EASY ED’S BROADSIDE: How-w-w-DEE-E-E-E and Hokum
Grand Ole Opry performers at Carnegie Hall, 1947 (photo by William Gottlieb / WikiMedia Commons and Library of Congress)
Every week when I go to my local Trader Joe’s market, I pick up a pack or two of small grape tomatoes, which some clever employee has chosen to brand as Mini Pearls. It never fails to amuse me, and I’m sure others have noticed my grin almost every time I put them into the cart. It’s an unusual connection point for this city boy’s appreciation of country music and culture, yet one that serves as a reminder of a time that’s come and gone.
I am old enough to have seen the late Sarah Ophelia Colley Cannon perform countless times on television in character as Minnie Pearl from Grinder’s Switch in the late ’50s on Ozark Jubilee, then for years on Hee Haw and countless appearances on variety and game shows. Always wearing that hat with a price tag dangling from it and a gingham dress, she debuted on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry in 1940 and was an instant hit. Fears that her country-bumpkin comedy would offend the audience quickly evaporated as she used wit and humor that was often directed at herself. “A feller told me I look like a breath of spring,” Pearl would say. “Well, he didn’t use them words. He said I look like the end of a hard winter.”
While watching Ken Burns’ Country Music series, I was pleased that it included not only a feature on Minnie Pearl, but also spoke of the use of humor and comedy within the country music genre. And the connection to Garrison Keillor’s visit to the Opry at its final broadcast from the Ryman Auditorium was something I didn’t know. His Prairie Home Companion monologues about a fictional Lake Wobegon seem to owe a debt to Pearl’s Grinder’s Switch.
The term “hokum” came out of the minstrel and vaudeville shows, and it represented a “low comedy” style that included gags, routines, and songs using bawdy and risqué innuendo along with social and racial insults. Early blues musicians, jug bands, and stringbands popularized thinly veiled sexual songs that were recorded and released in the ’20s. Here’s an example from Bo Carter of the Mississippi Sheiks that includes the lyrics:
Some men like lunch meat
And some they likes cold tongue
Some men don’t care for biscuits
They likes a dog gone big fat bun
But baby don’t put no more baking powder in your bread you see
‘Cause your two biscuits plenty big enough for me
Early in his career, Bill Monroe had appeared in blackface at minstrel shows, and he incorporated hokum into his bluegrass shows. The tradition was carried over with performers in blackface at the barn dances, radio shows, and early days of the Grand Ole Opry. Lee Roy “Lasses” White and his partner, Lee Davis “Honey” Wilds, were the first of such comedians who joined the Opry in 1932, and eventually “Lasses” was replaced with a new partner named “Jam-Up.”
Wilds was given permission to do tent shows during the week throughout the South before having to return to Nashville for the Saturday night broadcasts, and was often accompanied by other Opry celebrities such as Uncle Dave Macon, Roy Acuff, Stringbean, and Monroe. In an interview with Wild’s son David by No Depression co-founder Grant Alden that appeared in the original print magazine in 1996, he shared what his dad and partner brought to the Opry:
“Music was a part of their act, but they were comedians. They would sing comedic songs, a la Homer and Jethro. They would add odd lyrics to existing songs, or write songs that were intended to be comedic. They were out there to come onstage, do five minutes of jokes, sing a song, do five minutes of jokes, sing another song and say ‘Thank you, good night’ as their segment of the Opry. Almost every country band during that time had some guy who dressed funny, wore a goofy hat, and typically played slide guitar.”
Through the years there’s been a long tradition of hokum-style, comedic, and just plain silly country songs that have been released. Some, from writers such as Ray Stevens, Shel Silverstein, and Tom T. Hall, have placed high on the charts, while others remain simply a footnote in history. You probably have noticed I’m staying away from the most popular and longest running series that traded on endless hokum, and that’s Hee Haw. I loved the music but hated the humor on many levels, so I’ll leave it at that.
A woman named Barbra Mies Waterman recently pointed me to a list of modern-day country hokum and humor originally compiled by Southern Living magazine. Check out the list here. Some are almost as sentimental as my Trader Joe’s Mini Pearls grape tomatoes.
Many of my past columns, articles, and essays can be accessed at my own site, therealeasyed.com. I also aggregate news and videos on both Flipboard and Facebook as The Real Easy Ed: Americana and Roots Music Daily. My Twitter handle is @therealeasyed and my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.