August, 2003

Various Artists: Songs of the Pogo

I have wanted very few CDs more than I have wanted Songs Of The Pogo. It's not because I expected that these 1956 recordings from cartoonist Walt Kelly with Norman Monath were some revolutionary piece of music that would knock me on my socks. But because it would just further feed my rampant Pogophilia.

It's hard to imagine a comic strip like Pogo having any success in this day in age. In fact, an attempt to revive the strip over a decade ago didn't work out too well. Pogo was both a product of its times and a reaction to them. Kelly had received a great deal of artistic training working in the animation sweatshop of Walt Disney. He moved on to editorial cartoons and producing the strip that became his legacy.

Pogo was a strip like no other. It stood out immediately, due to Kelly's rich artwork. As Kelly's style evolved he was able to create characters with distinctive visual personalities. And he created a slew of them. The easygoing Pogo Possum was the voice of reason amongst a swamp full of unreasonable (and thus, wholly human) companions. There was the dominating egotist Albert the Alligator, the dreamer undermined by his ability to fulfill his dreams Churchy La Femme (a turtle, bye-the-bye), the know-it-all Owl, and Porky Pine, the eternal pessimist, and the only other grounded character.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, as the Okefenokee Swamp was teeming with characters. Kelly gently poked fun at the follies of the foibles of society. As time went on, Kelly delved deeper and was, at times, overtly political. Figures like Joe McCarthy and Lyndon Baines Johnson were spoofed with animal characters. Wonder what animals Kelly would use to portray George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld now?

And Kelly was an ever lovin' blue eyed liberal. He wrote an intellectual animal comic strip with a unique common man viewpoint. He was never strident, making his points effectively with humor.

Beyond the art and characters and the politics, Kelly was a master of language. While Pogo was not the only comic strip of the time with a Southern flavor (Lil' Abner was all the rage then, too), no comic strip used language quite like Kelly. It wasn't just playing with dialect. It was the way he twisted words, using puns, malapropisms and so forth. Before Will Eisner had even coined the term ‘graphic novel', Kelly published full length Pogo books with novel length stories. He was so skilled at plotting and his words were so wonderful, this was far from a stretch.

Kelly loved music too, and it showed in his strips. One of the running traditions of Pogo was the attempted holiday sing-a-long of a beloved Christmas carol: "Deck Us All With Boston Charlie", done to the tune of you-know-what. Here are some sample lyrics:

Deck us all with Boston Charlie
Walla Walla Wash., an' Kalamazoo!
Nora's freezin' on the trolley,
Swaller dollar cauliflower alley'garoo!

Don't we know archaic barrel,
Lullaby lilla boy, Louisville Lou?
Trolley Molly don't love Harold,
Boola boola Pensacola hullaballoo!

Hard to believe, but the characters would often have fights about the lyrics.

This wordplay is part of what made Kelly an artistic giant. In fact, amongst the nifty essays in the Songs Of The Pogo CD is an excerpt from a piece by Mark Burstein. Burstein notes that Kelly's twisted take on English followed in the footsteps of other whimsical geniuses like Lewis Carroll (remember "Jabberwocky") and James Joyce.

Actually marrying these words with music, particularly in light of Pogo's massive popularity was a natural. He hung out with some of his old Disney buddies, who had a Dixieland band called Firehouse Five Plus Two, who put out a slew of records throughout the ‘50s. When the time came to put together a Pogo record, however, Kelly was teamed with Norman Monath. Monath helped fashion a bunch of musical backgrounds for Kelly's words – some jazz, some Broadway musical, and some plain ol' pop.

Thanks to the folks at Reaction Records (Parasol records head Geoff Merritt and Velvet Crush drummer Ric Menck), this Pogo music finally is out on CD (of course, it's available at parasol.com). Like I said earlier, this isn't the be-all, end-all of music. But it's a heck of a lot of fun.

I was initially disappointed that the songs weren't more based on actual Pogo characters. I got over it. After all, the first song features Walt Kelly himself on vocals and the words prove that this was his baby. "Go-Go Pogo" is a bouncy horn filled jaunt, with Kelly singing in a bawdy Louis Prima style: "Landalive a band o'Jive/will blow go Pogo/I go you go who go/to go Polly voo go/From Caravan Diego/Waco and Oswego/tweedle de he go she go/we go me go Pogo". What's there not to love.

All of the other songs are handled by other vocalists. My favorite is the barroom jazz "Don't Sugar Me". Singer Fia Karin sells the saucy lyrics: "Oh! I won't sip a lip with you/'less you want a granulated lump or two/just roll them eyes, right out that door/them saucer eyes ain't square no more." Monath even provides a cool melodic bridge.

Kelly narrates/sings on the "Lines Upon a Tranquil Brow", which has a "Moon River" type tune. The lyrics are contemplative. Heck, they seem pretty philosophical. But after considering the universe, Kelly concludes "Break out the cigars, this life is for squirrels/we're off to the drugstore to whistle at girls." Always the comedian.

This disc is a guaranteed smile. Whether it's the cod-Gilbert and Sullivan of "Sloppostion", the odd nursery rhyme "Twirl, Twirl" (sample line: "‘twixt twice twenty twigs passing platitudes plain" – ???) or the pretty "Many Happy Returns", you can't help but feel how much fun Kelly must have had hearing his words set to music.

The overall package is fantastic – Merritt and Menck each have pieces, and there are a couple of other essays, the lyrics are included, and there are even bonus cuts. I suppose one of the reasons I was excited to get the disc is that it gave me an excuse to write about Pogo. Though there are still some great comic strips out there, there is not really much out there that follows in its footsteps. Really, the last comic to have the Pogo touch was Bill Watterston's classic Calvin and Hobbes.

I'll get back to writing columns about current music next month. In the meantime, I'd urge you track down a Pogo book at your local comic book shop or library. Maybe it will scratch an itch you never knew that you had.


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