Saturday 13 February 2010

Blues, garbage men, gay lions and Elvis

The Vinyl Closet event last night was a fabulous and inspiring evening. Organised by the Gay & Lesbian Humanist Association (GALHA) at the bizarrely minimalist (almost school-like) Conway Hall, we were treated to a potted history of gay themes in music from the early part of the 20th century.

Our hosts were a couple of veteran gay rights activists (and evidently real enthusiasts about gay history) Ted Brown and Brett Lock. Unexpectedly, as part of their exploration of the featured songs, they actually performed several of them to emphasise the meaning behind some of the lyrics, as well as playing some very crackly old recordings of some others.

From the birth of the blues in America, there has always been a prevalence of filthy lyrics - we have a whole compilation of tracks with suggestive titles like I Need A Little Sugar In My Bowl, If It Don't Fit, Don't Force It, and It Ain't the Meat It's The Motion - but in this pre-censorship era (black music was largely ignored by the mainstream before WW2, so was less constrained than other genres) there was a profusion of gay stuff there as well. Ma Rainey sang about "BD Women" (bull dykes), there were lesbian themes in some of her friend (lover?) Bessie Smith's stuff. Here's Ma challenging people to prove she's some kind of sappy femme...

...and a number of male artists covered this exotic little number called Sissy Man Blues...

Brett and Ted also performed this one - apparently very popular with men of a certain "sissy" variety in the 20s - complete with all the actions! All together now: "I'm not the plumber or the plumber's son, but I'll plug that hole 'til the plumber comes... Stick out your can, here comes the garbage man!"

Not wanting to neglect the "mainstream" altogether, they turned their attention to the always contentious explanation(s) of why the term "Friend Of Dorothy" was widely linked to the illustrious gay icon Judy Garland, from the gay lion in the Wizard of Oz, the heart-wrenching performances (and real life), to the coincidence of La Garland's death with the Stonewall Riots... And then there's this little piece of gender role-reversal from Easter Parade...

Returning to the blues, and how it broke into the mainstream with the rise of "Rock'n'Roll" (itself a name derived from the old blues slang "Cock'n'Hole Music") and the ground-breaking Elvis Presley. Not my favourite artist, I have to admit, and as a consequence I have never seen any of his films. Thus, it seems, I missed the overtly gay connotations of this number, with its lyric "Number forty-seven said to number three: You're the cutest jailbird I ever did see. I sure would be delighted with your company, come on and do the Jailhouse Rock with me."

The breakthrough of underground blues music after the war, however, brought a bit of a double-edged sword where gay themed music was concerned. With the largely white music industry now taking an interest in the genre and the "Hays Code" sanitising the film industry, everyone apparently had to clean up their act. Despite the best efforts of Mr Presley and artists like the Rolling Stones and The Kinks, the dirt and innuendo appeared to be brushed over and covered-up again until the events of the end of the 60s (Stonewall riots, Gay Lib etc). However, many theories abound about whether this song was in fact a love song from John Lennon to Brian Epstein...

The remit of the evening was to stop the historical journey at the time of Stonewall (they promise to do a follow up in time for next year's LGBT History Month), which left us wanting more! In our inevitable post-match discussions, we did wonder why so much of the music they discussed was American - ignoring some of our home-grown "naughty" artists like Douglas Byng and Leyton & Johnson, and of course the legacy of the Music Hall - but the general consensus was that this was a fantastic evening's entertainment and thought-provoking stuff. I am in a vintage gay music whorl this morning as a result!

GALHA website

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