So why am I nattering on about this? Because last week I started rereading (for the severalth time) The Dreaming Suburb, by R F Delderfield. The book is set in a London suburb between the two World Wars, and one of the characters is a jazz musician who in an early scene has a run-in with a song called "When The Red, Red Robin." I happen to know the tune, because my mother had it on an LP** when I was a kid, and as a result I've been whistling it off and on ever since. Modified rapture....

I've already decided that song lyrics are fit subjects for Poetry Friday, so I'm going to share this one with you:
When the red, red, robin
Comes bob, bob, bobbin' along, along,
There'll be no more sobbin'
When he starts throbbin' his old sweet song.

Wake up, wake up you sleepy head,
Get up, get up, get out of bed,
Cheer up, cheer up, the sun is red,
Live, Love, laugh and be happy,

What if I've been blue,
Now I'm walkin' through
Fields of flow'rs.
Rain may glisten
But still I listen
For hours and hours,

I'm just a kid again
Doin' what I did again,
Singing a song,
When the red, red, robin
Comes bob, bob, bobbin' along.
And to round out your experience, here is a video of Perry Como and Ethel Merman singing the song....

Words and music by Harry Woods; copyright 1926 by Irving Berlin, Inc.

Click on the "Poetry Friday" button at left for this week's round-up, which is hosted by A Wrung Sponge.

* Yes, Pete, before even I was born.

** Older readers will remember LPs. If you're too young to know what one is, ask your parents.

1 comment:

Mary Lee said...

My newest earworm is "Honeycomb," a song my mom requested for her 80th birthday cd of music.