If the humanism that makes civilization civilized is to be preserved into the
new century, it will need advocates. These advocates will need a memory, and
part of that memory will need to be of an age in which they were not yet alive.
– Clive James, “Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts.”
My friend, Roy, was telling me all about his favorite radio station, WFMT and its celebrated “The Midnight Special” program where folk and satire and oddball antics collide. It used to be more common to find eccentric shows on the radio dial. Thanks to YouTube, if you know where to go, you can still find a lot of treasures. And, of course, you can still tune in to WFMT and listen to “The Midnight Special“ archives whenever you want or check the “The Midnight Special“ site for a station that carries the syndicated show.
Here are just three personalities from yesteryear that Roy mentioned to me in relation to his adventures in late night radio. There are plenty more but I thought it interesting to focus on these three as a set given that I did not find them through trial and error but from a real human being. These are entertainers you would have found on the radio in the ’50s to ’60s: Flanders & Swann, Anna Russell and Tom Lehrer. What do they share in common? Well, Roy loves them and that’s really a good place to start. Given what I know about Roy and my initial sampling, all three of these acts have a wry sense of humor and love of musical whimsy.
Flanders & Swann – “The Hippopotamus Song” This is one of the songs that Flanders & Swann are best known for. You can hear a theater crowd roaring with laughter. Very cool. Very vaudevillian.
Anna Russell – “The Ring of the Nibelungs” If you like Victor Borge’s antics, then you’ll love Anna Russell. She’ll bring classical music down to Earth for you.
Tom Lehrer – “The Elements Song” This may be your lucky day, or night, if you’re new to this song. It is a major hipster find that keeps being covered by new artists.
You start to think about it, these entertainers, perhaps more obscure for some audiences, will bring to mind other entertainers from that time period, Victor Borge, The Smothers Brothers, Woody Allen, and then other entertainers up to the present, They Might Be Giants, Flight of the Conchords, Sarah Silverman. It’s all just a matter of keeping an eye out for new talent, new to you. One of the most asked questions by casual observers is a very direct and honest question, “How do you find out about all this stuff?” It’s not a question to dismiss by any means! The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind: Just ask, search around, pan for gold, if you will. Not so long ago, one of the most respected ways of stumbling upon something cool and new was to go look in the bins at your local record shop. You know, with the passion for vinyl unabated, specialty shops are still there for you to explore.
Remember the movie, “High Fidelty,” about a record shop owner, played winningly by John Cusack, and his staff who were walking encyclopedias of pop culture? All very pre-internet. You were sort of at the mercy of the hipster geeks who seemed to have hoarded all the information. A small price to pay in retrospect. Either they took pity on you, actually liked you, or cast you out as soon as they set eyes on you.
Remember Jack Black in that movie? He was the ultimate gatekeeper of cool. If he didn’t think you could handle it, or should handle it, out you went.
Pretend Jack Black decided you were okay and recommended to you Flanders & Swann, Anna Russell and Tom Lehrer.
This is all part of a grand continuum. It’s a particular mindset: folky, lefty, offbeat. A way of life. So many interconnections. Until next time, chin up, and don’t forget the patron saint of lowkey deadpan humor…
Mr. Bob Newhart. Don’t ever forget Bob.