When twigs were twogs and the silly song ruled

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The Independent Online
"Bill Bailey is a one-off", wrote James Rampton in the Comedy section of this paper's Eye magazine on Saturday. "There is no other performer on earth who would think of playing Three Blind Mice in the style of Richard Clayderman..."

It is always dangerous to say sweeping things like that, as I have found to my cost in the past, because there will always be some over-informed reader who will write in and point out some glaring exception to your rule. In James Rampton's case I am afraid it is going to be me, because I can think of one other performer on earth who might think of playing Three Blind Mice in the style of Richard Clayderman, and that is John Dankworth.

Not only would John Dankworth be capable of it, but he has done it. He once made a record of that very tune, Three Blind Mice, in which he parodied not just one but half a dozen different people.

Richard Clayderman was not one of them, because in the 1950s, when he made the record, Clayderman was not a household name, perhaps not even born. Dankworth chose to arrange the tune in the style of different top jazz names of the time, such as Gerry Mulligan and the Modern Jazz Quartet, and if you were a jazz fan it was a very funny record, especially the section where he played the nursery rhyme in the pretentious style of Stan Kenton, renaming this section "A Trio of Sightless Rodents".

This being the 1950s, the number came out on a 78rpm record and was, I think, a modest hit for Johnny Dankworth, as he then was - at any rate, you can still find the record in some quantities in places where they still sell old 78 records.

I don't suppose James Rampton was around in those days, so he can be forgiven for being knocked out by the exciting new idea of a musical parody using Three Blind Mice.

In fact, if you are a reviewer of comedians these days, there is no particular reason why you should connect music and comedy at all, which is extraordinary when you think of the place the comic song had in our culture for so long. The music hall and the comic song were almost synonymous, and Gilbert and Sullivan weren't half bad either, but even when the music hall had faded away the idea of the comic song persisted. The line continued through the Western Brothers, and Arthur Askey, and Noel Coward, and Paddy Roberts, and Tom Lehrer, and Flanders and Swann, and ...

What happened to it after that? Where did it go?

I grew up in a house full of old 78s of songs, some classical, a lot by Bing Crosby and a good few by comic performers such as Arthur Askey and Frank Crumit. Because my Aunt Peggy lived out in the Bahamas we also had records by Nassau's favourite calypso singer, Blind Blake, and one of the first songs I got to know by heart was a comic item about the Abdication: "It was love, love, love alone, Caused King Edward to leave de throne ..."

While we are wandering through the swamps of childhood nostalgia, I realise now that I first heard of the name of millionaire JP Morgan through a Blind Blake song:

My name is Morgan,

But it ain't JP,

There ain't no bank on Wall

Street

That belongs to me.

So forget your champagne

appetite

'Cos the best you'll get is

beer tonight,

My name is Morgan,

But it ain't JP.

The point I'm getting round to is that we don't seem to breed songs like that any more. Is there anyone around who makes a living out of singing funny songs, or is famous for singing funny songs, or has had a hit with a funny song recently? In the cabaret world there's Kit and the Widow, I suppose, and Instant Sunshine, but there's nobody in mainstream comedy that I can think of off-hand who sings comically. Is it our culture that has decided to eliminate the comic song? Is it the industry that now makes it impossible for people to have one-off hits like "The Laughing Policeman" or Sophie Tucker's "Life Begins at Forty", or Leslie Holmes's "He Played His Ukulele as The Ship Went Down"? When Arthur Askey sang, in his "Bird Song":

I wish I were a tiny bird,

I'd sing through sun and

fog;

I'd lightly trip from twig to

twig

And back from twog to

twog;

Oh, I would be a chronic

little bird,

Cyclonic little bird,

Carry-on-ic little bird,

A let's-have-another-gin-

and-tonic little bird

What lives up in the sky ...

When Arthur Askey was waxing such deathless lyrics, I bet it never occurred to him that one day nobody would be singing any silly songs at all. I only hope some over-informed reader will write and tell me I am quite wrong.

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