Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Best Modern Song About The 19th Century

As kids, my parents had a "hi-fi." You youngsters nowadays won't believe this, but there was a time when, with audio, bigger was better. I know, I know, it sounds crazy, but it's true. Now, music players are the size of a quarter and clip onto your lapel. But when I was little, they looked like this:

And played records, which looked like this:

That's right: music used to come in tangible form. If you wanted to "swap" music, you picked up the record and took it to your friend's house.

One of the records that I listened to on that hi-fi when I was a kid was a record that I expect was originally purchased by my Dad. Neither Mom nor Dad had great taste in music, but Mom's was slightly better than Dad's. Dad likes the Bee Gees, and a lot of other really, really junky music. (I'm excluding, from that "junky" label, Herb Alpert & His Tijuana Brass, which I hated when I was a kid but which I really like, now.)

Mom, like I said, had slightly better taste. She had a lifelong crush on Rod Stewart, who rarely made good music, but she also liked Elvis. And The Beatles.

So Dad had the, um, quirkier taste in music, and that's why I think that Dad had the record that for a long time was the undisputed choice for this category -- because how many could there be, right?

Dad's record was "The Battle Of New Orleans," by Johnny Horton -- and I listened to it so many times that I can still sing it from memory:

Historically accurate, rhymes, good beat: that song had everything you could want, including some humor. (I am assuming that US soldiers did not actually use an alligator as a cannon.)

So "The Battle of New Orleans" was a shoo-in for this category, until I heard this song:

That's right. There was suddenly competition in this category. And what competition! A song about the original Dark Horse, James K. Polk. And it's catchy, it rhymes, it has humor and historical accuracy, too.

How to choose among the two? I re-listened to them today and have now decided that it's close but I'm going to go with "James K. Polk" as The Best Modern Song About the 19th Century, and here's 3 reasons why:

1. It has a theremin in it. The theremin is underused and underappreciated as an instrument.

2. I admire anyone who can pick out a president that nobody cares about and make him a legend. In high school, we formed a group called "Rebellious Youth Without Phones." The sole purposes of this group were to promote riboflavin as our favorite food additive, and Ulysses S. Grant as our greatest president. (You cannot believe how cool I was in high school, can you?)

3. It's tough to use "manifest destiny" in a song and still have the song be cool, but They Might Be Giants did it.

There you have it: "James K. Polk" is The Best Modern Song About The 19th Century.

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