Subterranean Homesick Blues

My paternal great-grandfather was a legend for my Dad and my Uncle Scott and then later for me and my sisters. His name was Junebug Middelton. He ran away from home to join the circus and became a whistler. He played minor league baseball and met famed Yankees manager Casey Stengel in those days. One of the stories that my Dad shared was about Junebug going to town and escaping from a wolf in pursuit after calling for his dogs: Siyoo, Dandoo, Loransaberry. The story was told and repeated many times when my sisters and I were growing up, and then I started telling it to my own kids. At some point, we found out that my uncle had his own version of Junebug’s encounter with the wolf, only his rendition has multiple wolves. He told it to my daughter, and she was mesmerized. My uncle emailed me a follow up a few days later:

“One more detail I forgot about Junebug and the wolves. When Junebug was up in the tree, he could calm the wolves when he played the fiddle. When he got tired and he stopped playing the fiddle, the wolves would start getting nasty again. He kept playing then stopping from fatigue.  Whenever he stopped, he called for his dogs. Finally they came.”

The wolf story was a favorite for many generations in our family. The other keepsake handed down from Junebug was the following song:

Way down scragtown lived an old maid
Churning butter was her trade
With the ki-mo-ke-mo
Terre ro ro
Me ho 
Me hi
Me rum stum pummy diddle
Rip cap
Soup cap
Billy met a boot jack
Sing song Polly
Won’t you try me oh

That’s an approximate representation of the rhyming song that our family has been singing for many years. The source of the song was a mystery to us for many years, until I heard one part of Junebug’s song repeated in “King Kong Kitchie Kitchie Ki-Me-O” by Chubby Parker, collected in 1952’s Anthology of American Folk Music:

The song is a variation on “Froggy Went a-Courting,” and the chorus shares one specific part with Junebug’s song:

Ki-mo-ke-mo ki-mo-ke
Way down yonder in a hollow tree
An owl and a bat and a bumble bee
King kong kitchie kitchie ki-me-o

“Ki-mo-ke-mo” is in both Junebug’s song and “King Kong Kitchie Kitchie Ki-Me-O.” Looking at Chubby Parker’s background, he shares some biographical details with Junebug. His grandparents were from Kentucky, where Junebug was born and raised, and Chubby also worked for the circus. The song features Chubby’s whistling, and we know that Junebug himself was a whistler at the circus.

Scouring the internet to find other sources for Junebug’s song, I found this blog post, which includes yet another variation on both Junebug’s song and “King Kong Kitchie Kitchie Ki-Me-O.”

My true love lives up the river,
Hey dee-ing dang, dilly dally day.
A few more jumps and I’ll be with her,
Hey dee-ing dang, dilly dally day.
Kemo kimo, dee row art,
Mi-hee, mi-hai, mi-hum drum penny winkle,
Tit tat pitty pat, blue eyed pussy cat,
Sing song kitty won’t you kai me oh?

This post points to a close match for his version, namely “The Magic Song,” recorded by Nat King Cole in 1947:

The chorus of that song is:

Ke-mo, ki-mo spare-o-spare
Ma-hi, ma-ho, ma-rump-sticka-pumpernickle
Soup-bang, nip-cat, polly-mitcha-cameo
I love you.

Apparently, the source of Nat King Cole’s version is an old minstrel tune from 1854 called “Keemo Kimo” as detailed in this history of the song. The old version of the chorus is as follows:

Teemy tim-o in the land of neo Pharoah said a rat trap peeny winkle timey doodle rattle buggy rat trap peenie winkle tie me oh
Kemo kimo, dare awa Ma high, ma ho Rump sump sack a nickels Poop-dag, nip-cat Polly won’t you kimeo.
Karo, Karo, give to Flayro, Flaro Flaro, Flaaaa-rooooo, Aaaaaany wink-ee flemm-ee doodle yellow bug to my rat-trap a bottom-itchy Kai-m-bo.

We are seeing common sounds in all of the versions of the song with variations on how those sounds fit together with other sounds, or, in some instances, words. The commonality between the phrasing and the sounds reflect the folk song process in action. Pieces from one song stick together with phrases and words from another song to create a brand new song. Greil Marcus described the “folk lyric” process in 1997’s The Old Weird America: The World of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes:

“It was made up of verbal fragments that had no direct or logical relationship to each other, but were drawn from a floating pool of thousands of disconnected verses, couplets, one-liners, pieces of eight.”

“Keemo Kimo” is an example of the folk lyric process as is “Froggy Went a-Courting.” That song has had so many variations in the more than 500 year history of the song. Sometimes folk songs had their own regional versions. In the liner notes for the 1997 reissue of the Anthology of American Folk Music, writer Luc Sante recalls meeting Harry Smith, the experimental filmmaker and eccentric who put together the Anthology, at a party. Sante writes that Smith

“proposed a challenge: if we’d sing a verse of ‘Barbara Allen,’ he’d tell us what county we were born in. As it happened, the only person present who remembered the words was my then-girlfriend. After she sang, Harry instantly said, ‘Bennington County, Vermont.’ And he was right. It was news to me – I’d always thought she was born in Massachusetts.”

As opposed to “Froggy Went a-Courting” and “Barbara Allen,” the versions of “Keemo Kimo” cited here – Junebug’s song, “King Kong Kitchie Kitchie Ki-Me-O,” “The Magic Song” – can be considered nonsense songs as there is not a larger narrative to the song besides the combination of sounds. The word “nonsense” has a negative connotation. Calling a song “nonsense” is not a pejorative in this context. These songs are fun to sing! That’s why my Dad, my sisters and I, and now my kids all learned Junebug’s song and why people have been singing variations of “Keemo Kimo” for hundreds of years. The cadence of the sounds and especially the rhyming create an internal logic for these songs creating a lasting legacy.

A close cousin to nonsense songs is the categorization of literature called literary nonsense. According to Wim Tigge in his 1998 book An Anatomy of Literary Nonsense, literary nonsense includes

“certain formal elements of language and logic that facilitate meaning [and] are balanced by elements that negate meaning. These formal elements include semantics, syntax, phonetics, context, representation, and formal diction.”

A prime example of literary nonsense is thought to be Lewis Carroll’s poem “Jabberwocky”. The following verse from “Jabberwocky” is especially relevant:

One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

The logic of the poem is dictated by the rhyme. I have never heard a blade described as “snicker-snack” outside of this poem, but the nonsense context of the poem allows for that description because of its rhyme with “back.” The rhyme is central to the understanding of “Jabberwocky,” which along with the poem’s meter, connect to the nonsense songs considered above. It’s no wonder that Lewis Carroll is read to children, sharing the same impulse we have to teach children nonsense songs.

Now, let’s consider Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”:

This famous film accompanying the song demonstrates that the rhyming and sound of the words are the central element of “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” Dylan places the key words of the song on placards and, with a straight face, discards each word once it has been sung. This bit from the third verse certainly matches the rhyming and meter of the best of nonsense songs:

Get sick, get well
Hang around a ink well
Ring bell, hard to tell
If anything is goin’ to sell
Try hard, get barred
Get back, write braille
Get jailed, jump bail
Join the army, if you fail

In a 2004 interview with Dylan, Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times asked him about the origin of “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” Dylan replied:

“It’s from Chuck Berry, a bit of “Too Much Monkey Business” and some of the scat songs of the ‘40s.”

Dylan has provided us with two very interesting thoughts when considering the origins of “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” Dylan cites skat singing, which, according to Wikipedia, is a “vocal improvisation with wordless vocals, nonsense syllables, or without words at all.” The singer is improvising over the melody of the song, doing their best to replicate the sound of an instrument. Listen to Ella Fitzgerald’s “How High the Moon” for a beautiful example of this skill:

Though scat singing certainly has nonsense syllables, the sounds being created are improvised rather than playing off of existing fragments in the folk lyric process. The rhyme is the key component that is missing when considering scat singing within the tradition of nonsense songs. 

The first song that came to mind for Dylan when reflecting back on the composition of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” is Chuck Berry’s 1957 hit “Too Much Monkey Business”:

Dylan has always expressed his lifelong love of Chuck Berry and was in a rock ‘n roll band in high school singing Little Richard and Chuck Berry songs, so it’s no surprise that the rhyming of “Too Much Monkey Business” would be influential on Dylan’s writing. The major lyrical connection between “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and the Chuck Berry song is this verse in “Too Much Monkey Business”:

Pay phone, something wrong, dime gone, will mail
I ought to sue the operator for telling me a tale, ahh!

The rhyming and the meter sound similar to these lines in “Subterranean Homesick Blues”:

Maggie comes fleet foot
Face full of black soot
Talkin’ that the heat put
Plants in the bed but
The phone’s tapped anyway
Maggie says that many say
They must bust in early May
Orders from the D.A.

Another old tradition in music is the idea of work songs, music to be sung while repeating a monotonous task. Work songs can be sung solo or with a group, toiling together on a shared task. Work songs are usually sung a cappella; sometimes the only accompaniment is the resulting beat produced by the tool or machine the singer or singers are using in the required assignment. Junebug’s song is certainly a work song. It opens with an old maid whose trade is “churning butter.” One can sing Junebug’s song while churning butter, a task whose rhythm is essential to the nature of completing the work. Churning butter is boring, monotonous work, so a nonsense work song provides some entertainment for the worker/singer.

“Too Much Monkey Business” has a work song component as well, with Chuck Berry’s words directly commenting on the task at hand:

Working in the filling station, too many tasks
Wipe the windows, check the tires
Check the oil, a dollar gas, ahh!

We see that rhythm is an element of both nonsense songs and work songs. The rhythm of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” is one of the lasting legacies of the song. A longtime game played by Dylan fans is to see who can sing along with Dylan’s recoding of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” at the same reckless rhythm without misspeaking or losing the tempo. Most fail at this game. Dylan’s fast rhythm corresponds well with the tempos of nonsense songs. My sisters and I would trade off singing Junebug’s song as fast as we could.

Rhyming and rhythm in song is at the core of hip-hop or rap music. Music scholar Adam Bradley notes in his book Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop that

“Rap rhymes so much and with such variety that it is now the largest and richest contemporary archive of rhymed words. It has done more than any other art form in recent history to expand rhyme’s formal range and expressive possibilities.” 

The idea of “flow” in hip-hop refers to “the rhythms and rhymes of a hip-hop song’s lyrics and how they interact,” according to Wikipedia. Rappers’ flow and what kind of flow we expect from rappers has evolved since hip-hop’s origins. As music scholar Adam Krims says in his 2001 book Rap Music And The Poetics Of Identity,

“The flow of MCs is one of the profoundest changes that separates out new-sounding from older-sounding music … it is widely recognized and remarked that rhythmic styles of many commercially successful MCs since roughly the beginning of the 1990s have progressively become faster and more ‘complex.’” 

No rapper has a more complex flow than MF DOOM. DOOM’s songs exhibit intricate rhyming and a unique delivery. Many songs from his discography belong in the tradition of nonsense songs. One example is the song “Figaro” off of Madvillainy, a joint collaboration between producer Madlib, who is providing the beats, and DOOM on the mic:

The lyrics of “Figaro” show how DOOM layers rhyme upon rhyme, discarding narrative, and forcing the listener to accept the challenge so as to not get lost in his maze of rhymes. Take the opening verse of the song:

The rest is empty with no brain, but the clever nerd
The best MC with no chain ya ever heard
Take it from the TEC-9 holder
They’ve bit but don’t know their neck shine from Shinola

Everything that glitters ain’t fishscale
Lemme think, don’t let her faint get Ishmael
A shot of Jack got her back it’s not an act stack
Forgot about the cackalack, holla back; clack-clack, blocka
Villainy, feel him in ya heart chakra, chart-toppa
Start-shit stoppa, be a smart shoppa
Shot-a-Cop day around the way ’bout to stay
But who’d a know there’s two mo’ that wonder where the shooter go

It’s hard to tell where to stop quoting the lyrics of “Figaro” because there’s barely a natural verse break as each line builds upon the previous line. Each line rhymes with the previous rhyme, but DOOM also includes internal rhyming, sometimes rhyming a word with another word within the same line. 

“Figaro” directly connects to “Subterranean Homesick Blues” with a specific cultural reference. Dylan warns:

Walk on your tiptoes
Don’t try No-Doz
Better stay away from those
That carry around a fire hose

DOOM raps:

Do not stand still, boast yo’ skills
Close but no krills, toast for po’ nils, post no bills
Coast to coast Joe Shmoe’s flows ill, go chill
Not supposed to overdose No-Doz pills

Whereas Dylan is providing cautionary advice about No-Doz, DOOM already knows their potential impact. But the inclusion of No-Doz by both lyricists is not about the pills themselves, but the sounds of “no” and “doze.” A near rhyme, the combination of the two sounds back to back must be alluring for Dylan and DOOM. Dylan is able to rhyme “No-Doze” with “tiptoes,” “those,” and “hose.” Whereas for DOOM, “No-Doze” is an internal rhyme with “Joe Schome” embedded in the previous line. The sounds are what’s important here, the rhymes creating an overall mosaic. This proves to be irresistible to the listener, who is compelled by the song, not because of an overall narrative or story or character profile, but rather the power of sounds being connected together.

In the April 2021 episode of the Rolling Stone Music Now podcast, R.E.M’s Michael Stipe, another singer and lyricist whose work has been described as inscrutable throughout his career, commented on the lyrics of R.E.M.’s first two albums:

“It’s all emotion…I was basically singing nonsense. I say that with all of the love in my heart. There are words there that make sense. There are words that make no sense at all. There are words that are strung together that make absolutely no sense. But it doesn’t matter because it really really really was about the feeling and the emotion of the voice and it was as real as can be.”

Stipe pinpoints the primary allure of the nonsense song: emotion. All of the elements of the nonsense song – the sounds, the words used solely because of the sound of those words, the rhyming, the cadence, the meter – produce a full array of emotions. The nonsense song elicits joy, exuberance, hilarity, pain, lust, love, playfulness, surprise, enthrallment, and enlightenment. It’s why we sing the songs as children. As adults, we continue to sing the songs and sometimes pass them along to our own children. Or, we feel the urge to create new nonsense songs of our own.

Photo by: Jenny Bunn

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