American Top 40 PastBlast, 2/2/80: Styx, “Why Me”

Okay, first some dope on this week’s 80s feature:

–“Why Me” is #27 on this show and would climb only one spot higher;
–It’s a way overlooked song in Styx’s repertoire. I kinda wonder if the time it hit the chart cuts against it—80s stations tend to underemphasize songs from the first two years of the decade, and it doesn’t seem that 70s stations choose to take note of its 79 release date. Plus, Styx hasn’t opted to put it on many of its compilation disks, either;
–I bought the 45 soon after hearing it the first time. The sax/guitar interlude is pretty awesome; I was surprised its run on the show was so short, especially after debuting at #32;
–The song on the flip, “Lights,” is a really good Tommy Shaw piece. I’ve set it aside as a possible Time to Play B-Sides post someday.

But it’s Dennis DeYoung’s spoken, “Why me? That’s what I want to know, you know what I mean? Huh, I don’t know…” at around the 3:06 mark that’s led me down a bit of a rabbit hole this week. For all I know, what we hear is the way DeYoung normally speaks, but even back in early 80, it reminded me of a voice on a novelty record from the 50s that my father had introduced to Amy and me.

Dad owned A Child’s Garden of Freberg, a compilation LP of parodies and comic originals by Stan Freberg, and he started playing it for us sometime in the mid-70s. I found many of its pieces absolutely riotous: “St. George and the Dragonet,” which hit #1 in 1953 (Dragon: “I see you got one of them new .44 caliber swords.”  St. George: “That’s about the size of it.” Dragon: “You slay me.” St. George: “That’s what I’m here to talk about.”); “Heartbreak Hotel,” poking fun at both its use of echo and Elvis’s gyrations (“Where you will be… RRRIPPP!  …uh, I ripped my jeans…third pair today.”); and “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” with its overexuberant snare drummer.  Freberg was no fan of the popular music of the day and took glee in pointing out what he considered to be its excesses. And even if I wasn’t familiar with the originals enough to know exactly what was being parodied in all cases, you could sense that these recordings came from a master in his prime.

Another classic from Child’s Garden was Freberg’s take on the folk classic “Rock Island Line,”  which was the B-side to “Heartbreak Hotel.” More specifically, it lampooned Lonnie Donegan’s skiffle version, which was a sensation in the UK and had hit the Top 10 in the US in spring 56 (on the 4/25/56 Top 100 chart, Donegan was peaking at #10 while “Heartbreak Hotel” was #1). Donegan had added a long spoken introduction, which clearly irritated our parodist. Freberg, who shares billing with Peter Leeds (playing a record producer) gives it some of his typical flourishes, such as breaking mid-word (SF: “Well, the Rock Is-…you’re sure you don’t want the pig iron part?” PL: “Forget it, will ya?” SF: “…-land Line is a mighty good road…”).  And the bits about the sheep are simply perfect. (By the way, I guess it’s the “Well, you’re alright boy…you don’t have to pay me nothin’” part that DeYoung brought to mind.)

 

I hadn’t listened to the Donegan version until recently, and honestly I had no idea how closely Freberg had hewed to it. I guess I’d just thought Freberg had made it all up himself.

 

In reworking “Rock Island Line,” Donegan apparently misunderstood how the line worked, which of course Freberg and others, including Johnny Cash, propagated: there was no toll that one had to pay if one was transporting goods and not livestock, but such a train might have to go into a holding area. It does make a good story, though!

Well, all this led me to learning a little more about the artist who first popularized “Rock Island Line,” Hudy Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly. He recorded it several times in the late 30s and throughout the 40s.

 

And how did Lead Belly encounter it?  Through working with John Lomax, a leader in the preservation and recording of American folk music. Lomax is responsible for the earliest known recording of “Rock Island Line,” by a group of prisoners in Arkansas led by Kelly Pace, in 1934. It’s mighty good.

 

Anyway, this is where “Why Me” has led me in recent days.  There’s a lot of detail I’m leaving out, but it’s all been fascinating. Somehow, I don’t think this is what DeYoung had in mind, though, as he tossed off that line.

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