Friday, April 01, 2011

A Kiddie Song ... Sort of Funky

»On The Good Ship Lollipop« (1968)

In the movie »Bright Eyes« from 1934 we are entertained by child star Shirley Temple, six years old at the time. She delivers a nursery rhyme which soon was to become hugely popular ... to become in fact »one of the most famous of all kiddie songs« (Roy Hemming: The Melody Lingers On. The Great Songwriters and Their Movie Musicals, New York 1999, p. 309). On the face of it, this does not seem pretty astonishing. But wait and see.

The song of little Shirley Temple is entitled »On The Good Ship Lollipop«, perfectly normal for a kiddie song and nothing to wonder about. Shirley performs this song in the movie in a scene that is set in an airplane. Therefore, the »ship« of the song seems to refer to an airplane, even though this is, from a linguistic point of view, far from obvious. As far as I can say, the word »airship« does exist in English, but it denotes either a rigid air craft of the »zeppelin« type or a balloon, that is any lighter-than-air self-propelled craft. Which excludes airplanes in the proper sense. However, the movie scene clearly is set in an airplane, and Shirley even runs along the aisle with her arms spread and flapping them up and down, imitating an airplane. Still less unmistakable is the beginning of the song which runs:
I've thrown away my toys, even my drum and train.
I want to make some noise with real live aeroplanes.
Some day I'm going to fly, I'll be a pilot too.
And when I do, how would you like to be my crew?
So the »good ship« is an airplane. Children won't be unduly bothered. They accept folded paper as airplanes so why not a »lollipop ship«? The fantasy of a child will further be positively stimulated by the fact that this airship can land on a chocolate bar as the refrain of the song says: »Happy landing on a chocolate bar«.

This is all fine and well, as far as it goes. But let's go a bit farther! In the year 1968, the song was recorded again and then appeared in an unusual context. We find it, now transmuted into a groovy soul tune, on an album of the Mirettes. The Mirettes were actually the Ikettes. They were forced to change their name because Ike Turner had prohibited them from using their original name. This happened after they had left the Turner-Revue in September 1965 and started to perform on their own. The Mirettes (now ex-Ikettes) consisted, at his point, of Robbie Montgomery, Venetta Fields and Jessie Smith. Alline Bullock, Tina Turner's sister, said about the new career of the ex-Ikettes:
»These were the real Ikettes, but we found out they couldn't use the name, because Ike owned it. He had marshals to keep us from going onstage–subpoenas, restraining orders–on every trip. Then we tried "The Mariettes, formerly the Ikettes," but he didn't want that either. Finally we just dropped it.« (Tina Turner with Kurt Loder: I, Tina. My Life Story, New York 1986, p. 113)
Revue LP # 7205 (1968)
On their LP In The Midnight Hour« (Revue LP # 7205), released in 1968, the Mirettes present the old kiddie song »On The Good Ship Lollipop« in a new vest: funky. And hearing this funky song, we suddenly, and almost unwillingly, perceive the deeper level of its funky lyrics ... the song had brought a fortune to songwriter Sidney Clare, and after listening to the Mirettes' version of it I started to wonder what Clare had in mind when he penned the lyrics. Well, simply start with listening to the version of the Mirettes and pay attention to the lyrics. (The lyrics are abbreviated compared with Shirley Temple's version and begin right with the refrain):

The Mirettes: »On The Good Ship Lollipop« from the Revue LP »In The Midnight Hour« (1968):

On the good ship Lollipop, it's a sweet trip to the candy shop
Where the bonbons play on the sunny shores of Peppermint Bay

Lemonade stands everywhere, crackerjack bands fill the air
And there you are: Happy landing on a chocolate bar!

See the sugar bowl do the Tootsie Roll with the big bad devil's smooth cake
If you eat too much, hooh, hooh - You'll awake with a tummyache!

On the good ship Lollipop, it's a nice trip into the value hop
And there you are: Happy landing on a chocolate bar!

And there you are: Happy landing on a chocolate bar
And there you are: Happy landing on a chocolate bar ...
What do you think? I can tell you what I think: Quite obviously, the song is filled to the brim with more or less unequivocal sexual metaphors that go far beyond any simple »innuendo«: we have the »candy shop« (!), the »sunny shores of Peppermint Bay« (!) and not to mention the »lemonade stands«! But the best is yet to come: The highlight of any 18+ reading of this song's lyrics will have to concentrate on the following passage: »see the sugar bowl do the tootsie roll«! Among music buffs, it would here need an gargantuan effort not to think of Bessie Smith's salacious blues »I Want A Little Sugar In My Bowl« which, of course, was always meant as a sexual metaphor (and understood to be so by all singers who performed the song: Nina Simone, Rheta Hughes etc.). Indeed, once you are on the right track, it needs little fantasy to guess what a tootsie roll« has to do in a »sugar bowl« ... 'Nuff said, I presume you got the point, obvious as it is.

We may ask: Did the Mirettes know what they were recording? Well, I think they pretty much did, or rather, the ambiguous salaciousness of this seemingly innocent kiddie song is the very explanation of why we find that song on their album. In any case, I find it difficult to hear or »read« that song »innocently« once I heard it performed by the Mirettes. But we don't need the Mirettes for that, really. The song's lyrics, if only they are »read« in the proper perspective, do invite the less-than-innocent interpretation. Back in 1961, Allen Ginsberg already had had this intuition when he went about to compose his own lyrics for our kiddie song, to sing, as he writes explicitly, »after the melody of On The Good Ship Lollipop«:
On the good ship Lollipop, won't you come and suck my cock?
Wontcha gobble it please? I'll be glad to give you alla my cheese.

On the good ship Lollipop, you can f**k me with a mop,
You can lick my ass on the poopdeck or on top of the mast.
(quoted from Allen Ginsberg: Early Fifties. Early Sixties. Journals, ed. Gordon Ball, New York 1977, p. 279 f.)

Yes, it sounds crude. It is crude. I personally don't like it: Ginsberg's hardcore rhyme is so pathetically direct and does so emphatically negate the charms of subtility and ambiguity. And it is so very typical of the '60s beat-generation: They thought a message will be heard only if it's couched in crude and unequivocal terms ... which eventually led them to gross vulgarity and nothing else. You can see that in the pitiful writings of Ginsberg, Lennon and all the others. R.I.P.

The Mirettes, on the other hand, made Ginsberg's point by sticking to the original lyrics, and thus they made the much stronger point. And the general public, by the end of the 1960s, had already got the point ...

The term »Come on the good ship... Lollipop« was used, with clear sexual innuendo, in Bernardo Berto- lucci's erotic movie Last Tango in Paris (1972). Moreover, if you start to google the term you will quickly realize that it is used as a chiffre for sex in a wide range of contexts. On the other hand, »on the good ship Lollipop« also denotes something like »on the sunny side of life«, not surprisingly often used in respect to childhood. In this vein, the actress Joan Crawford is quoted by Annette Tapert with the following words: »"Not one good moment on the Good Ship Lollipop" is how Crawford described her childhood. "Boardinghouses, hash joints, and dime stores"« (The Power of Glamour: The Women Who Defined the Magic of Stardom, New York 1998 p. 42).

Notwithstanding its deeper levels of ambiguity, the song »On The Good Ship Lollipop« has been able to preserve its superficial innocence until today. It is still perceived, in a bourgeois and more often than not middle-class context, as a »kiddie song« which is just the right tune for a happy birthday party. The children will be provided with funny lollipops while they sing along. Even serious academic literature dealing with the curriculum of nursery schools and the like does list the song as a good example of how to teach children to learn playfully about ... ships, of all things:
»Boat Songs: Have students sing songs such as "Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore"; "My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean"; Row Row Row Your Boat"; "Sailing Sailing"; and "On the Good Ship Lollipop" (...). Afterward, have students discuss their experiences on boats.« (quoted from Multidisciplinary Units for Prekindergarten Through Grade 2 der International Society for Technology in Education, 2003).
Let's hope they never find out the song does not deal with a ship. Not to mention all the rest ...!

Happy landing on the chocolate bar!

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