Mister B Takes Another Nostalgia Trip

In this time of stay-at-home orders, if there is one train Mister B has been on frequently, it’s the nostalgia train. It may have been a long, strange trip, but boomers are so incredibly privileged to have such a rich pop culture history, to serve as the backdrop for our personal Wayback machines.

This latest excursion for Mister B involved yet another piece of our musical history. For some unknown reason, a song popped into his head and has been stuck there as an ear worm for a week. When Mister B thought about it, he realized that this particular song was among the earliest he had heard, often enough on his transistor radio, to be able to sing along when it was played:

Does your chewing gum lose its flavor
On the bedpost overnight?
If your mother says, don’t chew it
Do you swallow it in spite?
Can you catch it on your tonsils?
Can you heave it left and right?
Does your chewing gum lose it’s flavor
On the bedpost overnight?

Were you hearing the tune while reading the lyrics? That was Lonnie Donegan’s novelty hit, Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor (on the Bedpost Overnight)? from 1961. So, if you are like Mister B, you are recalling lyrics to a song that is 59 years old, and you may not have heard it in decades.

To a preteen boomer like Mister B, it was silly, yet memorable. Mister Boomer didn’t know anyone who had bedposts, but could imagine some kids might want to try to save their chewing gum one way or another. Mister B would not be among them, not only because he wasn’t an avid chewing gum fan to begin with, but he’d also experienced enough wads of chewing gum beneath diner tables to dissuade any thoughts of recycling one’s own previously-chewed material. Consequently, it was funny, but not realistic.

An examination of the song and its lyrics, however, bring into question the whole purpose behind the novelty hit. It was a reworking of a song from 1924, Does The Spearmint Lose Its Flavor On The Bedpost Overnight? An American song, it would have been part of the pre-Depression landscape of an economic boom that ushered Calvin Coolidge into the White House in that year’s presidential election.

Lonnie Donegan was known as the King of Skiffle in the UK at the time of the song’s U.S. release. Skiffle was a musical genre that held references to American folk music, jazz and blues. Many bands from the British Invasion named skiffle as a major influence for their music. John Lennon’s first band was a skiffle band. Lonnie Donegan was a major star in Great Britain, releasing 24 consecutive Top 30 hits. He was the first male star from the UK to have two U.S. Top 10 hits before Chewing Gum was released. So it begs the question, why a novelty song in 1961?

That year, the U.S. was listening to the Shirelles, Chubby Checker, Patsy Cline, Connie Francis, Roy Orbison and Ricky Nelson, among others. Donegan’s music was unlike any of them, but referenced the same influences of American music. Perhaps it was a way to introduce skiffle back to the country that spawned its influences?

There is another possible strange connection that could help to answer the question, and it had to do with the 1960 presidential election. The lyrics to the song travel around like the performers in a Vaudeville show, stopping only for a punchline. There are stanzas about grandmothers looking to get lucky with prowlers who got stuck on the bedpost, newlyweds on their honeymoon, big brothers taking your chewing gum, and several others. Among them is a decidedly political stanza that Donegan kept from the 1924 original:

Now the nation rise as one
To send their only son
Up to the White House
Yes, the nation’s only White House

To voice their discontent
Unto the President
They pawn the burning question
What has swept this continent?

When the song was written, Calvin Coolidge had won a massive victory over his Democratic rival, and an independent candidate. Coolidge became president when Warren Harding was assassinated, then won a full term in the election of 1924. He was hardly a reform candidate, nor was the country in great distress, so it is unclear as to what the original satirical intent of the lyrics might allude. Forty years later, why did Lonegan choose to include the stanza when he altered others? John Kennedy had won the 1960 presidential election and was inaugurated as president in January of 1961, just seven months before the release of the song. However, Donegan had released the song in the UK in 1957, a time of Recession in the U.S. under then President Dwight Eisenhower. Is it possible that Donegan, an Englishman, was commenting on American politics? Was he a Kennedy fan? Was his song saying that the staleness of gum on a bedpost — a stand-in for the previous administration — was now apparent for all to see, and it was time for change? Or is that reading too much into a silly novelty song?

What do you think, boomers? In your youth, do you recall singing along to Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor (on the Bedpost Overnight)? Do you still have a copy of the 45 RPM?

Boomers Heard the Answer Was Blowin’ In the Wind

The tremendous outpouring of anger, frustration and ultimate resolve displayed in recent marches that coalesced under the cry of “Black Lives Matter!” strikes an optimistic chord for Mister Boomer. The Boomer Generation was on the cusp of the first marches for Civil Rights, sparking hope in our era that the answers to a multitude of societal questions would soon to be found. Nearly 50 years later, those questions are still being posed, but now, something does appear to be in the wind.

When the first Civil Rights legislation was enacted in 1964, the majority of Baby Boomers were too young to have participated in the movement on their own. For some boomers, it was their parents who brought them along to marches. Others joined in as soon as they became aware in their teens. Songs of our era were filled with calls against social injustices, mixed with peaceful coexistence messaging from the Peace Movement in one seamless blend of things we wanted to change in our society. Boomers of all ages bore witness or marched along with other demonstrators from 1955 to 1973. Nonetheless, even as teens not ready for joining in, boomers were moved by pictures of the marches and violent responses of law enforcement that were broadcast on TV and featured in magazines like Look, Life, Newsweek and Time. We were supposed to be the generation that changed it all. History will be the judge of how much the Boomer Generation was able to accomplish.

One undeniable contribution boomers made to the world was boomer-era music, in all forms. Among the earliest, and most recognizable, of songs that became known as protest songs of the Civil Rights movement, was Blowin’ In the Wind, written by Bob Dylan in 1962. The song’s lyrics give reference to both the Civil Rights and Peace Movements of the day. Yet with the lyrics posing questions like, How many roads must a man walk down/Before you call him a man?, and … how many years can some people exist/Before they’re allowed to be free? the song seemed to offer no hope by stating, The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind/The answer is blowing in the wind. However, Dylan himself has written that he thought the song was a hopeful one. If the answer was blowing in the wind, then it was discoverable, and to him that meant there was hope.

The first recording of the song was by The New World Singers, a group Dylan had known in his West Village days singing at The Gaslight Cafe. Peter, Paul & Mary recorded it in 1963, and took the song to number two on the charts. Dylan finally recorded it himself in May of 1963 for his second album, Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.

The song quickly became an anthem of the Civil Rights movement. Around the time he released his version, Bob Dylan sang it at a voter registration rally in Greenwood, Mississippi. On August 28, 1963, the day Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his I Have a Dream speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Peter, Paul & Mary sang the song into the same microphones. Peter Yarrow sang the song during the March from Selma to Montgomery. Joan Baez, a constant fixture in Civil Rights protests throughout the 1960s, and known for her version of We Shall Overcome, also included Blowin’ In the Wind in her protest performance repertoire.

The song had wide-ranging influence on musicians around the world, including The Beatles and Sam Cooke. Both stated the song changed the style of lyrics they wrote after hearing it. Sam Cooke released, A Change Is Gonna Come, about one year after the release of Blowin’ In the Wind, in February of 1964. It quickly joined Blowin’ In the Wind as an anthem for the Movement. Unfortunately, in December of 1964 Cooke was killed by a motel manager in an incident she claimed was self-defense. The mysterious circumstances surrounding his death are the very type of incident that protestors are calling out today.

Stevie Wonder, himself a new teenager and recording star when the song was released, actually competed on the charts with his Fingertips (Part 2) in 1963. Stevie stopped the song’s momentum to number one, and Peter, Paul & Mary’s version finished in the second spot. Three years later, Wonder released his version of the song, to become the first Black artist to do so. His version topped out at number 9 on the charts.

The list of artists who recorded the song are too numerous to mention, but it covered all music genres and ages, both black and white. It is estimated that hundreds of artists from around the world have pressed their versions. In 2004, it was ranked number 14 on Rolling Stone’s list of 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1994.

What memories do you recall about Blowin’ In the Wind, boomers? Which versions did you have on record?