Check the Lyrics #1 – Cultural References in Classic Songs

I’m a big fan of vintage jazz and classic pop. Everything from the rowdy days of Tin Pan Alley in the 1880s up to early rock and roll in the 1950s. I love listening to these songs and I love playing them on the piano, or even singing them in the shower.

What? Everyone sings in the shower.

These songs, written by greats such as Cole Porter, Benny Goodman, Fats Waller and Irving Berlin, are in most cases, approaching 80, 90, and 100 years old. The tunes are as enjoyable as ever. But the lyrics often make reference to cultural elements long-since obsolete or out of date. Ever wondered what something was, which was mentioned in an old jazz recording? Let’s find out together.

Song: “The Glow Worm” (1902)
“..You’ve got a cute vest-pocket Mazda,

which you can make glow slow, or faster…” 

Originally published in German, and then English, during the Edwardian era, this love-song about a glow-worm’s light enabling a man and his girl to spend time with each other, became wildly popular during the 1950s, when it was recorded by the famous vocal quartet, the Mills Brothers. Although more famous for their music recorded during the 1930s, ‘Glow Worm‘ was an unexpected hit, and was one of their later successes.

The original lyric was: “you’ve got a cute vest-pocket lighter“, referring to a pocket cigarette-lighter. But the Mills Brothers’ version of the song changes that to “pocket MAZDA”.

What is a ‘Mazda‘?

It has absolutely nothing to do with cars.

A ‘Madza‘ was a trademarked name for a type of lightbulb produced by the General-Electric company, starting in 1909. Produced until roughly the end of the Second World War, Mazda lightbulbs were supposed to be more energy-efficient and were meant to burn for longer than conventional lightbulbs of the era.

Song: “Puttin’ on the Ritz” (1929)
Line: “…High hats and ‘Arrow’ collars,
White spats, and lots of dollars…”

Arrow‘-brand detachable collars were manufactured by Cluett, Peabody & Co. starting in 1905. This was in an era when shirts came with adjustable sleeves, and removable cuffs and collars for separate washing. Although still used for more formal dress such as Black or White Tie, by the 1920s and 30s when this song was written, ‘tunic-shirts’, without attached collars, were going out of fashion. Cluett, Peabody & Co. ceased manufacturing Arrow collars soon after, and expanded their lines of men’s shirts and garments to make up the loss from falling shirt-collar sales.

During the era when detached collars were popular, however, Arrow collars were advertised using the “Arrow Collar Man”, as recognisable in his day, as Rich Uncle Pennybags, or Colonel Sanders is, today. In the 1920s, Cluett, Peabody & Co. used the ‘Arrow Collar Man’ to increase sales when they made the transition from tunic-shirts to the more familiar collared shirts which we have today. The company is no-longer in business, and closed down in the 1980s.

Song: “From Here to Shanghai” (1917)
Line: “…And I’ll have Ching Ling Foo,
Doing all his magic tricks!…” 

This song from the era of the First World War is one of the lesser-known songs produced by the famous songwriter and composer, Irving Berlin. It celebrates the exoticism and cultural diversity of the Shanghai International Settlement (1843-1943), that existed in the heart of China for a hundred years, between the First Opium War, and the end of World War Two. This expatriate enclave hosted the high-life of China, boasting bars, casinos, brothels, race-courses, lavish hotels and grand department stores. Drugs, sex, gambling, corruption and vice reigned supreme.

Ching Ling Foo was a real person, and in his day, he was as famous a stage-illusionist as David Blaine, Penn & Teller, Harry Houdini, or Criss Angel. His act involved everything from conjuring up live babies from seemingly impossible places, to decapitations, to shock and amaze his audience.

A picture-postcard of Ching Ling Foo, from 1898.

Born Zhu Liangkui, Ching Ling Foo was his stage-name, and he gained international fame at the turn of the last century after he traveled to the United States with his acting-troupe, and toured the continent. He lived from 1854-1922, and was the first Chinese magician to gain widespread fame and acceptance in the West.

Although virtually unknown today, Ching Ling Foo’s one-time fame lives on in this Irving Berlin classic.

Song: “Anything Goes” (1934)
Lines: Numerous

Anything Goes” is one of Cole Porter’s most famous songs. Like another of his famous songs, “Let’s Misbehave“, “Anything Goes” was a commentary on the relaxed social and sexual attitudes and changes experienced around the western world in the 1920s and 30s, after the disaster of the Great War.

The song is full of references to many people who were as famous in their day as Donald Trump or Bill Gates would be, today. So, who were they? Some of them you may recognise. Others have faded into obscurity…

The people, terms or companies mentioned in this song (in order of appearance) include:

Mae West, the famous Hollywood star of the 1930s and 40s, who created scandal where-ever she went due to her risque, double-entendre movie-lines. “Is that a pistol in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?” is one of them.

Mrs. Ned Mclean is Evalyn Walsh Mclean (1886-1947). She was a prominent socialite and mining-heiress of the early 20th century. She was also, incidentally – the last owner of the Hope Diamond, before it was put on public display. Although she maintained that the famous Hope Diamond Curse never affected her family, it still remains fact that her husband broke up with her, that her grandson died in Vietnam, she lost one son to a car-crash, a daughter to a drug-overdose, and the family-owned newspaper, the Washington Post, went belly-up!

Rockefeller is the famous billionaire, John D. Rockefeller. He once said that he had two aims in life: To earn $100,000, and to live to 100 years of age. He surpassed his first aim by leaps and bounds. And, dying at the age of 98, in 1937, came within two years of achieving his second!

Max Gordon was a New York theatre and film-producer, who lived from 1892-1978.  During the Depression, when a quarter of all Americans were out of work, Gordon still managed to put on theater-shows, something which was almost impossible to do without wealthy patrons…like Mr. Rockefeller!

Jitneys, ‘Bilts, and Whitneys. A ‘Jitney’ is another term for a jalopy, a cheap, battered old automobile. The ‘Bilts’ are the illustrious Vanderbilt family. The ‘Whitneys’ were another prominent, old-money family, on-par with the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts, although they’re not as well-remembered today. They were famous for their philanthropy.

Sam Goldwyn, of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer fame.

Anna Sten was a Russian-American actress (1908-1993), who was under contract to Sam Goldwyn during the 1930s. She was most active from the 1920s-1940s, and from the 50s until the 60s, only acted occasionally, retiring from acting entirely by 1965. She died in 1993 at the age of 84.

Mrs. R. and Franklin are of course, Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor. ‘Simmons‘, is a mattress manufacturer. Established in 1870, it’s still kicking today.

Song: “Hop, Skip, Jump” (1936)
Line: “…I don’t want to sail through the seven seas,
Even if the boat were Normandie…” 

The S.S. Normandie was the pride of the French Line back in the 1930s. A floating, Art Deco palace, it was sadly lost to fire, and capsized while being fitted out for military service in New York Harbor, during the Second World War.

The S.S. Normandie photographed at sea

Song: “Pack Up Your Troubles” (1915)
Line: “…As long as you’ve a Lucifer
To light your fag, smile boys, that’s the style…”

Anyone who’s ever studied the First World War will be familiar with this song. And anyone who’s ever had grandparents who lived through it will probably have heard them singing it. My grandmother was born in 1914, and she used to sing this song all the time.

‘Fag’ in this context refers to the British slang-word for a cigarette. Most people know that today. ‘Lucifer’ refers to a brand of friction-matches manufactured in the 1800s. By the time of the First World War, it had become rather generic. People asked for ‘Lucifers’, not matches. Like how you might ask for an ‘esky’, instead of an ice-chest.

Song: “Hooray for Hollywood” (1937)
Line/s: Numerous. 

If you’ve ever seen a film-industry awards ceremony on television, you’ve probably heard this song. Written for an obscure film (“Hollywood Hotel”) back in 1937, this song celebrated the golden age of Hollywood and the American filmmaking industry, that lasted from the 1920s up to the end of the 1960s. It’s packed with all kinds of obscure references to people and machines that have faded into history. On top of that, the lyrics have themselves, changed with the times. The original lyrics from 1937 said that, “…any shop-girl can be a top-girl, if she pleases a tired businessman…”, would get raised eyebrows even today! Forget the conservative 1930s! Let’s go through the lyrics…

A “good-looking pan” means a good complexion or a handsome appearance. ‘Pan’ was an old slang-word for your face!

The lyrics referenced many famous Hollywood actors or institutions of the 1930s. Among them, child star Shirley Temple, and evangelist Aimee Semple. Later versions also mentioned Donald Duck. More obscure references include Max Factor, who was a noted makeup-artist and cosmetics salesman of the 1930s, and Tyrone Power, the Hollywood pretty poster-boy of the 1930s, comparable to someone like Brad Pitt today.

One of the most obscure technological references in the song is “Rotos“. Obsolete today, the Rotoscope was a revolution in enhancing film-making back in the early 20th century.

In layman’s terms, rotoscoping was the process of tracing animated cartoons into film, so that cartoon characters would appear in live-action scenes. This was incredibly laborious work – it had to be done frame, by frame. But the results were amazing. The process was pioneered by the Fleischer Brothers (of “Betty Boop” fame). The process was also used to trace and draw out animated characters over the movements of an actor in a live-action film (to imitate running, or dance-moves, for example, in a realistic manner).

Rotoscoping survived into the late 20th century (the earliest Star Wars movies still used rotoscope technology to create the classic glow of the light-sabres), but it’s now mostly obsolete, with most of its work being done by computers.

Song: “Chicago” (1921)
Line: “…The town that Billy Sunday could not shut down!…”

William Ashley Sunday (1862-1935), was an American athlete and baseballer. But he’s most famous today for being an evangelical preacher, who spoke strongly in support of Prohibition in the United States during the 1920s.

Remember those guys who went around going on and on about the “evils of drink” and how whiskey was the “Devil’s Poison” and how it was “sacrilegious to drink on Sundays” (or any other day of the week)?

That was Billy Sunday. And needless to say, while some people supported his views, folks who were fighting Prohibition’s stranglehold on the United States, saw him as the Antichrist.

Chicago, being well in the grip of Al Capone and his fellow Mafia gangsters, was floating in booze, thanks to illegal rackets, speakeasies, moonshine and bootlegging. The Chicago Police Department was one of the most corrupt in the nation. Everyone from the mayor to the chief of police, the police commissioner, down to your friendly neighbourhood patrolman pounding his beat, was a bent as a broken fish-hook. It really was one of the towns in which Billy Sunday’s Fire and Brimstone preaching had no effect.

Song: “Doin’ the Raccoon” (1928)
Line/s: N/A

One of my favourite novelty jazz-songs of the 1920s, ‘Doin’ the Raccoon’ was all about college boys who were all into the latest fad fashion of the 1920s – wearing coats made of raccoon-fur. Raccoons, a huge pest-problem in big American cities, were hunted and trapped for their furs, which were sewn together into coats. Before the days of animal rights, this was considered the best scenario out of a bad situation.

The fad for raccoon coats lasted from about 1926-1930. Only about four years, five at most. But long enough for there to be a pop-song made about it. Could you imagine someone making a song about designer-stressed sagger jeans today? Urgh. The song captured the nature of college education in the United States in the 1920s, when a much smaller percentage of the population went to university. Granted, the song concentrates on the famous “Ivy League” universities such as Harvard and Yale.


2 thoughts on “Check the Lyrics #1 – Cultural References in Classic Songs

  1. barnesr79 says:

    This is great! Songs, books, movies are always much better if you understand the references. Thanks for sharing.

  2. barnesr79 says:

    This is great! Songs, books, movies are always much better if you understand the references. Thanks for sharing.


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