My niece, Lisa Hess (thank you, Lisa) reignited our family’s love of Stan Freberg’s humor this week. For her, the occasion was a meeting with women writers in which she was supposed to “share something that shaped my love of language.” Somewhere in the process of thinking about what she wanted to say, she remembered “Elderly Man River,” a skit Stan Freberg and Dawes Butler performed on Freberg’s radio show in 1957. I was 20 in 1957 and this is exactly the kind of humor that lit me up.
I had no idea when Lisa sent the message around the family that so many of us are still fans of Freberg’s humor. It is the bringing of that current appreciation into the light of what we all know together that I had in mind when I said that Lisa had “reignited” the family’s love for Freberg.
So first, why don’t you just google “Elderly Man River” and listen to the skit. I’ll wait. It only takes a couple of minutes. And a full text script comes with it—even if there is a mistake or so in the transcription—so you can see it, too. Daws Butler (left) and Stan Freberg, celebrating their achievement.
Today, I want to take the premise of the skit seriously. I know that isn’t funny, but it what I have been thinking about since I got done remembering how funny it was and how long I have loved it.
This show ran during the McCarthyist 1950s and that is a fact Freberg was aware of. In The History of the United States, Volume I, he gives this line to Benjamin Franklin: “Oh sure, you sign a petition and forget all about it. Ten years later, you get hauled up before a committee.” “A committee,” as everyone understood at the time, was a reference to the House Unamerican Activities Committee (HUAC) which was a major part of the McCarthy jihad.
Tweedly is a jab at McCarthyism.
The status of the citizens’ radio committee
Here is how he establishes his position of authority and how he multiplies the occasions for its use. First, “I am the censor from the citizen’s radio committee… I must okay all the material used on your program here, and I think the best method is to just sit back here and interrupt when I feel it’s necessary.” Daws Butler, voicing Tweedly, puts an extra emphasis on “I feel” but it isn’t really necessary. It is offensive enough as is.
Then, second, he says, after stopping Freberg for forgetting to say thank you, “ Politeness is an essential in radio programming. Your program goes into the home, we must be a good influence on… children.” Butler achieves a lovely tone as he pronounces “children” as “chilled wren,.”
Third, he objects to the word “old” in Old Man River as Freberg starts to sing it, because “the word ‘old’ has a connotation that some of the more elderly people find distasteful. I would suggest you make the substitution, please.”  Notice how the criterion for Tweedly’s objections has expanded, and with it, Tweedly’s power,. First it was the good example of politeness (formality, really, but let’s not quibble). Now it is the possibility that some old person might be offended by the use of the word “old: in a song personifying a river.
Finally, when Freberg gets to the second line, “He must know somethin’/But he don’t say nothin’” Tweedly objects to the enunciation (no g- on “nothin’” and to the grammar “don’t say nothin’.” That’s really net new territory for Tweedly. But this time, Freberg objects. The way he is singing the song is “authentic”
But that’s authentic. “Somethin’,” “someTHIN'”. That’s the way the people… talk down there.
OK, it may or may not be authentic, but authenticity is a valid claim. To sing a song the way it is supposed to be sung is important. It adds to the accuracy of the anthropologist’s account, to the credibility of the theatrical performance, to the evocation of some time and place that is not ours. Being authentic in performance is important for all those reasons and many more,
Reasons as good as that do not deserve to be swept aside by, “The home is a classroom, Mr. Freberg.”
And Freberg, although he pretends to accept the authority of “the citizen’s radio committee,” and although he flinches dutifully as Tweedly’s buzzer sounds, really doesn’t get it. It all sounds credible enough when he changes somethin’ to something and “don’t say nothin’” to “doesn’t say anything,” but he comes completely unhinged in the process.
It is when he gets to the line “He don’t plant taters/ He don’t plant cotton/ and them that plants ‘em/Is soon forgotten,” that it all falls apart. It is ridiculous, of course, in a black slave work song, to change “taters” to potatoes. We can understand the substitution in a general way. But Freberg can’t. That is why he goes on in the next line to change “cotton” to “cotting” (following the nothin’/nothing rule) and forgotten to “forgotting” following the same rule.
Why it doesn’t work
The thread of understanding that ties nothin’ and nothing snaps entirely when we get to cotton and cotting. There is nothing left but the frantic jerking about of the man who has been slapped down one too many times. I know that’s not funny and I know it isn’t fair to the Stan Freberg of 1957, but when I take the skit seriously, it has an awful contemporary feel to it.
I remember a story about a woman in a women’s dorm who had the responsibility for recycling the paper. Back in those days, you put the white paper in one barrel and the colored paper in another. Accordingly, she put the signs “White” and “Colored” on the two barrels. Some witty friend—that’s the way I reconstruct it—wrote a note on the sign that said “Colored” which said, “You mean ‘paper of color.’” I think that’s funny.
The woman who put up the signs was horrified. She posted an apology so wretched and miserable, so abysmally guilty, that it is hard for me to read it. “Oh, I’m so sorry. I really didn’t mean any offense,” etc. I summarize those in my own mind as, “Please don’t hit me again.” That’s the Tweedly effect.
When I give my mind over to Freberg’s masterful comic sense, I can still enjoy “Elderly Man River.” But Tweedly as the Master of Microaggression isn’t funny to me anymore.
 Some of the more elderly people find distasteful. Hm. Clearly a microaggression. Maybe if we had stomped harder on “elderly” in 1957, we wouldn’t have so many microaggressions today.