Wednesday, March 3, 2010

“Sing”, “Sing” a “Song”

It seems as though rap and hip hop are here to stay. However, this style of “music” isn’t new. Oh, no. It’s been around for a long, long time.

Much credit for its popularity today must be given to “artists” such as Iced Tea, M&Ms, The Notoriously Big Guy, and Charlie Brown’s dog Snoopy.

But you have to look no further than the 1960’s to find some fine examples of early rap.

One of the greatest “singers” of our time, Lorne Greene, released his hit “song” Ringo in 1964. Ringo tells the tale of a ruthless gunman who spread terror but was ultimately shot to smithereens after demonstrating a spark of good. This "song" would eventually become number one on the charts, replacing The Shangri-Las' ode to Frank Sinatra: Leader of the Pack.

Prior to that, in 1961, Jimmy Dean (the country sausage guy, not the rebel without a cause) recorded the hit Big Bad John. In this “song”, Mr. Dean “sings” about a sizable fellow who works in a mine. I won’t go into what happens to John, lest I just end up reproducing the lyrics here (which would essentially be the "song"). Let’s just say that I always felt sorry for that big misunderstood galoot.

One of the earliest instances of the rap style in popular music was demonstrated by Rosie the waitress from the Bounty paper towel commercials. Actually, it was the actress who played Rosie; Nancy Walker. She performed Milkman, Keep Those Bottles Quiet in the 1944 film Broadway Rhythm. This is not a pure rap “song”. I could not find a link to Ms. Walker’s version, but if you get a chance to hear it you'll notice that partway through the number she goes from singing to “singing”.

Yet we must go back much further in time to find the man who would have to be considered the founding father of rap “music”.

That distinction belongs to Antoninus, one of the thugs from the Spartacus gang. Remember him?

When the Romans captured Spartacus and his men, they threatened to kill them all unless someone would betray their leader. Spartacus — in a heroic effort to spare his men — stood up to reveal himself, but Antoninus beat him to the punch. He jumped to his sandaled feet and yelled out, “I’m Spartacus.”
This set off a chain reaction. Another guy stood up and shouted, “I’m Spartacus.”
And another, “I’m Spartacus.”
Another, “I’m Spartacus.”
And so on.

The Romans were very frustrated by this, because now instead of one pesky Spartacus, they found that they had to deal with a whole slew of Spartaci.

Legend has it that this event spawned an entire generation of scofflaws. Whenever a centurion confronted a non-Roman for some infraction — say a speeding chariot — the inevitable happened:
“All right wise guy. Thirty days in the dungeon.”

But back to Antoninus. If you’ve seen the movie Spartacus, you’ll recall the scene where Antoninus tells his beloved leader that he is a “singer” of “songs”. The men then encourage him to perform. “Sing us a song," they say.
“Yes, sing us a song, Antoninus.”
“Sing, sing a song, you singer.”

And so he “sings”:

When the blazing wind hangs low in the western sky
when the sun flies away to the mountain
when the “song” of the crow scares the locusts from the fields
and maidens sleep in the sea foam
at last at twilight time...

or something like that.

But even back then rap “artists” had their critics; as demonstrated at the end of the scene when Spartacus rolls his eyes and sarcastically remarks, “Nice “song”.”

Some might argue that Antoninus was ahead of his time. However, it must be noted that even Cro-Magnon man had the ability to create “songs” by banging two rocks together and uttering monosyllabic monotone gibberish.

Music isn’t what I’d call a progressive art form.

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